Saturday, May 25, 2013

Quran Project (Part 4): Cows Becoming Sacrifices and People Becoming Apes

It has been a long time since I have written a Quran Project post. The last post, Water from a Rock and Lightning from the Sky was posted on March 30th. In that post, I discussed the entrance of Musa (Moses) into the Quran.

Many names that people will be familiar with from the Bible make appearances in the Quran, but they star in plots that seem similiar at first, but then take a wide turn from the story lines in the Bible.

I return to the Quran at Surah 2, verse 62. In this story, there is a scene involving Musa and the sacrifice of a yellow cow. But first, there was a passage preceding that story that caught my attention:
[2.62] Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve. 
[2.63] And when We took a promise from you and lifted the mountain over you: Take hold of the law (Tavrat) We have given you with firmness and bear in mind what is in it, so that you may guard (against evil). 
[2.64] Then you turned back after that; so were it not for the grace of Allah and His mercy on you, you would certainly have been among the losers. 
[2.65] And certainly you have known those among you who exceeded the limits of the Sabbath, so We said to them: Be (as) apes, despised and hated. 
[2.66] So We made them an example to those who witnessed it and those who came after it, and an admonition to those who guard (against evil).
Some sources take the view that this is referring to Jews, and is saying that Jewish people are the descendants of apes. Skeptics Annotated Quran takes this view, and so does Wikipedia, but at least two Islamic websites that I found disagree, saying that it was only a small number of people who become apes and pigs as a sign of Allah's judgement, and that those people died off. They state that these people are not the ancestors of the Jewish people. Read more here and here for more of their explanations.

This is what Skeptics Annotated Quran says in their notations on Surah 2:
 (2:61) Allah stamped wretchedness upon the Jews because they killed the prophets and disbelieved Allah's revelations.
(2:63) Allah turned Sabbath-breaking Jews into apes to be despised and hated. All modern Jews are descendants of apes (or all modern apes are descendants of Sabbath-breaking Jews). 
 Wikipedia also supports a similar interpretation:
"You will be transformed into despised apes." So we used them as a warning to their people and to the following generations, as well as a lesson for the Allah-fearing."(Quran [Quran 2:63]) The accusation that Jews will ultimately be transformed into apes and pigs is traditionally understood literally[citation needed] and is derived from such Quranic and other early Muslim sources.
The Quran associates Jews above all with rejection of God's prophets including Jesus and Muhammad, thus explaining their resistance to him personally. (Cf. Surah 2:87–91; 5:59, 61, 70, and 82.) It states that they are, together with outright idolators, the worst and most inveterate enemies of Islam, and thus will not only suffer eternally in Hell but in this world will be the most degraded of the Peoples of the Book, below even Christians, everywhere. (Cf. Surah 5:82; 3:54–56.) 
Islamic websites however, disagree with this assessment. Here is what one site had to say on the topic:
In the second chapter of the Qur’an there is the story of the people of the Sabbath who failed to abide by Allah’s commands. Thus, according to the Qur’an they were turned into pigs and apes. However, there are a few important points to this story: 
1. It does not refer to all the people of the Jewish faith, but only a certain group of people from the followers of Musa. 
2. It is not appropriate for one to call people of the Jewish tradition “pigs and apes” or “sons of pigs and apes” since, besides being extremely rude, it is not correct. All major commentators of Quran mention that these pigs and apes did not reproduce but died off. Sh. Yusuf al-Qaradwi noted this mentioning that one should not do so. Finally, Muslims are ordered by Allah to “Speak that which is best” and to “Call unto the way of your Lord with wisdom.” Thus, it is not befitting for a Muslim to be lowly in his discourse, rude in his manners and bigoted towards others. Allah says, “[you must] be just. It is closer to piety.”
Here's what another site had to say on the topic, in response to a controversy in England in 2007, where a teacher was fired from an Islamic school that had a textbook that called Jewish people and Christians apes and pigs (apparently some people in Islam do support a negative interpretation of such passages):
Hadiths are recorded sayings of the Prophet or narratives about him. There are a few which mention apes and pigs. In them, particular sinners were punished because they had deliberately and persistently ignored God’s commandments, and tried in effect to bamboozle Him. The passages all concerned only particular Jews who deliberately decided to break the sabbath laws, and not all Jews. 
Most early Muslim sources and classical commentators accept that Allah literally transformed these particular sinners into apes and swine. 
Many scholars believed that this incident did literally happen, that some people were turned into apes and pigs.
1. Ibn Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet (pbuh) and one of the first to write a commentary on the Qur’an, recorded that the legend suggested that this particular example of disobedience commenced when one Jewish man secretly caught a fish on the sabbath, and decided to ‘bend’ the Law – he did not go so far as to pull the fish out of the water (which would have been fishing), but he fastened it with a string to a stake in the ground and put it back into the water, and only on the next day pulled the fish out of the water and ate it (ie. he caught the fish but did not fish it out of the water). When he saw that he was not punished, he repeated his actions on the following sabbath, and on the sabbath after that. Eventually, the neighbours noticed the tantalizing smell of the fish from his cooking, and began to follow his example. For a long time they ate in secret, and took note that God did not immediately punish them. It was only when they began to fish openly and sell their prohibited catches in the markets that they were punished.
 5. 'Ata al-Khurasani reported that the people of the township were told: ‘O people of the township, be you apes, despised and rejected’, and that when those who forbade fishing saw them they asked: ‘Did we not warn you?’ They nodded in agreement. He then added ‘They were doomed to stay as apes for three days without food, drink or reproduction, until they died.’ (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Part 1, Surah Al-Fatiah Surah Al-Baqarah, ayat 1 to 141, abridged by Sheikh Muhammad Nasib Ar-Rafa'i [Al-Firdous Ltd., London, second edition 1998], pp. 146 –147.) 
Although, they say that it was only a small number of Jewish people who were punished for breaking the Sabbath commandments, and not all, and that those who did become pigs and apes died out.

Well, back to the story of the sacrifice of the cow:
[2.67] And when Musa said to his people: Surely Allah commands you that you should sacrifice a cow; they said: Do you ridicule us? He said: I seek the protection of Allah from being one of the ignorant. 
[2.68] They said: Call on your Lord for our sake to make it plain to us what she is. Musa said: He says, Surely she is a cow neither advanced in age nor too young, of middle age between that (and this); do therefore what you are commanded. 
[2.69] They said: Call on your Lord for our sake to make it plain to us what her color is. Musa said: He says, Surely she is a yellow cow; her color is intensely yellow, giving delight to the beholders. 
Why does the color of the cow matter?
[2.70] They said: Call on your Lord for our sake to make it plain to us what she is, for surely to us the cows are all alike, and if Allah please we shall surely be guided aright. 
[2.71] Musa said: He says, Surely she is a cow not made submissive that she should plough the land, nor does she irrigate the tilth; sound, without a blemish in her. They said: Now you have brought the truth; so they sacrificed her, though they had not the mind to do (it). 
[2.72] And when you killed a man, then you disagreed with respect to that, and Allah was to bring forth that which you were going to hide. 
[2.73] So We said: Strike the (dead body) with part of the (Sacrificed cow), thus Allah brings the dead to life, and He shows you His signs so that you may understand.
Skeptic's Annotated Quran thinks that the murdered man came back to life, and revealed who had killed him:
 A man was murdered about the same time that the yellow cow was killed. Nobody knew who the murderer was. So Allah told the people to smite the dead man with a piece of the dead cow. When they did that, the dead man came to life and told everyone who had murdered him. (I hope I got that right.) 
This appears to be the case. No Islamic commentary I have found seems to contradict that. Here's one commentary on this chapter:
The murderer had his supporters who wanted to hide his crime, and hence began accusing different people. But Allah willed that the criminal should be brought to book, and appointed a miraculous way of identifying him - that is, the dead body of the murdered man should be touched with a part of the flesh of the sacrificial cow. When this was done, the dead man came back to life, announced the name of his murderer, and died again
It's hard to me to interpret that out from the text. I just don't see that information there that either the murderer had supporters (it doesn't mention anything about the killer), and that the dead men came to life, then died again. Is this information coming from a source outside of the Quran?

I wish CM could explain this more. I wonder if he/she is still reading the blog, I haven't seen comments from them in quite a while.


  1. It is a good idea to use "commentary"---Most Muslims read the Quran with Tafsir(commentary) as it puts the verses in both historical and spiritual context---Tafsir by Mohammed Asad is somewhere on the net for free (He is a Jewish convert)the one I prefer is that of Yusuf Ali. (Asad is more rational, Y.Ali is more spiritual)

    "Salvation"---Islamic salvation is complicated---belief alone does not get one into Paradise---nor is it exclusive to those who self-identify as "Muslims" rather it is open to all who are "muslims".(Unity of Humanity---recall previous discussion that God has a contract with ALL humanity)
    Sabians are an unidentified group of people and different scholars have different opinions of who they may be----Islamic law generally uses it as a general category to label a people it has not encountered before. My personal opinion is that it may be referring to Zoroastrians (Persians).
    "Be as apes"---a Jewish folk tale is used here as metaphor. (There used to be a Jewish kingdom in what is today the region of Yemen---it was later taken over by Christians and King Abraha tried to conquer Mecca in around 570 CE. It later became a sort of Persian territory---because of the lucrative spice trade,this area has a complicated history)
    Human nature---In the Quran, 3 levels of human soul (nafs=Arabic Nefesh=Hebrew) are mentioned.
    The lowest level is the "animal nature"/egoic nature" Arabic it is nafs ammara in Judaism it is Yetzer Hara.
    (the other levels are nafs Lawwama =transegoic/doubting soul a similar category in Judaism is Yezter hatov and the highest level of soul is nafs mutmainna (Arabic) Neshama (Hebrew) equivalent to enlightenment/Nirvana/Moshka)
    Some scholars feel that the metaphor of apes in the Quran refers to the lowest level of soul.
    (The Jewish folk tale---that the Quran uses--- was about a community that no longer existed.)
    This story refers to Exodus 31:14 which states "Anyone who desecrates it (sabbath) is to be put to death; those who do any work on that day that soul must be cut off from their people." (Tafsir Yusuf Ali)
    The idea here is that of "Moral injury"---our choices can injure our souls (see def of "Moral Injury" a recently coined psychological term)

    Heifer---for Muslims this is an important story because here the Quran is pointing out one of the problems that can occur in a "religion of law" (Both Judaism and Islam are "religions of Law"---in that law plays an important part in "religion") What was originally intended by God as a simple ritual/law becomes complicated because of human foolishness---and this is a persistent problem in Islam as well. (The Sufis rebelled against this foolish tendency and revived Islamic spiritualism and play an important part in the intellectual/scholarly traditions of Islam).
    Heifer (and the crime) (V-72...)---see Deuteronomy 21:1-9. This (Quranic) story refers to a (symbolic) story from the Jewish Tradition about a crime in which the real culprit was found when the victim pointed out the killer. The point here is that human beings may think they can hide crimes but God knows what we do. The overall theme of these and subsequent verses is that hypocrisy, or changing "religion" for convenience or power...etc will only cause injury to our soul and we cannot hide our wrongdoing. The opposite of this theme is that "religion" must be of benefit to humanity to have meaning/value.

    *Subsequent verses will emphasise that the previous religions (including Judaism and Christianity) have corrupted/changed what was given to them. This is a warning to Muslims not to change the Quran.) verse 80 reminds that one of the changes in Judaism is they say they are "special" because they have an (exclusive) covenant with God. (The Quranic position is All Humanity is equally a creation of God.)

    I am a bit distracted today---I hope my post is not too garbled---any questions please ask......

    1. Welcome back, CM!

      I didn't know if you were still reading the blog.

      So the apes and pigs story actually came from a Jewish folk tale?

      One thing you alluded to, I would like to know more. I have heard that Muslims believe that some people, especially Christians and Jews who live a moral life and are "people of the book", believers in god, can reach paradise without converting to Islam, is that true?

    2. Paradise is inclusive---Sometimes what we Muslims prefer to believe and what the Quran actually says are different. For example---Muslims say "Paradise will be filled with Muslims/muslims". The Quran does not use the term "muslim" as a label for a particular group of people---rather, uses it as a spiritual category---therefore---all creation is "muslim". We Muslims on the other hand, sometimes use this term as a label to differentiate between "us" and others. So the phrase "Paradise will be filled with Muslims/muslims" can have an exclusive meaning if so used, or if understood in the Quranic sense---it can have an inclusive meaning (as in all humanity.)
      There are those Muslims who also exclude other Muslims as non-believers because they do not belong to "their" group. fortunately, IMO, these are only a few........

      In Islam---belief alone does not guarantee paradise---nor does self-identifying oneself with a particular religious label.(and this is the message the Quran is emphasizing here---some Jews believe they have a special contract with God therefore they are guaranteed Paradise simply because they call themselves "Jews"---and I think some Christians also have a similar belief?)

      Folk tale---see verse 2:26 where the Quran says it will use metaphors (similitude) of any kind.


    3. "Sometimes what we Muslims prefer to believe and what the Quran actually says are different."

      I assure you, Christians aren't any different that regard when it comes to the Bible. :D

  2. At least the Koran teaches evolution even if they do get it going the absolute wrong way (laterally and not even backward) ;)

    Saying that I would think it is a metaphor as according to the fishing story cited above, after all nothing happened until they started selling the fish they were catching. One would think hearing this that maybe more Muslims would be atheists as clearly god/allah had no hand in this punishment otherwise why would it go unnoticed for so long......

    1. Ha. I did think of evolution when I read that. I have noticed that fundamentalists from faiths that reject evolution will sometimes compare people they hate to animals.

      It's customary in the US, especially among people from a Christian background to call vile criminals (rapists, pedophiles, child killers), "animals" when they are angry about the crime that was committed.

  3. evolution in Islam---The Quran says all life evolved from water (ex-24:45) and other verses. Ideas similar to evolution began with Al- Jahiz (869CE) (survival of the fittest, traits handed down...etc from observation in zoology and botany) and his ideas influenced later scholars/scientists such as al Masudi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and the Ikwan al Safa (a scientific society) who developed rudimentary ideas of evolution (though these ideas of evolution were influenced by chemistry---a favored science of the period)

    Today Christian "creationism" is making inroads into Islam.....though it is confined to human evolution only.

    @ Sheldon
    I miss your original, honest, and somewhat humorous commentary---I hope you will include more of your thoughts and opinions next time........


    1. Interesting, maybe the Islamic view of evolution/creation might make for a post of it's own one of these days.

      I try not to include as much of my own commentary, because I found that many of my assumptions were often wrong or unfounded. I suppose I could try some commentary of my own, but thoroughly research everything before I make any statements.

  4. Good post sheldon. I really like the addition of the commentaries. I would tend to agree with CM about adding more of your own comments, although I also understand that it is difficult and you don't want to get stuff wrong.

    The way I've sorta gotten around this is doing two passes. First I read it myself without looking at commentaries at all and make my observations. Then I do a second pass and look at the commentaries from Christians and include what they had to say. I figure I get the best of both worlds, I can put my own personal take on the story without being influenced by others. But then I also get more experienced input from people more familiar with the material.

    I also figure that doing it this way should correct any mistakes I make. It will just be like

    I think X
    Oh, the commentary says X isn't right, but it's actually Y, that makes sense.

    Or whatever. It seems like too daunting a task to have to research everything before hand and get all of it perfect. Plus, I think it is interesting and instructive to leave the mistake there along with the correction.

    1. I read it first, then research it as I run across something that seems unclear to me, or maybe be interpreted in different ways.

    2. sounds great. I wouldn't worry too much about making a mistake in your first assumption. It's probably the teacher in my poking through, but it seems instructive to have it there :) (or maybe that's just an excuse I tell myself so I don't have to worry about making errors)

  5. Quran is not fairy tales.
    All the stories of Quran is actually the "witness" of the Qiyamat.
    More at:


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