Monday, March 29, 2010

Sura 2 - The Cow

Date: 1-2 A.H. so Muhammad has just moved to Medina (Yathrib) and is setting up the Islamic state. There are Jewish tribes in Medina.

Structure: The first half is addressed to the Jews who do not accept Muhammad as a prophet. It puts forward various reasons why they should accept him. The second half is addressed to the Muslim community and tells them how they are to live as Muslims. The last verse (v. 286) seems to be a prayer by the Muslim community.

What I found interesting:

1. When Muhammad is trying to convince the Jews (and Christians) to accept him as a prophet one of his main “signs” was that the Qur’an confirms the teaching of the Jewish and Christian scriptures which are with them.
And when there cometh unto them a messenger from Allah, confirming that which they possess ... (2:101, 2:4, 41, 89, 91)

It does say that some unbelieving Jews changed some of their scripture (2:59) but it also says that faithful Jews and Christians read their scriptures properly (2:121). (Similar comments are actually made about the Qur'an and unbelievers as well.) And so Muslims are meant to believe all of the previous scriptures and make no distinction between them.

Say (O Muslims): We believe in Allah and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, and that which Moses and Jesus received, and that which the prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have surrendered. 2:136

The problem is that the Qur’an does not confirm the teaching of the previous prophets. In the first half of this sura Muhammad does tell many of the stories of the Biblical characters but the stories are sometimes quite different. The version of the story he tells actually comes from the Jewish commentaries like the Talmud. It seems that Muhammad thinks he is confirming the message of the earlier prophets when in fact he is reflecting Jewish traditions. Muslims are aware of these differences and as a result do not do treat all of the prophets the same. Instead they say that the Bible is changed and some even rewrite the gospel to make it “confirm” the teaching of the Quran.

2. The other sign that Muhammad gives to convince the Jews and Christians is that no one can produce a sura like the Qur’an and therefore it must be from Allah.
And if ye are in doubt concerning that which We reveal unto Our slave (Muhammad), then produce a surah of the like thereof, and call your witness beside Allah if ye are truthful. 2:23

However, I have not found anything in the Qur’an that compares to 1 Corinthians 13, yes the Qur’an is performed beautifully but a good performance does not make it the word of God.

There is also the issue that this claim of uniqueness is not limited to the Qur'an alone but equally applies to all of God's books.
Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Then bring a scripture from the presence of Allah that giveth clearer guidance than these two (Qur'an and Torah)(that) I may follow it, if ye are truthful. 28:49

Therefore the "sura like it" challenge can be used to prove that all of God's books are from him and not just the Qur'an.

3. I was interested in the way the voice of the sura changed. Most of it is “we” and is meant to sound like angels speaking about Allah, but in v. 152 it changed to “I” and sounded like Allah speaking, then at the end (v. 286) it sounded like the Muslim community reciting a prayer. This is interesting because Muslims say it is all the word of Allah yet only a small section of this sura was Allah speaking. Most of it was angels speaking about Allah and the last bit was a prayer of the Muslims.

4. It seems that the early Muslims did not want to fight for their religion and needed to be convinced of this.

Warfare is ordained for you, though it is hateful unto you; but it may happen that ye hate a thing which is good for you, and it may happen that ye love a thing which is bad for you. Allah knoweth, ye know not. 2:216

And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers. 2:193

5. I thought that this was a great Islamic definition of Allah
Allah! There is no Allah save Him, the Alive, the Eternal. Neither slumber nor sleep overtaketh Him. Unto Him belongeth whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth. Who is he that intercedeth with Him save by His leave? He knoweth that which is in front of them and that which is behind them, while they encompass nothing of His knowledge save what He will. His throne includeth the heavens and the earth, and He is never weary of preserving them. He is the Sublime, the Tremendous. 2:255

6. This is the sura with the following famous verse:

There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. ...2:256

This verse is often quoted and thought of and applied in a “Western way” - freedom. The context is very different. In just 20 verses the Qur’an says.
O ye who believe! Observe your duty to Allah, and give up what remaineth (due to you) from usury, if ye are (in truth) believers. And if ye do not, then be warned of war (against you) from Allah and His messenger. And if ye repent, then ye have your principal (without interest). Wrong not, and ye shall not be wronged. 2:278-279

The situation is that some Muslims want to get the usury (interest - now forbidden) that was still owed to them before they became Muslims. They are warned that if they seek this usury then Allah and Muhammad will make war on them. Thus if you do not follow all of the Islamic law (Shariah) war is to be made on you. We also see this in 9:73 when Muhammad is told to make war on those Muslims who do not join him in the conquest of the nations. Muhammad commanded war on those Muslims who did not stop using alcohol (Abu Dawood: bk 26, no. 3675) and Abu Bakr also made war on the Muslims who stopped paying the zakat (tax) (Bukhari: vol 9, bk. 92, no. 388:). It happens in Somalia and this is what the Taliban are doing.
Therefore it seems that if a Muslim wants only some of the Shariah then war is to be made on them.
What does "no compulsion in religion" really mean?
What does this mean for those Muslims who say they only want some of the Shariah and not all of it?

7. Another famous verse of the Qur'an is from this sura:
Nothing of our revelation (even a single verse) do we abrogate or cause be forgotten, but we bring (in place) one better or the like thereof. Knowest thou not that Allah is Able to do all things? 2:106

This is referring to how commands of in the Qur'an change depending upon Muhammad's situation. But I had never seen the connection with v. 109 before:
Many of the people of the Scripture long to make you disbelievers after your belief, through envy on their own account, after the truth hath become manifest unto them. Forgive and be indulgent (toward them) until Allah give command. Lo! Allah is Able to do all things. 2:109

V. 109 actually has the expectation of abrogation built into it! The Muslims are told to "Forgive and be indulgent" to the Christians and Jews UNTIL another command. Certainly 9:29 would be such a command as it calls for all Jews and Christians to be conquered.


  1. Very helpful and interesting points that you made. The comparison with 1 Corinthians 13 as well as the point about the change of voice (We, I, etc) were interesting things that I didn't pick up much when I read through this Sura.

  2. I was struck by the complaint that Christians and Jews had failed to pass on their revelations to the Arabs and thus the need for a further revelation.

    Also, I thought the final prayer was intriguing in its plea for forgiveness. It appears to acknowledge one's sinfulness and God's mercy being one's only hope.