23/10/2013 11:48 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Whatever happened to "the People of the Book"?

The Muslim term "Ahl-al-Kitab, "People of the Book", contains a commitment to co-existence with, and recognition of, other faiths. Above all, notably in troubled times, it means a duty to protect. It refers primarily to the revealed world religions that preceded it, notably Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians. It has historically been extended to others. The link to "the book", can be applied, of course, to the Koran.

You would not often hear this phrase in interfaith relations today though it is implicit in scholarly encounters for scriptural reasoning. In fact you don't hear it used much at all. Yet, for me, it conjures up some striking images and an important question.

Nigeria: a hot and copper sky at noon on the Zaria-Kano road - the Sahara, the sand ocean between North and West Africa - not far away. We stop the car and get on bicycles. After about a mile the sand is too thick to continue and we have to walk. It's the Hausa equivalent of Dedham Vale, Constable country, but with a beating dry heat: boys watching the long-horned cattle, red peppers drying on the roofs of houses, a little mud compound ahead. We go in. Under a large tree, sitting cross-legged in the shade, is an elderly mallam. A large Koran rests on his legs. For all the world, from a distance, his thin trunk seems to be growing out of the book.

Iran: it is Tehran on one of those days when the smog sits under the mountain like a pall on the city. You drop into it from the suburbs like a scuba-diver. The synagogue is a surprise: that we are taken there, that it exists with a lively Jewish community and a hospital, that our Jewish hosts are pleased to see us despite our government entourage. With great love the Torah scrolls are taken out of the Ark for us to look at. The book, the hallowed teaching, is reverenced. Judaism is here.

It seems another world from the great library in Qom, south past the vast cemetery of the war dead and the Ayatollah Khomenei's tomb. Yet is it? The Hoja-ul-Islam who introduces us to the library's history loves his books and ancient Korans with a similar holy passion. We descend into the vaults from the ground floor of the library, several floors, in a large lift. It could have been Fort Knox. The big fire doors, concrete and antiseptic smells are disconcerting. But here are some of the earliest, priceless Korans in glass cabinets. Their scribes must have been working on them at much the same time as some of the later English Northumbrian Gospels, and with the same care and reverence for what the words meant.

Durham: we are on Palace Green by the Cathedral, the sun just going down, to see the Lindisfarne Gospels. The books can only be opened for circumscribed periods; lights and temperature have to be kept low. And there it lies, open next to a watchful attendant at a page showing Agios Johannes, St. John and a naturalistic eagle, his logo, Latin script with Old English above them, the fusing of the Celtic bird and animal patterns and the more formal Roman traditions; the work of monks painstakingly copying the Gospel-Books in their scriptorum, warming their hands at intervals on the only big fire in the monastery.

As we scribblers knock off our transient blogs on websites, only imagination can recuperate this world in which "the book", in its sheer material and - thus spiritual - significance, was a treasure beyond price, work of human hands, artisans of a divine conversation with humanity preserved on scrolls, parchment and vellum. Nor can we recapture the shared religious consciousness, despite big differences, that these were special words opening up a universe of meaning for humankind. But it is not so difficult to understand the insecurity through which the scribes lived as they copied these books: the Vikings appearing out of the morning mist, the pogroms against the Jews, the clash of empires in the Middle East and Europe, the Crusader's sword that spared no-one.

Perhaps the name "People of the Book" has, as it were, gone out of print because of its associations: the dhimmi status that made non-Muslims pay a special tax, the idea that so that Islam supercedes Christianity and Christianity supercedes Judaism, the later contains and perfects the earlier. This falls short of exclusion and rejection. But it permits and sustains a competition of absolutes. Likewise it falls short of saying that aspects of the divine are revealed in other religious systems, giving them a positive religious value, a more subtle position.

The problem is that it is this competition of absolutes that allows conflicts to be sacralised rather than mediated and negotiated. In the past, the People of the Book showed the Janus face of People of the Sword, scribes and warriors. The question remains what conditions promote the latter and downgrade the former? Perhaps it is a simple lack of historical humility. And too many people who read into "the Book" what they will.