Commentary of the Quran (Chapter 2:51-54)
By: Mohammad Sobhanie
Prophet Musa on Mount Sinai
بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
وَإِذْ وَاعَدْنَا مُوسَىٰ أَرْبَعِينَ لَيْلَةً ثُمَّ اتَّخَذْتُمُ الْعِجْلَ مِن بَعْدِهِ وَأَنتُمْ ظَالِمُونَ ﴿٥١﴾ ثُمَّ عَفَوْنَا عَنكُم مِّن بَعْدِ ذَٰلِكَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ ﴿٥٢﴾ وَإِذْ آتَيْنَا مُوسَى الْكِتَابَ وَالْفُرْقَانَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَهْتَدُونَ ﴿٥٣﴾ وَإِذْ قَالَ مُوسَىٰ لِقَوْمِهِ يَا قَوْمِ إِنَّكُمْ ظَلَمْتُمْ أَنفُسَكُم بِاتِّخَاذِكُمُ الْعِجْلَ فَتُوبُوا إِلَىٰ بَارِئِكُمْ فَاقْتُلُوا أَنفُسَكُمْ ذَٰلِكُمْ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ عِندَ بَارِئِكُمْ فَتَابَ عَلَيْكُمْ ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ التَّوَّابُ الرَّحِيمُ ﴿٥٤﴾
Translation: And when We made an appointment with Moses for forty nights, you took up the Calf [for worship] in his absence, and you were wrongdoers. Then We excused you after that so that you might give thanks. And when We gave Moses the Book and the Criterion so that you might be guided. And [recall] when Moses said to his people, ‘O my people! You have indeed wronged yourselves by taking up the Calf [for worship]. Now turn penitently to your Maker, and slay [the guilty among] your folks. That will be better for you with your Maker.’ Then He turned to you clemently. Indeed, He is the All-clement, the All-merciful.
Commentary: The Children of Israel, along with Prophet Musa (AS), crossed the Nile River miraculously and arrived at the Sinai Peninsula. They saw a community who worshipped idols and the Children of Israel became fascinated with the idols. They asked Prophet Musa if he could make them an idol for worship. He was dismayed at their request and told them “Shall I find you a god other than Allah, while He has graced you over all the nations?”
Afterwards, Prophet Musa (AS) was summoned to stay thirty nights on Mount Sinai to receive the law of Tawrat (Torah). Staying on the mountain provided him an opportunity to worship Allah (SWT) in seclusion without distractions. This, in turn, provided a transcendent spiritual readiness to receive the divine revelation.
After completion of the thirty nights, his stay was extended by ten more nights. It was forty nights altogether: 30 nights in the month of Dhū al-Qaʿdah [Arabic; (ذوالقعدة)] and 10 nights in the month of Dhū al-Ḥijjah [Arabic: (ذوالحجة)].
Before his departure to the mountain, he appointed his brother, Prophet Haroun, as his deputy amongst his people, and left along with seventy Israelite’s men. They went to witnesses the revelation of Tawrat.
After witnessing the unique and historical moment of the revelation of Tawrat, these men insisted Prophet Musa to show them God in person. It seemed that the Children of Israel relied more on their physical senses to realize God rather than their intelligence. An unseen God was unconceivable to them. Hence, they were in search of a perceptible god; a god they could see. This tendency was manifested previously when they asked Prophet Musa at the Sinai Peninsula to make them idols for worship.
Prophet Musa on the Mount: In Prophet Musa’s absence, Allah (SWT) tested the Children of Israel through Samiri’s calf:
قَالَ فَإِنَّا قَدْ فَتَنَّا قَوْمَكَ مِن بَعْدِكَ وَأَضَلَّهُمُ السَّامِرِيُّ ﴿٨٥﴾
He said, ‘Indeed We tried your people in your absence, and the Samiri has led them astray.’
Samiri [Arabic: (سَامِرِيُّ)] took the gold, jewelry and ornaments of the Children of Israel and cast them into a hollow statue in the shape of calf. It made the sound of a calf when air was blown into it. Only for this reason, the Children of Israel took Samiri’s calf as their god for worship. The following verse admonishes the judgment of those who worship an entity that cannot even speak or guide:
وَاتَّخَذَ قَوْمُ مُوسَىٰ مِن بَعْدِهِ مِنْ حُلِيِّهِمْ عِجْلًا جَسَدًا لَّهُ خُوَارٌ ۚ أَلَمْ يَرَوْا أَنَّهُ لَا يُكَلِّمُهُمْ وَلَا يَهْدِيهِمْ سَبِيلًا ۘ اتَّخَذُوهُ وَكَانُوا ظَالِمِينَ ﴿١٤٨﴾
The people of Moses took up in his absence a calf [cast] from their ornaments—a body that gave out a lowing sound. Did they not regard that it did not speak to them, nor did it guide them to any way? They took it up [for worship] and they were wrongdoers.
Prophet Musa Back to His Nation: Allah (SWT) informed Prophet Musa on the mountain that Samiri had misled his nation. The news of his nation’s idolatry infuriated him.
He summoned his people after his return. With a reprimanding tone of voice, he told them that worshipping a calf’s statue was deplorable and sinful. He ordered the guilty ones to slay one another for atonement of their sin. At the end, he asserted that suffering harsh punishment was better than carrying the burden of idolatry’s sin:
قَالَ مُوسَىٰ لِقَوْمِهِ يَا قَوْمِ إِنَّكُمْ ظَلَمْتُمْ أَنفُسَكُم بِاتِّخَاذِكُمُ الْعِجْلَ فَتُوبُوا إِلَىٰ بَارِئِكُمْ فَاقْتُلُوا أَنفُسَكُمْ ذَٰلِكُمْ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ عِندَ بَارِئِكُمْ
And [recall] when Moses said to his people, ‘O my people! You have indeed wronged yourselves by taking up the Calf [for worship]. Now turn penitently to your Creator, and slay yourselves. That will be better for you with your Maker.’
The Children of Israel realized their error and requested explicitly the divine forgiveness:
قَالُوا لَئِن لَّمْ يَرْحَمْنَا رَبُّنَا وَيَغْفِرْ لَنَا لَنَكُونَنَّ مِنَ الْخَاسِرِينَ ﴿١٤٩﴾
They said, ‘Should our Lord have no mercy on us, and forgive us, we will be surely among the losers.’
After this, they repented as Prophet Musa (AS) ordered them. Consequently, Allah (SWT) in His mercy forgave them.
ثُمَّ عَفَوْنَا عَنكُم مِّن بَعْدِ ذَٰلِكَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ ﴿٥٢﴾
A Point to Ponder: The Children of Israel had that tendency and were vulnerable, for whatever reason, in worshipping idols. The Quran states their heart were imbued with love of the Calf:
وَأُشْرِبُوا فِي قُلُوبِهِمُ الْعِجْلَ ﴿٩٣﴾
And their hearts had been imbued with [the love of] the Calf,
One might ask why Allah (SWT) tested the Children of Israel with idolatry: a subject in which they were weak and woundable. We will explore this In-Sha-Allah next time.