Surah 2:40-74: A Midrash mishmash

Onward we trudge through the Qur’an’s longest single chapter, Surah 2: the Heifer, where we finally encounter the actual story (or parable) of the eponymous Heifer. Without further ado, I’ll let Yusuf Ali set the stage for the next section of this Medinan surah:

40. O Children of Israel! call to mind the (special) favour which I bestowed upon you, and fulfil your covenant with Me as I fulfil My Covenant with you, and fear none but Me.
41. And believe in what I reveal, confirming the revelation which is with you, and be not the first to reject Faith therein, nor sell My Signs for a small price; and fear Me, and Me alone.
42. And cover not Truth with falsehood, nor conceal the Truth when ye know (what it is).
43. And be steadfast in prayer; practise regular charity; and bow down your heads with those who bow down (in worship).
44. Do ye enjoin right conduct on the people, and forget (To practise it) yourselves, and yet ye study the Scripture? Will ye not understand?
45. Nay, seek ((Allah)’s) help with patient perseverance and prayer: It is indeed hard, except to those who bring a lowly spirit,-
46. Who bear in mind the certainty that they are to meet their Lord, and that they are to return to Him.
47. Children of Israel! call to mind the (special) favour which I bestowed upon you, and that I preferred you to all other (for My Message).
48. Then guard yourselves against a day when one soul shall not avail another nor shall intercession be accepted for her, nor shall compensation be taken from her, nor shall anyone be helped (from outside).
49. And remember, We delivered you from the people of Pharaoh: They set you hard tasks and punishments, slaughtered your sons and let your women-folk live; therein was a tremendous trial from your Lord.
50. And remember We divided the sea for you and saved you and drowned Pharaoh’s people within your very sight.
51. And remember We appointed forty nights for Moses, and in his absence ye took the calf (for worship), and ye did grievous wrong.
52. Even then We did forgive you; there was a chance for you to be grateful.
53. And remember We gave Moses the Scripture and the Criterion (Between right and wrong): There was a chance for you to be guided aright.
54. And remember Moses said to his people: “O my people! Ye have indeed wronged yourselves by your worship of the calf: So turn (in repentance) to your Maker, and slay yourselves (the wrong-doers); that will be better for you in the sight of your Maker.” Then He turned towards you (in forgiveness): For He is Oft- Returning, Most Merciful.
55. And remember ye said: “O Moses! We shall never believe in thee until we see Allah manifestly,” but ye were dazed with thunder and lighting even as ye looked on.
56. Then We raised you up after your death: Ye had the chance to be grateful.
57. And We gave you the shade of clouds and sent down to you Manna and quails, saying: “Eat of the good things We have provided for you:” (But they rebelled); to us they did no harm, but they harmed their own souls.
58. And remember We said: “Enter this town, and eat of the plenty therein as ye wish; but enter the gate with humility, in posture and in words, and We shall forgive you your faults and increase (the portion of) those who do good.”
59. But the transgressors changed the word from that which had been given them; so We sent on the transgressors a plague from heaven, for that they infringed (Our command) repeatedly.
60. And remember Moses prayed for water for his people; We said: “Strike the rock with thy staff.” Then gushed forth therefrom twelve springs. Each group knew its own place for water. So eat and drink of the sustenance provided by Allah, and do no evil nor mischief on the (face of the) earth.
61. And remember ye said: “O Moses! we cannot endure one kind of food (always); so beseech thy Lord for us to produce for us of what the earth groweth, -its pot-herbs, and cucumbers, Its garlic, lentils, and onions.” He said: “Will ye exchange the better for the worse? Go ye down to any town, and ye shall find what ye want!” They 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.
62. Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.
63. And remember We took your covenant and We raised above you (The towering height) of Mount (Sinai) : (Saying): “Hold firmly to what We have given you and bring (ever) to remembrance what is therein: Perchance ye may fear Allah.”
64. But ye turned back thereafter: Had it not been for the Grace and Mercy of Allah to you, ye had surely been among the lost.
65. And well ye knew those amongst you who transgressed in the matter of the Sabbath: We said to them: “Be ye apes, despised and rejected.”
66. So We made it an example to their own time and to their posterity, and a lesson to those who fear Allah.
67. And remember Moses said to his people: “(Allah) commands that ye sacrifice a heifer.” They said: “Makest thou a laughing-stock of us?” He said: “(Allah) save me from being an ignorant (fool)!”
68. They said: “Beseech on our behalf Thy Lord to make plain to us what (heifer) it is!” He said; “He says: The heifer should be neither too old nor too young, but of middling age. Now do what ye are commanded!”
69. They said: “Beseech on our behalf Thy Lord to make plain to us Her colour.” He said: “He says: A fawn-coloured heifer, pure and rich in tone, the admiration of beholders!”
70. They said: “Beseech on our behalf Thy Lord to make plain to us what she is: To us are all heifers alike: We wish indeed for guidance, if Allah wills.”
71. He said: “He says: A heifer not trained to till the soil or water the fields; sound and without blemish.” They said: “Now hast thou brought the truth.” Then they offered her in sacrifice, but not with good-will.
72. Remember ye slew a man and fell into a dispute among yourselves as to the crime: But Allah was to bring forth what ye did hide.
73. So We said: “Strike the (body) with a piece of the (heifer).” Thus Allah bringeth the dead to life and showeth you His Signs: Perchance ye may understand.
74. Thenceforth were your hearts hardened: They became like a rock and even worse in hardness. For among rocks there are some from which rivers gush forth; others there are which when split asunder send forth water; and others which sink for fear of Allah. And Allah is not unmindful of what ye do.

I know it’s a wall of text, but sometimes Muhammed must go to the mountain, as nobody in particular says.

 

While there is no way for sure to know when exactly surah 2 was written, there is widespread academic consensus that it was written during the Medinan period and was probably one of the earliest verses of that period “received” by Muhammed. Hajar al-Asqalani preserves the hadith of how the Qur’an was preserved: some decades after Muhammed’s death, the loss of many of Muhammed’s personal companions in a battle caused the then-caliph Abu Bakr to fear that the original words of Muhammed would be lost forever. Abu Bakr, and his successor Uthman, then compiled a series of codices and ordered all others destroyed for fear of allowing inconsistencies to flourish in the community of Muslims (as befell the early Christians, necessitating the epic story of the Council of Nicea). Even though the Qur’an was assembled much closer to the events it describes than most parts of the Bible, it still requires us to infer much of the relationship between the Qur’an and the contemporary world around Muhammed.

The Cambridge History of Islam captures best what we know about the political context of Muhammed in Medina, where most of the information below comes from. As I’ve discussed, Surah 2 comes from a time in the early history of Islam where Muhammed and his followers had reached some level of political and military strength in the Arabian peninsula. At the very least, they had enough influence and power for Muhammed to be invited to serve as a sort of political mediator for the people of Medina (then Yathrib) whose Jewish, Christian, and “pagan” (for lack of a better shorthand for “Early Islamic-era Arabic non-Bedouin non-Muslim religious groups other than Christians, Jews, and Sabians – more on them in a moment – living in the Arabian peninsula) residents had been in a state of more or less continuous simmering conflict.

Aside from serving as a poetic template for the state of political affairs in the modern Middle East, the simmering conflict in a way explains much of the strangely universalist tone of the section excerpted in today’s post. Many Westerners today think of Islam as a religion ruthlessly hell-bent on absorbing the unbelievers into its fold, yet right here we read this passage which, if there were a merciful and loving God, would be hammered into the brains of every politically significant Muslim on the planet:

62. Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.

This attitude, however, sours rapidly, within the course of the very same surah.

Not long after Muhammed’s arrival in Medina, tensions briefly subsided and then came roaring back. Muhammed did not come to Medina alone: he brought with him many of his followers who, losing their lands in wealth in Mecca from whence they came, found themselves impoverished, unemployable, and marooned in what at the time was a distant and pagan land. As such they resorted to raiding caravans without much regard for who operated them; eventually, this culminated in the legendary Battle of Badr, in which Muhammed and his followers scored a major victory over an expeditionary force of Meccan caravan guards (who likely were affiliated with “pagans” rather than Christians or Jews). Emboldened by his military victory, Muhammed ordered one of Medina’s largest Jewish tribes expelled from Medina, likely due to a combination of certainty in his ability to defeat his enemies in battle and dismay at the refusal or failure of the Jews to recognize him as a prophet.

Muhammed knew the Jewish scriptures but he knew them poorly. He knew the story of Adam and Eve in the same way that I knew The Scarlet Letter after furiously paging through the Cliff’s Notes version on the school bus: he knew the names of some of the characters, and the rest is a little bit made up. But nevertheless he knew them well enough to reference them, and so he did with great aplomb in surah 2.

The Jews are roundly excoriated in this section. Sure, they are “people of the Book,” and so long as they “work righteousness” (whatever that means), they are destined for the same rewards as righteous Jews, Christians, and Sabians. Except, unfortunately, according to this passage, the Jews turned against God: they showed no thankfulness for the gift of manna from heaven after being exiled in the desert (which to me is a bit like being punished for being ungrateful to a spiteful jailer when he gives you bread after locking you up, but that’s just my opinion). Muhammed almost gets the story of the Jews worshiping a cow during his ascent to Mount Sinai right, using it as another opportunity to excoriate his contemporary Jews as if they’d ever had anything to do with the Jews of the (almost certainly fictional) story of Exodus, which took place thousands of years earlier. And he rounds it off by bungling the story of Moses striking the rock with his staff, adding the interesting detail of twelve streams of water, which creates an ad hoc etiology of the “twelve” tribes of Israel (who, almost certainly, were also fictional).

In short, an ecumenical message that gives some political cover to the once-ecumenical Muhammed quickly descends into a polemic against the Jews. Between that, and the fact that it is mostly a low-fidelity recapitulation of the fiction of the Old Testament, here are the only scraps that belong in the Jefferson Qur’an:

2:42 And cover not Truth with falsehood, nor conceal the Truth when you know what it is.

2:43 And practice regular charity.

2:44 Do you enjoin right conduct on the people, and forget to practice it yourselves? Will you not understand?

If this is all that Muhammed had said about what constitutes “righteousness,” without extraneous commands to love Allah or to pray, it would be a perfectly fine moral sentiment. Don’t lie, even by omission. Be charitable. And don’t be a hypocrite. But since Muhammed himself had a political aim to achieve at this point in his scriptures, these fine commandments are tragically dovetailed with Jewish stories cherry-picked to discredit the Jewish community around him. In a way, he adopts a version of the Christian perversion of the “blood libel:” as the Christians justified persecution of Jews for their role in the crucifixion, Muhammed justifies his persecution of Jews for their role in disobeying God, which God Muhammed takes for granted is the same as the Jewish one.

As an interesting aside, nobody really knows who the Sabians referenced in this chapter are. Some scholars have found possible culprits, and it is agreed that it probably does not reference any Christian or Jewish sect but rather some local pagan group, but it is a group so provincial to Muhammed’s surroundings that they have left no permanent imprint on history whatsoever outside of the Qur’an. Remember, much of surah 2 only makes sense in the geopolitical context of 6th- and 7th-century Medina, and so even a religious or political group of true historical insignificance will be magnified a thousand times under the narrow lens of the Qur’an purely by virtue of running up against Muhammed and his personal followers.

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8 thoughts on “Surah 2:40-74: A Midrash mishmash”

  1. Line 70 provides something worth pondering: “They became like a rock and even worse in hardness. For among rocks there are some from which rivers gush forth; others there are which when split asunder send forth water; and others which sink.”

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