In the Name of Allaah, the Most Gracious, the All-Merciful…
One of our respected visitors sent in the following question:
Could you give some insight into the origin of the Verse:
فاسألوا أهل الذكر إن كنتم لا تعلمون
“And ask the people of knowledge when you do not know.” [16:43]
This Verse is often used to refer to Muslim scholars, but Ibn Katheer explains this to mean the people of the books that came before, i.e. the previously revealed scriptures.
The response: While it is true that Imaam Ibn Katheer (may Allaah have Mercy on him) did in fact identify that the Verse was revealed about the scholars of the Jews and Christians who had knowledge of previously revealed scriptures, he did not restrict the meaning of the Verse to them alone, in a way that excludes the Muslim scholars. This may sound a little confusing, but by the end of the article the matter should be very clear, in shaa’ Allaah.
What has been mentioned about the Verse being revealed about the people of the earlier scriptures is true. However, reading a book of Tafseer without some basic principles could prove harmful, as you may reach conclusions that were not intended. Al-hamdulillaah for this question, and for what Allaah has opened up for us in understanding of His Book!
When a scholar tries to single out the exact reason for a Verse’s revelation, like in this case, it does not mean that the Verse is restricted to those whom it was revealed about exclusively, or that the scholar was trying to restrict its meaning to that.
There is a principle in Tafseer the scholars work by:
العبرة بعموم اللفظ لا بخصوص السبب
Meaning: The specific reason for a Verse’s revelation, or the specific event or people it was revealed about, does not restrict its meaning, rather it is to be understood to be as general as the wording allows.
An example of this would be: Verses 5-7 of Soorah al-Layl:
فأما من أعطى واتقى وصدق بالحسنى فسنيسره لليسرى
“As for the one who gives and has piety, whilst he believes in the Recompense, then We shall grant him ease in following after al-Yusraa (the easy path to goodness).”
These three Verses were understood to be revealed about Aboo Bakr as-Siddeeq (may Allaah be pleased with him) specifically. However, to restrict the meanings of the Verses to him alone would be baseless, since the wording includes him and everyone who behaves as he did. Restricting the Verse to one man would effectively remove the impact of this divine encouragement toward belief and upright actions in the lives of everyday Muslims! (May Allaah enable us to live up to the Verses!)
Another example of this principle would be the Verse in Soorah al-Anfaal (8:27) which was revealed regarding Haatib ibn Abee Balta’ah (may Allaah be pleased with him). Ibn Katheer identifies the specific event it was revealed about, and then goes on to say:
والصحيح أن الآية عامة، وإن صح أنها وردت على سبب خاص، فالأخذ بعموم اللفظ لا بخصوص السبب عند الجماهير من العلماء
“What is correct is that the Verse is generally worded, even though it has been authentically narrated to have a specific reason of revelation, since the generality of the wording is taken over restricting it to its reason (for revelation), according the vast majority of scholars.”
With this in mind, now it should be easy to understand why Ibn Katheer used this Verse to explain the status of the scholars and the obligation of following them, in his explanation of Soorah an-Nisaa (4:59):
What seems apparent -and Allaah knows best- is that the Verse refers to all authorities, both the rulers and the scholars, as has preceded.
Allaah has said [what means]: “Why do the firmly-grounded scholars and priests not forbid them from their sinful statements and their devouring of evil things (immoral transactions, oppressive earnings).” [5:63]
And Allaah has said [what means]: “Then ask the people of knowledge when you do not know.” [16:43]
And in the authentic hadeeth which is agreed upon, from the narration of Aboo Hurayrah, who related that the Messenger of Allaah -may Allaah raise his rank and grant him peace- said [what means]: “Whoever obeys me has obeyed Allaah, and whoever disobeys me has disobeyed Allaah. Whoever obeys my ameer (appointed leader) has obeyed me, and whoever disobeys my ameer has disobeyed me.”
These are orders to obey both the scholars and the rulers.
Simply put, while the Verse was originally revealed about those with knowledge of previous scriptures, its general wording also encompasses the obligation for Muslims to ask their scholars about matters which they do not know.
To summarize: The Quran is the Speech of Allaah, divinely miraculous in its meanings. To think that a Verse revealed about a specific event does not apply to anything other the original event itself would lead to the nullification of many, many intended applications of the Quran in our lives. And Allaah knows best.
Written by: Moosaa Richardson