I’m a British humanist reading The Qur’an (Tarif Khalidi’s translation) and blogging about it as I go. I’m doing my best not to make assumptions, apart from assuming it was written – not necessarily in the order given – by a man (or men) in Arabia in the 7th century. I realise that some Muslims will consider the whole exercise blasphemous, and some anti-theists will say it’s not critical enough. The aim is not to be offensive, but simply to share a personal, non-scholarly, view of one of the most influential texts of our time. [More…]
It’s a start – about a twelfth of the way in, and one of the longest chapters: The Cow. There are some surprises here, but what’s most interesting is the impression of the seventh century authorial voice. But more of that in a minute.
The Cow is a jumble: what believers are supposed to believe in; why it’s a bad idea to be a blasphemer or unbeliever (multiple times); God knows everything (and can demonstrate it); death and the afterlife; how to be virtuous; Abraham, the Children of Israel and Jesus; how God will test you; abrogation; the direction of prayer; the haj; what you can’t eat; wine and gambling; usury; fighting, aggression and retaliation; fasting in Ramadan; menstruation and sex; provision for your wives, and rights over them; divorce and re-marriage; use of wet nurses; resurrection; charity and kindness; loans and commercial contracts. Along with the many injunctions there’s the occasional parable, a few prayers and the odd thing that I can’t make sense of.
It’s called “The Cow” because of a parable about Moses telling his people that God wants them to slaughter a cow. They object and it takes him three attempts, each with more details about the cow’s specification, before they do it.
The writer comes over as an anxious leader fighting backsliding among his followers. The story of The Cow, and the fact that it’s chosen as the title, fits alongside constant reminders of the eternal fire that awaits unbelievers in the Afterlife.
At the same time, he (and it’s definitely a “he” writing for other men) is both explaining what he thinks a virtuous life looks like, positioning himself alongside the Jewish prophets and Jesus, and providing detailed rules for living.
Presumably these rules are to address practical issues he’s encountering in the real world. For example, he says “Abandon what remains of usury” and accepts that wine (literally it’s just “wine”) and gambling have their benefits, but on balance they’re sinful. He’s obviously a businessman who’s keen to get his people to have clear (ideally written) contracts and abide by them.
He seems to be living in a society with no legal system and no state. For the time, his policies were probably very advanced.
There’s some good stuff. “There is no compulsion in religion” comes with no qualifications, apart from a reminder that “unbelievers abide in the fire for ever” (which I guess won’t worry them if they really don’t believe).
Fighting aggressors is a must, “but do not commit aggression”. You must be kind to “parents, kinsmen, orphans and the poor” and “speak kindly” to people. There’s strong emphasis on the importance of charity and extra credit for not showing off your wealth and generosity. “A kind word followed by magnanimity is better than charity followed by rudeness”, so be respectful to the people you’re giving to.
A man must make provision for his wives in case he dies (“maintenance for a year and no eviction”), wealth must be left to “parents and close relatives impartially” and divorce settlements must be fair.
Even the rule for retaliation for killing is intended to “save lives” by ensuring it’s proportionate, “a free man for a free man, a slave for a slave, a female for a female”, much like the “eye for an eye” rule in the Old Testament, and further evidence of a society with no rule of law.
There’s nothing in The Cow to suggest that believers should be punish unbelievers. “…God will deal with them on your behalf.”
But there’s also misogyny. Top of the list is “Your women are your sowing field; approach your field whenever you please.”
The only exception is when women are menstruating, though once they’re “clean”, you can “approach them from where God ordered you”. So marital rape is ok and sex is just for the husband’s benefit.
If two men aren’t available to witness a contact, you need a man and two women so that “if one woman forgets, the one will remind the other”. Dippy.
While these attitudes would probably be unremarkable among men in 19th century Britain, they’re obviously repugnant to us now. Unfortunately, the injunctions are so clear-cut that it’s hard to see how they could credibly be brought into line with gender equality even with the most benign interpretation.
The God of the Qur’an is more the angry deity of the Old Testament than the God of Love. For those who die as unbelievers “…torment shall not be lessened, nor shall any defence be accepted from them. Your God is one God. There is no God but He, merciful to all, compassionate to each” – provided you’re not an unbeliever. And if you’re a believer: “we shall be testing you with some fear and famine, with loss of wealth, lives and crops”. So that’s the Problem of Suffering sorted out.
And then there are some surprises…
- He’s critical of “unlettered folk who understand scripture only as false hopes. But they are living an illusion.” Traditionally, Mohammed himself is understood to be illiterate. But clearly he considered himself intellectually superior to these “unlettered folk”, and the impression is that he was relatively well-off. It looks like the writer of the Qur’an was, in our terms, middle class.
- As well as overt unbelievers, and those who falsely claimed to be believers, he was up against “those who write scripture with their own hands and then claim it to be from God [i.e. via me], that they may sell it for a small price.” Setting aside the question of what is “real”, the fact that forgery was so prevalent that it’s covered in the Qu’ran isn’t encouraging when considering the reliability of the thousands of alleged sayings of the Prophet (Hadiths) and biographical writings (al-Sira), all of which were written down much later.
- As well as counting followers of Judaism and Christianity who lead righteous lives as “believers”, he emphasises that God’s revelations to Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other Jewish prophets are on a par with his own. He says (pp God): “We make no distinction between any of his messengers,” and “Who can wilfully abandon the religion of Abraham unless it be a one who makes a fool of himself?” Maybe the writer of the Qur’an didn’t set out to establish a separate religion at all, but rather a development of the types of Judaism and Christianity that existed in the area? If so, perhaps Muslims should regard revelations claimed in the Bible with the same reverence as those in the Qur’an.
- He reaffirms the “covenant” between God and the Children of Israel: “…remember, I preferred you above all mankind”. This applies to all descendants of Abraham except for “evildoers”. This is pretty remarkable given today’s level of anti-Semitism in the Middle East. But he also says (pp God) “…We have appointed you [presumably his own Arab tribe] as a median nation to be witnesses for mankind and the Prophet to be a witness for you”. Do their descendants, like the Children of Israel, have some sort of special status vis-a-vis the deity?
At the start of The Cow there’s a list of what believers believe in. Later on there’s a definition of virtue which starts with another belief list. They’re different. For example, there’s no mention of the afterlife in the virtues list, and no mention of “the Book” in the initial list. Of course, maybe he simply missed items from both lists, but still they’re apparently inconsistent.
The way out of inconsistency is abrogation and there’s a verse on that half way through The Cow that says “For every verse we abrogate or cause to be forgotten, we bring down one better or similar”. The fact that it’s there, near the beginning of the whole book, can only be to cope with inconsistencies that come later. That fits with the belief that the order of the verses isn’t the order in which they were written or recited.
It also fits with the fact that The Cow isn’t the first chapter, although it starts “Behold the Book”. Chapter 1 is “The Opening” – a short prayer. The editor, or editorial team, must have decided to put up it up front.
On to Chapter 3….