Hostility and the people of the book: a religious perspective Essay

Hostility and the People of the Book: A Religious Perspective

In the history of the world there has rarely been seen such a longstanding conflict between two peoples as the hostility expressed between the religions of the people of the book.  These groups, known contemporarily as the Christians and the Muslims, have been at war either philosophically or physically from nearly the formative moments of the religions well over two thousand years ago.  There certainly are nearly countless reasons and demonstrations of this feuding.  For the purpose of limited review this paper will concentrate on the foundations of the disagreement in an ideological sense and will then examine two examples of the continuation of this now open warfare.  These examinations will yield a consistency of thought – that the reasons for hostility lay in the fundamental disagreement of ideology at the origins of the religions.

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It has been remarked that this hostility has at times been more of a political nature in its expression at certain stages of history.  This has been exemplified by the wars fought for simple ground and expanded territories.  However the fact remains that the basic elements for these actions has always remained the differences of religious thought at the origins of the religions.

By default there must be an agreement or understanding regarding just who these people are that are described as ‘People of the Book’.  Without this description there would be no way to go forward to describing the shared hostility.

            At its most basic level is the wording of the Qur’an in book 3:64-71 where is found the first statements of the ‘Family of ‘Imran.  Here is found the usage of the term ‘People of the Book’ wherein the Muslim’s holy book addresses the Christians and Jews of the world.  Quite interestingly this is an inclusive address and yet it is undeniably linked to the ensuing warfare.  The People of the Book are being encouraged in this part of the Qur’an to drop their differences and join the Muslim faith.  Apparently then all would be well between them.  Needless to say this didn’t happen.

David L. Jeffrey (xi) addresses this working definition of the term as well in the preface to his work People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture.  He too implicates the Qur’an as being the basis for this title for the Jewish and Christian people.  Jeffrey writes, “It appears that the familiar phrase ‘People of the Book’ may have been coined by Muhammed, the Prophet of Islam” (Ibid), and goes on to describe the primary religion in this understanding as Islam and the object religions as Judaism and Christianity.

These are the generally accepted views both in the secular and religious worlds and will be used as the basis for the arguments of this paper.

Working terms now established it is time to consider the origins of the conflict.  Why should there be hostility between the religions if the Qur’an’s basic wording of this disagreement is apparently benevolent?  Certainly there is some disagreement apparent within the phrasing of the holy book in further describing the people and their intentions, but no outright slander or malevolence appears extant.  So how could things have gone so wrong?  The answer indeed does lay in the phrasing of 3:64-71 in the Qur’an.  This apparently benign statement is really quite a loaded concept.

Muslims consider Islam to be an extension of Christianity and Judaism, and as such dates back to the formative moments of Mesopotamian monotheistic religion (Lippmann).  The systematic belief that separates it from its predecessors began as early as the expulsion of Ishmael, first son of Abraham the Biblical patriarch.  Whereas Abraham’s son Isaac received the covenant and blessing of God, Muslim belief has it that it was Ishmael and his descendants that have received the word of God, whom they called Allah.  When Abraham took Ishmael and his mother off to be separated, it was to Mecca that he took them.  Later it was also to Mecca that Abraham returned to check on the status of his son, and where it is tradition that they built the Kaaba.  This place, and Mecca itself, are now the holiest of places in the Muslim religion, as the Temple and Church of the Nativity would become holiest of places in Judaism and Christianity – though through Isaac and later Jesus, rather than Ishmael.  This tradition and others form a chain of connections between Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all of the people of the book.

Again Jeffrey’s book lends some further insight into this chain and why it isn’t as innocent as it seems.  Upon critical reading of his opening statements there can be sensed a built in and perhaps subconscious bias that exposes how insidiously this works.  He claims that, “The Quran attaches the phrase primarily to the Jews as a term of opprobrium.”  Notice the interpretation he offers.  There is no reason for why this should be in a book that allegedly treats the subject objectively.  Even the earlier quote from this book begins with “It appears” (Ibid) which indicates a level of cynicism that exists.  This emotional response is not one coming from a vacuum.  Instead it lends credence to why this origin of religious difference can create such instant hostility.

Another piece of the puzzle stems from this beginning as well.  At the time of Abraham Judaism was already well established in the lands of the Middle East.  Jewish religion finds him to be one of the largest and most important figures to the ongoing existence of their faith.  He is their patriarch.  However the Muslims consider Abraham to be the first Muslim.  And to complicate matters even further, Christianity relies upon Abraham to have carried the covenant blessings that end in the existence of Jesus Christ as savior (Grose and Hubbard 1-10).

It is fairly obvious then that these traditions then have a built in friction.  If all three consider that the blessing for their religions came from the very same source then there can only be two implications.  Either the religions then agree that they are in fact the very same religions or they must believe that the other religions are wrong at best and liars at worst.  Since the Jews, Christians and Muslims have not created or agreed upon a one religion world in compromise fashion then they have agreed to disagree.  This had furthered the hostility and led to disastrous consequences.  This paper will look at two of these large scale events from this point of view.

It took only 600 years for full scale war to be perpetuated between the religions.  Only 30 years or so after Muhammad founded the official religion of Islam there was a movement to take back the lands surrounding the Middle East from Jews and Christians alike. From Mecca and Medina the followers and descendent caliphs of Islam began to spread their faith through conquest (Endress).  Again it is important to note that this was not done out of political motivations but was determined to be the opportunity to return the world to the one true faith of Islam.  Warfare not only provided the opportunity to take land, but it did not scare the faithful as death would be rewarded by automatic entry to paradise.  As a result Muslim countries spread throughout the whole of the Mediterranean and even into southwest Europe by 732.  It was only through military defeat in France that the whole of Europe did not become part of the Islamic world.

      One way of interpreting this warfare comes from looking at the specific areas and cities that the Muslims sought to occupy.  That is what really supports the conclusion that the hostilities really were founded upon religious differences as opposed to politic views.  There is really no particular reason why the Islamic world decided to attack and spread westward as opposed to eastward unless one considers this religious aspect.  The Christians didn’t occupy lands to the east of the Holy Lands.  The threat to their religion lay to the west with the ongoing Christians with their belief in God which had to be changed.  Thus the warfare spread first to the Middle East and then on toward Europe, home of the Christians.  Again, this can really only be seen through a religious lens.

Only 200 years later the Christians decided to strike back.  Again, what had begun as different interpretations of same beginnings now became hostility as the different peoples desired to reoccupy the lands associated with their religions.  Obviously if the different religions claimed the same holy people, then they clearly claim the same holy lands.  This is highly problematic as not only the same lands but in some cases the same exact cities and buildings are fought over.

The Crusades were the fairly immediate result.  This was a period of warfare in the Middle East perpetrated by the Christians against both Jews and Muslims.  Their desire was to regain the holy lands completely and push the ‘infidels’ out of the area indefinitely.  In only two short years, from 1097-1099, they were successful in this goal (Hillenbrand 20).  The Christians occupied the biblically important cities of Antioch and Jerusalem.  Along the way their victories included defeats of both Muslims at Iznik and Jews at Jerusalem proper (Ibid).  The victorious Christians declared the religious war a victory.  What is highly notable about this is that although the result was one of occupation which could be seen as political it was never seen that way by the populations of all sides.  They all agreed that this was an extension of the religious differences they had already experienced.  The Crusades continued for 176 years and resulted primarily in things returning to the original status quo.  Its one major ramification was the continuation of hostilities between the People of the Book due to religious differences.

            As with the Islamic invasions of the Middle East, Africa and Europe, the reasoning for the Crusades can be explored by looking at the objects of the conquest.  Was it merely a spread of the European need to dominate politically through land grab?  There is no real indication of this.  Then the religious aspect must be considered.  The aims of the battles and occupations were all directed toward fundamentally Christian areas described as important throughout the Christian Bible, and more specifically through the New Testament which is where Christian belief separates itself from Judaism.

            Clearly Jerusalem, the final goal of the Crusaders was top of mind.  It is the city of salvation for Christianity.  Their savior Jesus Christ was crucified there by Jews and his sacrifice ensures salvation for believers.  It would be unthinkable to have that continued to be held in Jewish hands.  The city of Antioch, too, was vital.  At this time it was occupied by Muslims and their caliphs.  Antioch was an important center for the spreading of the Christian message by apostles or messengers after the death of Christ.  That must be retaken as well according to Christians.  On and on the list goes and all for religious reasons: Damascus, where Paul escaped from Jews to spread his teachings; Ephesus in Asia Minor where some of the primary tenets of Christianity were first consolidated.  These were not large political areas and held significance only in religious thought and belief.  Therefore these battles as with the Islamic battles for Christian lands and all of the Jewish defenses that lay between these clashes all came about due to religious differences.

      Any concessions to this thesis are mitigated by the existence of these facts and realities.  Though hostility has been considered as the natural results of political expansion through history, a careful and critical reading of the events clearly demonstrate otherwise.

 From the formation and origin of the beliefs the People of the Book, Christians, Jews and Muslims, have been at odds.  Sharing a common starting point of God through Abraham of the Middle East would indicate the possibility of reconciliation and shared religious thought.  However the interpretation of blessings and passing down of God’s word from that point on ensured only one thing: ongoing hostility between these peoples.


The Abraham Connection: A Jew, Christian and Muslim in Dialogue. Eds. George B. Grose

and Benjamin J. Hubbard. Los Angeles: Cross Cultural Publications, 1994. Print.

Endress, Gerhard. An Introduction to Islam. Edinburgh, U.K.: University Press, 1988. Print.

Hillenbrand, Carole. The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Jeffrey, David L. People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture. Grand Rapids,

MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1996.

Lippmann, T.W. Understanding Islam: an Introduction to the Muslim World (2nd ed.). New

York: Penguin, 1995. Print.