AHL AL-KITĀB (Ar. "The People of the Book"), name of the Jews, Christians, and Sabeans (al Ṣābdʾa) in the Koran (Sura 3:110; 4:152; et al.) because they possess a kitāb, i.e., a holy book containing a revelation of God's word. Pre-Islamic Arabic poetry refers to Jewish and Christian Scripture. It especially dwells on the Zabūr, a holy book – whose origin is from the word mizmor ("psalm") – which Muhammad knew as given to David (Sura 17:15), i.e., the Book of Psalms. Muhammad frequently mentions the tawrā (the Torah, possibly the entire Bible) revealed to the Israelites (e.g., Sura 3:58, 87; 48:29) which contains clear allusions to Muhammad's appearance (Sura 7:156; 33:44; 48:4). He also is acquainted with the Injīl (Evangelium, the Gospels), a term which covers the entire New Testament. Muhammad emphasizes that the Injīl confirms the statements of the Torah (Sura 5:50; cf. 48:29; 57:27). He does not specify the holy book of the Sabeans although he mentions them three times in the Koran (Sura 2:59; 5:72; 22:17), along with the Jews and the Christians, and promises them their part in salvation. According to the Arabs, Muhammad meant the Mandeans, a Judeo-Christian sect whose believers lived in Babylonia. In the early period of his mission, Muhammad related positively to the Ahl al-Kitāb and their teachings. But his attitude changed as a result of the disappointment in his hope of persuading them to accept his faith. Then Muhammad accused them of intentionally falsifying the Torah or at least distorting its interpretation (Sura 2:70; 3:64, 72, 73; cf. 5:16; 6:91). Despite this, Muhammad determined that the Ahl al-Kitāb, as the authors of holy books, deserve special treatment, and because they had agreed to pay the jizya ("poll tax"), the command to fight against them was not enforced (Sura 9:29). Since the Ahl al-Kitāb fulfilled this condition, they became the Ahl al-Dhimma ("protected people"; see *Dhimmī). In a later period this position caused the Ḥarrān ("star worshipers") who called themselves Sabeans and the Persians, who believed in Zoroastrianism and relied on their holy book, to merit inclusion in the term Ahl al-Kitāb.
As a result of their belief in the books of divine revelation, the Ahl al-Kitāb enjoyed a favored status in Islam. A Muslim is permitted to intermarry with their women and to eat what they have slaughtered. On the other hand, the accusations of Muhammad as to falsifications of Scripture and distorted interpretations caused the creation of an extensive polemical literature and disputations which at times actually poisoned the relations between the adherents of the different religions.
M. Steinschneider, Polemische und apologetische Literatur in Arabischer Sprache (1877), 320–9; M. Perlmann, in: jqr, 37 (1940/41), 171–91; H. Lammens, L'Islam, croyances et institutions (1941), 28–31; H.Z. Hirschberg, Yisrael ba-Arav (1946), 114–5; E. Strauss, in: Sefer ha-Zikaron le-Veit ha-Midrash le-Rabbanim be-Vina (1946), 182–97; P.K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (1960), 143–4, 233. add. bibliography: G. Vajda, in: eis2, 1, 264–66 (incl. bibl.).
[Haim Z'ew Hirschberg]