Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 5, “The Table,” verses 61-120

posted at 9:00 am on September 23, 2007 by Robert Spencer

The second half of the Qur’an’s fifth sura continues to expound upon the wickedness of the Jews and Christians. Verses 61-86 criticize the Jews and Christians for refusing to follow Muhammad. Why don’t the Jews’ rabbis stop their evil behavior (v. 63)? They even dare to say that “Allah’s hand is fettered” (v. 64).

Allah’s hand is fettered? It is unclear what Jewish concept, if any, the Qur’an is referring to in this case. Ibn Kathir comments: “Allah states that the Jews, may Allah’s continuous curses descend on them until the Day of Resurrection, describe Him as a miser. Allah is far holier than what they attribute to Him.” He is also absolute will, with hand absolutely unfettered: Allah’s unfettered hand is a vivid image of divine freedom. Such a God can be bound by no laws. Muslim theologians argued during the long controversy with the heretical Islamic Mu‘tazilite sect, which exalted human reason beyond the point that the eventual victors were willing to tolerate, that Allah was free to act as he pleased. He was thus not bound to govern the universe according to consistent and observable laws. “He cannot be questioned concerning what He does” (Qur’an 21:23).

Accordingly, there was no point to observing the workings of the physical world; there was no reason to expect that any pattern to its workings would be consistent, or even discernable. If Allah could not be counted on to be consistent, why waste time observing the order of things? It could change tomorrow. Stanley Jaki, a Catholic priest and physicist, explains that it was the renowned Sufi thinker al-Ghazali who “denounced natural laws, the very objective of science, as a blasphemous constraint upon the free will of Allah.” The great twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides explained orthodox Islamic cosmology in similar terms, noting that Islamic thinkers of his day assumed “the possibility that an existing being should be larger or smaller than it really is, or that it should be different in form and position from what it really is; e.g., a man might have the height of a mountain, might have several heads, and fly in the air; or an elephant might be as small as an insect, or an insect as huge as an elephant. This method of admitting possibilities is applied to the whole Universe.”

Relatively early in its history, therefore, science was deprived in the Islamic world of the philosophical foundation it needed in order to flourish. It found that philosophical foundation only in Christian Europe, where it was assumed that God was good and had constructed the universe according to consistent and observable laws. Such an idea would have been for pious Muslims tantamount to saying, “Allah’s hand is fettered.”

Verse 64 also says that whenever the Jews “kindle the fire of war, Allah doth extinguish it.” That is, says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “war against the Prophet(s).” According to Bulandshahri, “The Jews make every effort to instigate wars against the Muslims, but Allah foils their attempts each time, either by instilling terror in their hearts or by their defeat in these battles.” The Jews also “strive to do mischief on earth” – that is, fasaad (فَسَاد) – for which the punishment is specified in v. 33: “they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land.”

Verses 66, 68 and 69 exhort the Jews and Christians to follow what is written in the Torah and Gospel, and promises Paradise to those who do so. This is not (as it is often represented) a manifestation of ecumenical generosity, but rather an expression of the Qur’an’s assumption that it confirms the message of the earlier books, which prophesied Muhammad’s coming. Ibn Kathir tells Jews and Christians that they will have “no real religion until you adhere to and implement the Tawrah [Torah] and the Injil [Gospel]. That is, until you believe in all the Books that you have that Allah revealed to the Prophets. These Books command following Muhammad and believing in his prophecy, all the while adhering to his Law.”

V. 72 repeats the denial of the divinity of Christ – and the labeling of those who believe in it as “unbelievers” – of v. 17, and v. 73 repeats the denial of the doctrine of the Trinity from 4:171. Jesus and his mother are again presented as the other members of the divine trio with Allah, but they were mortal: they both used to eat earthly food (v. 75) – “like all other human beings,” says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, and one who is such cannot be a god because of his compound being and fallible nature, and because of the [impurities such as] urine and excrement that he produces.” The actual Christian concept of the Incarnation, with Christ being both fully God and fully human, doesn’t enter into consideration.

Meanwhile, for their part the disbelieving Jews are cursed by both David and Jesus for their disobedience (v. 78). The Muslims will find that these Jews are their fiercest enemies, while those closest to them in affection will be the Christians (v. 82). According to the Ma’alimut Tanzil, this verse doesn’t refer to all Christians, but only to those who accept Islam; this is made clear by verses 83 and 84, in which those Christians accept Muhammad’s message.

Verses 87-108 establish various regulations for the Muslims. Among them is the directive that one who breaks an oath must in expiation feed ten indigents or free a slave (v. 88). Verses 90-91 say that alcohol and gambling are “Satan’s handiwork” – and thus definitively forbidden. Muslims are warned in verses 101-102 not to “ask questions about things which, if made plain to you, may cause you trouble. But if ye ask about things when the Qur’an is being revealed, they will be made plain to you, Allah will forgive those.” However, “some people before you did ask such questions, and on that account lost their faith.” Which may explain the touchiness of some imams when asked questions.

Verses 109-120 return to Jesus, emphasizing his status as a prophet of Allah, who did all his mighty works by order of Allah – and is thus not God himself. The miracle of the clay birds becoming live ones (v. 110) is found in the second-century Gnostic text the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It’s likely that Gnostics had left the Eastern Roman Empire, where they faced persecution, and settled in Arabia. Verses 112-115 give the chapter its name, recounting when Jesus asked Allah for a table laden with food from heaven, which would be “a solemn festival and a sign from thee” (v. 114). This appears to be a vestige of the Christian Eucharist: the consuming of the Body and Blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine, which was central to all Christian groups in Muhammad’s time. In v. 116, Allah asks Jesus directly: “O Jesus, son of Mary! Didst thou say unto mankind: Take me and my mother for two gods beside Allah?” Jesus, of course, denies having done so. Those who believe otherwise will be punished.

Next week: Sura 6, “Cattle”: Allah consoles Muhammad.

(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic/English Qur’an, here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)


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Robert,

There’s possibly another reason why Islam would regard Jews as saying that Allah’s hand is “fettered”. There’s a very old question asked in yeshivas, Jewish seminaries, that asks that if God is omnipotent, can He create a stone that’s too heavy for Him to lift? The answer is no because there’s no such thing as a stone too heavy for God to lift. The question is essentially asking if God can do something that is categorically impossible.

Jewish theology has concluded that there are things that God cannot do, those things that are contrary to His nature. God is eternal, perfect and all powerful. Can God create another god just like Him? No, that would mean there is an object in the universe over which God has no power. Can God destroy Himself? No, that would conflict with God’s nature as eternal. Can God take on physical form? No, that would make God subject to the physical world (here, Judaism, differs with Christianity, obviously).

I can easily see how this concept could be seen by Muslims as fettering the hand of the almighty, as it is not an easy concept for many religious people to grasp. Though the ideas are firmly rooted in classical Jewish sources and expressed most clearly by R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato (18th cent. CE), I was once called a heretic by a teenaged yeshiva student because he couldn’t get past my saying God was “limited” by His nature.

The question I would ask of Muslims is if science is a blasphemous intrusion on Allah’s omnipotence (this inshallah fatalism no doubt contributes to the stagnation so common in the Muslim world), then what value is there to any human activity, including the five pillars of Islam and jihad? Islam strikes me as being too deterministic to allow any real value to free will.

Robert, what do the classical Muslim sources say about free will?

rokemronnie on September 23, 2007 at 11:13 AM

If I had a student who did the kind of prolific plagiarism that Mr. al Muttalib attributed to his version of the moon god, he/she would have been expelled.

Actually I’m surprised that the great schools of Islamic thought don’t try to use al Ghazali’s reasoning as a way to explain away those pesky Qur’anic contradictions. (Allah simply changed the rules on different occasions which only proves his divine nature.)

On the other hand Islam is deterministic and the book with all the answers has existed with Allah for all time, so how can he change the rules without contradicting himself and the book?

Annar on September 23, 2007 at 11:29 AM

I’m staying caught up in this series but to even read the Koran is spiritually draining. Thanks for doing the heavy lifting for us Robert. Today’s verses help to explain the pathetically small number of Nobel Prize winning Muslims in science.

Mojave Mark on September 23, 2007 at 12:33 PM

I disagree about the Koran being spiritually draining. It’s just simply boring and repetitive. I’m not a good judge of what is considered “spiritual” because I don’t believe in that sort of thing, but I find nothing spiritual at all in the Koran or the Hadiths. It’s way too pedestrian, for lack of a better word.

There doesn’t seem to be any call to faith at all. It’s all just presented as fact, and anyone who doesn’t see that is wrong. Not only wrong, but…evil. Those who don’t see it, are actively against it. The enemy.

Jews and Christians don’t think that way from what I can tell. Jews tend to proclaim their faith as the only right one, but anyone who doesn’t is just missing out and doesn’t bother them. Christians feel sorry for those who don’t believe and feel the need to pursuade them. For their own eternal salvation.

Muslims? Seems to be a totally different mindset.

Jaynie59 on September 23, 2007 at 2:54 PM

Thank you as always Robert.

TheBigOldDog on September 23, 2007 at 3:02 PM

“The second half of the Qur’an’s fifth sura continues to expound upon the wickedness of the Jews and Christians.”

Krykee. Blood feud pt 430.

The science interpretation is the most bizzare. It reads more like hindu mysticism – things ain’t what they appear to be; and the things that are what they appear to be, you can’t see anyways. So there. Nana-nana-boo-boo.

But then it’s back to cursing the Jews & Christians. (surprise!)
And then again with the ‘leave your brain at the door’ stuff: “Muslims are warned in verses 101-102 not to “ask questions about things which, if made plain to you, may cause you trouble.” Which is probably why jihadist rallies don’t have Q&A sessions.

My head spins after trying to digest most of this koran stuff, but you keep posting and I’ll keep reading. Thank you, Robert Spencer.

locomotivebreath1901 on September 23, 2007 at 3:02 PM

This Muhammad guy just does not sound very healthy to me. Most of what I have read so far deals with pain, death, self-inflected ignorance, and general negativity of life.

allrsn on September 23, 2007 at 4:38 PM

THOU SHALL NOT ASK A QUESTION

allrsn on September 23, 2007 at 4:39 PM

Interestingly, this perspective:

Accordingly, there was no point to observing the workings of the physical world; there was no reason to expect that any pattern to its workings would be consistent, or even discernable. If Allah could not be counted on to be consistent, why waste time observing the order of things? It could change tomorrow. Stanley Jaki, a Catholic priest and physicist, explains that it was the renowned Sufi thinker al-Ghazali who “denounced natural laws, the very objective of science, as a blasphemous constraint upon the free will of Allah.” The great twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides explained orthodox Islamic cosmology in similar terms, noting that Islamic thinkers of his day assumed “the possibility that an existing being should be larger or smaller than it really is, or that it should be different in form and position from what it really is; e.g., a man might have the height of a mountain, might have several heads, and fly in the air; or an elephant might be as small as an insect, or an insect as huge as an elephant. This method of admitting possibilities is applied to the whole Universe.”

Destroys utterly any kind of mystery. Great intellect, I think, is founded upon the considering of great mysteries, whether they be of the physical world, or of the spiritual one. Even the idea of a mystery is founded on the idea that there is consistency – and this particular thing – for reasons unknown – does not comply. When a man admits a mystery he must not give up all knowledge – I.E. if a scientist cannot discover the reason for something he does not quit science, he keeps trying or accepts that he can only speculate as to the reason because of (usually) current restrictions in thought or technology. Likewise, if a religious person is called to believe that there is no consistency at all, then there are no mysteries. Thus, there are no great intellects at all. At least some of the Sufis admit to mysteries. One such was F. Schuon. But then, he rode the line between faith and what some would have called heresy.

I think maybe it is a form of rebellion in itself; they are unable to accept that reality itself is a mystery. Instead of this, they create a canned explanation that ties up all of the loose ends nicely.

They will never pull the core out of a planet to send it into a star…

RiverCocytus on September 23, 2007 at 4:52 PM

Hm. I’m trying to discern a fundamental difference between a “UFO Contactee”-type from the 1950s, a modern New Age crystal-gazing, deep-ecology “social engineer”, a retro-Sixties hippie burnout case, a typical “progressive” political leader….. and whoever wrote these verses.

So far, I can’t see one. All are utterly ignorant of science, and contemptuous of it (even when trying to use it achieve their ends); all hold that their “beliefs” outweigh actual facts; and all are willing to use whatever “extreme measures” may be necessary to force others to bow to their will.

And oh, yes; Exactly none of the above ever admit to being in error, or mistaken, about anything. As with the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, “In cases of major discrepancy, it’s always Reality that’s gotten it wrong.”

cheers

eon

eon on September 23, 2007 at 5:07 PM

Regarding this item

Verses 66, 68 and 69 exhort the Jews and Christians to follow what is written in the Torah and Gospel, and promises Paradise to those who do so. This is not (as it is often represented) a manifestation of ecumenical generosity, but rather an expression of the Qur’an’s assumption that it confirms the message of the earlier books, which prophesied Muhammad’s coming. Ibn Kathir tells Jews and Christians that they will have “no real religion until you adhere to and implement the Tawrah [Torah] and the Injil [Gospel]. That is, until you believe in all the Books that you have that Allah revealed to the Prophets. These Books command following Muhammad and believing in his prophecy, all the while adhering to his Law.”

This is a interesting testimony of a Jihadi who was given the task of reading the entire Bible for the purposes of debunking it… after reading it, the Jihadi came to the conclusion that the Bible was true and the Koran was a fraud:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90ozM2DmkaQ

VinceP1974 on September 23, 2007 at 6:51 PM

Thanks Robert for sharing your time and insight.

I think that it’s not just scientific pursuit that has been hobbled by this view of God as arbitrary and changing. Since he’s a moving target, he cannot be known–therefore the pursuit of knowing him is pointless. Furthermore any attempt to discern right and wrong, or a moral basis in the universe or god, is going to go badly as well. Even if you discover it today, tomorrow the rug may get pulled from under you.

There is a learned helplessness, and fatalism that seems to grip the minds of so many muslims. In my experience, this is what muslims are expressing when they use the phrase inshallah.

TexasDan on September 23, 2007 at 10:40 PM

VinceP1974 on September 23, 2007 at 6:51 PM

Good YouTube vid. This sort of thing happens all the time. There are shelves full of books by former _________ists or _______s who actually read/study the bible and end up Christians. The currently popular author, and Yale School of Law grad, Lee Strobel is a good example of this.

I disagree about the Koran being spiritually draining. Jaynie59 on September 23, 2007 at 2:54 PM

Please take my word for it, it is. I’m one of the many Christians who has the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues so I’m sort of dialed in to the spiritual side of the house. Reading the Koran is the spiritual equivalent of a vampire sucking your blood.

Mojave Mark on September 24, 2007 at 12:33 AM

After a while, I find reading the Koran and Hadith physically painful. The illogical, constant rambling, and pure malice give me a migrane after a while. The Bible, OT and NT, is much easier on the mind, and soul. Constantly reading memorizing it would probably drive most people nuts.

The fact that most madrassas do nothing but force boys to do just that all day, every day, might explain how jihadi groups never seem to lack for recruits.

ticticboom on September 24, 2007 at 1:44 AM

This Muhammad guy just does not sound very healthy to me. Most of what I have read so far deals with pain, death, self-inflected ignorance, and general negativity of life.

allrsn on September 23, 2007 at 4:38 PM

I agree, there doesn’t seem to be much positive or uplifting in this book. What gets me too is the amount of contradiction I see. It’s like the whole thing was written by a crazy, jealous, spiteful, ranting, lazy jerk… did I leave anything out?

4shoes on September 24, 2007 at 9:02 AM

So a new Muslim prophet could come along and say:

Allah has changed his mind, and the prophet Mohammad is no longer valid, the Koran an obsolete book, The Five Pillars are dust, and here are Allah new Rules:

‘Be loving to one another, treating every person like an honored member of the Noble human family.

And, you are all now equal, men and women.

Plus, there are no more unclean animals.

Cruelty to any living thing is forbidden.

And Camels can read your minds.

(Allah was just kidding about that last one, to show that he has a sense of humor.).

Finally, The Hadj must be replaced with terraforming Mars.

And have a drink, the antioxidants are good for your heart.”

If Allah is unpredictable, then this would be a perfect example of his mercurial nature.

profitsbeard on September 25, 2007 at 1:11 AM

So Allah cannot be restrained by saying he is “good”… he is completly “unfettered.” Even the phrase “Allahu Akbar” would restrain Allah to being “great.” There are no absolutes with this “Allah,” thus nothing can be said of him, you can trust in him for nothing and he tells you as much.

Maxx on September 25, 2007 at 12:51 PM

So basically, you never have to work or try at anything because Allah is so unpredictable and if he blesses you, you are blessed. Whatever.

This why a lot of insurgents/terrorists “spray and pray” instead of aiming – even some Iraqi police and military do this after we show them basic marksman skills.

“If the bullet or rocket hits the infidel, it is Allah’s will. If it hits a fellow Muslim, it is Allah’s will.”

El Guapo on September 26, 2007 at 1:12 AM

This why a lot of insurgents/terrorists “spray and pray” instead of aiming – even some Iraqi police and military do this after we show them basic marksman skills.

“If the bullet or rocket hits the infidel, it is Allah’s will. If it hits a fellow Muslim, it is Allah’s will.”

El Guapo on September 26, 2007 at 1:12 AM

Can anyone else (Robert Spencer?) verify this? I am aware of the “Inshallah” sloth that is inherent in Arab/Muslim culture, but does it go as far as to inspire police officers to fire their weapons willy-nilly and wherever the bullets may land represents the blessed will of Allah?

Loundry on September 26, 2007 at 4:20 PM