How Qur’an and Torah Support Each Other
Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Ramadan is the month when the Sacred Scriptures of Christians, Jews and Muslims were first revealed, so it is a good time to understand how they relate to one another.
Since all monotheistic scriptures come from the one and only God, we all should view other monotheistic religion’s scriptures as potentially enriching our understanding of our own scripture. Yet for almost 14 centuries almost all Jews, Christians and Muslims have read each others holy scriptures from an adversarial perspective.
This is because in the middle ages almost all readers thought of revelation as a zero sum sport like tennis (with only one winner) rather than a multiple win co-operative sport like mountain climbing.
In a zero sum game any value or true spiritual insight I grant to another scripture somehow diminishes my own. This was the result of the widespread use of scripture for missionary purposes of winning over converts by claiming that only one religion could be true (mine) and all others must be false (yours) This mindset often created a social and psychological pressure that was oppressive of minority religious groups.
Even Muslims often fell into this trap in spite of the Qur’an’s twice repeated statement: ““Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Q2:256) and “Will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe?” (Q10:99)
Neither the Qur’an nor the Prophetic tradition demands of Jews and Christians that they give up their religious identity and become Muslims unless they freely choose to do so. This is a categorical command, not just a statement.
The situation has not improved much in modern times. In the last two centuries university academics have written many studies of comparative religion which they claim are objective and not distorted by their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, academics who treat other religions academically usually do not believe that other scriptures are actually Divinely inspired.
Indeed, many academics do not believe that even their own scriptures are Divinely inspired. They use the same kinds of explanation to understand religion that they would use to explain secular history and literature. I follow a different model, one I learned from prophet Muhammed.
A disciple of Muhammad named Abu Huraira relates, “The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.’ ”
Following Muhammad’s teaching I too neither believe nor disbelieve the Qur’an. If I believed in the Quran I would be a member of the Muslim ummah (community). But I cannot disbelieve in the Qur’an because I believe that Muhammad was indeed a prophet; and I respect the Qur’an as a kindred revelation, first spoken to a kindred people, in a kindred language. In fact, the people, the language and the theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other on earth.
How does this perspective affect my understanding of their Qur’an and my Torah? I follow what the Qur’an itself teaches: “For every community We have appointed a whole system of worship which they are to observe. So do not let them draw you into disputes concerning this matter.” (22:67)
Following these Islamic teachings I seek to shed the light of each revealed scripture on the other. For example, in a surah entitled “The Cow” the Qur’an states:
“And (remember) when Musa (Moses) said to his people (the Jews): “Verily, Allah commands you that you slaughter a cow.” They said, “Do you make fun of us?” He said, “I take Allah’s Refuge from being among Al-Jahiloon (ignorant fools).” They said, “Call upon your Lord for us that He may make plain to us what it is!” He said, “He (God) says, Verily, it is a cow not too old or too young, but (it is) between the two conditions, so do what you are commanded.” They said, “Call upon your Lord for us, to make plain to us its color.” He said, “He says, It is a yellow cow, bright in its color, pleasing to the beholders.” They said, “Call upon your Lord for us to make plain to us what it is. Verily to us all cows are alike, And surely, if Allah wills, we will be guided.”
He (Musa/Moses) said, “He (God) says, It is a cow neither trained to till the soil nor water the fields, sound, having no other color except bright yellow. ” They said, “Now you have brought the truth.” So they slaughtered it though they were near to not doing it. “And (remember) when you killed a man and fell into dispute among yourselves as to the crime. But Allah brought forth that which you were hiding. So We said: “Strike him (the dead man) with a piece of it (the cow).” Thus Allah brings the dead to life and shows you His Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.) so that you may understand. (2:67-73) Translation by Mohsin Kahn
Critical missionaries, or academic, humanist scholars have said that in this passage Muhammad simply mixed up two different accounts in the Torah about two different rituals, each of them involving the slaughter of a cow. In one (Numbers 19:1-13) the cow itself is of a very rare and unusual color and kind, so people could have many questions about it.
In the other case ( Deuteronomy 21:1-10) the circumstances of the cow’s slaughter are dreadful, grotesque and alarming in order to shock the village leaders into doing something about some situation that they have until now avoided being responsible for.
Muslim commentators have long since taught that a cow is to be slaughtered rather than a sheep or a goat, to remind the people never to worship a golden calf or anything else in place of the one and only God.
The group of Israelites who keep questioning Moses about the cow’s details, its color, its age, and its use are simply stalling. They want to avoid killing a cow because, after many decades of living in Egypt, where the cow goddess Hathor was worshiped by the Egyptians, many Jews had grown to revere cows.
But since I believe both Moses and Muhammad are prophetic messengers, and both the Torah and the Qur’an are sacred scriptures, I think the Qur’an combines these two very different and unusual sacrifices in order to teach an additional important truth.
The Qur’an teaches that even rituals that are hard to understand rationally are tests, and thus can be ways to express our love for and trust in God. In order to understand this truth one must study the written Torah text and the oral Torah (the Furqan for Jews) that the Rabbis derive from the written text.
In Deuteronomy 21:1-9 the issue is atonement for an unsolved murder. A corpse is found in an open field. Everyone claims they know nothing about who did it, or everyone blames people from the next village. The elders of the nearest village take a cow that has never pulled a yolk, bring it to a stream in a wadi which is not tilled and break its neck.
Then the elders have to vow “Our hands did not shed this blood.” This ritual is strange, and unique. Breaking the neck of a 2-3 year old heifer is a very violent act although no blood is shed.. Thus, one can understand that at least some of the elders, who all must participate in this ritual according to the oral Torah, might make a extra strenuous effort to find out who killed the victim, so they could avoid being part of this repulsive ritual.
The effectiveness of the ritual breaking of the cows neck, is in the dire threat getting the leaders to actively reveal the killer’s identity. Then the ritual would not be needed. Now we can appreciate the Qur’an’s words (2:72), “When you killed a living soul and were denying any responsibility, Allah brought forth that which you were hiding.”
Nevertheless this is a mystical paradox of psychology. The dreadful ritual that produces the positive results is the one that doesn’t need to take place, because someone confesses responsibility. In both cases the cow is the vehicle for a subconscious transformation from a situation of pollution, to a solution of purification.
In Numbers 19:1-13 the issue is that contact with a corpse pollutes. To undo corpse pollution there is a seven day ritual which involves being sprinkled on the third and seventh day with a prepared mixture of fresh water and the ashes of a red cow. “Instruct the People of Israel to bring you a red cow without blemish, with no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.” (Numbers 19:2)
The rite is unique in the Torah because the priest conducting the ritual contracts some pollution in the process of depolluting the other person. Also, the oral Torah (the Furqan for Jews) explains that the cow must be entirely red including her hoofs and horns. The Muslim commentator Zamakhshari also says that the hoofs and horns of the cow mentioned in the Quran must be the same color as its hair and hide.
Such a cow is extremely rare, and the ritual, in which the priest conducting the rite contracts some pollution in the process of depolluting the other person, is a logical paradox. Many Jews, as well as Gentiles, claimed the rituals defied reason and attacked them as magical. The Qur’an relates that this group of Jews ridiculed these rituals and challenged Moses , “Do you make fun of us?” (2:67)
The Rabbis thought that in general wise people would be able, with sufficient study, to understand the reasons for most of the Mitsvot (God’s commandments). But there were a few of God’s commandments however, the red cow being chief among them, that were given to test our trust in God.
The Rabbis defended all the Torah’s commandments, especially the red cow, as the will of God. It should be accepted as part of our commitment to God; even if it seemed totally irrational and paradoxical. Moses retorts to his critics, that following God’s commandments keeps me away from the foolishness of those who make fun of what they do not understand: “I take Allah’s Refuge from being among Al-Jahiloon (ignoramuses and fools).”
This is the general truth that the Qur’an teaches using both of the cows combined to serve as examples of one principle. The Rabbis are in full agreement with Prophet Muhammad.
Rabbi Maller’s web site is: www.rabbimaller.com