Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Or do you intend to ask your Messenger as Moses was asked before? And whoever exchanges faith for disbelief has certainly strayed from the midst of the way.
(chapter 2:Verse 108)
In the previous verse God informed the believers that He is their protector and helper. Here, He highlights the hostility of the Israelites towards their Prophets and warns the Muslims against such improper behaviour with Muhammad (peace be upon him). The verse starts with ‘Or do you intend to ask your Messenger as Moses was asked before?’ reminding us how the Israelites made audacious demands from Moses. God says:
The People of the Book demand that you make a book physically come down to them from heaven, but they demanded even more than that of Moses when they said, ‘Show us God face to face,’ and were struck by the thunderbolt for their presumption. Even after clear revelations had come down to them, they took the calf as an object of worship, yet We pardoned this, and gave Moses clear authority (04:153)
Moreover, the Jewish tribes of Medina and the disbelievers asked Muhammad (peace be upon him) the following:
They say, ‘We will not believe for you until you make a spring gush out of the ground for us; or have a garden of dates and grapes which you make rivers come pouring through; or make the sky fall on us in pieces, as you claimed will happen; or bring God and the angels before us face to face; or have a house made of gold; or ascend into the sky- even then, we will not believe in your ascension until you bring a real book down for us to read.’ Say, ‘Glory be to my Lord! Am I anything but a mortal, a messenger?’ (17:90-93)
God warns Muslims against making outrageous demands from the Prophet as the Jews and the disbelievers did. He reminds us that this type of demands has been ongoing since the time of Moses (peace be upon him). After the Israelites witnessed firsthand as God split the sea before them to cross, they said to Moses: 'we will not believe in you until we physically see God'. Is there a clearer or more compelling proof of the existence of God and His great power than what they saw? Didn't they have the physical experience of crossing the sea bed and watching Pharaoh drown? But despite this miracle and many others, they lived in doubt and denial. They were materialistic people, and could not accept any deity that cannot be realized by eyesight. In fact, soon after they safely crossed the sea they worshiped a golden calf that they could see and touch.
The verse ends with the phrase: ‘And whoever exchanges faith for disbelief has certainly strayed from the midst of the way.' The pronoun ‘for’ is usually mentioned after what is ignored and left behind, and precedes what is purchased. For example: if you say I exchanged ten dollars for this shirt; it means that you left the dollars and took the shirt. Similarly, the verse indicates that faith was left behind in exchange for disbelief.
What does ‘strayed from the midst of the way.' mean? You 'stray' when you select a path that does not lead you to your desired goal. ‘Midst of the way’ is the level and centre of the path that gives you the shortest, and obstacle free way to travel. Before the existence of paved machine-constructed roads, the edges of paths were rough and uneven. Walking on either side of the road often resulted in falling or losing a wheel. People walked in the centre to avoid difficulty. Hence, God Almighty wants His servants to walk in the centre of the path so they don’t trip over or go astray. God's path of faith is always level and will never lead towards disbelief.