Qur’an says ‘Ask People of the Book’: What and Why?
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
Waqar Akbar Cheema
Qur’an 16:43 and 21:7 are the references some critics of Islam often use to assert that Qur’an testifies the Judeo-Christian people to be the bastions of the monotheistic faith. It is argued that these verses also testify to the authenticity of the Bible.
Part of the verses they quote goes as:
فَاسْأَلُوا أَهْلَ الذِّكْرِ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
So ask the people of the Reminder, if you know not.
They say, and rightly so, the words “people of the Reminder” or “people of the Remembrance” according to many prominent early Muslim exegetes refer to the People of the Book. Referring to some critics, however, insinuate that Qur’an thus accedes to truth claims of the Jews and Christians.
2.Context of the verses
2.1 Textual context
While it is true that the verses do refer to the people of the Book but the said conclusion is not true. And here is the plain reasoning to show this.
Even if a complete verse is taken in oblivion to its context it obscures the actual meaning, let alone quoting a verse in half as is in case at hand. At both the instances the verses in full go as;
وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا مِنْ قَبْلِكَ إِلَّا رِجَالًا نُوحِي إِلَيْهِمْ فَاسْأَلُوا أَهْلَ الذِّكْرِ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
And We sent no messenger before thee, but that they were men unto whom We revealed. So ask the people of the Reminder, if you know not.
This was certainly addressed to the pagans of Makkah who doubted if a human could be a Messenger of the Most High – Allah.
The verses before and after Qur’an 21: 7 make this further clear. Verse 3 tells us about the pagans;
وَأَسَرُّوا النَّجْوَى الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا هَلْ هَذَا إِلَّا بَشَرٌ مِثْلُكُمْ
And those who do wrong confide in secret converse, “Is this not but a human being like yourselves?
And in verse 7 and 8 Allah replies back;
وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا قَبْلَكَ إِلَّا رِجَالًا نُوحِي إِلَيْهِمْ فَاسْأَلُوا أَهْلَ الذِّكْرِ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ وَمَا جَعَلْنَاهُمْ جَسَدًا لَا يَأْكُلُونَ الطَّعَامَ وَمَا كَانُوا خَالِدِينَ
And We sent no messenger before thee, but that they were men unto whom We revealed. So ask the people of the Reminder, if you know not. We did not make them bodies that ate not food; nor were they immortal.
2.2 Reported context
A narration from Ibn ‘Abbas (d. 68/687) further clarifies the actual context of the verse;
عن ابن عباس، قال: لما بعث الله محمدا رسولا أنكرت العرب ذلك، أو من أنكر منهم، وقالوا: الله أعظم من أن يكون رسوله بشرا مثل محمد، قال: فأنزل الله (أَكَانَ لِلنَّاسِ عَجَبًا أَنْ أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَى رَجُلٍ مِنْهُمْ) وقال: (وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا مِنْ قَبْلِكَ إِلا رِجَالا نُوحِي إِلَيْهِمْ فَاسْأَلُوا أَهْلَ الذِّكْرِ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ لا تَعْلَمُونَ …) فاسألوا أهل الذكر: يعني أهل الكتب الماضية، أبشرا كانت الرسل التي أتتكم أم ملائكة؟ فإن كانوا ملائكة أنكرتم، وإن كانوا بشرا فلا تنكروا أن يكون محمد رسولا قال: ثم قال (وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا مِنْ قَبْلِكَ إِلا رِجَالا نُوحِي إِلَيْهِمْ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْقُرَى) أي ليسوا من أهل السماء كما قلتم.
Ibn Abbas said: When Allah sent Muhammad as a Messenger, the Arabs refused to accept him and those who refused to accept him said, “Allah is greater than to send a mortal man like Muhammad as His Messenger.”
So Allah revealed, “Is it a marvel for mankind that We have sent revelation unto a man from among themselves,” (10: 2) And He (Allah, further) said, “And We sent no messenger before thee, but that they were men unto whom We revealed. So ask the people of the Reminder, if you know” (16: 43)
Ask the People of Remembrance i.e. people of the previous scriptures if the Messengers who came to them were (mortal) men or the angels?
And if they (tell you) they were men then do not reject that Muhammad is a Messenger. Then Allah said, “And We sent none before thee, save men unto whom We sent revelation among the people of the towns.” (12: 109) that they were not some heavenly creatures as you say (or expect).
3. Further elucidation and wrap-up
All the above points are enough to clarify that verses do not mean to recognize the People of the Book as custodians of the faith nor raises them to the status of people of ultimate knowledge but only asks the pagans to confirm from them that the Prophet from Allah have always been mortal men and not angels etc.
If this knowledge makes arrogant a people to whom countless Prophets were sent then perhaps it is enough to know that they have failed to receive the guidance offered to them and have contented themselves with a pittance.
To use the verse, however, to imply that Qur’an raises the Jews or Christians to the status of epitomes of truth would be as good as implying that Bible affirms atheism for a verse in Psalms reads:
Fools say to themselves, “There is no God.” They sin and commit evil deeds; none of them does what is right. 
Finally, given the irreconcilable differences between the Jewish and Christian beliefs and approaches to religion the very fluidity of the term ‘People of Reminder’ makes the suggestion of total vindication of either of them an impossibility.
 Qur’an 16:43; 21:7
 Al-Tabari, Ibn Jarir, Jami‘ al-Bayan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an, (Beirut: al-Resalah Publishers, 2000) Vol.17, 208
 Ibn Abi Hatim, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azim, (KSA: Maktaba Nazar, 1419) No. 12562
 Maqatil b. Suleman, al-Tafsir, (Beirut: Dar ‘Ihya’ al-Turath, 1423 AH) Vol.2, 470
 al-San‘ani, ‘Abdul Razzaq, al-Musannaf, (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1403) Hadith 10209
 The Bible (NET): Psalms, 14:1