The Qur’an expresses a range of positive and negative attitudes toward Jews and Christians. The doctrine found in these verses dictates how the Qur’anic law requires Muslims to treat Jews and Christians. This essay examines a common theme in some of the varying doctrines: Pious Christians and Jews are praised, while those of them who are bad are condemned. The essay also discusses how treatment of Christians and Jews has actually been put in practice by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, Islamic thinkers such as Said Nursi, and in daily life by the ruling authorities in Islamic civilizations from the Middle Ages until the end of the Ottoman Empire.
Islamic theology is strictly monotheistic. Consequently, the Qur’an denies such Christian doctrines as the Trinity and the resurrection of Jesus, which can seem to suggest that God works in a partnership (Jacques 2004, 16). Yet Jesus is always honored in the Qur’an. He is referred to as a “sign” of mercy and an “example.” Nowhere is he or any other Prophet criticized (Jacques 2004, 16). Moses is also revered in the Qur’an, where he is referred to more than one hundred times (Khan 2001, 35.
The Qur’an does not claim to supersede the scriptures that came before it, but is understood to complete the revelations of the Prophets (Jacques 2004, 298). It is a culmination of the history of divine revelation, which includes stories from the Old and New Testaments such as the stories of Abraham, Moses, Noah, and Jesus. Sura 61:6 is an example of how the Qur’an affirms the validity of Jewish and Christian scriptures: “And when Jesus son of Mary said, ‘Children of Israel, I am indeed God’s messenger to you, confirming the Torah that has gone before me…’” (Murata and Chittick 1994, 165).
In the Qur’an, Jews, and Christians are referred to as Ahl al-kitab, meaning “the People of the Book.” The Qur’an makes distinctions between the People of the Book. Many verses acknowledge that there are both wrongdoers and righteous ones among them (Sarýtoprak 2000, 323).
Where the Qur’an criticizes the People of the Book, it generally makes clear that it is referring only to those who do not adhere to the message of the Prophets (tawhid) (Murata and Chittick, 1994, 170):
Those who persistently disbelieve from among the People of the Book and the polytheists would not abandon until there had come to them the Clear Evidence … Surely those who disbelieve from among the People of the Book and from among the polytheists will be in the fire of Hell a seed of which unbelief bears, abiding therein. (98:1, 6)
Some verses that criticize the People of the Book without making a distinction are open to various interpretations. For example, Sura 5:55 states: “Oh believers, take not Jews and Christians as friends; they’re friends of each other. Whoso of you makes them as friends is one of them.” Said Nursi suggests that the verse may refer to particular groups of Jews and Christians who committed treachery during the days of the Medina Charter. Nursi points out that at the time of the Prophet, people hated and loved each other solely on the basis of religion, so close relationships with non-Muslims were considered hypocritical (Sarýtoprak 327). As the basis for friendships has changed, hypocrisy in this respect is no longer an issue.
Another reason why such verses should be interpreted broadly rather than literally is because some of the words used in their original Arabic forms are ambiguous. In this verse, the word for friend (wali) can mean guardian. The sentence might mean that Muslims cannot make Jews or Christians their guardians. In some verses, the People of the Book are referred to as kafir, meaning either “one who denies the existence of God” or “one who denies the prophethood of Muhammad.” Non-Muslims are not necessarily kafirs in the first sense of the word (Sarýtoprak, 328).
The Qur’an commonly advocates tolerance, respect, and goodwill towards the People of the Book. For example, Sura 60:8 declares:
God does not forbid you, as regards those who do not make war against you on account of your Religion, nor drive you away from your homes, to be kindly to them, and act towards them with equity. God surely loves the scrupulously equitable.
In addition to advocating tolerance, the Qur’an praises the People of the Book. In Sura 21:7, they are referred to as “People of Knowledge” (ahl al-dhikr) (Sarýtoprak, 328) and verses 3:113-15 declare:
Yet, they are not all alike: among the People of the Book, there is an upright community, reciting God’s Revelations in the watches of the night and prostrating (themselves in worship). They believe in God and the Last Day, and enjoin and promote what is right and good, and forbid and try to prevent evil, and hasten to do good deeds, as if competing with one another. Those are of the righteous ones. Whatever good they do, they will never be denied the reward of it; and God has full knowledge of the God-revering, pious.
This sura provides an example of how the Qur’an recognizes that the People of the Book worship the same God as Muslims. This recognition of a common ground is repeated in other verses, such as 3:64, which commands:
Say (to them, O Messenger): “O People of the Book, come to a word common between us and you, that we worship none but God, and associate none as partner with Him, and that none of us take others for Lords, apart from God.”
Another implication in Sura 3:115 is that the People of the Book will be rewarded. A general theme in the Qur’an is that those People of the Book who accept tawhid will have salvation (Murata and Chittick, 168). For example, Sura 2:62 states:
Those who believe (Muslims), the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabaeans, whosoever believe in God and the Last Day and do good deeds, they shall have their reward from their Lord, shall have nothing to fear, nor shall they come to grief.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) protected and defended the People of the Book. In the hadith by Al-Munawi, he is quoted as saying: “Who wrongs a Jew or Christian will have myself as his prosecutor on the day of Judgement.” In Al-Bayhaqi’s hadith he is quoted: “Whosoever persecuted a dhimmi [non-Muslim who paid a protection tax] or usurped his rights, or took work from him beyond his capacity, or took something from him without his permission, I shall be a complainant against him on the Day of Resurrection.” Al-Bukhari tells of how Muhammad would not exclude Jewish people when he visited the sick. On one occasion, when a Jewish funeral procession passed by him, he stood up out of respect, and when asked why, replied: “Is it not a human soul?”
The Prophet’s respect for the People of the Book was an example to others during his time. One of his companions, Hizam b. Hakim, reproached the Governor of Syria when he saw a group of group of Christians standing out in the hot sun as punishment for not paying their taxes.
Said Nursi also advocated tolerance, affirming that Muslims and non-Muslims are equal before Qur’anic law, and that people should be praised and loved based on their individual attributes (Sarýtoprak 326–327).
Soon after the Hijra (the migration of the Prophet to Medina), the Prophet signed a pact with the local tribes of Medina. Famously known as the Medina Charter, the Prophet aimed at generating a peaceful, pluralist society in this town, which was torn apart with decades-long civil strife and bloodshed. However, when this pact was violated by some Jewish tribes who supported the Meccans against Muslims, Jews were eventually driven out. Yet cooperation was renewed when the Prophet concluded a treaty with the Jews of Khaibar (Jacques 14–16).
Under an Islamic government, dhimmi law was developed in relations with the People of the Book which required them to pay a poll tax, or jizya, which is sanctioned in the Qur’an (9:29).
In exchange, Muslims were responsible for the protection of the People of the Book in their society. During the reign of the second Caliph, the Governor of Homs (in modern-day Syria) returned the poll tax to his Christian subjects because he realized he could not protect them against the Byzantine army (Jacques 14–16).
The policies surrounding jizya were relatively fair. Under a Muslim government, non-Muslims were not required to pay zakat (prescribed charity), which was a legal and religious requirement for Muslims. Furthermore, the poor, the blind, the elderly, the rescue workers at the houses of worship, women and children were all exempt from jizya. If it was not paid, the maximum punishment was imprisonment, and if a person died without having paid it, it could not become a debt transferred to his estate or heirs (Jacques 14–16).
Muslims, Jews, and Christians socialized among one another regularly and rather freely in the Islamic Middle Ages, creating bonds (Cohen 2000, 39, 42). For example, they met in public baths, and business partnerships between Muslims and non-Muslims occurred despite disapproval of some authorities. Some Muslims even took part in Christian and Jewish religious celebrations. Jews and Christians had many ample opportunities in daily life “to cross barriers in the hierarchy of Islamic society” (Cohen 2000, 39). Dhimmis enjoyed acceptance in intellectual circles (majalis) and studied with Muslims at universities, particularly during the “renaissance of Islam” in cosmopolitan tenth-century Baghdad. Cohen states that “Jewish physicians were found in Arab society in numbers disproportionate to the Jewish presence in the population at large … They also formed part of the interdenominational circle of physicians working in state hospitals and adorning Muslim courts” (Cohen 2000, 42).
In the early Abbasid period, Muslims and Christian theologians frequently corresponded by sending letters to each other, or in debates. Although the dialogue was concerned with both parties trying to prove the superiority of their religion over the other, it was nevertheless constructive and meaningful (Sirry 2005, 365–73).
Life in Spain (al Andalus) between 711 and 1492 is a prime example of harmonious coexistence between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Jews and Christians enjoyed participation in Arab cultural activities, such as poetry competitions and intellectual circles (Menocal 2002, 173–80).
In 1856, full egalitarian rights were given to all citizens of the Ottoman Empire. Citizens of any religion could be accepted into government service and enroll in military and state schools (Sarýtoprak, 322).
In the fourteenth century, jurist Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya wrote an influential book compiling general Islamic laws for dhimmis: Ahkam ahl al-dhimma (The Laws pertaining to the Protected People) (Cohen 53). Among these, he states that Muslims may convey condolences to non-Muslims or congratulate them on marriage, birth or good health with the exception of occasions, which contradict Islamic tenets (Jacques 39).
In some domains, such as marriage and dining, Muslim interaction with the People of the book is given Qur’anic sanction.
This day (all) pure, wholesome things have been made lawful for you. And the food of those who were given the Book before is lawful for you, just as your food is lawful for them. And (lawful for you in marriage) are chaste women from among the believers, and from among those who were given the Book before, provided that you give them their bridal-due, taking them in honest wedlock, and not in debauchery, nor as secret love-companions. Whoever rejects faith, all his works are in vain, and in the Hereafter he will be among the losers. (5:5)
Sunni law permitted the eating of animals slaughtered by the People of the Book. Muslims could eat food provided by Jews as the Prophet Muhammad himself had done (Cohen 41). It was more problematic to eat in Christian homes, as pork might be served. However, Shia Islam rejected food prepared by dhimmis as unclean.
Sura 5:5 allows Muslim men to marry dhimmi women, not the other way around. This is to protect the woman’s rights, because the man might forcefully impose his religion on his Muslim wife (Cohen 41). If the wife of a Jewish or Christian couple converts to Islam, the marriage becomes invalid and from then on she may only marry Muslim men (Spectorsky 2000, 274). A Muslim husband is required to permit his non-Muslim wife to observe her religious rituals in the household and to read her own scriptures, and not encourage her to break rituals such as fasting and (for Jews) keeping the Sabbath (Cohen 41).
In studying the Qur’an, it is evident that Islam is inherently tolerant of Judaism and Christianity. It requires Muslims to respect the validity of the Scriptures of the People of the Book, and their right to be treated with kindness. The practice of the Prophet is consistent with this view as is the example of many influential Muslims throughout history, such as Said Nursi and Rumi. In today’s world of pluralism and multiculturalism, understanding is essential for adherents of different religions to coexist in peace and harmony. Muslims, Jews, and Christians must understand the tolerant message of Islam and the great Muslim role models. Exclusive focus on seemingly negative Qur’anic verses such as 5:55, without understanding the context, can lead to fear and hatred. They must embrace their similarities to see that they are brethren, and embrace their differences as a chance for learning. Amidst the twentieth and twenty-first century conflicts between the Islamic World and the West, one might see peaceful coexistence between religious groups as idealistic. But one needs only to look at the experience of Jews and Christians under Islamic rule in the Middle Ages to see that religious pluralism is possible.