Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Verses 79 & 80
Chapter 2, Verses 79 & 80
So woe to those who write the scripture with their own hands, then say, "This is from God," in order to exchange it for a small price. Woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for what they earn. (Chapter 2: Verse 79)
In the previous verse, God informed us about a group amongst the people of the scriptures who were uneducated and knew little about God's teachings. This verse draws a picture of another group. A group that is educated and well aware of what the scriptures teach, but instead of spreading God's word, they alter it and write verses with their own hands then say they are from God. Thus, He warned them and said: ‘woe to them’ which is translated from the Arabic origin 'Wayl.' It means destruction and punishment, and can also be used to express deep regret. God says:
The record of their deeds will be laid open and you will see the guilty, dismayed at what it contains, saying, ‘Woe to us! What a record this is! It does not leave any deed, small or large, unaccounted for!’ They will find everything they ever did laid in front of them: your Lord will not be unjust to anyone. (18:49)
and in another verse:
And the true promise of the Last Hour has been close at hand, and look, the eyes of those who stubbornly disbelieve stare in horror fixedly, exclaiming: "Woe to us! Indeed we have lived in heedlessness and forgetfulness of this. Ah! We truly have been wrongdoers (21:97)
It is also said that ‘Wayl’ is the name of a terrible valley in hellfire. God Almighty warned those who fabricate verses that their punishment on the Day of Judgment will be multiplied because they will be burdened with the sin of each person who was misled by their work.
Here you may ask: Wouldn't it have been sufficient if God had said: ‘woe to those who write the scripture’? Why was the phrase ‘with their own hands’ added? The meaning would have been clear without it. We answer that it was necessary to mention ‘with their own hands’ because it portrays the willingness to commit this grave sin. When you plan a heinous act, you usually try to distance yourself from it, and may even ask someone else to get it done. Sadly, in this case those who were altering God's words wanted to do it with their own hands. They wanted to make sure that the alterations were made exactly as they planned in order to serve their own needs. Their goal was to exchange God's verses for the small price of temporary wealth, leadership and authority.
How did it come down to this -you may ask-? At the time, when common people differed in a matter, they consulted their priests and Rabbis who acted as judges. This allowed for the disputes to be resolved and for everyone to be happy. After all, it was heavenly legislation that decided the matter, and there were no feelings of defeat or humiliation. This win-win outcome is possible when everyone humbly submits to the judgment of God and remains satisfied whatever the verdict may be.
Sadly, people started to notice that some priests and rabbis were passing contradictory judgments -often to their own benefit-. One scholar would give a ruling according to his desire and what suited his audience, while the next scholar did the opposite. Justice was lost and people started to lose faith in the religious hierarchy. Here, as the persists and rabbis were backed into a corner, they started falsifying the scriptures to support their cases; They inscribed the verses and ruling with their own hands and handed them out so people would perceive sacredness and accept the laws without argument.
The phrase ‘Woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for what they earn’ shows how this sin is compounded and thus the punishment is also compounded. Falsifying God's scriptures is a grave sin that deserves punishment. Moreover, all the earnings from it, whether wealth or power, also deserve destruction and punishment. Take the historic example of Europe during the dark ages. We saw indulgences, that claim to guarantee one's forgiveness and place in heaven, signed by the pope and sold by the church to the highest bidder.
Here we should pause and look at the meaning behind the word 'earn.' In this verse it is translated from the Arabic origin 'Kasaba.' The verb 'Kasaba' is normally used to describe lawful beneficial earnings, while the verb 'Iktasaba' is used to describe unlawful or harmful earnings. But in this verse, which clearly speaks of unlawful earnings, God used the verb ‘kasaba.’ Why? The answer is: unlawful earnings do not come natural and usually require extra effort, thus we use the longer verb 'Iktasaba' to convey this meaning. Take the example of a person stealing for the very first time. He or she would plan for days, and may hesitate whether to steal or not, and then, after the theft is committed he or she would worry for days about every sound and every movement. You can say that this person 'Iktasaba' the stolen goods and money. However, as this person continues to steal for years, he or she becomes a professional thief, and stealing becomes second nature. There is less worry, and no hesitation to commit the crime over and over. At that point you can say that he or she 'kasaba' the stolen goods and money. In another example, God uses the verb 'Kasaba', not 'Iktasaba', in the following verse:
Truly those who earn evil and are surrounded by their sins will be the inhabitants of the Fire, there to remain. (2:81)
Note the description 'and are surrounded by their sins' indicating repetition and complete involvement in earning sin making it second nature to this person.
Similarly, in the verse under discussion, God used the verb 'Kasaba' indicating that some persists and rabbis had reached the point where falsifying, adding or omitting from the scriptures became second nature to them. They lost no sleep over their actions. In fact they had completely rationalized this behaviour as the next verse clarifies:
They say, ‘The Fire will only touch us for a few days.’ Say to them, ‘Have you received a promise from God- for God never breaks His promise- or are you saying things about Him of which you have no real knowledge?’ (Chapter 2: Verse 80)
In this verse, God gives us an insight into the inner circles of those who falsify the scriptures. Satan had convinced them that they had attained success with the money and power earned from this sin. More importantly, they deluded themselves that any punishment they might receive in the hereafter will be minimal. They said ‘The Fire will only touch us for a few days.’
In fact, the Arabic word they used for 'touch us' was ‘mass’ which means a very light touch. This is in contrast to the word 'Lamss' which indicates a normal touch. For example, if I just lightly place the tips of my fingers on your hand I won't be able to feel the warmth of your hand or the softness of the skin; this is known as 'mass'.
Those falsifying the scriptures did not stop at minimizing how hellfire will affect them, they also used the term 'madooda ' indicating that the punishment will be of a very short duration -perhaps just a few days-. We find the same word used in the following verse in the story of prophet Joseph:
and they sold him for a pittance, a few small coins, considering him to be of little worth. (12:20)
All this talk about being barely touched by the fire for a few short days is wishful thinking on the part of persists and rabbis used to rationalize sin and beautify the earnings they received for falsifying the scriptures. God responds: Say to them, ‘Have you received a promise from God- for God never breaks His promise-?’ In essence, He is informing them -through prophet Muhammad- not to judge or decide what the Lord would do. It is He alone who judges and decides.
Then the prophet continues: - or are you saying things about Him of which you have no real knowledge? We should take time to study this statement and learn the etiquette of prophethood, and the great character of Muhammad (peace be upon him). He did not use harsh language and accusations, rather he spoke in a gentle manner. He did not call them liars, nor did he threaten them, rather, he asked them to take a moment to reflect about their actions. When you tell a lie, even if everyone believes you, you still know within yourself that what you said is not true. Thus, the Israelites who were making these false statements about God and hellfire knew within themselves that they were lying regardless of how many followers believed them.
Prophet Muhammad extended the same advice to us. He (peace be upon him) said: “I am only a human being, and often you bring your disputes before me. Some of you may be more eloquent in presenting his case than the other, whereby I may consider that he is truthful and pass a judgment in his favour. If I ever pass a judgment in your favour and give you another person's right, whereby you were lying, then whatever you wrongfully take is nothing but a piece of hellfire. It is up to you to take it or leave it.”