Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Jews and Christians: People of the Book or Infidels?

Technically and traditionally, Islam has classified people into three categories. (Islam loves categorizing things.) People are Muslims (muslimoon), People of the Book (ahl al-kitaab), and infidels (kuffaar).

It is clear what "Muslim / muslimoon" and "infidels / kuffaar" mean; one may wonder what this "People of the Book / ahl al-kitaab" means. A more accurate description would be "People of A Book" ("ahl kitaab") - meaning people who have had a book given to them by God through a prophet. The Qur'an speaks about Moses (moosaa) receiving the Torah (tawraah), David (daaood) receiving the Psalms (zuboor), and Jesus (eesaa) receiving the Gospel (injeel). Since Jews and Christians, basically, are the only ones who are said to have received a book from God, they are classified as People of the Book. They are accorded different treatment compared to infidels.

This is most apparent when Muslims establish themselves over non-Muslim peoples. According to Islam, if the peoples are People of the Book, the Muslims must give them three choices: become Muslims, become second-class citizens while retaining their religion, or being killed. Infidels - those who are neither Muslim nor People of the Book - have only two options: convert or be killed. Obviously, Muslims have not been entirely faithful to this: Muslims have ruled over infidels without slaughtering them all.

What is also interesting is that Muhammad increased the borders of admission for being part of ahl al-kitaab. When confronted with Zoroastrians, Muslims asked Muhammad whether they were ahl al-kitaab or kuffaar. He said they were ahl al-kitaab, even though the Qur'an says nothing whatsoever about Zoroastrians.

However, these days a new controversy, it seems, has erupted. People are asking anew: "Are Jews and Christians classified as 'People of the Book'?" Interesting, some are coming forth with a different answer than Islamic tradition would have us suppose would exist by default. Many Muslims, particularly those associated with the Salafi movement, are claiming that Jews and Christians today are infidels. They use two arguments to make their claim.
1. The Qur'an does speak about Jews and Christians. However, since then Jews and Christians have either died out (and infidel imposters are claiming the title of "Jew" and "Christian") or have so corrupted God's revelation that the religion they now practice and believe in can no longer be rightfully called "Judaism" or "Christianity," or at least cannot be considered as such by Muslims. This would be the logical result of what the Qur'an itself accused Jews and Christians of doing: killing the prophets and corrupting God's message. As far as Christianity is concerned, some Muslims point to Paul and accuse him of deliberately polluting and perverting Christianity.

2. Regardless whether Jews and Christians today can be recognized as such by Muslims, the Jews and Christians of today are commiting shirk (denying God's unity) and kufr (disbelief [in what God has revealed]) and by doing so have become infidels, for that is the definition of an infidel. That is, anyone who commits shirk or kufr (as Islam understands them and has defined them) is an infidel. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck...

For these Muslims, the world can be divided into Muslim or infidel, daar al-islaam (the abode of Islam) or daar al-Harb (the abode of war), good or evil, light or darkness. Many even go so far as to say that whoever doubts this - that Jews and Christians are infidels - or rejects it has commited kufr and becomes a kaafir.

This reclassification has serious consequences. Infidels are enemies of Islam and must be defeated. They cannot be helped or befriended. Every Muslim is obligated to hate them all. Considering that the ruling powers are essentially infidels, the animosity some Muslims feel for the West can be put into perspective.

This view has not become mainstream within Islam, yet. It might become the mainstream view if the Salafis continue to successfully broadcast their interpretations and perspectives to more impressionable (and uneducated) Muslims. Thus, we must be aware of this.

inna naHnu-l-a'lam.


At 12:27 PM, Anonymous Iblis said...

Given that kind of attitude, and the treatment they recieve in Muslim countries, how can Christians and Jews not expect the worst from Muslims?
It kinda loops back into the
Where are the moderate Muslims? and Can Islam be reformed? debates.

At 2:30 PM, Blogger Muslihoon said...


What's your stance in these debates, Iblis?

At 6:27 PM, Anonymous Iblis said...

I tend to think the majority of Muslims are cafeteria Muslims. They do their thing and mind their own business. However as they are not "pure" muslims, they could be accused of heresy by the extremists and come under threat. So they keep their heads down and mouths shut. After all the extremists aren't after them. They also do believe after a fashion. So while they may abhor violence, they're willing to tolerate it if its for a greater good.

As to whether Islam could be reformed. I don't think so. The problem is with its literalness. It has to be as its written in the Koran, otherwise the religion can mean anything. Which means that any reform you try to attempt, makes you a heretic subject to extreme sanction. And there are all too many willing to carry out that sanction.

Besides, the reforms people want from Islam, would in effect turn Islam into a very light Chrisitianity or an Abrahamic Buddhisim.
If you want that, and want to stay in with the followers of the book you may as well become a Christian.You wouldn't have the philosphical contortions.

At 4:36 PM, Blogger Muslihoon said...

Excellent points, Iblis.

Another question: Some say that Islam is, indeed, being reformed but rather than going forward (as we would see it), Islam is being dragged backwards, that the Salafi (fundamentalist) movement in Islam is effectually its reformation. Would you say this accurate or plausable?

At 7:22 PM, Anonymous Iblis said...

It does seem to follow with the rise of Islamic extremism that we've been seeing in the past few years.

At 4:43 PM, Blogger urbansocrates said...

How did the West get so "enlightened" that mass killings for religious reasons are unknown there? After the 30 Years' War everyone "stepped back from the abyss" just as Europe and the US and Asia did after WWII; thus the Cold War. The West almost destroyed itself at its center, with roughly 1 in 3 dead, all because of mixing politics and religion.

Iblis is correct to ask "Where are the moderate Muslims?" Wherever they are, I hope they assert themselves, or the field will left with Islam's most extreme and violent manifestations (and every religion/civilization has or had one or more).

At 10:24 AM, Blogger Yaakov Kirschen said...

thanks for the clear and informative posting. aside from the obvious geo-political consequences it is truly thought provoking!

looking at the world thru the eyes of a believer in Allah and his prophet, the question of whether folks born as Christians or Jews, but who deny their religions and spurn their "revealed" books are still "people of the book" is quite interesting.

Dry Bones
Israel's Political Comic Strip Since 1973


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