ahl kitab in the Qur’an

Doctors of the law

This article is from The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation.

ahl kitāb – doctors of the law

The Traditionalist regards ahl kitāb as the people of the book, which for him means Jews and the Christians.

The opinion I have come to after reviewing all instances of this category in the Qur’an is that while ahl kitāb does reference a particular subset of the aforementioned groups in part, when we are more specific about what we mean by the term we find that it identifies a range of humanity which is at once broader and also more shallow.

It is broader in the sense that it is not limited only to Jews or Nazarenes. It is more shallow in the sense that it certainly cannot mean all Jews or Nazarenes. Rather, ahl kitāb indicates an archetype which is instantly recognisable within any religious confession.

I will look first at what the Traditionalist makes of 4:153 where ahl kitāb is rendered by him The People of the Scripture.

The People of the Scripture ask you to bring down to them a book from the heaven. But they had asked of Moses [even] greater than that and said, “Show us Allah outright,” so the thunderbolt struck them for their wrongdoing. Then they took the calf [for worship] after clear evidences had come to them, and We pardoned that. And We gave Moses a clear authority. (4:153)
[Saheeh International]

The Traditionalist is not used to having his feet held to the fire, but while he may be satisfied with his vagaries, I am not. If The People of the Scripture is what is meant by ahl kitāb, and if by kitāb we mean Torah plus something else, then this is an incorrect statement since there was no scripture for ahl kitāb to be the people of at the time they asked Mūsā to show them God.

If you do not accept this point as conclusive, I hope we can agree that these same people – ahl kitāb – are shown at 4:153 to turn instantly to perform idol worship (surely of the sort practiced by the people of Firʿawn) as soon as Mūsā is gone; and that in order for ahl kitāb to perform idolatrous rites, they needed to know what those rites were.

Knowledge of religious rites – especially those performed in public – in any society is held and controlled by a subset of that society, namely the priestly class. As we have seen, a certain subset of the children of Isrā’īl did know, and did perform such rites, and according to 4:153 there are Qur’anic grounds for identifying the people who did so as ahl kitāb.

This, then, is the first plank of my argument that ahl kitāb denotes a priestly, religious class in a general sense, (although I accept that typically within the Qur’an it indicates the priestly class attached to monotheistic revelation).

Here is another example in the Traditionalist’s hand featuring ahl kitāb:

O People of the Scripture, why do you argue about Abraham while the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed until after him? Then will you not reason? (3:65)

This verse references a point of theology. The fact is that the common people of any religious community are unlikely to understand finer theological points let alone argue about them. It is the educated, priestly class which argues about such things.


O People of the Scripture, why do you mix [i.e., confuse] the truth with falsehood and conceal the truth while you know [it]? (3:71)

Whom does this best describe: the lay believer or the priestly class? Clearly, the latter. And having reviewed all verses in which ahl kitāb occurs, the thesis that it denotes the priestly, scholarly religious class fits exactly.

Nowhere does the expression refer to those who are ignorant of revelation – and we know that such a category exists among the recipients of previous revelations; rather the Qur’an chides ahl kitāb for having revelation and not following it, while at the same time acknowledging that there are righteous people among them (see: 3:75 and 3:113, for example).

On this basis I render ahl kitāb as doctors of the law throughout.

All instances in the text are footnoted.


2:105, 2:109, 3:64, 3:65, 3:69, 3:70, 3:71, 3:72, 3:75, 3:98, 3:99, 3:110, 3:113, 3:199, 4:123, 4:153, 4:159, 4:171, 5:15, 5:19, 5:59, 5:65, 5:68, 5:77, 29:46, 33:26, 57:29, 59:2, 59:11, 98:1, 98:6.

About the Author Sam Gerrans

Sam Gerrans is an English writer and speaker with professional backgrounds in media, strategic communications, and technologies. He is driven by commitment to ultimate meaning, and focused on authentic approaches to revelation and Realpolitik. He is founder of Quranite.com and author of The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation where his consistent, Qur'an-centric hermeneutical methodology is applied to the text of the Qur’an in its entirety. Read more...

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