Volume 1: Surah Baqarah, Verses 63-74
And when We took a promise from you and lifted the mountain over you ": "Take hold of what We have given you with firmness and bear in mind what is in it, so that you may guard (against evil)" (63). Then you turned back after that; so were it not for the grace of Allāh and His mercy on you, you would certainly have been among the losers (64) . And certainly you have known those among you who exceeded the limits of the Sabbath, so We said to them: "Be apes, despised and hated" (65) . 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) (66). And when Musā said to his people: "Surely Allāh commands you that you should sacrifice a cow"; they said: "Do you ridicule us?" He said: "I seek the protection of Allāh from being one of the ignorant" (67). They said: "Call on your Lord for our sake to make it plain to us what she is". Musā 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 "(68). They said: "Call on your Lord for our sake to make it plain to us what her color is." Musā said: "He says, Surely she is a yellow cow; her color is intensely yellow, giving delight to the beholders" (69). 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 Allāh please we shall surely be guided aright" (70). Musā 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." The said: `Now you have brought the truth;" so they sacrificed her, though they had not the mind to do (it) (71). And when you killed a man, then you disagreed with respect to that, and Allāh was to bring forth that which you were going to hide (72). So, We said: "Strike the (dead body) with part of the (sacrificed cow)", thus Allāh brings the dead to life, and He shows you His signs so that you may understand (73) . Then your hearts hardened after that, so that they were like rocks, rather worse in hardness; and surely there are some rocks from which streams burst forth, and surely there are some of them which split asunder so water issues out of them, and surely there are some of them which fall down for fear of Allāh, and Allāh is not at all heedless of what you do (74) .
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QUR’ĀN: And lifted the mountain over you:
"at-Tur" is mountain; that is why has been substituted by "al-jabal" (= mountain) in verse: And when We wrested away the mountain over them as if it were a covering overhead (7:171). "an-Natq" (= to wrest away; to pull out). The verse at first mentions taking of a promise; and ends with the command to take hold of what they were given and to bear in mind what was in it; in between it refers to the lifting of the mountain over them, without saying why it was lifted. But the context clearly shows that it was done to frighten them without putting them under compulsion, in order that they might obey what they were told - if Allāh had wished to compel them, there was no need to take any promise before.
Objection: If we were to take the sentence, "and lifted the mountain over you", in its literal meaning, it would be a miraculous sign that would have forced the Israelites to obey the given command under duress and coercion; but Allāh says: There is no compulsion in the religion (2:256); . . . will you then force men till they become believers? (10:99) .
Reply: The objection is baseless. The sentence shows only that they were threatened and frightened. Just lifting the mountain over their head was not enough to coerce and force them to believe and obey. Otherwise, most of the miracles shown by Musa (a.s.) could be termed as "compulsion"! The said questioner has tried to explain away this sentence in this way: "The Israelites were at the foot of the mountain; it was shaken violently and during that convulsion its summit loomed over them, until they thought that it was going to fall over them. It is this natural phenomenon that has been described as pulling out the mountain and lifting it over them."
Such misinterpretations emanate from rejection of the principle of "miracle" altogether. We have already written in detail on this subject. If we were to explain away the verses of miracle in this way, no speech would remain safe from distortion; and no sentence could be taken to mean what it says; as a result, all the norms of eloquence and literature would lose their value.
QUR’ĀN: so that you may guard (against evil): "La'alla" is a particle meaning "perhaps", "may be"; it denotes hope - the speaker may be hoping for something, or the person spoken who gives rise to the hope, or the situation justifies the hope although the speaker or the listener does not feel optimistic himself. In any case, it implies some uncertainty about the final outcome. When this particle is used in a divine speech, it indicates hopefulness either with reference to the listener, or in context of the situation; but it can never refer to the speaker, that is, Allāh, because He can never be uncertain of any result. It has clearly been explained by ar-Rāghib in his al-Mufradāt. Therefore, whenever this word is used in the Qur’ān, it is translated as "so that . . . ", "in order that . . ."
QUR’ĀN: Be apes despised: "Khāsi’īn" (= despised, humiliated).
QUR’ĀN: So We made them an example: “an-Nakāl" means exemplary punishment meted out to one in order that others may desist from such transgression.
QUR’ĀN: And when Musā said to his people: "Surely Allāh commands you that you should sacrifice a cow. . . ": This is the story of the cow of the Israelites, and it is these verses which have given this chapter its name, the Cow.
The Qur’ān has used a dramatic style for this story. It opens with the middle of the story (verses 67 to 71) , followed by its beginning (verse 72) and ending with its conclusion (verse 73). Another thing to note is the changes of the pronouns - upto verse 66, the Israelites were directly addressed in second person; but verses 67 to 71 are addressed to the Prophet mentioning the Israelites in third person; then it reverts again to the original second person (verses 72 - 73).
However, let us follow the narrative in the light of the Qur’ān. Allāh addresses the Prophet referring to the Israelites in third person: "And when Musā said to his people: `Surely Allāh commands you that you should sacrifice a cow'; they said . . ." Obviously the order given to sacrifice a cow with subsequent description of its various characteristics and qualities, contained in these five verses (67 -71) , is like a parenthetic statement which clarifies the meaning of the next two verses (72 -73), addressed to the Israelites: "And when you killed a man, then you disagreed with respect to that, and Allāh was to bring forth that which you were going to hide. So We said: `Strike the (dead body) with part of the (sacrificed cow),' thus Allāh brings the dead to life, and He shows you His signs that you may understand. "
The five verses (67 -71) also show how ill-mannered the Israelites were; how offensive their behavior was towards their prophet. See how off-handedly they accused their prophet of speaking idle words, how arrogantly they made demand after demand of the Lord to make His command clear and plain, as though there was any ambiguity in the divine command or the prophetic utterance. Add to it their insulting mode of referring to God: Musā had told them, "Surely Allāh commands you . . ."; but they repeatedly used the words, "Call on your Lord for our sake . . .", as though He was not their Lord. Then again they went on repeating the demand to be told "what she is", "what her color is"; and when all was explained to them, they arrogantly claimed, "surely to us the cows are all alike". It should be noted that they did not say that that particular cow seemed indistinct to them; they instead claimed that all the cows were alike in their eyes - implying that the cows per se were the same, and if a certain individual cow had some special quality, this much description was not enough for identification purpose; they did not realize that it was not the cow, but the divine will, which produced the desired result. They were given a simple command to sacrifice "a cow ", that is, any cow; they should have acted on that general unrestricted command, but they went on asking for more and more particulars; this was in itself a height of arrogance.
Then, look at their rudeness in asking their prophet, "Do you ridicule us?" It cast an aspersion on the prophet that he was, God forbid, an ignorant person who talked aimlessly. That is why he vehemently defended himself saying, "I seek the protection of Allāh from being one of the ignorant". Even then, they had the temerity to say at the end of the story, "Now you have brought the truth", implying that the previous explanations were not "the truth", that the preceding divine speech and prophetic messages were, God forbid, untruths!
This story is not mentioned in the current Torah. Therefore, it was better not to address it to the Israelites. This may be another reason of changing the mode of address - the story was initially addressed to the Prophet, and after establishing the base, the pronouns were again changed to the original second person directly addressing the Israelites. Nevertheless, the Torah contains an order that implies that some such events must have taken place:
"If one be found slain in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath slain him: Then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain: And it shall be, that the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take an heifer, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn the yoke: And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which is neither eared nor sown, and shall strike off the heifer's neck there in the valley: And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near; for them the Lord the God hath chosen to minister unto him, and to bless in the name of the Lord; and by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried. And all the elders of that city, that are next unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley- And they shall answer and say: Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Be merciful, O Lord, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel's charge. And the blood shall be forgiven them." (Deut., 21:1 - 8)
It must now be clear that the story as given here is not intended as a simple narrative. The main theme is taken up in verse 72 (And when you killed a man . . . ), but before that, a part of the story is narrated to the Prophet in some detail in verses 67 - 71 for obvious reasons.
Let us now recapitulate what has been explained above, The verses 67-71 (And when Musā said to his people: "Surely Allāh commands you . . . ) , addressed to the Prophet, is a prologue to the forthcoming episode (verses 72 - 73), although the listeners do not know it yet. As the audience does not know why the Israelites were told to sacrifice a cow, its curiosity is aroused and the suspense continues until the relation between the sacrifice of the cow and detection of the murderer is revealed. It was this apparent irrelevance of the former to the latter that prompted the Israelites to accuse Musā (a.s.) of ridiculing them, of joking with them. This accusation showed that they were completely devoid of discipline, were very arrogant and disobedient. They were not inclined to obey any command without knowing its why and wherefore. They were not ready to believe in that which they could not see - belief in the unseen was against their grain. They were the people who had said to Musā (a.s.): "0 Musā! we will not believe in you until we see Allāh manifestly" (2:55).
Their trouble was that they wanted total independence in every affair, no matter whether it was within their domain or not. They erroneously thought that the unseen could be brought down to the level of the seen. Consequently, they wanted to adopt a deity which they could see by their naked eyes: They said: "0 Musā! make for us a god as they have (their) gods.," He said: "Surely you are a people acting ignorantly" (7:138).
No wonder that they did not understand the sublime status of their prophet Musā (a.s.) and thought that he, like themselves, followed his own desires and joked with, and ridiculed, the people. They accused him of joking and acting like ignorant ones. And Musā (a.s.) had to refute this charge: "I seek the protection of Allāh from being one of the ignorant". Why did Musā (a.s.) seek the protection of Allāh? Why did not he say straight away that he was not an ignorant person? It was because MusA (a.s.) preferred to rely on the divine protection which cannot fail, rather than on his own virtues.
The Israelites believed that one should not accept anything without proof. This principle is correct, of course. But they were mistaken in believing that man must know the reason of every order in full detail; that a command of general nature was not enough. That is why they went on asking for more and more detail about the cow they were told to slaughter. They thought that the cow, by its nature, could not bring a dead body to life; if somewhere there was a particular cow possessing this unheard of quality, it should be pin-pointed with accurate and detailed description. It was this trend of thought which prompted them to say: "Call on your Lord for our sake to make it plain to us what she is". They unnecessarily put themselves into a corner; and Allāh, on this uncalled for demand, gave them a few particulars; "Musā said: `He says, Surely she is a cow neither advanced in age (i.e. not passed the calf-bearing age) nor too young (i.e. not virgin, nor one that has not given birth to a calf yet) of middle age between that (and this)." "al- ‘Awan " means a female in middle of child-bearing age. Then their Lord took mercy on them and admonished them not to indulge in too much questioning, and to be content with that which they were told: "do therefore what you are commanded ". But they did not listen to the divine advice and said: " `Call on your Lord for our sake to make it plain to us what her color is.' Musā said: `He says, Surely she is a yellow cow, her color is intensely yellow, giving delight to the beholders.' " This much explanation should have been enough for them, as by then the cow's age and color had been described to them. But no, it was not enough for the Israelites who unhesitatingly repeated their first question, shamelessly accusing Musā - and God too - of not giving them clear description as yet: "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 Allāh please we shall surely be guided aright.' " So, Allāh further particularized her nature and characteristics, saying: "Surely she is a cow not made submissive that she should plough land, nor does she irrigate the tilth"; and then He put a further restriction about her color, "sound, without a blemish in her." Now that they were given all the details and could not think of any more questions, they said: "Now you have brought the truth." The sentence shows that they had to accept the command because they could not think of any more excuses to avoid it - but even then they put the blame of their previous disobedience on Musā - and by implication on Allāh: that they had not complied with the order before because Musā (a.s.) and Allāh had not explained it correctly. All this is implied in the last clause, "so they sacrificed her, though they had not the mind to do (it)."
OUR'AN : And when you killed a man . . . : It is the beginning of the main story. "at-Tadāru' " (= translated here as "disagreed") is derived form ad-dar' (= repulse) and literally means to push one another. A man was killed and every group was disowning its responsibility, putting the blame on others. But Allāh was to disclose what they wanted to hide.
QUR’ĀN: So We said: "Strike the (dead body) with part of the (sacrificed cow)": The Arabic text contains two pronouns -the first (masculine) refers to the dead body and the second (feminine) to the cow. The translation omits the pronouns replacing them with the nouns they stand for.
Someone has denied the actuality of this story, suggesting that the verses simply describe the promulgation of a law (as given in the Deut., 21:1- 8, quoted above). According to him, raising someone from the dead (mentioned in these verses) merely means finding out the identity of the killer - as Allāh says: And there is life for you in (the law of) retaliation (2:179). In short, he claims that there was no miracle involved, nor was there any dead body brought back to life. But the context of the story leaves no room for such misinterpretation - especially if we look at the words, "So We said: `Strike the (dead body) with part of the (sacrificed cow)', thus Allāh brings the dead to life."
QUR’ĀN: Then your hearts hardened after that, so that they were like rocks, rather worse in hardness: "al-Qaswah " (= sternness) in heart is like "hardness" in rock. "Aw" (= or) is used here in the meaning of bal (= rather). The next sentences show why their hearts were worse than rocks in hardness: "and surely there are some rocks from which streams burst forth". The sentence offers a contrast between rocks and water. Rocks are used as examples of hardness, while water is proverbially used to denote softness. Even then, there are some rocks - with all their hardness - from which streams of water - with all its softness - burst forth; "and surely there are some of them which split asunder so water issues out of them ": The hard rocks send forth the soft waters; but the Israelites' hearts were so hard as never to allow any truth to issue out of them.
QUR’ĀN: and surely there are some of them which fall down for fear of Allāh: We see how the rocks and stones fall down - big rocks on the summits of mountains crack up, and then an ordinary earthquake is enough to dislodge them causing an avalanche. Also, the cracks fill up with ice and snow during winter, then the warmth of spring melts the ice sending the streams down the valleys. This phenomenon is related to its natural causes, yet Allāh says that the rocks fall down from fear of Allāh. Why? Because all the natural causes ultimately return to the First Cause, that is, Allāh. Rocks, when they fall down because of the natural causes, are in fact obeying the divine decree which put them under the influence of those secondary causes. It may, therefore, be said that they understand the command of their Lord - an understanding that is created nature. They obey the decree of Allāh inasmuch as they are thus molded by Him. Allāh says: and there is not a single thing but glorifies Him with His praise, but you do not understand their glorification (17:44); all are obedient to Him (2 :116) . Fear too is based on perception, as are the glorifying and the obeying. It may therefore be said that the rocks fall down for fear of Allāh. This sentence is of the same genre as the following ones: And the thunder declares His glory with His praise, and the angels too for awe of Him (13:13); And whoever is in the heavens and the earth makes obeisance to Allāh only, willingly and unwillingly, and their shadows too at morn and eve (13:15 ). Here the sound of thunder has been counted as the declaration of divine glory and the shadow is said to prostrate for Allāh. There are many verses of the same style and all are based on the same analysis as mentioned above.
However, the sentence, "and surely there are some of them which fall down for fear of Allāh", further shows how the Jews' hearts were worse than rocks in hardness: The rocks are afraid of Allāh and do fall down for His fear, but there is no fear of Allāh in the Jews' hearts, they are not afraid of divine wrath.
as -Sadiq (a.s.) was asked about the words of Allāh: Take hold of what We have given you with firmness, whether it meant the strength of the bodies or the firm resolution of the heart. He (a. s.) said: "Both together" (al -Mahasin) .
The author says: This tradition has also been narrated by al-`Ayyāshī in his at-Tafsīr.
al-Halabi narrates in explanation of the words of Allāh; and bear in mind what is in it, that he said: "Bear in mind what is in it and also bear in mind the chastisement that is laid down for its negligence." (al-`Ayyāshī)
The author says: It has been inferred from the position of this clause - it follows the threat implied in lifting the mountain over them.
Abu Hurayrah said that the Messenger of Allāh (s.a.w.a.) said: "If the children of Israel had not said: and if Allāh please we shall surely be guided aright, they would have never been given (respite). And had they (in the beginning) taken any cow and slaughtered her; it would have been enough for them; but they went on pressing (for more and more particulars), so Allāh made it harder (and harder) for them." (ad-Durru '1-manthūr)
Ibn Faddal said: "I heard Abu '1-Hasan (a.s.) saying: `Surely Allāh ordered the children of Israel to slaughter a cow - and what they needed was its tail. (But they asked for more and more details) so Allāh made it harder (and harder) for them.' " (at-Tafsīr, al-Qummi )
al-Bazantī said: "I heard ar-Ridā (a.s.) saying: `A man from the children of Israel killed one of his relatives, then he took the body and put it in the path (leading) to the best of the Israelities' clans. Thereafter he came demanding (the revenge of) his blood. Musā (a.s.) was informed that such and such a clan had killed such and such a man, and he was asked to tell them who the killer was. Musā said: "Bring me a cow." They said: "Do you ridicule us?" He said: "I seek the protection of Allāh from being one of the ignorant. " And had they taken any cow, it would have been enough for them, but they pressed (for more particulars); therefore Allāh made it harder for them. They said:"Call on your Lord for our sake to make it plain to us what she is" : Musā said: "He says, Surely she is a cow neither advanced in age nor too young, of middle age between that (and this)". Even then, if they had taken any cow (fitting this description) it would have been enough. But they pressed for more, so Allāh made it harder for them. They said: "Call on your Lord for our sake to make it plain to us what her colour is" . Musā said: "He says, Surely she is a yellow cow; her colour is intensely yellow, giving delight to the beholders". Even then if they had taken any such cow, it would have been enough for them. But they persisted (in asking for more details) and Allāh made it even harder for them. 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 Allāh please we shall surely be guided aright". He 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". They began their search and found such a cow with an Israelite youth. He said: "I shall not sell it but for a hide full of gold." Thereupon they came to Musā and informed him. He told them to buy it. So they bought and brought it. And Musā ordered it to be slaughtered. Then he ordered them to strike the dead body with its tail. As soon as they did so, the murdered man rose from the dead, and said: "O messenger of Allāh! Surely it is my cousin who had killed me, and not the man against whom he has lodged his claim." In this way, they knew who the killer was. Thereafter, a companion of the messenger of Allāh, Musā, said to him: "There is a story behind this cow". He asked: "And what is it?" He said: "(That) Israelite youth was very devoted to his father. And he purchased some goods, and came to his father (who was asleep) and keys were under his head. And he did not like to awaken his father, and cancelled the deal. When his father woke up, he told him about it. The father said to him: `Well done! Take this cow; it is a recompense for what you have lost.' " The messenger of Allāh, Musā, said to him: "Look at the faithfulness and good deed, where does it take its people to?"' "
The author says: The traditions perfectly fit the description which we inferred from the verses.