Verses from Surah Taha (86-98)

[86] So Musa returned to his people angry and grieved. He said, ‘My people. Has not your Lord made you good promises? Or, did the promise seem to you long (in coming)? Or, did you want your Lord’s anger should strike you, that you broke your promise to me?’

[87] They said, ‘We did not break our promise to you by our will. But we were burdened with the weight of the people’s ornaments which we cast;83 and thus did the Samiri cast.’84

Commentary

83. Although not a hadith but some of the Salaf have said that when the Israelites were ready to leave Egypt, Musa (asws) suggested to them to borrow ornaments and jewelries from the Egyptians which would come handy as booty. It were these ornaments to which they were referring, which they cast into the fire, on Samiri’s bidding (Ibn Jarir, Qurtubi).

Others have felt that Musa never ordered the Israelites to borrow the jewelry. They did it on their own. Mufti Shafi` is also inclined to this belief and points out that when the Prophet (saws) was leaving Makkah, the “Dar al-Harb” he did not take away with him the trust money he had in his possession. He left behind `Ali and instructed him to return them to the rightful owners.

84. When Musa had left for Mount Tur, the Samiri took charge of the plebian class. He must have been a charismatic figure with previous influences on the Children of Israel still in his stock. He got the gold ornaments they had brought from the Copts collected together, threw in a handful of dust that he had picked up from the hoof-marks of Jibril’s horse, and molded a body in the shape of a calf. It produced a lowing sound and he induced the Israelites to worship it. According to other reports Harun had got the ornaments collected together and got them buried in ground saying that booty was unlawful for the Israelites and which the Samiri dug out (Ibn Jarir, Razi, Qurtubi).

The last sentence of the above would imply that it could not have been Musa who suggested to the Israelites to borrow ornaments from the Copts (Au.).

The report about the dust from the horse’s hoof-mark comes from `Ali, and, according to Hakim, is trustworthy (Shawkani).

Asad writes (a little earlier), “It is mentioned in Exodus xii, 35 that, immediately before their departure from Egypt, the Israelites ‘borrowed of the Egyptians jewels of silver and gold’. This ‘borrowing’ was obviously done under false pretences, without the intention on the part of the Israelites to return the jewelry to its rightful owner..”

Razi quotes that once a Jew told `Ali, “Your Prophet had not yet been buried that differences surfaced between you.” He answered, “We differed after him (i.e., as to who will succeed him) and not about him (i.e., whether he was a Prophet or not); whereas your feet were still not dry from the sea water that you began to clamor, “Musa! Make for us a deity as these tribal people have their deities (of mud and stone).”

In any case, the doubt remains as to how could the Israelites fall prey to Samiri’s gimmicks. The answer given is that the Samiri must have been working on the spread of his personal beliefs even the while Musa (asws) was between them in Egypt (Alusi).

[88] He brought out for them a calf: a body with a low. They said (to one another), ‘This is your Lord and Musa’s Lord, but he forgot.’85

Commentary

85. Of the several opinions that have been offered, one, as reported of Ibn `Abbas, Qatadah, Mujahid and others, is that this word (fa-nasiya) is from the Samiri who meant to say, effectively, “Musa forgot the place he should have looked into to meet and discover his deity, the molten image – the deity you should devote yourselves to” (Ibn Jarir, Razi). Yet another possible meaning offered by Asad is, “Musa has forgotten his past.”

[89] Did they not see that it could not reply to them a word,86 and it did not have power for harm or good to them? 

Commentary

86. That is, was the lowing of the calf enough for the Israelites to conclude that it had divine powers? Could they not see that beyond lowing it could do nothing else? Did it answer any of their questions? Did it utter a word? Did it send Revelation? (Au.).

[90] Indeed, Harun had told them earlier, ‘My people you have been put into a trial therewith, and surely your Lord is the Most Merciful; therefore, follow me and obey my command.’87

Commentary

87. Although short, this sentence is rich in meaning. Harun first criticized the Israelites for their calf-worship by saying, “My people! You have been put into a trial therewith”; then he invited them to know and understand their Lord God by saying, “and surely your Lord is the Most Merciful”; then, thirdly, invited them to ponder over his own Prophethood by saying, “therefore, follow me”; and, finally, invited them to follow the Law by saying, “and obey my command.”

We may remind at this point that the epithet “Al-Rahman” has another meaning of “Al-Aziz”, (the Most Powerful) which seems better suited to this verse (Au.).

[91] They said, ‘We shall remain squatted around it until Musa returns to us.’88

Commentary

88. That is, “We shall wait and see what Musa has to say about it when he returns. Maybe he too will adopt its worship” (Qurtubi,Alusi).

[92] He asked, ‘O Harun! What prevented you when you saw them going astray?

[93] That you should not follow me?89 Have you then disobeyed my order?’90

Commentary

89. The words, “That you should not follow me” have been understood in two ways: one, “Why did you not, O Harun, collect together all those who did not accept calf-worship and come away to me?” This is how Ibn `Abbas and Sa`id b. Zayd understood the verse. This corroborates well with Harun’s reply who said, “I feared that you would say, ‘You caused division among the children of Israel.’” That is, by breaking away with a party of them you caused division. However, Ibn Jurayj understood the words as meaning, “Why did you not, O Harun, follow my ways and prevent them from calf-worship?” (Ibn Jarir).

90. Harun was referring to Musa’s advice that he had said while leaving for Mount Tur. In Mawdudi’s words, “.. refers to Moses’ directives to Aaron when he delegated the leadership of the Israelites to Aaron in his absence as he headed to the Mount. According to the Qur’an, ‘And Moses said to Aaron, his brother: “Take my place among my people, act righteously and do not follow the path of those who create mischief”’ (Al-A`raf, 142).”

[94] He replied, ‘O my mother’s son. Do not seize me by my beard or by my head. I feared that you would say, “You caused division among the Children of Israel and you did not observe my word.”’91

Commentary

91. Although it amounts to the same thing, yet Mawdudi points out that it was not national unity that Harun was trying to preserve, but rather avoiding a civil strife among the Israelites who would all but murder him if he had forcefully tried to prevent the calf-worship. The Qur’an recorded Harun’s words elsewhere (7: 150), “My mother’s son, the people overpowered me and almost killed me.”

Had Harun acted forcefully, the initial division of the Israelites would have ultimately resulted in the appearance of a sect with die-hard members at its core. Therefore, Harun let things run their course until Musa’s return and hence his words to him, “I feared you would say, ‘You caused division among the Children of Israel’” (Au., with a point from Shafi`).

[95] He asked, ‘What then is your case, O Samiri?’

[96] He replied, ‘I saw what they did not see. So I took a handful of the prints of the Messenger and cast it.92 That is what my inner self suggested to me.’93

Commentary

92. Ibn `Abbas, Mujahid and others have said that the Samiri saw Jibril and picked up a handful of dust from the hoof-prints of his horse. He threw it into the gold that was being melted saying, ‘Be a calf with a low,’ and then molded the calf (Ibn Jarir). There are reports from `Ali which say that the Samiri saw Jibril and his horse when he had come down to inform Musa of his appointment with his Lord (Alusi).

It might be worth noting that a similar “vision” was “experienced” by Shybah b. ‘Uthman at Hunayn. He himself reports that when the Muslims fled with the initial onslaught, exposing the Prophet to the enemy, it occurred to him (although in the Prophet’s army as a new-Muslim) that he could avenge the deaths of his father and uncle killed at Badr. But as he neared the Prophet he saw flames between himself and him, resembling lightning. He feared for his life and covering his eyes with his hands, traced his steps backward. The Prophet turned towards him and asked him to get near. When he got closer he said, “O Allah, drive Satan away from him” and asked him to go forward and fight the unbelievers. Shaybah said, “Messenger of Allah. I see a beautiful horse.” The Prophet replied, “O Shaybah. No one but an unbeliever sees it.” Then he placed his hand on his breast and said, three times, “O Allah, guide Shaybah.” With that his hatred for the Prophet changed to love. Earlier at Badr too a Bedouin onlooker had died of heart attack when he saw angels descending from the heaven. These “visions” should help us look at the so-called “Kashf” of the Sufis from a proper perspective (Au.).

In fact, the Sufi commentator Thanwi states that Kashf is not a prerogative of the Ahl al-Haq at all.

Another interpretation advanced by Abu Muslim as in Razi and in Asad’s words is as follows: “.. athar (literally “vestige” or “trace” [is]) in its topical sense of the “practices and sayings” or – collectively – the teachings of any person, and particularly of a Prophet; thus, he makes it clear that the phrase qabadtu qabdatan min athari ‘r-rasul fa-nabadhtuha signifies “I took hold of a handful [i.e., “something”] of the teachings of the Apostle and discarded it”: it being understood that “the Apostle” referred to by the Samaritan in the third person is Moses himself.”

In simpler words, the Samiri said that he had discarded a handful of the ways and practices of Musa. But there are two obvious problems in this interpretation. One, “athar” (in singular) is not used in the sense of “practices and sayings.” It is its plural “aathaar” that is used in the above sense. Second, since the Samiri was speaking to Musa he should have said “I took a handful of your practices and sayings and discarded them” and not “I took a handful of the Apostle’s practices and sayings and discarded them” (Au.). It is another thing, adds Alusi, that the construction of the sentence does not allow for such far-fetched meaning and interpretation.

As regards several doubts that might arise about the Samiri and his feat, Alusi sets himself to answer them but which we ignore since anyone who has not placed a limit to his mind and thought, can easily work out the answers by himself (Au.).

93. What the Samiri meant to say by these words is, “It was my inner self’s suggestion that if I threw the handful of dust taken from the hoof-marks of the horse, the molded calf would produce the lowing sound.” This is in the same report of Ibn `Abbas in Durr al-Manthur from which the story of Jibril’s horse has been taken.

[97] He said, ‘Begone then. It shall be your lot in this life that you should say, “No touching.”94 And you have a promise that you will not fail you.95 Now look at your deity to which you remained devoted. We shall burn it down96 and then scatter it in the sea as dust.97

[98] Surely, your God is Allah, besides whom there is no god but He. He circumscribes everything with His knowledge.’

Commentary

94. Qatadah said that the Samiri was one of the great figures of the Israelites until they crossed the sea. But, thereafter he preferred to be a hypocrite. The punishment that Musa prescribed for him was that he should be boycotted at every level of interaction, to the extent that he was not even to touch anybody, nor anyone touch him (Ibn Jarir).

Yet the above does not make clear why the Samiri should have been saying to everyone who came close to him, “No touching.” Perhaps Musa’s words brought on him some kind of disease that caused him pain on human touch (Au.).

In fact Mufti Shafi` reports that the commentary work “Al-Ma`alim” has a narration that Musa had supplicated against the Samiri which brought a disease on him with the result that when he touched someone or someone touched him, both he and the other person suffered high fever.

95. The allusion is to the Day of Judgment (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Kathir).

96. A variant reading would render the meaning of “la-nuharri-qannahu” as “we shall reduce it to dust” (Kashshaf, Razi).

In fact, that is how Ibn `Abbas used to read and explained that since gold and silver cannot be burnt directly, the calf was first powdered and then burnt to ashes (Shawkani).

97. Yusuf Ali places his last word on the Samiri here. He writes: “Thus ends the Samiri’s story.. It may be interesting to pursue the transformation of the word Samiri in later times.. Whether the root of Samir was originally Egyptian or Hebrew does not affect the later history. Four facts may be noted. (1) There was a man bearing a name of that kind at the time of Moses, and he led a revolt against Moses and was cursed by Moses. (2) In the time of King Omri (903-896 B.C.) of the northern kingdom of Israel, there was a man called Shemer, from whom, according to the Bible, was bought a hill on which was built the new capital of the kingdom, the town of Samaria. (3) The name of the hill was Shomer (= watchman, vigilant guardian), and that form of the name also appears as the name of a man (see II Kings xii. 21); some authorities think the town was called after the hill and not after the man (Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics), but this is for our present purposes immaterial. (4) There was and is a dissenting community of Israelites called Samaritans, who have their own separate Pentateuch and Targum, who claim to be the true Children of Israel, and who hold the Orthodox Jews in contempt as the latter hold them in contempt; they claim to be the true guardians (Shomerim) of the Law, and that is probably the true origin of the name Samaritan, which may go further back in time than the foundation of the town Samaria. I think it probable that the schism originated from the time of Moses, and that the curse of Moses on the Samiri explains the position.”

(To be Continued)