The Yellow Cow

Yellow Cow on Blue Background.
Yellow Cow on Blue Background.

The largest surah in the Quran is, of course, the second in order, Al-Baqarah, containing many important commandments of the shariah, fasting and hajj and narrations relating the preceeding prophets to the Seal of the Prophets. It also contains the verse of the throne.

In particular, the surah narrates key two incidents in the relationship between Moses and the Israelites: their fall into idolatry and the cryptic commandment to sacrifice a “perfect” cow (found in Numbers 19 of the Torah). In the Qur’an, the Israelites are reluctant to sacrifice the cow at first, and proceed through three questions before they are satisfied with the “Truth” of what Moses speaks. Once satisfied, they sacrifice they cow, which is then used to awaken a murdered man from the grave.

The entire second surah is named Al-Baqarah — “The Cow” — not after the story of the Golden Calf, but after this perfect cow.

The question is — why is this Cow so important? What is it, precisely? And why does Israel require three moments of elucidation before they decide that Musa speaks the truth?

We can answer in three ways, of increasing detail.

First, we can say that Musa instructed Israel to sacrifice a Pefect, Yellow Cow to “clean up” the damage that was done by the worship of the golden calf. But to say this is simply to lay the signs before you: their Truth in relationship to you is not yet apparent.

In a second attempt, we might clarify and say: the Yellow Cow is exactly the Surah itself. Al-Baqarah is al-Baqarah. Its reading is its sacrifice. This does begin to involve you more — after all, reading is conducted by a reading subject. But, as the caterpillar inquired of Alice, who are you?

A third clarification is necessary.
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A Tailor’s family

Two daughters.
A picture of two daughters that somehow reminds me of my own.

I have two little daughters. Certainly too small to fast this Ramadan or even make shahada, although the older one, Alima (5 years) has recently started to discuss God. She told me yesterday she imagines him to have a beard, eyes and hands, which was interesting, given that I am currently working on a blog entry regarding the anthropomorphic traits of God. She might be picking up on some of the conversations I had with my wife, but the children also discuss stuff at school. (In East London there is a real mix of different religions and ethnicities, and the kids share everything: my daughter taught salat to her little Hindu, Sikh and Christian friends — in fact, sometimes I worry she can be a little bit untactful about it, particularly when their parents are around! — but they taught her their practices too — she knows all about Krishna and the baby Jesus. Their innocent and free exchanges gives me hope for humanity’s spiritual progress, actually. Although, of course, I send her to a pretty posh school!)

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Mastery of the internal and external

A comic book breaks the Fourth Wall.
A comic book breaks the Fourth Wall.

The Tailor had just finished a rather flowery reading of a narration regarding the death penalty for apostates in Islam.

One seeker said: “Okay. So there is a deeper, interior meaning to the narrations concerning death to apostates. An apostate is someone who attempts to leave the logical space of existence, who attempts a kind of transcendence from the Judgement that is life itself — who attempts to turn away from all judgement making, not just what we might narrowly consider to be spiritual judgement. In a way, you have inverted the obvious meaning and are saying: such an apostate is attempting to become a Saint like Hallaj in fact, drowning in the Waters of the Real’s oblivion. But then you are also saying that this attempt — this “offering” is too perfect — that, somehow, it is equally important to enter, to pass through the Fires of Judgement. To negotiate a path through Logic of Life. And somehow to do one without balancing the other is to commit a kind of cosmic sin, in the sense of an imbalance. This imbalance occurs after the death of the Prophet: hence the religious debate between Ali and ibn Abbas — or if not a debate, at least a distinction of stations, as the two men were allies. So you are saying that, in this hadith, there are the two approaches to the divine: the Fire of Judgement on the Left, and the Water of Love on the Right, and that both sides must be balanced if we are to regain the Prophecy, if we are to truly follow the inner meaning of the sunnah.”

”I have studied enough to say that this is plausible. However, it reinforces my growing anxiety that many Muslims would justifiably object: aren’t you just using figurative interpretations to make ostensibly repulsive texts more palatable? Whatever the right reading of the texts — whatever the deeper, inner meaning that we can find within them — did Ali really burn apostates? Even though I accept as a Sufi that there is a deeper meaning, interior meaning to the words spoken and actions committed by the Prophet, you have yet to answer the question: did the Prophet actually authorize the physical execution of apostates? ”

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Fire and water: the union of Abraham is implied by the burning of Ali and the annihilation of ibn Abbas.
Fire and water: the union of Abraham is implied by the burning of Ali and the annihilation of ibn Abbas.

A brother on the path was asking about the shariah’s treatment of apostates.

He said: “For me, this is one of the most difficult and unpalatably dark bits of our texts. The law, though thankfully not invoked in this country, is certainly mentioned often enough at the masjid. For example, once I went to the Friday prayers at the mosque of an acquaintance of mine,  the son of a major sheikh in the city. That afternoon the sheikh gave a passionate hutba denouncing the great sin of apostasy, shouting the following hadith in the de rigueur fire and brimstone fashion:

Narrated Ikrima: Ali burnt some people and this news reached ibn ‘Abbas, who said, “Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, ‘Don’t punish (anybody) with Allah’s Punishment.’ No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.’ (Bukhari Volume 4, Book 52, Number 260)

“My acquaintance (who is very much part of the progressive Islamic movement) apologised profusely to me afterwards, excusing his father. ‘Er … you know how our parents are.’ I know he was also nervous about the ever present threat of investigative journalists and and so one being in cognito at hutba: he might even have suspected me of being such.”

The Tailor replied thus:

Now there are two options for understanding this hadith: to discount the authenticity of the narration (certainly something I understand can be done, as not all narrations have the same strength of authenticy) or else to take it as authentic (and I am sure your friend’s father is not in the minority of the ummah here).

Now, let’s say it is authentic. Then it seemingly contradicts the verse 2:256 of our Qur’an (we all know it well — “There is no compulsion in religion …”).

But the contradiction is the clue to its meaning:
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A woman’s right

Born back-to-back: four witnesses are a serious matter, but neglect is grounds for divorce.
Born back-to-back: four witnesses are a serious matter, but neglect is grounds for divorce.
The sisters’ circle were discussing the marriage problems of one of their number, a very traditional eastern Muslima. Her husband was living apart from her for the most part on business and, when he did return home, absolutely refused intimacy. This had been their situation for the past three years: she had made several attempts at discussion and reconciliation, but he would always find a way to avoid this. Recently, her misery had been brought to a head when she had found a blond hair on one of his shirts and suspected an affair.

The majority of the sisters recommended divorce. The Tailor’s Uzbek wife concurred: “Dump him. You have made every effort to repair your relationship and are now within your rights by the shariah.”

She continued thus:

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Four wives

Four wives
Four wives

And if your love is only sufficient to maintain one wife alone, then may
your knowledge be from a river of purest water,
The river of life, from which every living thing is formed,
Whose tributaries form proof trees,
Whose waves our ships negotiate,
Whose games we play,
Whose flow marks our Time.

Here is life.

Fish of different species argue about their colours,
but their colours only add to water’s proof.
And a Wife of Water is sufficient for you to find your Lord.

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Pork and the Professor

Why is pork prohibited? Are you hungry?
Why is pork prohibited? Are you hungry?

A sister on the path asked the Professor: “What is the spiritual significance of the prohibition of pork in the Islam?”

The Professor replied thus:

It must be significant that the Religion becomes perfected with the verse regarding food and dietary laws:

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