Today we are doubling down to finish Surah al-Baqarah. In part 1 we read of God’s authority as creator, and his plans for believers, unbelievers, and hypocrites (with special attention given to the failures of Jews to obey God’s law). In part 2 we examined the alternate Abrahamic heritage of Muhammad through Ishmael and religious practice centered around The Sacred Mosque at the heart of this heritage. To complete the proposed arch form, the following section should focus on the new precedent to be established by Muhammad’s students, and then continue examining God’s authority as judge and creator.
But the more I tried, the harder it was to make this arch form work with the content. I only decided this as I was examining this chart of Section C’:
As you see from his analysis, I’ve already dabbled in some topics from this proposed section and as if they were part of Section D’, oops! The Hajj/Ka’ba centrality of those passages made sense to me as counterparts to the Ka’ba narrative of Section D. But I was perhaps trying too hard to read form into the content. Compare the analysis above to proposed arcs of Section C:
There is still some similarity in theme. The message of C was that Israel couldn’t keep the law even as they were receiving it, and that of C’ is that Muslims are receiving a law which they will be able to uphold. However, if we look farther forward, we can see that the themes of B and B’ do not align at all, except by the very broadest of strokes, and the same could be said of the A and A’, which are vastly different in size and scope. So I am going to discard that arch form in today’s post. Law and obedience is by far the ruling topic to the end of the surah. To get today’s material, you might as well reread some ayat from last week, maybe starting around ayah 168, and go to the end.
“Law” is actually the wrong word to be using here, in my opinion. There are almost no earthly penalties for transgressions. Sometimes you are to give a sacrifice, do an act of charity, or fast if you are unable to fulfill a religious obligation. There is one penalty for murder, which we shall come to in a moment, but otherwise all judgement is left to God. This perhaps is revealing of pre-Caliphate system of law and order–that there was none. From what I have read and heard, the Arabian peninsula was ruled mostly on a tribe-to-tribe, city-to-city basis. The closest thing to justice was the revenge your family might wreak upon your wrongdoers, and only if your family was large, strong, and rich enough. In the vast expanses of dessert, with the constantly migrating populations, only God had the omniscience to track and punish injustice (and moreover to do so with exactness and impartiality). The injunctions in this surah are sure to specify that God does not judge actions as much as motivations. In this way, an accident is not a sin, but any selfish use of your property, legal or not, incurs judgement.
The only crime in this surah that has an earthly punishment is that of murder (ayah 178). I was a little confused by it, as it starts with a life-for-life set of phrasing (“freeman for freeman, slave for slave, female for female”) and such would be problematic if the perpetrator is not in the same category as the victim. However, I think it’s a fair guess to say the retribution being required is purely monetary, according to the estimated value of the person killed. It is to be paid to some family member, or whatever party was responsible for the welfare of the victim. Again, I think this is linked to the Arabic culture of the time, where justice was something your family took upon themselves. When Muhammad had started preaching in Mecca, he could not be punished or killed because the only one with authority to do so was his guardian. Anyone who hurt Muhammad would’ve had to answer to this uncle, who happened to be the leader of the respected Banu Hashim clan. There would have been blood, not money, to pay. This surah not only diverts there-will-be-blood retribution, but it also requires that the culprit will pay even if the victim’s family is forgiving (which is a big deal if your own clan is big and strong enough to sway the victim’s towards “forgiveness”). Perhaps we think putting a monetary value on life is callous, but yet we do this all the time in modern life. The fines, claims, lawsuits, and jail sentences of our justice system are all arbitrary numbers fixed by convention and our own guestimation of justice. If you think the Islamic system is callous, then I charge you to take your principles to our modern system and make it different.
Let’s go into the other injunctions some. I have already quick-marched through the messages of pious ritual, and those commanding revenge against al-fitna (“the persecution”) of Muslims (at that time by Meccan polytheists). Please be aware as we go ahead that I have not done my research into Islamic jurisprudence, which is incredibly jargon-filled, historical, debated, and beyond the scope of my project here. It’s very academic, and there are several branches of reason and tradition. That’s what happens when your religion grows old and has to apply to life’s changes.
So there are many rules concerning money: inheritance, lending, charity. The message is consistently along the lines of, “be fair always, and generous as much as possible.” Some instances of generosity include buying people out of slavery, hosting travelers, and adopting. Transactions are to be witnessed accounts, and alongside the rules of financial fairness are many injunctions to general honesty. Use witnesses, sign documents, always enter by the front door, do not charge interest on loans. While Torah only bans charging interest within the Jewish community, there are no exceptions listed in Surah al-Baqarah. On the whole, these financial commands are very friendly and sound like they would construct a kind culture. I do not know the economic implications of banning usury, however. There is an interesting point where the opposition argues that profit through loans and profit through trade are the same thing (both do involve paying an amount of money in order to get a larger amount of money). The economic philosophy or intent is not discussed, only that God allows the latter and bans the former. Some argue that directly buying money with money is immoral, others that it is to reduce predatory financial traps that disrupt society (such as the evil bail bonds that plague our modern justice system). Through these commands, Islam seeks to foster kindness and societal good.
Besides charges of violence, Islam is often accused of misogyny. Looking at the passages concerning women in this surah, I would say that inequality is definitely there, but not the kind of contempt that I’d label misogynistic. These laws are not what I would consider cruel to women, far from it. The oversight of this surah, like much of the Bible, is that it is definitely written to men. It is for the religious lives of women also, but the audience is still assumed to be male and female perspectives is not considered. Here are examples:
- When the men ask Muhammad about menstruation, Muhammad tells the men that menstruation is a painful thing, and to not approach [presumably for sex] the women until it is over and the women have cleaned themselves. It is not addressed whether it is okay for a woman to approach a man for sex while she is menstruating. Is the prohibition to men made out of consideration for women, or is it to preserve the ritual purity of the men?
- Men are promised purified spouses after the resurrection, but what is in store for women? (Are they the purified spouses for the men, or will those be different beings and women will also receive new purified spouses?)
- In the divorce laws, detail is given about the process by which a man may divorce his wife (never more than twice in a row) and the rights and compensation he must provide for her and her children. How might a woman divorce a hard, abusive, or negligent husband? If he doesn’t need a particular cause to divorce her, does she need a cause to divorce him?
These are the questions left unanswered because women are not the ones being talked to. Like the field waiting to be seeded (the old stand-in euphemism for women’s reproductive abilities) the woman is something passive that the man acts upon and cares for. The difficulty is that women have no means outlined for defending themselves if they should become subject to cruelty. To recap, the danger is not that these passages are cruel, but that women are given no methods of securing their own needs and are thus susceptible to being victims of imperfect men.
BUT, I can’t say there is absolutely no misogyny. In cases of witnesses, the standard is to have at least two men. If there aren’t two men, then have at least one man and two women. This is so that one woman may remind the other if she forgets……because women are inherently more forgetful? While not maybe be outright contempt for a woman’s capabilities, this does betray a pessimism or lower expectation for womankind’s inherent abilities.
Ayah 173 lays out the barest stipulations of Islamic meat restrictions. I want to spend a little space comparing Islamic halal (“permitted”) meats to Jewish kosher (“suitable”) meats. Both systems have similarities, with kosher’s restrictions fitting within halal’s, but just like their translated names they have very subtle differences. Kosher meats must conform to a specific set of requirements. Halal meats only exclude (as far as this surah says) carrion, pork, blood, and things that were involved in pagan rituals. In a way, by prohibiting only a few meat products, halal becomes a near opposite of kosher, which allows only a few meat products. Halal only concerns meats and alcohol (which this surah fully advises against, alongside gambling, but does not outright ban), while kosher extends to many other food areas and still permits most alcohol. Some people read into these restrictions goals of discerning and maintaining purity in your consumption, or developing self-discipline through self-denial, or having your obedience tested by God. There is no definitive answer to “why these rules?” or what function they are supposed to serve. To know a little more of the philosophical discussion around kosher restrictions, I can recommend this webpage.
One point on that webpage is that these dietary limitations might not be for individual good, but societal preservation. Food restrictions highly regulate and limit a culture’s reach, and this is another possible reason for their existence. With food’s central function in most of our social practices, if you cannot eat the same thing as your neighbors it becomes very hard to interact. If you cannot interact, you are less likely to assimilate their beliefs. Think about how hard it would be for a Muslim or Jew to live in China or the Philippines, where pork is a favorite meat. In order to interact, one group must capitulate to the restrictions/freedoms of the other, or negotiate a neutral ground. Cultural exchange becomes deliberate, not casual.
Besides the law, there are many anecdotes here about testing God and being tested by God. Abraham is tested by, and also tests God. Doubters challenge God and are rebuked. Always the tests are answered by God showing His power to create or reanimate life. There is also the story of King Talut, spanning ayat 246-251. “Talut” is usually translated as Saul, and obviously is supposed to be Saul. One speculation is that the roots of Talut are the same as the roots of the Arabic word for “tall,” which is in fact one of Saul’s defining physical traits. There are many differences between the story here and the stories in the Bible (not an issue to Muslims, who would understand the Bible versions to be in the wrong), but more than the details I find the changes in the narrative peculiar and interesting.
At the beginning we have more odd dialogue between the God and the Jews. The Jews demand a King to lead them. God muses that if he actually told them to go to war, they probably wouldn’t do it (it’s pretty hard for me not hear wry snark in his dialogue as I read it). They defend their motives by declaring a right to fight against persecution. God concedes to their request. Sure enough most of them run home, refuse to fight, and even question when God’s [unnamed] prophet appoints Talut to be king. As a verifying miracle, God returns the previously stolen Ark of the Covenant to Israel. Saul starts to lead the Israelites to war, but along the way tells the men that God will test them with a river. To pass God’s test, they must refrain from drinking more than a literal handful of water from the river. Primed with this explicit warning, most of the men drink generously and must be left behind for their disobedience. Even among the remaining troops, there is dismay about their fighting chances against the opposing army, but a few among them remember that God has given victory to outweighed armies before. And who leads the opposing army?
Poor Saul: Day 1, become king. Day 2, David kills Goliath. Day 3, David is king. To be fair, there’s no particular time-span here, but I feel sorry for Talut, whose narrative is so fleeting compared to the time spent with Saul in the Bible. We don’t get to see his gradual fall to pride, jealousy, and torn affections. I did a search, and his name appears nowhere else in the Quran.
Those who know their Bible stories will see that within these six ayat are four different Bible stories. There’s the anointing of Saul (1 Samuel 8-10), the return of the Ark (1 Samuel 5-6), the winnowing of Gideon’s army (Judges 7), and the victory over Goliath (1 Sam 17). The Biblical narrative in each of these stories is one of God showing power through Underdogs. I could explain their individual relevance, or nitpick details, but it is the drastic change of Gideon’s narrative that catches my attention. Gideon was a Judge/Leader of the Israelites long before they established royalty. He is notable as one of the few people in the Bible who rigorously tests God before accepting His revelation. He is told to take an army against the Midianites, but the army that Gideon raises is too big for God’s plans. God downsizes the army so that the Israelites would understand that it is His power protecting them, rather than their own prowess. The first troops who are dismissed are those who admit to being afraid. The next dismissed are those who get on all fours to drink from the Jordan river. Three hundred men are left, and God provides them victory.
The noticeable change in the narrative is that the biblical winnowing is not done to purify the army of doubters or disbelievers. This process is not a test of faith, there are no expectations set for the sorting process at the river, and absolutely no judgement or condemnation is reflected upon those who are sent home. The goal is that Israel will know after the battle that it was only by God’s power that they won. The Quran’s alternate narrative adds to this a message about absolute obedience and purifying doubters from your fellowship. A message like this potentially enables groups to justify inquisitions. To defend Islam, I would say that so far only God is given the authority to judge the veracity of the believers. Inquisitions happen when men take it upon themselves to identify and purge the “weakening forces” from their community, and no system of court marshal is being suggested in our current readings.
It is very fleeting, but one or two ayat inadvertently strike upon the Problem of Evil. The ayat mention (in third person) that if God had willed, no one would have disbelieved His revelations and thus there would be no discord between men. But God did not will this harmony. The point of this verse is to assert the absolute dominion of God, but in its assertion it raises hard questions about God’s nature and intent. Does God really love humanity if he has no interest in saving all of it? Is human free will something God values? Can a God who punishes people for sins that he has allowed them to commit be just? This logical problem is by far (in my estimation) the greatest challenge to the Abrahamic understanding of The God. I am curious to see if the Quran will explore these ideas further.
After all these commands, statements of God’s authority, and anticipations of God’s judgement, the surah closes with a prayer. We switch from talking about God to talking to God. The prayer asks for forgiveness and relief (from burdens and from unbelievers), with the supplicant confessing total dependency on God. One phrase that is interesting is, “Do not burden us as You burdened those before us.” This could mean any number of requests: that the old laws were burdensome (a sentiment of Christianity towards Torah laws) and that the new will be easier; that the persecution of prior believers will not continue to current believers; or that general quality of life will improve with each generation. The meaning is ambiguous, and this makes the prayer more personal to each supplicant. I think it is a good reminder that within words there is a lot of room for interpretation. Exploring and finding interpretation is how people take ownership of their religion. Whatever you might think of their texts, it is always important to ask a believer what they personally think before you make a judgement (if you must judge at all).
Thank you for reading through three long blogs about this oh-so-long surah of the Quran! This is only the second surah, and there are so many to follow that we are sure to have more questions answered and examples given. My hope is that the things explored here will lay groundwork for future posts to harken to. There are so many details and I’m afraid, in my fatigue of this particular text, I may have overlooked some beautiful or interesting things. If something in Surah al-Baqarah strikes your attention, please leave your own comment below!