Lesson From The Quran

Verse 63

وَإِذْ أَخَذْنَا مِيثَاقَكُمْ وَرَفَعْنَا فَوْقَكُمُ الطُّورَ خُذُوا مَا آتَيْنَاكُمْ بِقُوَّةٍ وَاذْكُرُوا مَا فِيهِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ

And when We took pledge from you, and raised high above you the (Mount of) Tur: "Hold fast to what We have given to you, and remember what is there in it, so that you may become God-fearing."

Having received the Torah from Allah, Sayyidna Musa (Moses) (AS) returned from Mount Tur (Sinai) and recited it to the Israelites. The injunctions contained in the Book were rather rigorous, but their conduct and habits of mind really called for such strict disci­pline. To begin with, they replied that they would not obey the injunc­tions until and unless Allah Himself told them that it was His book. Seventy men, as we have related above, were selected to go to Mount Tur and to hear Allah attest the authenticity of the Torah. On their re­turn, they bore witness to the Torah being a Book of Allah, but added something on their own to what Allah had actually said. For, they told the Israelites that Allah had allowed them to act upon the injunctions only as much as they could, and had promised to forgive them for what they could not accomplish. They had always and instinctively been prone to rebellion against Allah, then, the injunctions were, no doubt, stern, and now they got a new pretext for being negligent. So, the Is­raelites flatly refused to obey the injunctions, insisting that it was be­yond their endurance to act upon such harsh regulations. In reply to this insolence, Allah commanded the angels to raise Mount Tur and let it hang in the air above their heads as a threat that if they did not ful­fil their covenant with Allah, it would fall on them and crush them. The Israelites, then, had no choice but to submit.

A doubt is quite likely to arise here. The Holy Qur'an says in another place that force should not be used to make a man change his religion, while in the present instance it appears that force is being used. But, in fact, force is not being used to make the Israelites change their religion, for they had already accepted Sayyidna Musa (Moses) (AS) as a prophet of Allah, and willingly made a covenant with Allah that they would act upon the Book of Allah, if one was given to them. So, they now stand as rebels, and are being threatened with dire punishment for persisting in their rebellion. This is exactly how even a secular state deals with rebels, and how it adopts towards them an attitude quite different from that towards aliens or enemies, for it leaves only two ways open to the rebel either to submit himself, or to lose his life. That is why it is only an apostate (Murtadd) who is, according to the Islamic Shari'ah, condemned to capital punishment, and not an outright disbeliever. Moreover, the Israelites were being threatened with death as criminals and offenders against the law which they acknowledged to be the divine law, but which they refused to obey.

Verse 64

ثُمَّ تَوَلَّيْتُمْ مِنْ بَعْدِ ذَلِكَ فَلَوْلَا فَضْلُ اللَّهِ عَلَيْكُمْ وَرَحْمَتُهُ لَكُنْتُمْ مِنَ الْخَاسِرِينَ

Then even after that, you did turn away. So, had it not been for the grace of Allah upon you, and His mercy, you surely would have been among the losers.

The Israelites went against the Covenant they had made with Allah. The sin was so grave that one could have expected utter destruction and ruin to descend on them as a punishment. But Allah, in His mercy, spared them in so far as physical life is concerned, although they will have to pay for their treason in the other world. Allah's mercy is of two kinds. One is general and extends to believers and disbelievers alike — its action is to be seen in the shape of worldly well-being and prosperity. The other is special, and pertains to believers alone — it will manifest itself particularly in the other world in the shape of salvation and closeness to Allah.

It appears that the last phrase of the present verse has been addressed to the Jews who were the contemporaries of the Holy Prophet (Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam). Since having faith in him is also a part of the Covenant, these Jews too have been included among those who had been guilty of infringement. In this verse, Allah asks them to realize that it is in His mercy alone that he has not, in spite of their treason, sent down on them the kind of catastrophic punishment in this world as used to descend on the other infidels and traitors who have gone before.

Since a number of authentic ahadith declare that it is the barakah of the Holy Prophet (Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam) that catastrophic punishments no longer descend on any people, some commentators have identified this particular mercy and grace of Allah with the sending down of Muhammad (Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam) as a Prophet and Messenger of Allah.

In order to emphasize what the present verse has said, the next verse tells the story of another group of earlier transgressors and of the dreadful punishment which overtook them all of a sudden.

Verses 65 - 66

وَلَقَدْ عَلِمْتُمُ الَّذِينَ اعْتَدَوْا مِنْكُمْ فِي السَّبْتِ فَقُلْنَا لَهُمْ كُونُوا قِرَدَةً خَاسِئِينَ () فَجَعَلْنَاهَا نَكَالًا لِمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهَا وَمَا خَلْفَهَا وَمَوْعِظَةً لِلْمُتَّقِينَ ()

And certainly you have known those among you who transgressed in (the matter of) the Sabbath. So, We said to them, "Become apes, living in disgrace." Thus, We made it a deterrent for those around and after them --and a lesson for the God-fearing.

This episode belongs to the time of Sayyidna Dawud (David) (AS). Allah had appointed Saturday as the Sabbath, or the sacred day, for the Israelites; it was specially set apart for prayers and worship, and hence fishing was prohibited on this day. But these people lived on the sea-shore, and were very fond of fish. Al-Qurtubi says that the Is­raelites, at first, invented all sorts of clever pretences for catching fish on Saturday, and gradually started doing so openly. There now grew a division amongst them on this point. On the one hand were these transgressors, and, on the other, some scholars and pious men who tried to dissuade them from such disobedience. When the former paid no heed to them, the latter broke away altogether from the sinners, and began to live in a separate part of the town. One day they felt no sound was coming from the other part of the town. Growing curious, they went there and found that all the transgressors had been changed into apes. Qatadah says that the young ones had become apes, and the old ones swine. The apes could recognize their relatives and friends, and would approach them weeping out of remorse, and seeking their sympathy and help. Then all of them died after three days.

As to the question whether the apes and the swine we see today bear any kinship to these Israelites who had been metamorphosed, the correct position is that people who have been metamorphosed into beasts by Allah as a punishment cease to breed, and leave no progeny behind. According to a hadith reported by Imam Muslim from the blessed Companion 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ud (RA), some people asked the Holy Prophet (Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam) whether the apes and the swine were the descendants of the metamorphosed Jews. The Holy Prophet (Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam) reminded them that apes and swine existed in the world even before, and said that when Allah sends down this particular kind of punishment on a people, the race comes to an end with this, and there is no further breeding. (Some 'modernizing' Muslims have tried to explain away this metamorphosis by suggesting that these disobedient Jews did not actually and physically turn into beasts, but that the change was only psychological in so far as they acquired the evil characteristics of apes and swine. To say such a thing is to deny an explicit statement of the Holy Qur'an, which no Muslim can do, if he wishes to remain a Muslim. Moreover, in denying the possibility of physical change, the 'modernizers' are also denying the power of Allah, and putting limitations on it. Even as a piece of literary exegesis, the 'modernist' interpretation is flimsy. For, even before the punishment fell on them, these Jews had been displaying the moral and psychological traits of beasts: the greed of swine and the craftiness of apes. Where was, then, the change which the Holy Qur'an declares to be a punishment for the offenders and a warning for others? Our 'modernists' are, in fact, all too ready to swallow without batting an eye-lid the most preposterous and unfounded notions, only if they come from the West. So, they have complete certitude with regard to Darwin's speculation, that the apes evolved into man, although no verifiable data has yet been gathered to support the contention; but when it comes to the statement in the Holy Qur'an that men were changed into apes, they look askance at it, although this kind of change is rationally and logically as possible as the other).

Let us now go back to the verse under discussion. The people who witnessed the event, or heard of it, were of two kinds - the disobedient and the obedient. For the disobedient, it served as a 'deterrent', an example and a warning, which persuaded them to repent of their disobedience. For the obedient, it was a lesson and a reminder that they should be steadfast in their obedience. It serves these two purposes even now.

Injunctions and related considerations

We have been saying that the Jews who were changed into apes had used certain ruses or pretences to justify their sin in their own eyes. This brings us to a rather delicate question of Fiqh (Islamic ju­risprudence). Certain 'modernists' have quite shamelessly been busy maligning the master-jurists of Islam by suggesting that these masters have invented very intricate "stratagems" (Hiyal, plural ofHilah) for helping the rich and powerful to infringe the laws of the Shari'ah and get away with it. This is a petty calumny, and should not have been worthy of consideration except for the fact that such 'modernists' have had some success with the gullible and the ignorant by playing upon the Arabic word Hilah. As everyone knows, the lexical meaning of a word is one thing, and its technical signification, when it is used as a term in some science, is another. In its literal sense, the word Hi­lah no doubt means "a trick, a stratagem", but as a technical term in Fiqh it signifies a device for and a means of giving legitimacy to an ac­tion in a contingency by making certain necessary modifications in it in consonance with the Shari'ah. Thus, it is not a way of by-passing the Shari'ah, but of helping people to conform to it even in a situation where necessity or human weakness would compel them to go against it.

The present verse has a particular relevance to the question, and would help to clarify it a great deal. The transgression on the part of the Jews which the verse speaks of, and which drew upon them such dreadful punishment, was not a clear and explicit infringement of divine law, but the use of certain "tricks" which necessarily involved the negation of the divine commandment. For example, on Saturday they would tie one end of a cord to the tail of a fish and the other end to something on the shore, and leave the fish in the water; on Sunday, they would take it out and eat it. Such a ruse not only negates an injunction of the Shari'ah, but is actually a mockery. That is why those who practised such "stratagems" were considered to be disobedient and rebellious, and subjected to dire punishment.

But this particular instance does in no way go to prove that the Hiyal are impermissible. We have explained the nature and purpose of such "devices" alone. Not only do they form an integral part of Fiqh, but some of them have actually been suggested by the Holy Prophet (Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam) himself. For example, bartering a kilo of good dates for two kilos of bad dates is, according to the Shari'ah, a kind of usury. The Holy Prophet (S has suggested a "device" (Hilah) for avoiding the infringement of this regulation in a situation where such a transaction becomes necessary - that is, instead of bartering one commodity for another, one may employ the exchange value of money: first sell two kilos of bad dates for two rupees, and then with the two rupees thus obtained buy a kilo of good dates. The intention in using this "device" is to conform to the Shari'ah, and not to by-pass it. The negation of the Shari'ah is neither intended here, nor does it actually take place. This principle holds good in the case of all the Hiyal which the Fuqaha' (jurists) have proposed in order to save people from practicing what the Shari'ah has prohibited. It is a travesty of the truth to compare them to or represent them as the "tricks" employed by the Jews to negate and mock the Shari'ah.

Verse 67

وَإِذْ قَالَ مُوسٰى لِقَوْمِهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَأْمُرُكُمْ أَنْ تَذْبَحُوا بَقَرَةً قَالُوا أَتَتَّخِذُنَا هُزُوًا قَالَ أَعُوذُ بِاللَّهِ أَنْ أَكُونَ مِنَ الْجَاهِلِينَ

And when Musa said to his people, "Allah commands you to slaughter a cow." They said, "Are you making us a laughing stock?" He said, "I seek refuge with Allah that I be one of the ignorant."

According to Mirqat, a commentary on Mishkat, a man among the Israelites wanted to marry a girl, but her father refused. The suitor was so incensed that he killed the father, and disappeared. It is mentioned in Ma'alim al-tanzil which says on the authority of Kalbi that Allah had not yet sent down any injunction with regard to man-slaughter. If it was so, this shows that the incident happened before the Torah was revealed. Anyhow, the Israelites requested Sayyidna Musa (AS) to tell them how to trace the culprit. Under the commandment of Allah, he asked them to sacrifice a cow. As was their regular habit, they started raising all kinds of doubts and objections, of which the next verses give us the details.

Verses 68 - 71

قَالُوا ادْعُ لَنَا رَبَّكَ يُبَيِّنْ لَنَا مَا هِيَ قَالَ إِنَّهُ يَقُولُ إِنَّهَا بَقَرَةٌ لَا فَارِضٌ وَلَا بِكْرٌ عَوَانٌ بَيْنَ ذَلِكَ فَافْعَلُوا مَا تُؤْمَرُونَ () قَالُوا ادْعُ لَنَا رَبَّكَ يُبَيِّنْ لَنَا مَا لَوْنُهَا قَالَ إِنَّهُ يَقُولُ إِنَّهَا بَقَرَةٌ صَفْرَاءُ فَاقِعٌ لَوْنُهَا تَسُرُّ النَّاظِرِينَ () قَالُوا ادْعُ لَنَا رَبَّكَ يُبَيِّنْ لَنَا مَا هِيَ إِنَّ الْبَقَرَ تَشَابَهَ عَلَيْنَا وَإِنَّا إِنْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ لَمُهْتَدُونَ () قَالَ إِنَّهُ يَقُولُ إِنَّهَا بَقَرَةٌ لَا ذَلُولٌ تُثِيرُ الْأَرْضَ وَلَا تَسْقِي الْحَرْثَ مُسَلَّمَةٌ لَا شِيَةَ فِيهَا قَالُوا الْآنَ جِئْتَ بِالْحَقِّ فَذَبَحُوهَا وَمَا كَادُوا يَفْعَلُونَ ()

They said, 'Pray for us to your Lord that He makes it clear to us what sort she be." He said, "He says she be -a cow neither too old, nor too young - of some middle age in between. Now, do what you are being asked to do." They said, "Pray for us to your Lord that He make it clear to us what colour she be." He said: "He says that she be a yellow cow, rich yellow in her colour, pleasing for all to look at." They said, "Pray for us to your Lord that He makes it clear to us of what sort she be, for we are confused about this cow, and if Allah wills, We shall certainly take the right course." He said, "He says that it be a cow which is not tractable for tilling the soil or in watering the fields, sound and without blemish." They said, "Now, you have come up with the truth." Then, they slaughtered her, although it did not appear they would do it.

These Verses show how the Israelites were disposed to disobedi­ence, and how this inclination expressed itself in different forms. The Hadith says that if these people had obeyed Allah's commandment without raising so many doubts and asking unnecessary questions, such strict condition would not have been imposed on them, and the sacrifice of any cow whatsoever would have been accepted.