IN the Qur’an, Christians, Jews (and Sabeans) are presented as ahl al-kitab, “People of the Book”. Throughout history, this term has been seen as one of tolerance by Muslims towards faiths possessing a revealed book (the Torah, the Gospel, or the Avesta), or conversely as a degrading label offering only dhimitude, second-class status, to Jews and Christians living under Muslim rule.
In this book. Richard Kimball, a founding member of the Galway Interfaith Alliance, presents a comparative theological study of this key Islamic idea, arguing that the concept of ahl al-kitab could be used as a tool for advancing relations between Islam and Christianity.
The book is divided into three sections the first of which, to understand the Qur’anic teaching on Christianity, analyses the social, cultural. and historical context of the Qur’an. The concept of “People of the Book” is examined through Tafsir (traditional Islamic commentary), as seen in the writings of four Islamic scholars whose lives span more than 1000 years: Mujahid ibn Jabr (c.722); Al-Tabari (d.923), Ibn Kathir (d.1373) and Rashid Rida (d.1935).
After considering Muhammad’s relationship with Jews and Christians, Kimball reflects on the Church’s response to the rapid spread of Islam throughout the Middle East after Muhammad’s death, conquest that created tensions between the different faiths, shaping Muslim attitudes towards the “People of the Book”. Judiciously, Kimball discusses the contradictory teaching in the Qur’an on Christianity: some passages praise Christianity as people nearest in faith, while others portray Christians as following false doctrines, or as people not worthy of friendship.
Section two of the book considers the attitude towards Christians and Jews in pre-Islamic Arabia. The writings of certain Christians, such as Theodore Abu Qurrah (c.820), at one time bishop of Harran, are then appraised in an attempt to reveal the response of Christianity to Islam in the post-conquest period. In particular, Kimball asks, did Christians use Tafsir in their response to Islam, and what was the Church’s response to the Qur’an and Muhammad’s claim to prophethood?
Having discussed Muslim-Christian relations down through the centuries, Kimball, in the third section, considers how the term ahl al-kitab is used by scholars today (Christian and Muslim) in the context of interfaith dialogue. Emphasising the need for “interreligious openness” as an essential element of “good faith”, he suggests that Christians and Muslims could work together in many areas, especially in “countering the growing secularisation of society”.
Kimball reminds us, however that Christians must find a balance between responding to the call to “make disciples of all nations” and the need to enter dialogue recognising Islam as an equal faith. Likewise, Muslims, although believing their faith to be final and complete, must realise that, although they respect Jesus as a prophet, Christians regard him as the Son of God.
Although some people may be put off by the price, this book, containing a useful glossary of Arabic terms and suggestions for further reading, is a must-read for anyone wishing to see greater harmony between Islam and Christianity.
Dr Simon Ross Valentine is a freelance writer and lecturer on Islam currently on furlough from Iraq.
The People of the Book, ahl al-kitab: A comparative theological exploration
Richard Lawrence Kimball
Peter Lang £40