Surah 2:178-193: the common law of the Qur’an begins

The next section begins Surah 2’s Islamic nation-building theme in earnest. Many religious books contain laws, such as kosher laws and general prohibitions on murder and theft and the life, but the Qur’an goes to a level of detail and “practicality” far beyond the Bible. I put “practicality” in scare-quotes because some of the legal recommendations made in this section are in fact wildly impractical and of dubious morality; I mean to say that they are procedural, that they describe actual courtroom practices instead of just laying out broad normative moral commands.

As I have said, this level of detail is necessary because of the social and political realities of the time in which Surah 2 was written. The Medinan Period, the time that Muhammed spent in Medina (Yathrib) and during which about half of the chapters of the Qur’an were written, was a time of political intrigue and turmoil in the Arabian peninsula. I’ve written already about the complex interplay of theological and even military factors in the relationship between Muhammed’s followers and the Christians, Jews, and other religious groups that lived together in Medina.

Muhammed’s work in this period is less like the life of Jesus and more like the life of Moses. Where Jesus created a millenarian religious sect that had very little original social agenda beyond preparing for what they believed was the impending apocalypse, Moses had the more difficult job of building a new permanent society out of more or less nothing. (This is not advocacy for the historical accuracy of the received biographies or even the existence of Jesus or Moses, this is summary of the stories as I understand them.) Jesus built a community; Moses built a nation. Muhammed has practical realities to deal with as an important contemporary religious leader, and that is why we see the laws we see in this section.

In fact, Muhammed’s role is so important politically in this period that he wrote an entire new constitution for Medina. It is a question of legitimate academic disagreement whether this part, or any part, of surah 2 predates or postdates the Constitution of Mecca. As you read below, compare and contrast those rules with that Constitution and decide for yourself.

Here is Yusuf Ali’s text with my commentary, with the verses I feel of sufficient moral value to preserve for ultimate inclusion in this blog’s end product, the Jefferson Qur’an:

178. O ye who believe! the law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the woman for the woman. But if any remission is made by the brother of the slain, then grant any reasonable demand, and compensate him with handsome gratitude, this is a concession and a Mercy from your Lord. After this whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave penalty.
179. In the Law of Equality there is (saving of) Life to you, o ye men of understanding; that ye may restrain yourselves.

This is an interesting and easily-misinterpreted commandment. At least one intreped Qur’an-crawler has mistaken it for a command for freemen, slaves, and women to murder each other.

At least one other source provides the far more useful translation of “retribution” in place of Yusuf Ali’s more flowery “the law of equality.” The savvy reader will see a direct echo to the Code of Hammurabi’s “an eye for an eye.” (Note that this source uses an alternate numbering scheme for the verses of the Qur’an, which are not consistent in the way the different versions of the Bible are.)

While I do not much care for this “law of equality” in murder. Death for death strikes me of a very easy way to deprive one of the power to say that murder is wrong. Death for death means that killing is not wrong, it is merely the intent that matters: that there is nothing of particular consequence about the end results, since both murder and lawful execution produce a corpse out of one of your countrymen, it is merely that one who executes criminals and one who murders are of different legal permissions at the time they do so. Even if we accept the disquieting implication of the death penalty that the sole determinant of moral wrongness under such a system is whether or not a court of law (even a very competent court) has ordered it or not, the prescription of death is incompatible with the legal regimes of many of the most civilized states and nations today.

But on the other hand, the “the law of equality” actually provides and important limiting principles that would be of some use for a lot of the worst parts of Islamic society today (and everybody else’s really). If there is a murder done against your people, the proper response is execution of the murderer; equality between the victim and the crime. Disproportionate devastation of entire societies in response to the misdeeds of a small number of that society’s members has become something of a fad for some nations today – a one-for-one exchange would actually be a step in the right direction for such nations. But I digress.

Other translations also render “remission” as “mercy” in 2:178, another merciful clarification. The sentiment here is that, if the collateral victims of murder such as the family show mercy, the victim should receive some leniency. The potential legal effect of the perpetrator’s contrition is not mentioned.

180. It is prescribed, when death approaches any of you, if he leave any goods that he make a bequest to parents and next of kin, according to reasonable usage; this is due from the Allah.fearing.
181. If anyone changes the bequest after hearing it, the guilt shall be on those who make the change. For Allah hears and knows (All things).
182. But if anyone fears partiality or wrong-doing on the part of the testator, and makes peace between (The parties concerned), there is no wrong in him: For Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

Yet more practicalities: the common law of wills and trusts for Muslims. Muslims are required to make bequests to their children and parents, to be faithful to last wishes, and 2:182 more or less demands the creation of a probate and family court to resolve differences regarding wills. That’s all fine, and not entirely unlike the Anglo-Saxon common law of wills and trusts, and least where the law of intestacy (death without a good will) is concerned. Transfers of property to the next family generation below yours that has living members is a default rule in most versions of the common law of intestacy, with parents being second in line in many cases, and everyone is familiar with the monarchical rule that the eldest son is automatically the sole inheritor unless the deceased makes a contrary affirmation in a proper will.

The only difference is that the Qur’an does not act as a default rule in the way that the Anglo-Saxon common law of intestacy does, it is a moral commandment. A literal reading of 2:180 actually requires a Muslim to make a gift to their dead parents if such is the case. I much prefer the massive complexity of Anglo-Saxon common law (me from my second year of law school is having a seizure or a stiff drink just at the thought).

183. O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint,-
184. (Fasting) for a fixed number of days; but if any of you is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed number (Should be made up) from days later. For those who can do it (With hardship), is a ransom, the feeding of one that is indigent. But he that will give more, of his own free will,- it is better for him. And it is better for you that ye fast, if ye only knew.
185. Ramadhan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (Between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting, but if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (Should be made up) by days later. Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you; and perchance ye shall be grateful.

Back to religious laws – sort of. Even though 2:184 begins with a religious commandment, it makes much more concessions to context than a lot of other religious texts generally do. The Ten Commandments do not say, “covet not thy neighbor… unless her possessions are really, really cool;” they are more or less unconditional. 2:184, however, requires fasting and charity… unless you’re sick and can’t afford it. It’s a step in the right direction, and is certainly practical enough in the context of the man Muhammed dreaming of a society where everyone should be reasonably expected to actually follow the rules, which is a lot easier when those rules brook contextual complication.

186. When My servants ask thee concerning Me, I am indeed close (to them): I listen to the prayer of every suppliant when he calleth on Me: Let them also, with a will, Listen to My call, and believe in Me: That they may walk in the right way.
187. Permitted to you, on the night of the fasts, is the approach to your wives. They are your garments and ye are their garments. Allah knoweth what ye used to do secretly among yourselves; but He turned to you and forgave you; so now associate with them, and seek what Allah Hath ordained for you, and eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appear to you distinct from its black thread; then complete your fast Till the night appears; but do not associate with your wives while ye are in retreat in the mosques. Those are Limits (set by) Allah. Approach not nigh thereto. Thus doth Allah make clear His Signs to men: that they may learn self-restraint.

Regulations for the Ramadan fast: you can have sex during the night, but no afternoon delights while you fast. Clearly the intent here is to represent the Ramadan fast as part of a constellation of self-denials instead of just a literal fast. I have no particular use for Ramadan, but I do like the poetry of “they are your garments and ye are their garments.”

188. And do not eat up your property among yourselves for vanities, nor use it as bait for the judges, with intent that ye may eat up wrongfully and knowingly a little of (other) people’s property.

A moral prohibition against profligacy, and a legal prohibition on judicial graft. It is puzzling why 2:188 would only specifically prohibit bribery of judges to prevent theft, unjust enrichment, or inequitable windfalls, but that’s what the verse says on a literal reading. That is to say, it is woefully inadequate, but Muhammed is trying.

189. They ask thee concerning the New Moons. Say: They are but signs to mark fixed periods of time in (the affairs of) men, and for Pilgrimage. It is no virtue if ye enter your houses from the back: It is virtue if ye fear Allah. Enter houses through the proper doors: And fear Allah. That ye may prosper.

Ramadhan again. As I’ve already discussed, Muhammed’s new religion is more syncretic than its most stalwart will admit. It mixes Judaism, pre-Islamic Arabic religions, Christian liturgy, and all manner of other ideas and theologies together, and has firm historical antecedents for much of its most important themes and tropes. Muhammed wants to keep the ancient sanctity of the cycles of the moon, which is of sufficient significance in the human psyche that it occurs in religions around the world that could never have encountered each other, but to deprive it of its “pagan” importance. Yes the New Moon is important, says Muhammed, but only because it times Ramadan and the Hajj (the trip to Mecca Muslims are supposed to make at least once in their lives if they can afford it).

190. Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors.
191. And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have Turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith.
192. But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.
193. And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah. but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression.

This is a primer on international law and the laws of war for Muslims. I am dying to know exactly what “limits” Muhammed had in mind; there is no academic theory that I know of holding that some specific incident or contemporary practice would have inspired this line (possibly Muhammed’s treatment of enemy prisoners after the Battle of Badr but that is a guess). 2:191 is a macro-scale version of the “Law of Equality” discussed in verses 178-179 except that it does recognize the contrition of the aggressor as having some significance (instead of the family of the victim).

There is some good material in this section. The chopped-up parts of verses that I will preserve in the final Jefferson Qur’an are:

2:180 When death approaches any of you, if you leave any goods, you should make a bequest to parents and next of kin, according to reasonable usage.
2:181 If anyone changes the bequest after hearing it, the guilt shall be on those who make the change.
2:182 But if anyone fears partiality or wrong-doing on the part of the testator, and makes peace between the parties concerned, there is no wrong in him.
2:190 Fight those who fight you, but do not transgress limits.

“Should” is a sufficient word in 2:180 to maintain a worthy moral prescription without straightjacketing people into giving their money to parents they don’t like or bratty nephews and nieces. 2:181-182 is an unequivocally reasonable command not to mess with peoples’ final wills and testaments. I kept only as much of 2:190 as needed to preserve the also perfectly reasonable order that one should fight a war in self-defense, but that there are limits beyond an eye for an eye, especially when one is talking about conflict on an international scale.

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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 2:40-74: 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.

Surah 1: “The Opening of the Book is a cure to every poison”

The first chapter (surah al-Fatihah) of the Qur’an is special for a lot of reasons. Firstly, it is the only one that is out of the Qur’an’s normal order, which in virtually every publication has its chapters arranged from longest to shortest, as I’ve mentioned. Secondly, it is (probably) one of the only chapters that is provided to us in almost the chronological order by which it was “received” by Muhammed.

According to Islamic tradition, the Qur’an was provided orally to Muhammed by an angel whose Anglicized name is Gabriel, and was then recited orally by Muhammed to his early followers. If it is true that this chapter was among the first ones “received” by Muhammed, then that would place its original creation sometime in the year 609. (Islamic tradition holding that the Qur’an preexisted Muhammed eternally notwithstanding; this is all pure myth-making on the part of later Islamic philosophers.)

The exact history of the first commitment of the Qur’an to writing is complicated and inconsistent so I will save my thoughts on it for a later post. That being said, what record we have of the earliest companions of Muhammed are more or less consistent in asserting that what we today know as Surah 1: the Opening was, indeed, chronologically one of the earliest parts of the Qur’an written down. Al-Zanjani’s fabulously detailed chronological order of the Qur’an, which I will treat as authoritative based on its consistency with both Islamic and Western academic treatment of the question until somebody gives me reason to think otherwise, places it as the fifth chapter received by Muhammed.

A note on terminology: “received” is a word I will be using here and there just as shorthand for “probably made up by Muhammed.” I understand that a plain reading of “received” could give the reader the impression that I believe that a magic being actually orally delivered the text of the Qur’an to Muhammed; this, in my view, is nonsense, but since my differences with the believer in Islam are clear enough there is no need to belabor them.

Here is its entire text as translated by Yusuf Ali:

1. In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
2. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;
3. Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
4. Master of the Day of Judgment.
5. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
6. Show us the straight way,
7. The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.

There is a rich and fascinating commentary on this Surah. It plays a central role in Islamic prayer and poetry and it has attracted voluminous scholarly work from sources both Islamic and non on its language. The modern call to prayer (adhan, which if you are from the Islamic world have heard many times a day; if you are in the Western world, you have probably heard it being played as ominous opening music to bad movies that take place in the Middle East) opens with the words of this chapter.

One of Muhammed’s earliest companions, a man named Abu Sai’id, provided the quote that opens this post to ad-Darimi. (You may have heard the term hadith, which refers to the words and sayings of the first generation of Muslims other than Muhammed, and usually means somebody who claims to have personally known him; Abu Sa’id is such a person, ad-Darimi recorded his words. I think that we have a lot of reasons to believe that many of the haditha we have received are apocryphal at best; again, another time). There is even a hadith of al-Bukhari asserting that no prayer is valid that does not begin with the words of the Opening.

The Opening has a rich history and sophisticated poetic style. But this is the Jefferson Qur’an, and so I must unpeel the superstitious gobbledygook to deliver a purer product. My edits are as follows:

1. In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
2. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;
3. Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
4. Master of the Day of Judgment.
5. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
6. Show us the straight way,
7. The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.

Show us the straight way,
The way of those who go not astray.

There is a part of me that would strike the whole chapter since it is a prayer to one of the many gods I do not believe in. I do not believe that prayer serves any purpose other than to vocalize the personal desires of those who pray, and that nobody is there to hear them (unless that prayer is the adhan, in which case many millions of people are forced to hear it many times a day).

I do, however, very much appreciate the sentiment that lies behind the prayer, which I am sure is the sentiment also appreciated by those many Muslims who venerate the Opening beyond merely its excellent writing. The opening beseeches God for guidance on the quest for truth. I do not believe in God but I, too, fervently crave the truth wherever it lies. I think that the skeptical community and the community of secularists and atheists around the world would hardly disagree.

We skeptical and atheistic types, in my experience, have a deep (some would say exaggerated) love for the natural sciences precisely because it is such a powerful tool for honest, accurate inquiry into the world around us. I sometimes bemoan that same community’s disdain for the humanities (I am biased because, before I went to law school, I was in it for the money and so I studied philosophy and music in college), but recognize that that disdain can come from a sincere respect only for those disciplines that are focused razor-like on objective and accurate truth.

The truth is important and the truth matters. The Opening acknowledges this and goes a step further and in fact pleads for truth, it begs the empty sky for it – as I, in moments of quiet reflection, will plumb my own beliefs for falsehood and inconsistency. I am sure that many Muslims do as well, and are heartened each day by a prayer that joins them in openly pleading for help and guidance. I join with them not in this or any other prayer, but in a heartfelt and sincere yearning for truth both human and scientific.

And so the Jefferson Qur’an and the Qur’an itself open with a plea for a straight path to truth. The Muslim pleads to God for guidance; I plead merely in general. Perhaps I am pleading to you. As I have said here and throughout, I desperately encourage your criticism and corrections on any points historical, liturgical, literary, or in any other form. The next post will provide a little more context on the historical origins of the Qur’an, on the distinction between the Meccan verses and the Medinan verses (the Opening is likely a Meccan chapter), and other historical details that will be crucial for understanding the sublimely mundane Surah 2: Al-Baqarah, the Heifer.

A note on methodology

Tomorrow, I will release my examination of the first chapter (surah) of the Qur’an. I’ll provide you with the original text, as well as my edits and redactions, and my reasoning behind the changes made. Here I will help to lay out the methods that I have applied to the Qur’an.

As I mentioned in my introduction, I used many different translations of the Qur’an (which I must, since I do not speak Arabic) and several major commentaries to make sure that whatever text ultimately emerged from my examination of the Qur’an was based on at least a reasonable triangulation of the true spirit or intent of the primary text. For my English translation, I have mainly used the words of Yusuf Ali’s translation, though I will note in the text where I have deviated even from his fine translation (pursuant to some of the rules provided below) to produce the final text. My choice of Yusuf Ali’s translation is purely aesthetic; for pure artistry and poetry, the Pickthall translation is clearly superior, but for legibility I believe that the Ali translation is unrivaled.

I will also be using Yusuf Ali’s convention for numbering the verses of the Qur’an. Unlike the Bible, there remains significant variation between how different editors and publishers of the Qur’an number the verses of each chapter (though there is no disagreement as to which chapter is which, since each chapter survives from the original companions of Muhammed in discrete wholes). Therefore, wherever a verse is noted, please assume that I am referring to the numbering convention adopted by Yusuf Ali.

That being said, I am not going to provide you with a cut-and-paste adaptation of Yusuf Ali’s translation. I am not just editing the Qur’an, I am re-translating it through the lens of humanistic reason. For that reason, I must apply certain rules to the Jefferson Qur’an:

  1. I have made gendered language gender-neutral where necessary. Except where a particular verse or story refers to a specific male or female character (for lack of a better term), I have changed references from, for example, “men” as the common referent for “humans” to a gender-neutral form.
  2. I will interpolate clarifying terms where necessary. For example, if a verse that survives the crucible of reason refers back to the subject of a verse that tragically did not, I will interpolate using editorial brackets.
  3. The verses, once edited, will be completely reorganized. This is the most important part of the story of the Jefferson Qur’an. For the first several posts here, I will simply walk you through the Qur’an from cover to cover showing my redactions and edits. But with each post, you will see on the accompanying tags a reference to how I have categorized certain verses: for example, if a surviving verse of the Qur’an talks about religious freedom, acceptable legal principles, or moral wisdom, I will tag that post appropriately. Once the entire Qur’an has been parsed, I will then provide you with a completely reorganized Qur’an. The original Qur’an is, to be frank, edited nonsensically. Except for its first chapter, the surahs of the Qur’an are, for reasons totally opaque to historians of the Qur’an, arranged from longest to shortest. Even the Book of Mormon is more sensibly-organized than that. I will therefore take the verses that have survived the editing process and arrange them thematically under appropriate headings.

As a general matter, the lens under which the Qur’an will be scrutinized here is the lens of “reason.” I have about as much interest in precisely and carefully parsing what “reason” means as Thomas Jefferson did in The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, upon which this work is based: that is to say, none whatsoever. In exchange for that singular conceit, I will offer you what I hope is careful and at least not wildly inconsistent reasoning behind each of the edits I make.

Tomorrow we begin with the first chapter of the Qur’an. It is “out of order” in that it is very short, so I will be able to easily walk through the entire chapter in a single post. For most chapters, however, I will provide a few or a few dozen verses in each post so that you are not bombarded with dozens of pages of explanatory text every single day. I strongly encourage you to leave your comments disagreeing, arguing, berating, and correcting my reasoning, my historical commentary, and my edits. I will also periodically provide general Qur’anic commentary to alleviate the relative monotony of the task at hand. This commentary, too, I strongly recommend you brutalize with corrections and counterarguments. This work is about truth and reason, not about my personal vanity (which is considerable), and I will need your help in order to make it so.

What is the Jefferson Qur’an?

An Introduction

Well after the end of his political life, Thomas Jefferson took a straight razor to his Bible and gashed out everything he found disagreeable to his reason or to his morals. Little survived the crucible of his skepticism: where the Bible contained 31,102 verses under the canonical system, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth contains fewer than 1,000 verses, and many of those verses themselves are further redacted. The final product contained no miracles, neither the savagery and superstition of the Old Testament nor the millenarian madness of Paul, none of the God said this, God did that that interfered with Jefferson’s personal deistic philosophy.

Even the very existence of Thomas Jefferson’s personal Bible was not widely-known during his lifetime. Likely he feared the political fallout that would result, even though the text was assembled after his presidency and after the ascendancy of a successor generation for his own political party. He may have felt that his legacy, and the future prospects of his political allies, would not survive the revelation that Jefferson thought he could fix, or at least streamline, the word of God. After all, what American politician, aspiring or otherwise, in his or her right mind would make public their own, personal, diced-up New and Improved Testament? But then, perhaps we are lucky that all that we in the West face for criticizing prevailing contemporary myths is an uphill election fight. More on that in a moment.

My first encounters with Islam were in the context of Christian apologetics; born into a Christian household, I was extremely devout throughout my youth and was born again as a teenager. I became steeped in the works of men ranging in intellectual seriousness from Ken Ham and Lee Strobel to William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga, the latter of whom became the subject of my undergraduate philosophy thesis. Like so many other Christians the more I became exposed to the intellectual foundations of my faith the weaker that faith became, and by my early 20s I was and remain an atheist. I replaced Ham, Strobel, Craig and Plantinga with Robert Price, PZ Myers, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, the former two of whom I even brought to speak at my undergraduate alma mater on behalf of the local little chapter of the Secular Student Alliance that I founded.

Like many others in the West, atheist or otherwise, I had little serious knowledge of Islam. I knew the name Muhammed, and something about seventy-two virgins, and that there was a thing called Sunni and a thing called Shi’a and a thing called the Qur’an (though I probably spelled it Koran). I essentially knew enough about Islam to squeak by eighth-grade social studies and not much more. But, having already been so thoroughly immersed in Christian apologetics from an early age I quickly became bored with secular critiques of Christianity, and Islam came as almost a natural successor to my curiosity. I added Ibn Warraq, Salman Rushdie, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali to my pantheon, and finally sat down to go through the Qur’an itself.

One cannot simply read a work like the Qur’an like any other book for two main reasons. First, its effects have far transcended the text in a way that only two or three other books in all of our history have: about one human in four believes that it is the perfect thesis on morality, cosmic truth, and humanity’s purpose and eternal future. A work that has meant so much to human history and culture frankly deserves better, even though I believe most of it to be nonsense and most of the remainder to be profoundly immoral.

Secondly, like most foundational religious texts, it is profoundly boring. If “badly written” is not the right phrase, it should at least be called “not targeted to the mass-market paperback audience.” The Qur’an is extremely repetitive, its chapters (suras) are assembled not in any chronological or otherwise orderly fashion but are instead arranged from longest to shortest for reasons totally unknown to even its most serious historians and commentators. Some of its stories, many of which are of totally unknown provenance, are so esoteric and weird that they strike me as long-lost Aesop’s Fables told only in Wonderland. Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an at least has stylistic consistency since it is the product of a single voice and not many, and consequently this single voice had to employ certain memory devices and similar idioms and turns of phrase to facilitate its frequent oral recitation and so the Qur’an is agonizingly repetitive. To simply sit down and read it in a single go is to quickly descend into glazed scanning.

So, in order to force myself to really work with the text and to understand it, I steeled myself to write The Jefferson Qur’an alongside my reading of the native text, rather than just read the Qur’an in isolation. It quickly became apparent to me that the text did not adequately speak for itself and so, over the course of about a year, I read the Qur’an, as well as three of its major commentaries, and many other supplemental works, some by Muslims and some not, in order to better understand its cultural, historical, and theological context. I ultimately relied on four different translations read in parallel and three different Quranic commentaries to whittle down the 6,200 some-odd verses of the Qur’an to the narrow volume I intend to produce here.

Here I will walk you through the text of the Qur’an and my own thoughts on it, with such commentary as my meager understanding can provide, and explain my process behind each of the many redactions I have made to the text. I hope that, with your assistance, feedback, and criticism, we together will together arrive at that one pure product that survives the crucible of free inquiry: the truth.