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Islamic Studies People of the Book
Frank Peters


The issues represented by the phrase “People of the Book” surface under a number of different headings in the Islamic context. First, there is the religious content and theological intent of the expression, which summons up the essence of the three scriptural (i.e., monotheistic) religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and their mutual relationships and dealings over the centuries. The notion of a shared tradition of ripturalism can be understood as both forging a brotherhood and grounding a rivalry. The Muslims, in fact, understood it as both, and they implemented it as policy toward the Jews and Christians who lived under their sovereignty. Thus, the concept of a “People of the Book,” a notion that goes back to the Qurʾan, lies at the heart of the Muslims' successful creation of a political society that was understood in the first instance as a community of believers but also included within its expanding frontiers significant religious diversity. The notion lives on today to confront the Islamist defenders of the traditional two-tiered society of the People of the Book and the modernist advocates of a constitutionally derived society of citizens.

General Overviews

The formal expression “People of the Book” (ahl al-kitab) is a Muslim one, and although the Jews and Christians—the other two parties in the collective—have occasionally, and reluctantly, adopted the term to describe the reality of their filiation, the focus here is on the Muslim interpretation of the term. It is, in fact, Qurʾanic, which merits its inclusion in two of the basic instruments of Islamic research: Vajda 1960 and Sharon 2004. These two encyclopedia entries essentially present Western understandings of the texts. For two modern Muslim readings, see Ayoub 2004 and Rahman 1994. The usage of the term in the Qurʾan suggests that the phrase was probably a simple denominative before it began to be understood as a title. It is used in the Qurʾan quite literally to designate people who possess a book, a revealed scripture. In Muhammad's world, that would be the Jews, who have the Torah (Tawrat), and the Christians, with their Gospel.

Revelation and the People of the Book in the Qurʾan

The ongoing revelation of God's will to humankind provides the grounding of the notion of peoples who possess the Book, since it involves the concept of both election—the revelation entrusted to a specific group to the exclusion of others (“God took a pledge from them” [Sura 3:187])—as well as the belief that the communication was achieved through the bestowal of the message on God's chosen messengers, the prophets. Not all of God's messages rose to the level of scripture (kitab)—Abraham received his message in the form of “leaves” (53:76; 87:18)—but when the Qurʾan speaks of “Scripture” it is in the formal sense of “Revelation-in-a-Book.” This means the Torah and the Gospel and the people who were and are the guardians of these books, the Jews and the Christians, respectively. Watt 1970 is the best approach to this. Strands of the Qurʾan directed at Muhammad's pagan audience refer to God's messengers and their messages in the form of “warnings”—and to the price of ignoring them, as recounted in the so-called warning stories (analyzed in Welch 2000). Where the conceptual background of his understanding of the history of revelation rises to the level of policy is in the Prophet's regard of the older bearers of that revelation. Watt 1970 looks at this question succinctly and thoroughly, while Wheeler 2002 follows its development. Muhammad's understanding of the history of prophecy helped him know who the Jews and the Christians were, and in the end determined his policy toward them.

People of the Book Other than the Jews and Christians

The Jews and the Christians were the primary exemplars of the People of the Book, but revelation was by no means confined to them. The Qurʾan demonstrates an understanding that others had their prophets and their books (see Wild and McAuliffe 2004). They are not always clearly identified in the Qurʾan, however, and it fell to a later generation of Muslims to discern who these other “Book People” might be. The question was important because inclusion among the People of the Book, as happened with the Zoroastrians and the Sabians of Harran (studied in Green 1992), conferred a special status on members of the Muslim community. (See The Dhimma.)

Jews in the Qurʾan

In the Qurʾan, the term “People of the Book” refers chiefly to the Jews, particularly, after Mohammad's migration there, the Jews of Medina (see Gil 1984 on their uncertain origins). They tend to be mentioned as Banu Israʾil or Yahud (Rubin 2003). In Qurʾan 3:64, Mohammad is told by God to find some common ground with them, due to their shared monotheism. The Jews were included in the “Medina Accords,” whereby tribes and factions in the oasis agreed to accept the Prophet Muhammad's authority in all matters political, and there are indications that Muhammad may have expected, or at least hoped, that these fellow monotheists would accept him and his familiar message of God's creation, benevolence, and prophets.

Theological Issues

In its later chapters—revealed at Medina—the Qurʾan explains that Medina's Jews and Christians were not moving en masse toward an acceptance of Muhammad as their prophet, and it offers an explanation of why this was the case. It says, for example, that the People of the Book—again, read the Jews of Medina—hid the truth of their Book (2:42, 76; 5:15) and that the Jews had altered their scriptures, twisting the words (3:78) and substituting others (2:58; 7:16). Furthermore, the Qurʾan explains that the Jews had failed their God in a number of ways: by rejecting revelations, killing the prophets (4:155), and with their false claim, “We have killed the Messiah,” that is, Jesus (4:156–157). Anawati 1990 explores mentions of Jesus in the Qurʾan, while Robinson 1991 covers the crucifixion issue thoroughly.

Political Issues

The Qurʾan refers to a number of political conflicts between Muhammad and specific tribes of Medina's Jews, and the theme is enlarged in the hadith (Kister 1986). Information about Muhammad's attack and expulsion or decimation of three Jewish tribes of the Medina oasis is laid out in detail in Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah (Life of the Envoy of God), where the Jews are identified by their tribal names and not as “People of the Book.” Muhammad's treatment of the Jews of Medina was not about religion; it was more about loyalty and treaty obligations: their crime was not that they were Jewish but that they had violated an agreement with the Prophet (Lecker 1997). As Muslim historians have pointed out (e.g., Ahmad 1980), in Quran 8:55–58, God instructs Muhammad, “If you fear treachery from any group, dissolve it.”

Christians in the Qurʾan

Although Muhammad probably had little or no direct contact with Christians until he reached Christian settlements with his raiding parties, the Qurʾan explains that, like the Jews, the Christians too had strayed from the truth, most notably for their assertion of a divine Trinity: “Jesus was nothing more than a messenger. Stop talking about the ‘Trinity’” (4:171). This is explored in Griffith 2001. The Qurʾan's remarks on Christians were enlarged and explained by Muslim commentators who had direct experience of Christians (see McAuliffe 1991).

Political Negotiations with People of the Book

While the Qurʾan reflects often on Jews and Christians, whether specifically or under the rubric “People of the Book,” historically it offered little specific guidance on how they were to be treated, whether by individual Muslims in social terms or by the community (umma) in a political sense. The specifics were provided to Muslims by the formal hadith and to the umma in the narrative accounts of Muhammad's own encounters with communities of Jews and Christians (see Donner 1981), first at the oasis at Khaybar and later at the Yemeni town of Najran. In 627 CE, Muhammad and his forces approached the oasis of Khaybar north of Medina. The dwellers in Khaybar were Jews, many of them refugees from Medina. Muhammad offered them (and to a second Jewish oasis at Fadak) the right to maintain possession of their property and continue to live as Jews if they submitted without resistance and agreed to pay half the annual produce of the oasis as tribute to the Muslim community (Shah 1988). In 631 he received a delegation from the Christian town on Najran in the Yemen far to the south, who came asking for terms even before they were attacked. They were granted “the protection of God and His Envoy,” and they too had to pay part of their produce as tribute.

The Dhimma

The tolerance granted to the Jews of Khaybar and the Christians of Najran was later formalized in the dhimma, a contract or covenant (ʿahd) between the Muslim community and their subjects from among the People of the Book (Bosworth 1982). According to the Prophet's own terms, the vanquished recognized the political sovereignty of Islam and in turn were permitted the free practice of their religion, subject to certain limitations (spelled out in Tritton 1930 and Fattal 1958). If this was not toleration in the full modern sense (Friedmann 2003), it gave them a juridical status in the community (al-Qattan 1999) and a degree of autonomy (Goitein 2004).


The protection and freedom allowed to Jews and Christians under the dhimma contract was not granted to the polytheists among the conquered peoples, who instead had to “submit” (aslama) or face death. “Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day”—the Quran seems to say in a famous, and famously obscure, “verse of the sword”—”until they pay the tribute (jizya) readily and are humbled [or “agree to submit]” (9:29). This verse is addressed in Kister 1964, Rubin 1993, and Rubin 2006. The poll tax, or head tax, became the primary token of political submission in Islam (Cornell 1995, Heck 2004).

The Covenant of ʿUmar

The dhimma agreement for Jews and Christians granted guarantees of life, property, and freedom of religion, but it also imposed certain obligations upon the vanquished Scriptuaries. The full list of privileges and restrictions appears in a document called the “Covenant of ʿUmar,” reportedly granted by the second caliph, ʿUmar ibn al-Khattab (634–644 CE), to the Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem on the occasion of the city's surrender in 635 CE. Various forms of this covenant were being discussed in Egypt and Iraq as late as 800, and the “Covenant” as we know it probably reached its final form in Iraq in the mid-9th century (Cohen 1999). It contains some of the basic conditions that bind the dhimmis from that day to the present, but it has been grist for Muslim lawyers (Levy-Rubin 2005), and its form and variations have often been shaped by local circumstances (Noth 2004).

The Jews Under Islam

Many Jews came under the sovereignty of Islam (surveyed briefly but thoroughly in Lewis 1984; cf. Frank 1995, Deshen and Zenner 1996), just as they did under the Christians of Europe (Cohen 1994). Many of them converted to Islam, as did many Christians, but others lived for well over a millennium under the dhimma agreement, which guaranteed the right to life, property, and religious freedom, if not equality in status with Muslims. These Sephardic Jews—a Spanish denomination later applied to all the Jews of Islam—played an important role in both the intellectual and economic life of medieval Islam (Fischel 1968). The documentation of their life is rich (Stillman 1979, Stillman 1991), particularly from medieval Cairo-Fustat (Goitein 1967). The foundation of Israel and the subsequent hostility between the two communities ended that relationship in shared living (Simon, et al. 1967).

The Christians Under Islam

Many Christians came under the sovereignty of Islam, along with many Jews. Many of them converted to Islam (Gervers and Bizhaqi 1990), as did many Jews, but others lived for well over a millennium under the dhimma agreement (Cragg 1992, Griffith 2008), which granted them a measured degree of autonomy (Edelby 2004) and guaranteed the right to life, property, and religious freedom, if not equality in status with Muslims (Rose 1982). The Christians, who had powerful friends abroad, seem to have been more emboldened than the Jews in engaging their Muslim sovereigns in a not always friendly dialogue (Gaudeul 1984), which must always be read against the larger confrontation between Christian Europe and the “Abode of Islam” (Daniel 1997, Watt 1991, Wheatcroft 2004).

The Poll Tax (Jizya)

Dhimmis, the Jews and Christians living under Islamic sovereignty, were protected by the dhimma agreement. That agreement guaranteed their right to life and property and religious freedom in return for political loyalty and the payment of an annual head tax (jizya), in addition to the traditional land tax (Heck 2004). The Qurʾan left the rate of taxation indeterminate, but Muslim lawyers established various means of determining the rate in the process of institutionalizing Islam (Cahen 1991, Cornell 1995). In the face of local variations (Ahmed 1985, Goitein 1963, Klein-Franke 2000) and the often ambiguous use of terms, there is no way of easily defining the terms of the jizya, or even of distinguishing it from the land tax (kharaj) that was levied on the conquered People of the Book. But there have been attempts (Dennett 1950, Lokkegaard 1950).

Other Aspects of Dhimma

The poll tax was the principal sign of submission exacted from the tributary People of the Book, but there were others. Proselytism on their part was banned, as was any enlargement of their communities by the construction of new churches or synagogues (Ward 1989). And in an attempt to discourage social segregation, distinctive clothing was prescribed for the tributaries (Lichtenstadter 1943) and intermarriage was regulated (Spectorsky 2000).

  • Lichtenstadter, Ilsa. “The Distinctive Dress of Non-Muslims in Islamic Countries.” Historia Judaica 5 (1943): 35–52.

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    Looks at the question of how to tell who's what in the Abode of Islam.

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  • Spectorsky, Susan. “Women of the People of the Book: Intermarriage in Early Fiqh Texts.” In Judaism and Islam: Boundaries, Communication, and Interaction: Essays in Honor of William H. Brinner. Edited by B. H. Hary, 269–278. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2000.

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    The earliest address of the problem of social separation.

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  • Ward, Seth. “Construction and Repair of Churches and Synagogues in Islamic Law.” In Studies in Islamic and Judaic Traditions: Papers Presented at the Institute for Islamic-Judaic Studies, Center for Judaic Studies, University of Denver, Vol. 2. Edited by W. S. Brinner and S. Ricks, 169–188. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989.

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    Discusses the ongoing debate about construction (forbidden) and repair (permitted) of churches and synagogues.

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The Millet System

The dhimma contract defined and regulated the status of the People of the Book living under Muslim sovereignty. It made no distinctions, however, among them: Jews, Christians, and, later, Zoroastrians were all granted the same privileges and subject to the same restrictions. In 1453, the same year that he took Constantinople from its last Eastern Christian defenders, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II organized the 90 percent of his subjects who were not part of the Ottoman ruling institution. They were organized both horizontally, according to profession and occupation, and vertically, according to millet, or religious community (Braude and Lewis 1982, Ercan 2002, Braude 1982). In theory, the Muslims constituted a millet along with the others, but in reality the millet system, which evolved over time, applied only to the empire's tolerated religious minorities (Kazici 2002), namely the Jews, Armenians, and Orthodox Christians. The Orthodox millet was headed by the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople. His millet-jurisdiction included not only the Greek Christians but the churches of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bosnia (Clogg 1982). Likewise, the Armenian patriarch in Constantinople (Bardakjian 1982) presided over the fortunes not only of his own church but also of the Monophysite churches in the Ottoman lands, notably the Copts of Egypt and the Jacobites of Syria and Iraq. The Jewish millet was presided over by the chief rabbi of Istanbul (Epstein 1982) and included both Sephardic and the less numerous and influential Ashkenazi Jews (Levy 1994). The Sultan dealt with his non-Muslim subjects through the heads of the millets, who naturally favored their own proper constituents. In the Balkans this led to increased estrangement between the Slavic churches and the Greek Orthodox Church, under whose jurisdiction they were now placed. The three millets thus became, in effect, Ottoman institutions, organs of administration in the sprawling bureaucracy of empire.

Dhimma And The Nation-State

The emergence of modern states out of the medieval Muslim empires created new and challenging local conditions that had to be met on the local level. The Sharia's unalterable categorization and treatment of its non-Muslim subjects as acceptable but essentially and irreversibly inferior religious communities conflicts with the modern nation-state notion that membership in political community, or citizenship, is a juridical status conferred by the state, and though it can be impaired or abrogated, it does not depend on race, ethnicity, or religion. The evidence of the continuing tension is available from all across the Muslim world, as can be seen in the evidence collected in the case-study literature in this section. Consult Khanbaghi 2006 and Sanasarian 2000 on Iran; Berger 2004 on Egypt; Chevallier 1982 on Syria; Cohen 1982 on Palestine; Grafton 2003 on Lebanon; Kaka Khel 1984 on Pakistan; Kolo 2007 on Iraq; and Muhibbu-Din 2004 on West Africa.

The Modern Polemic

The dhimma offered to its conquered peoples a contract that, on the one hand, granted protection, and on the other, fixed a tributary status that could be removed only by conversion to Islam. The first element might be read as formal toleration or as freedom of religion, and the second as a sentence to a kind of permanent “second-class citizenship.” This reading of the second element of dhimma status was popularized at the end of the last century by a series of books from one “Bat Yeʾor,” the pen name of Gisele Littmann, an Egytian Jew by birth who is now a British citizen. Three of her books (see Yeʾor 1985, Yeʾor 1996, Yeʾor 2001) and raised the issue of “dhimmitude” as a servile status, an approach prompted not only by personal experience but by what was once the often expressed opinion that Jews under Islam experienced a “Golden Age,” in which Muslim tolerance engendered a notable flowering of Jewish culture.

  • Yeʾor, Bat. The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam. Translated by David Maisel, with Paul Fenton, and David Littman. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985.

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    Uses the descriptive approach in describing the oppressed legal condition of Islam's subject minorities, as testified to by a great number of cited textual witnesses.

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  • Yeʾor, Bat. The Decline of Eastern Christianity: From Jihad to Dhimmitude; Seventh–Twentieth Century. Translated by Miriam Kochan and David Littman. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.

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    In this volume, which is as much about Jews as it is about Christians, the author argues the thesis that underlines her work: that the dhimmi status and jihad, or holy war, are two sides of the same Muslim coin, and that the first is the unmistakable consequence on the second.

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  • Yeʾor, Bat. Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide. Translated by Miriam Kochan and David Littman. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001.

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    A more broadly ranging treatment of the same subject. A fairly balanced presentation of Bat Yeʾor's life and work, and of the reception her work has received.

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Whereas Islam's medieval jurists followed the Qurʾan and thought about non-Muslims in terms of their relationship to the Islamic revelation—whether they were “unbelievers” (kafirun) or affiliated Scripturalists (the “People of the Book”)—modern thinkers, both non-Muslim and Muslim alike, prefer to cast the issue in the (relatively) value-free category of “minorities.” (Bouhdiba 1998, Martin 2005, Muhibbu-Din 2000). This is no easy matter, since dhimmi stresses the subservient nature of the conquered communities (Cahen 2004, Kamaraswamy 2003), which is in turn built into Islamic law (Aruçi 2006). But the discussion goes on, and in a lively fashion (Furman 2000, Nielsen 2003).

The Nation and Citizenship

The emergence of modern secularizing states in the Middle East created an alternative to the dhimma model of membership in the new national community, that of citizenship. In the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the concepts of nationalism and citizenship presented Muslims with the task of rethinking the whole notion of community membership, for Muslims and Non-Muslims alike. Karpat 1982 and Rachieru 2002 discuss how this issue was dealt with in Turkey. Although many of the modernizing reformers were quite willing to embrace the new notion of political citizenship (Abdin 1997, Hussain 1995, Saeed 1999, Scott 2007, Zebiri 1995), not all traditionalists and political Islamists were willing to accept dhimmis as equal citizens. In the second half of the 20th century, therefore, the Islamists had to confront the question of how to deal with the religious minorities (the People of the Book) in a society that was “modern” but still ruled (or at least guided) by Sharia, with its elaborate rules for dhimmis (Khatab 2002)

LAST MODIFIED: 12/14/2009

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195390155-0059

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