Islamic Studies People of the Book
Frank Peters
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0059


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.

  • Ayoub, Mahmoud. “Dhimmah in Qurʾan and Hadith.” In Muslims and Others in Early Islamic Society. Edited by Robert Hoyland, 25–36. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004.

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    The approach here is more typically Muslim in broadening the evidentiary base to include the Prophet traditions.

  • Busse, Heribert. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity: Theological and Historical Affiliations. Princeton, NJ: Marcus Weiner, 1988.

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    Explores the broader relationship from an Islamic perspective, though written by a non-Muslim.

  • Peters, F. E. The Monotheists: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Conflict and Competition. Vol 1. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

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    Puts the dhimma experience in a broader context of tolerance (see pp. 269–278).

  • Peters, F. E. The Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. New ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

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    Provides the same overview as Peters 2003, but more briefly and with guides into further reading.

  • Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qurʾan. 2d ed. Minneapolis, MN: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1994.

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    See “The People of the Book and the Diversity of Religions” (pp. 162–170) for a positive view of the theme from a modernist Muslim perspective.

  • Sharon, Moshe. “People of the Book.” In Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾan, Vol. 4. Edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe, 36–43. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2004.

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    A narrow but detailed survey of the use of the term in the Qurʾan and related literature.

  • Vajda, Georges. “Ahl al-Kitab.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. 1. New ed. Edited by H.A.R. Gibb, J. H. Kramers, E. Lévi-ProvenÇal, and J. Schacht, 264–266. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1960.

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    Explores the larger contextual use of the term and its usage in the first half of the 20th century.

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