Who are the “Ahl al-Kitab”? Ahl al-Kitab, meaning “possessors of the Scripture,” or “people of the Book”, is a specific term accorded to Jews and Christians in the Holy Qur’an.
The Qur’an states that Jews, Christians, and Sabians can, like Muslims, achieve salvation through the performance of the rites of their respective religions.
“Indeed, those who believe (in the Qur’an, And those who follow the Jewish scriptures, And the Christians and the Sabians (Sabi’in) [before Prophet Muhammad], And who believe in God And the Last Day, And work righteousness, Shall have their reward with their Lord: On them Shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” 2:62
This term, in the Qur’an and the resultant Muslim terminology, denotes the Jews and the Christians, repositories of the earlier revealed books, al-Tawraat – the Torah, al-Zabur – the Psalms, and al-Injeel – the Gospel. This term was later extended to include the Sabians, Zoroastrians, Samaritans, Hindus, and Buddhists.
This could also be called the ‘Abrahamic tradition’ as the Jews, Christians, and Muslims share common roots with Hazrat Ibrahim (a.s.) as the patriarch. All three of them are Semitic and they are monotheistic, with slight variations in the degree of monotheism.
Concept of Prophethood and Divine Guidance:
In Islam, God is not a silent God. He communicates with mankind through His Prophets. (And after the end of Prophecy, according to Shi’a doctrine, tradition, and interpretation of history, through the Imam of the Time). Muslims, therefore, believe that all communities have been guided through divinely inspired messengers.
“And there was never a people without a Prophet having lived amongst them.” Qur’an 35:24.
According to a tradition, there have been 124,000 Prophets who were inspired to guide their respective communities. The Qur’an mentions 25 by name.
But the Qur’an also states that there have been Prophets besides those that are mentioned:
“And we sent messengers we have mentioned to thee before, and messengers we have not mentioned to thee.” 4:164
All Prophets brought the same message:
One may then question: What need was there to send Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) if all the messages were the same and from the same source? The answer is simple and clear. Even though the message is one in origin, the way mankind understands and interprets the message varies. Aga Khan (lll) has very gently articulated this in his Memoirs (Pg 174):
“The answer of Islam is precise and clear. In spite of its great spiritual strength, Jewish monotheism has retained two characteristics which render it essentially different from Islamic monotheism: God has remained, in spite of all, a national and racial God for the children of Israel, and his personality is entirely separate from its supreme manifestation, the universe. In far distant countries such as India and China, the purity of the faith in one God had been so vitiated by polytheism, idolatry and even by pantheism, which was hardly distinguishable from atheism, that these popular and folk-lore religions bore but little resemblance to that which emanated from the true and pure Godhead. Christianity lost its strength and meaning for Muslims in that it saw its great and glorious founder not as a man but as God incarnate in man, as God made flesh…”
It is obvious from the above that the same message from the same source could be differently interpreted. Therefore, even though there is one Message – we have diversity of interpretations; diversity in the manner in which humans understand and interpret it. Different faiths are different interpretations of the same message: Submission to the Will of God. The interpretations and practices of faith have evolved according to time, environment, and circumstances. For instance, with regards to their views of qualities of God, the Jews stress the sternness of God, the Christians tend to stress the love of God, Islam stresses love on the one hand and justice on the other.
Islam recognizes all Prophets and all divine scriptures including the Psalms (revealed to Prophet David), the Old Testament (revealed to Prophet Moses), and the New Testament (revealed to Prophet Jesus).
“Say: ‘We believe in God, and in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ismail, Issac, Jacob, and the tribes, and in (the books) given to Moses, Jesus, and the Prophets, from their Lord: We make no distinction between one and another among them, and to God do we bow our will (in Islam).’ 3:84
Muslims believe that each of the revelations built on and enhanced the preceding revelation. This series of revelations was concluded with the revelation of the Qur’an on Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.). The Qur’an confirms and completes the message of all preceding Prophets and books of revelation. Thus, the revelation to Prophet Muhammad is a continuation and culmination of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic message.
Therefore, there is no fundamental conflict of faith between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Any conflict which one perceives may be of a social, political, or economic nature; but there is no conflict of faith.
Ahl al-Kitab and commonalities in particular to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam:
All three faiths are part of the Abrahamic tradition. They claim descent from a common ancestor, Prophet Abraham. The Jews through his son Ishaaq (Isaac) and the Muslims through his son Ismail. Christianity is the offspring of Judaism; Jesus himself was seen as a Jewish Rabbi. There is no fundamental conflict of faith between the people of the Book. The commonalities are:
Common monotheistic vision – a belief in one God: The Shahadah, or affirmation that: “There is no God but Allah” is the Islamic counterpart of the Jewish Shema Yisrael: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Similarly, in Christianity there is the following affirmation: There is one God and father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
Common religious attitudes towards life – the transience of earthly life: Like Jews and Christians, Muslims also believe that the present life is only a trial preparation for the next realm of existence and accountability of actions.
Common ethics and values: Respect for knowledge, justice, compassion towards the poor and underprivileged, importance of family life, and respect for parents, etc.
This is not to minimize the differences or to renounce the points that separate us, but that the basic unity of faith is of such importance that it allows us to consider our differences with serenity and with a sense of perspective. It means that we can live together, co-exist, work together in an atmosphere of peace, understanding, tolerance and friendship, because we are all believers of the same God.
Common practices amongst the people of the Book:
Judaism, Christianity and Islam also share the concepts of prayer, fasting and pilgrimage, although in different forms and with different emphases on meaning and interpretation.
Prayers are an essential part of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Like Islam, the teachings of Judaism and Christianity regard congregational prayers as more beneficial than prayers said individually.
Judaism: The Mosaic Law prescribes as obligatory to offer as charity to the needy one tenth of the value of the produce from the harvest on those who can afford it. The Bible and the Talmus teach that assisting the poor is a duty and not just an act of grace on the part of the donor.
Christianity: The message is ‘have mercy and help the poor and needy‘. (Luke, X, 30-37).
Islam: The Qur’an is studded with passages extolling the importance and necessity of ‘giving’ to the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned. According to the teachings of Islam, the practical fulfillment of belief in God’s Oneness, in divine revelation, and in the existence of the hereafter, is best achieved through prayer and in the service of humanity through charity and philanthropy.
In Islam (Ramadan) has been regarded as the counterpart of the Christian Lent, a forty-day period of fasting and penitence before Easter. It corresponds to the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry. But it also resembles the Jewish observance of the month of “Elul” as a period of Teshuvah or penitence.
Every Muslim is expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca (Ka’bah) at least once in their lifetime, if it is physically and financially affordable. The Israelites were instructed in the Bible to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year. The concept of visiting (going on pilgrimage to) shrines or ‘their saints’ are common in all the three religions.
“O mankind! We created you from a single soul, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. Truly, the most honored of you in God’s sight is the greatest of you in piety. God is all knowing, all-aware.”49:13
We must not indulge in over-simplified euphoria. That is, we must refrain from taking an over-simplifying approach or attitude. It is needless to say that we have different interpretations along very important lines, for example: Islam does not accept the idea of filial relationship and the concept of trinity (“Christ the son of Mary was no more than an Apostle; many were the apostles that passed away before him. His mother was a woman of truth, …” Qur’an,5:75) as usually understood by Christians, both of which are alien to the Islamic perspective.
Remember that all ’People of the Book’ are from one Abrahamic tradition:
“…And dispute you not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury):
But say, “We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our God and your God is One; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam) …” 29:46
“Lo! Those who believe in Allah and his Messengers and seek to make distinction between Allah and His Messengers, and (those who) say, we believe in some and disbelieve in others, and seek to choose a way in between such are truly disbelievers…;” 4:150-151
“Therefore, …go straight as you have been commanded,
and do not follow their likes and dislikes, but say:
“I believe in whatever Book God has sent down;
and I have been commanded to act justly towards you.
God is our Lord and your Lord.
To us shall be accounted our deeds; and to you yours;
let there be no dispute between us and you;
God will bring us all together, for with Him all journeys end.” 42:15
Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan (lll) states in “Islam, the religion of my Ancestors”, 1954, page 10):
“All Islamic schools of thought accept it as a fundamental principle that for centuries, for thousands of years before the advent of Prophet Muhammad, there arose from time to time messengers, illuminated by divine grace, for and amongst those races of the earth which had sufficiently advanced intellectually to comprehend such a message. Thus Abraham, Moses, Jesus and all the prophets of Israel are universally accepted by Islam. Muslims indeed know no limitation merely to the prophets of Israel, they are ready to admit that there were similar divinely inspired messengers in other countries–Gautama Buddha, Shri Krishna and Shri Ram in India, Socrates in Greece, the wise men of China and many other sages and saints among people and civilizations of which we have now lost trace. Thus man’s soul has never been left without a specially inspired messenger from the Soul that sustains, embraces and is the Universe.”
Prince Karim al-Husayni, Aga Khan lV said at the opening ceremony of the Burnaby Jamatkhana, Vancouver, Canada, 23rd August 1985:
“…Islam is the last of the world’s great monotheistic faiths to be revealed and is essentially tolerant. It entertains no opposition to earlier beliefs. On the contrary, it recognizes them as being part of God’s message to mankind. To all Muslims, Shi’a and Sunni alike, the “People of the Book” are the people of monotheistic faiths, and a wide, all-embracing vision of the brotherhood of man and the unity of God is among the most fundamental of the faith’s teachings…”