Quran Day: The Cow 21-29 Speaks of Allah’s Omniscience and Other Qualities

God’s Characteristics

I was struck throughout these 9 verses by the flurry of ways that Allah, as He’s portrayed here in the Quran, reflects issues that the biblical reader will notice immediately. Then suddenly, at the end, there’s a huge difference (a difference that a biblical reader, though not necessarily a religious Christian or Jew, might notice).

In verse 29 of the Cow, we learn that God is omniscient; that is, he has knowledge of everything. Though predictable that the Quran would make sure to let us know this seemingly obvious fact, it is noteworthy that the Bible doesn’t actually tell us this about God.

Jews and Christians will insist that God is omniscient – after all, how could He not be? – but show me where it says that in the Bible. It doesn’t. The Jewish and Christian conception of God that developed in the centuries surrounding the year 0 was one of an omniscient and omnipotent deity, but God was not always thought of like this. In fact, there are instances in the Bible where we see that God just doesn’t know certain things (in Gen. 3 He has to look for Adam and Eve and calls to them because He doesn’t know where they are).

My point is that by the seventh century and the development of Islam, the concept of God in monotheistic traditions had developed in such a way that God was quite obviously omniscient, as the Quran states outright. God, we learn in these verses, is also the creator and the controller of nature.

Covenant?

One point I would love to understand better in these verses is from 27, when God’s “covenant” is spoken of. A covenant was a two-party agreement in the Ancient Near Eastern world, and either the word is being used generally or I’m having some trouble with it. Can anyone tell me what the Arabic word is?

Usually a covenant is not God’s, per se, but God’s covenant with person x. Is it implied that this is God’s covenant with mankind or individuals? Is this common language and should we understand what is being said?

Man as Creation’s Culmination

It seems a bit unfair of me to compare everything in the Quran to the Bible but as one who has studied that text and since the Bible is known to the Quran, I feel justified making such comparisons. Verse 29, that God made all that lies within the earth for you, is an interesting combination of the two creation stories in the Bible.

In Genesis 1, everything is created and human beings (not Adam and Eve) are the final creations: they are the culmination of creation. In Genesis 2, a different creation story (just read them and you’ll see that they are two different tales) tells us that man is created, and then everything else is created for him to enjoy.

These two different ideas – man as culmination of creation and as the catalyst for additional creation – seem to be harmonized in the Quranic verse, “God made for you all that lies within the earth.”

What do these verses make you think about? The notion of resurrection is also present in these verses? What is the Muslim understanding of resurrection? Are there any notions here about God that you find are the same as or different from those expressed in the Bible?

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The Cow 21-29

21. So, O you people, adore your Lord who created you, as He did those before you, that you could take heed for yourself and fear Him. 22. Who made the earth a bed for you, the sky a canopy, and sends forth rain from the skies that fruits may grow – your good and sustenance. So do not make another the equal of God knowingly. 23. If you are in doubt of what We have revealed to Our votary, then bring a Surah like this, and call any witness, apart from God, you like, if you are truthful. 24. But if you cannot as indeed you cannot, then guard yourslves against the Fire whose fuel is men and rocks, which has been prepared for the infidels. 25. Announce to those who believe and have done good deeds, glad tidings of gardens under which rivers flow, and where, when they eat the fruits that grow, they will say: “Indeed they are the same as we were given before,” so like in semblance the food would be. And they shall have fair spouses there, and live there abidingly. 26. God is not loath to advance the similitude of a gnat or a being more contemptible; and those who believe know whatever is from the Lord is true. But those who disbelieve say: “What does God mean by this parable?” He causes some to err this way and some He guides; yet He turns away none but those who trangress, 27. Who, having sealed it, break God’s covenant, dividing what He ordained cohered; and those who spread discord in the land will suffer assuredly. 28. Then how can you disbelieve in God? He gave you life when you were dead. He will make you die again then bring you back to life: To Him then you will return. 29. He made for you all that lies within the earth, then turning to the firmament He proportioned several skies; He has knowledge of every thing.

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  2. It’s important to point out that this verse is the first time the Islamic concept of Paradise or Heaven (jannah) is mentioned. The language here is beautiful, describing “gardens under which rivers flow, and where, when they eat the fruits that grow, they will say: “Indeed they are the same as we were given before,” so like in semblance the food would be. And they shall have fair spouses there, and live there abidingly.”

    On the other hand, those who are untrue to God will burn in the fiery pits of something quite reminiscent of Hell. As verse 24 states, “…guard yourselves against the Fire whose fuel is men and rocks, which has been prepared for the infidels.”

    The covenant (‘ahd) of Allah is one of mutual understanding between Man and God. Man makes a promise to God that he will be good on Earth. If Man fulfills his promise, then God grants him the promise of eternity in Heaven. It’s a very nice concept in its core.

    One more thing worth noting is that verse 25 mentions “spouses,” who will be in Paradise. These spouses, which will be brought up again in other verses, have turned into the well-known notion of the 72 virgins. The word spouses in Arabic is azwaj, which is gender neutral. Therefore, the spouses can be either male or female. In addition, nowhere in the Qur’an does it mention a specific number.

  3. In verse 29 of the Cow, we learn that God is omniscient; that is, he has knowledge of everything.

    This point will be stressed throughout the Qur’an, again and again and again. At least five of the 99 names of Allah (swt) can be tied to this: Al-Alim (The All Knowing, The Omniscient), As-Sami‘e (The All Hearing), Al-Basir (The All Seeing), Al-Khabeer (The All Aware), and Ar-Raqeeb (The Watchful).

    One point I would love to understand better in these verses is from 27, when God’s “covenant” is spoken of.

    I think it might be easier for me to give you several different opinions for this topic. The first of which is commentary by A. Yusuf Ali:

    The mention of the Covenant (2:27) has a particular and a general signification. The particular one has reference to the Jewish tradition that a Covenant was entered into with “Father Abraham” that in return for Allah’s favors the seed of Abraham would serve Allah faithfully. But as a matter of fact a great part of Abraham’s progeny were in constant spiritual rebellion against Allah, as is testified by their own Prophets and Preachers and by Muhammad Mustafa. The general signification is that a similar Covenant is entered into by every creature of Allah: for Allah’s loving care, we at least owe Him the fullest gratitude and willing obedience. The Sinner, before he darkens his own conscience, knows this, and yet he not only “forsakes the path” but resists the Grace of Allah which comes to save him. That is why his case becomes hopeless. But the loss is his own. He cannot spoil Allah’s design. The good man is glad to retrace his steps from any lapses of which he may have been guilty, and in his case Allah’s Message reclaims him with complete understanding.

    And this is commentary by Muhammad Asad:

    The “bond with God” (conventionally translated as “God’s covenant”) apparently refers here to man’s moral obligation to use his inborn gifts-intellectual as well. as physical-in the way intended for them by God. The “establishment” of this bond arises from the faculty of reason which, if properly used, must lead man to a realization of his own weakness and dependence on a causative power and, thus, to a gradual cognition of God’s will with reference to his own behaviour. This interpretation of the “bond with God” seems to be indicated by the fact that there is no mention of any specific “covenant” in either the preceding or the subsequent verses of the passage under consideration. The deliberate omission of any explanatory reference in this connection suggests that the expression “bond with God” stands for something that is rooted in the human situation as such, and can, therefore, be perceived instinctively as well as through conscious experience: namely, that innate relationship with God which makes Him “closer to man than his neck-vein” (50:16). For an explanation of the subsequent reference to “what God has bidden to be joined”, see surah 13, note 43.(Quran Ref: 2:27)

    This last is the tafsir of Ibn Kathir on the subject:

    (Those who break Allah’s covenant after ratifying it, and sever what Allah has ordered to be joined and do mischief on earth, it is they who are the losers.)

    These are the characteristics of the disbelievers and they contradict the qualities of the believers. Similarly, Allah said in Surat Ar-Ra`d,

    [أَفَمَن يَعْلَمُ أَنَّمَآ أُنزِلَ إِلَيْكَ مِن رَبِّكَ الْحَقُّ كَمَنْ هُوَ أَعْمَى إِنَّمَا يَتَذَكَّرُ أُوْلُواْ الأَلْبَـبِ – الَّذِينَ يُوفُونَ بِعَهْدِ اللَّهِ وَلاَ يِنقُضُونَ الْمِيثَـقَ – وَالَّذِينَ يَصِلُونَ مَآ أَمَرَ اللَّهُ بِهِ أَن يُوصَلَ وَيَخْشَوْنَ رَبَّهُمْ وَيَخَافُونَ سُوءَ الحِسَابِ ]

    (Shall he then, who knows that what has been revealed unto you (O Muhammad ) from your Lord is the truth, be like him who is blind But it is only the men of understanding that pay heed. Those who fulfill the covenant of Allah and break not the Mithaq (bond, treaty, covenant). And those who join that which Allah has commanded to be joined (i.e. they are good to their relatives and do not sever the bond of kinship), and fear their Lord, and dread the terrible reckoning.) (13:19-21)) until,

    [وَالَّذِينَ يَنقُضُونَ عَهْدَ اللَّهِ مِن بَعْدِ مِيثَـقِهِ وَيَقْطَعُونَ مَآ أَمَرَ اللَّهُ بِهِ أَن يُوصَلَ وَيُفْسِدُونَ فِى الاٌّرْضِ أُوْلَـئِكَ لَهُمُ اللَّعْنَةُ وَلَهُمْ سُوءُ الدَّارِ ]

    (And those who break the covenant of Allah, after its ratification, and sever that which Allah has commanded to be joined (i.e. they sever the bond of kinship and are not good to their relatives), and work mischief in the land, on them is the curse (i.e. they will be far away from Allah’s mercy), and for them is the unhappy (evil) home (i.e. Hell).) (13:25)

    The covenant that these deviant people broke is Allah’s covenant with His creation, that is, to obey Him and avoid the sins that He prohibited. This covenant was reiterated in Allah’s Books and by the words of His Messengers. Ignoring this covenant constitutes breaking it. It was said that the Ayah (2:27) is about the disbelievers and the hypocrites among the People of the Book. In this case, the covenant that they broke is the pledge that Allah took from them in the Tawrah to follow Muhammad when he is sent as a Prophet, and to believe in him, and in what he was sent with. Breaking Allah’s covenant in this case occured when the People of the Book rejected the Prophet after they knew the truth about him, and they hid this truth from people, even though they swore to Allah that they would do otherwise. Allah informed us that they threw the covenant behind their backs and sold it for a miserable price.

    It was also reported that the Ayah (2:27) refers to all disbelievers, idol worshippers and hypocrites. Allah took their pledge to believe in His Oneness, showing them the signs that testify to His Lordship. He also took a covenant from them to obey His commands and refrain from His prohibitions, knowing that His Messengers would bring proofs and miracles that none among the creation could ever produce. These miracles testified to the truth of Allah’s Messengers. The covenant was broken when the disbelievers denied what was proven to them to be authentic and rejected Allah’s Prophets and Books, although they knew that they were the truth. This Tafsir was reported from Muqatil bin Hayyan, and it is very good. It is also the view that Az-Zamakhshari held.

    Allah’s statement next,

    [وَيَقْطَعُونَ مَآ أَمَرَ اللَّهُ بِهِ أَن يُوصَلَ]

    (And sever what Allah has ordered to be joined) is in reference to keeping the relations with the relatives, as Qatadah asserted. This Ayah is similar to Allah’s statement,

    [فَهَلْ عَسَيْتُمْ إِن تَوَلَّيْتُمْ أَن تُفْسِدُواْ فِى الاٌّرْضِ وَتُقَطِّعُواْ أَرْحَامَكُمْ ]

    (Would you then, if you were given the authority, do mischief in the land, and sever your ties of kinship) (47:22)

    Ibn Jarir At-Tabari preferred this opinion. However, it has been said that the meaning of the Ayah (2:27) here is more general. Hence, everything that Allah has commanded to nurture, and the people severed, is included in its meaning.

    What is the Muslim understanding of resurrection?

    This is a topic that deserves more time than I can give right now.

    On the other hand, those who are untrue to God will burn in the fiery pits of something quite reminiscent of Hell.

    That’s what it is.

  4. Thank you for the clarification of the covenant issue. What I was most curious about was the extent to which the word was connected to the biblical definition of the word covenant, and you’ve definitely helped flesh that point out with the opinions you included.

    It seems as though it really isn’t mentioned in this verse whether or not this covenant is specifically the one referred to with Abraham in the Bible, but that it has been connected to it for obvious reasons by subsequent interpreters. As my initial post indicated, I thought it might be a general covenant with all mankind, which indeed is what the second opinion seemed to say.

    Putting these first two opinions together is a natural next step, which is to say that this covenant is no longer just with the people of the Book because they broke it repeatedly (as the book indicates), but in a fashion similar to Christianity’s understanding, the covenant is now with all of God’s creatures. For the record, I think that, like this interpretation, all of God’s creatures should be entitled to their own private covenant with God.

    Despite the Jews breaking their covenant with God, however, the Quran does say later (in the verses we discussed last week in our comments) that the Jews (and Nazarenes) can go to Heaven, which implies that now (according to this verse) each one has his own covenant with God as one of God’s creatures, but just no longer as a people.

    Perhaps my seemingly syllogistic reasoning is a little roundabout, but in short, I’m interested to see that the connection to the biblical covenant has been made and refashioned in a more universalistic understanding here in the Quran, based, according to interpreters, on what we know of biblical history.

    The interplay between the Bible and the Quran is absolutely fascinating, and is helping me draw fascinating conclusions about the strong links between the three monotheistic religions under discussion. I think it’s a shame that these aren’t emphasized more for everyone rather than the petty differences.

  5. As my initial post indicated, I thought it might be a general covenant with all mankind, which indeed is what the second opinion seemed to say.

    The Qur’an discusses a number of different types of covenants, one of which is the general covenant; however, there are others. For example, here are some notes by Muhammad Asad (I don’t always agree with Asad’s translation or notes, but they’re online and convenient for c+p’ing. 🙂 ):

    The term ‘aqd (“covenant”) denotes a solemn undertaking or engagement involving more than one party. According to Raghib, the covenants referred to in this verse “are of three kinds: the covenants between God and man [i.e., man’s obligations towards God], between man and his own soul, and between the individual and his fellow-men” – thus embracing the entire area of man’s moral and social responsibilities. (Quran Ref: 5:1)

    The “covenant” is, in this context, a general term embracing the spiritual obligations arising from one’s faith in God and the moral and social obligations, resulting from that faith, towards one’s fellow-men (Zamakhshari) -1 see in this connection the first sentence of 5:1 (where the term ‘aqd is used) and the corresponding note 1. As regards my rendering of ‘ahd Allah as “bond with God”, see surah 2, note 19. (Quran Ref: 13:20)

    For examples in the Qur’an of different types of covenants, we have where Allah (swt) made a covenant with both the Christians and the Jews (“it” refering to religious knowledge through both the original Taurat (Torah) and Injil (Gospel)):

    And remember Allah took a covenant from the People of the Book, to make it known and clear to mankind, and not to hide it; but they threw it away behind their backs, and purchased with it some miserable gain! And vile was the bargain they made! (3:187)

    This verse refers to the covenant Allah (swt) made with the Jews:

    (They have incurred divine displeasure): In that they broke their covenant; that they rejected the signs of Allah; that they slew the Messengers in defiance of right; that they said, “Our hearts are the wrappings (which preserve Allah’s Word; we need no more)”;- Nay, Allah hath set the seal on their hearts for their blasphemy, and little is it they believe;- (4:155)

    And another covenant, made with the Christians:

    From those, too, who call themselves Christians, We did take a covenant, but they forgot a good part of the message that was sent them: so we estranged them, with enmity and hatred between the one and the other, to the day of judgment. And soon will Allah show them what it is they have done. (5:14)

    And another, where the covenant is with the believers, regardless of whether they’re Jewish, Christian or Muslim:

    Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the garden (of Paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain: a promise binding on Him in truth, through the Law, the Gospel, and the Qur’an: and who is more faithful to his covenant than Allah. then rejoice in the bargain which ye have concluded: that is the achievement supreme. (9:111)

    One other covenant you might find of interest: Reversion vs. Conversion.

    …which implies that now (according to this verse) each one has his own covenant with God as one of God’s creatures, but just no longer as a people.

    I don’t agree with your “…but just no longer as a people.” As I had mentioned earlier, there is also the fardhu kifayah, the obligations upon the community. And communities (or “nations” as the Qur’an normally calls them) are sometimes collectively punished as well. I think one of the key differences in Islam vs. modern religious thought is that religion is not just a personal choice as most people think today. In Islamic thought, religion is also a societal matter.

    I think it’s a shame that these aren’t emphasized more for everyone rather than the petty differences.

    Agreed. Unfortunately, people are far more interested in division and divisiveness today than in unity and understanding.

  6. […] To read about tonight’s (8-20) other episode, “The Death Camp of Tolerance,” click HERE – or for the other episode on 8-25, click HERE. To read the Quran Day post, click HERE. […]

  7. Hi JaySolomon!
    You said that the bible don’t always say that God is omniscient. That is true, but I think the problem is with the scribes, not with the prophets. Look at what Jesus says: “Every hair on your head is numbered” (Mat 10:30)
    For me this is a clearly indication of omniscience. Now look at this beautiful verse of the Quran: not a leaf does fall but with His knowledge. (6:59)
    This two verses says the same thing.

    Thank you!

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