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 2:75-101: We who are perverse

Continuing onward through one of the more obliquely anti-Semitic parts of the Qur’an, we are muddling through yet more Qur’anic retconning of the Old Testament. The dilemma Muhammed faced in the religiously cosmopolitan city of Medina (where this surah was almost certainly written) is not unlike that faced by certain notable frauds and delusions of more recent memory: how to claim for your new religion the dignity of ancient antiquity, while still preserving its uniqueness from those very ancient religions with which you compete. Muhammed’s answer in surah 2, which will be repeated in occasionally more ridiculous and vulgar iterations throughout the Qur’an, is simple: the good Jews like Moses and Solomon were faithful Muslims who worshiped Allah – the rest are basically apostates, or as 2:99 puts it, “perverse.” Specifically, Muhammed places the great falling-away of the Jews from Allah (at least here) in the story of Moses’ lonely ascent of the Sinai, Muhammed’s garbled interpretation of which you’ll find here:

75. Can ye (o ye men of Faith) entertain the hope that they will believe in you?- Seeing that a party of them heard the Word of Allah, and perverted it knowingly after they understood it.
76. Behold! when they meet the men of Faith, they say: “We believe”: But when they meet each other in private, they say: “Shall you tell them what Allah hath revealed to you, that they may engage you in argument about it before your Lord?”- Do ye not understand (their aim)?
77. Know they not that Allah knoweth what they conceal and what they reveal?
78. And there are among them illiterates, who know not the Book, but (see therein their own) desires, and they do nothing but conjecture.
79. Then woe to those who write the Book with their own hands, and then say:”This is from Allah,” to traffic with it for miserable price!- Woe to them for what their hands do write, and for the gain they make thereby.
80. And they say: “The Fire shall not touch us but for a few numbered days:” Say: “Have ye taken a promise from Allah, for He never breaks His promise? or is it that ye say of Allah what ye do not know?”
81. Nay, those who seek gain in evil, and are girt round by their sins,- they are companions of the Fire: Therein shall they abide (For ever).
82. But those who have faith and work righteousness, they are companions of the Garden: Therein shall they abide (For ever).
83. And remember We took a covenant from the Children of Israel (to this effect): Worship none but Allah. treat with kindness your parents and kindred, and orphans and those in need; speak fair to the people; be steadfast in prayer; and practise regular charity. Then did ye turn back, except a few among you, and ye backslide (even now).
84. And remember We took your covenant (to this effect): Shed no blood amongst you, nor turn out your own people from your homes: and this ye solemnly ratified, and to this ye can bear witness.
85. After this it is ye, the same people, who slay among yourselves, and banish a party of you from their homes; assist (Their enemies) against them, in guilt and rancour; and if they come to you as captives, ye ransom them, though it was not lawful for you to banish them. Then is it only a part of the Book that ye believe in, and do ye reject the rest? but what is the reward for those among you who behave like this but disgrace in this life?- and on the Day of Judgment they shall be consigned to the most grievous penalty. For Allah is not unmindful of what ye do.
86. These are the people who buy the life of this world at the price of the Hereafter: their penalty shall not be lightened nor shall they be helped.
87. We gave Moses the Book and followed him up with a succession of apostles; We gave Jesus the son of Mary Clear (Signs) and strengthened him with the holy spirit. Is it that whenever there comes to you an apostle with what ye yourselves desire not, ye are puffed up with pride?- Some ye called impostors, and others ye slay!
88. They say, “Our hearts are the wrappings (which preserve Allah.s Word: we need no more).” Nay, Allah.s curse is on them for their blasphemy: Little is it they believe.
89. And when there comes to them a Book from Allah, confirming what is with them,- although from of old they had prayed for victory against those without Faith,- when there comes to them that which they (should) have recognised, they refuse to believe in it but the curse of Allah is on those without Faith.
90. Miserable is the price for which they have sold their souls, in that they deny (the revelation) which Allah has sent down, in insolent envy that Allah of His Grace should send it to any of His servants He pleases: Thus have they drawn on themselves Wrath upon Wrath. And humiliating is the punishment of those who reject Faith.
91. When it is said to them, “Believe in what Allah Hath sent down, “they say, “We believe in what was sent down to us:” yet they reject all besides, even if it be Truth confirming what is with them. Say: “Why then have ye slain the prophets of Allah in times gone by, if ye did indeed believe?”
92. There came to you Moses with clear (Signs); yet ye worshipped the calf (Even) after that, and ye did behave wrongfully.
93. 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 hearken (to the Law)”: They said:” We hear, and we disobey:” And they had to drink into their hearts (of the taint) of the calf because of their Faithlessness. Say: “Vile indeed are the behests of your Faith if ye have any faith!”
94. Say: “If the last Home, with Allah, be for you specially, and not for anyone else, then seek ye for death, if ye are sincere.”
95. But they will never seek for death, on account of the (sins) which their hands have sent on before them. and Allah is well-acquainted with the wrong-doers.
96. Thou wilt indeed find them, of all people, most greedy of life,-even more than the idolaters: Each one of them wishes He could be given a life of a thousand years: But the grant of such life will not save him from (due) punishment. For Allah sees well all that they do.
97. Say: Whoever is an enemy to Gabriel-for he brings down the (revelation) to thy heart by Allah.s will, a confirmation of what went before, and guidance and glad tidings for those who believe,-
98. Whoever is an enemy to Allah and His angels and apostles, to Gabriel and Michael,- Lo! Allah is an enemy to those who reject Faith.
99. We have sent down to thee Manifest Signs (ayat); and none reject them but those who are perverse.
100. Is it not (the case) that every time they make a covenant, some party among them throw it aside?- Nay, Most of them are faithless.
101. And when there came to them an apostle from Allah, confirming what was with them, a party of the people of the Book threw away the Book of Allah behind their backs, as if (it had been something) they did not know!

Many are the names of God in Judaism, but it is beyond balderdash to claim that Moses or any other Jew would have used the word Allah to refer to God in a devotional sense, but in researching the historical context of this surah I came upon the interesting historical tidbit that it is not at all impossible that Jews would at least have known the word Allah long before the 7th century when the Qur’an was first received.

Both Jews and the word “Allah” enjoy an extensive history in the Arabian peninsula long predating Islam. Jews are known to have dispersed throughout what today is called Saudi Arabia after the destruction of the Second Temple in the 1st century, and, as certain mean-spirited Christian apologists take endless delight in pointing out, the word “Allah” has antecedents in both “pagan” and even Christian liturgy from around the same time period. Such historical fact raises a question that likely has some semiotic significance doubtlessly discoverable only deep in the navels of the great linguists. When I say God and a Jew says Adonai, it appears that we are referring to the same being. When I say God and a modern-day Muslim says Allah, it also appears that we are referring to the same being. Why is it wrong, then, to say that when Moses supposedly says Allah and I say God, we are again referring to the same being?

I think it is because when a 7th-century Arabian speaking outside of the Christian tradition says Allah, he is saying something more like Wodin or Demeter than God. A normally-acculturated 7th-century Arabian who hears the word Allah would have understood it to mean one of several members, or perhaps one concept among several theological concepts, in pre-Islamic Arabian times whom Muhammed simply intended to elevate above all others by association with the ancient gods of his co-monotheists. I commend you to works far more scholarly than mine for a more detailed look at the role of Allah in pre-Islamic Arabian polytheism, such as the magnificent Encyclopedia of Islam, though I must concede that in preparing the original Jefferson Qur’an I read a much older edition of that book than is available today and it is possible that the scholarly consensus has since shifted.

In this section I have preserved for the final version of the Jefferson Qur’an a (so far) record-setting seven verses, though some only in part. Because they do not form a nice or consistent narrative, I will explain my reasoning for their survival one at a time:

2:75 Can you, O men of Faith, entertain the hope that they will believe in you?

2:89 And when there comes to them a Book, they refuse to believe in it.

Even without the obvious original intention that this particular verse refer specifically to Muslims, I rather like the sentiment, since here God has told Muhammed something whose obviousness should be imparted likewise on the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons who from time to time darken my doorstep: “do you really think that everybody is going to buy what you’re selling?” Not everyone who smells what you’re stepping in wants to follow in your footsteps.

2:96 You will indeed find them, of all people, most greedy of life: each one of them wishes he could be given a life of a thousand years.

Scorn for those who crave eternal life is just a nice sentiment for reasons comporting with my own philosophical leanings, namely, that mortality is generally a good thing and that eternal life is not altogether desirable. I once had the great pleasure of hosting the inestimable Robert M. Price at the Secular Student Alliance chapter of my alma mater, whose talk’s Q&A session saw a delightful exchange between Dr. Price and a good friend of mine in the audience, a devout evangelical type, paraphrased thusly:

Dr. Price: And what exactly is it that you would do for eternity in heaven?

Friend: …worship God?

Dr. Price: Well that sounds like it’d get pretty boring after a while.

Not an exact quote from any party involved, but you get the gist. “Greedy of life,” in the Qur’an’s phrasing, is such a nicely indelicate way of heaping scorn on what is truly my least favorite aspect of so many religions, which is the idea that it’s just a gas to go on and on and on for its own sake.

2:78 And there are among them illiterates, who do not know the Book, but see therein their own desires, and they do nothing but conjecture.

2:85 Then it is only a part of the Book that you believe in, and do you reject the rest? But what is the reward for those among you who behave like this but disgrace in this life?

2:87 Is it that whenever there comes to you a Messenger with what you yourselves do not desire, you are puffed up with pride?

Here is another fine sentiment to be turned on its head against the people who claim to believe it. How is any Muslim at all to know that he or she is not one of those “illiterates” referred to by this very verse, who stares at the Qur’an and only sees whatever comports most comfortably with their own biases and assumptions?

2:84 Shed no blood amongst you, nor turn out your own people from your homes.

I will go out of my way to preserve uncontroversially decent sentiments from the Qur’an if for no other reason than because I despise the attitudes of certain of my countrymen holding that the Qur’an is an irredeemable work of violent garbage from cover to cover. It is not. A lot of it is, but then, a lot of it isn’t, either. A lot of it is perfectly decent. Not killing and evicting each other – that is a perfectly decent attitude.

We are making progress. The baneful drudgery of surah 2’s Old Testament remixing is slowly coming to an end. At the very least you may rest assured that the next section contains some more bizarrely interesting Qur’anic apologetics.