Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Verses 65 & 66
Chapter 2: Verses 65 & 66
And you had already known about those who transgressed among you concerning the Sabbath, and We said to them, "Be apes, despised." (Chapter 2: Verse 65)
Allah gave us commands related to this world and commands related to the hereafter. He does not like us to take any of them lightly, or to pick and choose one over the other. Take the example of the following verses:
O you who believe! When the call is made for the Prayer on Friday, then move promptly to the remembrance of God, and leave off your trading. This is better for you, if you but knew. Then when the prayer has ended, disperse in the land and seek out God’s bounty and remember God often so that you may prosper. (62:9,10)
These verses carry commands relating to this world, and commands relating to the next. Allah does not want you to be so involved in your business and worldly affairs that you are late to or forget prayer. At the same time, He does not want you to spend all your time in the mosque that you ignore your needs and those of your family. Allah wants to bring balance to your life. Both, the first command: ' When the call is made for the Prayer on Friday, then move promptly to the remembrance of God, and leave off your trading' and the second command: 'when the prayer has ended, disperse in the land and seek out God’s bounty ' are from our Lord, and we should give them equal importance.
Two days of the week are mentioned in the Quran ‘Friday and Saturday’. Friday -Jum’ah- is the day of congregational prayer. Its Arabic name is derived from the word congregation. It is also named Jum’ah because on this day God gathered all the components of the newly created universe. We gather on this day to celebrate God’s favor of creating the universe for humanity. Saturday ‘sabt’ or 'Sabbath' is derived from the Arabic verb ‘sabata’ which means to be inactive and relax. On Saturday nothing was created, as the process of creation was already completed. The Quran says:
It was He who created the heavens and earth in six Days and then established Himself on the throne. He knows what enters the earth and what comes out of it; what descends from the sky and what ascends to it. He is with you wherever you are; He sees all that you do; (57:04)
When the Israelites asked God to grant them a day to relax, He appointed Saturday for that purpose. He, almighty, put them to the test to see if they appreciate and commit to what they had asked for.
A tribe of the Israelites lived by the sea and were fishermen by profession. As requested, God forbade them from working on Saturday, and assigned it as a day of reflection and worship. This allowed them rest, and brought balance to life. However, unlike other days of the week, every Saturday fish would be so abundant and swim so close to the shore that they became visible splashing all over the water as the following verse explains:
ask them about the town by the sea; how its people broke the Sabbath when their fish surfaced for them only on that day, never on weekdays- We tested them in this way: because of their disobedience- (07:163)
The Israelites did not see the blessing of rest and reflection, all they saw was the money they were losing by not fishing on Saturday; They came up with a plan. On Fridays, they would dig deep trenches, and spread nets in order to trap fish on Saturday. Then on Sunday, they would collect the catch, take it to market and sell it for a fat profit. While the villagers did not technically fish on Saturday, their actions took God's command lightly, and made a mockery of it. Keep in mind that they were the ones who had asked for a day of rest to begin with.
The phrase ' And you had already known about those who transgressed among you concerning the Sabbath' indicates that this story was well known to the Jews even at the time of Prophet Muhammad and had been passed on from generation to generation.
Allah wants to protect you not only from sin, but also from being tempted into sin. He says:
these are the bounds set by God, so do not go near them.(2:187)
Meaning, when something is prohibited, you are supposed to avoid it all together, even avoid being near where you may be tempted. The Israelites transgressed God’s command while pretending to obey Him. They thought they can manage to deceive their Lord. Thus, came the punishment at the end of the verse: 'be apes, despised.'
A person can only be ordered to do what is within his or her ability. 'Be apes’ is a command impossible for a any human to perform. Only God can do so. Thus, this command is known as ‘subjugation command’. This transformation was for punishment and humiliation, it lasted for a very brief period of time as the transgressors died shortly after. It was a punishment specific and limited to those in this tribe who transgressed, therefore, they had no ability to reproduce. God says:
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)
If they were able to reproduce then their offspring would have been burdened with the sins of their parents. This is against God's law in the universe.
It is sad to say that some contemporary scholars and those with agendas use such verses to spread hate and injustice especially at times of political tensions. The fact is, God is narrating these stories to remind us to respect and honor His commands. He says in the very next verse:
And We made it a deterrent punishment for those who were present and those who succeeded and a lesson for those who fear Allah (Chapter 2: Verse 66)
Meaning that this physical and moral transformation was made as an example for everyone present at the time and for all of us till the day of judgment.
In the field of law, a person is only punished if he or she commits a crime that was clearly prohibited, and has a clear and declared punishment. In other words: there is no punishment without a crime, and there is no crime without a declared pre-existing law. Islam, and all heavenly message, are based on the same approach. God says:
Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger.(17:15)
Through scriptures and through prophets, Allah first defines His boundaries, and then announces the punishments. From that point on, if you violate these boundaries, then the punishment becomes incumbent on you.
The punishment of metamorphosis into another species was specific for the small minority of the tribe of the Israelites who transgressed on the Sabbath. It was a lesson for the Jewish people of that time, and a lesson for all of us to respect God's laws and bounties. Such incidents are narrated and passed onto generations so they avoid similar acts that earn God’s anger.