After five chapters denouncing unbelievers, the Qur’an’s sixth sura, “Cattle,” spends most of its time … denouncing unbelievers.
Are you starting to notice a pattern?
“Cattle” dates, according to Islamic tradition, from Muhammad’s last year in Mecca, before the Hijra, or Flight, to Medina during the twelfth year of his prophetic career. In Medina he became for the first time a political and military leader as well as a religious one. At Mecca, he had been solely a preacher of his new and uncompromising monotheism in an atmosphere of increasing antagonism with his own tribe, the Quraysh, who were pagans and polytheists.
Sura 6 is preoccupied with that antagonism, and features, among imprecations against the unbelievers, Allah speaking to Muhammad to console him for the Quraysh’s rejection of his message.
Allah begins by reaffirming that the unbelievers have rejected the truth of their Creator (vv.. 1-12). He warns: “See they not how many of those before them We did destroy?” (v. 6). Allah mocks their unbelief, saying that if he had sent Muhammad a “a written message on parchment,” the unbelievers would have dismissed it as “obvious magic” (v. 7), and if he had sent an angel in the form of a man, they would have just been confused (v. 9). Nothing will satisfy the unbelievers: they are inherently perverse.
If you ever get into a discussion or debate with a devout and knowledgeable Muslim, you will see this contempt for unbelievers up close — it’s imbibed from the Qur’an.
Then Allah emphasizes his own oneness (vv. 13-32), and claims that “those to whom We have given the Book” — that is, the Jews and Christians — “know this” — that is, the truth of Muhammad’s message — “as they know their own sons” (v. 20).
This is because, says Ibn Kathir, “they received good news from the previous Messengers and Prophets about the coming of Muhammad, his attributes, homeland, his migration, and the description of his Ummah.” That is, their unbelief in Islam is not a sincere rejection based on honest conviction, but sheer perversity: they “lie against their own souls” (v. 24).
And there is nothing worse than this. Nothing.
Allah asks, “And who is more unjust than one who invents about Allah a lie or denies His verses?” (v. 21). “Verses” here again, is ayat or signs, the name used for the verses of the Qur’an: they’re signs of the truth of Allah. Allah emphasizes here that there can be no greater sin than shirk, the association of partners with him. The Tafsir al-Jalalayn asks, “And who, that is, none, does greater evil than he who invents a lie against God, by ascribing to Him an associate, or denies His signs?”
In Islam, there is no greater evil. In 1997 the “Invitation to Islam” newsletter asserted:
Murder, rape, child molesting and genocide. These are all some of the appalling crimes which occur in our world today. Many would think that these are the worst possible offences which could be committed. But there is something which outweighs all of these crimes put together: It is the crime of shirk.
Some people may question this notion. But when viewed in a proper context, the fact that there is no crime worse then shirk, will become evident to every sincere person.
There is no doubt that the above crimes are indeed terrible, but their comparison with shirk shows that they do not hold much significance in relation to this travesty. When a man murders, rapes or steals, the injustice which is done is directed primarily at other humans. But when a man commits shirk, the injustice is directed towards the Creator of the heavens and the earth; Allah. When a person is murdered, all sorts of reasons and explanations are given. But one thing that the murderer cannot claim, is that the murdered was someone who provided him with food, shelter, clothing and all the other things which keep humans aloft in this life.
Yet those who commit this worst of all sins are still doing so not out of their own free choice, but because Allah has “thrown veils on their hearts,” so that they do not understand Muhammad’s message (v. 25). Hellfire awaits them (vv. 26, 30).
Muslims should be careful not to value the things of this world, for “What is the life of this world but play and amusement?” (v. 32). Says the Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas, “Do you not comprehend that this world is evanescent and that the Hereafter is everlasting?”
Many do not. In verses 33-73 Allah consoles Muhammad for the unbelievers’ rejection of his message: “We know indeed the grief which their words do cause thee” (v. 33), but they are “deaf and dumb” (v. 39), and wouldn’t believe even if they witnessed great miracles (vv. 35, 37). The fact that Allah, in a perfect book that has existed from all eternity, is so solicitous of his prophet and concerned about his grief at being rejected, is for pious Muslims only further confirmation of Muhammad’s importance and exalted status. Allah’s solicitude for Muhammad became the springboard for an exaltation of Muhammad in the Islamic mystical tradition. The Persian Sufi mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj (858-922) said that Allah “has not created anything that is dearer to him than Muhammad and his family.” The Persian poet Rumi (Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, 1207-1273) said that the scent of roses was that of the sweat of the Prophet of Islam:
Root and branch of the roses is
the lovely sweat of Mustafa [that is, Muhammad],
And by his power the rose’s crescent
grows now into a full moon.
Likewise a modern Arab writer opined that Allah “created Muhammad’s body in such unsurpassable beauty as had neither before him nor after him been seen in a human being. If the whole beauty of the Prophet were unveiled before our eyes, they could not bear its splendor.”
In verses 40-49 Allah discusses how he has sent messengers all over the world, warning of punishment to those who disbelieve. He then instructs Muhammad to issue various warnings to the unbelievers (vv. 5-58). The he emphasizes his absolute sovereignty (vv. 50-59), with v. 59 making a succinct statement of his omniscience: “And with Him are the keys of the unseen; none knows them except Him. And He knows what is on the land and in the sea. Not a leaf falls but that He knows it. And no grain is there within the darknesses of the earth and no moist or dry but that it is in a clear record.” (Similarly, “We have neglected nothing in the Book,” v. 38, is believed by some Islamic interpreters to refer to the Lawhul Mahfuz, the Protected Tablet, on which Allah has written everything that occurs in the universe, even the minutest actions of animals and birds.) Allah tells Muhammad to “leave alone those who take their religion to be mere play and amusement, and are deceived by the life of this world” (v. 70).
Then he discusses Abraham rejecting polytheism by noting the deficiencies of various pagan objects of worship: the stars, the moon, the sun (vv. 74-83). Those who glibly associate Allah with the moon-god — a pre-Islamic Arabian god of war — should note v. 77: “When he saw the moon rising in splendour, he said: ‘This is my Lord.’ But when the moon set, he said: ‘unless my Lord guide me, I shall surely be among those who go astray.'”
Allah then expands upon the immediately preceding discussion of Abraham’s rejection of idolatry by enumerating the other prophets of Islam (remember, Abraham was a Muslim according to Qur’an 3:67): Noah before Abraham, then Abraham’s children Isaac and Jacob, and then after that David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Elijah, Ishmael, Elisha, Jonah, and Lot (vv. 84-90).
These are, of course, all Biblical figures, although we shall see later on that the Qur’an does discuss some prophets who don’t appear in the Bible. Nevertheless, the Qur’an situates Muhammad as the crown and perfection of the Biblical prophetic tradition, explaining the differences between what Jews and Christians understand Abraham, Moses, Jesus and the rest to have said and what Muslims believe they said to the Christian corruption of their own scriptures.
Allah then goes back to emphasizing his oneness, and the dependence of all creation upon him (vv. 91-103). He begins this with yet another accusation that the Jews are not obeying the revelations given to Moses: they display it (“make it into separate sheets for show”) but they don’t obey it (they “conceal much of its contents”) (v. 91). Allah chastises those who say that he has not revealed anything to any human being. According to As-Suyuti’s Ad-Durrul Manthur, this verse was revealed after Muhammad teased a “hefty” Jewish scholar named Malik bin Sayf. Muhammad asked him, “Did you see in the Torah that Allah detests a hefty scholar?” Malik bin Sayf was enraged and shouted: “By Allah! Allah has not revealed anything to any human being!” His outburst is quoted, and rebuked, in v. 91.
The Qur’an is the “most blessed book,” confirming previous revelations. It also equips Muhammad to warn the “Mother of Villages” — that is, Mecca — of the impending judgment upon those who do not accept Islam (v. 92) and “invent a lie against Allah” (v. 93). Everyone will appear before Allah alone on the Day of Judgment, with no help from family or friends (v. 94). Allah pens a stirring meditation (vv. 95-103) on how he makes all things grow, sends the rain, and oversees all things: “No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision: He is above all comprehension, yet is acquainted with all things” (v. 103). (لاَّ تُدْرِكُهُ الأَبْصَارُ وَهُوَ يُدْرِكُ الأَبْصَارَ وَهُوَ اللَّطِيفُ الْخَبِ) A beautiful verse in any language. He also attempts a reductio ad absurdum on the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation: “How can He have a son when He hath no consort?” (v. 101) Ibn Kathir asks: “How can He have a wife from His creation who is suitable for His majesty, when there is none like Him How can He have a child? Then Verily, Allah is Glorified above having a son.” The idea that fatherhood and sonship might not be conceived of in physical terms is not considered.
In verses 104-117 Allah tells Muhammad to “turn aside from those who join gods with Allah” (v. 106), for “had Allah willed, they had not been idolatrous,” and it’s not Muhammad’s problem: “We have not set thee as a keeper over them, nor art thou responsible for them” (v. 107). The Muslims should not revile the gods of the unbelievers, lest the unbelievers revile Allah (v. 108); according to As-Suyuti’s Lubabun Nuqul, Allah revealed this verse in response to an actual incident, when the pagans responded to the Muslims’ denigration of their gods by denigrating Allah. Every prophet has enemies — devils who are both humans and jinn (v. 112). The jinn (from which comes the English “genie”) are spirit beings who can see humans, but humans cannot see them. The messengers from Allah have come to them also (v. 130).
Allah then tells Muslims not to eat meat unless Allah’s name has been pronounced over it (vv. 118-121); this is the foundation for the halal preparation of meat, which dictates that the jugular vein, windpipe and foodpipe of the animal be severed after the butcher recites “In the name of Allah.” Then the blood is drained out. The Muslims would be “pagans” if they obeyed the advice of unbelievers in this matter (v. 121).
According to Ibn Kathir, this means that “when you turn away from Allah’s command and Legislation to the saying of anyone else, preferring other than what Allah has said, then this constitutes Shirk.” (Shirk, of course, is the greatest sin of all, the associating of partners with Allah.)
This is one reason why democracy has had such difficulty taking root in Islamic countries.
Then Allah returns to the perversity of the unbelievers who demand signs from Allah but wouldn’t believe even if they received them (vv. 122-134). Whether or not someone becomes a Muslim depends entirely upon whether Allah wills to lead him to Islam or to lead him astray (v. 125). By following the “straight path” (v. 126) of Islam, Muslims will make Allah their friend (v. 127). In verses 128-131 Allah addresses jinns as well as humans, warning them of the same Judgment. Ibn Jarir and Dhahak say that jinn prophets were sent to the jinn; however, Mujahid and Ibn Jurayj contend that the jinn listened to the human prophets. This is the more common view.
Allah then criticizes various pagan practices, notably the sacrifice of children (verses 137, 140). “Be not prodigal” (v. 141) refers, says Ibn Jurayj, to over-enthusiasm in charity: “This Ayah was revealed concerning Thabit bin Qays bin Shammas, who plucked the fruits of his date palms. Then he said to himself, ‘This day, every person who comes to me, I will feed him from it.’ So he kept feeding (them) until the evening came and he ended up with no dates.” Others, however, maintain that it simply directs Muslims not to be wasteful in general. In verses 142-144 Allah forbids various pagan customs regarding the usage of animals.
Then in verses 146 and 147 Allah details the specifics of Jewish food laws. Allah tells Muhammad that if the Jews accuse him of lying about this, he should respond: “Your Lord is full of mercy all-embracing; but from people in guilt never will His wrath be turned back.” Ibn Kathir observes that “Allah often joins encouragement with threats in the Qur’an.”
The sura ends with a final appeal to the unbelievers in verses 148-165. According to Ibn Mas’ud, verses 151-153, a summary of what is prohibited in Islam, constitute “the will and testament of the Messenger of Allah on which he placed his seal.” One should not kill, since Allah has made life sacred, “except by way of justice and law” (v. 151). What does that mean? Muhammad explained that the “blood of a Muslim … cannot be shed except in three cases: in Qisas [retaliation] for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims.”
So adultery, apostasy and revenge are the only justifications for taking a life. Verses 153 and 161 repeat that Islam is the straight path.
Allah will “try you in the gifts He hath given you” (v.165). Muhammad explained this also: “Verily, this life is beautiful and green, and Allah made you dwell in it generation after generation so that He sees what you will do. Therefore, beware of this life and beware of women, for the first trial that the Children of Israel suffered from was with women.”