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…]
Chapter 5 “The Table” and Chapter 6 “Cattle” indeed give dietary laws and put followers right on false rules about cattle. But as in previous chapters, there’s a lot more covered, and it’s fairly disorganised.
Let’s start with some more moral rules:
There’s a clear general injunction about killing: “…he who kills a soul neither in revenge for another, nor to prevent corruption on earth, it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; whereas he who saves a soul, it is as if he has saved all of mankind”.
In one sense this goes further than the Biblical “Thou shall not kill” because it also encourages action to save life. On the other hand it sanctions the murder of innocent people as proportionate revenge. And “preventing corruption on earth” is a very ambiguous exemption. Presumably it covers capital punishment for crime, but only a few verses later he says that “…the punishment of those who make war against God and His Messenger and roam the earth corrupting it, is that they be killed, or crucified, or have their hands and feet amputated alternately, or be exiled from the land.”
Near the end of Cattle is another list of moral rules. As well as the general injunction: “Whoso begets a good deed shall be rewarded tenfold; who begets an evil deed shall only be punished once” there’s a list of more specific items. Most are clear and sensible: “show loving kindness towards parents”; don’t kill “your infants for fear of poverty”; “be fair in weights and measures, act equitably”; “do not kill the soul which God has sanctified except in justice”; “do not come near the property of the orphan, except with the best intentions, until the orphan has attained the age of maturity”; “if you pass judgement, be just even if a kinsman is involved…”.
But a couple are unclear: “do not come near indecencies, whether out in the open or else concealed” – no doubt that’s attracted plenty of scholarly interpretation; and “We charge no soul except what it can bear” which, strangely, comes immediately after the one about weights and measures.
Also in “The Table” is the punishment for male and female thieves: “…cut their hand as a penalty for what they reaped – a punishment from God…But whoso repents after his transgression and does good deeds, God shall pardon him…”. There might be some wriggle-room if the Arabic word behind “cut” is not the same as “amputate”, and it’s not clear whether good deeds can avoid both punishment on earth and in the afterlife. But….
On the other hand, the Qur’an improves on the Torah’s “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” rule. He doesn’t contradict it – it fits with his injunction about retaliation being proportionate – but adds: “Whoso freely forgives this right, it shall be counted as expiation for him.”
These chapters also make clearer how the Qur’an’s author sees the relationship between revelations from God and the individuals and communities to which they were directed.
He underlines that the Jewish Torah, the Christian “Evangel” (New Testament) and the Qur’an are all revelations from the same deity: “To you We [God] revealed the Book with the Truth, confirming previous scriptures and witnessing their veracity.”
And he lists Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Noah, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Zachariah, John [presumably the baptist], Jesus, Elijah, Ishmael, Elisha [not clear who that is], Jonah, Lot “all of whom We preferred above mankind. So too their fathers, their progeny and their brothers…They are the ones to whom we granted the Book, the law and the prophesy.” It’s a strange list. I’m no Biblical scholar but, as it looks like he means by the “Torah” the whole of the Old Testament – not just the first five books – he seems to have forgotten about big hitters like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, while relatively minor ones like Zachariah make the cut. And wasn’t David an adulterous king rather than a prophet?
As he believes all three books are revelations from God, he doesn’t contradict them but he repeats (multiple times) that the idea that Jesus was the Son of God, and that he was part of a Trinity, are blasphemy: “It is blasphemy they utter, those who say that God is the third of three!”. Ascribing “partners to God” is forbidden. I think he’s correct that neither the Trinity nor a clear claim that Jesus is the Son of God are actually in the New Testament.
But he repeats the fundamental – if understandable – mistake of thinking that, apart from God and Jesus, the other member of the Trinity is Mary, as in this conversation between God and Jesus: “Remember when God said to Jesus son of Mary: ‘Did you really say to people: “Take me and my mother as two gods, instead of God”?’ He [Jesus] said: “…I said nothing to them except what you commanded me: “Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.”
These mix-ups would fit with the tradition that the author was illiterate. If so, he couldn’t have read the Torah or the “Evangel” for himself and presumably had to rely on what he’d understood from the Jews and Christians he’d encountered.
Although he thinks the Torah, “Evangel” and Qur’an all come from the same deity, some of the laws they contain are apparently community-specific: “For every community We decreed a law and a way of life.” God could have simply made everyone into a single community but decided not to “in order to test you in what he revealed to you. So vie with one another in virtue.” (He deployed the same “test” argument in an earlier chapter to explain why bad things happen to believers.) The implication here is that the “law and way of life” specified in the Qur’an is intended just for the community who received it. For example, he tries to pre-empt people who argue that it was unfair to expect them to meet God’s expectations because “The Book was only revealed to two communities [Jews and Christians] before us”. His response is that “…manifest proof has now come to you from your Lord” in the form of the Qur’an.
Is the “you” here just the Arab tribes of Arabia – his community? There’s nothing to suggest he envisaged a wider community of believers. Did he know that Christians were not a single community? Even if communities are different, why are God’s laws inconsistent? It isn’t clear.
And here’s something potentially controversial, also alluded to in an earlier chapter: he uses Moses’ exhortation to the people of Israel: “O people, enter the holy land which God has marked out for you…” to illustrate what happens when you don’t follow His commands. Apparently they were afraid of the “men of great might” who already occupied the land and refused to attack; their punishment was that the land was “forbidden to them for forty years”. So the Qur’an apparently says that there is a God-given Jewish homeland in the Middle East. It just doesn’t say where this “holy land” was.
While God has done his bit to provide the Jews and Christians with revelation, the author isn’t impressed by their adherence to it: “If only the People of the Book…practice the Torah and the Evangel”. He’s even critical of Jews who have asked him to act as a judge for them “…when they already have the Torah, in which is found the judgement of God”. The Christians have “forgotten a portion of what they were asked to remember” (presumably the Torah), although he concedes that “priests and monks do not grow proud”. He warns his followers not to take Jews and Christians as allies “they are allies of one another”.
More worryingly, he uses them to tell his followers that making friends with unbelievers is sinful and will be punished: “You will witness many of them [people of the Book] making friends with unbelievers – wretched is what their souls have laid in store for them!”.
He also tells his followers to have nothing to do with “those who divide their religion and turn themselves into sects“. He would probably be disappointed to find that the Sunni/Shia split apparently occurred only a few years after his death.
The core rule about food is pretty simple: everything is ok except for “carrion, blood, the flesh of swine”, though in it’s fuller version also forbidden is “that which is consecrated to other than God; also the flesh of animals strangled, killed violently [not sure how any method of slaughter isn’t violent], killed by a fall, gored to death, mangled by wild beasts – except what you ritually sacrifice – or sacrificed to idols.” Anything from the sea is allowed – interesting as the sea is over 300 miles from Mecca so it must have been preserved – but game on land is not allowed “as long as you are in a state of sanctity”. It’s not explained what that means. There’s nothing specific about ritual slaughter. Maybe it’s seen as a way to ensure the “don’t eat blood” rule is met, though I’d be surprised if ritually-slaughtered meat contains any less blood than any other sort. And he doesn’t offer any reason for any of the rules – maybe some or all of them were already being observed.
While the main rules about food are in “The Table”, in “Cattle” he adds “…do not eat food upon which God’s name has not been mentioned, for this is an offence.” Presumably that’s the basis for rendering food Halal by saying a prayer over it.
His explanation for the greater stringency of Jewish dietary laws is that this is how God “requited them for their sins” – a sort of collective punishment. In reality the Jewish rules are hugely complicated. But he simply says: “Upon Jews We [God] forbade all animals with claws. As for cattle and sheep, We forbade them their fats except for the fat on their backs, or entrails or what is mixed with bone.” Even assuming these are additional to the Qur’anic rules, not only is that incomplete – fair enough – but on the face of it, it’s wrong. There’s nothing about “animals with claws”. Seafood maybe? But the actual prohibition is fish that don’t have both fins and scales. And the actual rule on fat just excludes parts of the abdominal fat of cattle, goats and sheep, not everything except the fat on their backs. More to suggest that he didn’t know very much about Jewish or Christian theology.
The “Cattle” chapter takes its name from a set of verses where the author has a go at a set of “false” religious rules to do with cattle. These rules include how cattle are to be shared out and who can eat what. And he claims that whoever advocated them were also relaxed about infanticide. He contrasts these practices with his view that food is there to be eaten “Eat from what God bestowed upon you…” provided it remains inside what he considers his simple dietary rules. It sounds like these rival rules came from someone who had a rival claim to the word of God: “What greater sinner than he who…fabricates lies from God in order to mislead people?” and is one example of a wider issue: he’s deeply frustrated by people’s unwillingness to accept his teaching.
One of the interesting things about “Cattle” is the insight it gives into the arguments of people he’s trying to persuade. Some of them have a humanistic view of life: “There is nothing but this one present life, and we shall not be resurrected.” His answer is effectively Pascal’s Wager: if you take that line, it will be too late when you’re confronted by the truth of God. “Those who take their religion for amusement and frivolity, those whom the present life has beguiled..shall have boiling water to drink and painful torment…”.
Some mock him and claim it’s all just “fables of the ancients”. He cheers himself up by remembering that “messengers before [you] were mocked”. Even if God had personally “inscribed on parchment” he says sceptics would simply have claimed it was “sorcery” and demanded something more convincing. In the absence of miracles, he uses God’s historical tests and punishments to argue his case: He [God] had made previous generations powerful and then “wiped them out because of their sins.” He had “sent messengers to nations before you and …inflicted upon them famine and hardship that they may abase themselves. If only they had abased themselves when Our calamity struck!” This is not the God of Love.
Having said that, he’s clear that only God, not man, punishes unbelievers: “Say: ‘I stand upon a manifest proof from my Lord and you have pronounced it false. I have no authority over what you seek to quicken. Judgement lies solely with God…”. He simply advises his followers not to get into debates about it: “When you see those who wade in and argue about our revelations, turn away from them until they wade into some other topic.”
Similarly, he doesn’t say anything too strong against apostates: “O believers, whoso among you shall apostatise from his religion, let him know that God will bring forth a people whom he loves and who love Him, humble towards the believers but might against the unbelievers…” I think there’s an ambiguity here: “believers” may cover Jews and Christians as well as his own followers, as we know he considers them all “Muslims”. One thing is clear though, there’s no injunction here to kill unbelievers, unless they are actual enemies in war.
Finally, let’s talk about Jinn. According to a note by the translator, Jinn are “Invisible spirits but, like humans, responsible moral beings.” Presumably they were among the normal supernatural beliefs of the time and the Qur’an’s author didn’t question their existence. Instead he incorporates them, firstly by criticising people who claim that Jinn are “partners” of God, even though “He created them”, and then by criticising both bad Jinn and their human friends: “O tribes of Jinn [clearly there are a lot of them], you have indeed seduced many humans”. If humans defend these bad Jinn, both end up in the Fire, “sinners befriend one another”. It sounds like there are also good Jinn, as all will, like humans, be subject to judgement on Judgement Day.
I wonder whether there’s a clever scholarly interpretation to get rid of the embarrassment of Jinn?
A note on who’s speaking: these and previous chapters contain a mix of 1st person “We…” (meaning God) – in some cases in the form of an instruction: “Say: [something God wants to be said]” – and 3rd person: “God said….” or “He it is who…”. It’s almost as if the author sometimes forgets.