Qur’an 1: Moses & The Cow

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….




Author: HumanistJ

I'm a humanist - someone who thinks you can live a good life without believing in anything supernatural. I chair South West London Humanists, I'm a trustee of Humanists UK and its Dialogue Officer. This blog is purely my personal view.

13 thoughts on “Qur’an 1: Moses & The Cow”

  1. “…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?

    My reading of this is that the Qur’an previously relays that the Jews were very intellectual people, who liked to question things (i.e. sacrificing the cow) before performing the duty. I think perhaps mentioned in later chapters, you can see that Christians are very compassionate people who follow Jesus in regards to loving everyone. So when the Qur’an calls them the “median” nation, then they are really supposed to be inbetween the two qualities: compassionate but intellectual. That’s my understanding, anyway!

    Descendants of the median nation will still go through Judgment same as everyone, so no special status. This is repeated in the Qur’an in many chapters (i.e. all people will be judged the same). The median nation has been told to approach life in a balanced way, so really, they may have more of a burden to act in the right way because they received the “best” teaching.


    1. Agree his says judgement covers everyone. But the story about the cow is surely to illustrate the reluctance of people to accept Moses as a messenger by coming up with pedantic objections, which is the same problem that he’s encountering. Here, though, he has God saying that He has “appointed you as a median nation”, which makes whichever nation he’s talking about (implication the local Arab tribes) “appointed by God” to be his witness. That’s in line with his view that the Children of Israel are also specially chosen. His mindset is tribal, which I assume was normal at the time. But that then leads to interesting implications about conversion. Can, say, an Indonesian really join the tribe? Or do Arab Muslims have a different status to others?


      1. I try to think of the context of the story of God ordering the sacrifice of the cow through Moses as this: after all the “miracles” witnessed by the Israelites (i.e. parting of the sea, Moses’ miracles, etc.), they still refuse to believe in God. In fact, rather than sacrificing the best cow they have, they question quite a few times which cow should be sacrificed. If you read through the passage again (2:67 – 2:71), you can see it as people being pedantic about things that are not important. It is quite clear that you are supposed to give the best to The Creator, especially One Who freed them from slavery. Similar to how you mentioned in a later chapter which land was bestowed on the Jews, as if it was a very important point. Sure, it is good to wonder where it is, but that’s not the main message of these passages. In fact, the people who make these questions are diverting the importance of sacrificing the cow to something that is just details that will not help make anybody better. Recall the second verse of this chapter “This is the Book in which there is no doubt, a guide for the righteous.” I am not sure I explained that very well, may you forgive me for this.

        Again, I’d like to point out that the second verse of The Cow indicates that the Book, or message as a whole, is for the righteous, regardless of your tribe, ethnicity, etc. So “a median nation” does not refer to a specific tribe, but rather to all who are righteous, believe in the unseen, etc. Hope that makes sense.


      2. Just as children of israel were chosen, so were the children of ishmael. thus fulfilling the promise made to abraham in 2:124. earlier, prophets were sent to every nation, but from now on the children of abraham will be give the responsibility and prophets and messengers will be from among them. it will be their duty to take the message to other nations. when the israelites did not perform, this status was given to the children of the other son of abraham, ishmael. the status of chosen people was not for becoming spoiled brats, it was to spread the message of one true god to other nations around the promised lands


  2. 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? – I think this is what most Muslims believe: that the Qur’an was brought to correct the “inconsistencies” in the previous Scripture.


    1. Interesting. So far I haven’t seen anything about inconsistencies in previous scripture, but rather reinforcement of his view that all three revelations came from God but Jews and Christians, having received them, have failed to stick to them. So the failure is with people, not the scripture. For example, he criticises Jews for asking him to judge them when they already have the Torah which is the word of God and therefore should be all they need.


      1. I use this verse to support my point above. Please let me know if you find it inconsistent. I think there may be more, but we can start here.

        2:75 Do you covet [the hope, O believers], that they would believe for you while a party of them used to hear the words of Allah and then distort the Torah after they had understood it while they were knowing?

        ^granted, some translations do not specify the Torah, but this is the common Sahih International translation. I have included other translations below:

        2:75 Have ye any hope that they will be true to you when a party of them used to listen to the word of Allah, then used to change it, after they had understood it, knowingly? – Pickthall
        2:75 Can ye (o ye men of Faith) entertain the hope that they will believe in you?- Seeing that a party of them heard the Word of Allah, and perverted it knowingly after they understood it. – Yusuf Ali
        2:75 Do you then hope that they would believe in you, and a party from among them indeed used to hear the Word of Allah, then altered it after they had understood it, and they know (this). – Shakir
        2:75 Do you, the believers in truth, desire the unbelievers to believe you? There was a group among them who would hear the word of God and understand it. Then they would purposely misinterpret it. – Muhammad Sarwar

        2:79 So woe to those who write the “scripture” with their own hands, then say, “This is from Allah ,” in order to exchange it for a small price. Woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for what they earn. – Sahih International

        The point is that people cause the inconsistencies in previous Scripture. This leads to many others who follow incorrect Scripture.


  3. you said: and it’s definitely a “he” writing for other men

    my response: i suspect there will be a secret for the misogynists who ruled this planet for the majority of human history and who continue to do so. this is definitely a which came first, the chicken or the egg?

    shiva cannot survive shakti. the sufis kept her secrets until the time was right and now the time is right.

    we must all ask ourselves, how have i contributed to patriarchy? how have i remained silent when i should have spoken up for women? have i spoke out against misogyny? have i spoke up for equality in the work place? have i used my voice for victims of domestic violence? Have I educated myself about how girls are denied an education in many parts of the world?


      1. I would love to read the article now, but I don’t have the time. I’ll save it to read at another time. Could you summarize it for me instead? Who wrote the article? And what is it about? In terms of objectively, what do they present?


  4. You said: The writer comes over as an anxious leader fighting backsliding among his followers.

    By calling the source a “writer” or “author” you do what many do. You create an anthropomorphic deity. You are now using an anthropomorphic emotion for something that is not human. The source is Word not word. Meaning it is not a word…it is a vibration. It is not writing a book. Think of a whale calling through the ocean to another whale. That is a little more accurate. Think of a sound not in your range like ants in a colony buzzing. That is a little more accurate. In other words, think outside your limited definition of “writer”. Then the magic is born in your heart. You are obviously a left side of the brain guy, correct? Very literal vs. able to expand and imagine other possibilities like what it took for ppl to get the earth is round not flat?


    1. See my other comment about the human authorship of the Qur’an. You have to be a Muslim believer to think that this is anything other than a book written by a man or men, probably inspired by his/their faith. I am not a Muslim believer.


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