Quran Read-A-Long: The Cow 87-97 Alludes to the Problem with Jewish Chosenness

Since this entire passage seems to me to discuss how the Jews don’t believe in revelations that came after the Torah despite their verification of the Jews’ own text, I’m going to focus only on verse 94, which concerns, I think, chosenness. Please feel free to comment on any other part of this passage, however, as it’s all up for discussion.

The Idea of Chosenness

Jews believe that they are the chosen people. Apparently, they were elected by God way back in the day to possess a certain land and forever be God’s chosen and consecrated people. Personally, I don’t live way back in the day – though I may recall it frequently in anecdotes and such – but rather, I live today. What’s important to me are the concerns that we face today and how to make today a better place.

Living in the Now

Many people don’t share those concerns to the extreme that I do, which isn’t to say that they’re not interested in present day issues as much as to say that they’re not concerned with them to the exclusion of what was once important. I am. Some see that as a flaw or as foolishness, but it’s just who I am. I very rarely see the value of preserving tradition solely for the sake of tradition and particularly if it’s detrimental to modern concerns and progress.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t value and respect tradition and the past. After all, I’m trained as a historian and I love studying and understanding religion (hence, The Zen of South Park). However, I’m not attached to ideas or traditions from the past so much so that I can’t give them up to make the world a better place. Most people aren’t with me on that, and I can appreciate that.

The Problem with Chosenness

The idea of being chosen by God, I think, is a dangerous notion. Chosenness implies elitism and a “better than others-ness” that I find pernicious to people’s ability to interact, coexist and progress. How can we talk to one another knowing that the other considers his race/religion/ethnicity/family superior to everyone else’s – and I don’t just mean to have its general advantages and qualities (which is probably okay) but that he believes that he has been chosen by God as an elect?

That’s a pretty twisted notion and makes mutual dialogue difficult. I constantly struggle with the idea of chosenness because I dislike it when people think that there’s something innately special about themselves that is not so in others – that birth precedes merit. This idea manifests itself in many forms throughout the world, but is quite apparent in the notion of Jewish chosenness – the suggestion that only the Jews are God’s chosen people.

Summary

Now, this passage doesn’t provide a flattering portrayal of the Jews, considering that it lambasts them for rejecting these very words which verify the truth of the Torah, and I must point out that my own sentiments on the matter of chosenness do not follow this general thread of condemnation. However, I found the larger point here – that the Jews stick to the Torah and its notion of chosenness to the exclusion of others being able to reach God, which is a patently absurd idea (that we can’t all be with God in the afterlife) – that I find it damaging and unhelpful and wanted to speak out about it myself.

What do you think of this passage? Do you have anything to add? What do you think of the idea of chosenness, whether in this particular instance as it relates to the Jews or in its general application to so many people’s understanding of themselves and their people as supremely special?

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The Cow: 87-97

87. Remember We gave Moses the Book and sent after him many an apostle; and to Jesus, son of Mary, We gave clear evidence of the truth, reinforcing him with divine grace. Even so, when a messenger brought to you what did not suit your mood you turned haughty, and called some imposters and some others you slew. 88. And they say: “Our hearts are enfolded in covers.” In fact God has cursed them for their unbelief; and only a little do they believe. 89. And when the Book was sent to them by God verifying what had been revealed to them already – even though before it they used to pray for victory over the unbelievers – and even though they recognized it when it came to them, they renounced it. The curse of God be on those who deny! 90. They bartered their lives ill denying revelation of God out of spite that God should bestow His grace among His votaries on whomsoever He will, and thus earned wrath upon wrath. The punishment for disbelievers is ignominious. 91. And when it is said to them: “believe in what God has sent down,” they say: “We believe what was sent to us, and do not believe what has come thereafter,” although it affirms the truth they possess already. Say: “Why have you then been slaying God’s apostles as of old, if you do believe?” 92. Although Moses had come to you with evidence of the truth, you chose the calf in his absence, and you transgressed. 93. Remember when We took your pledge and exalted you on the Mount (saying: ) “Hold fast to what We have given you, firmly, and pay heed,” you said: “We have heard and will not obey.” (The image of) the calf had sunk deep into their hearts on account of unbelief. Say: “Vile is your belief if you are believers indeed!” 94. Tell them: “If you think you alone will abide with God to the exclusion of the rest of Mankind, in the mansions of the world to come, then wish for death if what you say is true.” 95. But they will surely not wish for death because of what they had done in the past; and God knows the sinners well. 96. You will see they are covetous of life more than other men, even more than those who practice idolatry. Each one of them desires to live a thousand years, although longevity will never save them from punishment, for God sees all they do.

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7 Responses

  1. Three brief comments:

    * In general I agree with your argument regarding “chosenness.” What I find particularly interesting is that not only the Jews are chastised for thinking that everything will be relatively OK for being God’s “chosen people” (like in verse 2:80, “The Fire shall not touch us but for a few numbered days”). Their arrogance and self-satisfaction has left them to the point where they’re bordering on no faith at all. (Ahmed and Pickthall use “unbelief” in verse 88; Yusuf Ali uses “blasphemy” for the same word. Asad translates as “their refusal to acknowledge the truth.”) Of course, Jews, now or then, have no monopoly on this type of thinking, and I suspect a lot of people would fit this mold today. The Muslim position is summed up especially in 94:7-8, where Muhammad (pbuh) is essentially told, “Even after your task of Prophethood is finished, continue to pray to Allah (swt) for forgiveness.” There’s no point where we can rest on our laurels, so to speak. The Messenger of God said: When you stand up to pray, perform your prayer as if it were your last…’ (Ahmad)

    * In the interest of trying to provide insights that you might have missed… 🙂 A number of commentators note the tense shift in the last sentence of verse 87: Some ye called impostors, and others ye slay! Tense and POV shifts happen every now and then in the Qur’an, and tend to be important points. In this case, Asad wrote:

    Lit., “and some you are slaying”. The change from the past tense observed throughout this sentence to the present tense in the verb taqtulun (“you are slaying”) is meant to express a conscious intent in this respect and, thus, a persistent, ever-recurring trait in Jewish history (Manar I, 377), to which also the New Testament refers (Matthew xxiii, 34-35, 37), and I Thessalonians ii, 15). (Quran Ref: 2:87)

    The Jews of Medina, of course, did try to slay the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), just as other Jews had killed earlier Prophets (pbut).

    * Lastly, Asad had an interesting comment on verse 93:

    Lit., “into their hearts has been instilled the calf because of their denial of the truth”: i.e., as soon as they turned away from the genuine message propounded by Moses, they fell into worshiping material goods, symbolized by the “golden calf”. (Quran Ref: 2:93)

    Does that not strike you as how Christmas is “celebrated” in North America?

  2. Yes, I agree that the theme of slaying God’s prophets is repeated in Jewish history and it’s interesting that the Quran presents this in present tense because for the Quran, as opposed to say, for the Bible, this has just happened again in a present tense sense.

    No, the Jews did not succeed in killing Mohammed but as we’ve seen, they apparently tried and their rejection of him could be likened in a sense to ‘killing him.’ Thus, the present tense is an interesting shift to note and I’m glad you pointed it out.

    I also like the idea presented at the beginning of your comment that even Mohammed had to continue praying because his station alone was not going to cut it. Merit indeed!

    Funny that you bring up the issue of materialism and Christmas as I’ve thought about and written on it extensively – mostly because of how central a point it becomes in numerous South Park episodes – but I do see your point, absolutely. Christmas is no longer about what it’s meant to commemorate – rather than concern Jesus’ birth, people revel in the material goods that have replaced his truth.

    And yes, how can one feel that he’s doing anything but picking up sea shells on the shore while the entire ocean lies before him.

  3. Jewish chosenness
    In the Quran there are two intertwined concepts freedom (the free-will to make choices) and responsibility (individual’s responsibility/duty). The Quran mentions that some people have more wealth than others—but with that blessing, comes the responsibility of making the right choices to use the wealth for good. This responsibility does not apply to someone who has not been blessed with wealth. Likewise, the children of Isreal were blessed with prophets and spiritual/religious guidance. Thus, they have more responsibility for understanding and following G-d’s will than those to whom guidance was not sent as abundantly. This distribution of responsibility, according to capability of an individual or collection of individuals is important for the concept of Justice and of a “Just G-D” to work. In Islam, only G-D is superior and all else is created in equality. This means that no tribe or individual is superior to another. Yet, some are more blessed than others–thus, the
    distribution of responsibility creates balance and justice. –So, why such a complicated formula? why not just have the same blessings for everyone? The Quran says that our diversity is both a test and a gift.

  4. The reasoning for the complicated formula is the clash of belief and, not necessarily associated with the concepts of individual/communal duty, as a I see it. The Jews as a “Chosen People” defies Islam’s abrogation of prophets. Therefore, every prophet in time abrogated the preceding prophet and we are left with Muhammad in the end as the Seal of the Prophets.

    While I agree with the point-of-view of all being equal, I have to admit that I am slightly uncomfortable with the notion of Muhammad being the seal because does that not, in some sense, say that Muhammad was a “chosen” prophet? All ends with Muhammad and Islam just like all ended with the Jews and their religion. Islam is inclusive regarding conversion, opposed to Judaism. However, when one looks beyond the text and theory and studies the religion in practice, is it not “chosen”? Under the Islamic empire, minorities were given permission to live side-by-side with Muslims, but dhimmi (minority) laws made sure that Islam reigned supreme. Which makes me wonder – In a world of many religions, is “chosen-ness” inevitable?

  5. misunderstanding the Quran?—“abrogation of prophet” is not what I understood. Some “laws” given to a previous prophet may have been “abrogated” by a succeeding prophet—however, all prophets are respected as messengers of God—the Quran tells people to respect previous revelation (though it may have been changed or corrupted).
    Seal—The Quran simply says that Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) is a seal—this has been interpreted as him being the last of the biblical prophets (or last in line of all prophets biblical or non-biblical)—or that the Quran is the last revelation—because a seal was used in those times to close a scroll or letter.—but it could be interpreted in other ways.
    Being first or last or in the middle does not mean their position is “superior or inferior”—they are “chosen” in that they have (all) been entrusted with the responsibility of reciting/proclaiming the message.
    If one were to “study” Islam as actually practiced, they will find that there is a wide range of practices, traditions and understanding of Islam. The spectrum encompasses the mysticism of the sufi”s to the various “moderate schools” of thought/practice to the more conservative and strict sects such as the wahabi.
    “chosen-ness” may be inevitable because we all have “ego”
    ego likes seperation because this gives ego superiority and identity. Any religious text read in an egoic state will offer a different message than when read in a state of “surrender” –a state where we transcend ego.

  6. @ Hilla:

    Therefore, every prophet in time abrogated the preceding prophet…

    This isn’t what’s taught in Islam; the lessons of the preceding Prophets (pbut) are not abrogated by their successors. The essential message for all the Prophets (pbut) was the same (the “Gospel of Unity” as Yusuf Ali would put it); only the details changed to fit the times and peoples, with some of those details being abrogated (e.g., dietary restrictions) in Islam. Muslims see the continuity of the message among all the Prophets (pbut). If the messages of preceding Prophets (pbut) were being abrogated, I sincerely doubt Allah (swt) would have used so many of their stories in the Qur’an to begin with.

    …does that not, in some sense, say that Muhammad was a “chosen” prophet?

    Are not all Prophets (pbut) “chosen” by Allah (swt) to begin with? Did Moses or Jesus (pbut), to name two, decide that they would become Prophets on their own initiative? To me, false prophets are those who choose on their own to claim prophethood.

    @ Kay:

    Any religious text read in an egoic state will offer a different message than when read in a state of “surrender” –a state where we transcend ego.

    Exactly. And that’s the real trick, isn’t it? (I’ve been thinking about this idea for a couple weeks now; it might become a blog post later, insha’allah.)

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