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Robert Spencer's Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 2, 'The Cow,' Verses 40-75

Ever wonder why so many Muslims are so anti-Semitic? It isn’t all about Israel. It’s all about the Qur’an.

Verse 40 of “The Cow” addresses the “Children of Israel,” beginning an extended meditation on all that Allah did for the Jews, and the ingratitude with which they repaid him. Verse 41 warns them: “do not exchange My signs for a small price,” which the Islamic commentators generally interpret as an exhortation to put the service of Allah before the concerns of this world. Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi, a renowned twentieth-century Islamic intellectual and exponent of political Islam, says in his massive Towards Understanding the Qur’an that this verse “refers to the worldly benefits for the sake of which [the Jews] were rejecting God’s directives.” However, many have speculated that this verse amounts to Muhammad’s rebuke of those who sold him material that they told him was divine revelation, but wasn’t — people who are raked over the coals again in 2:79.


Anyway, the Jews can get back into good graces with Allah by converting to Islam: “And establish prayer and give zakah and bow with those who bow” (v. 43). This might sail right by the English-speaking reader, since the translations exhort them to “establish prayer” and to “give zakah” (alms) need not at first glance be something restricted only to Islam, but in Arabic the word used here for prayer is salat (الصَّلاَة), which refers specifically to Islamic prayer, and zakat (الزَّكَاة) is specifically Islamic almsgiving. Non-Muslims cannot pray salat or pay zakat. About the need for this conversion Ibn Kathir is forthright: “Allah commanded the Children of Israel to embrace Islam and to follow Muhammad.” Sayyid Qutb says that here Allah “invites the Israelites to join the Muslims in their religious practices, and to abandon their prejudices and ethnocentric tendencies.”

Starting with verse 47, says Maududi, “reference is made to the best-known episodes of Jewish history. As these episodes were known to every Jewish child, they are narrated briefly rather than in detail. The reference is intended to remind the Jews both of the favors with which the Israelites had been endowed by God and of the misdeeds with which they had responded to those favors.” These include the Israelites being rescued from Pharaoh (vv. 49-50), the golden calf episode (vv. 54-55), and the feeding of the people with manna and quails in the wilderness (v. 57, 61), culminating in the avowal that the Jews “were covered with humiliation and poverty and returned with anger from Allah. That was because they disbelieved in the signs of Allah and killed the prophets without right. That was because they disobeyed and were transgressing.” (v. 61).


Ibn Kathir applies these words to all Jews: “This Ayah [verse] indicates that the Children of Israel were plagued with humiliation, and that this will continue, meaning that it will never cease. They will continue to suffer humiliation at the hands of all who interact with them, along with the disgrace that they feel inwardly.”

The Tolerance Verses

It may seem jarring that immediately following this comes one of the Qur’an’s oft-quoted “tolerance verses,” verse 62, which seems to promise a place in Paradise to “those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans.” Muhammad Asad exults: “With a breadth of vision unparalleled in any other religious faith, the idea of ‘salvation’ is here made conditional upon three elements only: belief in God, belief in the Day of Judgment, and righteous action in life.” Not, apparently, acceptance of Islam. But he contradicts himself by adding “in this divine writ” after the words “those who have attained to faith” in his translation of verse 62 — that is, to be saved, one must believe in the Qur’an as well as the earlier revelations.

And indeed, Muslim commentators are not inclined to see this as an indication of divine pluralism. The translators Ali and Pickthall, as well as Asad, all feel it necessary to add parenthetical glosses that make the passage mean that Jews and Christians (as well as Sabians, whose identity is disputed) will be saved only if they become Muslims. Qur’an.com adds “before Prophet Muhammad” in brackets after “Jews or Christians or Sabeans,” making it clear that those three could only be saved as such before the advent of Islam, but now they must convert to Islam to be saved.


And according to Ibn Abbas, this verse was abrogated by Qur’an 3:85: “And whoever desires other than Islam as religion – never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers.” Qutb opines that 2:62 applied only before Muhammad brought Islam to the world, a view supported by a saying of Muhammad recorded by Tabari, in which the Prophet of Islam says that Christians who died before his coming will be saved, but those who have heard of him and yet rejected his prophetic claim will not be.

The Apes and Pigs Passages

Then follows the first of the three notorious “apes and pigs” passages. Jihadists today routinely refer to Jews as apes and pigs; this idea is rooted in Qur’an 2:63-66; 5:59-60; and 7:166. The first of these depicts Allah telling the Jews who “transgressed among you concerning the sabbath”: “Be apes, despised.” It goes on to say that these accursed ones serve “a deterrent punishment for those who were present and those who succeeded.” Traditionally in Islamic theology these passages have not been considered to apply to all Jews. Ibn Abbas says that “those who violated the sanctity of the Sabbath were turned into monkeys, then they perished without offspring.” Others, however, such as the early Islamic scholar Ibn Qutaiba, held today’s apes are the descendants of the Sabbath-breaking Jews.

This is widely used today as a metaphor for the Jews’ corruption, even unto bestial status. Muhammad himself began this when he addressed the Jews of the Qurayzah tribe, which he was about to massacre, as “you brothers of monkeys.” Just weeks ago, a Muslim cleric on official Palestinian Authority TV (you know, the moderates) derided Jews as “apes and pigs.” In 2010, Mohammed Morsi, who went on to become the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt until he was toppled by popular unrest, castigated Jews as “these blood-suckers, who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.”


The Saudi Sheikh Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sudayyis, imam of the principal mosque in Mecca, the Al-Haraam mosque, once said in a sermon that Jews are “the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs.” Another Saudi sheikh, Ba’d bin Abdallah Al-Ajameh Al-Ghamidi, made the connection explicit: “The current behavior of the brothers of apes and pigs, their treachery, violation of agreements, and defiling of holy places is connected with the deeds of their forefathers during the early period of Islam — which proves the great similarity between all the Jews living today and the Jews who lived at the dawn of Islam.” For more on this, see the excellent study by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

Verse 67 takes up the reproaches against the Jews again, with the Israelites reacting with haughty rebelliousness to Allah’s command, given through Moses, that they sacrifice a heifer (the “cow” of the sura’s title). We hear that the Jews’ hearts are hardened (v. 74) and ultimately that they are accursed of Allah (v. 89).

Not a promising basis for a lasting Israel-Palestinian accord.

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