The Heifer (or “Cow,” or “Young Cow”) is the second book of the Qur’an. It is also the longest, and ironically follows one of the shortest, The Opening. The Heifer is not named after a theme of the book, but is an important reference to the Bible in the book:
Now the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying,
“This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord has commanded, saying:
‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which a yoke has never come. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest, that he may take it outside the camp, and it shall be slaughtered before him.
The author of The Heifer — well, at least one of them — expands this episode into an illustrative commentary of Moses’s patience and Israel’s stubbornness:
Then you turned away after that. And if not for the favor of God upon you and His mercy, you would have been among the losers.
And you had already known about those who transgressed among you concerning the sabbath, and We said to them, “Be apes, despised.”
And We made it a deterrent punishment for those who were present and those who succeeded and a lesson for those who fear God.
And when Moses said to his people, “Indeed, God commands you to slaughter a cow.”
They said, “Do you take us in ridicule?”
He said, “I seek refuge in God from being among the ignorant.”
They said, “Call upon your Lord to make clear to us what it is.”
He said, “He says, ‘It is a cow which is neither old nor virgin, but median between that,’ so do what you are commanded.”
They said, “Call upon your Lord to show us what is her color.”
He said, “He says, ‘It is a yellow cow, bright in color – pleasing to the observers.’ ”
They said, “Call upon your Lord to make clear to us what it is. Indeed, cows look alike to us. And indeed we, if God wills, will be guided.”
He said, “He says, ‘It is a cow neither trained to plow the earth nor to irrigate the field, one free from fault with no spot upon her.'”
They said, “Now you have come with the truth.” So they slaughtered her, but they could hardly do it.
To say one of the authors is not as such to deny Divine Authorship. In the Bible, some books clearly have more than one voice. The most obvious is the The Book of Kings , which begins with the same psychological realism as The Book of Samuel and after a couple of chapters transitions into either popular or merely chronological accounts. Nonetheless, the Book of Kings maintained a unity of theme of the decline and fall of the Kingdom and is accepted by both Jews and Christians.
The Heifer also displays multiple voices. The three apparent voices are an inexplicable source, a Christian sermon, a post-Christian source, and a wisdom or law code. (If you read that carefully you’ll note that Numbers describes a “red” cow, while The Heifer has a “yellow” one. The voices described here are my own terms, and I am aware of how far Biblical higher criticism has progressed since the Wiseman hypothesis. Qur’anic criticism is now where Biblical criticism was in the 19th century. Scholars like Michael Heiser have complicated earlier assumptions that different voices can be easily extracted from the Bible. Any literary analysis is speculative.)
There are parts of the Qur’an that, if they occurred in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible, would be described as “corrupted” or “interpolations.” This does not mean that they actually are written by different writers — T.S. Elliot used such elements intentionally. Here, for example, Elliot’s poem includes a paragraph with a middle section that also would appear to be “corrupted” or “interpolated”:
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music of the weak pipe and the little drum And see the dancing around the bonfire The association of man and woman In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie — A dignified and commodius sacrement. Two and two, neccesarye coniunction, Holding eche other by the hand or the arm Whiche botokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles, Rustically solemn, or in rustic laughter
T.S. Elliot, East Coker I
Yet, to maintain the comparison between the Qur’an and Elliot’s poetry, at times the English poet does use earlier texts. Consider the phrase (which I myself misremembered as “All is well, and all manner of things shall be well”), and its 600 years of history in Christian prophesy and poetry:
One time our good Lord said: All thing shall be well; and another time he said: Thou shalt see thyself that all MANNER of thing shall be well; and in these two the soul took sundry understandings. One was that He willeth we know that not only He taketh heed to noble things and to great, but also to little and to small, to low and to simple, to one and to other. And so meaneth He in that He saith: ALL MANNER OF THINGS shall be well. For He willeth we know that the least thing shall not be forgotten.
Julian of Norwhich, Revelations of Divine Love, AD 1393
C.S. Lewis, in both private letters and his published apologetics, slightly alters this phrase:
I have been reading this week the ‘Revelations’ of Mother Julian of Norwich (14th century); not always so profitable as I had expected, but well worth reading… Christ tells her again and again ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.; She asks how it can be well, since some are damned. He replied that all that is true, but the secret grand deed will make even that ‘very well.’ ‘With you this is impossible, but not with Me.’
C.S. Lewis, “On reading The Revelations of Divine Love“, AD 1940
And, presumably, via either Lewis’s published works or private conversations, Elliot adopts it too:
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now always —
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and-
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
T.S. Elliot, Little Gidding, AD 1942
So what to make of bizarre referencing, those that make no sense have no known meaning and are untranslatable, like the very first words:
Alif, Lam, Meen
The same occurs in larger passages. Is the below reference to Exodus merely corrupted? Is it a play on a lost homily on Jerusalem? A reference to either a lost book, such as The Book of the Wars of the Lord or oral tradition, perhaps maintained by desert dwellers to the south and east of the Kingdom? We do not know.
We shaded you with clouds and sent down to you manna and quails: ‘Eat of the good things We have provided for you,’ And they did not wrong Us, but they And when We said, ‘Enter this town, and eat thereof freely whencesoever you wish, and enter while prostrating at the gate and say, ‘Relieve,’ so that We may forgive your iniquities and soon We will enhance the virtuous. But the wrongdoers changed the saying other than what they were told. So We sent down on those who were wrongdoers a plague from the sky because of the transgressions they used to commit.
Yet the clearest and longest voice in the Koran is clear – it is clearly Christian. The Christian writer of the Qur’an is particularly fond of Moses, Mary, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus:
Certainly We gave Moses the Book and followed him with the apostles, and We gave Jesus, the son of Mary, clear proofs and confirmed him with the Holy Spirit. Is it not that whenever an apostle brought you that which was not to your liking, you would act arrogantly; so you would impugn a group, and slave a group?
The faithful await the return of the Lord in a cloud. This will be the future sign that ends all speculation, after God’s repeatedly signs given to all sons of Israel:
Do they await anything but that God should come to them in the shades of the clouds, with the angels, and the matter be decided? To God all matters are returned. Ask the Children of Israel how many manifest a sign We had given them. Whoever changes God’s blessing after it has come to him, indeed God is severe in retribution.
This is a clear reference to the Gospel of Matthew:
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
Referencing Biblical texts can slide into expanding on them. This may be for high-minded reasons, or just for curiosity. John Chrysostom’s homily on Cain and Abel is something I feel deeply, but it reads into the order of God’s interrogation of Cain meaningfully pauses and an intentionality that is not explicitly there. On the other end, The Protoevangelium of James has no particularly deep meaning, but elaborates the story of Christ’s early family to provide models for the faithful to imitate. The Qur’an has these too. One example is the elaboration of the Book of Numbers about the Cow. Another example is the Qur’an’s explication of God’s promise to Moses. In the original text, Abraham’s response to God is not recorded:
Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said: “By Myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son— blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.
While the conversation continues in The Heifer:
When his Lord tested Abraham with certain words, and he fulfilled them, He said, “I am making you the Imam of mankind,’ said he, ‘And from among by descendants?” He said, “My pledge does not extend to the unjust.”
The idea of Abraham’s fatherhood being potentially lost exists within Christianity. As the father-in-faith to Christians, those who lose faith logically lose him as a father. van’t Veer and other Reformed Christians go a step further, arguing that even the Jews (except for Mary and Jesus) had lost their inheritance by the time of the Incarnation.
With Other Voices
There seem to be at least two other voices in the Koran, though perhaps they are intended to be the same author .
The Christian voice in The Heifer clearly has a bone to pick with the Catholic Church.
A number of teachings are directly criticized, such as the Intercession of the Saints:
O Children of Israel, remember My blessing which I have bestowed upon you, and that I gave you an advantage over all the nations. Beware of the Day when no soul shall compensate for another, neither will any random be accepted from it, nor will any intercession benefit it, nor will they be helped.
And they say, ‘The Fire shall not touch us except for a number of days.’ Say, ‘Have you taken a promise from God? If so, God will never break His promise. Or do you ascribe to God what you do not know?’ ‘Certainly whoever commits misdeeds and is besieged by his iniquity — such shall be inmates of the Fire, and they will remain in it.’
and the procession of the Trinity:
“Who is it that may intercede with Him except with His permission? He knows what is before them and what is behind them, and they do not comprehend anything of His knowledge except what He wishes. His seat embraces the heavens and the earth and He is not wearied by their preservation, and He is the All-exalted, the All-supreme
What could be the context of this voice, this anti-Catholic Christian? One possibility is that the author is an Arian, a believer that Christ and the Holy Spirit are created God-persons that God has made in order to provide intermediaries between Him and the human race He loves so much. Arianism was widespread in much of the Roman Empire — indeed, most bishops at one point seem to have been Arian (including Archbishop of Constantinople Eusebius of Nicomedia, who baptized the first Emperor Constantine). Further, the Qur’an’s focus on man’s ignorance echoes an Arian assertion, that the precise Christology of the Nicaean Fathers was simply inappropriate given’s man’s limited knowledge of the unseen realm:
And nobody is unaware that this is catholic doctrine, that
there are two Persons of the Father and the Son, and that
the Father is greater, and
the Son is subjected in common with all the things which the Father subjected to him; that
the Father has no beginning, is invisible, immortal, and impassible; but that
the Son is born from the Father,
God from God,
Light from Light,
whose generation as Son, as has been said already, no one knows except the Father;
Second Cirmian Creed, AD 357
Or perhaps the author was a proto-Calvinist! Amusingly, the author sharks one tic with a contemporary anti-Catholic writer, William Dumbrell. Dumbrell creates his own list of Patriarchs, using a formula found nowhere in the Bible:
Thus the book of Genesis ends with Israel preserved and populous. Curiously, blessing, or the promise of it, comes to each of the three patriarchs (Abraham Jacob, Joseph) outside of the promised land, but with reference to the land.
William Dumbrell, The End of the Beginning, p. 133
The same category of innovation — changing the formula to describe the Patriarchs — occurs here, but instead of subtracting Jacob, Ishmael is added!
Were you witnessed when death approached Jacob, when he asked his children, ‘What will you worship after m?’ They said, ‘We will worship your God, and the God of your fathers, Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac, the One God and to Him do we submit
While one voice appears to specifically challenge the Catholic church’s teachings on Christianity, another seems to abandon identification as Christian altogether. For instance, like Mormonism, this voice views the canon as still open:
For any verse that We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring another better than it, or similar to it. Do you not know that God has power over all things? Do you not know that to God belongs the kingdom of the heavens and the earth? And besides God you do not have any friend or helper.
Would you question your Apostle as Moses was questioned formerly? Whoever changes faith for unfaith certainly straits from the right way.
This voice also refers to Christians in the third person, along with Jews and a group called the “Sabeans” (some speculate that “Sabeans” are followers of St. John the Baptist who thought following Christ wasn’t such a good idea):
Indeed, the faithful, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabeans — those who have faith in God and the Last Day and act righteously — they shall have their reward near their Lord, and they will have no fear, nor will they grieve.
A New Law
The other voice provides what appear to be reasonable practical guidance, and is something between wisdom literature that provides solid advice:
O you who have faith! When you contract a loan for a specified term, write it down. Let a writer write with honesty between you, and let not the writer refuse to write as God has taught him. So let him write, and let the one who incurs the debt dictate, and let him be wary of God, his Lord, and not diminish anything from it. But if the debtor be feeble-minded, or weak, or incapable of dictating himself, then let his guardian dictate with honesty, and take as witnesses two witnesses from your men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women — from those whom you approve as witnesses — so that if one of the two defaults the other will remind her. The witnesses must not refuse when they are called, and do no consider it wearisome to write it down, whether it be a big or small sum, until its term. That is more just with God and more upright in respect to testimony, and the likeliest way to avoid doubt, unless it is an on-the spot deal you transact between yourselves, in which case there is no sin upon you not to write it down. Take witnesses when you make a deal, and let no harm be done to the writer or witnesses, and if you did that, it would be sinful of you. Be wary of God and God will teach you, and God has knowledge of all things.
… and a law code basic on Moses:
O you who have faith! Retribution is prescribed for you regarding the slain: freeman for freeman, slave for slave, and female for female .But if one is granted any extenuation by his brother, let the follow up be honorable, and let the payments to him be with kindness. That is a remission from your Lord and a mercy; and should anyone transgress after that, there shall be a painful punishment for him.
I have spoken of the voices of the Koran. But as with the Bible and the mysterious “redactors,” at time the voices intertwine in the same paragraph. David’s last words to Solomon, for instance, combine the ruddy faith of the Shepherd-King with the high-minded theology of the Deuteronomist:
Now the days of David drew near that he should die, and he charged Solomon his son, saying: “I go the way of all the earth; be strong, therefore, and prove yourself a man. And keep the charge of the Lord your God: to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, His commandments, His judgments, and His testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn; that the Lord may fulfill His word which He spoke concerning me, saying, ‘If your sons take heed to their way, to walk before Me in truth with all their heart and with all their soul,’ He said, ‘you shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’
“Moreover you know also what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, and what he did to the two commanders of the armies of Israel, to Abner the son of Ner and Amasa the son of Jether, whom he killed. And he shed the blood of war in peacetime, and put the blood of war on his belt that was around his waist, and on his sandals that were on his feet. Therefore do according to your wisdom, and do not let his gray hair go down to the grave in peace.
1 Kings 2:1-6
In the same way, who can untangle the first paragraph of The Heifer. What is the “book” mentioned? Who is the “we”?
This is the book, there is no doubt in it, a guidance to the God-wary, who believe in the Unseen, maintain the prayer,and spend out of what We have provided for them; and who believe in what has been sent down to you and what was sent down before you, and are certain of the Hereafter. Those who follow their Lord’s guidance and it is they who are felicitous.
I read the second chapter of the Qur’an, The Heifer, in Gabriel Said Reynolds’ translation.