"people of the book"

A. Maberry maberry at U.WASHINGTON.EDU
Tue Jun 19 03:57:21 UTC 2001

To my mind, Will is using the phrase "people of the book" in a strange
way. He seems to be saying that Asians and Jews are from cultures
which value books, the key to the system of higher education, which
education is the way to ascend America's ladder of social mobility.
As an observation it is probably not unreasonable. But the phrase "people
of the book", as near as I can tell from my own sources here at home, is
first found in the Islamic tradition as "Ahl al-Kitab" (lit. "people of
the book"), i.e. "those whom the Koran cites as having received revealed
scriptures: ... 'Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry, and the
Christians, and those Sabians, who believe in God and the Last Day, and
work righteousness (Koran 2:62) ... ", etc. It is sometimes extended to
include Magians (Zoroastrians).  [Glasse. The concise encyclopedia of Islam.
Harper, 1989]

It seems to be a misapplication of the original concept of people who have
a [sacred] book or books, to people who highly value books and reading and
therefore value education. I don't think there is a Talmudic phrase that
translates to "people of the book", not that I know every phrase in it.
Mandarin, I don't know at all. I think of "people of the book" as a sort
of "technical" term used in Islamic theology to designate a particular
class of non-Muslims.

It's kind of ironic that Will would pick this Islamic phrase, since
somewhere in the Koran it refers to "asses laden with books" i.e. having
many books but no real knowledge.

maberry at u.washington.edu

On Fri, 15 Jun 2001, Duane Campbell wrote:

> On Fri, 15 Jun 2001 14:16:23 -0400 Mark_Mandel at DRAGONSYS.COM
> >
> >      Many Asians, like Jews, are "people of the book" (the Mandarin
> > and
> >      Talmudic traditions) and are ascending America's surest ladder
> > of
> >      social mobility, the system of higher education.
> >
> > We discussed this phrase in early December of 1999; it's originally
> > (a
> > translation of) an Arabic expression referring to those who share
> > with
> > Muslims a reverence for the (variously defined) Bible (mainly to
> > Jews and
> > Christians).
> This also puzzled me when I first read it, though generally I read George
> Will with the same reverence and open acceptance of a Baptist reading the
> Old Testament. Obviously (hopefully) it was a metaphor for one culture
> that accepts another quite different culture because of some common
> thread. Note that he used quotation marks, and Will does not use them
> with the abandon of Bernstein's sign painter and poster letterer.
> Will is a very careful, if sometimes abstruse, wordsmith.  He could not
> have misconstrued the meaning of "people of the book." Please. Otherwise
> my entire belief system comes crashing down on my head, witht he last
> page of Newsweek fluttering down to finish the job.
> D

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