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Wikipedia tells me:

In Islam, the Muslim scripture, the Qur'an, is taken to represent the completion of these scriptures, and to synthesize them as God's true, final, and eternal message to humanity. Because the People of the Book recognize the God of Abraham as the one and only god, as do Muslims, and they practice revealed faiths based on divine ordinances, tolerance and autonomy is accorded to them in societies governed by sharia (Islamic divine law).

That indicates to me that "the book" refers to Qur'an. Therefore Christians and Jews are included under the umbrella of the "People of the Book" only because our sacred books are "pre-echoes" of the Qur'an itself. Given that many Christians reject the idea that the Qur'an completes the scriptures, just as many Jews reject the idea that Jesus completes the Tanakh, wouldn't we be rejecting "the book"?

On the other hand, is having an authoritative set of Scriptures from God via His prophets the essence of being a "People of the Book"? The Wikipedia article seems to say that the designation has more to do with worshiping the one, true God of Abraham as being the key determinate.

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Good question! It's not one specific book - that Arabic word used is "Kitab", which, literally, means "the writing" or the Scripture. For example, Jesus (peace be upon him) is quoted in the Qur'an as saying:

[Jesus] said, "Indeed, I am the servant of Allah . He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet. [Maryam:30]

(emphasis mine) The word used in the Arabic here is, again, al-kitab.

So to answer your question, the "book" refers to scripture that has been divinely revealed by God to His Prophets (may peace be upon them all). The books that we know of (aside from the Qur'an) are the Torah, Zabur, and Injil - roughly corresponding to the Torah, the Psalms of David, and the Gospel.

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    There are also the scriptures of Abraham and the scriptures Moses (which are different from Torah). Aya – Tamer Shlash Jul 2 '12 at 17:29
  • +1 @Mr.TAMER - yup, the list of three is not exhaustive. The Prophets of Israel had other scriptures. – Ansari Jul 2 '12 at 17:31
  • Christians actually have 4 gospels that we consider canonical and Jesus wrote none of them. There are also many second- and third-century documents that claim to be gospels (i.e., biographies of Jesus). Does Islam acknowledge the Gospels that Christianity does as Scripture? (I assume Paul's letters and the other parts of the Christian New Testament are not included.) – Jon Ericson Jul 2 '12 at 17:36
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    @JonEricson I don't think we take a stand on what is canonical and what is apocryphal. As far as Muslims are concerned, the Injil is what was revealed to Jesus (peace be upon him). I don't know enough about Christian history to know how this was codified and preserved (although I am very curious). – Ansari Jul 2 '12 at 17:39
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    @JonEricson: There is a Hadith from Imam Reza A.S. that Injil was lost for some times (and not only one day) after Christ was lifted up to the sky, then two of the apostles announced that the book is in their memory, then they and two others of the apostles wrote four Gospels which are different from each other in some respects, then they told the people to come to the churches on sundays to read the injils for them, so then after sundays become the days to go to the churches (cf this reference in Persian) – owari Sep 13 '12 at 23:52
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This is indeed a very interesting question.

Note that Quran doesn't refer to "people of the books" but uses the singular "the book". From Quran's perspective there seems to be one book in this regard. For example, in verse 2:113 it is said that Jews and Christians read "the book". There are many similar verses where it is said that Jews/Christians read the book (verse 2:44). It is also stated that Moses was given the book (verse 2:53). Quran also seems to refer to itself as the book in several places e.g. verse 2:2.

From what Quran describes it seems that the Jews and Christian at the time of the prophet had access to the book (though according to Quran Injil and Torah has been altered to some extend). This is because Quran states that there are believers among people of the book that read the book the way it should be read (verse 3:113).

On the other hand there are verses that mention "books" like verses 2:285, 4:136, 66:12, and 98:3. There are also verses where "the book" is mentioned in addition to other books like Torah and Injil e.g. verses 3:3, 3:48, 5:110, 3:184.

There are also verses where "the book" is used in the same way that "the prophethood" is used, i.e. as a more general concept, e.g. verses 29:27 and 57:26.

In summery, it seems that "the book" in "people of the book" in Quran is more general concept and does not refer exclusively to a particular book.

Note that the root of "كتاب" which is translated to "book" in Arabic is "كتب" which means "write" and is used to state God's decrees, e.g. in verse 2:183 we have "... it is written for you fasting as it was written for those before you ...". So it seems plausible that the people of the book can be interpreted as "the people of the sacred law".

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    +1 interesting idea. Do you know whether a notable scholar has interpreted "al-kitab" to mean the more general concept of revelation? Also I think if you take al-kitab to mean "the writing", then in each context it makes sense. – Ansari Jul 5 '12 at 18:48
  • @Ansari, I looked up a little bit but couldn't find any reference. It may help to check the way "کَتَبَ" and other words from this root are used in Quran, e.g. verses 2:178, 2:180, 2:183 seem to suggest some kind of scared laws/orders that God asks believers to follow. – Kaveh Jul 5 '12 at 19:44
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The construction Ahl ul Kitaab (people of the book) has been used in contrast with the word Ummi. Kitaab means law in this construction. Ummi means unlettered i.e. those who were not bestowed with divine law.

After Ishmael, no prophet came to Arabs with divine guidance. That's why local Jews and Christian started calling Arabs as Ummi and distinguished themselves as people of the 'divine law'

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