Quran Read-A-Long: The Cow 72-82 Speaks of Presuming to Know God’s Will

Connection to Last Week

These verses about the perversion of God’s word echo the verses that we read last week and the conversation that JDsg and I had – particularly, I think, verse 75. We read here of a different way of people taking what God wants – which becomes religious legal practice – and perverting it into something else. In those central verses of The Cow last week we read of this happening through questions and not simply doing what was asked, and here we read of it happening knowingly and intentionally.

Verse 78 then produces this notion in a most forward fashion by connecting it to the Book (the Bible) and those who know nothing about it in actual fact (I wonder if this is meant to mean all Jews, or focus on the rabbis, or simply any Jew who doesn’t follow the Book with good intentions or something else) and only that which they wish to believe. Are the fantasies referring to the rabbinic laws or some less specific set of perversions?

Claiming to Know God’s Will

I want to talk about the notion in verse 80 about claiming to know God’s want, will and ways. This, I think, is a common problem and extends far outside the bounds of the Quran, Islam, or its perception of those who impute things to God.

Everybody does it (purport to know God’s will), and they do it with such excess that they’ve destroyed the concept of God’s will in their constant hammering away at the idea. What do I mean?

People say, “God wants this or God wants that.” “God wants me to do this.” Etc. etc. This is the opposite, in a sense, of the Arabic phrase “inshallah” which means, “if God wills it.” This phrase says, yes, it’s possible that what is being discussed will occur but only if God wants it to become so.

If someone believes in God and if this someone thinks that God controls everything then it follows that after anything has occurred, God willed it to be so or at least, in a more passive sense, allowed it to happen. Okay, that’s fine and I can accept that if it’s someone’s belief.

Death and BLTs

However, to assume that God wants anything – whether something as serious as another’s death or as meaningless as you eating a BLT (though I’m guessing few Muslims think God wants them to eat BLTs and if He did that wouldn’t seem meaningless), is to impute our own desires and wishes onto God. This, I think, totally undermines the notion of God’s will. It follows that thinking that God wants something and carrying it out ourselves means that God must have wanted it because he allowed it to happen. This connects back to inshallah in the opposite way that I previously characterized it and makes me wonder to what degree we can apply this concept to things that we insist on making happen.

For instance, (and this is just an example and not meant to reflect my own stance one way or the other), if an abortion takes place, must we assume that God willed it since it happened? My guess is probably not.

The Issue at Hand

Now, what we have here is a big conversation about determinism verses free-will and that is not the issue, whether theologically inclined or otherwise, that I want to hash out here. If you’re interested in that, check out the conversation between myself and JDsg from the first Quran Day post (HERE). What I want to bring up is the constant attribution of our will to God, which is what seems to be pissing off Quran verse 80 of the Cow. We should not walk around imputing to God what we think He wants. To focus the issue, this leads to an enormous body of jurisprudence when God would have said, “Just do what I told you and stop asking questions,” (see last weeks verses) and to a whole bunch of fantasies about what we think we know when we’re actually perverting God’s will (re: this week’s verses).

To assume God’s will is futile and quite frankly, I think pretty obnoxious. In fact, it’s a very papal concept, and I think that many of us can agree about the presumptuousness of the papal notion of being God’s mouthpiece on earth. Hey, maybe that’s what God had in mind when He told Mohammed in verse 80 that this was a problematic thing to do – to know that you weren’t going to burn because God had supposedly promised certain things. Of course, I wouldn’t presume to know that because I don’t think that anyone can know God’s will…especially when that will coincides so eerily with our own.

Follow up

What do you think of these verses? What do you think of assuming that we know what God wants? Can you help me answer some of the questions I posed here?

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The Cow 72-82

72. Remember when you killed a man and blamed each other for the deed, God brought to light what you concealed. 73. We had pronounced already: “Slay (the murderer) for (taking a life).” Thus God preserves life from death and shows you His signs that you may understand. 74. Yet, in spite of this, your hearts only hardened like rocks or even harder, but among rocks are those from which rivers flow; and there are also those which split open and water gushes forth; as well as those that roll down for fear of God. And God is not negligent of all that you do. 75. How do you expect them to put their faith in you, when you know that some among them heard the word of God and, having understood, perverted it knowingly? 76. For when they meet the faithful, they say: “We believe;” but when among themselves, they say: “Why do you tell them what the Lord has revealed to you? They will only dispute it in the presence of your Lord. Have you no sense indeed?” 77. Do they not know that God is aware of what they hide and what they disclose? 78. Among them are heathens who know nothing of the Book but only what they wish to believe, and are only lost in fantasies. 79. But woe to them who fake the Scriptures and say: “This is from God, so that they might earn some profit thereby; and woe to them for what they fake, and woe to them for what they earn from it! 80. Yet they say: “the Fire will not touch us for more than a few days.” Say: “Have you so received a promise from God? Then surely God will not withdraw His pledge. Or do you impute things to God of which you have no knowledge at all?” 81. Why, they who have earned the wages of sin and are enclosed in error, are people of Hell, where they will abide forever. 82. But those who believe and do good deeds are people of Paradise, and shall live there forever.

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6 Responses

  1. Verse 78 then produces this notion in a most forward fashion by connecting it to the Book (the Bible) and those who know nothing about it in actual fact (I wonder if this is meant to mean all Jews, or focus on the rabbis, or simply any Jew who doesn’t follow the Book with good intentions or something else) and only that which they wish to believe. Are the fantasies referring to the rabbinic laws or some less specific set of perversions?

    First, I don’t think the verse applies to all Jews, nor should it even focus necessarily on rabbis. I think it applies to a certain class of Jews, more or less your third grouping. The last sentence of the verse I think is poorly translated (“Among them are heathens…”). Yusuf Ali translates, “And there are among them illiterates…”, which is corroborated by Ibn Kathir. The illiterates, not being able to read the actual contents of the Book (in this case, the Tawrah), make conjectures as to what’s said according to their own desires. This kind of behavior is condemned quite a few times in the Qur’an and doesn’t apply solely to the Jews. In fact, I think this type of behavior is quite common today among all sorts of people; one more reason then why Muslims try to avoid bida (religious innovation) at all costs.

    This phrase says, yes, it’s possible that what is being discussed will occur but only if God wants it to become so.

    Correct.

    However, to assume that God wants anything … is to impute our own desires and wishes onto God.

    The Qur’an mentions many, many times (e.g., 2:263, 2:267, 4:131, 14:8, 22:64, etc.), in different ways, that Allah (swt) is free of all wants (e.g., “And know that God is Free of all wants, and worthy of all praise.”). He does have a plan, but this is largely, if not completely, unknowable to us.

    This connects back to inshallah in the opposite way that I previously characterized it and makes me wonder to what degree we can apply this concept to things that we insist on making happen.

    “If God wills” doesn’t necessarily mean that we are not able to act on such-and-such. We may try to insist on making such-and-such happen, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that such-and-such will happen. On the other hand, “if God wills” isn’t a license that you should trust in Allah (swt) solely to the detriment of common sense. A famous hadith says:

    “A man once rode into town on a fine she-camel of his, and he said: ‘O Messenger of Allah, shall I just leave her unattended, and put my trust in the Lord [ada’u-ha wa atawakkalu]?’ So the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) told him: ‘Hobble her feet with a rope, and put your trust in the Lord [a’qil-ha wa tawakkal]!'”

    Such-and-such may then happen, or it may not. Insha’allah.

    For instance, (and this is just an example and not meant to reflect my own stance one way or the other), if an abortion takes place, must we assume that God willed it since it happened? My guess is probably not.

    Allah (swt) may have allowed the abortion to happen (it may be part of His larger plan), but the sin of such a deed does not reflect on Him.

    Hey, maybe that’s what God had in mind when He told Mohammed in verse 80 that this was a problematic thing to do – to know that you weren’t going to burn because God had supposedly promised certain things.

    Per Muhammad Asad:

    According to popular Jewish belief, even the sinners from among the children of Israel will suffer only very limited punishment in the life to come, and will be’ quickly reprieved by virtue of their belonging to “the chosen people”: a belief which the Qur’an rejects. (Quran Ref: 2:80)

    Per Ibn Kathir:

    (When Khaybar was conquered, a roasted poisoned sheep was presented to the Prophet as a gift (by the Jews). The Messenger of Allah ordered, `Assemble before me all the Jews who were here.’ The Jews were summoned and the Prophet said (to them), `Who is your father’ They replied, `So-and-so.’ He said, `You have lied; your father is so-and-so.’ They said, `You have uttered the truth.’ He said, `Will you now tell me the truth, if I ask you about something?’ They replied, `Yes, O Abul-Qasim; and if we should tell a lie, you will know our lie as you have about our fathers.’ On that he asked, `Who are the people of the (Hell) Fire?’ They said, `We shall remain in the (Hell) Fire for a short period, and after that you will replace us in it.’ The Prophet said, `May you be cursed and humiliated in it! By Allah, we shall never replace you in it.’ Then he asked, `Will you tell me the truth if I ask you a question?’ They said, `Yes, O Abul-Qasim.’ He asked, `Have you poisoned this sheep?’ They said, `Yes.’ He asked, `What made you do so?’ They said, `We wanted to know if you were a liar, in which case we would get rid of you, and if you were a Prophet then the poison would not harm you.’) Imam Ahmad, Al-Bukhari and An-Nasa’i recorded similarly.

    I’m still a little surprised that you didn’t discuss the connection between this section and the last (the heifer), especially as it ties in with the Bible. I’ll give you a hint; see Deuteronomy 21. 😉

    Insha’allah, I’ll get to last week’s post soon.

  2. I love the notion that God doesn’t have any wants. Despite this being so in the Quran and Islam, however, I find that all over, people discuss God’s wants as their own, and I find that frustrating. I used to say, how could we know what God wants, but I like better the notion that God has no wants.

    I love the story about the she-camel – it’s very clever.

    Glad you brought up the issue of “the chosen people through the Asad quote – this week I’m talking about that idea (and my own rejection of it).

    I’m a little disturbed by the Ibn Kathir story. I mean, stories are stories but this one paints a pretty grim picture. Since the Jews then didn’t accept Mohammed as a prophet, despite this story that proved it to them in their own way, history would seem to further condemn them for Mohammed’s prophetic status passing their own test and their continued rejection. Why this passage?

    Re: The Cow and Deut. 21, (and thank you for the hints 😉 ) what the Quran really seems to be doing is calling the methods used by the Israelites to identify the guilty in a murder case absolutely absurd. In their ritual for absolving themselves of bloodguilt a heifer is killed and everyone claims that they didn’t do anything wrong – and that’s the end of the murder. Amazing.

    Is the Quran mentioning again the problems with this way of operating and the incorporation of and focus on the cow as a means of conducting legal issues?

    There seems to be a lot more at stake here but I’m sure we’ll flesh it out in due time.

  3. Why this passage?

    Why which passage? Ibn Kathir’s or the Qur’anic verses?

    …what the Quran really seems to be doing is calling the methods used by the Israelites to identify the guilty in a murder case absolutely absurd. In their ritual for absolving themselves of bloodguilt a heifer is killed and everyone claims that they didn’t do anything wrong – and that’s the end of the murder. Amazing.

    But that’s the thing: it’s not the end of the story. 😉

    Is the Quran mentioning again the problems with this way of operating and the incorporation of and focus on the cow as a means of conducting legal issues?

    No. First, let me give you several different commentaries. First, Ibn Kathir, but starting with the previous section, when Musa (pbuh) had to deal with the argumentative Jews about exactly which heifer should be slaughtered:

    Allah said, `O Children of Israel! Remember how I blessed you with miracle of the cow that was the means for discovering the identity of the murderer, when the murdered man was brought back to life.’

    Ibn Abi Hatim recorded `Ubaydah As-Salmani saying, “There was a man from among the Children of Israel who was impotent. He had substantial wealth, and only a nephew who would inherit from him. So his nephew killed him and moved his body at night, placing it at the doorstep of a certain man. The next morning, the nephew cried out for revenge, and the people took up their weapons and almost fought each other. The wise men among them said, `Why would you kill each other, while the Messenger of Allah is still among you?’ So they went to Musa and mentioned the matter to him and Musa said,

    (“Verily, Allah commands you that you slaughter a cow.” They said, “Do you make fun of us?” He said, “I take Allah’s refuge from being among Al-Jahilin (the ignorant or the foolish)).” “Had they not disputed, it would have been sufficient for them to slaughter any cow. However, they disputed, and the matter was made more difficult for them, until they ended up looking for the specific cow that they were later ordered to slaughter. They found the designated cow with a man, only who owned that cow. He said, `By Allah! I will only sell it for its skin’s fill of gold.’ So they paid the cow’s fill of its skin in gold, slaughtered it and touched the dead man with a part of it. He stood up, and they asked him, `Who killed you?’ He said, `That man,’ and pointed to his nephew. He died again, and his nephew was not allowed to inherit him. Thereafter, whoever committed murder for the purpose of gaining inheritance was not allowed to inherit.” Ibn Jarir reported something similar to that. Allah knows best.

    Later, in reference to verses 72 and 73,

    Al-Bukhari said that,

    (And disagreed among yourselves as to the crime) means, “Disputed.”

    This is also the Tafsir of Mujahid. `Ata’ Al-Khurasani and Ad-Dahhak said, “Disputed about this matter.” Also, Ibn Jurayj said that,

    (And (remember) when you killed a man and disagreed among yourselves as to the crime) means, some of them said, “You killed him,” while the others said, “No you killed him.” This is also the Tafsir of `Abdur-Rahman bin Zayd bin Aslam. Mujahid said that,

    (But Allah brought forth that which you were Taktumun) means, “what you were hiding.”

    Allah said,

    (So We said: “Strike him (the dead man) with a piece of it (the cow)”) meaning, “any part of the cow will produce the miracle (if they struck the dead man with it).” We were not told which part of the cow they used, as this matter does not benefit us either in matters of life or religion. Otherwise, Allah would have made it clear for us. Instead, Allah made this matter vague, so this is why we should leave it vague. Allah’s statement,

    (Thus Allah brings the dead to life) means, “They struck him with it, and he came back to life.” This Ayah demonstrates Allah’s ability in bringing the dead back to life. Allah made this incident proof against the Jews that the Resurrection shall occur, and ended their disputing and stubbornness over the dead person.

    So, in this case, Ibn Kathir’s saying that Allah’s pointing out His ability to resurrect the dead (a common theme in the Qur’an). Ibn Kathir then writes (with respect to verse 74):

    Allah criticized the Children of Israel because they witnessed the tremendous signs and the Ayat of Allah, including bringing the dead back to life, yet,

    (Then after that your hearts were hardened).

    So their hearts were like stones that never become soft. This is why Allah forbade the believers from imitating the Jews when He said,

    (Has not the time come for the hearts of those who believe (in the Oneness of Allah ـ Islamic Monotheism) to be affected by Allah’s Reminder (this Qur’an), and that which has been revealed of the truth, lest they become as those who received the Scripture (the Tawrah) and the Injil (Gospel)) before (i.e. Jews and Christians), and the term was prolonged for them and so their hearts were hardened? And many of them were Fasiqun (the rebellious, the disobedient to Allah)) (57:16). In his Tafsir, Al-`Awfi said that Ibn `Abbas said, “When the dead man was struck with a part of the cow, he stood up and became more alive than he ever was. He was asked, `Who killed you’ He said, `My nephews killed me.’ He then died again. His nephews said, after Allah took his life away, `By Allah! We did not kill him’ and denied the truth while they knew it. Allah said,

    (And became as stones or even worse in hardness). ”

    And by the passage of time, the hearts of the Children of Israel were unlikely to accept any admonishment, even after the miracles and signs they withnessed. Their hearts became harder than stones, with no hope of ever softening.

  4. Continuing on from the previous comment, the next commentator, Yusuf Ali, who wrote:

    In Deut. xxi.1-9 it is ordained that if the body of a slain man be found in a field and the slayer is not known, a heifer shall be beheaded, and the elders of the city next to the slain man’s domicile shall wash their hands over the heifer and say that they neither did the deed nor saw it done, thus clearing themselves from the blood guilt.

    The Jewish story based on this was that in a certain case of this kind, every one tried to clear himself of guilt and lay the blame at the door of others. In the first place they tried to prevaricate and prevent a heifer being slain as in the last parable. When she was slain, Allah by a miracle disclosed the real person. A portion of the sacrificed heifer was ordered to be placed on the corpse, which came to life and disclosed the whole story of the crime.

    The lesson of this parable is that men may try to hide their crimes individually or collectively, but Allah will bring them to light in unexpected ways. Applying this further to Jewish national history, the argument is developed in the following verses that the Children of Israel played fast and loose with their own rites and traditions, but they could not thus evade the consequences of their own sin.

    Muhammad Asad, on the other hand, looks at verse 73 from a linguistic context and comes up with another perspective. These are two different notes, placed together:

    The phrase idribuhu bi-ba’diha can be literally translated as “strike him [or “it”] with something of her [or “it”]” -and this possibility has given rise to the fanciful assertion by many commentators that the children of Israel were commanded to strike the corpse of the murdered man with some of the flesh of the sacrificed cow, whereupon he was miraculously restored to life and pointed out his murderer! Neither the Qur’an, nor any saying of the Prophet, nor even the Bible offers the slightest warrant for this highly imaginative explanation, which must, therefore, be rejected – quite apart from the fact that the pronoun hu in idribuhu has a masculine gender, while the noun nafs (here translated as “human being”) is feminine in gender: from which it follows that the imperative idribuhu cannot possibly refer to nafs. On the other hand, the verb daraba (lit., “he struck”) is very often used in a figurative or metonymic sense, as, for instance, in the expression daraba fi ‘l-ard (“he journeyed on earth”), or daraba ‘sh-shay’ bi’sh-shay’ (“he mixed one thing with another thing”), or daraba mathal (“he coined a similitude” or “propounded a parable” or “gave an illustration”), or `ala darb wahid (“similarly applied” or “in the same manner”), or duribat `alayhim adh-dhillah (“humiliation was imposed on them” or “applied to them”), and so forth. Taking all this into account, I am of the opinion that the imperative idribuhu occurring in the above Qur’anic passage must be translated as “apply it” or “this” (referring, in this context, to the principle of communal responsibility). As for the feminine pronoun ha in ba’diha (“some of it”), it must necessarily relate to the nearest preceding feminine noun – that is, to the nafs that has been murdered, or the act of murder itself about which (fiha) the community disagreed. Thus, the phrase idribuhu bi-ba’diha may be suitably rendered as “apply this [principle] to some of those [cases of unresolved murder]”: for it is obvious that the principle of communal responsibility for murder by a person or persons unknown can be applied only to some and not to all such cases. (Quran Ref: 2:73)

    Lit., “God gives life to the dead and shows you His messages” (i.e., He shows His will by means of such messages or ordinances). The figurative expression “He gives life to the dead” denotes the saving of lives, and is analogous to that in 5:32. In this context it refers to the prevention of bloodshed and the killing of innocent persons (Manar I, 351), be it through individual acts of revenge, or in result of an erroneous judicial process based on no more than vague suspicion and possibly misleading circumstantial evidence. (Quran Ref: 2:73)

    Who’s right? I suspect all three.

  5. Whoa did I have my interpretation of the biblical and quranic verses mixed up. 🙂

    Thanks for providing all of those commentaries so that I could see the way that it is portrayed. I’m surprised that the Quran approved of this use of the cow, considering the way it reacted to the use of the golden calf earlier. My surprise is compounded by the fact that I imagined the quranic interpretation to assume that this was one part of the Torah that had been ‘corrupted’ and was no longer originally what it said – perhaps added as a demonstration of the foolish behavior of the Israelites as it related to engaging a heifer.

    Obviously I was wrong. Rather, these verses have been used to demonstrate certain facts about Allah’s power(s of resurrection) and how the truth, through Him, will be revealed. A totally opposite lesson but interestingly lends light to the difficult-to-understand Bible verses.

    Great stuff – thanks for helping me start to get a handle on this part. Otherwise I may have read right through these significant passages and lost much of the meaning of The Cow.

  6. Otherwise I may have read right through these significant passages and lost much of the meaning of The Cow.

    We are both benefiting from the study (and, insha’allah, Hilla is as well). You learned early on that the Qur’an is a “dense” document, and I believe I also mentioned some time ago that you get out of your study of the Qur’an what you put into it. And these are two reasons why I continue to read and study the Qur’an over and over again, even though I’ve been a Muslim for a fairly long time now. Are you familiar with the following quotation by Isaac Newton? “I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” That’s what learning about the Qur’an and Islam is like for me.

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