Saturday, March 30, 2013

Quran Project (Part 3): Water from a Rock and Lightning from the Sky

In the last update in the Quran Project series, I was going through the segment of Surah (chapter) 2, where the Quran talks about Adam, a figure common to all Abrahamic faiths. (Please read a follow up post I wrote after update 2, it turns out I had some misunderstandings about that passage).

Now, Surah 2 turns to another figure which is common to Islam, Judaism and Christianity alike: Moses. The Quran refers to him as Musa, and he is seen as a prophet, much like Adam was seen as a prophet.

{2.40] O children of Israel! call to mind My favor which I bestowed on you and be faithful to (your) covenant with Me, I will fulfill (My) covenant with you; and of Me, Me alone, should you be afraid.[2.41] And believe in what I have revealed, verifying that which is with you, and be not the first to deny it, neither take a mean price in exchange for My communications; and Me, Me alone should you fear.
The idea of Israel having a special relationship and covenant with god is also a running theme of the Old Testament, here's Exodus 19:
There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” 
It seems like the parallels never end.
[2.42] And do not mix up the truth with the falsehood, nor hide the truth while you know (it).[2.43] And keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate and bow down with those who bow down.
The "poor rate" appears to be a reference to the Islamic principle of Zakat, the practice of giving money to support those who are desperately poor, it is either given voluntary, or it can be established as a tax by a government. This principle is considered one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
[2.44] What? Do you enjoin men to be good and neglect your own souls while you read the Book; have you then no sense?[2.45] And seek assistance through patience and prayer, and most surely it is a hard thing except for the humble ones,[2.46] Who know that they shall meet their Lord and that they shall return to Him.[2.47] O children of Israel! call to mind My favor which I bestowed on you and that I made you excel the nations.[2.48] And be on your guard against a day when one soul shall not avail another in the least, neither shall intercession on its behalf be accepted, nor shall any compensation be taken from it, nor shall they be helped.[2.49] And when We delivered you from Firon's people, who subjected you to severe torment, killing your sons and sparing your women, and in this there was a great trial from your Lord.[2.50] And when We parted the sea for you, so We saved you and drowned the followers of Firon and you watched by.
Every search I run for the word Firon keeps leading me back to the word Pharaoh. The Wikipedia article on the parting of the Red Sea says that the Islamic narrative of it is given in Surah 26.
[2.51] And when We appointed a time of forty nights with Musa, then you took the calf (for a god) after him and you were unjust.[2.52] Then We pardoned you after that so that you might give thanks.
This is a reference to the Golden calf incident , in the Biblical narrative in Exodus 32, Moses was on Mount Sinai so long that the people of Israel, under the temporary leadership of Moses' brother Aaron, decided to melt down all of the gold they had, (apparently the gold they were given as parting gifts by the Egyptians after being released from slavery), and made a golden calf that they started to worship and give sacrifices to.

When Moses came down off the mountain, and saw this, he was so angry that he threw down the stone tablets that the Ten Commandments were on, breaking them.

It appears that the Quran has a habit of mentioning events in early chapters that it does not explain in full until much later in the book. Since I'm used to reading the Bible, I keep thinking that the Quran will follow the same format, a narrative style with a beginning and end, I need to quit expecting that. 

Apparently, the Quran will discuss the Golden Calf incident in a later chapter, just like it does with the parting of the Red Sea. The Quran, instead of giving a narrative from beginning to end, it focuses on principles instead of stories, giving the stories in bits and pieces, here's what CM, the blog's resident Muslim reader/commenter has to say about this pattern:

[2.53] And when We gave Musa the Book and the distinction that you might walk aright.[2.54] And when Musa said to his people: O my people! you have surely been unjust to yourselves by taking the calf (for a god), therefore turn to your Creator (penitently), so kill your people, that is best for you with your Creator: so He turned to you (mercifully), for surely He is the Oft-returning (to mercy), the Merciful.[2.55] And when you said: O Musa! we will not believe in you until we see Allah manifestly, so the punishment overtook you while you looked on.[2.56] Then We raised you up after your death that you may give thanks.

I didn't know what verse 56 meant here, apparently, according to Surah 4:153, after the golden calf incident, god killed all of the people of Israel with lightning, then immediately brought them all back to life at once.

This was seen as both an act of judgement and mercy on the part of Allah, with the deaths by lightning a sign of his judgement and wrath, and the immediate resurrection of the crowd (seeing as though he could have just left them that way).

[2.57] And We made the clouds to give shade over you and We sent to you manna and quails: Eat of the good things that We have given you; and they did not do Us any harm, but they made their own souls suffer the loss.

Manna and quail being feed to the people of Israel while wandering in the desert is also in the Old Testament, here's Exodus 16:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.”
 13 In the evening quail came up and covered the camp, and in the morning dew lay around the camp. 
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were portrayed as always grumbling, and as being ungrateful for what god had given them.(We'll see more of this in a moment). Basically the viewpoint of the Bible towards the people of Israel during this time period was that they were whiny spoiled brats who didn't appreciate what god had done for them.

Personally, I think they had every right to complain, god made them all slaves in Egypt, then he leads them into this vast wilderness, where either god made them wander around for 40 years to torment them, (or Moses has no sense of direction), and then made them eat the same two types of food, day in and day out.

I think any of us would be rather annoyed, to say the least.
[2.58] And when We said: Enter this city, then eat from it a plenteous (food) wherever you wish, and enter the gate making obeisance, and say, forgiveness. We will forgive you your wrongs and give more to those who do good (to others).[2.59] But those who were unjust changed it for a saying other than that which had been spoken to them, so We sent upon those who were unjust a pestilence from heaven, because they transgressed.[2.60] And when Musa prayed for drink for his people, We said: Strike the rock with your staff So there gushed from it twelve springs; each tribe knew its drinking place: Eat and drink of the provisions of Allah and do not act corruptly in the land, making mischief.
 Moses striking a rock in order to get water for the people of Israel is also in Numbers 20, though it's portrayed a bit differently:
Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the LordWhy have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink"
(The whiny, ungrateful Israelites theme here)
And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, t“Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him.
 10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice,and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.12 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me,to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” 13 These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy.
Apparently the complaining started to wear thin on Moses, and he became so angry that he hit the rock, instead of speaking to it, which was the divine instructions, he was not allowed to join the people in their later conquest and settling of Canaan (modern day Israel/West Bank area). I noticed one big difference between the Biblical and Quran accounts was the fact that the Quran mentions 12 streams, one for each tribe, the Bible says nothing about that. I wonder if the Quran is being literal, or is using a type of poetic symbolism.

[2.61] And when you said: O Musa! we cannot bear with one food, therefore pray Lord on our behalf to bring forth for us out of what the earth grows, of its herbs and its cucumbers and its garlic and its lentils and its onions. He said: Will you exchange that which is better for that which is worse? Enter a city, so you will have what you ask for. And abasement and humiliation were brought down upon them, and they became deserving of Allah's wrath; this was so because they disbelieved in the communications of Allah and killed the prophets unjustly; this was so because they disobeyed and exceeded the limits.
Apparently this is saying that Allah provided more food for them by having them conquer cities and start looting. Apparently a lot of looting went in the Bible as well, when the city of Jericho was destroyed by the ancient Israelites, some valuables were taken and put in the tabernacle, here's the account in Joshua chapter 6:
24 And they burned the city with fire, and everything in it. Only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the Lord
In Genesis 34, Jacob's sons looted a city after killing all the men of the city. It was an act of retaliation against the city because it's prince had raped their sister:
 27 The sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the city, because they had defiled their sister. 28 They took their flocks and their herds, their donkeys, and whatever was in the city and in the field. 29 All their wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and plundered.
If you notice, apparently the women and young children of the city were taken as prisoners of war, I wonder if the children were taken so that they would become slaves as they became older. The women likely became wives sex slaves of the men, that was not only a common practice, but endorsed by the Old Testament in Deuteronomy chapter 21:
10 “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, 12 and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. 13 And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14 But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.
The next Quran Project update will continue on with chapter/surah 2 (Quran chapters are rather long this is 286 verse), and will pick up from there, with Moses/Musa yet again, and an unusual event involving a sacrificed cow. I'll probably be spending several more weeks on Surah 2.


  1. I definitely like the idea of Zakat, having the rich people make sure the poor are taken care of.

    It's a shame about the story not being told in a narrative order, it will make it a lot harder to read and understand. You are doing a great job of pulling all the information together though :) I particularly like the comparison with the stories in the bible

    1. I'm trying my best to keep it in order, and research everything I write, it's a hard job.

  2. "Chosen people"---There are two major concepts. 1)All human beings are inherently equal---therefore any ideas that one group of people are superior or favored is incorrect 2)Blessings(rights) from God come with responsibility.
    In the story of Adam there were two points 1) God promises Guidance and 2) God makes a covenant/contract--Khalifa. In Judaism and Islam "Adam" also has the meaning of "humanity"---therefore---All humanity has a "covenant"(special) relationship with God---in other words we are all "chosen people". v40,47 and elsewhere, the Quran uses terms that the Jews use to self-define their relationship with God----"chosen people" (favored) and yet, the Quran also redefines who are the chosen for ex v62.
    notice also the wording in v40--the "covenant" has 2 parts---the responsibilities that Jews must fulfill and the promise (blessing) that God will fulfill. (V41-46 list the responsibilities that must be fulfilled)

    Charity(Islam)---there are 2 types 1)obligatory (zakat) and voluntary (sadaqa) obligatory charity is once a year, voluntary charity can be anytime.

    Judgement/Mercy---excellent point Sheldon---though in Quranic terms this would be Justice with Compassion and mercy. The Quranic principles come in pairs---so we have seen that rights (blessings) come with responsibility but responsibility also comes with rights (so while humanity has the responsibility to care for all of God's creation---they also have the right to use its resources judiciously). Likewise, Justice without compassion and mercy is harsh and can be oppressive---but compassion and mercy without justice can lead to injustice.

    enter a city---this is not understood as looting...? that how it is understood in the bible? The point here is of ungratefulness---the food that the Israelites ask from God can be found in any marketplace of a town/city.
    In Judaism, the purpose of many of their rituals/holy days is to remember and be grateful and the message that the Quran is repeating has already been repeated by their Rabbis many times. It should be something familiar to the Jews.
    Ungrateful--earlier we came upon the word kaffir---in pre-Islamic times it was a word used to mean "someone who covers a seed with dirt" (meaning farmer) but the Quran redefines it---by using the root word kfr which has the meaning of "ungrateful" and thus making it mean "someone who covers up truth with dirt because of ungratefulness". The opposite of kaffir is shakir (to be grateful). In order to be grateful one needs humility---therefore a person who is ungrateful lacks humility---and instead has its opposite---arrogance and pride. (this theme will be picked up in later surahs---for ex-- the story of the fall of Iblis)

    For muslims reading S2 and S3, the particulars of what happened in the Bible are not important---we understand these surahs as giving advice to avoid errors that happened in the older religions. (though we muslims have repeated most of these errors with 2 exceptions---1) sticking faithfully to Tawheed, and 2)not corrupting the Quran)

    @ Sheldon. you did an excellent job in picking out the important themes in this Surah....particulalry since many concept words are lost in translation....One concept word which will become important later on is "soul"---in arabic it is nafs and hebrew it is nefesh. (ex--v48). The "body" is understood as a biochemical "form". The "we/I" is the soul/self/consciousness. (another aspect is the "spirit" or ruh in arabic and ruach in hebrew--more accurately understood as "God's breath" in Judeo-Islam)

    If anyone has questions...pls ask.....


    1. Great comment. So you don't see references to looting here? Was it referring to voluntary trading that went on with the cities around them.?

    2. CM, I'm a little bit confused on the chosen people idea you mentioned. You mentioned that in a sense all of humanity is a chosen people, but that almost seems like a contradiction in terms. In a sense, if everyone is special than no one is special. I'm curious is this phrase is typically used by muslims, or if perhaps you have used it for our benefit given that it is a common phrase in Judaism.

      Also, if everyone is in some sense chosen people, does that mean that anyone can join Islam if they wish? If so that sound more like the Christian way of doing thing (certainly anyone could have joined the church I grew up in if they wanted to) than the Jewish way of doing things (my understanding is that converting to Judaism is a huge deal).

      Thanks in advance

  3. I'm loving the death by lightning and instant resurrection. That's something to be kept in the long term memory.

    1. It's an unusual take on this story, something that is very different from the OT accounts.

  4. enter this town/city---in v58--the arabic word used means to enter with an attitude of humility and in v61 the word has the meaning of live/dwell.

    Overall context---This is a Medina surah---the Prophet was invited to this city because the two main tribes were in a long standing feud and the killing and vengeance was getting out of hand. The Prophet was asked to arbitrate.(the law that deals with this situation is in v178-179) At this time in the culture of the region, tribal loyalties and tribal pride were supreme---and in this surah the Quran is laying down the foundations of a new type of society---one that is united. (the concept is that of the "ummah" (brotherhood)the idea starts as a theory with the story of Adam and is put in practice as the Hajj --v143...)

    Justice is an important concept in the Quran. There are 3 main types/systems of "Justice"
    1)Restorative Justice---concerned with the reconciliation process of all individuals concerned
    2)Retributive Justice---concerned with punishment commensurate with the crime (the system of justice most countries use today)
    3)Deterrent Justice---concerned with the use of harsh punishment as a threat to deter crime

    as we get into law in the Quran---a general understanding of these 3 types of justice will be helpful......

    another concept that is linked with restorative justice is that of "Moral injury" (a psychological term)---the Quran calls it "injury to the soul".

    Equality---The Quran promotes the idea that all humanity is inherently equal---yet there is a dichotomy between inherent equality(theory) vs apparent inequality(reality). The Quran will be dealing with this issue throughout.

    v117---english translations use the word "heaven" but arabic has different words for paradise and outer-space/space-time.


    1. OK, thanks for clarification, and for that note about the history of the era.

  5. @ Hausdorff

    Chosen people---The original idea in Judaism was that the "contract" came with an "obligation/responsibility"---however, this idea was changed to imply a "special relationship/favor". The Quran tries to bring back the original meaning---that (all) humanity has a responsibility/obligation---this is:-right belief that promotes right intentions that lead to right actions for the benefit of all of God's creations.
    In the Quranic world view---all of creation is "muslim" (fitra)---that is, creation follows God's law (natural laws) and the meaning of "muslim" is one who submits (to God/God's law). Therefore, all human beings are born "muslim" (in a state of submission to nature---human nature being inherently good). The Quran does not use the word "muslim" as a label of a religion---rather as a spiritual state. (Muslims use it as a label in normative/social usage).

    The pharse "chosen people" is not used by Muslims. Here the Quran uses it to highlight the Jewish self-definition so as to change its meaning to that denoting responsibility rather than favor.

    Yes anyone can join Islam---it is an international religion. 60% of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are Asian/Eastern. 20% Africans, 15% Middle eastern and about 5% in the West.

    Judaism---To be "Jewish" requires a Jewish mother (according to Jewish law)---should keep this in mind when we read Surah 3. Its going to be about Jesus Christ(pbuh).


    1. Thanks for the clarification. As for Judaism, I've heard that one can be considered Jewish if their mother is ethnically Jewish, as you said, or in the Reform branch, they recently changed it to both, either mother or father.

      Converts to the faith are considered, well, I suppose you can call them "adopted" Jews

    2. Thank you for the explanation CM, very helpful :)


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