The longest of the Qur’an’s 114 chapters is known as “Surat al-Baḳarah,” the Chapter of the Cow. Much of this section consists of re-tellings of episodes from the Torah. The brief passage that gives the chapter its name is not found at the beginning, but well into the chapter, commencing at verse 67. It is quite a memorable passage, and it might sound familiar to people who are conversant with the Bible and with Jewish tradition. And yet, for all its resemblance to the Torah account, it differs from it in important respects.
The passage begins with Moses conveying to the people a divine command to sacrifice a cow. As the Israelites pressed their leader for more clarification, Moses kept piling on additional conditions that were necessary for the cow to qualify for the purpose, overwhelming them with minute specifications that were far more burdensome than anything they had initially imagined. In the end, the prophet informed them that the Almighty will not accept just any cow, but it must be “neither old, nor virgin, midway between the two ages.” Its colour should be a bright, pleasant-looking yellow. It must not have been raised either to plow the earth or to irrigate a field, and it was to be free from any blemishes or spots.
Finding such a cow was indeed a more formidable task than they had anticipated, but nevertheless, with considerable reluctance they located an acceptable animal and sacrificed it as instructed.
Several of the expressions that appear in the description of the Qur’an’s cow are reminiscent of the passage in the book of Numbers in which God commanded the Israelites to bring “a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came a yoke.” In the Torah, this unusual cow—red rather than yellow in hue (though there is some disagreement about how exactly to translate the Arabic word)—is to be slaughtered and burned in its entirety under strictly defined conditions; then its ashes are mixed in living waters along with other ingredients, to be sprinkled as part of the purification ritual for persons who have been rendered impure through contact with a corpse.
In rabbinic discourse, the red heifer became the paradigm for a divine commandment that transcends human comprehension. In the Muslim scripture, however, the purpose of the sacrifice seems more practical. It is linked to the passage immediately following, in which God says to recall “when you slew a man and disputed over it, but God was to bring out that which you were concealing. So, we said: Strike the slain man with part of it."
Unlike the Hebrew text, the Qur’an connects the slaughtering of the cow to a specific incident: an unsolved murder for which the community was held culpable (the Arabic uses the plural form of “you slew”). This suggests that it was equating the law of the red heifer with a different biblical precept, the law of the “broken-necked heifer.”
This second precept, found in the book of Deuteronomy, sets out the procedure to be followed when a corpse is discovered outside a town “in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess” (as distinct from the wilderness where the people were encamped in Moses’s time) and the assailant is unknown. The procedure also includes the killing of a “heifer that has never been put to work or worn a yoke.” The elders are instructed to break the heifer's neck in a rough valley.
It is common to write off the Qur’an’s version as an instance of the ignorant Muhammad confusing two unrelated laws that are dealing with very different situations—one prescribing a ritual for ritual purification after contact with a corpse (one that, in most cases, would have died of natural causes); whereas the other is intended to effect atonement for a serious crime. (Perhaps he was also adding the notorious “golden calf” into his polychromatic palette.) This would be consistent with the historical picture promoted by Islamic tradition, that Muhammad was an illiterate who lived in a remote and religiously isolated society in which barbaric ignorance prevailed—what the Arabs call the “Jahiliyya”—and picked up fragments of religious lore from conversations with diverse informants. Historians now assess the situation rather differently. Arabia in the sixth century was in communication with the foremost civilizations of the time, and Judaism and Christianity were well established there, especially in the town of Yathrib (which would become the Islamic “al-Madinah”) where the “Baḳarah” chapter was most likely revealed.
Looked at more sympathetically, the Qur’an’s blending of the diverse texts is reminiscent of rabbinic midrash with its readiness to elicit new meaning from comparisons of similar expressions in otherwise unrelated passages of scripture—by employing the hermeneutical trope known in Hebrew as gezerah shavah. Not only are there strong similarities in the attributes of the respective cows used for the Torah’s corpse-related laws (in ways that set them apart from any other sacrificial animals), but scripture refers to the red heifer as a “ḥaṭṭat”—a sin offering.
Like the rabbinic tradition, the Qur’an was puzzled by the bizarre number of arbitrary-sounding conditions that were attached to the ritual, and it provided a satisfying answer: they were added as a punitive response for the people’s raising superfluous questions about what had originally been a straightforward command! I can easily imagine Muhammad being irritated by members of his own nascent community who were wasting his time with such unnecessary questions; or by Jews whom he failed to convert to his faith because the laws of his new religion were not quite detailed or stringent enough for their taste.
Commentators to the Qur’an were pleased to fill in the details of the murder case that prompted the sacrifice of the cow. Most of the scenarios involved greedy heirs killing wealthy relatives and depositing the corpse near somebody else’s domain. The commentary ascribed to ‘Abd Allah Ibn 'Abbas explained that in such cases, the distance between the dead man and the two towns would be carefully measured—a detail that was undoubtedly derived from Deuteronomy and its Jewish interpreters.
In the Qur’an God commands cryptically to strike the deceased with a part of the cow, presenting this as an example of the resurrection of the dead. The commentaries explained that the victim actually stood up at that point and identified his murderer. At any rate, it is characteristic of the Qur’an to introduce allusions to resurrection at every opportunity, a belief that Islam inherited from Judaism though it has very little explicit basis in the Hebrew scriptures.
Muslim exegetes liked to inflate the exorbitant price that was ultimately paid to acquire the rare “golden heifer”—including the view that they had to fill its hide with gold—whereby its purchase served as a fitting punishment for the disobedient Israelites or for the murderers.
A popular variation on this theme was brought by the exegete Ismail al-Suddi. He recounted a tale about a man who came to a house to sell a pearl; however, the master of the house was napping, so his son conducted the negotiations, arriving at an advantageous price for the jewel. The dutiful son refused to conclude the deal because he did not wish to disturb his father slumber to take the money. Eventually, God compensated him for his virtuous behaviour by arranging for the precious yellow cow to be born in his herd. When the community tried to purchase the animal from him, they could not come to agreement on the price, and eventually Moses had to intercede and order him to sell it to them for ten times its weight in gold.
Students of rabbinic literature will readily recognize this narrative as a slightly altered version of the Talmud’s tale about Dama ben Natina, a pagan in Ashkelon whose devotion to his father’s comfort was cited as a model lesson of how to honour one’s parents
There is, as we have seen, much to be derived from Moses’s mysterious heifer—and the interpreters of the respective scriptures have illuminated those lessons through a prism of vivid colours.