Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Chapter 2: Verse 67
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.’ (Chapter 2: verse 67)
This verse marks the beginning of the story this chapter is named after. When you read the verse, you understand that God had ordered the slaughter of a cow, but you do not know the reason behind it. In order to completely understand this incident you need to read the a few verses ahead:
Remember when you killed a man and blamed each other for the deed, God brought to light what you concealed. 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. (02:72-73)
Why would God give us the reason five verses later? Logically, shouldn't the story start with the reason? We answer: It is so you and I would learn that questioning the reason behind a command is only relevant if the commander is equivalent to you. God cannot be questioned about His orders, rather, we should obey our Lord whether we understand the wisdom behind His orders or we do don't. Take the example of a mother asking her child to do something, or a doctor advising his patient. Your mom's request and your doctor's advice should be followed even if you don't understand the reason behind them. You know that your mom has your best interest at heart; you also trust your doctor and know that he or she had spent years acquiring knowledge to treat your illness. You can only discuss the doctor's recommendations if you have the same degree as he or she does. Similarly, you can ask Allah for the reason behind His teachings only if you have the same knowledge or wisdom as He does. Do you believe in your creator? Do you trust that Allah has your best interest at heart? If you need an explanation for every act of worship, then you believe in the reason, not in Allah. In that case, there would be no difference between a believer and a non-believer as neither of them is striving to do good acts for God’s pleasure and reward.
Let's clarify this point with an example: offering prayer is God’s command and it should only be done out of obedience for Him. If you pray thinking that it is a good form of exercise or because it gives you a reason to wake up early, then such a prayer will not earn any rewards. If you intend to exercise then go to the gym. Prayer should be offered because it is God's command. This is the case behind every act of worship. I do not fast during Ramadan to feel the hunger of the poor. I fast because Allah ordered me to do so.
Faith in Allah is the main force that drives the believer to do good deeds. That is why, before issuing a command or a teaching, God says ‘O you who believe’ then He states the command: do so and so, and stay away from so and so. The reason behind each and every command, behind each and every prohibition is your belief in God.
This brings us back to the verse: God commanded the slaughter of a cow first, and later mentioned the reason behind it. True believers are expected to obey God’s orders whether they understand the reason or not; they trust that His commands have true wisdom even if it not apparent.
When the command was issued without explanation, it was meant to test the faith of the Children of Israel and see if they act upon it without delay. They failed this test, and started disputing with prophet Moses and asking one question after another.
In this verse, the Arabic word God used for 'Moses' people' was ‘Qaum.’ It is derived from the verb ‘qama’ which means to do an act, or to get up and move. This word is used specifically to address a group of men, not a group of women, as the following verse clarifies:
Believers, no one group of men should mock another, who may after all be better than them; no one group of women should mock another, who may after all be better than them; do not speak ill of one another; do not use offensive nicknames for one another. How bad it is to be called a mischief-maker after accepting faith! Those who do not repent of this behavior are evildoers. (49:11)
The phrase 'group of men' is translated from the Arabic origin ‘Qaum’ separating it from the group of women addressed in the 2nd part of the verse.
The command issued by Allah to the men of the villages was clear and simple: ‘slaughter a cow.’ It does not require any further explanation, and can be carried out in a straight forward manner. Had the Israelites obeyed without questioning, life would have been easy. Sadly, they went to great length to stall, obstruct, and try to get out of this obligation. They started by hassling Moses: Are you making fun of us? they said. They could not bring themselves to accept the fact that God ordered them to slaughter a cow without specification. So they accused Moses of ridiculing them. Can a Prophet ever make jokes in regards to God’s commands? Of course not. Moses realized that he could not win an argument with a group determined to obstruct. At this point, he turned to the heavens and asked for refuge in God. He said '‘God forbid that I should be so ignorant.’