Saturday, October 04, 2014

Surah 2 - The Cow

This is one of what I hope will be the first of several extended comments on individual surahs of the Qur'an based on a personal reading by a Christian Anglican Priest. The translation I have been using, with parallel Arabic, is that of Dawood. As this version is copyright, I offer links in the comments below to a free online translation, as well as to other external texts. My aim is to offer a sympathetic, though not uncritical, mixture of summary, interpretation and comment.

The Cow is the first major surah (book) in the Qur'an following the brief opening surah.

On reading it I cannot help but note the careful editorial work that has been undertaken both in the internal structuring of the text, and also in its key placing at the start of the Qur'an. In many ways the text sets out a Muslim stall. It functions quite self-consciously as a kind of Islamic overview of what Christians would call 'salvation history'. It carefully distinguishes Islam from the religions of the 'unbelievers' who seem to be a mix of Jews and Christians who have ostensibly misunderstood or perverted the truth, and indigenous pagans.

Initial comments summarise several of the main tenets and practises of Islam. Thereafter one finds something rather like a Muslim re-reading of the Torah/Pentateuch. First there is a retelling of the Adam and Eve 'creation and fall' story. Christians will recognize parts of this as echoing the second of the two Genesis creation stories. Adam is God's 'deputy' (khalifa - caliph) and is superior to the angels (cf. Psalm 8) because he can name the animals, whereas they cannot. (God rather nicely shows the angels up here with his proud new human creation; one senses here a touch of humour). Unlike Christian readings of Genesis however there is a rather different take on the 'fall' narrative: Satan directly removes Adam and his (unnamed) wife from Paradise, so the humans do not themselves appear guilty of any 'original sin'. Overall humans are accorded a high status.

Soon after there follows a retelling of the Exodus story. The emphasis, as so often in the Qur'an, is on revelation doubted. Here the doubters are Pharaoh and the Israelites. It is difficult not to read such passages as echoing Mohammed's own experience of being doubted such that Pharaoh and the Israelites' doubting of Moses seem to serve as antetypes to Arab, Jewish, Christian, and pagan doubters of Mohammed's own authority and revelation. Passages such as these concretely demonstrate the Muslim sense of Mohammed as standing at the end of a long line of prophets, all of whom appear to have suffered rather similarly.

It is in this context of Mohammed as another Moses that I read the somewhat later sections of the surah as a kind of second Law (Torah). Christians will recognize passages that read rather like sections of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy. There are instructions on violence and retaliation (a necessity only in case of survival: 'fight for the sake of God those who fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love the aggressors' 2:190); fasting, sexual abstinence, and warfare during Ramadan; pilgrimage, and so on. There follows a rather extensive section on divorce, widowhood, and remarriage; and there are finally sections on usury and alms-giving.

Naturally some parts grate on a modern sensibility: the allegedly superior status of men over women, for example (Christian parallels of which can be found in deutero-Pauline texts, too). Overall though these commands come across as extremely moderate: an attempt to regulate an unstable, patriarchal and violent seventh-century society.

Theologically there is a recurrent motif of commending a particular course of action and then following this with a reminder of the character of God ('A kind word with forgiveness is better than charity followed by insult. God is self-sufficient and indulgent'; 2:263). Christians will recognize Jesus' model: 'be merciful as God is merciful'. These are not then arbitrary laws from a tyrant deity; rather commandments about how humans are to relate to one another are fundamentally grounded in how God relates to humans. It is this surah that provides the famous phrase 'there shall be no compulsion in religion.'

Interspersing the latter part of the surah are sections dealing with kings Saul and David. Curiously Saul seems to me to be given a higher profile than David. Is this a subtle rejection of a Jewish focus on David? These accounts also appear to blend biblical stories of Israel's fight with Goliath and Gideon's (much earlier) campaign against the Canaanites. There are hints here of how a small faithful tribe can defeat a larger enemy - surely a potent message for Mohammed's own audience.

Lastly Jesus, briefly, and with more depth Abraham are also treated twice in this surah. As elsewhere, Jesus seems to be accorded a high position. He is a messenger like others, not divine, but uniquely given 'the Holy Spirit'. However he is by no means God's 'begotten Son' (a biological production seems assumed).

Abraham though is given (after Moses) the most prominent role. As in Judaism and Pauline Christianity he takes on the role of father of a people of faith. He is a type of faithful obedient human and a prophet, whose construction of the 'House' (Kaaba) ultimately gives Islam its cultic centre. Here one suspects a conscious creation of an Arab alternative to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (there is indeed a brief mention of the changing of the direction of prayer away from Jerusalem towards Mecca).

There are some real spiritual gems in this surah. Doubtless it has been drawn from various sayings originally given in specific contexts and relating to matters of internal community regulation and dispute. Nevertheless I cannot help but feel that now the surah serves a more outward focus - it is a fine introduction to a religion's sacred text. Those who picked the Qur'an up (or heard it read) would be in no doubt about what Islam involved, how it saw itself as relating to those other monotheisms Judaism and Christianity, how Muslims believed that the text itself constituted the very revelation of God, and how the reader/hearer faced an existential challenge to either accept or reject this message.

The final verses thus sound a communal chorus: 'The Apostle [Muhammed] believes in what has been revealed to him by his Lord, and so do the faithful... You alone are our Protector. Give us victory over the unbelievers...' (2:285-6).

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