To put last week’s post in brief, Surah al-Baqarah (lit. The Cow’s Chapter) is structured as a palindrome (and in fact, a palindrome consisting of palindromes!). The first half is largely about the willful rebellion among men and angels, the failed covenant of Judaism, the corruptions of revelation in Christianity, and the judgement of God over all things. The middle is going to pivot on a literal turning point in Islam. After that the surah will step backwards through the themes of the first half, but this time focusing on the new direction Islam is establishing. The structure that I was using to navigate the surah is as follows:
Although I had originally endeavored to cover the whole first half, I found it better to stop within the content of section D. The chart above doesn’t do full justice, as this section is more about asserting the authority of Muhammad as prophet*, the legitimacy of Ishmaelites/Arabs as heirs of Abraham, and the failures of the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) to preserve and understand God’s revelation within their own history and in Muhammad’s teachings. Again, this post will probably make the most sense only if you read the entire surah, as the material is scattered and I can’t follow the themes without jumping through the whole chapter. Otherwise today I’ll cover on ayat 94-203, approximately.
I had covered the most of the charges against the Christians and Jews except one particular accusation: that they are too exclusive. Muhammad condemns the People of the Book for making heaven out to be strictly Jew-only/Christian-only, saying that such would not be a heaven at all. Jews do not grant Christians validity and thus access to heaven, and vice versa. They drive each other out of their places of worship (Although this analysis ascribes ayat 114-115, 118-119 to refer to pagans, it’s an interpretive leap and I think context suggests it’s the People of the Book who are under fire). They also require people to convert and practice their particular religion in order to be considered in God’s grace.
Perhaps you understand what I’m getting at here. This surah has just defined “religious exclusivism,” and it’s a feature of many (dare I say most?) religious communities. It is important to note that not all religions are inherently or explicitly exclusive in their membership. Many are traditionally so, but those traditions are frequently questioned and individual believers might hold own theories. To understand how some of these less exclusive theories work, take a look at Universalism, Pluralism, and Omnism. Note that Hindu philosophy is the only one I know of that explicitly (according to this source) holds to omnism, believing that “God” is so incomprehensible that “It” can hold contradictory properties and thus inform contradictory religions. Note that starting in 200AD, Judaism mainstreamed a belief that the Laws of Moses only apply to Jews, and that all other humans are only accountable to the bare essentials of a Noahide covenant. Jewish communities who accept this idea concede that Islam and Christianity function within this covenant’s bounds.
Now Islam certainly does not advocate the equivalency of all religions, but, like Judaism Noahide Laws, it does set up some essentials: believe only in The God, do good works, and believe in final judgement. Have those essentials, and God promises you have nothing to fear or grieve. Ayah 62 includes genuine Jews, Christians, and Sabaeans in the category of those who “have nothing to fear.” The Sahih International translation inserts “[those before Prophet Muhammad]” into ayah 62, suggesting to me that there is controversy around how valid other Holy Religions are now that Islamic teachings exists. I do not think this surah’s message is unified enough to deduce whether it is possible to be saved as a Christian or Jew in a post-Muhammad era. By and large it leans towards their condemnation. At the heart of this is the teaching that Islam is the original religion, and the original essence of both Judaism and Christianity. Thus when Jews and Christians exclude each other, they deny that essence of truth and God’s guidance that is mutually within them (the Islam within them). Since neither Judaism or Christianity is seen as having preserved their Islamic heart very well, their rejection of Quranic teachings is described as trading away guidance for condemnation. In the end, Islam might be as exclusive as its cousins.
Islam claims theological kinship to The People of the Book but is also distanced from their flawed heritage by tracing its lineage to Abraham through Ishmael rather than Isaac. This surah establishes some lore to authenticate that Islam worships the same God as The People of the Book, that Abraham and Ishmael were religiously united, and that through Ishmael’s people would come a prophet. When Jacob asks his twelves sons who they will worship after he dies, the sons reply, “We shall worship your God and the God of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael,” establishing Ishmael as equal among the patriarchs. This gives challenge to the vague way that Ishmael was treated in Biblical accounts, and the surah challenges anyone to say they know better than The God what really happened.
The patriarchs in the Bible are very odd characters. Their main virtue is their trust in only one God, but most of their recorded actions are questionable. They operated on faith but without laws. They sacrificed in a commemorative manner, rather than ritual, and their only mandate was that males were to be circumcised. Other than that, they lie and hurt each other with less than decisive positive or negative moral commentary. If you’d like an insightful and humorous analysis of the Genesis narrative, I’d recommend Jew Oughta Know by Jason Harris. Episodes 7-20 are all about the lore of Genesis, and I appreciated hearing his authentically Jewish and morally honest description of the accounts.
That the Quran asserts the patriarchs, including Ishmael, were “Muslims” is not really a provocative statement. “Muslim” translates as “one who submits,” and that is the basic moral value of the patriarchs: when God called them to do something, they did it. Abdul Haleem’s interpretation even translates “Muslim” with “devout/devoted.” Ishmael might be mostly invisible in the Bible, but he shows up there for Abraham’s funeral, so it is not unreasonable to extrapolate that he revered his father and would have held the same beliefs.
What is more provocative is that Abraham and Ishmael build up a place called “The House” for people to stay in, to walk in circles around (tawaf), and to bow down for worship in. Abraham prays for God to bless the house, the city, and its people. This house is understood to be the Ka’ba and the city is Mecca. That it was instituted by God, through Abraham, and entrusted to Ishmael suggests a line of religious practice that completely ignores and is ignored by Jacob’s bloodline. It suggests a line of covenant independent from the Israelites, and sets up an important event which we are getting to—now!
Section E: Muslims are to redirect their religious focal point from Jerusalem to the Ka’ba in Mecca.
This Jerusalem bit was news to me, and part of what made this surah so hard to understand upon first reading. Surah talks about facing directions, but no locations were named. A change was declared, but no prior practice was described. By the words of the surah alone, I had no idea what was happening. So here’s the missing info that I found from other accounts: up to this point, Muslims had conducted their prayers towards Jerusalem, in the same direction as the Jews. In Judaism, this direction is called “Mizrah” (meaning East, as the diaspora that coined the term lived west of Jerusalem and thus had to turn east). In Islam, this direction is called “Qibla” (which just means direction). Synagogues usually have a plaque designating their Mizrah, while mosques have an alcove. Tradition says Muhammad was troubled by the Jews who claimed he was just copying their religion, and so he would turn his eyes to the stars to ask God for revelation about how to answer. God responded in the middle of group prayer one day when Muhammad was guided to change the direction of his prayers from Jerusalem towards al-masjid al-Haraam (literally, The Sacred Prayer Site, and commonly called The Sacred Mosque), which is in Muhammad’s hometown, Mecca. At that exact time, it was serving as a very pagan temple and the economic pulse of Mecca, but the Quran teaches that this place was paramount in the heritage and history of the original religion.
The surah gives God’s explanation to Muhammad, now that the change has been made. God knows the new direction of prayer will please Muhammad. As readers we can understand this, since Mecca is both Muhammad’s hometown and also a distinctly Arab relic. The surah has already established the city’s Abrahamic yet non-Jewish origins. Ayah 150 mentions that this new direction removes an argument that had been harassing the Muslims, perhaps that facing Jerusalem implied Jewish primacy. God also says he only mandated the Muslim’s prayer initially towards Jerusalem so that he might change it and make known to Muhammad those who questioned his authority. The traditional location of all this was at the Mosque of Two Qiblas, which used to have an old alcove facing Jerusalem. Look at Medina on a map and notice that Mecca is in near the opposite direction of Jerusalem. If we presume that Muhammad was praying in the front of the assembly, the drastic and sudden change of direction would turned Muhammad so that he was staring into the faces of those who did not copy his change right away and without question. This action would have revealed in an explicit manner who defied or doubted him.
Section D explained the importance of the Ka’ba. Section E made that history relevant by changing the direction of prayer to the Ka’ba in order to test how much the believers obeyed and trusted Muhammad. Now Section D’ expounds upon God testing believers’ faith and explains the Ka’ba’s current place in religion as regards ritual. Having established that the change of qibla was a test, it continues on that there are other tests in daily life. Sometimes passing a test will result in death, but that such instances should give believers hope since dead believers await reward. I want to note that this surah does not found a martyr-cult. There are no passages about seeking death to reach heaven, only that death from any means (natural means included) is not punishment if you are a believer.
I’m not going to detail through all the religious practices, but here are the basics in bullet points for expediency:
- The pre-Muhammad reverence of the hills Safa and Marwa and their related ritual is upheld to be something from God.
- There are two types of pilgrimages
- Ramadan is a specific month when God first revealed the Quran. It is sacred. There must be no fighting on Ramadan, and if it does happen out of self-defense, the time must be made up later.
- There’s no hard line as to when pilgrimage ends as long as you don’t skip out more than two days early and as long as your ask God for forgiveness in doing so.
- You can blend business interests with pilgrimage (ayah 198) as long as you remember to focus on God.
- Fasting and abstinence is a daytime-only event in Ramadan. Be sure to make up for any day you miss.
Okay, I want to note that these rules are different from Torah rules in that they are incredibly flexible. The Torah includes some small accommodations concerning what animals can be given as sacrifices, but otherwise traditional sources (like the Talmud) and scholarly extrapolation have to be consulted in order to apply them in real-life contexts and figure out their leeway. This surah gives lots of options for those whose life circumstances prevent them from obeying the standard expectations. Because God is all-knowing, he judges a person by the intent of their actions rather than the exactness of those actions. He knows who does too little, but does not require others to do too much.
Also in section D’ is the clear command that Muslims are to kill those who persecute them, but that they are not to be the first who kill. Because these passages are included in a section that is largely about spiritual testing and Ka’ba-centric rituals, it is easy to categorize this command is time and situation specific. Here is some history I learned from the History of Islam podcast (which sadly has halted production): Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh, were in charge of Mecca and the pagan Sacred Mosque. When Muhammad started his ministry, he was personally protected due to his Qurayshi blood and also because his particular clan, the Banu Hashim, were near royalty. But his converts were not, and those in Mecca who were economically and politically invested in the polytheistic culture martyred many early Muslim converts. Muhammad used to teach at The Sacred Mosque, and thus he and his followers were banned from assembling there. This is why the whole Muslim community emigrated to Yathrib, transforming it into Medina. But Muslims kept trying to pilgrimage to the Ka’ba and were hunted down and killed by the Meccan authorities. Those who kill Muslim pilgrims to the Ka’ba are specifically sentenced to death in the surah. “Persecution is worse than murder,” is the key message. So there is a strong case that these violent commands are locked to a time-specific circumstance: the need to protect oneself when on pilgrimage during hostile times, and also the planned conquest of Mecca, wherein Muslims were going to take the Ka’ba by military force. Yes, there is also room to interpret these passages as justified violence against persecution that is not time/situation specific, since some of them appear a little more isolated from the Ka’ba-specific passages.
Biblical narratives include genocides of nations inhabiting would-be Israelite lands. While Jews and Christians usually categorize them as situation-specific mandates that have fulfilled their purpose, they have at times entered the rhetoric of Christian and Jewish societies. These passages are aggressive and honestly dangerous, particularly for their potential to inspire modern Israeli fanaticism. They set a precedent by which Jewish extremists can justify acts of war and war crimes. The irony is that for all its aggressively violent conquests of the ancient past, Judaism scripturally condemns revenge. Surah al-Baqarah is not aggressively violent, but has condoned vengeance.
Okay, again, this is a whole lot–and there still is much more! I am going to take one FINAL week to cover Surah al-Baqarah, it cannot be helped. The topics should be primarily about the new law and further descriptions of God, the righteous, and the unrighteous. I promise that next week will be the last.
*One of the statements asserting Muhammad’s authority is that people should not call him by ra’ina but instead say unDHurna. It took me forever to make sense of this passage, and it’s still largely speculation on my part. Ra’ina means “our shepherd” and unDHurna means “we see.” Now, in Christianity, to be called a shepherd is a complimentary thing. It symbolizes trust and good-will towards the person so ascribed. Of course, this is purely sentiment, and removed from what sheep/goat herding really looked like in the Middle East. Muhammad did serve his clan as a minor shepherd before growing up into a well-respected merchant. It could be that calling him a shepherd was a derogatory reminder of his extraneous status in the otherwise lofty clan. It could also be intended to describe his leadership as being analogous to a “sheeple” herder. (Indeed, unbelievers are later insulted as being like stupid, hapless livestock. Association with livestock is not complimentary in this surah.) Also, I’ve found a query with some similar answers. (click here to resume reading above.)