History of Religion:
People of the Book
By Javed Ahmad
It is the Holy Qur'an that tells us about the 'people of the book'. But who are the 'people of the book'? Common English translations of the Qur'an suggest that they are the Jews and the Christians. But is it so?
Other than the Qur'an itself, the Qur'an names several books, namely, Jabur, Torah, and Injeel. In Islamic terminology, the people who have been given a book are called a Nabiee or a Prophet. But what this word 'book' mean?
'The book' does not necessarily mean a book, as we know today. Such as, a bundle or collection of some printed papers. Rather, here 'book' merely means 'revelation', delivery of wisdom, information, teachings, etc. How are books revealed?
In other words, revelations are the communications from the Devine. Theologically, it is the God who communicates with His fellow human beings through messengers or the prophets. Many different methods of revelations have been tried through different prophets. Let's analyze some of those methods.
Prophet Musa or Moses (peace be upon him): He was given the privilege to speak to God directly. God spoke to Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) on different occasion to give him instructions and to explain to him the strategies of his mission. He was also one of those few prophets who saw God in naked eyes.
Prophet Musa (peace be upon him), was given the revelation called 'Torah'. It was a set of rules of conduct for the people of his time, i.e., the Jewish people of the time. It is said that, the Torah was actually written on the stone tablets by God himself, which was later destroyed by the prophet himself. However, at a later time, the Jewish scholars managed to jot down some of the teachings of the prophet or the revelations from God in a book form. The most famous of all is what is now known as the 'Ten Commandments'.
Prophet Isa or Jesus (peace be upon him): His life began with miracles. Born out of a virgin woman called Mary, he spoke while he was a child in a cradle.
His mission was more of a healer and a teacher. He did not come to preach a new religion, rather, he came to rejuvenate the 'lost tribes of Israel'. His main job was to correct the errors of the Jewish religion and unite them all under One God.
God didn't communicate with him directly as was with Prophet Musa (peace be upon him). Instead, God sent Angel Gibraeel or Gabrael (peace be upon him) to communicate with him on His behalf. Angel Gibraeel used to tell him the things to come and have other general discussions with him, and in turns, the prophet used to relay the messages to his followers in his own words.
His disciples used to ask him questions and he used to answer them according to their level of understanding. And during the period of discussion, the literate followers, namely Barnabas and Matthew used to write them down. Thus the book "The Gospel of Jesus according to Barnabas" came into being. The book was actually co-authored by both Barnabas and Matthew. They took turns in taking notes while Prophet Isa (peace be upon him) spoke to them. The revelation brought to Prophet Isa (peace be upon him) by Angel Gibraeel (peace be upon him) was known as the 'Injeel'. Which, when explained by Prophet Isa (peace be upon him) to his followers, became the 'Gospel'.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): This time, the method of revelation was similar to that of Prophet Isa (peace be upon him), but with a new twist. Here too, we are told that Angel Gibraeel (peace be upon him) used to come to the prophet to help him 'memorize' the actual words of God. God didn't speak directly to the prophet in most occassion, instead, He used Angel Gibraeel as a medium of communication. The Prophet used to repeat after angel Gibraeel sometime alone, sometime in front of his followers. It was a process of memorization of the entire revelation. Which in turn, was also memorized by his followers. The literate followers also wrote down the revelations as they were revealed. And, at a later date, the prophet himself arranged the written documents creating the Qur'an in a written book form. But, the memorization kept on going. That never stopped, not even today.
Not only that. This time, this new revelation, the Qur'an was rehearsed every year to maintain its accuracy. In the year when the prophet died, the Qur'an was rehearsed twice.
Apart from the Qur'an, in Islam, we also find another collection of revelations called the 'Hadith'. Hadith is basically a collection of 'sayings of the prophet'. These volumes were collected and created immediately after the death of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). All the close followers got together to collect all the sayings and explanations of the prophet, and compile them in books after thorough verification. This collection of traditions of the prophet became the second major source of learning in Islam. Therefore, the Hadith can be compared with the Torah and Injeel.
Comparatively, Qur'an is unique. This book is exactly the same as it was originally revealed to mankind. And this has been possible due to repetitive memorization and constant crosschecking of its contents for accuracy.
For the past 1,400 hundred years, this book Qur'an has remained unchanged. One of the main reasons being the way the Qur’an has been composed. The Qur'an is like a book of poetry. It’s a collection of 114 chapters, some are large and some are small. But due to its poetic nature, it is easy to memorize.
The Qur'an was not revealed at one time, it was revealed gradually over the period of 23 years. In one occasion, the prophet was even taken up to the heaven to meet with God, where he also received some revelations. This event is commonly known as the 'Miraj' or the 'Journey'. Due to this journey, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) also had a chance to see and talk to God directly in the heaven. And on his way there, he also met all the previous prophets (peace be upon them all). It was during this time, God gave his followers the command to perform the daily 5 prayers. And the Muslims around the world mark and remember this occasion of meeting with God five times a day in their prayers.
The funny thing is, when Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was returning the new commandment of daily prayers, originally it was 50! It was Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) who advised Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to go back to God and ask him to reduce the number as he argued that it would be too much for his followers to carry out. So, he went back and requested God to reduce the number of daily prayers, and God reduced it to 25. On his way back, he met Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) again. And again, he advised him to go back and ask it to reduce it further. So he went, and got it lowered to 10. But Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) argued again, "Look, I know those people, they won't even do 10. Go back and ask for further reduction." Reluctantly, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) went back one more time and got it reduced to 5. Again Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) stood on his way arguing that even 5 is too much. But this time Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) felt ashamed to go back to God again, he said, "I believe my followers will observe this 5 daily prayers."
Thanks to Prophet Musa (peace be upon him), otherwise, the Muslims around the world would be compelled to offer prayers 50 times a day! And that would indeed be impossible. Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) was right, even the 5 daily prayers seems to be a lot at times. But the good news is, reduction of number of prayers did not reduce the benefits or rewards. A praying Muslims accumulates reward for an equivalent of 10 prayers for each prayer offered! In other words, the 5 prayers are multiplied with 10 to fulfill the original 50-prayer requirement.
From the above discussion we could now conclude that, not just the Jews and Christians, Muslims are also the 'people of the book'. For they have not only one, but two books - the Qur'an and Sunnah! Whatever Allah said in the Qur'an referring to the 'people of the book' also applies to Muslims as well.
"Both in this world and in the Hereafter, I am the nearest of all the people to Jesus, the son of Mary. The prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one." (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Hadith 652).