Surah 2: 122-152: “Strive as in a race towards all that is good!”

Today we officially cross the halfway mark of the titanic surah 2. As with the past several sections, today we are going to see another screed against the Jews, who were Muhammed’s contemporaries and political rivals, continuing Muhammed’s quest to appropriate the Hebrew scriptures without the audience thinking that his is just a sect or reinterpretation of Judaism or of Christianity.

But there’s a little bit of interesting historical material here, so I’m going to break up today’s big chunk into smaller pieces to talk about some of the historical context. As always, I’ll let Yusuf Ali take it away:

122. O Children of Israel! call to mind the special favour which I bestowed upon you, and that I preferred you to all others (for My Message).
123. Then guard yourselves against a Day when one soul shall not avail another, nor shall compensation be accepted from her nor shall intercession profit her nor shall anyone be helped (from outside).
124. And remember that Abraham was tried by his Lord with certain commands, which he fulfilled: He said: “I will make thee an Imam to the Nations.” He pleaded: “And also (Imams) from my offspring!” He answered: “But My Promise is not within the reach of evil-doers.”
125. Remember We made the House a place of assembly for men and a place of safety; and take ye the station of Abraham as a place of prayer; and We covenanted with Abraham and Isma’il, that they should sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer).
126. And remember Abraham said: “My Lord, make this a City of Peace, and feed its people with fruits,-such of them as believe in Allah and the Last Day.” He said: “(Yea), and such as reject Faith,-for a while will I grant them their pleasure, but will soon drive them to the torment of Fire,- an evil destination (indeed)!”
127. And remember Abraham and Isma’il raised the foundations of the House (With this prayer): “Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us: For Thou art the All-Hearing, the All-knowing.
128. “Our Lord! make of us Muslims, bowing to Thy (Will), and of our progeny a people Muslim, bowing to Thy (will); and show us our place for the celebration of (due) rites; and turn unto us (in Mercy); for Thou art the Oft-Returning, Most Merciful.
129. “Our Lord! send amongst them an Messenger of their own, who shall rehearse Thy Signs to them and instruct them in scripture and wisdom, and sanctify them: For Thou art the Exalted in Might, the Wise.”
130. And who turns away from the religion of Abraham but such as debase their souls with folly? Him We chose and rendered pure in this world: And he will be in the Hereafter in the ranks of the Righteous.
131. Behold! his Lord said to him: “Bow (thy will to Me):” He said: “I bow (my will) to the Lord and Cherisher of the Universe.”
132. And this was the legacy that Abraham left to his sons, and so did Jacob; “Oh my sons! Allah hath chosen the Faith for you; then die not except in the Faith of Islam.”
133. Were ye witnesses when death appeared before Jacob? Behold, he said to his sons: “What will ye worship after me?” They said: “We shall worship Thy Allah and the Allah of thy fathers, of Abraham, Isma’il and Isaac,- the one (True) Allah. To Him we bow (in Islam).”
134. That was a people that hath passed away. They shall reap the fruit of what they did, and ye of what ye do! Of their merits there is no question in your case!
135. They say: “Become Jews or Christians if ye would be guided (To salvation).” Say thou: “Nay! (I would rather) the Religion of Abraham the True, and he joined not gods with Allah.”
136. Say ye: “We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we bow to Allah (in Islam).”
137. So if they believe as ye believe, they are indeed on the right path; but if they turn back, it is they who are in schism; but Allah will suffice thee as against them, and He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.
138. (Our religion is) the Baptism of Allah. And who can baptize better than Allah. And it is He Whom we worship.
139. Say: Will ye dispute with us about Allah, seeing that He is our Lord and your Lord; that we are responsible for our doings and ye for yours; and that We are sincere (in our faith) in Him?
140. Or do ye say that Abraham, Isma’il Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes were Jews or Christians? Say: Do ye know better than Allah. Ah! who is more unjust than those who conceal the testimony they have from Allah. but Allah is not unmindful of what ye do!
141. That was a people that hath passed away. They shall reap the fruit of what they did, and ye of what ye do! Of their merits there is no question in your case:
142. The fools among the people will say: “What hath turned them from the Qibla to which they were used?” Say: To Allah belong both east and West: He guideth whom He will to a Way that is straight.
143. Thus, have We made of you an Ummat justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves; and We appointed the Qibla to which thou wast used, only to test those who followed the Messenger from those who would turn on their heels (From the Faith). Indeed it was (A change) momentous, except to those guided by Allah. And never would Allah Make your faith of no effect. For Allah is to all people Most surely full of kindness, Most Merciful.
144. We see the turning of thy face (for guidance to the heavens: now Shall We turn thee to a Qibla that shall please thee. Turn then Thy face in the direction of the sacred Mosque: Wherever ye are, turn your faces in that direction. The people of the Book know well that that is the truth from their Lord. Nor is Allah unmindful of what they do.
145. Even if thou wert to bring to the people of the Book all the Signs (together), they would not follow Thy Qibla; nor art thou going to follow their Qibla; nor indeed will they follow each other’s Qibla. If thou after the knowledge hath reached thee, Wert to follow their (vain) desires,-then wert thou Indeed (clearly) in the wrong.
146. The people of the Book know this as they know their own sons; but some of them conceal the truth which they themselves know.

Yesterday’s post contains the bulk of my thoughts on the apologetical trick of co-opting Jewish scriptures and condemning the “modern” (7th-century) Jews while uplifting the story and spirit of the “real” (Old Testament-era) Jews (who were, in fact, Muslims, of course) so I won’t belabor it. The only real new material in this section is the explicit argument contained in verse 143, which has a translation trick I’ll need to explain.

Ali does not translate the word “Ummat” for us because there really is no word for it in English. Here is a parallel translation that will give you some idea of what is meant. Rashad’s translation renders it as “an impartial nation;” Muhammed Pickthall (whose translation I think is the most poetic of the ones I read, for the record, but is a little hard to read sometimes) renders it “a middle nation;” other translations that render it as an “exalted” nation are likely based on a post facto superiority view of the Islamic community rather than what Muhammed likely intended – that Islam is the “middle way” for Christians, Jews, and the mysterious Sabians. This “impartial nation” thought is the only one that makes sense of three separate overlapping issues:

  1. As explained in prior posts, Muhammed’s political position upon his return to Medina was that of the role of the mediator between the Christian and Jewish communities of Medina (Yathrib). It would not be helpful, and in fact might be dangerous, to the Muslim community of Medina if Muhammed came out of the gate swinging about the Islamic community being the superior community rather than the “middle way” community.
  2. Verse 135 only makes sense if we see this passage as an attempt to frame Islam as the middle way, by setting “the Jews” and Christians in opposition to each other.
  3. The best available evidence tells us that the Jewish and Christian communities were much larger suppliers of new converts to Islam (Glubb’s The Life and Times of the Prophet is an excellent older source on this point that has been validated by the succeeding decades of academic scholarship) than the Sabians (whoever they were) and the “pagan” communities. It is therefore a simply a sharper rhetorical weapon to contextualize Islam as the middle between the two, not more like one than the other, and not stated in a way that completely alienates either side’s religion as totally bogus.

My two cents.

147. The Truth is from thy Lord; so be not at all in doubt.
148. To each is a goal to which Allah turns him; then strive together (as in a race) Towards all that is good. Wheresoever ye are, Allah will bring you Together. For Allah Hath power over all things.

This is a passage that I genuinely do not understand – or rather, it is written badly. Verse 147 tells us that truth comes from God, so there should be no doubts – yet much of surah 2 is dedicated precisely to those who do doubt (who Muhammed calls “perverse“). Verse 148 goes on to give a contradictory message in a single sentence: Allah decides where everyone turns, but here is where you should turn: the “Good.” Whether or not Muhammed had a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of Greek philosophy to effectively deploy such massively loaded and complex terms as “the Good” with an eye to those philosophies will be discussed in later posts, but I doubt it.

149. From whencesoever Thou startest forth, turn Thy face in the direction of the sacred Mosque; that is indeed the truth from the Lord. And Allah is not unmindful of what ye do.
150. So from whencesoever Thou startest forth, turn Thy face in the direction of the sacred Mosque; and wheresoever ye are, Turn your face thither: that there be no ground of dispute against you among the people, except those of them that are bent on wickedness; so fear them not, but fear Me; and that I may complete My favours on you, and ye May (consent to) be guided;
151. A similar (favour have ye already received) in that We have sent among you an Messenger of your own, rehearsing to you Our Signs, and sanctifying you, and instructing you in Scripture and Wisdom, and in new knowledge.
152. Then do ye remember Me; I will remember you. Be grateful to Me, and reject not Faith.

One final historical diversion: these verses define the qibla, or the direction to which Muslims should face when they are praying. Montgomery Watt and even less partisan sources tell us that, originally, Muslims were instructed to pray towards Jerusalem, before the consecration of the Masjid al-Haram where the Qaaba is located. That Allah would designate a roving point of devotional supremacy is weird enough. But you’ve certainly encountered just through your culture an understanding that Muslims pray in the direction of the Qaaba. What is it?

In surah 3, Muhammed will tell us that the Qaaba (Kaaba is the Anglicization that you have probably seen but one that I don’t particularly care for) is the actual site of the First Temple where Abraham and Solomon worshiped. Beyond the fact that the entire historicity of the First Temple being anywhere at all is in serious question, it is very unlikely that it was located so far south of the Levant.

Ancient Greek historians as far back as Diodorus actually referred to what is likely the area of Mecca as a sacred place long before the rise of Islam and even before Judaism or Christianity had any significant presence in the region. Pre-Islamic non-Abrahamic religion in the area is weird and confusing but do remember that “Allah” had a ritual significance in Arabia long before Islam (Muhammed’s own father was named Abdullah: “Servant of Allah”). There is also some evidence that Mecca itself was something of a demilitarized zone, perhaps to facilitate its role as a trading home, for much of pre-Islamic Arabian history, but whether its religious significance is because of this or a consequence of this is not a matter of academic consensus that I know of.

So really, in my estimation, we know that the Qaaba is, and even have some idea of why it is significant in Islam, but it is otherwise an enduring mystery.

Finally, here is all that I have kept from this section for the Jefferson Qur’an:

2:134 They shall reap the fruit of what they did, and you of what you do!

2:141 They shall reap the fruit of what they did, and you of what you do!

2:148 Strive together as in a race toward all that is good.

This is another case of me preserving a sentiment that I simply like. In fact, I like the sentiment of the repeated phrase above so much that I took it twice. I like the idea that people should be prepared to accept the consequences of their own actions – it is rather at odds with Muhammed’s essentialist wordlview that “the Jews” can be one, harmoniously apostate and fallen people, rather than speaking to the individual goodness of any given Jew, or of any Muslim who are instead condensed into an Ummat.

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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.