How are the People of the Scripture regarded in Islam?
Talking about the People of the Scripture [the Jews and the Christians], a Muslim may grieve and feel embarrassed for the injustice of his close People of the Scripture. One may be astonished even at the grudge they harbor against Muḩammad (Allah's peace and blessings be upon him), his book and his message. Islam should never be met with such displeasure and its Prophet should never be met with such denial. Islam first presumed goodwill on the part of the People of the Scripture in hopes to find good with them and get their support in face of idolaters who disbelieve in Allah and the hereafter. Supposedly, if the pagans renounce monotheism and oppose its caller, it was hopeful that the Jews and the Christians would never do so! Allah expounds the expected reaction saying,
“They say, ‘You have not been sent.’ Say, ‘Allah is sufficient witness between me and you; all knowledge of the Scripture comes from Him.’’’ (Qur’ān, 13:43)
When Muslims were faced with polytheistic strong intransigence, they took pride in a group of the People of the Scripture supported them and shared with them the same belief. Allah says,
‘‘Say [O, Prophet], “We have caused Our Word to come to them so that they may be mindful. Those to whom We gave the Scripture before believe in it.’’ (Qur’ān, 28:51-52)
Some Jews and Christians may deal with Islam fanatically and express prejudice against the Prophet and his mission. Additionally, aroused by the spread of Islam, they may attack it. What will be the stand then? Allah says,
“[O Believers], argue only in the best way with the People of the Scripture, except with those of them who act unjustly. Say, ‘We believe in what was revealed to us and in what was revealed to you; our Allah and your Allah are one [and the same]; we are devoted to Him.” (Qur’ān, 29: 46)
However, the majority of the People of the Scripture, especially the Jews, refused to believe in the Prophet and competed with the disbelievers in stopping his guidance and putting obstacles in his way. They did so in order that no one of the people may listen to him. Reason and wisdom entailed leaving Islam to present itself to the people. It had no weapon other than persuasion:
“This is a reminder. Let whoever wishes take the way to his Lord.” (Qur’ān, 73:19)
Whoever wishes not to embrace Islam, he should not do harm to Muslims, neither should they.
Look at this Divine guidance:
“So [people] respond to your Lord before there comes a Day that cannot, against Allah's will, be averted; you will have no refuge on that Day, and no possibility of denying [your sins]. If they still turn away [remember that]. We have not sent you [O, Prophet] to be their guardian: your only duty is to deliver the message.” (Qur’ān, 42: 47-48)
Let those who hate Islam reject it; it does not force anyone to embrace it. The Prophet's main task is to deliver the message. Many of the People of the Scripture, however, side with pagans against Islam, keep objecting to it by all possible means and proving themselves to be an obstacle to its path. Whenever Allah guides the heart of somebody to Islam, they heartlessly wish him to apostatize,
“Many of the People of the Scripture wish they could turn you back to disbelief after you have believed, out of their selfish envy, even after the truth has become clear to them. So, forgive and forbear (them) until Allah gives His command” (Qur’ān, 2:109)
Strangely enough, after fifteen centuries from the rise of this final message, the People of the Scripture still follow the same way with no reason or wisdom. Material philosophies pose a threat to their existence and fierce atheism creeps into their civilization. Instead of cooperating with Muslims to resist this darkness, they ignore everything but the necessity of eliminating Islam and annihilating the Muslims. I have heard one of them say, “It is hard to believe in a man fond of women; he married nine women!” In reply, why was it easy to believe in the prophecy of a man who committed adultery with his daughters while he was drunk?! Why was it easy to believe in a man who deceptively raped or committed adultery with one of his relatives?!” Is it easy to believe in the prophecy of a man who admired a wife of one of his sincere fighting soldiers? He summoned here to commit adultery and put a plan to kill her husband to have her!” The People of the Scripture do not feel ashamed to attribute such evils to prophets and they consider them noble prophets. When it comes to Muḩammad, they do not see him worthy of prophecy although he married some widows and they took solemn promises to forsake life and its adornment. He even asked his wives to spend most of their nights in prayers with him and they promised him to work for the Hereafter. Furthermore, he did not marry anyone of them for social reasons.
He also offered them an option for separation if they followed only the desires of this life! After this pure life, they do not see Muḩammad worthy of prophecy. Fornication in their blind logic deserves prophecy! Now, there are some gangs of missionaries, orientalists, and colonists fighting against the Muslim people and committing evil acts against Muḩammad's Message. They even try to damage his reputation and forge false rumors about him.
Other People of the Scripture have great knowledge, honesty, and desire to please Allah only. They believe in Moses, Jesus, and Muḩammad. They refuse to act offensively or intimidate the righteous servants of Allah. The Qur’ān refers to those good group of Jews and Christians, noting their good deeds and justice,
“Some of the People of the Scripture believe in Allah, in what has been sent down to you and in what was sent down to them: humbling themselves before Allah, they would never sell Allah's revelation for a small price. These people will have their rewards with their Lord.” (Qur’ān, 3:199)
Allah also says,
“But those of them who are well grounded in knowledge and have faith do believe in what has been revealed to you [Muḩammad], and in what was revealed before you. Those who perform the prayers, pay the prescribed alms, and believe in Allah and the Last Day, We shall give them a great reward.” (Qur’ān, 4:162)
They are noted for their search for certainty, love of right, and contempt of biased attitudes, no matter how dominant they may be. Meeting with Dr. Maurice Bucaille at the Forum of Islamic Thought in Algeria, I heard him speak with much admiration and respect about the Qur’ān's infallible approach to the scientific and historical facts, a case which differs from other sacred books. One of the people asked him, “Why did not you declare your conversion to Islam?” He replied, “I rarely go out of my home without wuᶁūˀ [ablution].” Some fair orientalists also embraced Islam; they are not blind followers of traditions. We note that if ten thousand Christians convert to Islam, only one Jew will do so. That is why Christians have softer hearts,
“for there are among them people devoted to learning and ascetics. These people are not given to arrogance. When they listen to what has been sent down to the Messenger, you will see their eyes overflowing with tears due to what they recognize of the Truth [in it]. They say, ‘Our Lord, we believe, so count us amongst the witnesses. Why should we not believe in Allah and in the Truth that has come down to us, when we long for our Lord to include us in the company of the righteous?” (Qur’ān, 4: 82-84)
Other believers took a step forward and said, “Muḩammad is truly a Messenger, but to the Arabs alone!” This came after reading the Prophet's biography, especially his deep love and work for the sake of Allah and his strength in mission and worship. This group appeared in the past times as well; they hold that a liar cannot do these acts. However, unfortunately, they concluded that He is the Messenger of the Arabs only! Although, we welcome every step of peace from our adversaries, we say that this position is insufficient and unpersuasive. Muḩammad carries the cure from heaven to the entire humanity. Denying the universality of the Islamic message is closer to denying it. In fact, looking into the Qur’ān, we find that it speaks strongly about Allah's Oneness and Names. Here, Muḩammad calls people persistently to come back to their Lord,
“[So, say to them, O, Prophet], ‘Quickly, turn to Allah. I am sent by Him to give you clear warning. Do not set up any other Allah alongside Him. I am sent by Him to give you clear warning!” (Qur’ān, 51: 50-51)
Thus, Muḩammad is only a clear warner. It is not reasonable to refuse this wonderful sincerity.
Some People of the Scripture blindly follow what they have inherited. They know nothing about Muḩammad or know little from the clergy or arrogant enemies. It is the duty of Muslim scholars to show the truth to those people. Their reckoning for the deeds on the Day of Judgment is left to Allah. However, I see that they are legally responsible for their acts. Simply, they have minds and abilities to criticize bad legacies and take a stand on them. Yet, I do not think that this position applies to the People of the Scripture who live among Muslims or those recruited by global colonization to commit massacres and tragedies and betray neighborhood! Islam has established laws for the treatment of the People of the Scripture and imposed kindness to them as will come in the next chapter on past divine messages.
We have a prophetic statement whose quick meaning conduces to a misjudgment that jurists never approved. It is not permissible to accept or reject it entirely, but its true meaning must be checked according to the view of the well-established and outstanding scholars! This report is recorded by Al-Bukhari. It reads, “The Messenger of Allah said, ‘I have been ordered to fight people until they say, “Lā ˀilāha ˀilla Allāh.” (There is no god but Allah) When they say it, their blood and wealth are inviolable unless the law imposes otherwise, [in case of violations].” The source of error in understanding this tradition is the phrase “fight against people.” Some understood it to mean all human beings, but this is a mistake. The scholars unanimously agree that this does not refer to the People of the Scripture. Why? Simply, if the People of the Scripture fight against us in negligence of the logic of faith and what is lawful and unlawful, we are not to force them to accept Islam. Once we overcome them, they have the right to maintain their faith and we have to defend them against any attack in case they stop aggression. They are just required to contribute to the costs of wars. This fact is clear in Allah's saying,
“Fight those of the People of the Scripture who do not truly believe in Allah and the Last Day, who do not forbid what Allah and His Messenger have forbidden, who do not obey the rule of justice, until they pay the tax and agree to submit.” (Qur’ān, 9:29)
Unlike the words of the prophetic statement, the purpose of fight here is not for them to accept Islam.
Since the People of the Scripture are excluded from the above statement, does it imply to all pagans? The right response is “No”. There is another report stating that the Magi shall take the same ruling of the People of the Scripture: “Follow the same rule with them that you follow with the People of the Scripture.” The truth is that this report speaks of the Arab polytheists, who denied Muslims the right to live and did not respect their peace treaties or covenants. Therefore, they were given a period of four months to review their stand; if they insisted on eliminating Islam, they would be eliminated.
The Qur’ānic Surat ut-Tawbah (Chapter 9) explains in detail this issue:
“As for those who have honored the treaty you made with them and who have not supported anyone against you, fulfill your agreement with them to the end of their term. Allah loves those who are mindful of Him.” (Qur’ān, 9:4)
For those who have prepared themselves for war against Allah and His Messenger, they are to blame but themselves. One may ask why the word “people” in the prophetic statement is NOT general. In response, the definite article (al-) according to Arab linguists refers to specific categories. For example,
“Those whose faith only increased when an-nās (people) said, ‘Fear people because they have amassed a great army against you.” (Qur’ān, 3:173)
The word an-nās first refers to “the hypocrites,” but the second one signifies “the disbelievers.” “Al” here has two different connotations according to this Arabic linguistic rule. In another example, Allah says, “When you see people embracing Allah's faith in crowds” The word “people” here does not imply all people but the Arabs only! Some people misinterpreted this statement and mistakenly thought that the Prophet wages comprehensive wars and forces people to accept Islam. No single jurist ever supported this understanding. It is inconsistent with other extremely authentic narrations. Additionally, the history of Muslims, especially their fights against the imperial powers infamous for injustices and darkness, had no event to testify to that conclusion. Other people unconsciously rush to deny all authentic statements without scrutinizing their sanad (chain of transmission) and matn (text); and without taking into consideration the Arabic grammar and the context of narration. Besides, they present groundless claims based on their own misunderstanding of the Book of Allah. It is necessary to refute and end such claims.
 Muḩammad El-Ghazāli, “A Hundred Questions on Islam”, Al-Azhar Center for Translation (ACT), 2017, p. 19.