i) General Introduction
[This 'General Introduction' is more or less the same as my introduction to my commentary and criticism of Sura 4 - 'the Women'.]
This piece is written by someone who has not studied the Koran ‘in depth’ for twenty or more years. It is written by someone who does not ‘understand the nuances of the original Arabic’. It is also written by someone who has not consulted Koranic scholars in order to be given a ‘proper’ and positive take on the Koran. I take all such obfuscations and rejoinders as good examples of Islamic Taqiyya – that is, as deceits, deceptions or lies used in order to protect - or further the cause of - Islam.
Muslims and Islamophiles may also accuse me of cherry picking only negative passages from the 2nd sura. That may be partly true. However, we have millions upon millions of Muslims in the world who seem to cherry pick only the positive parts of the Koran. Why add to this huge industry? Actually, that is not completely the case. It depends which Muslims we talk to. The ‘extremists’ and Islamists thoroughly accept what I see, but they don’t, as the negative parts of the Koran. And even the ‘moderates’, or those who want to engage with non-Muslims, often only cherry pick the positive parts of the Koran in order to create a false impression of Islam and the Koran. In any case, I genuinely found it hard to pick out any positive passages from this sura. And those passages which are positive in the Koran are often rather bland and are similar to many things which have been written and believed by many people who were not Muslims.
Finally, why should any non-Muslim bow down, as it were, to a Muslim scholar who has been ‘studying’ the Koran for twenty or more years? (Or why should I feel a strong need to immerse myself in, say, Ziauddin Sardar?) This scholar, and many others, may not have a single logical, analytical, critical, philosophical or even historical bone in his body. Thus why should a non-Muslim - or even a Muslim - expect or even require an acute or profound reading of the Koran from such a man? Martin Amis, for example, commented on the fact the one of the founders of contemporary Islamism, Sayyid Qutb, had memorised the Koran by the age of ten. Amis wrote:
‘Qutb… spent his childhood memorising the Koran, and on his own initiative. Now given that, it seems idle to expect much sense from him.’ (61)
Introduction to Surah 2, ‘The Cow’
This surah includes all the usual suspects one usually finds in the Koran and indeed in Islam as a whole – viz., jihad, the Jews and women. This particular surah is strong on the Jews. In basic terms, it gives the theological and historical reasons for the Islamic hatred of the Jews, despite their being seen by Muslims as ‘the People of the Book’. The Jews’ being the People of the Book amounts to very little that is positive to Muslims, as one will see in this essay.
An interesting and very relevant distinction, or lack of one, is then made between fighting and jihad. My argument is that it is indeed the case that the word ‘jihad’ is not often found in the Koran – but ‘fighting’ is! In other words, the concept of [jihad] is found, even if the word ‘jihad’ is not. In any case, there is no real distinction that is made in this surah between fighting and jihad any way. Thus the concentration on the word ‘jihad’ by Muslim apologists or scholars is at the best duplicitous, and at worst, a good example of Islamic Taqiyya.
The role of women is then discussed. Particularly the Koranic position on divorce. It will be seen how remarkably easy divorce is in Islam, or at least is in the Koran and in traditional Muslim societies. It is also remarkably man-friendly.
Finally we will find the strong Islamic distinction which is made between usury and trading. This too has theological components and implications. And one would not be far off the mark if one immediately sees a direct connection to the Koranic or Islamic position on the Jews here as well.
Jihad or Fighting?
In Surah 2, as in every other surah, there are many references to jihad. Not to ‘internal struggle’ – to violent or aggressive jihad. No Muslim, at least no Muslim male of fighting age (although al-Qaeda Hamas and Hezbollah have used women recently) can be spared from the duty of Jihad. Jihad is not peripheral to Islam. It is at its very heart. Only such a statement can explain what follows:
‘Fighting is obligatory for you [all Muslims], much as you dislike it. But you may hate a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing although it is bad for you. Allah knows, but you know not.’ – 2:216
Many Muslims have made much of the fact that there are no references to ‘jihad’ in the Koran. What they really mean, despite the nauseating use of Islamic Taqiyya, is that the word itself, 'jihad', is not used in the Koran.(This itself only depends on translation.) The concept [jihad] is in the Koran. The word ‘jihad’ is not. What a scandalous piece of deceit that is. According to these ‘scholars’:
fighting ≠ jihad
jihad ≠ fighting
‘Fighting is obligatory for you.’ ≠ ‘Jihad is obligatory for you.’
(This is similar to arguing that the BNP is not racist because it never uses the word ‘nigger’ or any other explicitly racist term for black people.)
Fighting is mentioned in the Koran, but not jihad. OK then. So fighting is at the heart of the Koran, not jihad. What’s the difference? Is there a difference? Perhaps I need to ask an Islamic scholar. Which one? There are millions of them; all of whom say different things!
Much is also made of the fact that the Koran only allows defensive war or force. They quote the often-used line:
‘Allah does not love aggressors.’
The problem is that anything can be deemed as aggression. Anything can be seen as defensive. And just about everything is seen as being aggressive towards Islam in the Koran; just as it is by today’s Muslims. Thus Muslims never have a shortage of things to be defensively aggressive about. There has never been a shortage of ‘defensive’ wars in Islamic history either. Don’t forget that
i) The Satanic Verses were an ‘attack on Islam’.
ii) The Danish cartoons were ‘an attack on Mohammed’.
iii) The banning of the veil in France is an ‘attack on Islam and Muslim women’.
iv) Not allowing Sharia law in Bradford is an attack on Muslims. Ad infinitum!
A theme which can be seen throughout the Koran is the ‘aggressive’ act of other religions forcing Muslims ‘to renounce [their] faith’. What does that mean? -
i) Saying one’s Christian or Hindu prayers in front of a Muslim can be deemed as an attempt by ‘infidels’ to get Muslims ‘to renounce [their] faith’.
ii) Building churches in Saudi Arabia is actually seen as an attempt by Christians to get Muslims to ‘renounce their faith’.
iii) Anything at odds with Islam could and has been seen by Muslims as an attempt by non-Muslims to try and get them to renounce their faith. Ad infinitum!
Thus these so-called ‘attacks’ on Muslims end up being the best form of attack for Muslims, as it were. This is an example of this defensive or paranoid Muslim mentality from the Koran:
‘They [the Jews, Christians, etc.] will not cease to fight against you until they force you to renounce your faith – if they are able.’ – 2:216
The obvious result of all this is that all non-Muslims, or all non-Muslim objects and symbols, are seen as a direct threat to both Islam and to Muslims. Indeed all these things are seen as tacit or explicit acts of aggression towards Islam or Muslims. Allah ‘does not like aggressors’. Thus that almost pacifist-like phrase, which is meant to show us that Muslims or Islam is not aggressive or violent, is actually a warning to all non-Muslims that they should never mess with Muslims. It is not actually aimed at Muslims at all. It is aimed at the infidel. Not only that, but it gives Muslims an excuse or justification for defensive attacks on non-Muslims. Thus defence, or defensive attack, is virtually indistinguishable from plain or outright Muslim expansionist attack. And one of the very few passages against ‘aggressors’ or aggression turns out not to be what it seems. It is, in fact, aimed at us – not at Muslims! What else would one expect from a warrior-prophet?
In this part of this surah, it is ‘idolatry’ which is seen as, well, aggressive, or an act of aggression, towards Muslims. The very existence of idolatry, Jewish, Christian or whatever, is seen as aggressive or expansionist in or by the Koran. And because it is an act of aggression, Muslims can ‘fight’ against it. That is, jihad against idolatry is accepted and encouraged. In fact in Islam and the Koran idolatry is seen as being worse than the killing which will occur in a ‘defensive’ attack against it. Thus:
‘Idolatry is more grievous than bloodshed.’ – 2:216
From then on, in this surah, there are various references to ‘fighting’ (not ‘jihad’!). For example, Muslims are enjoined to ‘[F]ight for the cause of Allah’ (2:242).
Muslims, in the Koran and today, don’t want to be the ‘victims’ of what they see as the aggression of other religions. That’s what they don’t want. What do they want? This:
‘… [Allah]. Give us victory over the unbelievers.’ – 2:286
The best way to stop infidel aggression, however that aggression is seen, is to gain a ‘victory over the unbelievers’. Thus when every unbeliever is dead or converted (or ‘reverted’), there will indeed be peace. But even that is only brought about after everyone’s complete submission to Allah.
Again, we have another Koranic reference to not attacking the ‘aggressor’ first. (If the ‘aggressor’ does not attack first, he can’t be the aggressor.) Here again it is others who are seen, in the Koran, as fighting against Muslims. It is not a case of Muslims attacking others. If we remember how wide ‘attack’ can be read by Muslims or in Islam, then the following passage should seem very problematic and in no way a direct or indirect reference to some kind of Islamic semi-pacifism, as it were:
‘Fight for the sake of Allah those that fight against you, but do not attack then first. God does not love the aggressors.’ – 2:189
What is meant by ‘fight’ and ‘aggressors’ here? Today Muslims see anything or everything as aggression against Muslims, Islam or Mohammed. If they do that today, and often in non-Muslim countries, imagine how things were in the Prophet’s time. In fact, in the very next paragraph we are given a hint, or even a statement, as to what kind of aggression we are talking about here. We are talking about infidel or unbeliever ‘idolatry’! Idolatry itself is seen as aggression by Mohammed and his fellow Muslims, as it is today. The Koran says:
‘Idolatry is more grievous than bloodshed.’ – 2:189
That is just a few lines after the Koran talked about infidel aggression towards Mohammed and his fellow Muslims. Thus we must conclude that infidel idolatry or idols are seen as aggression or aggressive. It is probable that this particular reference is to pagan Arab idols and idolatry. It could just as easily refer to Christians and churches or Jews and synagogues.
The very next few sentences make one think that the Islamic or Muslim view of aggression is very strange. Or should I say that the Islamic view of self-defence is very strange. Do the following words sounds like a call to self-defence or the cry of those who are suffering from infidel aggression? –
‘Fight against them until idolatry is no more and Allah’s religion reigns supreme.’ – 2:189
There is another reference to aggression, or violence, in this surah which is not directly connected with jihad or fighting. It is a statement which seems to be taken directly from the Old Testament business of ‘an eye for an eye’. It also contains a reference to slaves and the legitimisation of slavery. It goes:
‘Believers, retaliation is decreed for you in bloodshed: a free man for a free man, a slave for a slave, and a female for a female.’ – 2:178
Having said that, this can also be seen as a reference to jihad, or, should I say, to Islamic defensive-attack or defensive aggression, which I have covered. That is, the reference to ‘retaliation’. Thus Muslims can retaliate not for direct physical attacks or force against them, but for the example of the ‘idolatry’ already mentioned. Thus if anyone builds a church, temple or synagogue, or prays out loud, then Muslims can ‘retaliate’ against the infidel or unbeliever because such things are, after all, seen as being attacks by Muslims, the Koran, or Mohammed.
Despite all that, even though Allah or the Koran most definitely encourages jihad, or defensive aggression, death itself does not actually exist for the martyr or jihadist. Those that die in battle against the infidel, or when they have exploded their suicide bomb, are not dead:
‘And call not those who are slain in the way of Allah “dead”. Nay, they are living, only you perceive not.’ - 154
It is no wonder, then, that the mothers of suicide bombers or jihadists encourage their sons to become killers-for-Islam and even celebrate upon hearing of their sons’ deaths ‘in the way of Allah’.
There is a lot of ranting and raving in Surah 2 about how bad the Jews are. There is a lot of ranting and raving about the Jews throughout the Koran. This Surah is particularly strong on Jew-bashing. Their main sin is rejecting ‘the Prophets’ with an‘s’ and rejecting the Prophet without an ‘s’ (i.e., Mohammed).
For example, we have this:
‘… you [the Jews or ‘Israelites’] broke your covenant [with Allah] except a few, and gave no heed.’ – 2:80
This is what Allah asked of the Jews, and, thus, what they ‘broke’:
‘When I made a convenant with the Israelites I said: “Serve none but God. Show kindness to your parents, to your kinsfolk, to the orphans, and to the destitute. Exhort men to righteousness. Attend to your prayers and render the alms levy.”’ – 2:80
Thus we must conclude, if only from these words, that that the Jews not only broke their convenant with Allah, but they did not show kindness to their parents, to their kinsfolk, to their orphans, or to the destitute. They did not ‘exhort’ men to do good either. Or help the poor or say their prayers. The Jews were a pretty bad lot, if this propaganda is to be believed. Perhaps they are still a bad lot. Perhaps this is Hamas’s or Hezbollah’s favourite surah in the Koran.
Another thing the Jews were guilty of was believing one part of the Scripture and denying the other. Or, as Mohammed puts it:
‘Can you believe in one part of the Scriptures and deny another?’ – 2:85
What Mohammed means here is that the Jews were denying the Koran. And the Koran is what Mohammed spoke. Thus they were denying the words of Mohammed. This is not surprising considering the fact that the Judaic religion pre-dated Mohammed by over a thousand years. He must have seemed to most of them as little more than a puffed-up impostor. No wonder Mohammed grew to hate the Jews. What a slap in the face he received from them! How dare you not believe my words!
There is even a reference to the Jews killing Jesus. It says:
‘Why did you kill the prophets of God, if you are true believers?’
(Wasn’t it the Romans who killed Jesus? I know there is a little dispute about this.)
However, that very denial of Scriptures or ‘revelations’ (that is, the Koran or Mohammed’s words) is clearly and unequivocally criticised thus:
‘We sent down to you [the Jews] clear revelations: none will deny them except the evil-doers.’ – 2: 98
The Jews denied the truth of Mohammed’s words, thus they were, and are, ‘evil-doers’ – the Jews were and are evil.
Another way of putting all this is to say that the Jews were Allah’s ‘chosen ones’, but that they then rejected Him, his prophets and scriptures. Thus they are bad people. So it is very strange that when the criticisms of Israel are discussed, or Islamic anti-Semitism, etc., Muslim often say: But Jews are the People of the Book. Next time a Muslim says that, ask him or her to tell you exactly what the Koran says about the Jews. Yes, they are ‘the People of the Book’. But they are the people of the Book who rejected Allah, the prophets and their scriptures. There is nothing positive in the Koran about the Jews, other than their classification, ‘the People of the Book’; as well as the simple fact that they were ‘chosen’ by Allah himself.
This is supposed to be Allah himself speaking to the Jews:
‘O Children of Israel! Remember My favour with which I favoured you, and fulfil your (part of the covenant, I shall fulfil My (part of the) convent, and fear Me.’ - 40
The Jews are the People of the Book essentially because they ‘already possess’ a part of Scripture. The Koran, of course, is the next part. Thus:
‘And believe in that which I reveal, confirming that which you possess already (of the Scripture), and be not first to disbelieve it, and part not with My revelations for a trifling price, and keep your duty to Me.’ – 41
Thus what the Jews already had, plus the Koran, constituted a single ‘Scripture’. And that is why the word ‘Scripture’ has a capital ‘S’.
Up until the time of Mohammed, or the Koran, Allah had actually ‘favoured’ the Jews or the Israelites. Thus we have a few references to what can now be found in the Old Testament. Allah essentially tells the Jews about how he ‘delivered [them] from Pharaoh’s people’ (49). Allah also refers to a time when the Jews were bad. For example, when they ‘wronged’ Moses (thus Allah) and instead chose to ‘worship a calf’ (54). But all this is small fry compared to when the Jews rejected Mohammed and his Koran. That was abominable! This is how the Koran itself puts it:
‘[T]hey [the Jews] disbelieved in Allah’s revelations and slew the prophets wrongfully. That was for their disobedience and transgression.’ (61)
This is a reference to what the Jews ‘disbelieved’ before the coming of Mohammed and the Koran. (I.e., a reference to Christ, amongst other things.) As I have already said, Muslims see the Koran and the earlier works of the non-Muslim prophets as all being a part of a single entity – the Scripture. Thus when the Jews believed the earlier parts, but rejected the Koran, that was ‘unlawful’ (85):
‘Do you believe in part of the Scripture and disbelieve in part of it?’ [That ‘part’ being the Koran and perhaps also Christian scripture.] - 85
Because of this Jewish act of ‘obstinacy’, Allah decided to punish the Jews and other ‘unbelievers’ by hardening their hearts. Allah says that after their rejection of Mohammed and the Koran Jewish ‘hearts were hardened and became as rocks, or worse than rocks, for hardness’ (12). Thus we now have one explanation for the long-running belief that the Jews are inhuman and unmoved by the suffering of all non-Jews. The terms ‘hardhearted’ or ‘stonehearted’ may in part come direct from the Koran!
Allah also punished the Jews by making them ‘greedy for life’, not for death (thus Paradise)! This can be explained by statement from Hamas. A spokesman for the terrorist group said that ‘they would defeat the Jews because the Jews love life more than death, whereas we love death alone’. This is how that message is expressed in the Koran:
‘And you will find them greediest of mankind for life and (greedier) than the idolaters.’ – 96
Women: Menstruation and Divorce
As many people know, divorce is very easy in Islam. Or, at the least, it is according to the Koran and in traditional Muslim societies. If I wanted to divorce or ‘renounce’ my wife, all I would need to do is give her – or construct - an ‘oath’. The only handicap there, however, is that I would need to wait four months before the renunciation or divorce was complete or finalised. Here is the passage:
‘Those that renounce their wives on oath must wait four months.’
As I have just said, the divorce is only complete or final four months after the initial ‘oath’. This means that the Muslim man can change his mind within that period. That is, he can decide not to divorce his wife:
‘If [men or husbands] change their minds, Allah is forgiving and merciful; but if they decide to divorce them [their wives], know that Allah hears all and knows all.’ – 2:222
What about Muslim women or wives? After they have been divorced by their husbands
‘[d]ivorced women must wait, keeping themselves from men, three menstrual courses.’ – 2:228
Thus, when women are divorced, or ‘renounced’, by their husbands, they must wait three months or more before they can remarry. The only extra bit of detail we get here is that when the husband divorces his wife, she must not, at that time, hide the fact that she is pregnant from him because the pregnancy would clearly influence the man’s decision as to the divorce. Or as the Koran puts it:
‘It is unlawful of them [wives or women], if they believe in Allah and the Last Day, to hide what Allah has created in their wombs: in which case their husbands would do well to take them back, should they desire reconciliation.’ – 2:228
Whereas it is ‘unlawful’ for a wife or a woman to hide her pregnancy from her husband (after the oath of divorce), it is only the case that the husband ‘would do well’ to desist from the divorce when he finds out that his wife is pregnant. Thus Mohammed, or Allah, only suggests that a husband should stay with his wife (not divorce her) when and if he find out that she is pregnant. On the other hand, it is ‘unlawful’ for the wife to hide her pregnancy from her husband after he has divorced her (bearing in mind that the divorce is only complete or finalised after four months).
Can women divorce their husbands as well? It is hard to say. Or, I should say, it is hard to say if one is only relying on this surah for an answer to that question. That is, the next paragraph or passage is a little ambivalent as to a woman’s right to divorce her husband. It says:
‘Women shall with justice have rights similar to those exercised against them, although men have a status above women.’ – 2:228
The first clause
‘Women shall with justice have rights similar to those exercised against them…’
seems to suggest that women can divorce their husbands as well. After all, it has been the divorce by a husband that has been ‘exercised against them’. However, the next clause
‘although men have a status above women.’
seems to negate this right. The thing is that it is hard to decide – if only from this surah alone - whether women have the right to divorce their husbands as well. Of course, this issue may well be settled elsewhere in the Koran (or outside the Koran!). Despite this problem, it is unequivocally the case, as it is everywhere else in the Koran, that in Islam ‘men have a status above women’. That statement alone, as well as the fact that there is no mention in this surah about women being able to divorce their husbands, suggests that women cannot divorce their husbands.
Many Muslims have some odd obsessions about cleanliness, most of which date back to Koran. In this surah’s case, it is women who are dirty or unclean. Or at least they are during their menstrual period. The warning is simple. Men and husbands must keep away from ‘their’ women when they are having their periods. Not only is a period seen as unclean, it is also seen as an ‘indisposition’ or even an ‘illness’ (in certain translations). The relevant passage in this surah goes:
‘It is an indisposition. Keep aloof from women during their menstrual periods and do not approach them until they are clean again; when they are clean, have intercourse with them whence Allah enjoined you.’ – 2:222
One wonder if the ‘intercourse’ mentioned above is ‘sexual intercourse’ or ‘social intercourse’. However, in the very next sentence it says that ‘[w]omen are your fields: go, then, into your fields whence you please’ (2:222). Thus it is my guess that the intercourse being referred to here is sexual intercourse. After all, one seeds fields, as one does women.
Almsgiving and Usury
Yes, there are indeed references to helping the poor in the Koran and indeed in this specific surah. The problem is that there are only a few statements to go on. Nothing is elaborated upon. Nothing is argued for. Not many examples are given. Nothing much, in fact, is actually said about helping the poor and other such positives. These statements could have been said by anyone and in any book. They do not even sound like great literature in my translations. For instance, there are only about four sentences on giving ‘alms’ to the poor and all the rest is either repetition or evocations of Allah’s greatness - again and again and again. For example:
‘To be charitable in public is good, but to give alms to the poor in private is better and will atone for some of your sins.’ – 2:267
That’s it! There are other references a little later; but nothing about almsgiving is added to. The only additions are about Allah’s attitude to almsgiving, not to almsgiving itself. No wonder Islam requires the hadiths, the sunnah, Islamic jurisprudence and the rest! Yet, in essence, it’s all supposed to be here – in the Koran!
Not only that, but Islamic almsgiving can hardly be said to be altruistic in nature. Take the very same two or three paragraphs. For example:
‘… whatever alms you give shall be paid back to you in full: you shall not be wronged.’ – 2:272
In other words, the more you give the more you will get back at payback time in Paradise. Thus you are essentially being paid, or rewarded, for doing good. You are not encouraged to do good for the sake of doing good or because you want to help the poor.
In addition, if you give alms, you
‘will atone for some of your sins.’ – 2:267
Instead of going to confession after you have killed someone, you can instead give a couple of quid to the poor and thus be atoned for your sin. Brilliant! How much do I need to give to the poor to atone for my killing a hundred people in cold blood? Twenty pounds? The oil-rich Wahhabi Saudis must be guaranteed a place in Paradise if all this is anything to go on.
‘Whatever alms you give shall rebound to your own advantage…’ – 2:272
The only requirement here is that you do it ‘for the love of Allah’, not for the love of the poor or the love of anyone else for that matter. And if Allah is going to save you a place in Paradise for your almsgiving, or ‘pay back to you in full’, then it is little surprise that the onus is on loving Allah and not on loving the poor or on loving anyone else.
Tied in with these ‘positive’ remarks about almsgiving are some rather negative ones about usury. Usury is seen very differently in these very same passages. Arabs Muslims loved trading. They still do. Thus it seems that in this surah, and historically, there was a need to distinguish trading from usury. Trading good: usury bad. Actually, the Koran claims that it is the usurers themselves who say that ‘usurer is the same as trading’, or even that it is a form of trading. The Koran thinks differently:
‘Those that live on usury shall rise up before Allah like men whom Satan has demented by his touch; for they claim that trading is no different from usury. But Allah has permitted trading and made usury unlawful.’ – 2:275
As I said about the passages on almsgiving, there is little to go on here. Once these statements on usury are made, that’s just about it. There are no reasons given for the choice of trading rather than usury. There is no explanation and no argument. Perhaps I am expecting too much from a holy book. However, there are historical and political reasons for this choice (amounting to the Jewish tribes (usury) being at odds with the Muslim tribes (trading)). I know of some reasons why usury is a bad thing. I know of other reasons why it is a good thing. But since I’m sticking to the actual text, to this surah, I will not add anything to this.
i) Parts of Naseem Dawood’s translation are disputed, as is every translation of the Koran. Particularly, the sentence: ‘Idolatry is more grievous than killing’. Certain Muslim commentators say that it should be: ‘Heresy is more grievous than killing.’ That translational point does not make a profound, or even a small, difference to my overall reading of this surah. Indeed these words can be mutually substituted without effecting anything in my general reading.
ii) The Koranic references ending with a number which includes a colon are from Naseen Dawood’s translation. The quoted passages from the Koran with only numbers are from Muhammad Pickthall’s translation.
i) The Koran, translated by Naseem Dawood 1956/1995 (with revisions), Penguin Classics.
ii) The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an: An Explanatory Translation, translation by Muhammad Pickthall, 2004/5, Islamic Dawah Centre International.