Continuing our tour through “The Cow,” the second and longest sura of the Qur’an, we encounter in verses 141-150 a discussion of the qibla, the direction for prayer. Muslims are directed henceforth to face the sacred mosque in Mecca when they pray (v. 150), when previously they had joined the Jews in facing Jerusalem. This appears to have come at the end of Muhammad’s attempts to convince the Jews that he was a prophet in the line of the Jewish prophets. Only “fools” (v. 142) protested the change – that is, the Jews: on this 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 “vain desires” even though they knew Muhammad’s qibla is from Allah (vv. 144-6).
We saw that in verse 106 Allah announced that when he abrogated a verse, he would replace it with a better one, 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some Muslims believe that refers to things in the Qur’an, and others think it applies only to the Bible’s having been superseded by the Qur’an.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. We’ll be returning to abrogation in several contexts later.
Allah presents the new qibla as if it is a gift especially for Muhammad, who will “love” the new direction for prayer (v. 144). This is one of several passages in the Qur’an that suggest Allah’s special solicitude for Muhammad; another example is Allah’s gently rebuking him for initially declining to marry his former daughter-in-law 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.”
Verses 151-157 encourage the believers to be steadfast; verse 158 approves of a pre-Islamic practice during the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca; and verses 159-177 returns to the theme of the perversity of the unbelievers. 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). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that these are – yet again – the Jews.
Verses 177-203 legislates on various matters: zakat (almsgiving), the Ramadan fast, the Hajj, and jihad. V. 178 establishes the law of retaliation (qisas) for murder: 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 identity of the victim. ‘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). For an explanation of this, see the Sufi Sheikh Sultanhussein Tabandeh’s statement here.
Verses 190-193 are among the Qur’an’s most important words about jihad warfare. V. 190, “begin not hostilities,” 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: “And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah.” 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.” 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 9:29 states explicitly. As the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, puts it: “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.” 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.
Verses 204-210 warn believers not to doubt, backslide, or follow Islam half-heartedly. Then begin consideration of a number of questions Muhammad’s followers asked him – revealing, among other things, the portentous significance of the phrase “persecution is worse than slaughter” (which also appears in v. 191). That’s where we’ll pick up next week.
(Here you can find links to all the earlier "Blogging the Qur'an" segments. Here is a good Arabic Qur’an, with English translations available; here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)