People of the Book

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From wikishia

People of the Book or Ahl al-Kitāb (Arabic: أهلُ الکِتاب) is an Islamic term referring to the followers of religions whose prophets are considered by Islam to have a divine book or scripture intended to guide human beings. Obvious instances of the People of the Book in the Islamic culture are Jews and Christians. Followers of Zoroastrianism and Sabi'un (or Mandaeans) are also considered by some Islamic scholars to be People of the Book.

Although the "People of the Book" is a jurisprudential notion, its usage traces back to the pre-Islamic period.

In many sections of the Islamic jurisprudence, such as tahara (cleanliness), prayer, jihad, marriage, hunting and slaughtering (al-sayd wa l-dhabaha), different aspects of the rulings of People of the Book are discussed. The Islamic government gives People of the Book the option to convert to Islam or to be committed to the conditions of dhimma, and if they do not accept neither of the options, it will be obligatory to launch a jihad against them.

According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, followers of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity are recognized as People of the Book who are free to practice their religious rituals in terms of the law.

The Appellation

The original appellation of the People of the Book goes back to the Qur'an[1] and hadiths[2]. In different suras of the Qur'an, People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitab) are mentioned: the notion of the People of the Book has appeared 31 times in the Qur'an. In most of the cases, it has appeared in contrast to the polytheists which shows the demarcation between them. The notion has occurred in the Qur'an as "Ahl al-Kitab", "alladhin-a ataynahum al-kitab" (اَلّذینَ آتَیناهُم الکِتاب, those to whom We have given the book), and "alladhin-a utu l-kitab" (اَلّذینَ اُوتُو الکِتاب, those given the book).

People of the Book and Ummiyyun

Residents of the Arabian Peninsula before the emergence of the Islam can be categorized into two main groups:

  • Ummiyyun (أُمّیُّون): they constituted the majority of the population, both in cities and in deserts. They usually practiced idolatry and were mostly illiterate. They had no written literature and had no books or written doctrines for their religion. Their writings were mainly limited to short business notes, or spells and talismans.
  • People of the Book: they constituted a minority scattered in parts of the Arabian Peninsula. They were mostly Jews or Christians and were familiar with religious sacred books, such as Torah and Gospel. There were scholars among them and they usually read, wrote, and had educations.

The contrast between the People of the Book and Ummiyyun is reflected in different parts of the Qur'an as a cultural-social classification. But the terms, "Ahl al-Kitab" and "Ummiyyun" are not originated in the Qur'an; rather they trace back to the old Arabic language the commonality of which was restricted after the flourishing of the Islamic culture.

A perspicuous example of an attempt to change this condition is mentioned in the Qur'anic verse concerning the prophethood of the Prophet Muhammad (s) from among "Ummiyyun"—the teaching of the "book" and "wisdom" to Ummiyyun being considered as an important fruit of his prophethood. Thus, the Ummiyyun did not remain Ummi, and the Ummi culture with its social implications in the pre-Islamic period disappeared from the Arabian Peninsula. Near the end of the Prophet's (s) mission, the majority of the Muslim population consisted of previously Ummi people, except a few Jews and Christians who converted to Islam.

The Scope of the People of the Book

By appealing to Qur'anic verses and hadiths, jurists considered the concept of "People of the Book" to include the Jews, the Nazarites (Christians), and the Magians (Majus or Zoroastrians). They later included the followers of other religions, such as Sabi'un, as well. They have classified book-holding unbelievers into People of the Book, which include Jews and Christians, and those who probably had a divine book, that is, Zoroastrians, although the latter group is like the former in the jurisprudential ruling of jizya.[3] There is a disagreement over whether Samaritans and Sabi'un count as People of the Book.[4]

  • Jews: they are the followers of the Prophet Moses (a), and their scripture or divine book is referred to in the Qur'an as Torah. There are several Qur'anic verses concerning Moses (a), his book, and the Jews. In these verses, Moses (a) is considered as a messenger of God and an Ulu l-'Azm prophet, and Kalim Allah (one who talks with God), but as Qur'anic verses imply, parts of Torah which were contrary to the desires of the Jews (such as the good news of the appearance of the prophet of Islam and the like) were later eliminated or distorted.[5]
  • Christians: they are the followers of Jesus (a) and their divine book is referred to in the Qur'an as Injil (Gospel). Christianity is, indeed, an extension of Judaism, which is why the Gospel is mainly concerned with ethical and social issues, deferring jurisprudential rulings to Torah. In several verses of the Qur'an, the Gospel is mentioned as a book revealed to guide people to happiness, and in its comparison of the Jews and the Christians, it admires the followers of Jesus (a) because of their good personal characters.[6]
  • Magians (Zoroastrians): they have been mentioned in the Qur'an along with the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabi'a, and thus, they can be included in People of the Book. However, there are doubts about their belief in the oneness of God and their divine book, as there is no mention of their book in the Qur'an. However, contemporary Shiite jurists appeal to the Qur'anic verse ("those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Sabi'a and the Christians and the Magians" Qur'an 22:17) and hadiths from the Imams (a) to show that Magians should be treated like People of the Book and the jurisprudential rulings of People of the Book should apply to them.
  • Sabi'un (Mughassila): they have a book called Suhuf Adam (Books of Adam) and Ginza Rba. They believe that the Prophet John (a) (Yahya) conveyed the book to them 2000 years ago in its current form as a transmission from earlier prophets, Adam (a), Noah (a), and Seth (a). The Qur'an has addressed them along with the Jews and the Nazarites as People of the Book and believers in God. However, there are doubts about whether today's Sabi'un, who are also called Mughassila and Mandaeans and live in southwestern parts of Iran and southeastern parts of Iraq around Tigris and Karkheh rivers, are the same as the ones referred to in the Qur'an.

People of the Book and the Islam

Although the Qur'an has introduced Islam as the path to salvation for all the world and emphatically called People of the Book to accept Islam, it does not force them to accept it. There are two Qur'anic verses according to which the only religion for God is Islam.

There are exegetical problems and discussions about the compatibility of these verses with the ones concerning People of the Book. Muslim scholars have adopted two approaches to these two verses and the ones according to which non-Muslim People of the Book will prosper:

  • Some of them have appealed to those two verses to show that People of the Book are only respected in this world and that they are generally losers in the afterlife. They have interpreted the verses according to which believers from People of the Book will prosper as referring to those who convert to Islam.
  • Others have interpreted "Islam" in those two verses of the Qur'an as referring to monotheism or the Abrahamic religion in general as was brought by the Prophet Abraham (a). Their evidence is the Qur'anic verse according to which Abraham (a) has referred to all monotheists as Muslims.[7] They believe that whoever seeks the truth and surrenders themselves to the right is a Muslim. If a truth-seeking person who obeys the reason cannot arrive at the truth for one reason or another, they will count as Muslims even if they count themselves as Jews or Christians.

However, all Muslim scholars agree that at least in this world, Islam treats People of the Book respectfully and peacefully. Even sacred places of the People of the Book are respected by the Qur'an. For example, there is a verse of the Qur'an in which worship places of People of the Book are mentioned along with mosques and it is emphasized that all these places are places for remembering God.[8]

Jurisprudential Rulings of People of the Book


There is a disagreement among Muslim jurists about the cleanliness or uncleanness of People of the Book:

  • Some of them hold that the bodies of People of the Book who do not believe in Islam are unclean just as those of polytheists, and so they should be avoided. This is the view held by the majority of jurists.
  • Others believe that the bodies of People of the Book are clean.[9]

Washing the Corpse of a Muslim by People of the Book

According to the majority of jurists, it is permissible for People of the Book to wash the corpse of a Muslim, if no Muslim is available.[10]

The Treatment of the Islamic Government with Them

The Islamic government gives People of the Book the option to convert to Islam or to be committed to the conditions of dhimma. If they do not accept neither, it will be obligatory for Muslims to fight them if the conditions of jihad are met.[11]

Marriage with People of the Book

There is a disagreement about whether a Muslim man is permitted to marry a woman from People of the Book. According to the majority of later jurists, it is permissible to temporarily marry Jewish and Christian women, but permanent marriage with them is forbidden.[12]

Rights of a Woman from People of the Book who is Married to a Muslim Man

A woman from People of the Book, who has married a Muslim man, enjoys the same rights as enjoyed by a Muslim wife, except the right for inheritance. Her right for the share of nights (if the man has more than one wife) is half of the Muslim wife.[13]

Animal Slaughtered by People of the Book

According to the majority of jurists, it is haram to eat an animal which is slaughtered by People of the Book, even if they mentioned God at the time of slaughter. However, some Imami jurists believe that it is halal. They include early jurists such as ibn Junayd al-Iskafi, ibn Abi 'Aqil al-'Ummani, and al-Shaykh al-Saduq, and later jurists such as al-Shahid al-Thani.[14]


  1. Qurʾān, 98:6 .
  2. Ḥurr al-ʿĀmilī, Wasāʾil al-Shīʿa, vol. 15, p. 126.
  3. Najafī, Jawāhir al-kalām, vol. 21, p. 228; Ṭabāṭabāʾī, Rīyāḍ al-masāʾil, vol. 7, p. 468-469; Baḥrānī, al-Ḥadāʾiq al-nāḍira, vol. 24, p. 18.
  4. Baḥrānī, al-Ḥadāʾiq al-nāḍira, vol. 24, p. 22-24.
  5. Qurʾān, 98:6 ; 4:46 ; 5:13 ; 6:91 .
  6. Qurʾān, 5:81 ; 4:75 .
  7. Qurʾān, 22:78 .
  8. Qurʾān, 22:42 .
  9. Najafī, Jawāhir al-kalām, vol. 6, p. 41-42.
  10. Najafī, Jawāhir al-kalām, vol. 4, p. 59-61.
  11. Rūḥānī, Fiqh al-Ṣādiq, vol. 13, p. 50-52.
  12. Baḥrānī, al-Ḥadāʾiq al-nāḍira, vol. 24, p. 5.
  13. Muḥaqqiq al-Karakī, Jāmiʿ al-maqāṣid, vol. 12, p. 392.
  14. Najafī, Jawāhir al-kalām, vol. 36, p. 80.


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