An excerpt from a speech delivered by His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th Imam of Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, in London in October 2003.
Ahlul-Kitab, ‘the people of the Book’, are two Arabic words Ahl and Kitab put together. Ahl by itself means relative, folk, family, kin, kinsfolk, wife, people, members, followers, adherents, etc.
Ahl with these meanings is mentioned thirty-one times in the Holy Qur’an, viz. Ahlul’l-Qura, ‘the people of the villages’; Ahlul’l Nar, ‘people of Fire (Hell)’; Ahlul’l Janah, ‘people of Garden (Paradise)’ etc. (Holy Qur’an, 7:97-98; 38:64).
Ahl comes from the root-word Ahala which means to get married or also from Ahil (pl. Mahul) which means inhabited or populated. Ahl (pl. Ahalin) is also used to denote relationship. When one says Ahli, it should be understood to be referring to his family.
Kitab, which is the other word used in the term Ahlul-Kitab, comes from the root word Kataba which means to write down. Kitab as used in this meaning are pieces of writing put together.
The word Kitab is used in the Holy Qur’an for the Divine Books revealed to various Prophets. The Books of revelation which have survived so far are the Book of the Jews which is called the Tawrat (Torah), the Book of the Christians which is known as the Indjil (Gospels or Bible) and the Book of the Muslims which is the Holy Qur’an.
Ahlul-Kitab is a term used in the Holy Book for Jews and Christians, as believers of a revealed religion, to distinguish them from the heathens (ummiyun) who lived during Prophet Muhammad’s time. The following verse in Surah al-Ma’idah explains clearly who the people of the scripture were, when it says: (…)
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