Blogging the Qur'an: Sura 2, "The Cow," verses 40-75

Verse 40 of Sura 2 addresses the “Children of Israel,” beginning an extended meditation on all that Allah did for the Jews, and the ingratitude with which they repaid him. Verse 41 warns them to “part not with My revelations for a trifling price,” which the Islamic commentators generally interpret as an exhortation to put the service of Allah before the concerns of this world. Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi, a renowned twentieth-century Islamic intellectual and exponent of political Islam, says in his massive Towards Understanding the Qur’an that this verse “refers to the worldly benefits for the sake of which [the Jews] were rejecting God’s directives.” However, many have speculated that this verse amounts to Muhammad’s rebuke of those who sold him material that they told him was divine revelation, but wasn’t – people who are raked over the coals again in 2:79.

Anyway, the Jews can get back into good graces with Allah by converting to Islam (v. 43). This might sail right by the English-speaking reader, since the translations exhort them to “steadfast in prayer” and to “practise regular charity” (as Abdullah Yusuf Ali has it), but in Arabic the word used here for prayer is salat (الصَّلاَة) and for charity zakat (الزَّكَاة); these refer specifically to Islamic prayer and almsgiving. Non-Muslims cannot pray salat or pay zakat. About the need for this conversion Ibn Kathir is forthright: “Allah commanded the Children of Israel to embrace Islam and to follow Muhammad.” Sayyid Qutb says that here Allah “invites the Israelites to join the Muslims in their religious practices, and to abandon their prejudices and ethnocentric tendencies.”

Starting with verse 47, says Maududi, “reference is made to the best-known episodes of Jewish history. As these episodes were known to every Jewish child, they are narrated briefly rather than in detail. The reference is intended to remind the Jews both of the favours with which the Israelites had been endowed by God and of the misdeeds with which they had responded to those favours.” These include the Israelites being rescued from Pharaoh (vv. 49-50); the golden calf episode (vv. 54-55), and the feeding of the people with manna and quails in the wilderness (v. 57, 61), culminating in the avowal that the Jews “were covered with humiliation and misery; they drew on themselves the wrath of Allah. This because they went on rejecting the Signs of Allah and slaying His Messengers without just cause. This because they rebelled and went on transgressing” (v. 61).

Ibn Kathir applies these words to all Jews: “This Ayah [verse] indicates that the Children of Israel were plagued with humiliation, and that this will continue, meaning that it will never cease. They will continue to suffer humiliation at the hands of all who interact with them, along with the disgrace that they feel inwardly.”

It may seem jarring that immediately following this comes one of the Qur’an’s “tolerance verses,” verse 62, which seems to promise a place in Paradise to “those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians.” Muhammad Asad exults: “With a breadth of vision unparalleled in any other religious faith, the idea of ‘salvation’ is here made conditional upon three elements only: belief in God, belief in the Day of Judgment, and righteous action in life.” Not, apparently, acceptance of Islam. But he contradicts himself by adding “in this divine writ” after the words “those who have attained to faith” in his translation of verse 62 – that is, to be saved, one must believe in the Qur’an as well as the earlier revelations. And indeed, Muslim commentators are not inclined to see this as an indication of divine pluralism. The translators Ali and Pickthall, as well as Asad, all feel it necessary to add parenthetical glosses that make the passage mean that Jews and Christians (as well as Sabians, whose identity is disputed) will be saved only if they become Muslims. And according to Ibn Abbas, this verse was abrogated by Qur’an 3:85: “If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to Allah), never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual good).” Qutb opines that 2:62 applied only before Muhammad brought Islam to the world, a view supported by a saying of Muhammad recorded by Tabari, in which the Prophet of Islam says that Christians who died before his coming will be saved, but those who have heard of him and yet rejected his prophetic claim will not be.

Then follows the first of the three notorious “apes and pigs” passages. Jihadists today routinely refer to Jews as apes and pigs; this idea is rooted in Qur’an 2:63-66; 5:59-60; and 7:166. The first of these depicts Allah telling the Jews who “profaned the Sabbath”: “Be as apes despicable!” It goes on to say that these accursed ones serve “as a warning example for their time and for all times to come.” Traditionally in Islamic theology these passages have not been considered to apply to all Jews. Ibn Abbas says that “those who violated the sanctity of the Sabbath were turned into monkeys, then they perished without offspring.” Others, however, such as the early Islamic scholar Ibn Qutaiba, held today’s apes are the descendants of the Sabbath-breaking Jews.

This is widely used today as a metaphor for the Jews’ corruption, even unto bestial status. Muhammad himself began this when he addressed the Jews of the Qurayzah tribe, which he was about to massacre, as “you brothers of monkeys.” Today, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, called Jews “the enemies of Allah, descendants of apes and pigs.” The Saudi Sheikh Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sudayyis, imam of the principal mosque in Mecca, the Al-Haraam mosque, expanded on this, saying in a sermon that Jews are “the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs.” Another Saudi Sheikh, Ba’d bin Abdallah Al-Ajameh Al-Ghamidi, made the connection explicit: “The current behavior of the brothers of apes and pigs, their treachery, violation of agreements, and defiling of holy places… is connected with the deeds of their forefathers during the early period of Islam — which proves the great similarity between all the Jews living today and the Jews who lived at the dawn of Islam.” For more on this, see the excellent study by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

Verse 67 takes up the reproaches again, with the Israelites reacting with haughty rebelliousness to Allah’s command, given through Moses, that they sacrifice a heifer (the “cow” of the sura’s title). We hear that the Jews’ hearts are hardened (v. 74) and ultimately that they are accursed of Allah (v. 89). To that curse and its implications, and other matters extending to verse 140 of sura 2, we will turn next week.

Here is a link to Bryan Preston’s introduction to the series, where you’ll find links to the earlier 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.)