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.

Surah 2:153-177: salvation for… pretty much whoever? For Muslims only? Why not both!

We turn now from a long string of invective against “the Jews,” Christians, and whoever the Sabians are to a new theme. This part of the Surah 2 is more about Islamic nation-building; I’ll break up the inestimable Yusuf Ali’s translation below a little bit to help explain some of what we are looking at here. The Qur’an’s weird essentialism (that Jews are, as a people, essentially or innately apostate from the “Islamic” teachings of their ancestors) is not consistently applied – in this section you will see that not all Muslims, for example, are created equal.

Take it away, Yusuf:

153. O ye who believe! seek help with patient perseverance and prayer; for Allah is with those who patiently persevere.
154. And say not of those who are slain in the way of Allah. “They are dead.” Nay, they are living, though ye perceive (it) not.

This sentiment likely makes more sense after one of the more significant events in early Islamic history: the Badr campaign, or the Battle of Badr, which marked the beginning of open hostilities between the Muslims and Jews of Medina and which culminated in the outright expulsion of many of Muhammed’s politico-theological opponents, and also saw the beginnings of open hostilities with the despised Quraysh tribe. The Quraysh were, in fact, Muhammed’s own tribe, but between their mercantile strength in the Arabian peninsula and their refusal to join Muhammed’s growing religion, and likely the uncomfortable suggestion that there could be something banal or worldly about the blood flowing in the Prophet’s veins, they made a natural target.

It therefore would have been an important part of Muhammed’s sermons after these battles to hearten his followers with a common religious refrain: the certain knowledge that those who live and die by the sword ascend to special treatment in the hereafter.

155. Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere,
156. Who say, when afflicted with calamity: “To Allah We belong, and to Him is our return”:-
157. They are those on whom (Descend) blessings from Allah, and Mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance.
158. Behold! Safa and Marwa are among the Symbols of Allah. So if those who visit the House in the Season or at other times, should compass them round, it is no sin in them. And if any one obeyeth his own impulse to good,- be sure that Allah is He Who recogniseth and knoweth.
159. Those who conceal the clear (Signs) We have sent down, and the Guidance, after We have made it clear for the people in the Book,-on them shall be Allah.s curse, and the curse of those entitled to curse,-
160. Except those who repent and make amends and openly declare (the Truth): To them I turn; for I am Oft-returning, Most Merciful.
161. Those who reject Faith, and die rejecting,- on them is Allah.s curse, and the curse of angels, and of all mankind;
162. They will abide therein: Their penalty will not be lightened, nor will respite be their (lot).
163. And your Allah is One Allah. There is no god but He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

First, a historical note on verse 158: Safa and Marwa are hills between Mecca and Medina (Yathrib) of a certain theological significance in Islam. Probably owing more to their significance as points of military importance during the prolonged conflicts between the Muslim community of Medina than to the bizarre re-telling of the story of Abraham and Hagar that has survived in Islamic tradition in those hills (you can read about it in the wikipedia link above and in subsequent posts here), they are used here as metaphors for one of many inconsistent solutions to the “Problem of Evil” in Islam.

The Problem of Evil is a recurring theological dilemma for monotheistic religions. I spent a good deal of my undergraduate work building a thesis against Alvin Plantinga’s own response to this problem so I’ll try not to get too long-winded here, but the long and short of it is the old refrain of “if God is real, why do bad things happen?” (I shudder to reduce the problem so savagely but, there it is). Verse 155 makes it seem like Allah uses suffering to test us: “glad tidings” are for those who “persevere” in the face of the horrible things that Allah either causes or allows to happen, as if this is satisfying. Verse 157 goes on to say that Allah in fact rewards those who suffer and persevere, though this likely is of little comfort to those who suffer and die without the promised reward.

There are also two inconsistent views of salvation in this very short passage. Verse 158 gives us a nice, universalist view of salvation: if you obey an internal impulse towards goodness, Allah will notice this and reward you. This verse does not even ask that you believe anything in particular. But just two short verses later in verse 160, one must actually openly declare “the Truth” (stated throughout Surah 2 as knowledge of Allah’s own words) in order to enjoy eternal reward. So in verse 158, goodness is its own reward; in verse 160-163, one must openly confess the narrow theological dictates of Islam in order to be saved. C’est la vie, insh’Allah.

164. Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rain which Allah Sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they Trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth;- (Here) indeed are Signs for a people that are wise.

Back to the “suffering is an opportunity to persevere and receive the gifts of Allah” view.

165. Yet there are men who take (for worship) others besides Allah, as equal (with Allah.: They love them as they should love Allah. But those of Faith are overflowing in their love for Allah. If only the unrighteous could see, behold, they would see the penalty: that to Allah belongs all power, and Allah will strongly enforce the penalty.
166. Then would those who are followed clear themselves of those who follow (them) : They would see the penalty, and all relations between them would be cut off.

And back to the “narrow theological dictates of Islam” view of salvation.

167. And those who followed would say: “If only We had one more chance, We would clear ourselves of them, as they have cleared themselves of us.” Thus will Allah show them (The fruits of) their deeds as (nothing but) regrets. Nor will there be a way for them out of the Fire.

This actually fills in a theological gap that beleaguers Biblical theologians. There is no explicit statement in the Bible that salvation is only for the living; later Christian theologians have had to convince their flock that they can’t just take their chances in this life and repent after they’ve come to discover the “reality” of Hell in the afterlife. But in Islam, this is a clear statement that salvation is for the living alone. This also makes sense of the necessity of rehabilitating the key figures of the Jewish scriptures as good Muslims: it would be hard to affiliate the new religion with the “authentic” old religion if everyone of Abdhullah’s generation on back automatically went to Hell for not obeying at least half of the salvation views presented in this chapter (Abdullah, “Slave of Allah,” was Muhammed’s father).

Beyond, of course, the political expediency of being able to frame “the Jews” of Yathrib as apostates of the true religion, instead of as members of a (populous and political powerful) “false” religion.

168. O ye people! Eat of what is on earth, Lawful and good; and do not follow the footsteps of the evil one, for he is to you an avowed enemy.
169. For he commands you what is evil and shameful, and that ye should say of Allah that of which ye have no knowledge.

This is likely a reference to Jewish dietary law, which Muslims also follow. “The evil one” is probably a reference to the Adversary, the antagonist of the biblical story of Job and many others. You may know him by the anachronism “Satan.”

170. When it is said to them: “Follow what Allah hath revealed:” They say: “Nay! we shall follow the ways of our fathers.” What! even though their fathers Were void of wisdom and guidance?
171. The parable of those who reject Faith is as if one were to shout Like a goat-herd, to things that listen to nothing but calls and cries: Deaf, dumb, and blind, they are void of wisdom.

Verse 171 has one of my favorite visual metaphors of the Qur’an. It takes a rather dim view of people who are not Muslims and is actually a rather defeatist attitude for an evangelist of Allah to take (why would Muhammed try to spread his religion to anyone if most people are like wild animals, who heed bleating and barking more than reasoning and theology, after all) and frankly, discouraging evangelists is a view I rather like.

172. O ye who believe! Eat of the good things that We have provided for you, and be grateful to Allah, if it is Him ye worship.

Contrast with verse 168, which says only to eat that which is lawful as opposed to that which Allah has provided. Are we to believe, then, that kosher laws apply to literally everything, or that there are some foods on this good Earth that Allah did not create? From whence then cometh they?

173. He hath only forbidden you dead meat, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that on which any other name hath been invoked besides that of Allah. But if one is forced by necessity, without wilful disobedience, nor transgressing due limits,- then is he guiltless. For Allah is Oft-forgiving Most Merciful.

Contrast with verse 172!

174. Those who conceal Allah.s revelations in the Book, and purchase for them a miserable profit,- they swallow into themselves naught but Fire; Allah will not address them on the Day of Resurrection. Nor purify them: Grievous will be their penalty.
175. They are the ones who buy Error in place of Guidance and Torment in place of Forgiveness. Ah! what boldness (They show) for the Fire!
176. (Their doom is) because Allah sent down the Book in truth but those who seek causes of dispute in the Book are in a schism Far (from the purpose).

Another gloomy verse for those who might wish Islam to be a universalist religion – ie, those who rather enjoy verses like 2:158 above.

177. It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces Towards east or West; but it is righteousness- to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfil the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the Allah.fearing.

Contrast this verse with those verses above for a third view of salvation. It is not enough to mindlessly obey the silly rituals of Islam, the very ones Muhammed has ordained as profound Truth revealed by God, nor is it enough to be morally good: you have to be good and charitable and believe in Allah and the Last Day and Angels and the Qur’an and Muhammed and your own contracts (!) in order to reach heaven.

I have a theory on the rather out-of-place commandment in 2:177 to follow “the contracts which ye have made.” I try to carefully flag the state of academic consensus when I relay it to you; this theory comes from no academic work that I know of, and if it does, no plagiarism is intended, nor is it intended to reflect the views of any of the many eminent scholars I’ve read and recommended to you so far.

My theory is that the Qur’an’s inclusion of contract law in the criteria for salvation (which sounds silly just writing it) serves a purpose somewhat similar to that of the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution. The wikipedia article does not do justice to a big part of its historical context. Late 18th/early 19th century America was basically in a state of economic free-fall. In order to assure foreign creditors (who had financed the Revolution and who the American government knew would be financing the inevitable next war with Britain, which came to pass in the War of 1812) and to encourage foreign investment, the 11th Amendment was passed. Surely as wikipedia states this was in part to clarify the authority of the federal government to hear lawsuits against and between individual US states, but it also served the purpose of reassuring foreign creditors that their actions for collection of bad debts would not be overridden by American courts, guaranteeing that foreign creditors and investors would always have at least some remedy available to them should they choose to invest in an American venture.

Likewise, Muhammed, being a merchant himself, knew that the Medinan community’s greatest strength was its traditional commercial power and role as a crossroads of the southern Arabian peninsula. Likewise, Muhammed had to create some language in the Qur’an that would demand of his own followers that they obey the fundamental precepts of commerce in order to continue the project of Islamic nation-building that will become much clearer in the next couple of posts. Otherwise, it would be very easy for the community to become alienated from the greater world of trade (and therefore evangelism).

It would have been easy for Muhammed to say “fulfill your contracts with other Muslims” (in nicer language), but he did not. He simply said to fulfill your contracts. In contrast to the sublime racial wisdom of the 17th Ferengi Rule of Acquisition (I love Star Trek and despise myself for waiting this long to make a reference). This only makes sense if Muhammed saw a role for his community in the greater world beyond the walls of Yathrib, and will make even more sense as we descend over the next couple of posts deeper into the Qur’an’s insanely detailed version of the common law of contracts.

To conclude, here is what remains from today’s section in the Jefferson Qur’an:

2:168 O you people! Eat of what is on earth, lawful and good; and do not follow the footsteps of Evil.

2:170 The say: “Nay! We shall follow the ways of our fathers.” What! Even though their fathers were void of wisdom?

2:177 It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards East or West; but it is righteousness to spend of your substance for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves. Practice regular charity, fulfill the contracts which you have made, and be firm and patient in pain or adversity and throughout all periods of panic.

Note the creative editing necessary to make some basic moral sense out of these. Extracted from the religious context, I have no problem with eating what is “lawful.” Verse 170 serves the fine purpose of excoriating those who base their beliefs about cosmos-scale moral and philosophical questions on what their forebears believed. And I think that the innate virtue of a savagely-edited 2:177 rather speaks for itself.

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.

Surah 2:102-121: “Those to whom We have sent the Book study it as it should be studied…”

Much of the material we have covered so far in surah 2 is essentially apologetics against Judaism and Christianity, and this next section is no different. The fact that Muhammed would dedicate so much time (surah 2 being the longest chapter of the Qur’an) to his critics speaks not only to the relative political and military strength he acquired during his time in Medina, when this surah was almost certainly written, but also to the fact that Muhammed was conscious of the fact that he was creating a new religion, as opposed to a sect or reinterpretation of an existing one.

This section also opens up an interesting historical diatribe on that most magnificent gape in the record of the Qur’an: the Satanic Verses. Here is today’s material, as always from Yusuf Ali’s translation:

102. They followed what the evil ones gave out (falsely) against the power of Solomon: the blasphemers Were, not Solomon, but the evil ones, teaching men Magic, and such things as came down at babylon to the angels Harut and Marut. But neither of these taught anyone (Such things) without saying: “We are only for trial; so do not blaspheme.” They learned from them the means to sow discord between man and wife. But they could not thus harm anyone except by Allah.s permission. And they learned what harmed them, not what profited them. And they knew that the buyers of (magic) would have no share in the happiness of the Hereafter. And vile was the price for which they did sell their souls, if they but knew!
103. If they had kept their Faith and guarded themselves from evil, far better had been the reward from their Lord, if they but knew!
104. O ye of Faith! Say not (to the Messenger. words of ambiguous import, but words of respect; and hearken (to him): To those without Faith is a grievous punishment.
105. It is never the wish of those without Faith among the People of the Book, nor of the Pagans, that anything good should come down to you from your Lord. But Allah will choose for His special Mercy whom He will – for Allah is Lord of grace abounding.
106. None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things?
107. Knowest thou not that to Allah belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth? And besides Him ye have neither patron nor helper.
108. Would ye question your Messenger as Moses was questioned of old? but whoever changeth from Faith to Unbelief, Hath strayed without doubt from the even way.
109. Quite a number of the People of the Book wish they could Turn you (people) back to infidelity after ye have believed, from selfish envy, after the Truth hath become Manifest unto them: But forgive and overlook, Till Allah accomplish His purpose; for Allah Hath power over all things.
110. And be steadfast in prayer and regular in charity: And whatever good ye send forth for your souls before you, ye shall find it with Allah. for Allah sees Well all that ye do.
111. And they say: “None shall enter Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian.” Those are their (vain) desires. Say: “Produce your proof if ye are truthful.”
112. Nay,-whoever submits His whole self to Allah and is a doer of good,- He will get his reward with his Lord; on such shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.
113. The Jews say: “The Christians have naught (to stand) upon; and the Christians say: “The Jews have naught (To stand) upon.” Yet they (Profess to) study the (same) Book. Like unto their word is what those say who know not; but Allah will judge between them in their quarrel on the Day of Judgment.
114. And who is more unjust than he who forbids that in places for the worship of Allah, Allah.s name should be celebrated?-whose zeal is (in fact) to ruin them? It was not fitting that such should themselves enter them except in fear. For them there is nothing but disgrace in this world, and in the world to come, an exceeding torment.
115. To Allah belong the east and the West: Whithersoever ye turn, there is the presence of Allah. For Allah is all-Pervading, all-Knowing.
116. They say: “(Allah) hath begotten a son” :Glory be to Him.-Nay, to Him belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth: everything renders worship to Him.
117. To Him is due the primal origin of the heavens and the earth: When He decreeth a matter, He saith to it: “Be,” and it is.
118. Say those without knowledge: “Why speaketh not Allah unto us? or why cometh not unto us a Sign?” So said the people before them words of similar import. Their hearts are alike. We have indeed made clear the Signs unto any people who hold firmly to Faith (in their hearts).
119. Verily We have sent thee in truth as a bearer of glad tidings and a warner: But of thee no question shall be asked of the Companions of the Blazing Fire.
120. Never will the Jews or the Christians be satisfied with thee unless thou follow their form of religion. Say: “The Guidance of Allah,-that is the (only) Guidance.” Wert thou to follow their desires after the knowledge which hath reached thee, then wouldst thou find neither Protector nor helper against Allah.
121. Those to whom We have sent the Book study it as it should be studied: They are the ones that believe therein: Those who reject faith therein,- the loss is their own.

Verse 106 specifically tells us that Allah does not “abrogate” or replace the verses of his revelations. This only seems necessary in a chapter that is essentially apologetical in nature (as you have seen, it obsessively criticizes Jews, Christians, and the mysterious Sabians) if there is an extant criticism of Islam at the time of its authorship necessitating such defensiveness.

The Qur’an is not arranged in chronological order of its revelation to Muhammed, it is arranged from longest chapter to shortest except for its first chapter. Surah 2: the Heifer is actually one of the last ones revealed: according to the general academic consensus (which is consistent with the commentaries by the faithful that I read in preparing the Jefferson Quran), it stands way down the list at 87th written. This puts it far behind the interesting Surah 23: the Star, itself at 53rd.I call the Star interesting more for what is excluded from it than what is included, namely, those verses that have today come to be called “the Satanic Verses.”

When we get to surah 23 in the coming weeks I will go into greater detail about what the Satanic Verses are, why they are important, and why I think that the story behind them is authentic and not an invention of later critics, but for now let me give you the quick overview. While reciting the Star, Muhammed allegedly recited verses that more or less require that Allah stands in a quasi-polytheistic relationship to three other pre-Islamic Arabian gods named al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat, called the gharaniq all together, who, according to the Satanic verses, had certain intercessory powers (ie, they could answer prayers).

The general apologetical tact is to either deny the existence of the event at all (highly unlikely in my view) or to take the more imaginative route of saying that Satan interfered with the recitation of the Star, either by distorting Muhammed’s words, confusing the listeners, or beguiling Muhammed himself into actually speaking the words. Hence, the “Satanic” verses.

Verse 106 is one piece of evidence to me suggesting that the incident of the Satanic Verses actually happened; if we begin with the premise that the general historiography of the Qur’an is correct, that the hadith preserving the story of the Satanic Verses is accurate (and as it is embedded in a longer hadith surviving through ibn Ishaq, who is otherwise generally accepted as reliable by historians of Islam, there is no reason to think otherwise), and if we agree that it makes more sense from a theological point of view to say that the incident never occurred at all as opposed to some convoluted apologetical nonsense about Satan warbling the soundwaves between Muhammed’s mouth and his secretaries’ ears, and that surah 2 comes chronologically later than surah 23, then 2:106 makes perfect sense as a defensive reaction to stories about the Satanic Verses: which stories have no proper place existing at all if they are not rooted in some, or complete, truth.

Much of the rest of this section is at least thematically consistent with what we’ve seen: 2:102 shows that Muhammed has an okay grasp of Jewish canon but not a great one, condensing several stories about Solomon and Simon the Mage into a single blurb that serves only to excoriate “the Jews” for some kind of blood libel-style mass apostasy. Verse 108 hammers home that surah 2 is apologetical in nature, dedicated to defending Muhammed from what were likely lines of theological attack for the Christian and Jewish communities of contemporary Medina, specifically comparing Muhammed to Moses and the doubts that Muhammed seem to think were leveled at him by the Jews at the foot of Mt. Sinai (per the material from the previous sections of this chapter), even though the skepticism to which he probably means to refer actually came from Pharaoh in Egypt.

But there is some text that can be sliced out. To wit:

2:109 Quite a number of the People of the Book wish they could turn you people back after you believed, but forgive them.

This is just a nice sentiment extracted from the context. Forgiving thy enemies is one of those things that I think we all wish that the rest of the People of the Book would take more seriously.

2:111 And they say: “None shall enter Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian.” These are their vain desires. Say: Produce your proof if you are truthful.

2:113 The Jews say: “The Christians have nothing to stand upon,” and the Christians say, “The Jews have nothing to stand upon.” Yet they profess to study the same Book.

2:114 And who is more unjust than he who forbids that in places for the worship of Allah, Allah’s name should be celebrated?

2:120 Never will the Jews or the Christians be satisfied with you unless you follow their form of religion.

Much as the phrase “the Jews” gives me the heeby-jeebies, these verses weave together an elegant solution to all sectarian conflict, to all disagreements about theology and interpretation of this or that big book of Important Truths: “Produce your proof if you are truthful.” There is also a delicious irony in 2:113’s excoriating the Christians and the Jews for fighting amongst themselves “yet they profess to study the same Book,” while Muhammed himself is trying to stitch together a wobbly little storyline out of his own understanding of the Jewish scriptures.

2:120 is in the Jefferson Qur’an because I believe that, as nasty as the sentiment of the verse in isolation is, it is true. There really are people in this world who want nothing from you short of your immortal soul. Some of them will knock on your door a little too early in the morning on Saturday until they get it; some will stick pamphlets and tracts in library books until they get it; the best of the lot will just pray their hearts out until they get it.

The worst are the ones who will fight you for it. To them I say, leave the suicide vest, the gun, and the grenade at home, and produce your proof if you are truthful!

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.