A Brief Note on Ahlul-Kitab or ‘The People of the Book’

Article adapted from Ahlul’l-Kitab*
by Alwaez Sadruddin Fattoum

Ahlul-Kitab, ‘the people of the Book’, are two Arabic words Ahl and Kitab put together. Ahl by itself means relative, folk, family, kin, kinsfolk, wife, people, members, followers, adherents, etc.

Ahl with these meanings is mentioned thirty-one times in the Holy Qur’an, viz. Ahlul’l-Qura, ‘the people of the villages’; Ahlul’l Nar, ‘people of Fire (Hell)’; Ahlul’l Janah, ‘people of Garden (Paradise)’ etc.  (Holy Qur’an, 7:97-98; 38:64).

Ahl comes from the root-word Ahala which means to get married or also from Ahil (pl. Mahul) which means inhabited or populated. Ahl (pl. Ahalin) is also used to denote relationship. When one says Ahli, it should be understood to be referring to his family.

Kitab, which is the other word used in the term Ahlul-Kitab, comes from the root word Kataba which means to write down. Kitab as used in this meaning are pieces of writing put together.

The word Kitab is used in the Holy Qur’an for the Divine Books revealed to various Prophets. The Books of revelation which have survived so far are the Book of the Jews which is called the Tawrat (Torah), the Book of the Christians which is known as the Indjil (Gospels or Bible) and the Book of the Muslims which is the Holy Qur’an.

Ahlul-Kitab is a term used in the Holy Book for Jews and Christians, as believers of a revealed religion, to distinguish them from the heathens (ummiyun) who lived during Prophet Muhammad’s time. The following verse in Surah al-Ma’idah explains clearly who the people of the scripture were, when it says:

“O people of the Scripture! You have naught (of guidance) till you observe the Torah and Gospel and that which was revealed unto you from your Lord. That which is revealed unto (Muhammad) from thy Lord is certain to increase the contumacy and disbelief of many of them. But grieve not for the disbelieving folk.” (5:68)

Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) had never held any grievances against the people of the Book, who resided within the Islamic domain, mainly in Arabia at that time. A well known tradition of the Prophet Muhammad attests to this:

“He who wrongs a Jew or a Christian will have myself (the Prophet) as his accuser on the Day of Judgement”. [1]

In this regard, he had signed a document by which he regulated the relationship between the tribes (around and in Medina) and the Muslims, giving them rights equal to those of the Muslims. In that document, the Holy Prophet wrote the following:

“Whoever joins the signatories of this scripture would be entitled to our help and would not be subject to any injustice, nor should the Muslims cooperate against them. The children of Ouf [2] are community of believers. The people of the scriptures are allowed to follow their religion as much as the Muslims are allowed to follow theirs, and so are their allies except the one who commits injustice or sin, for he does not harm but himself…

“The signatories of the document are entitled to mutual advice, sincerity and assistance rather than fighting each other…” [3]

This document is truly the first of its kind in the history of religious freedom and a cornerstone in declaring the human rights which mankind strove for centuries to acquire. The Holy Qur’an also makes it quite clear that Prophet Muhammad did not say anything from himself, and that he was inspired by Allah to speak about different matters:

“Nor doth he speak of (his own) desire. It is naught save an inspiration that is inspired — which One of mighty powers hath taught him.”  (3:53)

Thus the command concerning relationship with the people of the book came from Allah Himself, who says in the Holy Qur’an:

Say: ‘O People of the Scripture. Come to an agreement  between us and you: that we shall worship none but Allah, and that we shall ascribe no partners unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside Allah. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him)’.” (3:64)

The Holy Qur’an also conveys a message of hope to believers of other faiths in the following verse:

Lo! those who believe, and those who are Jews, and Sabaeans, and Christians whosoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve.” (5:69)

The following excerpt from a speech made by Mawlana Hazar Imam in London in 2003 is very much in keeping with the spirit of the Qur’anic verse just quoted:

“The Noble Qur’an extends its principle of pluralism also to adherents of other faiths. It affirms that each has a direction and path to which they turn so that all should strive for good works, in the belief that, wheresoever they may be, Allah will bring them together.” [4]

This is why Hazrat Imam Mawlana Sultan Mohamad Shah said:

“Do not speak ill of other religions and do not ridicule anybody.” [5]

Finally, while the people of the Book have different Divine Books, they have one common belief among them: they all believe in the unity of God.

Mawlana Hazar Imam in 1985 made the point about monotheistic believers and our relationship with them as follows:

“I would remind my jamat that the meaning of Ahlul-Kitab, the people of the Book, is the acceptance by not only Muslims but non-Muslims of the unity of God, Monotheism. Those of you who know the history of Islam will recognise this, that it is said that Muslims should build bridges with people who are the people of the Book and that is a statement which is made in many circumstances not only in the Hadith but in the Qur’an itself.” [6]

Thus when Imam-e-Zaman asks us to build bridges between us and others, we should do so without fear or apprehension because we have many things in common with people of other faiths.

Date article posted: Saturday, October 8, 2011.


*The article has been adapted from Ilm Volume 11, Number 3-4,  December 1987-March 1988, Pages 30-32. Ed.


[1] Baladhuri, Pg. 162, Ahlul-Kitab. See also Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam.
[2] A Jew tribe which lived in Madinah during the Prophet’s time.
[3] Ibn Hisham, Biography of Prophet, part I, Pg. 503.
[4] See The Noble Qur’an
[5] Kalam-e-Imam-e-Mubin. Zanzibar, 17-9-1905.
[6] Quoted in Ilm article


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3 thoughts on “A Brief Note on Ahlul-Kitab or ‘The People of the Book’

  1. If everyone reads and understands Hazar Imam’s firmans, we will be able to follow whatever is written in the Holy Qu’ran and its meaning.

  2. I think we need to have more such articles…
    it’s way beyond time. There are so many similarities between practies, beliefs especially when you read about mystical tradition – ie esoteric beliefs, that it becomes easy to acknowldege pluralism. The journey ascribes to the same light.

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