Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Chapter 2, Verse 78
Some of them are uneducated, and know the Scripture only through wishful thinking. They rely on guesswork. (Chapter 2: Verse 78)
There are many definitions proposed by scholars as to who is considered illiterate. Here is the most common definition: It is a person who has not acquired any knowledge beyond what he or she was born with. However, this verse is not referring to someone who has zero education; Allah describes those who 'know the Scripture only through wishful thinking. They rely on guesswork' specifying that the lack of education is regarding the Torah and the Gospel.
‘Some of them are uneducated’ is telling us about a group from among the people of the book who opposed the new Islamic movement and the teachings of prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Mainly, the Christians of Mecca and the Jews in Medina. However, in this verse the discussion is more specific to a group from the Jewish tribes of Medina, because the Christians in Mecca and Medina were very few. Keep in mind that the phrase 'some of them' also reflects that there were others who were educated and had true knowledge. In other words, we are dealing with two groups from the Jews of Medina: a group that is illiterate and cannot read the scriptures, and another who had access to the knowledge. If the uneducated had known what was in the Torah regarding the advent of a Prophet, along with timing and descriptions, they might have believed in him.
However, their information about the Torah came from wishful thinking. What does ‘wishful thinking’ mean? It refers to a desire and an aspiration a person may have about something impossible to get. Some people have defined it as fabricating dreams. A poet said:
I wish youth will come back one day so I may tell it of what old age has done to me.
Can youth ever return? Of course not! It is an impossible wish. "wishful thinking' is translated from the word ‘umniyah’ which is also mentioned in the following verse of the Nobel book:
It will be neither after your hopes nor the hopes of the People of the Book: whoever commits evil shall be requited for it, and he will not find for himself any guardian or helper besides Allah. (04:123)
Here, the evil doers are wishing for something impossible: that there will be no consequences for their actions in the hereafter.
So when you recite the phrase ’Some of them are uneducated, and know the Scripture only through wishful thinking.' it should reminder you that each one of us is responsible for educating him or herself about God's book. Otherwise, it becomes easy to follow guesswork and fall prey to those who want to abuse the scriptures for their own benefit. Allah also wants you to understand that you are responsible for your own actions. Look around you, the world is filled with unlearned people who rely on the knowledge -and often manipulation- of others when it comes to religious teachings without even pondering over them for a single moment. God Almighty warns us:
Say, ‘Should I seek a Lord other than God, when He is the Lord of all things?’ Each soul is responsible for its own actions; no soul will bear the burden of another. You will all return to your Lord in the end, and He will tell you the truth about your differences. (06:164)
and in another verse warning those who take advantage of the uneducated:
On the Day of Resurrection they will bear the full weight of their own burden, as well as some of the burden of those they misled with no true knowledge. How terrible their burden will be! (16:25)
At first glance, you may say that these two verses contradict each other: one is saying that no person will bear the burden of another, while the second verse indicates that those who mislead others will bear the burden of others. However, on closer examination, you will find no contradiction. Whoever commits a sin will be fully responsible for it, and whoever misleads others or facilitates sin for them will bear the burden of his own sins, and the added sin of misguiding others. Perhaps the Prophet (peace be upon him) explained it best when he said:
"If anyone calls others to follow right guidance, his reward will be equivalent to those who follow him in righteousness without their reward being diminished in any respect. And whoever invites others to follow error, his sin will be equivalent to that of the people who follow him in error without their sins being diminished in any respect".
This is especially true for those pseudo-scholars who issue religious opinion without knowledge, and those who issue rulings to gain personal benefit, wealth and status. They will bear the terrible sin of misguiding others into the day of judgment.
The verse concludes with: ‘They rely on guesswork.' There are many people, even today, who recite the Quran, Bible or Torah without understanding them. In other words, they are only read the words and do not apply any of God's teachings. God says:
The example of those who were entrusted with the Torah, and did not carry out its commands, is like the donkey carrying books; what a wretched example is of the people who denied the signs of Allah; and Allah does not guide the unjust. (62:05)
A person who believes in the scriptures, but does not understand the teachings, or a person who reads the scriptures but does not take the time to act accordingly, is like a mule carrying a load of books. The mule is burdened by the heavy weight without gaining any benefit from the knowledge on its back. It is our task as believers to use our intellect to study and understand our Lord's teaching.