Thursday, December 13, 2012

ARQ Project: Surah al-Baqarah

Or, the Cow (or the Heifer as my other translation has it).

Before we get going: So I was looking up pictures of red cows for this (this has no actual bearing on the post, I was misremembering the description of the cow in a different translation) and watching one of the special features on my Dark Knight Trilogy discs and it goes from being all roaring engines to quiet music. So I look and there's a cave painting of a red-ish cow on my screen. *eyes the universe* Cheap. Shot.

FYI: This post has been written over several days, as I get time to sit and type. So...yeah. Random comments ahoy.


First: who names the surahs? I know that they're all named for the content, in some way. Surah al-Fatiha is 'the Opening' or 'the Exhortation' (again, depending on translation) which makes sense. But this one. There are a lot of things in this surah, it's (I think) the longest in the Qur'an. And someone chose to call it 'the Cow'. They picked that one story out of *everything* to remember this surah by. Who? Why? Yes, these are the things I think about.

2.7: God has sealed their hearts and hearing; upon their sight is a covering, and for them is a great chastisement.

I always have this initial reaction when I read passages in this vein. It makes it sound very much as though the people have no choice in the matter. As though there is no such thing as free will and predestination is all that there is. I have this same problem in the Bible, for example. How many instances are there of God 'saying' that He's hardened someones heart or someone else saying that God has hardened such and suches heart? I just did a quick Google of the phrase 'God hardened his heart' and I got 11 different verses that popped up, from both the Old and New Testament.

From what I've been told and read, it's basically...God is not making these people choose to turn away from what He has asked or wants of them. They're making the choice to turn away and God is saying, 'Okay, you have free will, this is what you want. You get what you want.' and sort of reinforcing their choice. However that doesn't negate the option that these people all had of changing their minds again. See?

2.23: If you are in doubt about what We have revealed to Our servant (Muhammed), then produce another surah like it, and call your witnesses other than God if you are truthful.

I think part of my lack on comprehension about this comes from reading the Qur'an in English translations. From what I've been told, the Qur'an in it's original Arabic is extremely poetic and sublime. Everything loses something in translation and by the time this comes over into English the language isn't anything special, you know what I mean? But also, how would these competing surah's be judged? On their poetry? I'm sure there were some superb poets in Mohammed's time. And the judgment of whether they met the quality of the Qur'an would be subjective, wouldn't it? So maybe they'd be judged on their revelations? But those can be hard to prove one way or another as you can see by looking at any religious text ever.

One of the things that I really, really like about the Qur'anic version of 'the fall' is that there's no singling out or blaming of Eve. In ayah 36 it says, "But Satan made them slip and..." Them. There's no Adam going, 'But look, this woman, they one you made me take, she fooled me. It's her fault.' and there's no God going, 'And you're going to scream and bleed and suffer in childbirth and I'm going to make it terribly dangerous for you because hey, you were tricked by an eternal being that used to be my favorite until he got to big for his britches. Sucks to be you. Adam? Oh. He's going to have to plow some fields. And the animals aren't just going to lay down and ask him to cut their throats any more.'

2.37: Adam learned (certain) words from his Lord, and God turned to him (mercifully), for verily He is the oft-Turning (in mercy), the Most Merciful.

I was wondering, are the words that Adam learned from God prayer? That makes sense to me.

2.48: Guard yourselves against the Day when no soul makes up for anything another soul lacks, nor shall intercession be accepted from it, nor shall any ransom be taken, nor shall they ever be helped.

I think this is talking about the Last Day or the Day of Judgment. It's warning against the idea that someone else can intercede between a person/soul and God, so maybe it's not even the Last Day but the day of each person's death? We all have to go before God with only our own record, not covered or excused by anything that anyone else may or may not have done. It goes against the central Christian concept of Jesus' salvific death, of course.

2.67: And (remember) when Moses said to his people: "Verily, God commands you to sacrifice a cow," they said: "Do you ridicule us?". He said: "I seek the protection of God against being ignorant." 68: They said: "Pray for us to your Lord to make it plain to us what cow it is." He said: "Indeed, He says, 'Verily, she is a heifer, neither too old nor too young, but of mid-age betwixt that (and this); act therefore as you are commanded." 69: They said: "Pray on our behalf to your Lord that He may make clear to us of what colour she is." He said: "Indeed, He says that she is a yellow cow; her colour is brightly yellow, delighting the beholders." 70: They said: "Pray to your Lord on our behalf to make it further clear to us what cow she is. Lo! Cows are all alike to us, and if God wills, we shall surely be gathered aright." 71: (Moses) said: "Indeed, He says that she is a cow not yet used to till the soil nor irrigate the tilth; sound and without blemish." They said: "Now you have brought the truth." So they sacrificed her, though they almost did not.

I've read and reread this story and I still don't understand why the entire surah is named after it. It's (to me) a strange little story. Why were the Jews demanding more and more detail out of Moses? If they really had trust and faith that Moses was God's prophet and that God was the true god then they'd have just said, 'Okay' and grabbed the cow that seemed best. Take the *best* cow and sacrifice it to God. Why is there all this, 'Well go back and ask him what color her feet are. Does she chew her cud on the right or the left side?' And I note that when they turn to ask Moses for yet another clarification, they always refer to God as 'your Lord'. Not 'our', 'your'. Why would that be?

2.79: Then woe unto those who write the book with their own hands and then say: "This is from God" so that they may sell it for a petty price; thus woe unto them for what they earn thereby.

This ayah struck a chord with me especially because one of the other books I'm reading is about how many books/letters/gospels were forged in the ancient Christian world. The books that we have in the New Testament? Can you say for certain who wrote them? Because for the majority of them, the scholars all agree that we have no real idea. The only thing they agree on is that they weren't written by who they've been claimed to be written by. The people who wrote these books claimed false names so that their ideas would have the weight behind the names of the apostles, or in some cases Jesus himself. They were claiming that their message ultimately came from God. And Mohammed's revelations didn't come until almost 600 years after Christ's death. This ayah could well be referring to these false documents.

I'm really fond of the way the Qur'an refers to Jesus as 'Jesus, son of Mary'.

The changing of the qibla: Every time I think about Muslims praying towards the Kaaba in Mecca I remember the time I had to argue with my teacher in RCIA about it. He was a deacon in the church and we were getting a tour of the church building itself. He was explaining that churches (Catholic ones at least) are supposed to have their altars in the east so that everyone is facing east when they worship. Because the sun rises in the east and it's a representation/ metaphor for Christ's (the Son) resurrection. And he insisted that all Muslims pray facing east too, for the same reason, even if they don't know it. And I argued that no, Muslims didn't pray facing *east*, they prayed facing the Kaaba. Which just happened to be east(-ish) of *us*.

2.159: Those who conceal what We have sent of (Our) manifest evidence and guidance, after what We have so clearly shown mankind in the Book, are those whom God curses, and all those who curse (such ones) curse them too, 160: Except those who turn (repentant), amend (themselves), and make the truth manifest; they are the ones to whom I turn (mercifully), and I am the oft-Returning (in mercy), the all-Merciful.

I feel like this isn't talking about people who are simply misguided (if you believe in the revelation of the Qur'an) or have never heard of the Qur'an or Islam but about people who have heard and understand that the Qur'an is actually divine revelation but for whatever reason actively choose to oppose it. And even then there's this companion ayah of mercy if they repent and change their ways.

The following few ayah I'm quoting only because I see so many people quoting only the middle ayah to say, 'See, Islam is violent and Muslims want to kill us all!' without taking in the context of the surrounding verses.

2.190: And fight in the name of God (against) those who fight you, but do not be aggressive; (for) God does not love the aggressors. 191: And slay them wherever you find them, and drive them away from wherever they drove you away, for mischief is more grevious than slaughter. But do not fight them near the (Inviolable) Sacred Mosque until they fight you therein, but if they fight you, slay them, (for) such is the recompense of the disbelievers; 192: But if they desist, then verily God is Forgiving, Merciful. 193: And fight them until there is no more mischief, and the religion is only God's; but if they desist, then there should be no hostility save against the aggressors.

Is there violence in the Qur'an? Yes. Is there violence in the Bible? Have you read the Bible? There is *so much* violence. There is in every ancient religious text. These were violent times. Not that we're so much more peaceful, mind you. We just like to think we are. But these verses aren't saying, 'Run out and kill everyone!' Each instance of 'Go fight!' is directed only after the Muslims have been attacked. I read it as 'Defend yourselves, but if your attackers stop, then you have to stop as well.' Defense.

2.222: They ask you concerning menstruation. Say, "It is an upset; therefore, keep away from women during menstruation and do not be intimate with them until they are cleansed, then when they are cleansed, approach them as God has ordained you." God loves those who turn to him constantly and loves those who clean themselves.

Well. That's just practical. Yes, in our current time, we know that there are certain...activities...that can help ease menstrual cramps in *some* women. But let's be honest: hygiene wasn't what it is today back in Mohammed's time. Like I said, this just seems practical to me.

I'm not going to go into the divorce rules that take up a good portion of the remained of the surah, except to say that the entire, divorce three times and then you have to marry someone else and divorce them before you can remarry the original spouse again is strange to me. At some point in your *three* divorces, I would think someone would say, 'You know what, you two should not be together.' But that could be me projecting my culture backwards. And I have *feelings* about divorce, so I'm not the most objective commentator to have here.

And that's the end of surah al-Baqarah for us. Hopefully the rest of the posts won't take so long to get up! Sorry!


  1. Interesting. I tried to do an internet search for how the surahs got their names...the only answers I could find were variances of "the names were given by Allah." Not the most helpful answer.

    As to the part about the cow and why they would do all th back and forth, I have a suggestion. I haven't actually read it and so I don't know, but reading the parts you quoted it looks like there's kind of a theme here of revelation and how people respond to it. People don't want to trust it, it's difficult to believe that God would speak through someone like that, so people need to be convinced. But at least being willing to ask more and give the revelation a chance to prove itself places them outside the group that has their hearts closed? If they'd just said no and refused to sacrifice a cow, they'd be in that group, or if they demanded proof. But they don't really demand proof, just further information so that they can follow it better. So if someone hearing the Quran responds by wanting to hear more of it and opens their mind to hearing the word of God, the idea seems to be that they will recognize it as truth and naturally want to follow it.

    1. That's the answer I found too. :/ Not helpful. I'm going to assume that Mohammed named them until proven otherwise.

      Huh. Hey...yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Much better, thanks sanil! ps: what I quoted is the entire story.

    2. I meant the whole surah, not just that particular part. If the whole surah is named for this story, it makes sense because the other verses you quoted before it seem to be setting up the metaphor. But that's a big statement to make coming from someone who hasn't actually read the Quran at all and has no idea if that is how the surahs work. But I'm glad it made sense to you! And now I'm more motivated to finally start reading the Quran I bought quite awhile ago to see if that holds up.

    3. Hmmm...I didn't take the rest of the surah that way but since your comment I went back and reread it. It's a possibility. Which would make naming the surah after that single story make more sense.

  2. great thoughts! I enjoyed your commentary.


    saw this thought of you

    1. Oooohhh....very nice! Thanks for sharing that with me! :D

  4. I agree with Sanil's interpretation of the cow story, it is what I thought when I read the Qur'an as well.

    But, even more than that, I also hear a fair bit of reluctancy. Basically people are sort of looking for an "out", a way to avoid making the sacrifice if they can.

    1. So...they're interested and keep coming back to test the revelation because they're drawn to it but they're also trying to avoid doing what the revelation tells them to do?

      *eyes it*

      My life in a nutshell.


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