Quran Read-A-Long: The Cow 217-221 Speaks of Charity

A Sociological Phenomenon

The themes of verse 217 are ones that have continually risen throughout the Quran thus far, and I’m fairly confident they will continue to appear. Nevertheless, I can’t help but dwell on the idea here, as I have before, though I rarely say too much about it. It’s this constant talk of “they,” who are, unless I’m mistaken, the unbelievers – the deniers of Allah and his word. There’s so much warning about them, but the warning is one that goes beyond Islam.

As I see it, a religion’s text warning its readers to be chary of those who don’t believe in it would seem to be a common sociological phenomenon. “We believe in x, x being ultimate truth. Others don’t: they’re unbelievers. Moreover, they’re always going to try to get us not to believe what we believe.” What religion can’t claim this attitude? What’s particularly interesting to me, then, is that the Quran was not written long after the founding of Islam but was composed at the religion’s inception (though redacted later). That means that this fundamental understanding – a very human one, I might add – was likely based on experience with other religions (or simple logic). That’s not to question the status of the Quran as divine revelation, but only to note that this seems to me to be a particularly human understanding of the way people behave when they are challenged by others’ faith.

Drinkin’

Is line 219 the only place in the Quran that mentions gambling and wine or does it arise elsewhere? I ask because I know that alcohol is haram and I wonder if its status as such is based on a deduction from this verse or if it comes from another verse that states so more directly.

Charity

Verse 220 is a wonderful attitude towards orphans. Islam is nothing if not a religion that emphasizes the importance and value of charity. I think that is a marvelous value. To those who know many Muslims today, do you find that people really do give the most that they can or at least the prescribed amount? I consider Judaism and Christianity, which have the ideas of tzedaka and tithing/alms respectively, and think that in today’s day and age, though people certainly give, they don’t give all that they can. I imagine that it’s similar in Islam, as people are people and I would find it hard to imagine that everyone of a particular faith (at least a faith so large that it can’t be controlled directly within a single village or community) is out there giving all the charity they can. As long as there are rich and poor then this point seems self-evident enough.

However, it reminds us how important it is that the Quran (and other religions’ books) place such a serious emphasis on charity. Could we imagine how little might be given if people didn’t view charity as an injunction from God? Sure, contemporary human decency may persuade some people to do what they can, but history and life show us that people prefer to keep what they have than to give it away. I don’t mean to be a negative nancy about human nature; it is what it is and I think much of life is a challenge to rise above it so that we can all have a better life on this earth. For that reason, I’m grateful for many of the values taught by our religions.

Summary

What do you think about these verses? Can you tell us anything else about them?

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The Cow 217-221

217. They ask you of war in the holy month. Tell them: “To fight in that month is a great sin. But a greater sin in the eyes of God is to hinder people from the way of God, and not to believe in Him, and to bar access to the Holy Mosque and turn people out of its precincts; and oppression is worse than killing. They will always seek war against you till they turn you away from your faith, if they can. But those of you who turn back on their faith and die disbelieving will have wasted their deeds in this world and the next. They are inmates of Hell, and shall there abide forever. 218. Surely those who believe, and those who leave their homes and fight in the way of God, may hope for His benevolence, for God is forgiving and kind. 219. They ask you of (intoxicants) wine and gambling. Tell them: “There is great enervation through profit in them from men; but their enervation is greater than benefit.” And they ask you what they should give. Tell them: “The utmost you can spare.” So does God reveal His signs: You may haply reflect 220. On this world and the next. And they ask you about the orphans. Tell them: “Improving their lot is much better; and if you take interest in their affairs, they are your brethren; and God is aware who are corrupt and who are honest; and if He had pleased He could surely have imposed on you hardship, for God is all-powerful and all-wise. 221. Do not marry idolatrous women unless they join the faith. A maid servant who is a believer is better than an idolatress even though you may like her. And do not marry your daughters to idolaters until they accept the faith. A servant who is a believer is better than an idolater even though you may like him. They invite you to Hell, but God calls you to Paradise and pardon by His grace. And He makes His signs manifest that men may haply take heed.

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10 Responses

  1. It’s this constant talk of “they,” who are, unless I’m mistaken, the unbelievers – the deniers of Allah and his word.

    “They” in this case does indeed refer to the unbelievers, the polytheists in Makkah; however, this is not always the case in the Qur’an. “They” could refer to many other groups of people, including Muslims. This is why understanding the historical context of verses is so important. Here’s the short version behind the verse; the long version can also be found here:

    Ibn Abu Hatim reported that Jundub bin `Abdullah said: Allah’s Messenger assembled a group of men under the command of Abu `Ubaydah bin Jarrah. When he was about to march, he started crying for the thought of missing Allah’s Messenger . Consequently, the Messenger relieved Abu `Ubaydah from command, appointed `Abdullah bin Jahsh instead, gave him some written instructions and commanded him not to read the instructions until he reached such and such area. He also said to `Abdullah:

    (Do not compel any of your men to continue marching with you thereafter.)

    When `Abdullah read the instructions, he recited Istirja` [saying, `Truly! to Allah we belong and truly, to Him we shall return’; and refer to (2:156)] and said, “I hear and obey Allah and His Messenger.” He then told his companions the story and read the instructions to them, and two men went back while the rest remained. Soon after, they found Ibn Hadrami (one of the disbelievers of Quraysh) and killed him not knowing that that day was in Rajab or Jumadi (where Rajab is the Sacred Month). The polytheists said to the Muslims, “You have committed murder in the Sacred Month.” Allah then revealed:

    (They ask you concerning fighting in the Sacred Months. Say, “Fighting therein is a great (transgression)…”)

    That means that this fundamental understanding – a very human one, I might add – was likely based on experience with other religions (or simple logic). That’s not to question the status of the Quran as divine revelation, but only to note that this seems to me to be a particularly human understanding of the way people behave when they are challenged by others’ faith.

    One of the interesting things about the Qur’an is that a lot of verses do indeed relate to historical incidents. Something happens (e.g., the Battle of Badr) and then Allah (swt) explains the theological ramifications. Or a question is asked (by the Muslims, by the Jews, by the polytheists), and an answer comes down. Verses relating to historical incidents don’t always come from someone else challenging the faith of Muslims (although the Qur’an does warn Muslims against this). More often than not verses relating to the challenging of faith don’t happen. And when they do, they’re often not presented in a way that you might necessarily recognize; e.g., “They say: ‘What! when we are reduced to bones and dust, should we really be raised up (to be) a new creation?'” (17:49), or the stories of the Sleepers in the Cave (18:9-25) and Zul-Qarnain (18:83-98).

    Is line 219 the only place in the Quran that mentions gambling and wine or does it arise elsewhere? I ask because I know that alcohol is haram and I wonder if its status as such is based on a deduction from this verse or if it comes from another verse that states so more directly.

    No, there are three verses in the Qur’an regarding drinking, 2:219, followed by 4:43, and finally by 5:91. The important thing to note here is that the prohibition of alcohol was gradual; the first Muslims weren’t required to quit cold turkey, such as the US required through Prohibition. If the US had followed the gradual approach as Islam did Prohibition might have worked better.

    To those who know many Muslims today, do you find that people really do give the most that they can or at least the prescribed amount?

    I think most Muslims are quite generous. Shaikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller had an interesting anecdote in his conversion story regarding charity:

    Another was a woman I met while walking beside a bicycle on an unpaved road on the opposite side of the Nile from Luxor. I was dusty, and somewhat shabbily clothed, and she was an old woman dressed in black from head to toe who walked up, and without a word or glance at me, pressed a coin into my hand so suddenly that in my surprise I dropped it. By the time I picked it up, she had hurried away. Because she thought I was poor, even if obviously non-Muslim, she gave me some money without any expectation for it except what was between her and her God. This act made me think a lot about Islam, because nothing seemed to have motivated her but that.

    (You should read the entire conversion story; it’s quite famous and has made a lot of Muslims very interested in the Discovery Channel series, The Deadliest Catch, because of it. 😉 )

    …and think that in today’s day and age, though people certainly give, they don’t give all that they can.

    In Islam you’re not expected to give all that you can, but you’re encouraged to give what you can. As I think either Kay or I brought up before, in Islam, even a smile is considered charity.

    I don’t mean to be a negative nancy about human nature; it is what it is and I think much of life is a challenge to rise above it so that we can all have a better life on this earth.

    This is what jihad is all about.

  2. JD did such a great job–there is nothing much to add. —But I will anyway.

    The Quran was revealed over a period of about 23 years in which the community went through changes. There is a verse (sorry —forget where) where the Quran invites people to take the opportunity to ask questions during this “window” of revelation. Sometimes the question is repeated –such as “they ask thee concerning…”etc–at other times –simply an answer is given –and the question has to be inferred. The Quran can be a kind of interactive guide–One where the spiritual seeker actively engages with the book to seek wisdom and contemplate–to question and find answers, –to create a spiritual path/way of life for oneself. It can be a book that reveals its depths in sync with one’s spiritual growth.

    Jay–the Quran is pretty blunt and generally, when it wants to refer to “unbelievers” it is not going to be PC about it.
    The Medina surahs are not always easy to get through. You have done great so far.

    (It is a question I have asked myself though—why put these surahs in a place where people would normally start reading? —Wouldn’t you want to start off with something easier like the early Meccan surahs and build up in complexity?—Since everything is a test–maybe this is one too?)

    Charity—this is my opinion–It isn’t the “giving” that is a challenge–but “responsible charity”. How do you make sure that what you give, (time, money effort…etc) reaches and truly benefits those in need? It is easy when it is within a community and you are directly involved—but if you are giving money to a charitable organization—-what really happens to the money? or-if you are volunteering your effort to build a school in a remote village somewhere–(as my nephews did)–then go back to your life—is the school even finished?—is it being used?–or is it a useless decoration? –because there are no teachers to teach——-etc. It could be a case of “the other side looks greener”….but Christian Charities seem to be doing such a great job in this area…(?)

  3. Wouldn’t you want to start off with something easier like the early Meccan surahs and build up in complexity?

    Kay, you haven’t read Pickthall’s translation? In his introduction he wrote in the next to last paragraph:

    The arrangement is not easy to understand. Revelations of various dates and on different subjects are to be found together in one surah; verses of Madinah revelation are found in Meccan surahs; some of the Madinah surahs, though of late revelation, are placed first and the very early Meccan surahs at the end. But the arrangement is not haphazard, as some have hastily supposed. Closer study will reveal a sequence and significance – as, for instance, with regard to the placing of the very early Meccan surahs at the end. The inspiration of the Prophet progressed from inmost things to outward things, whereas most people find their way through outward things to things within.

    I completely agree that the arrangement is not haphazard (far from it), and think Pickthall’s last sentence explains fairly well the general order of Medinan to Makkahn surahs.

  4. As much as I was captivated by the length of the conversation, I kept wondering specifically about this talk related to Medinan and Meccan surahs. I hadn’t been aware of this distinction previously, nor that the Quran was revealed over the course of 23 years, which allows for an incredible deal of fluctuation within the community and corresponding quranic response, if you will.

    But at the end JDsg brought the surah distinction back around. So, there is a logic inherent to the Quran according to Pickthall, and that logic is about outward related things verses inward related things? Which is to say, it starts with actions in the world, things that happen, how we should behave (don’t drink wine, don’t fight around the Kaaba, etc.) and ends with a conversation of more inward things (I don’t have examples yet, obviously, but I think we’re talking more personal/spiritual kinds of things – not that the whole Quran isn’t of such a nature).

    In any case, The Cow is a Meccan surah, meaning I take it, that it was revealed after Mecca was retaken by the pagans? But there are Medinan parts in it. If not for mentioning the conquest of Mecca how would someone reading a surah be able to distinguish between its Meccan or Medinan status? Surely it’s not that simple but I wonder if there isn’t some other rule of thumb.

  5. My last comment seems to have disappeared. Jay, can you retrieve it?

  6. Is there a comment between my asking about the Meccan v Medinan surrahs or can you not see the one you left about Pickthall’s comments? I have the Pickthall one up and can see that but I don’t see anything between my last comment and you asking me if I can retrieve it – not in my system or out here. I hope you didn’t prepare a response that got deleted in the interim!

  7. As the last few comments indicate, JDsg last a comment that he then reproduced and had even more trouble with so he’s passed it along to me to post on his behalf – as always, JDsg, thanks so much for being such an active and important part of Quran Read-A-Long.

    I hope you didn’t prepare a response that got deleted in the interim!

    Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. Oh, well; second try.

    So, there is a logic inherent to the Quran according to Pickthall, and that logic is about outward related things verses inward related things?

    There is a logic inherent to the Qur’an; what Pickthall says is a very broad generalization. If you read Yusuf Ali’s introductions, he will describe how specific surahs fit together into sub-themes. The Qur’an is not just organized based on “longest to shortest” surahs, as most non-Muslims believe. There’s a definite logic and order to the Qur’an, not only in terms of which surah is placed where in the overall order of the book, but even in terms of which ayah is placed where in the overall order of the surah. As Kay mentioned, the Qur’an was revealed over a 23-year period. What she didn’t mention is that these verses were revealed helter-skelter, like a jigsaw puzzle in which the Prophet (pbuh) was told, a) this ayah goes into this surah at this place, and b) he was given the same verse seven times, in the seven different dialects common to Arabia at that time. (That the Qur’an was later written down in only one dialect, that of the Quraishi, was
    a decision made after the Prophet’s (pbuh) death.) You must also remember that, at that time, writing materials were scarce so all of this (the “fitting in of the jigsaw puzzle”) was done in the heads of the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions without error. These, to me, are proofs of the divine nature of the Qur’an.

    In any case, The Cow is a Meccan surah, meaning I take it, that it was revealed after Mecca was retaken by the pagans?

    No, Surah al-Baqarah is a Madinahn surah, most of which was revealed within the first two years after the Hijrah. (The Hijrah was eight years prior to the conquest of Makkah.) Per Syed Maududi, who wrote introductions to each of the surahs:

    The greater part of Al-Baqarah was revealed during the first two years of the Holy Prophet’s life at Al-Madinah. The smaller part which was revealed at a later period has been included in this Surah because its contents are closely related to those dealt with in this Surah. For instance, the verses prohibiting interest were revealed during the last period of the Holy prophet’s life but have been inserted in this Surah. For the same reason, the last verses (284-286) of this Surah which were revealed at Makkah before the migration of the Holy Prophet to AI-Madinah have also been included in it.

    If not for mentioning the conquest of Mecca how would someone reading a surah be able to distinguish between its Meccan or Medinan status?

    There is no specific rule of thumb for determining when specific surahs were revealed. As Maududi points out, Surah al-Baqarah was actually revealed in three different time frames. That most of it was revealed in one of the three time frames is not unusual; many surahs are like that, where the majority of a surah is revealed at one time. That parts of the surah were revealed years earlier or before, as is also the case with many surahs, and the verses still fit seamlessly in terms of the meter and rhyme scheme – remember, the Qur’an in Arabic is very poetic in style – that to me is another proof of the divine nature of the text.

    The labeling of which surah is from what time period is not an exact science either. Most can be definitively placed into a specific time period*; however, there are still anomalies. For example, some surahs (e.g., Surah at-Takathur, #102) have arguments for and against both time periods, so it’s not clear exactly when it was revealed. (Pickthall places Surah at-Takathur as a very early Makkahn surah.) Then there is Surah an-Nasr (#110), which is strongly believed to have been revealed during the Prophet’s (pbuh) last Hajj in what is now the Makkahn suburb of Mina; however, it is considered to be a Madinahn surah due to the date of the revelation. Likewise, most detailed exegesis also note which specific verses were revealed when (such as with Surah al-Baqarah above). And then, to possibly confuse matters even more 😉 , while many surahs need to be understood in their historical context, making the chronology of the revelation important to know,
    many other surahs don’t rely so much upon the chronology.

    So, how does one know which surah is Makkahn or Madinahn? Lists have been created that provide this information. Per Pickthall’s translation, the following were revealed in the Madinahn period: 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 22, 24, 33, 47, 48, 49, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 65, 98, and 110. All others were revealed at Makkah. Likewise, at the title of each surah in an Arabic Qur’an, there is an inscription that states where the surah was revealed. (Of course you need to be able to read Arabic to figure this out. 😉 )

    * Within the two broad classifications, Makkahn and Madinahn, there are subdivisions. For Makkahn revelations, there are four broad periods: Very Early (from the first revelation, the first five verses of Surah al-‘Alaq (#96), to before the beginning of the persecution), Early (between the beginning of the persecution and the conversion of Umar ibn al-Khattab), Middle (between the conversion of Umar and the destruction of the deed of ostracism), and Late (between the raising of the ban of ostracism and the Hijrah). (Obviously, you need to know your early Muslim history to understand the various events mentioned.) The Madinahn surahs are normally listed per a specific year (e.g., 1 A.H.).

  8. This happened to be today’s (9 Feb 2009) “hadith of the day” in CAIR’s daily e-newsletter. I thought you might find it of interest as it deals with charity and what’s acceptable to Allah (swt) as charity:

    The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “If anyone gives in charity (even a tiny amount) from honestly-earned money — and God accepts only honestly-earned money — God takes it in His right (hand) and enlarges its reward for that person (who has given it), as anyone of you brings up a young horse, so that it becomes as big as a mountain.”

    Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Hadith 491

  9. I actually do like that a lot and I’m glad you shared (and I’m glad your commenting seems to be working okay again).

    Beyond being where we are in our reading right now (well, I’m sure you’re elsewhere too, but for these purposes) it’s also topical in my life. Last night it was very cold in San Francisco, and I had just spent 6.5 hours working my evening job (teaching the SATs for Kaplan). Anyway, I have to take the trolly pretty far south to teach my class, and it has been a long hard day and then a long hard class. I had to proctor a four and a half hour exam and the whole time they’re taking it I’m working feverishly grading their essays and preparing for other lessons. On the way back I had to wait for the trolly for about 20 minutes and it was very cold (at least for San Francisco). I can stand the cold but I wasn’t dressed for it at all and I got to thinking about how fortunate I am to have a warm place to end up at the end of the night and how many people don’t in this city every night.

    When I finally return to the city there’s a homeless person (the first of at least 2 dozen that I’ll see in my 10 block walk home) right outside the MUNI station trying to sell the homeless press. Usually I never give people money in these circumstances because most simply, I don’t ever have change or cash (plastic is my mistress). I give charity regularly but always through a foundation because I feel like it’s more accountable that way (not booze but hot meals, for instance) – at least if you have a transparent organization. Fortunately, my girlfriend founded such a foundation after her travels through South East Asia – it’s designed to clear landmines in Cambodia. We give most of our charity money to this and not to the dozens of people on the streets of the city.

    In any case, as usual, I walked past this man after my long day of work – 9 hours at the desk and then 6.5 teaching – and then suddenly turned around and gave him my quarters I was saving for my next ticket (quarters are very valuable because of their MUNI ticket buying power). It was just so cold and I was so grateful to have a job and a bed and I know it wasn’t much but if he could buy a cup of coffee and be warm for ten minutes last night then it was worth it. I’ll get more quarters. I hope God doesn’t make it a larger reward for me but only for that man. I’ll stay warm. Him I’m less sure about.

  10. One of the things I like about this hadith is that it states that only halal money is acceptable for charity. From an Islamic perspective, if a person should donate money to a charity after winning the lottery, for example, that donation may not be accepted by Allah (swt) because the money wasn’t honestly earned (Allahu alim). You may try to soothe your conscience by donating illicit gains, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your act will be rewarded.

    As many are fond of saying, “God works in mysterious ways.” We may be tested by Allah (swt), but we may also be the instrument for testing others. As the Qur’an says, “Our Lord! Make us not a (test and) trial for the Unbelievers, but forgive us, our Lord! for Thou art the Exalted in Might, the Wise.” (60:5) At that moment you turned around, you may have realized that you were being tested by Allah (swt):

    Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere, Who say, when afflicted with calamity: ‘To God We belong, and to Him is our return’:- They are those on whom (Descend) blessings from God, and Mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance.” (2:155-57)

    I give charity regularly but always through a foundation because I feel like it’s more accountable that way (not booze but hot meals, for instance)…

    There is, frequently, the disappointment in learning that one’s money does indeed go for less-than-desirable purchases among those who beg (I suppose that’s a charitable way of putting it), but I once read a Yusuf Ali footnote (which I can’t get to at this moment) suggesting that it’s not always best not to give money, even if one knows the money will go for things like smokes or booze. We are both being tested by Allah (swt), I in whether I’m willing to donate money to the person who asks for it, the beggar as to how he or she spends the money. It’s not our call to make restrictions on how they use the money, nor for us to necessarily say “no” even if we know the money won’t be used in a constructive way.

    I’ll get more quarters.

    While I don’t agree with those businesses who ask people not to give to the homeless, I do agree that pulling out one’s wallet can be a dangerous practice. My own personal practice is to prepare for being asked for money by stowing loose change in one of my pockets beforehand. In the US that meant keeping a number of coins in my front right pants pocket. If I was asked for money I could easily pull out a coin (I frequently gave $1 coins) without needing to slow down my walking pace. (Most were not only grateful for the money but astonished that I’d give a dollar instead of a quarter.) Here in S’pore, when going to Jumu’ah (the Friday noon prayer) I’ll put in a number of bills into my shirt pocket beforehand. As I enter and leave the masjid I can pull out the wad of bills and pass them to those who ask. I have found this system very convenient.

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