Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Chapter 2, Verse 61
Remember when you said, ‘Moses, we cannot bear to eat only one kind of food, so pray to your Lord to bring out for us some of the earth’s produce, its herbs and cucumbers, its garlic, lentils, and onions.’ He said, ‘Would you exchange better for worse? Go to Egypt and there you will find what you have asked for.’ They were struck with humiliation and wretchedness, and they incurred the wrath of God because they persistently rejected His messages and killed prophets contrary to all that is right. All this was because they disobeyed and were lawbreakers. (Chapter 2, Verse 61)
While the Israelites were roaming the desert, they had their daily food delivery of manna and quails. They said to Prophet Moses: 'Moses, we cannot bear to eat only one kind of food' The word 'one' is translated from the Arabic word 'Wahed'. Let's take a few moments to study the use of this word. Counting begins with the number ‘Wahed’ as it is the first number. When you refer to an individual as ‘Wahed,’ it usually means that he or she is alone, and does not indicate oneness or uniqueness. When, on the other hand, we say that Allah is Wahed - or God is One- it indicates that there is nothing similar to Him.
While, the word 'Wahed' means singularity, it does not mean unity, or indivisibility. In other words, something described as 'Wahed' or 'One' can be made out of many parts and components. That is where the word 'Ahad' comes in. 'Ahad' indicates unity and indivisibility. Let's clarify with an example, A human being cannot be described as ‘ahad’ because he or she is formed from many parts and organs. A human cannot be described as 'Wahed' because there are many others like him or her. Planet earth maybe described as 'Wahed,' because it uniquely carries life, but it cannot be described as ‘ahad’ because it is made of many different elements and layers. Only Allah is the 'Wahed and Ahad' because nothing whatsoever is similar to Him, and He is not formed of components. 'Wahed' refers to His uniqueness, while 'Ahad' negates subdivision.
This brings us back to the verse. Why did the Israelites refer to mana and quail as one, although they are clearly two distinct foods? It is because they were referring to the way these foods were delivered. Both mana and Quail descended daily from the sky. The Israelites were worried that this single source of food may one day stop. They wondered: ‘how can we be assured that it will continue to descend? we prefer food that we grow with our own hands.’ Clearly, despite being blessed with one miracle after another, they had issues with matters of faith. They lacked trust in Allah, and preferred the material and the tangible. That was also the reason behind their previous request when they said: ‘Moses, we will not believe in you until we see Allah with our own eyes.’
In this verse they asked Moses to supplicate God 'to bring out for us some of the earth’s produce, its herbs and cucumbers, its garlic, lentils, and onions.’ Supplication is the act of humbly asking your needs from the one who holds a higher status than you. It is different from asking your need from someone who holds a similar status which is known as request. When you ask someone lower than you for something, then it is classified as command. The Israelites asked Moses to supplicate Allah for the opportunity to grow some of what the earth produces. They were specific in the types of foods they wanted: green herbs, cucumbers, garlic, lentils and onions. These foods were what the Children of Israel used to eat in Egypt when most of them worked as servants and day-laborers under Pharaoh's rule. It appears that they had grown accustomed to living and eating as servants.
God wanted to elevate the status of the Children of Israel, and thus He sent them daily manna and quails -the foods of the upper classes-. But they preferred the common laborer's food such as lettuce, radishes, leaks and so on. Thus, before granting their wish, Allah asked them:"Would you exchange better for worse?” meaning are you turning down manna and quail and asking for inferior foods such as onions and lentils? keep in mind that inferior does not mean awful or disgraceful. Everything the earth produces is a bounty and a blessing from Allah. 'Inferior' here is referring to the source of the food. Manna and quails were created and delivered by God’s direct command 'be.' It was a miracle far superior to the vegetables that had to be grown by means of agriculture. The blessing created through God’s direct command is pure and does not involve any work or effort. Growing vegetables requires plowing, sowing, watering and so on. God says comparing the two:
and do not gaze longingly at what We have given some of them to enjoy, the flower of this present life: We test them through this, but the provision of your Lord is better and more lasting. (20:131)
Allah is describing the provision of this world as a test, and the provision of the hereafter as something far better. In this world, you have to work hard to attain sustenance and material goods. Moreover, you have to restrain yourself from the temptation of earning easy living by dishonest means. In the race of life, many people rush to accumulate wealth unlawfully. Contrast that with provisions of the hereafter, which God describes as far superior, because they are made by Him and provided in abundance for eternity.
This brings us back to the verse. God is asking the Israelites: Would you exchange manna and quail -a provision directly provided by Allah similar to that of the hereafter- with something lesser that you have to work for? The answer came from God ‘Go to Egypt and there you will find what you have asked for.’
It is perhaps worth noting that the Arabic word for Egypt that is mentioned throughout the Quran is 'Misr', which is the same word we use to this day. However, in this verse God used the word 'Misran' with an added tone at the end. The natural question to ask is: Does 'Misr' in all the other verses and 'Misran' in this verse refer to the same place? It is unlikely. 'Misr' surly refers to the county of Egypt, and because it is a name of a country, cannot be altered linguistically. 'Misran' on the other hand can be used to refer to any place that has proper rule and government.