A juz (جزء) is one of thirty divisions of the Qur’an, roughly equal in length. If a believing Muslim (or anyone) reads one day, he or she will have read the entire Qur’an in a month. This is often done during Ramadan, with the recitation of one juz each night. Tonight is the third night of Ramadan, so we’re starting a bit late, but it seemed a good occasion to revisit my Blogging the Qur’an series, divided by ajza (the plural of juz).
The Fatiha (Opening) is the first sura (chapter) of the Qur’an, and most common prayer of Islam. If you’re a pious Muslim who prays the five requisite daily prayers of Islam, you will recite the Fatiha seventeen times in the course of those prayers.
According to an Islamic tradition, the Muslim prophet Muhammad said that the Fatiha surpassed anything revealed by Allah (“the God” in Arabic, and the word for God used by Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews, as well as Muslims) in the Torah, the Gospel, or the rest of the Qur’an. And indeed, it efficiently and eloquently encapsulates many of the principal themes of the Qur’an and Islam in general: Allah as the “Lord of the worlds,” who alone is to be worshiped and asked for help, the merciful judge of every soul on the Last Day.
In Islamic theology, Allah is the speaker of every word of the Qur’an. Some have found it strange that Allah would say something like “Praise is to Allah, Lord of the worlds,” but Islamic tradition holds that Allah revealed this prayer to Muhammad early in his career as a prophet (which began in the year 610 AD, when he received his first revelation from Allah through the angel Gabriel — a revelation that is now contained in the Qur’an’s 96th chapter), so that the Muslims would know how to pray.
It is for its last two verses that the Fatiha is of most concern to non-Muslims.
A Shi’ite imam, Husham Al-Husainy, ignited controversy back in 2007 by paraphrasing this passage during a prayer at a Democratic National Committee winter meeting, giving the impression that he was praying that the assembled pols convert to Islam. Then Imam Yusuf Kavakci of the Dallas Central Mosque prayed the Fatiha at the Texas State Senate, giving rise to the same concerns.
The final two verses of the Fatiha ask Allah:
Guide us to the straight path, the path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor, not of those who have evoked [Your] anger or of those who are astray.
The traditional Islamic understanding of this is that the “straight path” is Islam — cf. Islamic apologist John Esposito’s book Islam: The Straight Path — while the path “of those who have evoked Allah’s anger” are the Jews, and those who have gone “astray” are the Christians.
The classic Qur’anic commentator Ibn Kathir explains that “the two paths He described here are both misguided,” and that those “two paths are the paths of the Christians and Jews, a fact that the believer should beware of so that he avoids them. The path of the believers is knowledge of the truth and abiding by it. In comparison, the Jews abandoned practicing the religion, while the Christians lost the true knowledge. This is why ‘anger’ descended upon the Jews, while being described as ‘led astray’ is more appropriate of the Christians.”
Ibn Kathir’s understanding of this passage is not a lone “extremist” interpretation. In fact, most Muslim commentators believe that the Jews are those who have earned Allah’s wrath and the Christians are those who have gone astray.
This is the view of Tabari, Zamakhshari, the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, the Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas, and Ibn Arabi, as well as Ibn Kathir. One contrasting, but not majority view, is that of Nisaburi, who says that “those who have incurred Allah’s wrath are the people of negligence, and those who have gone astray are the people of immoderation.”
Wahhabis drew criticism a few years back for adding “such as the Jews” and “such as the Christians” into parenthetical glosses on this passage in Qur’ans printed in Saudi Arabia.
Some Western commentators imagined that the Saudis originated this interpretation, and indeed the whole idea of Qur’anic hostility toward Jews and Christians. They found it inconceivable that Muslims all over the world would learn as a matter of course that the central prayer of their faith anathematizes Jews and Christians.
But unfortunately, this interpretation is venerable and mainstream in Islamic theology. The printing of the interpretation in parenthetical glosses into a translation would be unlikely to affect Muslim attitudes, since the Arabic text is always and everywhere normative in any case, and since so many mainstream commentaries contain the idea that the Jews and Christians are being criticized here.
Seventeen times a day, by the pious.
Please note that I am not saying that the anti-Jewish and anti-Christian interpretation of the Fatiha is the “correct” one. While I don’t believe that religious texts are infinitely malleable and can be made to mean whatever the reader wants them to mean, as some apparently do, in this case Nisaburi’s reading has as much to commend it as the other: there is nothing in the text itself that absolutely compels one to believe that it is talking about Jews and Christians. And it is noteworthy that in his massive and evocatively named 30-volume commentary on the Qur’an, Fi Zilal al-Qur’an (In the Shade of the Qur’an), the twentieth-century jihad theorist Sayyid Qutb doesn’t mention Jews or Christians in connection with this passage.
At the same time, however, the idea in Islam that Jews have earned Allah’s anger and Christians have gone astray doesn’t depend on this passage alone. The Jews have earned Allah’s “wrath upon wrath” by rejecting Muhammad (2:87-90), and the Christians have gone astray by holding to the divinity of Christ: “They have certainly disbelieved who say, ‘Allah is the Messiah, the son of Mary’”(5:72).
The Hadith, the traditions of the words and deeds of Muhammad and the early Muslims, also contains material linking Jews to Allah’s anger and Christians to his curse, which resulting from their straying from the true path. (The Jews are accursed also, according to Qur’an 2:89, and both are accursed according to 9:30). One hadith recounts that an early Muslim, Zaid bin ‘Amr bin Nufail, in his travels met with Jewish and Christian scholars. The Jewish scholar told him, “You will not embrace our religion unless you receive your share of Allah’s Anger,” and the Christian said, “You will not embrace our religion unless you get a share of Allah’s Curse.” Zaid, needless to say, became a Muslim.
In light of these and similar passages it shouldn’t be surprising that many Muslim commentators have understood the Fatiha to be referring to Jews and Christians.
When you see the title of the Qur’an’s second chapter, Al-Baqara (“The Cow”), you might be tempted to think that it’s about . . . a cow. You’d be wrong. The chapters of the Qur’an generally take their titles from something recounted within them, even if it’s an insignificant detail. In this case, the chapter name comes from the story of Moses relaying Allah’s command to the Israelites that they sacrifice a cow (2:67-73), one of the Qur’an’s many stories from the Bible and Jewish tradition, altered and retold.
This is the longest chapter (sura) of the Qur’an — 286 verses. It begins the Qur’an’s general (but not absolute) pattern of being organized not chronologically or thematically, but simply running from the longest to the shortest chapters, with the exception of the Fatiha (sura 1), which has pride of place as the first sura because of its centrality in Islam.
This means that you should not take “The Cow” as the original, first, or primary message of Islam, simply because of its position. According to Islamic tradition, it actually dates from the latter part of Muhammad’s career, as it was revealed to Muhammad at Medina — to which he is supposed to have fled from Mecca in the year 622. In Medina for the first time, Muhammad became a political and military leader.
Islamic theologians generally regard Medinan suras as taking precedence over Meccan ones wherever there is a disagreement, in accord with verse 106 of this chapter of the Qur’an, in which Allah speaks about abrogating verses and replacing them with better ones. (This interpretation of verse 106, however, is not universally accepted. Some say it refers to the abrogation of nothing in the Qur’an, but only of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. More on that later.)
“The Cow” contains a great deal of important material for Muslims, and is held in high regard. The medieval Qur’anic commentator Ibn Kathir (whose commentary is still read and respected by Muslims) says that recitation of “The Cow” distresses Satan: he says that one of Muhammad’s early followers, Ibn Mas’ud, remarked that Satan “departs the house where Surat Al-Baqarah is being recited, and as he leaves, he passes gas.” Without Ibn Mas’ud’s poor taste, Muhammad himself says: “Satan runs away from the house in which Surah Baqara is recited.”
What Is Included in the Second Sura of the Qur’an?
“The Cow” begins with three Arabic letters: alif, lam, and mim. Many chapters of the Qur’an begin with three Arabic letters in this way, which has given rise to a considerable amount of mystical speculation as to what they might mean. But the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, another classic Qur’anic commentary, succinctly sums up the prevailing view: “God knows best what He means by these [letters].”
The verse immediately following those letters contains a key Islamic doctrine: “This is the Book about which there is no doubt.”
The Qur’an is not to be questioned or judged by any standard outside itself; rather, it is the standard by which all other things are to be judged.
The Qur’an Is Never To Be Doubted
That, of course, is not significantly different from the way many other religions regard their Holy Writ. But there has been no development in Islam of the historical and textual criticism that have transformed the ways Jews and Christians understand their scriptures today.
The Qur’an is a book never to be doubted, never to be questioned: when one Islamic scholar, Suliman Bashear, taught his students at An-Najah National University in Nablus that the Qur’an and Islam were the products of historical development rather than being delivered in perfect form to Muhammad, his students threw him out of the window of his classroom.
The Condemnation of Nonbelievers
“The Cow” then gets going with something we find again and again and again in the Qur’an: an extended disquisition on the perversity of those who reject belief in Allah. This one sounds several themes that will recur many, many times. The Qur’an, we’re told, is guidance to those who believe in what was revealed to Muhammad as well as in “what was revealed before” him (v. 4).
This refers to the Qur’an’s oft-stated assumption that it is the confirmation of the Torah and the Gospel, which teach the same message Muhammad is receiving in the Qur’anic revelations (see 5:44-48). When the Torah and Gospel were found not to agree with the Qur’an, the charge arose that Jews and Christians had corrupted their Scriptures — which is mainstream Islamic belief today.
The moderate Muslim Qur’an translator and commentator Muhammad Asad, a convert from Judaism, states it positively:
The religion of the Qur’an can be properly understood only against the background of the great monotheistic faiths which preceded it, and which, according to Muslim belief, culminate and achieve their final formulation in the faith of Islam.
Another theme in this part of “The Cow” is Allah’s absolute control over everything, even the choices of individual souls to believe in him or reject him:
“Indeed, those who disbelieve — it is all the same for them whether you warn them or do not warn them – they will not believe. Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing, and over their vision is a veil. And for them is a great punishment.” (vv. 6-7).
Verse 40 of “The Cow” addresses the “Children of Israel,” beginning an extended meditation on all that Allah did for the Jews, and the ingratitude with which they repaid him. Verse 41 warns them: “do not exchange My signs for a small price,” which the Islamic commentators generally interpret as an exhortation to put the service of Allah before the concerns of this world. Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi, a renowned twentieth-century Islamic intellectual and exponent of political Islam, says in his massive Towards Understanding the Qur’an that this verse “refers to the worldly benefits for the sake of which [the Jews] were rejecting God’s directives.” However, many have speculated that this verse amounts to Muhammad’s rebuke of those who sold him material that they told him was divine revelation, but wasn’t — people who are raked over the coals again in 2:79.
Anyway, the Jews can get back into good graces with Allah by converting to Islam: “And establish prayer and give zakah and bow with those who bow” (v. 43). This might sail right by the English-speaking reader, since the translations exhort them to “establish prayer” and to “give zakah” (alms) need not at first glance be something restricted only to Islam, but in Arabic the word used here for prayer is salat (الصَّلاَة), which refers specifically to Islamic prayer, and zakat (الزَّكَاة) is specifically Islamic almsgiving. Non-Muslims cannot pray salat or pay zakat. About the need for this conversion Ibn Kathir is forthright: “Allah commanded the Children of Israel to embrace Islam and to follow Muhammad.” Sayyid Qutb says that here Allah “invites the Israelites to join the Muslims in their religious practices, and to abandon their prejudices and ethnocentric tendencies.”
Starting with verse 47, says Maududi, “reference is made to the best-known episodes of Jewish history. As these episodes were known to every Jewish child, they are narrated briefly rather than in detail. The reference is intended to remind the Jews both of the favors with which the Israelites had been endowed by God and of the misdeeds with which they had responded to those favors.” These include the Israelites being rescued from Pharaoh (vv. 49-50), the golden calf episode (vv. 54-55), and the feeding of the people with manna and quails in the wilderness (v. 57, 61), culminating in the avowal that the Jews “were covered with humiliation and poverty and returned with anger from Allah. That was because they disbelieved in the signs of Allah and killed the prophets without right. That was because they disobeyed and were transgressing.” (v. 61).
Ibn Kathir applies these words to all Jews: “This Ayah [verse] indicates that the Children of Israel were plagued with humiliation, and that this will continue, meaning that it will never cease. They will continue to suffer humiliation at the hands of all who interact with them, along with the disgrace that they feel inwardly.”
The Tolerance Verses
It may seem jarring that immediately following this comes one of the Qur’an’s oft-quoted “tolerance verses,” verse 62, which seems to promise a place in Paradise to “those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans.” Muhammad Asad exults: “With a breadth of vision unparalleled in any other religious faith, the idea of ‘salvation’ is here made conditional upon three elements only: belief in God, belief in the Day of Judgment, and righteous action in life.” Not, apparently, acceptance of Islam. But he contradicts himself by adding “in this divine writ” after the words “those who have attained to faith” in his translation of verse 62 — that is, to be saved, one must believe in the Qur’an as well as the earlier revelations.
And indeed, Muslim commentators are not inclined to see this as an indication of divine pluralism. The translators Ali and Pickthall, as well as Asad, all feel it necessary to add parenthetical glosses that make the passage mean that Jews and Christians (as well as Sabians, whose identity is disputed) will be saved only if they become Muslims. Qur’an.com adds “before Prophet Muhammad” in brackets after “Jews or Christians or Sabeans,” making it clear that those three could only be saved as such before the advent of Islam, but now they must convert to Islam to be saved.
And according to Ibn Abbas, this verse was abrogated by Qur’an 3:85: “And whoever desires other than Islam as religion – never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers.” Qutb opines that 2:62 applied only before Muhammad brought Islam to the world, a view supported by a saying of Muhammad recorded by Tabari, in which the Prophet of Islam says that Christians who died before his coming will be saved, but those who have heard of him and yet rejected his prophetic claim will not be.
The Apes and Pigs Passages
Then follows the first of the three notorious “apes and pigs” passages. Jihadists today routinely refer to Jews as apes and pigs; this idea is rooted in Qur’an 2:63-66; 5:59-60; and 7:166. The first of these depicts Allah telling the Jews who “transgressed among you concerning the sabbath”: “Be apes, despised.” It goes on to say that these accursed ones serve “a deterrent punishment for those who were present and those who succeeded.” Traditionally in Islamic theology these passages have not been considered to apply to all Jews. Ibn Abbas says that “those who violated the sanctity of the Sabbath were turned into monkeys, then they perished without offspring.” Others, however, such as the early Islamic scholar Ibn Qutaiba, held today’s apes are the descendants of the Sabbath-breaking Jews.
This is widely used today as a metaphor for the Jews’ corruption, even unto bestial status. Muhammad himself began this when he addressed the Jews of the Qurayzah tribe, which he was about to massacre, as “you brothers of monkeys.” Just weeks ago, a Muslim cleric on official Palestinian Authority TV (you know, the moderates) derided Jews as “apes and pigs.” In 2010, Mohammed Morsi, who went on to become the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt until he was toppled by popular unrest, castigated Jews as “these blood-suckers, who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.”
The Saudi Sheikh Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sudayyis, imam of the principal mosque in Mecca, the Al-Haraam mosque, once said in a sermon that Jews are “the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs.” Another Saudi sheikh, Ba’d bin Abdallah Al-Ajameh Al-Ghamidi, made the connection explicit: “The current behavior of the brothers of apes and pigs, their treachery, violation of agreements, and defiling of holy places is connected with the deeds of their forefathers during the early period of Islam — which proves the great similarity between all the Jews living today and the Jews who lived at the dawn of Islam.” For more on this, see the excellent study by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
Verse 67 takes up the reproaches against the Jews again, with the Israelites reacting with haughty rebelliousness to Allah’s command, given through Moses, that they sacrifice a heifer (the “cow” of the sura’s title). We hear that the Jews’ hearts are hardened (v. 74) and ultimately that they are accursed of Allah (v. 89).
Not a promising basis for a lasting Israel-Palestinian accord.
When you read condemnations of Israel from Hamas or Iran or some other Muslim source, remember that they view Israel and Jews through a Qur’anic prism.
They have learned, if they have studied the Qur’an at all, that the Jews are the most perverse and guilty — as well as the craftiest and most persistent — enemies of Allah, Muhammad and the Muslims.
In verse 75, Allah asks the Muslims how they can hope that the Jews will come to believe in Islam, since “a party of them used to hear the words of Allah and then distort the Torah after they had understood it while they were knowing?”
In his Tafsir Anwar al-Bayan, the twentieth-century Indian Mufti Muhammad Aashiq Ilahi Bulandshahri notes that some commentators “have mentioned that the verse refers to the adulteration of the Torah. The Jewish scholars used to accept bribes from people to alter certain injunctions to suit their desires.”
Expanding on this in connection with verse 79, Bulandshahri says that the Jews “commit a dual sin by altering Allah’s scripture and by accepting bribery as well.”
This is a traditional view: the Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that the Jews “altered the description of the Prophet in the Torah, as well as the ‘stoning’ verse, and other details, and rewrote them in a way different from that in which they were revealed.”
The Qur’an adds that in their arrogance, the Jews also think they will only be in hell for a few days (v. 80).
Bukhari recounts that after Muhammad conquered the Jews of Khaibar, an Arabian oasis, they roasted a sheep for the Prophet of Islam — and poisoned it. Sensing their stratagem, he summoned and questioned them. In the course of this, they told him, “We shall remain in the (Hell) Fire for a short period, and after that you [Muslims] will replace us.” Muhammad responded indignantly: “You may be cursed and humiliated in it! By Allah, we shall never replace you in it” and revealed that he knew of their plot to poison him.
Verses 81-105 remind the Jews again of Allah’s favors, favors from which most of them “turned away” (v. 83), and chastise them for their willfulness and disobedience. Allah summarizes their various acts of disobedience (v. 85), culminating in the assertion that the Jews believe only in part of their sacred writings, and “disbelieve in part.”
Ibn Kathir says that they rejected parts of the Torah, and also: “they should not be believed when it comes to the description of the Messenger of Allah, his coming, his expulsion from his land, and his Hijrah, and the rest of the information that the previous Prophets informed them about him, all of which they hid. The Jews, may they suffer the curse of Allah, hid all of these facts among themselves.”
Allah emphasizes that the Jews are accursed for rejecting Islam (vv. 88-89). (This is why most Muslims don’t accept the idea that the Jews have any right to the land of Israel, despite Qur’an 5:21 and other verses: an accursed people doesn’t receive Allah’s gifts.) Verse 98 says that their enemy is Allah himself.
Then Allah issues a challenge (vv. 94-96): if the Jews claim that Paradise is reserved for them alone, why don’t they seek death, instead of being the people “most greedy for life”?
This is the foundation of a jihadist taunt, as an Al-Qaeda warrior in Afghanistan put it a few years ago: “The Americans love Pepsi-Cola, we love death.” The true believers long for Paradise and disdain this world.
Allah then interrupts his torrent of condemnations of the Jews to introduce the Islamic doctrine of abrogation, in which Allah replaces a verse he has previously revealed but abrogated with a verse “better than it or similar to it.”
The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that this verse was revealed because “the disbelievers began to deride the matter of abrogation, saying that one day Muhammad enjoins his companions to one thing and then the next day he forbids it.” The Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas says that it refers to “what was abrogated of the Qur’an and that which was not abrogated.”
Sayyid Qutb maintains that “partial amendment of rulings in response to changing circumstances during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad could only be in the interest of mankind as a whole.” The concept of naskh, abrogation, is the foundation of the widespread Islamic understanding that the violent verses of sura 9 take precedence over the more peaceful verses revealed earlier, since they come later in the lifetime of Muhammad — an idea we will return to later.
(For a full discussion of the Islamic idea of abrogation, see Ahmad Von Denffer’s ‘Ulum al-Qur’an.)
Allah then warns the Muslims to keep up their religious duties and not to allow themselves to be led astray by the Jews and Christians, who will try to deceive the Muslims (v. 109) even as they fight among themselves (v. 113). He derides Jewish and Christian attempts to proselytize Muslims (vv. 111, 120, 135), and then states for the first time the oft-repeated rejection of the Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God. The idea that Allah could have a son is considered to compromise monotheism: “They say, ‘Allah has taken a son.’ Exalted is He! Rather, to Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and the earth. All are devoutly obedient to Him” (v. 116).
Then Allah returns to his favorite targets, to the Jews, reminding them of the covenant Allah made at the Ka’ba in Mecca with Abraham and Ishmael (v. 125). The Jews are reminded that even as Abraham prayed that Mecca would become a “City of Peace,” Allah answered that “such as reject Faith” would soon taste his “torment of Fire” (v. 126).
If you’re surprised to find a Jewish patriarch, Abraham, linked to an Islamic holy site, the Ka’ba, remember that only the perverse “say that Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes were Jews or Christians” (v. 140). In fact, they were submitters to Allah — Muslims (v. 128). If they weren’t believers in Muhammad as a prophet, they were at least hanifs: pre-Islamic monotheists.
This underscores the recurring Qur’anic theme that the people we know of today as Jews and Christians are only renegades from the true religion actually taught by Abraham and Moses, as well as Jesus — and that true religion was Islam.
As we have seen, much of sura 2 is devoted to addressing the renegade Jews who have rejected Muhammad and calling them back to the true faith, the faith of Abraham and Moses as well as Muhammad. Thus Islam challenges Judaism and Christianity by claiming that the true and original form of both religions is Islam.
Today, Islamic spokesmen in the West often present the status of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as Muslim prophets as evidence of Islamic open-mindedness and ecumenical-mindedness. In fact, however, it is only a declaration of the supremacy of Islam and the illegitimacy of Judaism and Christianity.