Ahl al-Dhikr Verse (Arabic: آية أهل الذكر), lit: the verse of the people of the reminder, or al-Suʾal Verse (Arabic: آية السؤال), lit: the verse of asking (Qur'an 16:43 and Qur'an 17:7) is a verse in which all people, particularly polytheists, are called to ask knowledgeable people about the truth of the Prophet’s prophethood. It was revealed when Meccan polytheists denied the Prophet's mission, claiming that God would choose an angel as a prophet.
According to Quranic exegetes, “People of the Reminder” in these verses refers to Jewish and Christian scholars or those who are knowledgeable of the history of earlier people. And “asking” in these verses refers to questions about the signs of prophethood in earlier sources.
In their interpretations of these two verses, exegetes have cited a number of hadiths in Shia and Sunni sources according to which the most obvious instances of the “People of the Reminder” are Ahl al-Bayt (a) (the Prophet’s household), from whom one should learn religious rulings and Quranic exegesis.
Text and Translation
وَ مَا أَرْسَلْنَا مِن قَبْلِک إِلَّا رِجَالًا نُّوحِی إِلَیهِمْ فَاسْأَلُوا أَهْلَ الذِّکرِ إِن کنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
We did not send [any apostles] before you except as men to whom We revealed. Ask the People of the Reminder if you do not know
|— Quran 16:43|
Occasion of Revelation
According to a hadith from Ibn 'Abbas, when Muhammad (s) was selected as the prophet, people of Mecca denied his prophethood, saying that God is too great to choose a human person as His apostle. In response to such claims by polytheists, this verse as well as the second verse of Qur'an 10 were revealed: “Does it seem odd to these people that We have revealed to a man from among themselves?”It has also been said that Ahl al-Dhikr Verse was revealed in response to polytheists who said that God’s apostle should be an angel, not a human person.
In his Quranic exegesis Majmaʿ al-bayan, al-Tabrisi interprets the first part of the verse as implying that God has sent His apostle from among people so that people could see him, talk to him, and understand his words. Thus, it is not reasonable to send an angel as a prophet.
'Allama Tabataba'i believes that the verse is concerned with how prophets are sent, so that polytheists can know that a religious call is an ordinary call, except that its conveyor receives what is in the interest of pre-mortem and post-mortem lives through revelation. There is no hidden power involved in such a call which might dominate people's free will and coerce them to accept the religious call. On his account, although the second part of the verse, that is “Ask the People of the Reminder if you do not know,” seems to be addressed to the Prophet and his people, it is indeed addressed to all people, particularly polytheists, to ask knowledgeable people if they do not know the truth of the prophethood.
According to Makarim Shirazi, the second part of the verse (asking those with knowledge) is an emphasis and endorsement of the fact that prophets are tasked to convey the revelations to people by ordinary means, rather than an extraordinary power which disturbs the laws of nature, forcing people to accept the call and quit any delinquencies and wrongdoings. For in this case, faithfulness would no longer count as an excellence and dignity.
Ahl al-Dhikr and its Instances
Quranic exegetes have discussed the instances of “Ahl al-Dhikr” (People of the Reminder). Given the context of the verse, they argue, the phrase refers to knowledgeable people who are closely associated with the “dhikr” (that is, the Qur'an and other scriptures), and in these two verses, it refers to Jewish and Christian scholars or those who are knowledgeable of the past history and the fates of earlier nations. And “asking” in this verse refers to questions about the signs of prophethood in their scriptures. Nevertheless, Quranic exegetes generalize the notion of “Ahl al-Dhikr” to other instances as well. There are two accounts of its instances proposed by Shia and Sunni exegetes:
The Prophet’s Household
Drawing on a number of hadiths, Shia exegetes suggest that the most prominent instances of “Ahl al-Dhikr” are Ahl al-Bayt (a) (the Prophet’s Household). There are also hadiths from Ibn 'Abbas, among others, in Sunni sources of Quranic exegesis to the effect that the phrase refers to Muhammad (s), Ali (a), Fatima (a), al-Hasan (a), and al-Husayn (a), as they are people of knowledge and reason. There is a hadith cited by al-Qurtubi and al-Tabari, two Sunni exegetes, under verse 7 of Qur'an 17 in which 'Ali (a) says after the revelation of the verse: “We are the People of the Reminder.”
Moreover, in Basa'ir al-darajat, there is a section under “On the Imams from the household of Muhammad—that they are the People of the Reminder whom God has commanded us to ask.” In his Bihar al-anwar, al-Majlisi cites hadiths in a section titled “That they [the Imams] peace be upon them are the Reminder and the People of the Reminder.” On these hadiths, “Ahl al-Dhikr” in these verses refers to Imams of the Shia.
These hadiths have been explained as follows: on the fact of it, these verses are not concerned with the Imams, since it was impossible for the disbelievers in Mecca to ask about the Imams, and even if they did, they would not rely on the words of the Imams, as they did not endorse the words of the Prophet (s). In this way, these hadiths should be understood by way of analogy and metaphor. That is, they assert that experts should be consulted and asked on every matter. Thus, just as scholars of past nations should be asked about whether earlier prophets were humans or angels, the Infallible Imams (a) should be asked about Islamic rulings.
According to Makarim Shirazi, the fact that the verse has been revealed about Jewish and Christian scholars is not in conflict with the claim that the Prophet’s Household are the most prominent instances of “Ahl al-Dhikr.” This is a recurrent theme in exegetical hadiths: specific instances associated with the revelation of a verse do not limit its otherwise general scope.
According to Najjarzadigan, given the context of the verse, “Ahl al-Dhikr” is often interpreted as People of the Book or knowledgeable people. It includes all those who possess wider knowledge and awareness. The verse is deemed advisory (irshadi); that is as a guide to, or a reminder of, a rational principle and a general ruling of reason according to which one who does not know (something in a particular domain or field) should consult someone who knows. Thus, the verse does not involve a devotional (taʿabbudi) command; that is, it does not contain an authoritative (mawlawi) imperative.
Sunni exegetes have mentioned 15 senses of “Ahl al-Dhikr” which might be subsumed under three categories: People of the Book in general (including any scripture except the Torah and the Gospel), or People in the Book in a specific sense (restricted to the Torah and the Gospel), people of the Qur'an or scholars from the Prophet’s Household.
A Jurisprudential Application: Reliability of Single Reports
In principles of jurisprudence, Ahl al-Dhikr Verse has been cited as evidence for the reliability of al-Khabar al-Wahid (or single reports). Here is how the argument proceeds: when the verse makes it imperative to ask the “People of the Reminder,” it should be binding as to the acceptance of their answers as well; otherwise, the obligation of asking would be absurd. There have been objections raised against the argument. For instance, Murtada al-Ansari has objected that “Ahl al-Dhikr” in these verses refers to Imams of the Shia, rather than transmitters of their hadiths. Thus, the verse is irrelevant to the reliability or validity of single reports.
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