We will continue studying the verses of section A’raf (Cognizant) by looking into the next few verses related to Moses and the Children of Israel where we will see how these verses related to me in my life now:
وَٱتَّخَذَ قَوْمُ مُوسَىٰ مِنۢ بَعْدِهِۦ مِنْ حُلِيِّهِمْ عِجْلًۭا جَسَدًۭا لَّهُۥ خُوَارٌ ۚ أَلَمْ يَرَوْا۟ أَنَّهُۥ لَا يُكَلِّمُهُمْ وَلَا يَهْدِيهِمْ سَبِيلًا ۘ ٱتَّخَذُوهُ وَكَانُوا۟ ظَـٰلِمِينَ
7:148 In his absence, Moses’ people started worshiping a calf, making lowing sounds. It was made from their jewelry. Did they not see that it could neither speak to them nor guide them in any way? [yet], they worshiped it because they were unjust.
Let’s recall from the previous verses that Moses had gone away to meet with God. We studied that having a meeting with God was a figure of speech signifying the peak realization by a human being to recognize the Lord of the universe. For us now, it has nothing to do with a physical meeting, having a one on one with God. In the absence of prophet Moses, his people started worshiping a calf. We can also apply this to the absence of prophet Muhammad (pbuh) where we are now left with his message. How do we live in his (pbuh) physical absence while having his message available to us?
We discussed some time back that the children of Israel were asked to slaughter the cow. Why were they worshiping the cow? They were benefiting from the river Nile; benefitting from the huge amount of water that was used for irrigation to cultivate the lands. They had a very bountiful harvest out of this. They were using cows and oxen to cultivate the land, without which they couldn’t do any harvest. They regarded the cow as sacred for their means of provision and livelihood as there were no industrial facilities as we have now. At that time food and shelter were the major needs but now we have many other needs based on the complex needs stemming from civilization.
The calf is a baby cow that will grow to become the means of cultivation for the children of Israel. This message must be applicable to me as well, I have to ask what is my “cow” now? I have to question what is the most important thing for me now that I may regard as the means to satisfy me? Some will say, my profession, status in society, educational degree, success in life, children, property, wealth, appearance, health, etc. These are all part of what we experience while living here and we have to be careful as they could become our “cow” that we may regard as sacred. For example, young people’s calf is what is most concerning and important to them, i.e. keeping themselves updated with the latest fashion, keeping their appearance accordingly and having the latest technological devices as well as services. After some time when they grow up, they may realize other important things such as income, starting a family life which may become their cow.
The verse continues with the cow “making lowing sounds” in the phrase “جَسَدًۭا لَّهُۥ خُوَارٌ”. The term “جَسَدًۭ” in Arabic is something that is a living being as a body, i.e. a body with no life and spirit in it. Usually, the body after death is called “جَسَدًۭ”, an inanimate human body that is not alive. Mostly our “cow” is something that is “جَسَدًۭ”, i.e. it has no living spirit in it. The calf is making lowing sounds as used in the term “خُوَارٌ” signifies as having no meaning. For example, blowing inside a jar makes some noise but has no meaning. When we look at the material side of the universe as matter only and not as a sign pointing to its Creator, the universe will be seen as meaningless. For example, when I don’t see the meaning in a stone as a sign pointing to its Creator then it stays as a meaningless stone. When that stone strikes another stone and makes noise, it will have no meaning. The things being meaningless do not satisfy human feelings. They become like a calf making lowly noise. For example, following a certain fashion trend is a calf that doesn’t satisfy human feelings but may boost the sense of egoistic pride for some time. The person may feel satisfied by seeing others also following that trend and is thus not alienated in society. However, following the fashion trend does not respond to any human expectations, does not satisfy human feelings.
The calf was made from their jewelry in the term “مِنْ حُلِيِّهِمْ”, i.e. something decorative and attractive. Historically, classical sources say that the Children of Israel were poor slaves and oppressed people. As trustful people they were given jewelry as a trust by the Egyptians. There is no evidence in the Quran for this explanation which is filling the gaps in a story. The Quran speaks in a figurative language in such verses, in general in most places, except the verses with practical teachings and rules such as on stealing, gambling, intoxication, and inheritance to name a few. I have to benefit from the figurative speech according to my living conditions.
The jewelry and decorations are lovable by both women and men but they do not satisfy human feelings. Every culture has their own decorative jewelry preferences, they are not satisfactory answers to human needs. Anything that we do to make our “calf” is not essential; all the energy, time and effort that goes into my profession is not essential. The essential is what my human feelings need and not what my body needs. This doesn’t mean that I should not work, that I should not eat, but it means I should not get lost in the temporary things. I have to understand what is the purpose of my life so that I worship the One who fulfills my purpose. The jewelry is just an outward display to satisfy one’s fantasy, a form of temporary enjoyment. The main human satisfaction is in knowing how I can fulfill the purpose of my life? How do I make my life meaningful for me? The things in this universe only provide temporary satisfaction that can never satisfy my human feelings.
The verse continues with أَلَمْ يَرَوْا۟ أَنَّهُۥ لَا يُكَلِّمُهُمْ وَلَا يَهْدِيهِمْ سَبِيلًا which is translated as “Did they not see that it (calf) could neither speak to them nor guide them in any way”. The verse is making me realize that the temporary things do not benefit me at all. They “neither speak” indicating that these things don’t bring meaning to my life; they cannot be the source of my human satisfaction.
The verse ends with people worshiping temporary things “because they were unjust” expressed in the word “ظَـٰلِمِينَ”. I may live in this world and forget the source of satisfaction in my life. I may not be concerned about my next life while living here. That is why I would be falling into the position of worshiping a “calf made out of jewelry,” my fantasies. The phrase “وَكَانُوا۟ ظَـٰلِمِينَ” has the letter “wa”, sometimes meaning “and” but here translated as “because” which fits well into the verse. If someone does not look for justice, he would have to look for a “cow” to fulfill his fantasies. The usage of the word unjust, includes justice and injustice which is usually seen in social life but mainly is to give the right to something that it deserves.
For example, a person deserves to be treated in a way that he deserves. How am I applying my relationship with the people, do I give them their due right? We are not only interacting with human beings, but everything in creation such as plants, animals, celestial bodies, etc. Are we doing justice in our relationship with them? Are we giving the correct interpretation to them as they deserve to be given? Do I see them bringing news to me about their Creator, letting me know His qualities? We can reduce them to meaningless beings which is what doing injustice would be. I may be respecting the plant by taking care of it, watering it but I have to be careful in appreciating their existence! I have to pay attention to how I interpret the creation of the plant. Other examples such as mountains, stars, earth, air, trees, the order operating in the universe, are we doing justice to them? For example, a book that is dusted off, kept in shelves but not read, never looked into for the information it contains or to see the message it carries, then it is not treated justly. Similarly, the whole universe, every being in it is like a book that must be read to bring me news of its Creator. I have to respect the meaning that every being in the universe transfers to me which is how I would be exercising justice. Human beings themselves are included in the universe and when we only see ourselves as bodies without spirit then that is also an injustice to our being. By not reading the meaning in creation correctly without diverting it, educating my human senses to recognize the qualities of their Maker I would be one of the “ظَـٰلِمِينَ”, the unjust people worshiping a “calf” to fulfill my fantasies.
وَلَمَّا سُقِطَ فِىٓ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَرَأَوْا۟ أَنَّهُمْ قَدْ ضَلُّوا۟ قَالُوا۟ لَئِن لَّمْ يَرْحَمْنَا رَبُّنَا وَيَغْفِرْ لَنَا لَنَكُونَنَّ مِنَ ٱلْخَـٰسِرِينَ
7:149 Later, when they were filled with regret and realized they had gone astray, they cried, “If our Lord does not have mercy on us and forgive us, we will certainly be losers.”
The phrase “وَلَمَّا سُقِطَ فِىٓ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَرَأَوْا۟ أَنَّهُمْ قَدْ ضَلُّوا۟” is an idiomatic expression in Arabic and is translated as “they were filled with regret and realized they had gone astray”, the literal meaning is “it dropped in their hands” to make one realize, what am I doing! I was completely lost, if only I didn’t do it. In English, we may use the expression that “it dawned upon me” which is a sense of realization that comes upon a being. It is to realize that what I have been doing has not been of any benefit for the purpose in my existence. Whoever created me must have mercy on me, forgive me as I do not want to be one of the losers.
What is the time period or moment that this verse is talking about? I have to confirm all this while I am in this world. I have to realize that I am doing something wrong and need to correct myself and come back to the reality of my purpose in existence. As I get older, I gain further understanding of the reality of existence which I didn’t have when I was younger. As a young person, everyone is busy making a living and putting most of their efforts to have food, shelter and other artificial needs in life which are endless. As I grow older, my spirit speaks louder and louder asking me what I have done so far. I realize many of those artificial needs that I had given importance earlier are not necessary for my being and were the “calf” in my life. I search for the truth after realizing that whatever I have done so far is not going to fulfill my human needs. The Quran uses the term “they gather with piled up properties and never share it with anyone who needs it” (70: 18) to describe the state of being busy with fulfilling the artificial needs setup by society. We focus too much on our bodily needs at the expense of our human needs and forget about life in the next world. I have to ask my Lord for forgiveness. If my Lord does not forgive me, I would have wasted my time in this world and be a loser.
Realizing at the end in the hereafter is too late and not practical for me anymore. One cannot ask God to forgive in the hereafter. After I die, what shall I do with asking for forgiveness? The case has been closed. Everyone is already given their degrees according to whatever they had earned while living in this world. I have to confirm whether life after death is true while living in this world.
Why does realizing the reality take so long? The degree of realization has no end; I have to realize deeper and deeper while I am living in this world. We must engage with the Quran, have these study discussions to get a better understanding, developing a deeper sense of realization until we die. There is no way to reach the end just like there is no end to the study of biology. We must thus continue studying the message of the Quran as much as we can while we are given the opportunity in this world.
Tags: A'raf Series, Al-Araf, Belief, Feelings, human qualities, Life, Lord, Quran, Worship