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The People of the Book, ahl al-kitāb

A Comparative Theological Exploration

by Richard Kimball (Author)
Monographs VIII, 334 Pages

Summary

This book offers a comparative theological exploration of the challenges and opportunities presented by the Qur’ānic representation of Christianity as the People of the Book, ahl al-kitāb, in the Qur’ānic commentary tradition. The research is divided into three parts. The first part explores the Qur’ānic understanding of the People of the Book through traditional Islamic exegesis, known as tafsīr, of four Islamic scholars whose work spans more than a thousand years. Part two takes a closer look at the pre-Islamic period, the occasion of revelation of the Qur’ān as well as the Arabic speaking Christian response to Islam in the post-conquest period. Part Three explores the modern use of the term People of the Book by several scholars in the context of our increasingly interconnected and pluralist societies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part I A Critical Study of Qur’ānic Christians in Islamic Tafsīr
  • Chapter 1 Ahl al-Kitāb: The Qur’ānic People of the Book
  • Part II Challenging the Constructs: Expanding Tafsīr of the Qur’ānic People of the Book
  • Chapter 2 Beyond Al-jāhiliyya: The Social and Historical Context of the People of the Book in Pre-Islamic Arabia
  • Chapter 3 Resisting the Construct: Post-Conquest Christian Theological Responses to Islam
  • Part III Contemporary Refiguring of the People of the Book
  • Chapter 4 Contemporary Islamic Use of the Term “People of the Book”
  • Chapter 5 Contemporary Muslim-Christian Engagement with the People of the Book
  • Conclusions: Challenges and Opportunities
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Index of Qur’ānic verses
  • Series Index

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Richard Lawrence Kimball

The People of the Book,
ahl al-kitāb

A Comparative Theological Exploration

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PETER LANG

Oxford • Bern • Berlin • Bruxelles • New York • Wien

Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche National-

bibliografie; detailed bibliographic data is available on the Internet at
http://dnb.d-nb.de.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Control Number:

Names: Kimball, Richard Lawrence (kimballr@tcd.ie), 1962- author.

Title: The people of the book, ahl al-kitab : a comparative theological exploration /
Richard Lawrence Kimball.

Description: New York ; Bern : Peter Lang, 2019. | Series: Studies in theology,
society and culture ; v. 14 | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2018024742 | ISBN 9781788742689 (alk. paper)

Subjects: LCSH: Islam--Relations--Christianity. | Islam--Relations--Judaism.
| Christianity and other religions--Islam. | Judaism--Relations--Islam. |
Islam--Doctrines.

Classification: LCC BP171 .K585 2018 | DDC 297.2/83--dc23 LC record available at
https://lccn.loc.gov/2018024742

Cover image: ‘New Jerusalem’ by Marija Kovać.

© Peter Lang AG

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This publication has been peer reviewed.

About the author

Dr. Richard Lawrence Kimball is a founding member of the Galway Interfaith Alliance. His interest in Muslim Christian relations began while serving as a U. S. Peace Corps volunteer in Gabes, Tunisia in the 1980s. Here he came into contact with the Christian community of southern Tunisia and in particularly Père Dominique Tommy-Martin of the White Fathers of Africa who has inspired Richard. Père Dominique taught Richard, as well as many others throughout his more than 60 years of ministry, that it is indeed possible to be Christian and to love and respect Islam. He recently received his PhD in Philosophy from the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College, Dublin. Richard is currently working on an English translation of Al-Tabari’s Jāmiʿ al-bayān ʿan taʾwīl āy al-Qurʾān with Dr. Ali Selim.

About the book

This book offers a comparative theological exploration of the challenges and opportunities presented by the Qur’ānic representation of Christianity as the People of the Book, ahl al-kitāb, in the Qur’ānic commentary tradition. The research is divided into three parts. The first part explores the Qur’ānic understanding of the People of the Book through traditional Islamic exegesis, known as tafsīr, of four Islamic scholars whose work spans more than a thousand years. Part two takes a closer look at the pre-Islamic period, the occasion of revelation of the Qur’ān as well as the Arabic speaking Christian response to Islam in the post-conquest period. Part Three explores the modern use of the term People of the Book by several scholars in the context of our increasingly interconnected and pluralist societies.

This eBook can be cited

This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank God for the courage and strength to complete this research. May God be pleased with the results and allow it to help provide a bridge between religious divisions and misunderstandings towards a more just and peaceful world.

Many people helped and encouraged me to persevere over the course of this project. First and foremost, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Prof. Dr Norbert Hintersteiner who supervised my PhD research. Over the course of his supervision he introduced me to some of the most respected minds in the field of Muslim-Christian relations. I am especially grateful to have made the acquaintance of Sidney H. Griffith, Shawqi N. Talia, David Thomas, Ataullah Siddiqui and Fadi Daou. I would especially like to thank Sidney H. Griffith for his tutorage with the translation of a text by the tenth-century Bishop of Gaza, Sulaymān ibn Hasan al-Ghazzī, and Shawqi Talia for showing me just how small the world really is. I would like to thank Dr Nayla Tabbara for providing constructive insights that helped shape the final outcome of this book.

The Religious Society of Friends has been a great source of support to me throughout the course of this exploration. On a number of occasions, the Robert and Kezia Stanley Chapman Trust provided timely financial support for which I am grateful. My friends in the Galway Preparative Meeting afforded me a nurturing environment and the opportunity to share snippets of my research. I would like to especially thank Joe Fenwick and Rachel Cave for proofreading the many drafts.

I would like to thank my wife Anne, sons, Liam and Tomás, as well as my mother Susan and brother David. Their patience, sacrifice and encouragement have been a constant source of inspiration to me.

I would also like to thank my friends for their moral support and encouragement. In particular I would like to thank my dearest sister, Mai Abu Marasa, my colleagues Marija Kovač and Vicki Crowley and brothers Tareq Natsheh, Ali Selim, Mohamed Altawil, Eugene Duffy, Billy←vii | viii→ Hamilton, Khalid Sallabi and Sami Abo Akle. In the same spirit, I would like to thank Marie Salaün for her assistance with the French-language material, Sumia Sallabi and Abdul Haseeb for their support with Arabic material, as well as Greg Sheaf and Eoghan Mac Cormaic for their support in laying out this research.

Enfin, je voudrais revenir à la source de mon inspiration pour ce project. Je tiens à remercier la communauté chrétienne de la Tunisie de sud, et plus particulièrement Père Dominique Tommy-Martin, pour avoir démontré pendant mon travail avec le Peace Corps qu’il est possible d’être chrétien et d’aimer et de respecter l’islam. Finally, I would like to return to the source of my inspiration for this project. I would like to thank the Christian community of southern Tunisia, and in particular Fr Dominique Tommy-Martin for having demonstrated during my work with the Peace Corps that it is possible to be a Christian and to love and respect Islam.

I would also like to thank the staff at Peter Lang for the opportunity to present my research and for all their encouragement and patience.←viii | 1→

Introduction

In today’s post-modern, interdependent world where Muslims and Christians are increasingly living and working side-by-side there is a greater need to understand the faith of the religious other better. This is necessary so that Muslims and Christians can appreciate the commitment each makes to serve God in a manner in which their conscience dictates, without diminution of their own faith and its role in God’s universal design. Therefore, it is necessary for Christians and Muslims to take sincere steps towards each other with a view of serving God by serving humanity, not as adversaries with conflicting truth claims, but as fellow believers, united in faith, seeking answers to the theological questions that divide us, leaving to God those differences we cannot reconcile. Through this interaction one might hope that each may learn from and be transformed by the experience and knowledge of the other. Through this research, and as a Christian, this author hopes to embark upon such an exploration.

The questions posed in this research are questions that many others more capable than this author have considered before. Yet, the theological differences that divide Islam and Christianity remain unresolved. There appears to be a need to investigate the foundations of dialogue between Muslims and Christians based on a re-examination of the origins of their relationship and following through the formative centuries, when Christians were a sizeable proportion of the population in the Middle East. It is this author’s opinion that by returning to the beginning we may find valuable lessons for the present. To this end this book is divided into three parts.

Part I examines the representation of Christians and Christianity in light of their membership in the Qur’ānic collective ahl al-kitāb [the People of the Book]. Examining the Islamic concept of ahl al-kitāb through Qur’ānic tafsīr [traditional commentary], unveils many profound insights regarding how Islam views Christians and Christianity. It is a frequently overlooked fact that the Qur’ān uniquely discusses the strengths and weaknesses of several religions, offering Muslims an authoritative←1 | 2→ synopsis of the religious other. The Qur’ān discusses Christians and Christianity by a number of appellations.1 Sometimes the religion and virtues of Christians are held in esteem, as people nearest in faith, while on other occasions the Qur’ān portrays Christians as following false doctrines, or as people not worthy of friendship. Consequently, what the Qur’ān has to say can appear quite contradictory and is therefore in need of greater exploration in order to avoid facile interpretations and needless misunderstandings.

Through the Qur’ānic commentary tradition it is possible to appreciate the individual merit of any particular verse and contemplate the verse’s more universal applications. This research examines the commentary of four renown Islamic scholars whose work spans more than a thousand years. These scholars are Mujahid ibn Jabr (c. 722), author of the oldest complete tafsīr; Muhammad ibn Jarir Al-Tabari (d. 923), one of the most respected scholars in Islam; Ismail Ibn Kathir (d. 1373), whose easily accessible commentary is cited by scholars and laymen alike, and Muhammad Rashid Rida (d. 1935) whose tafsīr with its political overtones inspires many modern Salafi movements.

Their commentaries demonstrate that what the Qur’ān has to say about Christians and Christianity is highly contextual regarding the salvific merits of Christianity, what it means to be a believer, and the opposite, kāfir [an unbeliever]. The research examines the four key verse groups. Sūrat al-baqarah (2):62 names the different religious communities of the People of the Book that the Qur’ān accepts as following divinely revealed texts. Sūrat an-Nisā (4):171 warns Christians not to go to excess in their religion, especially in relation to the position of Jesus. Sūrat al-mā’idah (5):48 encourages Christians and Muslims to strive in good works with people of other faiths. The final verses examined are sūrat al- mā’idah (5):82–3.←2 | 3→ These verses encourage Muslims to expect the best from Christians in spite of theological and periodic political differences.

The commentary tradition offers profound insights, but there are also serious limitations. It is this author’s opinion that understanding Christians and Christianity through the traditional commentary alone is insufficient for comparative theological purposes.2 Since the traditional commentary does not adequately describe the nuanced Christian self-understanding, the study requires expansion into the nascent socio-cultural, historical and interreligious terrains. This expansion is necessary in order to more comprehensively elaborate the concept of the People of the Book and recognize the possible challenges and opportunities it contains for contemporary Muslim-Christian currents of encounter.

The traditional commentary suggests a theoretical construct of the character of Christians and their beliefs that is authoritative for Muslims, and for good reason. The theoretical construct is based on different historical encounters with Christians throughout the revelation of the Qur’ān. The theoretical construct does not represent the particular beliefs of any one denomination of Christianity, but rather acts as a general description of all Christians.3 Subsequently, a Christian reader from a particular denomination, then and now, could easily take issue with this theoretical construct as unrepresentative of “their” Christian beliefs. This research therefore seeks to understand how tafsīr may be employed to gain a greater understanding of how Islam views Christians and Christianity and the reasons why and when the Qur’ān takes a particular view. In this way a Christian who wishes to engage meaningfully with Muslims may better understand Islam and engage in more fruitful dialogue.

Through the lens of tafsīr problems emerge concerning the social-cultural character of pre-Islamic society and the self-understanding of Christian creedal formulations that require further investigation. This period of time is frequently referred to as al-jāhiliyya, or the Time of←3 | 4→ Ignorance. Use of this term creates a colourful generalization, a historical construct, that unfortunately neglects some very important details concerning the communities encountered by Muhammad. Although the tafsīr literature provides some background information regarding the asbāb an-nuzūl [occasions of revelation], of the verses of the Qur’ān, the social-cultural and historical context of the revelation of the Qur’ān is not an area that is well understood. Many important aspects of Arabian society at the dawn of Islam that might have been familiar to the companions of the prophet and their followers are now long forgotten.

Part II of this book examines further areas identified in the tafsīr literature as requiring closer examination. The research focus is on the social-cultural and historical character of pre-Islamic Arabia. How the various communities described as the People of the Book arrived in Arabia and spread from there is of seminal importance. The research explores the different Christian and Jewish communities from Arabia, as well as the neighbouring peoples of Abyssinia and Yemen with which Muhammad came into contact. The research examines possible historical, religious and social baggage that might have influenced these communities’ relationship with one another and how Islam was initially received. The research contends that this period is where the Qur’ān needs to be understood, before postulating interpretations into future contexts. Most importantly, a greater understanding of the period of al-jāhiliyya and the context of the revelation of the Qur’ān will contribute to the ability of scholars to engage in authoritative development of the traditional commentary.4

The next area of inquiry concerns the spread of Islam beyond the Arabian Peninsula following the death of Muhammad in 632 CE. By now many in the ranks of the Army of Islam had never met Muhammad. These Muslims relied on the developing commentary tradition for their understanding of Qur’ān, while applying its teachings in completely new contexts. Here, in the eastern Mediterranean region, or Levant, Islam came into contact with new audiences unconnected with the occasions of revelation in both culture and language. These new communities of the People of←4 | 5→ the Book also questioned the Qur’ānic representation of their faith. This research examines the effects of the Islamic conquest on the centuries-long historical conflicts taking place between the Byzantine and Persian Empires. This conflict often aggravated the sectarian tensions between Jews and Christians, as well as differing Christian communities emerging into their various creedal formulations. While the conquest is often depicted as a negative event, there is a case for suggesting that the results are actually more nuanced, especially as evidenced by the capture of Jerusalem?5

The research further queries how Christians living in the region began to formulate their liturgical and theological response to the accusations of excess discussed in tafsīr literature, as Arabic becomes the common language and Islam the dominant culture. The research examines the many ways Christians writing in Arabic use Islamic idiom, including use of asmā allāh al-husnā [the Beautiful Names of God], as an apologetic tool of kalām [the interfaith dialogue] of the time.

Coincidently, but with surprising significance, the Islamization of the Levant takes place as scholars from both Jewish and Christian backgrounds engage in the translation of Greek literature, including Aristotelian philosophy, into their respective languages thus inspiring the great Graeco-Arabic translation movement.6 This research reflects on the effect this translation movement may have had on levels of co-operation across the Islamic world and on the quality of dialogue. The scholars examined here include Theodore Abū Qurrah (c. 820 CE), the first Christian scholar writing in Arabic known by name and one-time Bishop of Harrān; Sulaymān ibn Hasan al-Ghazzī (c. 940 CE), a poet and former Bishop of Gaza, who wrote during a difficult period of political upheaval and persecution; and Paul of Antioch (c. 1200 CE), the Bishop of Antioch, who is remembered for composing a particularly contentious response to Islam. The research inquires if there is any evidence to suggest that Christians are responsive to Islamic criticisms, or adopt the use of tafsīr, in defence of their own tenets←5 | 6→ of faith against Muslim interlocutors and in order to bolster the faith of their own community. In addition, the research asks what regard is given by Christian scholars to the Qur’ān and the prophethood of Muhammad.

Biographical notes

Richard Kimball (Author)

Dr. Richard Lawrence Kimball is a founding member of the Galway Interfaith Alliance. His interest in Muslim Christian relations began while serving as a U. S. Peace Corps volunteer in Gabes, Tunisia in the 1980s. Here he came into contact with the Christian community of southern Tunisia and in particularly Père Dominique Tommy-Martin of the White Fathers of Africa who has inspired Richard. Père Dominique taught Richard, as well as many others throughout his more than 60 years of ministry, that it is indeed possible to be Christian and to love and respect Islam. He recently received his PhD in Philosophy from the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College, Dublin. Richard is currently working on an English translation of Al-Tabari’s Jāmiʿ al-bayān ʿan taʾwīl āy al-Qurʾān with Dr. Ali Selim.

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