Allah is just getting warmed up in expounding upon the wickedness of the Jews and Christians. In vv. 61-86, he criticizes the Jews and Christians for refusing to follow Muhammad. Why don’t the Jews’ rabbis stop their evil behavior (v. 63)? They even dare to say that “the hand of Allah is chained” (v. 64).
Allah’s hand is chained? It is unclear what Jewish concept, if any, the Qur’an is referring to in this case. Ibn Kathir comments: “Allah states that the Jews, may Allah’s continuous curses descend on them until the Day of Resurrection, describe Him as a miser. Allah is far holier than what they attribute to Him.” He is also absolute will, with hand absolutely unchained: Allah’s unchained hand is a vivid image of divine freedom. Such a deity can be bound by no laws. Muslim theologians argued during the long controversy with the heretical Islamic Mu’tazilite sect, which exalted human reason beyond the point that the eventual victors were willing to tolerate, that Allah was free to act as he pleased. He was thus not bound to govern the universe according to consistent and observable laws. “He cannot be questioned concerning what He does” (Qur’an 21:23).
Accordingly, there was no point to observing the workings of the physical world; there was no reason to expect that any pattern to its workings would be consistent, or even discernible. If Allah could not be counted on to be consistent, why waste time observing the order of things? It could change tomorrow. Stanley Jaki, a Catholic priest and physicist, explains that it was the renowned Sufi thinker al-Ghazali who “denounced natural laws, the very objective of science, as a blasphemous constraint upon the free will of Allah.” The great twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides explained orthodox Islamic cosmology in similar terms, noting that Islamic thinkers of his day assumed “the possibility that an existing being should be larger or smaller than it really is, or that it should be different in form and position from what it really is; e.g., a man might have the height of a mountain, might have several heads, and fly in the air; or an elephant might be as small as an insect, or an insect as huge as an elephant. This method of admitting possibilities is applied to the whole Universe.”
Relatively early in its history, therefore, science was deprived in the Islamic world of the philosophical foundation it needed in order to flourish.
It found that philosophical foundation only in Christian Europe, where it was assumed that God was good and had constructed the universe according to consistent and observable laws. Such an idea would have been for pious Muslims tantamount to saying, “Allah’s hand is chained.”
Allah also says that whenever the Jews “kindled the fire of war, Allah extinguished it.” (v. 64) That is, says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “war against the Prophet(s).” According to Bulandshahri, “The Jews make every effort to instigate wars against the Muslims, but Allah foils their attempts each time, either by instilling terror in their hearts or by their defeat in these battles.” The Jews also “strive to do mischief on earth” — that is, fasaad (فَسَاد) — for which the punishment is specified in v. 33: offenders must be “killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land.”
Allah exhorts the Jews and Christians to follow what is written in the Torah and Gospel, and promises Paradise to those who do so (vv. 66, 68-9). This is not (as it is often represented) a manifestation of ecumenical generosity, but rather an expression of the Qur’an’s assumption that it confirms the message of the earlier books, which prophesied Muhammad’s coming.
Ibn Kathir tells Jews and Christians that they will have “no real religion until you adhere to and implement the Tawrah [Torah] and the Injil [Gospel]. That is, until you believe in all the Books that you have that Allah revealed to the Prophets. These Books command following Muhammad and believing in his prophecy, all the while adhering to his Law.”
Then Allah in v. 72 repeats the denial of the divinity of Christ — and the labeling of those who believe in it as “unbelievers” — of v. 17, and in v. 73, he repeats the denial of the doctrine of the Trinity from 4:171. Jesus and his mother are again presented as the other members of the divine trio with Allah, but they were mortal: they both used to eat earthly food (v. 75) — “like all other human beings,” says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, and one who is such cannot be a god because of his compound being and fallible nature, and because of the [impurities such as] urine and excrement that he produces.” The actual Christian concept of the Incarnation, with Christ being both fully God and fully human, doesn’t enter into consideration.
Meanwhile, for their part the disbelieving Jews are cursed by both David and Jesus for their disobedience (v. 78). The Muslims will find that these Jews are their fiercest enemies, while those closest to them in affection will be the Christians (v. 82). According to the Ma’alimut Tanzil, this verse doesn’t refer to all Christians, but only to those who accept Islam; this is made clear by verses 83 and 84, in which those Christians accept Muhammad’s message.
Allah then turns back to where he began in this sura establishing various regulations for the Muslims (vv. 87-108). Among them is the directive that one who breaks an oath must in expiation feed ten indigents or free a slave (v. 88). He says that alcohol and gambling are “Satan’s handiwork” (vv. 90-91) — and thus definitively forbidden. He destroys the possibility of free inquiry in Islam when he warns Muslims not to “ask about things which, if they are shown to you, will distress you.” However, “if you ask about them while the Qur’an is being revealed, they will be shown to you” (v. 101) — odd that a perfect and eternal book would depend for its contents upon the questions of human beings at a particular time, but Allah’s ways are mysterious. Still, it is better not to ask questions: “A people asked such before you; then they became thereby disbelievers.” (v. 102) Which may explain the touchiness of some imams when asked questions.
Then Allah turns attention again to Jesus, emphasizing his status as a prophet of Allah, who did all his mighty works by order of Allah — and is thus not God himself (vv. 109-120). The miracle of the clay birds becoming live ones (v. 110) is found in the second-century Gnostic text the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It’s likely that Gnostics had left the Eastern Roman Empire, where they faced persecution, and settled in Arabia. The name of this sura comes from vv. 112-115, which recount when Jesus asked Allah for a table laden with food from heaven, which would be “a festival for the first of us and the last of us and a sign from You.” (v. 114) A table from Allah would be a festival for Jesus and his followers — this appears to be a vestige of the Christian Eucharist: the consuming of the Body and Blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine, which was central to all Christian groups in Muhammad’s time. In v. 116, Allah asks Jesus directly: “O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, ‘Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah’?” Jesus, of course, denies having done so. Those who believe otherwise will be punished.
(Revised April 2015)