Quran Read-A-Long: The Cow 122-129 Introduces us to Abraham, Ishmael and the Ka’aba

Verse 123 is a sad day to imagine, when men stop acting on behalf of one another and no one is willing to stand up for another.

Abraham and Such

The verses about Abraham fascinate me, primarily for their similarities to and differences from the biblical story. According to the Bible Abraham didn’t ask about his progeny – he was simply promised by God that he would be the father of many nations (among a few other things). Biblically, God made no caveats regarding the transgressors among Abraham’s progeny, though once Israel was with Moses in the desert they were reassured that if they were bad they would get kicked out of Cana’an.

So what is the relevance of Abraham here being told that God doesn’t tolerate transgressors or make them leaders among men? Well, for one thing, it adds an element of merit into the story that the Bible lacks. Abraham, in the Bible, is singled out by God for absolutely no reason. Numerous stories about “why Abraham” have been invented but none exist in the Bible itself. That is, no merit is involved with Abraham or his offspring. In the Quran, however, whether or not there is a reason for picking Abraham (I’m not there yet if there is), he is told that God will not honor his progeny who have what seems to be negative merit; that is, who are transgressors. This is a more long-sighted and thoughtful God. The God of Genesis makes an arbitrary promise and seems forced by the honor of His word to follow through for hundreds of years.

The Ka’aba

The connection of Abraham and Ishmael to the Ka’aba is also an interesting element to the understanding of Abraham for those familiar with only the biblical stories. It adds an entirely new dimension to the characters, particularly Ishmael, who plays a backseat role in the Bible. Connecting this revered figures to this spot and its sanctification must truly enhance the spirituality of worship.

The Bible connects Abraham with numerous spots in Canaan (Beer Sheba, Bethel, etc.), and though some people visit them out of reverence none is actually turned into a place of worship. Of course, it is believed that the spot where Abraham bound Isaac for sacrifice occured at Mount Moriah, which is allegedly the same place that the Temple was eventually located (where the Dome of the Rock now stands), but that is merely speculative (and in Islam the attempted sacrifice wasn’t of Isaac anyway!). All we know is that Abraham walked three days from Be’er Sheba and there is no real connection to the Temple Mount being Mount Moriah, nor does the Bible say it is so. The attempt to draw the connection in Jewish history, however, reinforces the understanding of the significance for Muslims that Abraham was involved with the Ka’aba.

Abraham and Islam

Abraham’s entreaty of God is also fascinating. By asking to be made to submit and by asking for submissive progeny it seems to me that he is literally asking for Islam, which means submission.

Though Jews like to say that Abraham was the first Jew, the Bible doesn’t make this claim and it is relatively unfounded. In the Quran, however, Abraham seems to be asking for, and therefore in a sense founding, Islam. Of course, Islam doesn’t begin until Mohammed’s time, but this lays the foundation for that in the earliest relevant generation.

Is verse 129 meant to be a specific reference to a particular apostle or a general plea for apostles to come and provide guidance? That is to say, is this a reference to Mohammed?

Summary

What do you think of these verses? What can you add that I didn’t mention or correct that I said? Have you ever been to the Ka’aba? Can you share your experience with us?

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The Cow 122-129

122. O Children of Israel, remember the favors I bestowed on you, and made you exalted among the nations of the world. 123. Fear the day when no man will stand up for man in the least, and no ransom avail nor intercession matter nor help reach. 124. Remember, when his Lord tried Abraham by a number of commands which he fulfilled, God said to him: “I will make you a leader among men.” And when Abraham asked: “From my progeny too?” the Lord said: “My pledge does not include transgressors.” 125. Remember, We made the House (of Ka’bah) a place of congregation and safe reatreat, and said: “Make the spot where Abraham stood the place of worship;” and enjoined upon Abraham and Ishmael to keep Our House immaculate for those who shall walk around it and stay in it for contemplation and prayer, and for bowing in adoration. 126. And when Abraham said: “O Lord, make this a city of peace, and give those of its citizens who believe in God and the Last Day fruits for food,” He answered: “To those will I also give a little who believe not, for a time, then drag them to Hell, a dreadful destination!” 127. And when Abraham was raising the plinth of the House with Ishmael (he prayed): Accept this from us, O Lord, for You hear and know everything; 128. And make us submit, O Lord, to Your will, and our progeny a people submissive to You. Teach us the way of worship and forgive our trespasses, for You are compassionate and merciful; 129. And send to them, O Lord, an apostle from among them to impart Your messages to them, and teach them the Book and the wisdom, and correct them in every way; for indeed You are mighty and wise.”

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12 Responses

  1. That is to say, is this a reference to Mohammed?

    It is, but like many verses in the Qur’an, it may also be applied more generally. Yusuf Ali has an interesting comment with respect to verse 129:

    How beautiful this prayer is, and how aptly it comes in here in the argument! Such Paganism or star-worship or planet-worship as there was in Abraham’s time was first cleared out of Makkah by Abraham. This is the chief meaning of “sanctification” or “purification” in 2:125, although of course physical cleanliness is (in physical conditions) a necessary element of purification in the higher sense. Abraham and his elder son Isma’il then built the Ka’bah and established the rites and usages of the sacred city. He was thus the founder of the original Islam (which is as old as mankind) in Arabia. As becomes a devout man, he offers and dedicates the work to Allah in humble supplication, addressing Him as the All-Hearing and the All-Knowing. He then asks for a blessing on himself and progeny generally, both the children of his eldest-born Isma’il and his younger son Isaac. With prophetic vision he foresees that there will be corruption and backsliding in both branches of his family. Makkah will house 360 idols, Jerusalem will become a harlot city (Ezekiel xvi. 15), a city of abomination. But the light of Islam will shine, and reclaim the lost people in both branches and indeed in all the world. So he prays for Allah’s merrcy, addressing Him as the Oft-Returning, Most Merciful. And finally he foresees in Makkah a Prophet teaching the people as one “of their own,” and in their own beautiful Arabic language: he asks for a blessing on Muhammad’s ministry, appealing to the Power and Wisdom of Allah.

    One note for a topic you missed: Verse 2:125 says in part: “…that they [Abraham and Isma’il] should sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in Prayer).”

    Essentially, these four rites are part of hajj, umrah, and salat. They are tawaf, going around the sacred territory of Makkah or, more specifically, around the Ka’bah; i’tikaf, “retiring to a place as a spiritual retreat, for contemplation and prayer”; ruku’, the posture of bowing in prayer; and sujud, the posture of prostrating oneself on the ground in prayer. The latter two, of course, are done in each and every prayer (salat) performed by Muslims.

  2. I’m glad you added that last bit, JDsg. When I read it I recognized the act of supplication and even traveling around the Ka’aba during the hajj, but I wouldn’t have known their arabic names and I didn’t know i’tikaf or that there were two different prayer positions being mentioned here. I thought I’d leave mention of those important elements to the pros 🙂

    As for the Ali quote, I really like that. It tells a great story through these verses about Abraham’s descendants and what will come of their worship and their main cities and even their restoration (well, one side’s restoration). He mentions Isaac, though, as receiving a blessing. Is that just in verses I haven’t reached yet or is it an assumption of Ali that he’s added into this passage?

  3. Is that just in verses I haven’t reached yet or is it an assumption of Ali that he’s added into this passage?

    No, it’s in other verses; for example, in Muhammad Asad’s translation, verse 12:6 says that Allah (swt) blessed Joseph and the House of Jacob, in addition to Abraham and Isaac (pbut). Generally speaking, all Prophets (pbut) have been blessed by Allah (swt).

    For, [as thou hast been shown in thy dream,] even thus will thy Sustainer elect thee, and will impart unto thee some understanding of the inner meaning of happenings, and will bestow the full measure of His blessings upon thee and upon the House of Jacob -even as, aforetime, He bestowed it in full measure upon thy forefathers Abraham and Isaac. Verily, thy Sustainer is all-knowing, wise!” (12:6)

  4. Verse 122–I feel that the “special favor” given to the children of Israel refers to the many prophets/messengers/leaders of wisdom sent to them. 123, then goes on to remind them of the responsibility of being “blessed/guided”—that they must guard themselves so as not to stray from the guided path.

    Previous to these verses, the jews were reminded that the verses that Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) recited should have been familiar to them and thus they should have recognized the “signs”. Now the Quran reminds them about Prophet Abraham. I find it interesting that the monotheism started by Prophet Abraham is brought back full circle by Islam. (v130 and 135) that this is not a “new religion” but the same religion as that of Prophet Abraham (–and of Prophet Adam–v 38, Prophet Adam is told guidance will be sent)

    I would like to mention—Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) used to pray at the Kaba when he was in Mecca but he would face towards Jerusalem. When he came to Yathirb/Medina he faced Jerusalem (the Kaba was in the other direction). verse 143 informs the Prophet and others of the new direction of prayer and why it is chosen(—the Kaba means “cube”).

    There is some speculation that the people/tribes of Mecca are descendents of Ishmaels 2nd son Keder—(including Prophet Muhammed(pbuh). Thus the promise to Prophet Abraham that his progeny be guided is fulfilled with the message sent to Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) as there was no other guidance sent to them previous to this.
    It is also interesting that the Quran refers to Prophet Jesus as Masih Isa (Messiah/Mosiach). He was sent to the Jewish people as a guidance—probably the last one—just as Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) is the last guidance to the descendents of Ishmael.(IMO) I think verse 129 refers to the wish of Prophet Abraham that both his sons Ishmael and Isaac and their progeny be “guided”.

    “why Abraham” — It is mentioned in the Quran that Prophet Abraham realized the oneness and majesty of God and rejected the “religion of his fathers”. It seems to me, he chose God rather than the other way around. —by using his intellectual abilities and thinking deeply about spirituality rather than blindly following what everyone else was doing.

    Sorry for such a long post—-I want to bring up another point- v 123–My translation reads “Then guard yourselves against a day when one soul(nafs) shall not avail another, Nor shall compensation be accepted from her, Nor shall intercession profit her, Nor shall anyone be helped (from outside).”
    Nafs is the “self” or “consiousness” that inhabits the form (body). It is Nefesh in hebrew. The Quran mentions 3 levels of Nafs and Judaism also has about 3 levels (Sufis and Jewish(mysticism) Kabbalah have more levels).
    Did you notice that the soul/Nafs uses feminine gender but when referring to God, the male gender is used? Ofcourse in Judeo-Islamic thought G-d is genderless and ( I think ) our soul is also genderless(?)—only our form/body has male/female gender. Nevertheless the use of gendered terms in the Torah and the Quran are interesting—maybe its simply a quirk of language.

  5. sorry typo—name should be kay not kat

  6. Never apologize for long posts – we love that around here 🙂

    Interesting that soul (nephesh) is a feminine gender in both languages. Though God may be masculine gendered, the word used to refer to the essence or glory of God in Hebrew is shechinah which is also feminine. For Kabbalah, this is the innermost level or of God, so in essence, His soul, which is feminine.

    Why did Mohammed pray towards Jerusalem?

    It’s also noteworthy that the Quran does give us a reason for “why Abraham.” Interestingly, those same reasons had been used as explanations by rabbis for hundreds and hundreds of years before the Quran, but the Bible itself, the source of the stories for the rabbis, doesn’t actually provide a reason. When the biblical stories were told and developed it was not unusual to tell tales of gods randomly selecting people to do things to (think about much of early Greek mythology) and so the story of Abraham being reasonless is not weird. When the rabbis started filling in the reasons for odd things in the Bible, it was no longer as acceptable for a story to have so many “holes.” The Quran states these reasons explicitly as well because by the time of its development, it would have made no sense not to provide reasons for God choosing Abraham.

    For some people this more “anthropological” approach sucks some of the majesty out of what they’re reading but I always appreciate texts a lot more when I understand and can speculate on their development.

  7. Jay
    There is a passage in Deuteronomy 18 (NIV) 15 to 18…..
    15 says “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to him.” I don’t know what this passage means to Christians or Jews but the use of the words “from among your brothers” is interesting as from the muslim perspective—the brotherhood of the sons of Prophet Abraham could possibly give these passages significance.

    There may not be much similarity between Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) and Prophet Moses(pbuh) except that Prophet Moses(pbuh) led an oppressed people out of Egypt to Canaan and Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) also led the persecuted muslims out of Mecca to Yathrib/Medina. This is where the first muslim “community” or ummah is set up with laws to govern the community.

    By the way—what do the passages of Deuteronomy 18–v15-18 refer to?(there are different english versions of this passage and not all versions use the term “brother”)

  8. Kay, I’ve decided to discuss your question in this coming Monday’s Fun with the Bible post, so that I can delve in a little deeper. If you’re reading this before then, please come back on Monday, November 17th, and if it’s after that day, please go to Monday November 17th’s Fun with the Bible post and check it out there.

  9. Abraham–I was in a rush writing the first post so I may have caused a misunderstanding. The idea that Prophet Abraham(pbuh) chose God first, is my opinion inferred from the various verses in the Quran. I don’t know if the Quran itself clarifies this position one way or other—it is a point I did not pay much attention to previously—-Maybe JDsq knows? (see Surah 16 v120-123) One could speculate that Prophet Abraham(pbuh) was able to chose God because he was guided by God in the first place…..? I prefer the other way around because of my understanding of the concept of “free-will” and also because I think Prophet Abraham(pbuh) would have to be receptive to the message in order to understand it. I find the story of the sacrifice fascinating —see surah 37, verses 83-109. —-and the question—how does it relate to being a “muslim”—as in one who submits to God…….? JDsq—-what are your views?

    Jerusalem—-The article by Karen Armstrong was great but she always has an interesting perspective whatever the topic. I also want to mention the influence of christianity on Prophet Muhammed(pbuh). The story is (it is not in the Quran) that Muhammed(pbuh),before his prophethood, would often go to a cave in Mt Hira to meditate on spirituality. On one such occassion he recieved a revelation. (Sura 96) This event frightened him and his wife Khadija took him to see a cousin of hers who was a Christian. He explained about prophethood and that the revelation was a message from the Angel Gabriel. The understanding that the revelation was a continuation from the One God would have made him want to face towards the most important place dedicated to the worship of the One God. (The Quran does say that God is everywhere and wherever one turns, to the east or west, one will find/face God)

    development of texts—-I agree with you. It is important to understand the culture and worldview of the people to understand how the texts “fit”. The evolution of religions as a whole is also an interesting subject. It sheds light on how human beings throughout time viewed the divine and their relationship to God. In Judaism and Christianity the “apocrypha” works are as interesting as the “canonical”. (I don’t know much about this stuff except as it pertains to the Quran) There are many concepts/words mentioned casually–almost in passing—-in the Quran. For example, Shechina (hebrew) Sakina (arabic). The Quran mentions it but does not explain it. However, Judaism has details of the concept. It is my understanding that shechina comes from the word “sakhon” which means “act of dwelling” and that it was a force/spirit that surrounded the Temple?(shechina was explained to me as “transformational spirit of G-D”, but I like your definition better) In arabic “sakoon” means tranquil and sakina is often translated as “spirit of tranquility”

    Thanks for the notice of the bible post—I look forward to it.

  10. Well, inference or not, I like where you went. People have gone there before and it’s a good place to go because of exactly what you said: it stands to reason that Abraham would have figured something out, not just been randomly granted this awesomeness by God. It satisfies our needs for free will and reason and more.

    Also, great article about Jerusalem and Islam/Mohammed. I appreciate the continuity of the religions emphasized by Kay’s comment and the article. It’s an important point to realize and like Karen says, often lost in today’s contemporary struggles. However, Mohammed was much like Jesus in that he came to deliver a message to a people that needed it, not intending to abrogate the old but to continue it.

  11. Hi,

    I want to comment this paragraph:

    “Though Jews like to say that Abraham was the first Jew, the Bible doesn’t make this claim and it is relatively unfounded. In the Quran, however, Abraham seems to be asking for, and therefore in a sense founding, Islam. Of course, Islam doesn’t begin until Mohammed’s time, but this lays the foundation for that in the earliest relevant generation.”

    There is an interesting verse that talks about it: “Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian; but he was true in Faith, and bowed his will to Allah.s (Which is Islam), and he joined not gods with Allah.” (3:67)

    There’s another interesting verse: “Today I have perfected your religion for you, and have completed My favor upon you, and have approved for you Islam as religion” (5:3)

    What I understand from this verse is that here God gives a name to the religion. There’s a religion that the prophets are preaching since the beggining of the human history, but the prophets never say the name of the religion. So, we never see Jesus(pbuh) or any other jewish prophets saying that their religion is judaism. Why is this? I guess it’s because the religion has no name yet. So the official Islam begins with Muhammad(pbuh).

    Thanks!

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