My friend Jeff once told me that he had tried to read the Qur'an many times, but could never get through "The Cow." With this segment, we have after six weeks gotten through "The Cow," the Qur'an's longest chapter. The intention of this series is to discuss the Qur'an in context, as I am forever accused of not doing, and to illuminate for non-Muslims certain aspects of Qur'anic teaching that impinge upon their lives today, since, as the Canadian columnist David Warren points out, "it is impossible to present the tenets of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Hamas, or the Muslim Brotherhood on the Sunni side; or of Hezbollah, Iraq’s blackshirts, or Iran’s revolutionary ayatollahs on the Shia side; as complete aberrations of Islam. They do quote Koran and Hadiths accurately enough, and they evoke a semi-legendary history of armed Jihad and conquest that resonates among unwesternized Muslim listeners."
This use of the Qur'an and Sunnah is, of course, something I have drawn attention to many, many times, and I have repeatedly called upon peaceful Muslims to confront and repudiate this use of their holy texts so as to try to blunt their capacity to inspire violence and supremacism. And as I go through the Qur'an and point out how Muslim interpreters understand the various passages, I shall continue to do so. In commenting not on this week's segment but last week's, some blogger accused me of "demonizing Islam." I fail to see how combing through the Qur'an and pointing out how Muslim commentators view its various injunctions can possibly constitute demonization -- if I am relating the material accurately, anything negative in it comes from Muslims, not from me, and if I am not, then please show me where I am wrong (but no one has done so, or can do so). I rather suspect that this has by now simply become the knee-jerk response to anything I do, but those who read what I actually write will not be able to sustain such a view.
Verses 222-242 of the Qur’an’s Sura 2, “The Cow,” primarily contain various laws for marriage and divorce. Intercourse during menstruation is forbidden (v. 222). The Jews are behind the revelation of v. 223, according to a hadith recorded by the Imam Muslim and many others: “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” – or, according to other sources, is cross-eyed. To refute this, v. 223 was revealed: “Your wives are your tilth; go then unto your tilth as you may desire.” This verse is also understood as prohibiting anal sex. 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.
The regulations for divorce emphasize that while women “have rights similar to those (of men) over them in kindness,” nevertheless “men are a degree above 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 (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.
Verses 234 and 240 concern the arrangements men make for their wives in their wills; those interested in the doctrine of abrogation will note 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).”
Verses 243-260 returns to the Children of Israel, referring 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). If Allah had willed, the nations would have believed the prophets he sent to earth, but this was not his will, although his reasons are left unexplained (v. 253). According to Islamic scholar Mahmoud Ayoub, v. 255, known as the Throne Verse (Ayat Al-Kursi), is “regarded by Muslims as one of the most excellent verses of the Qur’an. It has therefore played a very important role in Muslim piety.” The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, approves of a statement about its power, “Whenever you go to your bed, recite the Verse of ‘Al-Kursi’ (2.255) for then a guardian from Allah will be guarding you, and Satan will not approach you till dawn” and of another about its being the “greatest verse in the Book of Allah.” Qurtubi reports that “when the Throne Verse was revealed, every idol and king in the world fell prostrate and the crowns of kings fell off their heads,” and recounts a saying by Muhammad in which Allah tells Moses of the many blessings that people will receive if they recite the Throne Verse – another manifestation of the assumption that the People of the Book had at least some of the contents of the Qur’an, but perversely effaced them from their own Scriptures.
Immediately following is the famous statement that “there is no compulsion in religion” (v. 256). Islamic spokesmen in the West frequently quote it to disprove the contention that Islam spread by the sword, or even to claim that Islam is a religion of peace. According to an early Muslim, Mujahid ibn Jabr, this verse was abrogated by Qur’an 9:29, in which the Muslims are commanded to fight against the People of the Book. Others, however, according to the Islamic historian Tabari, say that 2:256 was never abrogated, but was revealed precisely in reference to the People of the Book. They are not to be forced to accept Islam, but may practice their religions as long as they pay the jizya (poll-tax) and “feel themselves subdued” (9:29).
Many see v. 256 as contradicting the Islamic imperative to wage jihad against unbelievers, but actually there is no contradiction because the aim of jihad is not the forced conversion of non-Muslims, but their subjugation within the Islamic social order. Says Asad: “All Islamic jurists (fuqahd’), without any exception, hold that forcible conversion is under all circumstances null and void, and that any attempt at coercing a non-believer to accept the faith of Islam is a grievous sin: a verdict which disposes of the widespread fallacy that Islam places before the unbelievers the alternative of ‘conversion or the sword.’” Quite so: the choice, as laid out by Muhammad himself, is conversion, subjugation as dhimmis, or the sword. Qutb accordingly denies that v. 256 contradicts the imperative to fight until “religion is for Allah” (v. 193), saying that “Islam has not used force to impose its beliefs.” Rather, jihad’s “main objective has been the establishment of a stable society in which all citizens, including followers of other religious creeds, may live in peace and security” – although not with equality of rights before the law, as 9:29 emphasizes. For Qutb, that “stable society” is the “Islamic social order,” the establishment of which is a chief objective of jihad.
In this light verses 256 and 193 go together without any trouble. Muslims must fight until “religion is for Allah,” but they don’t force anyone to accept Allah’s religion. They enforce subservience upon those who refuse to convert, such that many of them subsequently convert to Islam so as to escape the humiliating and discriminatory regulations of dhimmitude — but when they convert, they do so freely. Only at the end of the world will Jesus, the Prophet of Islam, return and Islamize the world, abolishing Christianity and thus the need for the jizya that is paid by the dhimmis. Then religion will be “for Allah,” and there will be no further need for jihad.
Verses 261-286 mainly exhort the believers to charitable giving, and condemn usury (vv. 275-281) – which is the foundation of the Islamic abhorrence of interest-based banking. V. 282 stipulates that two women are equivalent to one man in giving testimony. Muhammad explained, “This is because of the deficiency of a woman’s mind.”
So much for “The Cow.” Next week: the beginning of Sura 3, “The Family of Imran,” and why believers should not take unbelievers as friends and protectors.
(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.)