Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)

An Introduction

(This session is also available in audio and video)


Session 21

Chapter Two

“The Cow”

An introduction, part a

The second chapter in the Quran is named “The Cow”.  At first glance, this name seems a bit odd.  The Quran was revealed in the Arabian Desert where cows were not amongst the livestock known in that area.  However, as we take closer look at this chapter, we realize that the name is derived from a story based on the central Islamic issue of resurrection.  This is the basis of religion because whoever does not believe in resurrection, in the hereafter, and in accountability does whatever he or she desires without any restraint.  This life becomes his or her objective, and religion loses all meaning.  The foundation of worship is that true life is in the hereafter, while our world is place of trials and tests.  Either you depart wealth and pleasure by death, or it departs you through loss and troubles.  As for the hereafter, life, pleasure, and luxuries are perpetual and eternal.  This makes the goal of every believer to gain reward and attain paradise in the hereafter.  As you can see, the entire faith is based on our belief in resurrection. 

This brings us back to the name of this chapter which is derived from a story that involved a tribe of the Israelites at the time of Prophet Moses (peace be upon him).  They had witnessed resurrection firsthand, while still in this world.  

The story starts with a rich man who owned a vast estate, but had no heir to inherit this wealth.  His nephew, filled with greed, conspired against and killed him.  When night fell, he threw the body at the doorstep of another village in order to frame them for his uncle’s murder.  The next morning, as people saw the body, they naturally accused the village of his murder.  And despite their denial, the relatives of the victim insisted on blaming them.  After the matters escalated, and the two villages clashed, they decided to resort to Prophet Moses so that he may ask God to resolve the issue and identify the murderer.  This story is continued in the following verses:

Remember when Moses said to his people, ‘God commands you to sacrifice a cow.’ They said, ‘Are you making fun of us?’ He answered, ‘God forbid that I should be so ignorant.’ They said, ‘Ask your Lord to make it clear to us what it is.’ He said, ‘He says it should be a cow, not old or virgin, but somewhere between the two. So do as you have been told.’  They said, ‘Call on your Lord for us, to show us what color it should be.’ He answered, ‘God says it should be a bright yellow cow, pleasing to the eye.’ They said, ‘Call on your Lord for us, to show us what it is: all cows are more or less alike to us. With God’s will, we shall be guided.’ He replied, ‘It is a perfect and unblemished cow, not trained to till the earth or water the fields.’ They said, ‘Now you have brought the truth,’ and so they slaughtered it, though they almost failed to do so. Then, when you killed someone and started to blame one another- although God was to bring what you had concealed to light- We said, ‘Strike the body with a part of the cow’: thus God brings the dead to life and shows His signs so that you may understand. (Chapter 02: Verses 67-73)

From the verses above, we see that God commanded the children of Israel to slaughter a cow. If they had just listened, followed God’s command by slaughtering any cow and striking the dead man with any part of it, life would have returned to him and the murderer would have been identified.  But rather than carrying out God’s command, they denied at first and said: "Do you take us in ridicule?”, then continued asking questions, delaying, and requesting the exact description of the cow, until God specified for them all its qualities.

While the villagers were busy complicating things for themselves, God was helping a pious man on his straight path.  This man from amongst the Children of Israel kept God in mind in all his business and social dealings.  As death approached him, all he had was a baby cow and his only heir at the time was his little boy.  He was unsure about whom he should entrust his small fortune to.  Who would be best to take care of the calf until his son is able to take care of it for himself and his mother?  He pondered long, then turned to the heavens and supplicated “Lord! I entrust this cow to you, protect it for my son until he grows older”.  Then he said to his wife “I have entrusted the cow to God.  I didn’t find anyone more trustworthy than Him”. She asked: “So where is it now?” He replied “I left it to roam free in the fields.” Shortly after, he died.

When the son grew older, his mother told him the story.  He asked: “Where can I find that cow after all these years?” His mother replied: “your father entrusted the cow to the Lord.  Rely on Him, and search for it.”  The young man supplicated “Lord of Abraham and Jacob, return to me what my father had entrusted to you” and then set out searching for it.  He found the cow, exactly as his mother described it to him.  This cow was also the only one that perfectly fit God’s description to the quarreling villagers.  Thus, when they found, they set out to purchase it at any price.  The young man agreed to sell it in exchange for its weight in gold.  When the villagers slaughtered this cow and struck the dead victim with it, he was resurrected to declare the name of his killer.  Thus, the name of this chapter “The Cow” affirms the central issue of resurrection in the Islamic creed.

In addition, the story also teaches us that parents’ righteousness plays a great role in the protection of their children.  Through the good deeds of the parents, God facilitates the affairs of the children and protects them from harm.  When therighteous man entrusted all he had to God, God blessed, protected and nurtured it so that his son may find great treasure when he grew older.

We find this notion repeated in many verses of the Quran such as the following:

The wall belonged to two young orphans in the town and there was buried treasure beneath it belonging to them. Their father had been a righteous man, so your Lord intended them to reach maturity and then dig up their treasure as a mercy from your Lord. I did not do these things of my own accord: these are the explanations for those things you could not bear with patience.’ (18:82)

Being upright and righteous is the best insurance one can give his or her children as it instills God's blessing and protection into every aspect of the child's life.