Reading the Qur’an during Ramadan 2: Juz Sayaqul


Reading Quran

How much is your life worth?

In Islamic law, a Muslim woman is worth half of a man, and a Jew or Christian is worth one-third of what a Muslim is worth.

Skeptical? Read on.

Continuing our tour through “The Cow,” the second and longest sura of the Qur’an, we encounter in verses 142-150 a discussion of the qibla, the direction for prayer. Allah tells the Muslims to face the sacred mosque in Mecca when they pray (v. 150), when previously they had joined the Jews in facing Jerusalem. According to Islamic tradition, this came at the end of Muhammad’s attempts to convince the Jews that he was a prophet in the line of the Jewish prophets.

Allah tells Muhammad that only “the foolish among the people” (v. 142) will protest the change. And who are they? You guessed it: the Jews. On that identification the relatively moderate commentator Muhammad Asad and the comparative hardliner Mufti Muhammad Aashiq Ilahi Bulandshahri agree.

Asad says: “This ‘abandonment’ of Jerusalem obviously displeased the Jews of Medina, who must have felt gratified when they saw the Muslims praying towards their holy city; and it is to them that the opening sentence of this passage refers.”

Allah further criticizes the Jews and Christians for following “their desires” even though they knew Muhammad’s qibla is from Allah (vv. 144-6).

We already saw that Allah’s announcement that when he abrogated a verse, he would replace it with a better one (v. 106), and that some Muslims believe that refers to things in the Qur’an, and others think it applies only to the Bible’s having been superseded by the Qur’an. The change in the qibla has some bearing on this.

Ibn Abbas, Muhammad’s cousin and an important early Islamic authority, says that “the first abrogated part in the Qur’an was about the Qiblah.” However, there is nothing in the Qur’an directing Muslims to pray facing Jerusalem, so this is an abrogation of an extra-Qur’anic regulation. Abrogation, as we shall see, is far more important in other contexts.

The qibla change is also the first time that we encounter a running theme in the Qur’an: Allah’s solicitude for Muhammad. An attentive reader of the Qur’an will come away thinking that in the eyes of the Supreme Being, Muhammad is the most important person who ever lived — or the authors of the book wanted to make sure that readers thought so.

Allah presents the new qibla as if it is a gift especially for Muhammad, who “will be pleased” by the new direction for prayer (v. 144). Several other passages in the Qur’an show Allah’s special concern for Muhammad; another is Allah’s gently rebuking him for initially declining to marry his former daughter-in-law (a legendary beauty) when Allah wanted him to do so (33:37).

Such passages have led unbelievers to think that Muhammad was enjoying the personal perks of prophethood, but for Muslims they only underscore Muhammad’s special status: the details of his life, and even his desires — in longing to pray facing the Ka’ba — are vehicles through which Allah reveals eternal truths and divine laws. And his example is normative.

Muqtedar Khan of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy explains:

No religious leader has as much influence on his followers as does Muhammad (Peace be upon him) the last Prophet of Islam. … So much so that the words, deeds and silences (that which he saw and did not forbid) of Muhammad became an independent source of Islamic law. Muslims, as a part of religious observance, not only obey, but also seek to emulate and imitate their Prophet in every aspect of life. Thus Muhammad is the medium as well as a source of the divine law.

Allah then encourages the believers to be steadfast (vv. 151-157) and approves of a pre-Islamic practice during the Hajj (v. 158), the pilgrimage to Mecca, before returning to one of favorite themes: the perversity of the unbelievers (vv. 159-177). Those who reject Islam will incur the curses of Allah, the angels, and all mankind (v. 161), and will dwell in hell (v. 162).

Meanwhile, the burden of the believers is not heavy. They only need abstain from certain foods, including pork (v. 173). There are among the unbelievers those who stubbornly conceal what they know Allah has revealed (v. 174).

Those who argue about what Allah has revealed in the Qur’an are in “open schism” (v. 176). TheTafsir al-Jalalayn says that these are — yet again — the Jews.

After that, Allah legislates on various matters: zakat (almsgiving), the Ramadan fast, the Hajj, and jihad (vv. 178-203). He establishes the law of retaliation (qisas) for murder (v. 178): equal recompense must be given for the life of the victim, which can take the form of blood money (diyah): a payment to compensate for the loss suffered. In Islamic law (Sharia) the amount of compensation varies depending on the religion of the victim: non-Muslim lives simply aren’t worth as much as Muslim lives.

Umdat al-Salik (Reliance of the Traveller), a Sharia manual that Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar University certifies as conforming to the “practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community,” says that the payment for killing a woman is half of that to be paid for a man and for killing a Jew or Christian one-third that paid for killing a male Muslim (o4.9).

The following are among the Qur’an’s most important words about jihad warfare (vv. 190-193).

“Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress” (v. 190) is often invoked today to show that jihad can only be defensive. Asad says that “this and the following verses lay down unequivocally that only self-defence (in the widest sense of the word) makes war permissible for Muslims.”

However, the Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that this verse was abrogated by 9:1, which voids every treaty between the Muslims and nonbelievers. On the other hand, Ibn Kathir rejects the idea that the verse was abrogated.

What constitutes a defensive conflict? A clue to that comes in v. 193: “Fight them until there is no fitnah and worship is for Allah.” Fitnah is persecution or unrest. Ibn Ishaq explains that this means that Muslims must fight against unbelievers “until God alone is worshipped.”

Says Bulandshahri: “The worst of sins are Infidelity (Kufr) and Polytheism (shirk) which constitute rebellion against Allah, The Creator. To eradicate these, Muslims are required to wage war until there exists none of it in the world, and the only religion is that of Allah.”

That amounts to a declaration of perpetual war against all non-Muslim religions.

Nonetheless, this conflict would be essentially defensive, against the aggressions of unbelief: if Muslims must fight until unbelief does not exist, the mere presence of unbelief constitutes sufficient aggression to allow for the beginning of hostilities.

This is one of the foundations for the supremacist notion that Muslims must wage war against unbelievers until those unbelievers are either converted to Islam or subjugated under the rule of Islamic law, as Qur’an 9:29 states explicitly.

As the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, puts it in a hadith:

“I have been commanded to fight against people, till they testify to the fact that there is no god but Allah, and believe in me (that) I am the messenger (from the Lord) and in all that I have brought. And when they do it, their blood and riches are guaranteed protection on my behalf except where it is justified by law, and their affairs rest with Allah.” (Sahih Muslim 31)

Thus one may reasonably assume that if one does not accept him as a prophet, one’s blood and riches are not safe from those who read these words as the words of a messenger from the one true God.

In keeping with the theme of war, Allah then warns believers not to doubt, backslide, or follow Islam half-heartedly (vv. 204-210):

“O you who have believed, enter into Islam completely and do not follow the footsteps of Satan. Indeed, he is to you a clear enemy” (v. 208).

This kind of statement makes reform difficult, for the reformer is always vulnerable to the charge that he is not entering Islam completely.

When is it permissible to break moral laws?

When the Islamic community is being persecuted.

That is the impact of the small, easily overlooked phrase “fitnah is worse than killing,” or “persecution is worse than slaughter,” which appears in Qur’an 2:191 (and 2:217).

Allah devotes a large section of “The Cow” (vv. 189-242) to answering various questions that the Muslims had ostensibly asked Muhammad. Allah begins his answers to Muhammad with “They ask you” (vv. 189, 215, 217, 219, 220, 222).One of these questions was whether or not fighting was permissible during the sacred month, which Allah takes up in v. 217.

Muhammad’s first biographer, an eighth-century Muslim named Ibn Ishaq, gives the background of this verse. After the Hijrah, Muhammad’s move from Mecca to Medina, the Muslims began raiding caravans of the pagan Quryash — Muhammad’s own tribe, which had rejected him.

Muhammad himself led many of these raids.

These raids served a key economic purpose: keeping the Muslim movement solvent. At one point Muhammad sent one of his most trusted lieutenants, Abdullah bin Jahsh, along with eight other Muslims out with orders to watch for a Quraysh caravan at Nakhla, a settlement not far from Mecca, and to “find out what they are doing.”

Abdullah and his band took this as an order to raid the Quraysh caravan, which soon came along, carrying leather and raisins. But it was the last day of the sacred month of Rajab, during which — by longstanding Arab custom — fighting was forbidden. This presented them with a dilemma: if they waited until the sacred month was over, the caravan would get away, but if they attacked, they would sin by killing people during the sacred month.

They finally decided, according to Ibn Ishaq, to “kill as many as they could of them and take what they had.”

On the way home to Medina, Abdullah set aside a fifth of the booty for Muhammad (as per Qur’an 8:41). But when they returned to the Muslim camp, Muhammad refused to share in the loot or to have anything to do with them, saying only: “I did not order you to fight in the sacred month.”

But then Allah revealed v. 217, explaining that the Quraysh’s opposition to Muhammad and supposed persecution of the Muslims was more offensive in his eyes than the Muslims’ violation of the sacred month.

The raid was therefore justified: “for persecution is worse than slaughter.”

Whatever sin the Nakhla raiders had committed in violating the sacred month was nothing compared to the Quraysh’s sins.

Ibn Ishaq explained this verse:

They have kept you back from the way of God with their unbelief in Him, and from the sacred mosque, and have driven you from it when you were with its people. This is a more serious matter with God than the killing of those whom you have slain.

Once he received this revelation, Muhammad took Abdullah’s booty and prisoners. Abdullah was considerably relieved, and asked: “Can we hope that it will count as a raid for which we shall be given the reward of combatants?”

Here again Allah answered in a revelation, saying:

Indeed, those who have believed and those who have emigrated and fought in the cause of Allah — those expect the mercy of Allah (v. 218).

“Fought” here is jahadu (جَاهَدُو), which is a form of jihad, and “jihad for the sake of Allah” or “jihad in the way of Allah” (جَاهَدُواْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللّهِ) in Islamic theology always refers to jihad warfare, not to more spiritualized understandings of jihad.

Ibn Kathir, following Ibn Ishaq, also recounts this incident, which was a momentous one: good became identified with anything that was to the benefit of Muslims, and evil with anything that harmed them, without reference to any larger moral standard.

Moral absolutes were swept aside in favor of the overarching principle of expediency.

Sayyid Qutb explains that “Islam is a practical and realistic way of life which is not based on rigid idealistic dogma.” Islam “maintains its own high moral principles,” but only when “justice is established and wrongdoing is contained” — i.e., only when Islamic law rules a society — can “sanctities be protected and preserved.”

So evidently they need not be or cannot be protected before that point.

Like a rejected suitor, Allah then returns to the Jews, again reminding them of all of his spurned favors toward them (v. 211). He notes how the unbelievers scoff at the Muslims (v. 212) and then reveals in capsule form the Islamic view of salvation history:

Mankind was one religion; then Allah sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings and warners and sent down with them the Scripture in truth to judge between the people concerning that in which they differed. And none differed over the Scripture except those who were given it — after the clear proofs came to them — out of jealous animosity among themselves (v. 213).

The people who were given the Scripture are the Jews and the Christians.

And Allah guided those who believed to the truth concerning that over which they had differed, by His permission. And Allah guides whom He wills to a straight path (v. 213).

That is, Allah guided the Muslims to the truth about the things the People of the Book disagreed about. Ibn Kathir explains that they disagreed about the “day of Congregation”:

The Jews made it Saturday while the Christians chose Sunday. Allah guided the Ummah [community] of Muhammad to Friday.

They also disagreed about the direction to face when praying (qiblah), postures of prayer, fasting, and the true religion of Abraham: “The Jews said, `He was a Jew,’ while the Christians considered him Christian. Allah has made him a Haniyfan Musliman” — that is, a pre-Islamic monotheist.

Don’t like the idea of waging war for Allah? Tough.

Allah exhorts the believers to fight, even though they “dislike it” (v. 216).

Maulana Bulandshahri explains the traditional view:

While the Muslims were in Makkah, they were weak and few in number, never possessing the capability nor the divine permission for Jihad (religious war). After migrating to Madinah, they received the order to fight their enemies in defense, as a verse of Surah Hajj [chapter 22 of the Qur’an] proclaims: “Permission (to fight) has been granted to those being attacked because they are oppressed” [22:39]. Later on the order came to fight the Infidels (kuffar) even though they do not initiate the aggression.

Bulandshahri was a modern-day theologian, but this view of the three stages of development of the Qur’an’s teaching on warfare is found in Ibn Ishaq’s eighth century work, and in the writings of mainstream Islamic theologians throughout the ages, including Ibn Kathir, Ibn Qayyim, Ibn Juzayy, As-Suyuti, and many others.

Besides essentially destroying the idea of moral absolutes, v. 217 is also important for those who leave Islam, or wish they could:

And whoever of you reverts from his religion and dies while he is a disbeliever – for those, their deeds have become worthless in this world and the Hereafter, and those are the companions of the Fire, they will abide therein eternally (Qur’an 2:217).

The Tafsir al-Qurtubi, a classic and mainstream exegesis of the Qur’an, explains:

Scholars disagree about whether or not apostates are asked to repent. One group says that they are asked to repent and, if they do not, they are killed. Some say they are given an hour and others a month. Others say that they are asked to repent three times, and that is the view of Malik. Al-Hasan said they are asked a hundred times. It is also said that they are killed without being asked to repent.

After that, Allah also forbids alcoholic drinks and gambling (v. 219). Several early authorities — Ibn `Umar, Ash-Sha`bi, Mujahid, Qatadah, Ar-Rabi` bin Anas and `Abdur-Rahman bin Aslam — say it was the first of three verses to be revealed on this subject, and that would mean that the other two would take precedence over it. Here Allah says that there is “some benefit” in alcohol, but in 5:90 he says that it is “Satan’s handiwork,” which would rule out the ol’ demon rum as being beneficial at all.

Then Allah forbids Muslims to marry “unbelieving women” (v. 221). Ibn Kathir records a large amount of disagreement among Islamic authorities over whether this prohibition applies to Jewish and Christian women, or just to polytheists. However, he notes that there is Ijma — consensus — among Islamic jurists that such marriages are allowed, although of course Muslim women are not allowed by any school of Islamic law to marry Jewish or Christian men.

In a culture that requires women to be utterly subservient to men, these unequal laws ensure that non-Muslim communities remain subjugated, not enjoying equality of rights or equality of dignity with Muslims.

Allah, according to Islamic theology the Qur’an’s sole speaker (although he refers to himself in the third person often enough), concerns himself in the latter part of “The Cow” primarily with various laws for marriage and divorce (vv. 222-242). He forbids intercourse during menstruation (v. 222).

In the next verse, he tells Muslims, “Your wives are a place of sowing of seed for you, so come to your place of cultivation however you wish” (v. 223), which some Muslims understand as prohibiting anal sex — so says Ibn Kathir. According to a hadith recorded by the Imam Muslim, considered by Muslims to be the second most reliable collector of hadith (after Bukhari) and others, the Jews are behind the revelation of this verse. “The Jews used to say that when one comes to one’s wife through the vagina, but being on her back, and she becomes pregnant, the child has a squint” (Sahih Muslim 3363) — or, according to other sources, is cross-eyed.

To refute this, this verse was revealed: “Your wives are a place of sowing of seed [tilth] for you, so come to your place of cultivation however you wish” (v. 223). Sayyid Qutb says that the use of the word “tilth” (Arabic حَرْثٌ), with its “connotations of tillage and production, is most fitting, in a context of fertility and procreation” — or, as Maududi puts it, Allah’s “purpose in the creation of women is not merely to provide men with recreation.” It is also to provide them with children.

Allah’s regulations for divorce emphasize regarding women that “men have a degree over them” (v. 228). This may be why men can divorce their wives simply by saying, “Talaq” — I divorce you — but women may not do this. Such an easy procedure leads to divorces in a fit of pique, followed by reconciliation — and the Qur’an anticipates this and attempts to head it off by stipulating that a husband who divorces his wife three times cannot reconcile with her until she marries another man and is in turn divorced by him: “And if he has divorced her [for the third time], then she is not lawful to him afterward until she marries a husband other than him” (v. 230). This has given rise to the phenomenon of “temporary husbands,” who marry and divorce thrice-divorced women at the behest of Islamic clerics even in our own day, so that these poor women can then return to their original husbands. This practice has, as one may imagine, given rise to abuses, and a hadith depicts Muhammad condemning it. Muslim clerics insist that the poor woman’s new marriage and divorce must be genuine before she can return to her original husband.

Allah then goes on to detail the arrangements men make for their wives in their wills (vv. 234, 240); those interested in the doctrine of abrogation will be interested in the fact that Ibn Kathir contends of v. 240 that “the majority of the scholars said that this Ayah (2:240) was abrogated by the Ayah (2:234).”

After that, it’s time to rake the Jews over the coals again. Allah in verses 243-260 refers to several Biblical stories, none in much detail. The Jews refuse to fight after having been commanded to do so (v. 246) and they rebel at the appointment of Saul as king (v. 247).

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