The Muslims will find that these Jews are their fiercest enemies, while those closest to them in affection will be the Christians (5:82). 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 (5:87-108). Among them is the directive that one who breaks an oath must in expiation feed ten indigents or free a slave (5:88). He says that alcohol and gambling are “Satan’s handiwork” (5:90-91) — 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” (5:101) — 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.” (5:102) 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.
After five chapter 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 them: 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). Then 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.