Avoiding Generalization in the Perception of Different Identities: The Example of “People of the Book” (2)

0 89

Say, ˹O Prophet,˺ “O People of the Book! Let us come to common terms: that we will worship none but Allah, associate none with Him, nor take one another as lords instead of Allah.” But if they turn away, then say, “Bear witness that we have submitted ˹to Allah alone˺.”(3:64)

People of the Book Islam

During the period when the Qur’an was revealed and the ethics, laws, and civilization of Islam took shape, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) interacted with various identities, including Jews and Christians. The Qur’an sometimes addresses these two identities separately and at other times collectively under the overarching identity of “People of the Book” (Ahl al-Kitab). Occasionally, the Qur’an also refers to them with their national identity as “Banu Isra’il” and provides explanations in that context. The Qur’an offers insights into their attitudes towards the message of the Qur’an and the invitation of the Prophet, as well as their treatment of Muslims, their actions throughout history, their current state and actions, and their explicit or implicit objectives. This information serves to inform and caution both Muslims and them about the interactions between Muslims and them.

However, in doing so, it avoids generalizations and uses expressions such as “a group of them,” “a faction,” “some of them,” “very few,” or “many of them,” specifically encompassing the actors or events. It neither attributes all goodness to them nor all evil. In this way, it introduces them while establishing a balance in the perception of the People of the Book among the hearts and minds of the believers.

This approach prevents Muslims from attributing any mistake, evil, oppression, or injustice to all the People of the Book and seeing them as enemies. It keeps channels of dialogue open for legal dealings, human relationships, inviting to Islam, and jointly addressing common problems.

Not Everyone in the History of the People of the Book Is Bad

The Qur’an narrates the oppression and humiliation suffered by the Children of Israel under the tyranny of Pharaoh, where male children were killed, and females were subjected to abuse. It speaks of the blessings and favors of the Almighty upon them, such as their deliverance from slavery and the parting of the sea under the guidance of Prophet Moses, as well as the revelation of the Torah. In contrast, it informs about their disregard for the warnings of Prophet Aaron, their mistreatment of him, their abandonment of monotheism in favor of idolatry, and the introduction of injustice into their faith.1

Right at this point, one might think that all of them fell into the same error, and committed the same betrayal. To dispel such generalizations, the Qur’an states, “Yes, there is a group among Moses’ people who guide with the truth and administer justice with it among the people.”2

It asserts that not all of Moses’ people fell into polytheism, and were unjust or oppressive; rather, they were divided into different groups.

Then the Qur’an draws attention to the blessings bestowed upon the Children of Israel in later periods: God divides them into twelve tribes, grants each of them separate sources of water, and supports them with clouds for shade and pure provisions from the heavens. Despite this, they rebel.

Consequently, God humbly requests them to enter Jerusalem, settle there, benefit from its produce, and seek forgiveness for their past deeds. He assures them that if they comply, their sins will be forgiven, and those who pursue goodness and beauty will be additionally rewarded. However, among them, the oppressors distort the Divine decree and make oppression a custom. A group of them settled by the seashore also violates the ruling of the Sabbath day.3

At this point, the Qur’an declares the existence of a community among them, emphasizing that this community engages with people, advising them on truth and righteousness, and encouraging them to stay away from falsehood and evil.

The Qur’an prevents us from making generalizations. However, the oppressors and rebels mentioned earlier confront this community, questioning why they persist in offering advice to those whom God will destroy or send a severe punishment. They try to hinder them from fulfilling their duty of enjoining good and forbidding evil by saying, “Why do you advise those whom God is going to destroy or punish with a severe punishment?”4

In response, the righteous individuals say, “To provide an excuse before your Lord and perhaps they may become righteous and fear God”5 – expressing their hope that by giving advice, they might prevent these individuals from transgressing against God.

The Qur’an explains the outcome as follows: “When they ignored the advice given to them and cast it aside, We saved those who tried to prevent evil among them and subjected the transgressors to severe punishment due to their wickedness. Thus, when they persisted in disobedience and violating prohibitions, We commanded, ‘Be apes, despised and rejected!’“6

“We scattered them into different groups across the world. Among them were both good and bad individuals. We tested them with blessings and adversities, hoping that they might turn away from evil.”7

In another verse, the Qur’an even states, “We gave tidings to him [Abraham] of a forbearing son [Isaac] and foretold him as a prophet. We blessed him and Isaac. Among their descendants, some were righteous, but others clearly wronged their souls!”8

This emphasizes that making a blanket generalization about the Children of Israel is not accurate and provides a clearer and more explicit statement on this matter.

They Have Not All Shown the Same Attitude Before the Qur’an

The statements, attitudes, and behaviors of the People of the Book in response to the prophethood of the Qur’an and the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) are frequently mentioned, criticized, and warned against in the verses. However, even in these verses, generalizations are avoided. For instance, in Surah Al-Isra, it is stated, “Say, ‘Believe in it [the Qur’an] or do not believe. Indeed, those who were given knowledge before it, when it is recited to them, fall upon their faces in prostration, 9 saying, ‘Exalted is our Lord! Indeed, the promise of our

Lord has been fulfilled. Again, they fall into prostration, weeping. Thus, the Qur’an increases their

reverence.”10 The posture of those displaying a positive attitude is clearly articulated, thus

providing believers with a balanced perspective.

While Defending the Truth, One Should Avoid Making Generalizations in the Approach

After the migration to Medina, some individuals from the People of the Book begin to show enmity towards Islam. Particularly, the envy and animosity harbored by some of their leaders, coupled with the hateful and violent language they employ, eventually lead to various difficulties. In response, the Qur’an advises Muslims on how to engage with the People of the Book in the context of this struggle: “Except for those who have wronged among them, do not fight them except in a good way. And say, ‘We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you. Our God and your God is one, and we are wholeheartedly submitted to Him.’”11

Nevertheless, if some of them engage in unpleasant words, attitudes, and behaviors, the Qur’an advises Muslims to respond with forgiveness and tolerance: “Many of the People of the Book wish to turn you back to disbelief after you have believed, out of envy from themselves [even] after the truth has become clear to them. So pardon and overlook until God delivers His command. Indeed, God is over all things competent.”12

In another verse, patience and piety are pointed out: “You will surely hear much abuse from those to whom the Scripture like Christians and Jews was given before you, and from the idolaters. But if you persevere patiently and guard against evil, that indeed is a matter of great resolution.”13

Not All of Them Were Dissatisfied with the Judgment Given by the Messenger of God

The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) signed the Constitution of Medina with the Jews, who constitute forty percent of the population of Medina, establishing the constitutional basis for living together in peace and security. They act according to their laws in matters concerning them. However, despite this, they bring some cases to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) with different intentions.

The Qur’an explains their reaction to the response received from the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) as follows: “Look at those to whom a portion of the Scripture was given. They are invited to settle their differences in accordance with God’s Book, but a group of them turns away, and they are averse.”14As evident, the Qur’an does not generalize in this matter either, stating that “a group of them” turns away, indicating that not all but some of them were dissatisfied with the judgment given.

Not All of the People of the Book Attempt To Turn Muslims Away From Their Faith

While the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) endeavors to convey the universal message of the Qur’an to all of humanity, his adversaries do not remain idle; they strive to hinder him and make efforts to turn those who believe in him away from the Islamic faith. Among those who engage in such actions are individuals from the People of the Book. The Qur’an informs about their ill intentions and activities, stating: “A faction of the People of the Book wish to lead you astray, but they only lead themselves astray, and they do not perceive it.”15

“A group among the People of the Book said to one another, ‘Believe in what was revealed to the Muslims at the beginning of the day, and reject it at the end of the day. Perhaps they will abandon their faith in confusion. And do not trust anyone except those who follow your religion.’16 Later, the Qur’an warns the believers, ‘O you who have believed, if you obey a group from among those who were given the Scripture, they would turn you back, after your belief, to unbelievers.’”17

As seen, the Qur’an informs about a destructive activity conducted by some individuals among the People of the Book against the Muslims, using the expression “a group among the People of the Book.” This phrasing is careful not to involve all the People of the Book.

Thus, it imparts the lesson to Muslims not to attribute the wrongdoing of some to all of them. Additionally, using the term People of the Book, which includes both Jews and Christians, indicates that the same reality applies to them, despite the specific mention of some Jews involved in these activities.

Not All of the People of the Book Are Untrustworthy

Muslims were living alongside the People of the Book in Medina. Interacting with them, and engaging in social, economic, and human relationships was a natural occurrence. Could Muslims trust them? The Qur’an guides the believers on this matter, stating: “Among the People of the Book is he who, if you entrust him with a great amount [of wealth], he will return it to you. And among them is he who, if you entrust him with a single silver coin, he will not return it to you unless you keep standing over him [demanding it].”18

The Qur’an does not generalize by stating that all “People of the Book are trustworthy or untrustworthy.” In fact, immediately following, it clarifies: “The truth is not like that. Whoever fulfills his commitment and fears God – then indeed, God loves those who fear Him. Indeed, those who exchange the covenant of God and their [own] oaths for a small price will have no share in the Hereafter, and God will not speak to them or look at them on the Day of Resurrection, nor will He purify them; and they will have a painful punishment.” 19This emphasizes that those who are trustworthy will be rewarded, while those who are not will face severe consequences.

In another verse stating concerning Jews “We have cursed those among the Children of Israel who rejected faith, and We cursed them and made their hearts hard. They distort the words from their [proper] usages and have forgotten a portion of that of which they were reminded. And you will still observe deceit among them, except a few of them. But pardon them and overlook [their misdeeds]. Indeed, God loves the doers of good.” 20

Here also, it does not generalize and categorize all Jews in the same way. What is even more interesting is that the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) is advised to forgive, overlook, and even show kindness in the face of the wrongdoings of their evildoers.

So how reliable is the information they provide regarding their own sources? The Qur’an states, uses a similar style and does not make generalizations: “And some of the People of the Book bend their mouths and tongues (change the pronunciation of some words) while reading, so that you may think that they are from the book, when in fact they are not from the book. They say something and assert, “This is from God,” but it is not from God. They knowingly attribute lies to God.”21

Not All People of the Book Bear Enmity Towards Muslims, But They Also Do Not Feel Love

The Qur’an emphasizes the inaccuracy of generalizations, particularly regarding feelings of love and enmity. It states: “You will find the most intense of the people in animosity toward the believers [to be] the Jews and those who associate others with God. And you will find the nearest of them in affection to the believers those who say, ‘We are Christians.’ That is because among them are priests and monks, and they are not arrogant. When they hear what has been revealed to the Messenger, you see their eyes overflowing with tears because of what they have recognized of the truth. They say,”All we desire and hope for is that our Lord includes us among the righteous people, so why should we not believe in God and in the truth that has come to us?”22

This verse, when considered in isolation, might lead to the assumption that all Jews and polytheists are enemies of Muslims. However, when examined in conjunction with the other mentioned verses and taking historical experiences into account, it becomes evident that not all of them harbor enmity. The same principle applies to Christians who love Muslims.

Likewise, the mentioned verses and historical realities dispel the notion of a generalization that all Christians have affection for Muslims. Therefore, making statements like “All Jews and polytheists are our enemies!” or “All Christians love us!” would be inaccurate.

In my opinion, the crucial point to draw our attention in this verse is not merely the issue of enmity from some Jews and polytheists, as the hostility of some of them is explicit and manifested. Rather, the noteworthy aspect in the verse is the matter of some Christians, particularly influenced by

religious leaders, expressing affection towards Muslims. The subsequent part of the verse indicates that their positive stance will not go unrewarded: “In return for their declaration, God rewarded them with gardens beneath which rivers flow, and there they will abide eternally. Such is the reward for those who do good.”23

Not All People of the Book Are the Same

The Qur’an, in some verses, explicitly and clearly states that not all People of the Book are the same. Moreover, it emphasizes this while encompassing the Jewish and Christian identities under the umbrella term ‘People of the Book: “Not all People of the Book are the same. Among them, there is a righteous community that engages in reciting God’s verses and prostrates during the night. They bear witness to God and the Hereafter, spread goodness, prevent evil, and strive in a race to perform virtuous deeds. Indeed, they are among the righteous. Every act of goodness and charity they perform will not go unrewarded, and God knows well those who guard against sins.”24

These two verses clearly express that not all the People of the Book are alike: “Among the People of the Book, there are those who believe in God and in what has been revealed to you, as well as in what has been revealed to them. They humble themselves before God and do not sell God’s revelations for a small price. These are the ones whose reward is with their Lord. Surely, God is swift in settling the accounts.”25

“If they had observed the Torah, the Gospel, and what was revealed to them from their Lord, they would have consumed provisions from above them and from beneath their feet. Among them is a moderate community, but many of them are evildoers.”26

Conclusion

Many truths from the Qur’an and Sunnah have fallen victim to negative events in history, wars, and hostilities passed down from generation to generation. Template sentences like “They are enemies!” “They are evil!” or “All of them are objectionable individuals! Never befriend them!” have encountered the habit of generalization, breaking down the bridges of dialogue and opening the door to segments nourished by hostility.

These generalizations have become the subject of historical, literary, and religious works, influencing the worlds of art and cinema as well. In this way, feelings of enmity have obscured the reality that there are good, moderate, and reasonable individuals among different identities.

This has hindered the establishment of humane relationships with these individuals and the collaboration around shared values to collectively combat evils threatening humanity. Moreover, harboring animosity and hatred towards others has impeded the practice of religious and moral values.

If Muslims, looking at themselves, cannot break free from the grip of these generalizations by taking the Qur’an as an example, they won’t be able to adopt a correct stance in the face of internal and external developments. They won’t find channels and ways to present the universal Islamic religion to different identities. They won’t be able to cleanse the dirt attempted to be smeared on the bright face of Islam. Moreover, they won’t be able to sit at the same table with others to contribute to the solution of humanity’s problems. They waste their energies in pursuit of unnecessary arguments caused by constant generalizations. As seen, the Qur’an, while describing the People of the Book, avoids making generalizations.

By distinguishing and even commending the good among them, it encourages them to think about Islam, act justly, and urges Muslims to establish contact with these righteous and moderate groups, teaching them the importance of working together.

Note: The topic of why the Qur’an uses harsh expressions regarding some individuals among the People of the Book and how the Prophet’s words and actions shaped his approach to the People of the Book will be discussed separately.

Author: Yücel Men

Footnotes

1.See: Al-A’raf (7:137–154)

2.Al-A’raf (7:159)

3.See: Al-A’raf (7:160–163)

4.Al-A’raf (7:164)

5.Al-A’raf (7:164)

6.Al-A’raf (7:165, 166)

7.Al-A’raf (7:168)

8.Sad (38:112, 113)

9.It is obligatory for the one reciting or listening to this verse to perform a prostration of recitation.

10.See: Al-Isra (17:107–109)

11.Al-Ankabut (29:46)

12.Al-Baqara (2:109)

13.Al-Imran (3:186)

14.Al-Imran (3:23)

15.Al-Imran (3:69)

16.Al-Imran (3:72)

17.Al-Imran (3:100)

18.Al-Imran (3:75)

19.Al-Imran (3:76, 77)

20.Al-Ma’idah (5:13)

21.Al-Imran (3:78)

22.Al-Ma’idah (5:82–84)

23.Al-Ma’idah (5:85)

24.Al-Imran (3:113–115)

25.Al-Imran (3:199)

26.Al-Ma’idah (5:66)

You might also like
Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.