Surah 2:194-211: “do good.” Thanks.

The previous section of the text we went through saw language that is a little more law-like than most other religious books, in that the Qur’an prescribes mundane rules about everything from contracts to wills and estates seemingly devoid of any particular religious or theological meaning. As I posited, this is because Muhammed saw himself tasked with building not just a faith but a society in the face of the political turmoil of contemporary Medina where this Surah was almost certainly written. The strange moral construct of the “law of equality” – an Islamic moral code that is presented inconsistently sometimes multiple times in the same paragraph – comes back in the next section, which otherwise returns more to religious and ritualistic law.

But a lot of it isn’t even truly, uniquely Islamic – laws about Ramadan, the pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj), and other seemingly unique features of Islam far predate Muhammed’s time in Medina.

I rather like this new convention of doing commentary interspersed with the text rather than give you the block of Muhammed’s thoughts then the block of mine. Lets do that. Take it away, Yusuf:

194. The prohibited month for the prohibited month,- and so for all things prohibited,- there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, Transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.

So begins a confusing re-entry into the “law of equality” that was referenced in verse 2:190. 2:190 told the followers of Allah to only make defensive war, and not to “transgress limits,” implying that there is some ceiling on the amount of suffering one is allowed to inflict even in self-defense. 2:194 is a simpler story. Another translation I like ellides in an editorial explanation of the first clause of 194: “[fighting in] the sacred month is for [aggression committed in] the sacred month.” That is a ton of editorialization so take it with a grain of salt, but that reading does at least render this verse thematically consistent with the Hammurabi-style, eye-for-an-eye legal theme of 2:190.

194 also serves the purpose of clarifying that even the “sacred month” (Ramadan) still brooks some sin and bloodshed, but only if need be, ie, in the cause of self-defense. Whether this law is better categorized as a “religious” law or a “mundane” law is a value judgment all your own; it is so common-sense that a nation should not totally disarm for any reason, much less a purely religious reason, shouldn’t need to be stated. Unless, of course, you are self-consciously aware that future nations will be writing their laws based on your book and so even seemingly-trivial inconsistencies or absurdities need to be resolved in writing, as I believe Muhammed was.

195. And spend of your substance in the cause of Allah, and make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction; but do good; for Allah loveth those who do good.

Now that’s a helpful moral statement. “Do good.” Great, very helpful.

Whether or not an action is good because the Qur’an says so, or whether the Qur’an says an action is good because it is independently good, harks back to the inconsistent soteriology (salvation doctrine) of the Qur’an. The Qur’an adopts at least two and possibly three inconsistent positions on salvation in the same paragraph. If someone is good for goodness’ sake but doesn’t become a Muslim, there is a Qur’anic argument both for and against that person’s eternal reward. And so when we read the Qur’an commanding us to “do good,” this is very unhelpful in isolation, because we do not know if “good” means “do what is good and Allah will reward you,” or if it means, “good is doing what the Qur’an tells you, so you must do everything the Qur’an orders you to.” In a book that liberally intersperses both general moral commands and specific legalisms, this is just bad editorial policy.

But there may be some help in contrast:

196. And complete the Hajj or ‘umra in the service of Allah. But if ye are prevented (From completing it), send an offering for sacrifice, such as ye may find, and do not shave your heads until the offering reaches the place of sacrifice. And if any of you is ill, or has an ailment in his scalp, (Necessitating shaving), (He should) in compensation either fast, or feed the poor, or offer sacrifice; and when ye are in peaceful conditions (again), if any one wishes to continue the ‘umra on to the hajj, He must make an offering, such as he can afford, but if he cannot afford it, He should fast three days during the hajj and seven days on his return, Making ten days in all. This is for those whose household is not in (the precincts of) the Sacred Mosque. And fear Allah, and know that Allah Is strict in punishment.

This overlong verse is self-explanatory so instead what I will highlight is a possible resolution to the question I ask about verse 195, which is whether “good” means “good” or “good” means “Qur’anic.” The opening of verse 196 with a new sentence and the word “and” (consistent across every translation I used in preparing the Jefferson Qur’an) makes me as a reader think that verse 196 is setting itself up to contrast (in some way) with verse 195. Perhaps 195 is telling us to be good for its own sake, and verse 196 is saying, in addition to doing good, one should do this other category of thing and go on the Hajj if you can. Perhaps this is a complicated bit of moral philosophy, and perhaps Muhammed was a bad writer. 

197. For Hajj are the months well known. If any one undertakes that duty therein, Let there be no obscenity, nor wickedness, nor wrangling in the Hajj. And whatever good ye do, (be sure) Allah knoweth it. And take a provision (With you) for the journey, but the best of provisions is right conduct. So fear Me, o ye that are wise.

198. It is no crime in you if ye seek of the bounty of your Lord (during pilgrimage). Then when ye pour down from (Mount) Arafat, celebrate the praises of Allah at the Sacred Monument, and celebrate His praises as He has directed you, even though, before this, ye went astray.

199. Then pass on at a quick pace from the place whence it is usual for the multitude so to do, and ask for Allah.s forgiveness. For Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

200. So when ye have accomplished your holy rites, celebrate the praises of Allah, as ye used to celebrate the praises of your fathers,- yea, with far more Heart and soul. There are men who say: “Our Lord! Give us (Thy bounties) in this world!” but they will have no portion in the Hereafter.

The original specifics of the pilgrimage to Mecca are hopelessly lost to time and were apparently inconsistent among the pre-Islamic “pagans” of Arabia even before Muhammed’s time, but what is certain is that the pilgrimage to Mecca itself in one form or another predates Islam by centuries. F.E. Peters’ the Hajj is an excellent sourcebook on the modern and ancient practice of the Hajj and goes into far more detail than I can here.

The early pilgrimage to Mecca lacked the Biblical interpolations Muslims today follow (such as casting stones at Satan and going to Mt. Arafat); it was about going to Mecca and probably also visiting the Kaaba, which too was a site of ritual significance long before Muhammed for reasons we can at best only intelligently speculate about. Muhammed has blatantly co-opted it, laying upon it as he is wont to do an innovative retelling of the Hebrew Scriptures (which Muhammed knew… poorly) to preserve his connection to, but not reinvention of, the ancestral monotheism he wishes to replace. Today it is the iconic unique feature of Islam, but its true origins are lost to us, except to say that Muhammed did not invent the Hajj.

201. And there are men who say: “Our Lord! Give us good in this world and good in the Hereafter, and defend us from the torment of the Fire!”

202. To these will be allotted what they have earned; and Allah is quick in account.

Another ill-presented and unusual moral lesson. If 2:201-202 says that all we have to do to get our eternal reward is ask for it, then what is the point of all the do-gooding we’re asked to do in verses 195 and 196? But then, 202 does not actually tell us what the reward is. What does somebody “earn” by a profession such as 2:201? The Qur’an doesn’t say.

203. Celebrate the praises of Allah during the Appointed Days. But if any one hastens to leave in two days, there is no blame on him, and if any one stays on, there is no blame on him, if his aim is to do right. Then fear Allah, and know that ye will surely be gathered unto Him.

There is a set of two “sacred days” some Muslims apparently may have believed (or inherited the belief of being) set aside for the Hajj. This verse tells the reader that there is apparently nothing special about these sacred days – Muhammed, perhaps, shearing away some extraneous paganism from the original Hajj rituals to make way for all of the Hebrew testament references.

204. There is the type of man whose speech about this world’s life May dazzle thee, and he calls Allah to witness about what is in his heart; yet is he the most contentious of enemies.

205. When he turns his back, His aim everywhere is to spread mischief through the earth and destroy crops and cattle. But Allah loveth not mischief.

206. When it is said to him, “Fear Allah., He is led by arrogance to (more) crime. Enough for him is Hell;-An evil bed indeed (To lie on)!

207. And there is the type of man who gives his life to earn the pleasure of Allah. And Allah is full of kindness to (His) devotees.

If Muhammed was referring to a specific person here, that person is lost to history. Likely, this is prophylactic apologetics, encouraging his people to mentally separate Muhammed out from all those other itinerant prophets, the latter of whom will distort the authentic message with their lies and is, in fact, not just wrong (2:204), but is in fact positively evil, out to steal food from your kids’ mouths (2:205).

208. O ye who believe! Enter into Islam whole-heartedly; and follow not the footsteps of the evil one; for he is to you an avowed enemy.

It is not clear whether or not “the evil one” described here is the generic wicked-tongued heretic described in the previous verses, or is Satan.

209. If ye backslide after the clear (Signs) have come to you, then know that Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.

210. Will they wait until Allah comes to them in canopies of clouds, with angels (in His train) and the question is (thus) settled? but to Allah do all questions go back (for decision).

211. Ask the Children of Israel how many clear (Signs) We have sent them. But if any one, after Allah.s favour has come to him, substitutes (something else), Allah is strict in punishment.

And here we have a nice shout-out back to the original anti-apostasy prohibitions from earlier in the chapter, mixed with the continued polemic against “the Children of Israel” as wicked, fallen apostate Muslims instead of as authentic, devout Jews.

I kept some of the material from this section for inclusion in the Jefferson Qur’an that will require some explanation. Here are the verses:

2:195 Do not make your own hands contribute to your destruction, but do good.

2:204 There is the type of man whose speech about this world’s life may dazzle you, and he calls Allah to witness about what is in his heart; yet he is the most contentious of enemies.

2:205 When he turns his back, his aim everywhere is to spread mischief through the earth and destroy crops and cattle.

2:195 is one of those uncontroversially decent moral commands that I will always presumptively include in the final text of the Jefferson Qur’an as a gesture of good faith towards the Qur’an, which after all is losing about 95% of its original material in the course of this editing. 2:204-205, however, I will explain. Its functionality as an ironic warning against people just like Muhammed is simply too charming a textual quirk for me to pass up. It will therefore find use in a particular section of the Jefferson Qur’an, once this long slog through the native text is completed.


2 thoughts on “Surah 2:194-211: “do good.” Thanks.”

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