Very early in the Quran (2:49 onwards), we encounter the narrative of Musa and his people. In my view, his people demonstrate some of the most fundamental errors religionists commit when approaching religion. Reflecting upon these short-comings, and thereby gaining wisdom and inspiration from them is the purpose of this blog.
If you’ve read the Quran, you would be well aware that it delves extensively on the narratives of previous communities. The purpose of this is not to provide history for the sake of it, but so that we, as readers of the Quran, benefit by not making the same mistakes people have been making for centuries. As the prime focus of the Quran is the evolution of humankind, these narratives encourage us to reflect upon the actions of historic people, thereby transcending their paradigms.
However, reflecting upon the condition of the contemporary Muslim Ummah, it comes as no surprise that we have horribly failed in that task, and are in actuality, no different from them. Naturally, until there is an active effort to acknowledge our mistakes, change seems like a distant possibility.
Musa (Salutes and respect) was no ordinary man. He was a revolutionary figure, and a very holistic example of taking a stand against oppression, no matter the resistance at hand. Such was the caliber of the man, that not only was he a spiritual activist, he was a political activist too; a role model for all of us to emulate and draw inspiration from. Yet, his people — the children of Israel — come off as extremely hypocritical and ungrateful for his service; constantly nagging him by making unreasonable demands (Quran 33:69) against the moral code (Deen) he brought forward.
So, here are the 2 lessons that I would encourage you to reflect upon.
Lesson No. 1: Giving preference to secondary sources over the primary source
“You said, “O Moses! We are weary of the same kind of food, so ask your Lord on our behalf to bring forth for us plant food such as herbs, cucumbers, garlic, lentils and onions.” He said, “Would you exchange something superior for something inferior? Go back in shame to Egypt and you will get what you demand…” (Part – Quran, 2:61)
Let me start off by announcing that I disagree with the traditional interpretation here. It certainly goes against reason that God would condemn somebody just because they asked for some vegetables. Clearly, the matter at hand seems to be of a greater significance. Alas, when you interpret metaphors literally, it’s always bound to come off as somewhat absurd.
In my humble opinion and rendering of the Quran, food, here, symbolizes nourishment. Even in English, we use idioms like “food for thought”, “chew on that”, “meaty discussions” and so forth. Therefore, one must be observant of the style of language that is being used, and not interpret everything literally. Even God warns against a completely literalistic interpretation in 2:26 and 3:7.
Now, what is obvious from the verse is that they were not satisfied with one food, and that Musa was quite annoyed with this demand of theirs. There can be multiple interpretations drawn from this, but the way I see it is that they were trying to substitute the primary source of nourishment (one food) that Musa brought (Scripture) with other ideologies. This was not a unique occurring, mind you. Even Mohammad was asked to “alter the Quran” or bring a new book altogether (Quran 10:16). Viewing it in this light, of course, justifies the anger and disappointment of Musa, considering how much he had done for his people.
Quite ironically, Muslims have done the same thing. Instead of sticking to the Quran as the sole source of guidance and nourishment pertinent to Islam, we have opted for the herbs, cucumbers, garlic, lentils and onions – these being the in-numerous teachings taken from secondary sources that have no basis in the Quran whatsoever! Now don’t get me wrong, my problem is not with literature and diversity in thought! Rather, the problem obviously lies in giving preference to these secondary sources over and above the Quran, thereby attributing teachings like blasphemy & apostasy laws, child marriage and death by stoning to Islam.
Yes, in Musa’s words, exchanging the superior for the inferior.
The verse continues:So, humiliation and misery were stamped upon them and they had to face God’s requital. That was because they kept rejecting God’s messages. And they persisted in opposing and even killing some Prophets against all right. They did all this, because they chose to rebel and went on transgressing.” (Quran 2:61)
Can there be any truer reflection of the condition of the “Muslim Ummah” today? Quite incredibly, the verse portrays its timelessness. Without a doubt, we have incurred humiliation and misery because Islam, like any other ideology, has been grossly misused and turned into a political tool to manipulate people in the name of God, all the while denying God’s words in the Quran.
And instead of reforming, we persist in defending these barbaric laws in the name of Islam and consciously assassinate the characters of our Prophets by attributing downright disgraceful stuff to them. The problem, to a large extent, is internal. And God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves! (Quran 13:11)
Lesson No. 2: Substituting substance for form.
And remember, Moses said to his people, “Indeed, God commands you to sacrifice a cow.” They said, “Do you mock us?” He replied, “I seek shelter with God from being among the ignorant who mock people.”
(Now, they started making excuses.) They said, “Ask your Sustainer on our behalf to enlighten us as to what kind of a cow she is.” He answered, “Indeed, He says that she is a cow neither too old nor too young. She is between the two conditions. Do, then, as commanded.”
(Then) they said, “Ask for us your Sustainer that He enlighten us as to what color she is.” He answered, “He says that she is a yellow cow. Bright is her color, pleasing to beholders.”
(Again) they said, “Call upon your Sustainer that He make it clear to us what exactly she is. To us all cows are much alike. If God so wills, we shall be rightly guided.”
He answered, “Indeed, He says it is to be a cow that has not toiled in tilling the land nor in watering the crops and it is whole and healthy, unblemished.” They said, “Finally, you bring out a concrete description!” So they sacrificed her, although they would rather not have done it. (Quran 2:67-71)
This passage, quite remarkably, covers the phenomenon of being obsessed with meaningless and irrelevant details on part of religionists – painfully failing to observe the bigger picture.
Let’s take the example of prayer. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had some pretty horrible experiences in mosques. There’s always that guy who wants to correct others on “the right way” to pray. The right way to stand, the right way to bow, the right way to prostrate, the right way to fold your hands and so forth. I mean, it’s absolutely ridiculous to think that God wants us all to be robots! By focusing all your attention on these ridiculously useless and minute details, the fundamental purpose of Salat (read: connection) is often overlooked; unfortunately becoming a mundane, mechanical way of fulfilling your obligations.
I, at least, wouldn’t look forward to such an autonomous prayer where every move of yours had to be calculated. Prayer should be a natural extension of ourselves, not an obligation to get done within 5 minutes. That, after all, defeats the whole purpose of Salat; for if there is no spiritual connection, how would it contribute to our betterment?
Sometimes, I’m just amazed at the irony.
I have always marveled at these two teachings of the Quran, and how simply they outline some of the major errors people fall prey to, when it comes to religion. It would be an understatement to say that these two passages have had an enormous affect on me. But you’ve got to give the book a chance for that to happen! It wouldn’t happen magically, while your Quran rests on your cupboard.
They say, “History repeats itself.” Well, of course! And it will not cease to repeat until we change the way we approach religion: perhaps it is time we stop being penny wise, and pound foolish.
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