Friday, January 23, 2015

The Qur’an Surah 2: The Cow

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each chapter (or surah) of the Qur'an and try to capture some of its main ideas in my own words.  I will also include some original Arabic text of the surahs, because they are very beautiful.

“The Cow” contains many references to stories from the Hebrew Bible—the sin of Adam in paradise, the covenant with Abraham, the exodus from Egypt, Moses receiving the law, David and Goliath.  The title “The Cow” comes from a story (not in the Hebrew Bible) in which God commands Moses to sacrifice a yellow cow.  Some passages are directly addressed to the “Children of Israel.”

The text shows respect towards Hebrew prophets and Jesus, and sees the revelation to Muhammad as another in a series of divine revelations.  The main criticism of Jews and Christians, throughout, is that they deny the latest revelation of God through Muhammad: “When they are told: ‘Believe in what God has revealed,’ they reply, ‘We believe in what was revealed to us.’  But they deny what has since been revealed, although it is the truth, corroborating their own scriptures.’”  

The Qur’an sees itself as a further revelation of Judaism and Christianity.  The text questions the exclusive claims of these faith traditions: “If God’s abode of the Hereafter is for yourselves alone, to the exclusion of all others, then wish for death if your claim be true,” and elsewhere, “They declare: None shall enter Paradise but Jews and Christians.  Such are their wishful fantasies.”

Like Jews and Christians, the Qur’an sees Abraham as a pioneer of faith, and states, “Who but a foolish man would renounce the faith of Abraham?”  The text tells an interesting story about Abraham, which is not included in the Bible.  Rather than focusing on Abraham’s son Isaac (like the Torah), the Qur’an focuses on his other son, Ishmael.  It says that Abraham and Ishmael built “the House,” which is the Ka’bah, the holy site in Mecca which Muslim pilgrims flock to every year by the millions.

Like the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian New Testament, the Qur’an is critical of idolatry.  Before the advent of Islam, the people of the Arabian peninsula could be described as largely “pagan,” that is, polytheistic.  Muhammad’s revolution, like the revolution of the Israelites of Canaan and the Christians in the Roman empire, was to change a formerly polytheistic culture into one of monotheism.  As with Judaism, which transformed the Canaanite god “El” into the one God, Muhammad and his followers transformed the Arabic god “Allah” into the one God of Islam.

As with the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the Qur’an contains exhortations to right belief and practice: “Righteousness does not consist in whether you face toward the East or the West.  The righteous man is he who believes in God and the Last Day, in the angels and the Book and the prophets; who, though he loves it dearly, gives away his wealth to kinsfolk, to orphans, to the destitute, to the traveller in need an to beggars, and for the redemption of captives; who attends to his prayers and renders the alms levy; who is true to his promises and steadfast in trial and adversity and in times of war.  Such are the true believers; such are the God-fearing.”

Like the Hebrew book of Leviticus, the Qu’ran contains laws dealing with things like inheritance, fasting, prayer, property, sex, marriage, justice, diet, giving to the poor, etc.  Followers of Islam are commanded to give to the needy.  Echoing the words of Jesus, the surah says, “To be charitable in public is good, but to give alms to the poor in private is better and will atone for some of your sins,” and elsewhere, “Be charitable; God loves the charitable.”

One significant verse in this surah is: “There shall be no compulsion in religion.”  That is, forced conversion is not okay.  Although Muslims are allowed to fight to defend themselves, they are told: “Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first.  God does not love aggressors.”

The last laws of this surah condemn greed and corruption, and give instructions  for fair legal proceedings, with a focus on justice and fair-dealing.  One of the last verses is: “We discriminate against none of his apostles” (which, I think, refers to Abraham, Moses, and Jesus).

Fragment from an 11th century manuscript of the first two surahs of the Qur'an.

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