Marije Coster

PhD candidate at Groningen University. Research project: The representation of Jews and Christians in the Qur’ān. An evidence of interreligious interactions and Islamic self-definition in early Islam.

The Representation of Jews and Christians in the Qur’ān

The aim of this research is a comprehensive study of the representation of the ‘people of the book’ (ahl al-kitāb) in formative Islam (first/sixth – third/ninth centuries) in the Qur’ān. The project aims at analyzing the usage of the different references to Jews and Christians in the Qurʾān, the context of these terms in Arabian society, and their origins and use in pre-Islamic poetry. This analysis will lead to a better understanding of the process of crystallization of Islam as a distinct religious confession in its earliest stage, the process of self-definition of the early Muslim community, and its perception of the Other: How early Muslim identity is constructed in social practice, distinguishing itself from the other, and the role of language and language changes in this construction of group identity.

Distinguishing the “Other” from “us” by means of an articulation of a self-designation and definition of the other implies a distinctive identity of the own community compared to the outsiders. The process of self-definition and the perception and designation of the Other are two sides of the same coin. Religious self-definition is the way a religious tradition has defined itself in history; interreligious understanding are the ways in which a religious tradition perceives another. Interreligious understanding can become a way of self-definition when one religious tradition attempts to distinguish itself from another. Early Islam developed as an independent religious system both in confrontation and dialogue with Judaism and Christianity, and it is this process that we want to come to understand by studying the references to ahl al-kitāb in the Qurʾān, taking pre-Islamic poetry of the Arabian peninsula as a reference work and a mirror for the language usage of the Qurʾān.

Which terminology is used in the Qurʾān to refer to Jews and Christians, where does this terminology originate, and which connotations does it bear? A comprehensive survey and analysis of the references to Jews and Christians in the Qurʾān, by taking pre-Islamic poetry as a corpus which can contribute to understanding the origins, meaning, and connotations of the various terms and designations, will help us understand the social morality, the intellectual and cultural environment in which Islam emerged, the mindset of individuals and their responses to the emergence of Islam, and the message of the Qurʾān and the intentions of its prophet.

Last Modified: 16-04-2014