Qur’an says ‘Ask People of the Book’: What and Why?


Waqar Akbar Cheema


1. Introduction

Qur’an 16:43 and 21:7 are the references some critics of Islam often use to assert that the 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.[1]

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 the Qur’an thus accedes to the 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. 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. In 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 verses 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).[2]

It is likewise reported from a number of early exegetes such as Isma‘il al-Suddi (d. 127/745),[3] Maqatil b. Suleman (d. 150/767),[4] and Ma‘mar b. Rashid (d. 153/770).[5]

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 raise them to the status of people of ultimate knowledge but only ask 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 the Qur’an raises the Jews or Christians to the status of epitomes of truth would be as good as implying that the 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. [6]

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.



[1] Qur’an 16:43; 21:7

[2] Al-Tabari, Ibn Jarir, Jami‘ al-Bayan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an, (Beirut: al-Resalah Publishers, 2000) Vol.17, 208

[3] Ibn Abi Hatim, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azim, (KSA: Maktaba Nazar, 1419) No. 12562

[4] Maqatil b. Suleman, al-Tafsir, (Beirut: Dar ‘Ihya’ al-Turath, 1423 AH) Vol.2, 470

[5] al-San‘ani, ‘Abdul Razzaq, al-Musannaf, (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1403) Hadith 10209

[6] The Bible (NET): Psalms, 14:1

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Waqar Akbar Cheema


  • I agree those Quran verses don’t support the inspiration of the Bible, what about Surah 3.3 “He has revealed to you ˹O Prophet˺ the Book in truth, confirming what came before it, as He revealed the Torah and the Gospel”?
    What about Surah 5.44 “Indeed, We revealed the Torah, containing guidance and light, by which the prophets, who submitted themselves to Allah, made judgments for Jews. So too did the rabbis and scholars judge according to Allah’s Book, with which they were entrusted and of which they were made keepers. So do not fear the people; fear Me! Nor trade my revelations for a fleeting gain. And those who do not judge by what Allah has revealed are ˹truly˺ the disbelievers.”?

    I can’t find it now, but I know that Mohammad was told to check his revelation against what the Jews and Christians have. This implies that Christians had the true revealed Word of Allah at the time of Mohammad. We have copies of the gospels that predate Mohammad by centuries (see Papyrus 66, which is a near complete copy of the Gospel of John, which dates from the 2nd century).

    • There are multiple verses in the Qur’an mentioning the confirmation of previous revelations. This, however, is not the same as vouching for the reliability and authenticity of the scriptures Jews and Christians use today. It’s import that the message the Prophet (saaw) brought was not a new weird thing. He and the revelation he received were part of the divine plan of messengers/prophets and revelations and that they did not disown any of it.

      As for Qur’an 5:44 the context is clearly the condemnation of the Jews for turning away from the Torah. Actually, it refers to “a ruling”, i.e., stoning for adultery that is in reference here, which the Jews around the Prophet (saaw) in principle recognised as a divine edict. The Pentateuch has it preserved to this day.