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The Unlettered Prophet (16)
Khalid Masud
(Tr. by:Nikhat Sattar)

Criticism on the People of the Book

The manner in which the Jews of Madinah used the movement of Nadr ibn Harith to damage the message of the Prophet (sws) has been discussed in detail earlier.  The answers to their questions and objections were revealed in the Qur’an, such that, not only were the facts brought to light; they were also a source of learning for the faithful, and provided guidance and corrective action for the Quraysh, if they so wished.

It became necessary in this process to include the People of the Book during the Makkan phase, only to an extent, so that the more learned people amongst them would be inclined towards Islam and accept its guidance.  Both Christians and Jews were included, and were addressed indirectly and as a secondary group, while the direct addressees remained the Quraysh, because the Prophet (sws) had received his prophethood within them.


The Attitude of the good People of the Book

Not all the People of the Book adopted the same attitude towards the Qur’an. Although the majority was against it, the better ones were not arrogant, stubborn or obdurate. The Qur’an, therefore, praised them at various places, and pointed out that everything mentioned by the Qur’an resonated with them, and they greeted the revelations eagerly. They sensed the same fragrance in it that they got by reading their own scriptures. When they heard the Qur’anic verses, they were so affected that they were overcome with the dual states of happiness and fear. Because their books had prophesied the advent of a great prophet, and a divine revelation through him, they had been waiting for him eagerly. Then, in the Prophet (sws), and the Book he had brought, they found fulfillment of the prophesies that they already had belief in. The Qur’an appreciated such people several times. For example:


Rather, the Qur’an is distinct verses [preserved] within the breasts of those who have been given knowledge. And none reject Our verses except the wrongdoers. (29:49)

And [the believers among] those to whom We have given the [previous] Scripture, rejoice at what has been revealed to you, [O Mohammed], but the [opposing] factions are those who deny part of it. (13:36)  

Those to whom We have given the Scripture, recognize it as they recognize their [own] sons. Those who will lose themselves [in the Hereafter] do not believe. (6:20)

Verses 52-55 of Surah Qasas also dealt with the same matter. In them, because of the righteous path adopted by such People of the Book, they were promised to be doubly rewarded, first for remaining true to their original faith, and second, by recognizing the last Prophet (sws) when his prophethood was evident.

This attitude of the virtuous People of the Book held a lesson for the Quraysh. And that was the fact that truth is always judged on the basis of its own evidence.  Therefore, firstly, the Qur’an’s divinity should have been assessed by the arguments it had given. Even if external evidence in its favour was required, the evidence provided by the actions of people of sobriety and integrity, who were well versed in matters of divine revelation, should have been accepted, despite their small numbers.  The attention of the Quraysh is directed towards this point in Surah Shu‘ara’: 

And, indeed, it is [mentioned] in the Scriptures of former peoples. And has it not been a sign to them that it is recognized by the scholars of the Children of Israel? (26:196-197)

Surah Bani Isra’il says:

Say: “Believe in it or do not believe. Indeed, those who were given knowledge before it – when it is recited to them, they fall upon their faces in prostration. And they say. ‘Exalted is our Lord! Indeed, the promise of our Lord has been fulfilled!’ And they fall upon their faces weeping, and the Qur’an increases them in humble submission.” (17:107-109)

The question remains, who were these virtuous People of the Book? This can be answered with veracity only for some Christians who resided in Abyssinia and Makkah. The Qur’an has praised Christians at various places, and so frequently that it seems that this group had been influenced early by Islamic teachings. The Christians who lived in Makkah, but originated from other places, accepted Islam in the beginning. But it would not be correct to conclude that the Jews were not influenced by the Prophet’s message during the Makkan phase. From the number of arguments they had raised, and the extensive manner in which the Qur’an refuted these we can deduce that the doubts in the minds of their scholars had been clarified, and when the time came, they too joined the group of Muslims, even though they must have been a few in number. If they were not visible enough during the Makkan phase, it is probably because their centres were outside of Makkah, whereas Islam was confined within the Makkan city in that period. 


Attitude of the Muslims towards the People of the Book

Muslims were asked to refrain from getting involved in arguments with the People of the Book during the early days of the preaching of the Prophet (sws). The reason was that this group was a recipient of faith and religious laws (shari‘ah), and was the custodian of the traditions of prophets. It was expected that its members would be able to clear the doubts they had about the message of Islam, and that they would become its protagonists and supporters to take it forward. Muslims were, therefore, instructed not to create any tensions during discussions with them. On the contrary, they were to help them to recognize that both groups had common religious teachings and moral values. For example, the God of both Muslims and the People of the Book was the One Almighty; the Qur’an and previous holy books contained the same teaching of monotheism. Just as the People of the Book believed in their holy texts, Muslims not only believed in the Qur’an, but also in the divinity of the Books that had come before it, since the source of all divine revelations was the same. The predictions contained in the books of these people were being realized through the Qur’an and the Prophet (sws). Hence, Muslims were to inform the People of the Book that the right path for them would be to accept the elements of this shared value system, and not negate their own beliefs with their actions. Surah ‘Ankabut says:

And do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best, except for those who commit injustice among them, and say: “we believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you. And our God and your God is one; and we are Muslims [in submission] to Him.” (29:46)

The Qur’an gave due recognition to the fact that the People of the Book enjoyed respect within the Arab society. It went as far as to ask the Quraysh, who were facing difficulties in understanding religious guidance, to seek advice from the People of the Book who were well versed in religious matters. Surah Nahal says:

And We sent not before you except men to whom We revealed [Our message]. So ask the people of the message if you do not know. (16:43)

This guidance was given at the time when the Quraysh refused to accept that a human being could also be a prophet of God. The history of the People of the Book was replete with examples of human beings being assigned the status of messengers from God. The same message is given in Surah Yunus:

So if you are in doubt, [O Muhammad], about that which We have revealed to you, then ask those who have been reading the Scripture before you. The truth has certainly come to you from your Lord, so never be among the doubters. And never be of those who deny the signs of Allah and [thus] be among the losers. (10:94-95)

These verses ask the Quraysh to refer to the People of the Book in order to clear their doubts about the divine revelations. The addressee is apparently the Prophet (sws), but the reprimand is directed towards the Quraysh who were creating confusions and doubts against the Qur’an in the minds of people.


Criticism on the Opposition of the People of the Book

Later, when the collective attitude of the People of the Book proved to be adverse to the Qur’an, and they began to portray themselves as the only custodians of the truth, declaring a new prophet to be unnecessary, the Qur’an, too, unveiled their real motives. It clarified that both the Christians and Jews had not lived up to the trust that had been given to them, and due to which their religious status was recognized.  In the last years of the Makkan phase, the Qur’an struck hard at the beliefs and treasured customs of both groups and revealed the mistakes they were committing. It informed the Muslims of the situation arising from the alliance between the wicked among the People of the Book and the Quraysh, and reassured them that earlier prophets and their believers had also faced similar situations with evil forces of their times. The latter had tried to create barriers to the spread of the preaching plans of prophets through their deception and concealment of truth. All this was a part of the trial for the truth, and there was no need to be afraid. All resistance would eventually break down, and so, the believers were to concentrate on their mission.

As the opposition of the People of the Book increased unexpectedly, it became necessary to clarify their factual religious status. Hence, two very important surahs related to the Christians and Jews were revealed during the Makkan phase. This is evidence to the fact that the influence of the two groups in Thus, it was essential to counter them.

It is possible that during the early days of the Prophet (sws)’s preaching, some People of the Book may not have understood his message clearly, or that the arguments of his prophethood may not have been clear enough to them, or, even that they had valid questions and doubts in their minds that prevented them from accepting the new faith. But, as time passed, it became obvious that they knew that the Prophet (sws) was a true prophet, and that his prophethood was the same that had been predicted by earlier prophets of Bani Isra’il, who had also instructed their nations to believe in it and to support it. It was what Jesus (sws) had brought tidings of, and what the earlier People of the Book had waited for. However, with the passage of time, they adopted an attitude that was a composite of fraud and deception, conspiracies and obstruction to faith. Thus, during the early Makkan phase, the Qur’an exposed their ingratitude, evasion of their religious responsibilities, breaking of the covenant with God and conspiracies against the religion of God: all their activities were revealed. It is clear that the Christians and Jews did not remain impartial in the matter of Islamic preaching; they opposed it fully, and the Qur’an responded accordingly.


Criticism of the Jews

Verses 103 to 171 of Surah A‘raf give, in detail, the history of the blessings and special favours of God upon the Jews. We are told that this nation had suffered greatly at the hands of the Pharaoh, before the prophethood of Moses (sws). The Pharaoh became furious when Moses (sws) invited him to accept faith, and as a result, the Israelites were forced to face much torture and many trials. God Almighty punished the Pharaoh for his excesses and insurgence by drowning him, but saved the Israelites by providing them a safe passage out of Egypt. The Israelites should have been grateful to God for this great favour, but they showed a tendency to Idolatory as soon as they were released from the slavery of the Pharaoh, and demanded of Moses (sws) that he assign a deity which they could recognize. When Moses (sws) reprimanded them, they melted their jewellery, sculpted a calf from the molten metal and began to worship it during his absence, when he had gone to the Mount of Ṭur to receive instructions from God. On his return, he was angry with the elders of his people for having allowed this evil to develop to this extent. He then selected 70 elders and took them to Mount Ṭur for collective repentance. At this point, when they turned to God and prayed for deliverance from evil, both in this world and the Hereafter, God made it clear to them that He would have mercy only on those people who refrained from disobeying Him, paid zakah, believed in His holy verses and followed the unlettered Prophet whose signs would be given to them. They were to respect him, support him and follow the light of guidance that God would send down to the earth through him. Only such people would be deserving of salvation.

The purpose of giving such a detailed background was to remind the People of the Book, in particular the Jews, of their responsibility towards the Prophet (sws), who was from among the unlettered Arab tribes, and who had then acquired prophethood, so that they would believe in him, and support him fully in order to make themselves eligible for salvation.

The same narrative goes on to mention some of the wrongdoings of the Israelites, as a punishment for which God had scattered them and imposed cruel rulers upon them, who put them through hard trials. If these people learnt from the errors of their past, this was the last chance for them to reform themselves, failing which their destiny would conclude with humiliation in this world, and ruin in the next.

The Jews had always been proud of the fact that God had made a covenant with them. During the phase of divine revelations, Moses (sws) would gather his people after each instruction, and take their vows that they would obey and not deviate from the orders given. The Israelites would promise to listen and abide by the instructions by declaring God as the witness. During the last days of the prophethood of Muhammad (sws) in Makkah, the Jews were reminded that, after a long history of promises to God, the time had come for them to fulfill the promise and not tear it apart for their self serving interests. Otherwise, their example would be that of an old woman who wove a strong cloth with great effort over years, but when the time came to use it, she tore it to pieces.

The Jews presented their ideas to the Quraysh in attractive ways and in order to keep their trust, reassured them that their advice was based entirely on good will towards them. This was a ploy of deception and lies, aimed at ensuring that the Quraysh abide by their stance, keep firm on their opposition to the Prophet (sws), weaken the morale of the Muslims and stop believers from taking steps towards the religion of God. The Qur’an exposed this conspiracy of the Jews, and revealed the implications of their efforts. Their entire activities were based on the fear that the population and power of Muslims may exceed theirs. Hence they did not spare any effort that could thwart the steps of the Muslims, and missed no opportunity to create doubts and apprehensions within the minds of those who listened to the new Message with attention.

The attitude of the Jews was not based on any sincerity. They were creating difficulties for the Prophet (sws) merely to protect their worldly benefits. The Qur’an compared this character to the greed and baseness of dogs. A dog searches for his favourite food and wherever he finds its smell, he turns towards it. Following this example, the Jews had also let their desires and vested interests rule them, above divine guidance, and forgot their vows and covenant, as well as the responsibilities of their status. God Almighty had showered them with blessings, and had also warned them, but these things did not prove to be of use to them. God had wished to award them supremacy of this world and the next, but greed for this world became their undoing, and this nation could not prepare itself for any lofty purpose. Various aspects of this particular characteristic of the Jews were exposed by the Qur’an during the Makkan phase. Its pitiless criticism points to the fact that the Jews were not playing an ordinary role during this phase, and that they were constantly creating problems for the Prophet’s struggle, and thus it became necessary to correct the situation.


Criticism on the Christians

As with the Jews, the beliefs of the Christians, too, came under discussion during the Makkan phase. However, the address to them does not contain the same bitterness as is found for the Jews. This is probably because the Jews were known to operate through conspiracies and deception, whereas the Christians were misguided and victims of misunderstanding. Their wrong beliefs included divinity of Jesus (sws) or his being God Himself, the idea of his being the son of God and his bringing salvation to his believers in the Hereafter. A comprehensive Surah Maryam was revealed to refute these beliefs. It begins with the miraculous birth of Yahya (sws) – John the Baptist, to Zakariyya (sws) – Zachariah. He, himself was very old, and his wife was infertile. As an acceptance of their humble supplications, God Almighty blessed them with a son. Maryam (sws) – Mary, was a pious and virtuous lady at the Bayt al-Maqdas, where Zachariah was custodian and leader. She gave birth to a son, born without a father, on God’s special instructions, and the child, while still in his mother’s lap, witnessed to his being a slave of God and His prophet, sent towards the Israelites. This child was ‘Īsa (sws) – Jesus, who was given the status of the son of God, and assigned divinity by his followers. The above two births have been mentioned together to demonstrate the fact that, if miraculous births could be the reason for being deities, then Zachariah (sws), too, was born miraculously. But he had neither claimed divinity on this basis, nor had anyone one else believed him to be thus. Why did then, the followers of Jesus (sws) leave their reasoning aside in his case?

Mary (sws) was a servant of God, worshipping in the temple. When Jesus (sws) was born to her, the fact of his being a human being was automatically proved. Despite this, he proclaimed openly his servant hood of God throughout his life, from the cradle to the last phases of his preaching. God blessed him with prophethood and the Holy Book, entrusted him with religious guidance and instructed him to pray and to pay zakah. He said about himself that, just as with other human beings, he, too, had to go through the stages of birth, death and resurrection. Hence, his position was no different from that of others. Addressing his followers, he proclaimed that he was a slave of God, who was his Creator, as well as theirs. He clarified that his relationship with God was the same as that of his addressees with God. Thus, if this relationship meant being a son of God, then all human beings were children of God and it was not a special characteristic of Jesus (sws) alone. 

Surah Maryam also threw light upon the traditions of prophets, and explained that virtuous and pious people were averse to polytheism, proclaimed the oneness of God and expressed their servitude to Him. Jesus (sws) was a true follower of these traditions, and the same should be held dear to the hearts of his followers. These prophets were also characterized by their devotion to the revelations they received. They were influenced by each and every divine verse, and acted upon it. The true disciples among the People of the Book should have reverted, with sincerity, to the divine guidance which was being revealed then. But their situation was such that they were under the influence of satanic elements and expressed their aversion to divine guidance. 

An important topic in Surah Maryam was one of the eventual return of all human beings to God. There was no other destination for them. Every individual will be presented for  accountability. Neither his helpers and supporters, nor his allies or friends will be with him. The attribute of mercy of God shall come into action that day, and it will require Him to do justice among his servants, redress the sufferings of those who had followed the path of truth and banish the oppressors to hell. On that day, the people who followed the path of virtue and whose actions were witness to their piety shall be deserving of entering paradise. They shall be received with great honour, and presented before God Almighty with respect and dignity. The criminals shall be warded off to hell like thirsty camels. Their presumed pleaders will not have any right to plead on their behalf. This narrative refuted the belief of the Christians that Jesus (sws) would come to their rescue in the Hereafter, and God would absolve them of all their sins on the basis of their belief in him.

This explains that the Qur’an not only clarified right from wrong through its commentary on the Quraysh, but also exposed the wrongdoing of the People of the Book who supported them. This informed the Quraysh of the position and value held by the people they were relying upon in the eyes of God, and the importance of any advice they gave to them.



(Translated by Nikhat Sattar)


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