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!

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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.