Written for the module: Methods and Perspectives in Islamic Studies, taken at The Islamic College for a MA in Islamic Studies with professor Ali Paya. Originally submitted on 23th February, 2017.
The verses of the Qur’ān with all their magnificence – as argued by the Muslims – at times have been at the centre of heated inter-faith polemics. Jewish and Christian accusations against the contents of the Qur’ān have often had to be explained away by Muslim scholars or in many cases, even ‘justified’. A few such verses that have often been the subject of debate and have resulted in accusations of anti-Semitism particularly, are those that refer to a story of a select group of Israelite Jews who violated the holy day of Sabbath. This paper looks at God’s condemnation of theirs – as explicated in Qur’ānic verses 2:65 and 7:166 – by ordering them to become apes, and the view of three Shi‘ī scholars on these verses. The three Shi‘ī exegetes chosen are those who approach these verses within a rational and philosophical framework and conclude that the verses are to be taken literally. A critique of their literal interpretation will follow, highlighting a fallacy, and subsequently offering a much more reasonable reading through a hypothetico-deductive method that does not jeopardize the very reason the incident is being recalled in the Qur’ān.
Qur’ānic verses while being revealed in a Medanī context concerned themselves with recalling events pertaining to the followers of Moses. This was greatly in due to the presence of a large Jewish community in and around the city of Medīna where the Prophet Muḥammad was preaching his new message. One such story recalled was of a group of Israelite Jews who lived at the time of David, and were guilty of violating one of the laws binding on them, on the day of Sabbath.
The Qur’ān explicitly refers to this incident in at least two different chapters. As per Muslim tradition, this event took place in a town located near the sea in present-day Arabia. God tested this community by prohibiting them from fishing and catching fish on the Sabbath, while at the same time only making the fish appear near their shores on the Sabbath. Several of them who were not able to resist the temptation of catching fish, placed fishing-nets a day before the Sabbath and went to take their catch a day after (Schapkow, Shepkaru, and Levenson, p.56). The Qur’ān severely condemns this group of individuals for violating their covenant and for their transgression by resorting to blatant trickery (Al-Khālidī, 2008, p.435). The verses then appear to suggest that they were ordered to become apes by God Himself, and more importantly, that this event serves as a moral lesson for all.
The two relevant verses for this specific event appear in two different chapters (Qarā’ī, 2005), and are as follows:
[2:65] And certainly you know those of you who violated the Sabbath, whereupon We said to them, ‘Be you spurned apes.’
[7:166] When they defied [the command pertaining to] what they were forbidden from, We said to them, ‘Be you spurned apes.’
The event and verses in question have been a source of great discussion over the centuries. One primary facet that this discussion has taken on is the notion of humans transforming into apes. The phrase, ‘be you spurned apes’, has certain implications if one was to take it in a literal sense, where at the very least the physical body had to have been transformed. While on the other hand, claiming it to be figurative, where the soul merely possess certain dispositions, would require some sort of evidence. A near consensus exists amongst Muslim exegetes that this was a literal physical transformation of the body (Ṭabari, 1412 AH, v.1, p.264). However, a few have considered it to be a figurative non-physical change for different reasons, or for reasons not expressed (Sawma, 2006, p.148).
One implication of a literal physical transformation is that a human would have transformed into an ape, such that their soul would be removed from the body and placed into a body of an ape. This would be considered transmigration, something all Muslim exegetes would unanimously disagree with, both theologically and rationally. It was this dilemma of transmigration and metamorphosis which led some exegetes, like Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzi (d. 1209), to begin addressing this aspect of the verse in their exegesis and defending the literal understanding (Tlili, 2012, p.123). Later exegetes came forth and tried to strengthen the argument for a literal understanding based on a philosophical possibility of such an event taking place, thus arguing that there was no need to take these verses figuratively.
Mulla Ṣadra (d. 1640), considered one of the most important Shi‘i philosophers and founder of the Transcendental Wisdom school of thought in philosophy, addresses this issue at length in his exegesis of the Qur’ān. He puts forth the premise that transmigration is a rational impossibility. That is to say, a soul being detached from a human body and being placed in an ape’s body is impossible, however, this is not what occurred with this group of people according to Ṣadra. He claims that predicating this verse on a metaphor is unnecessary, because it was the alteration of the soul and subsequently the body that took place, not that the soul was detached from the body and placed in another (1366 AH, v.3, p.472). Thus, we have no reason to claim that both the soul and the body it belonged to could not have been altered together.
He clarifies further, that human bodies are subordinate to the soul, and therefore we see physical effects of changes that originate in the soul – such as anger, fear, happiness etc. These changes are then expressed through the physical human body. In the case of this select group of Jews, what Sadra argues is that their souls had transformed into apes to such an extent that it was manifested through a physical alteration of their bodies. Ṣadra even considers the traditional reports which mention that these apes were not able to survive longer than three days, as due to their intellect no longer being able to manage the nutritional affairs of their bodies (fa-lā yumkinu tadbīru badanihi bi-ghazā’in yunāsibuhu). Thus, assuming they must have starved to death after three days (1366 AH, v.3, p.472).
‘Abdul A‘lā al-Sabzwāri (d. 1993), another scholar who brings this discussion in his exegesis, argues similarly. In it, he claims that transmigration in the sense that a soul transfers from a body which it had unity with – be it for a short or lengthy period of time – to another body and attain unity with it, is rationally impossible (1409 AH, v.5, p. 294). However, the physical manifestation of spiritual dispositions acquired by the soul, through the body, such that they represent those dispositions, is not from the definition of transmigration which is impossible. In fact, he does not consider this to be transmigration at all. Interestingly, al-Sabzwāri claims that the souls of these individuals were such that they already possessed the disposition of apes, and the command tense “Become” in the verse is merely an indication of God’s Wisdom letting their bodies manifest those characteristics in this world, rather than in the hereafter.
Another exegete who ascribes himself to the same school of thought as Ṣadra, is Javādi Āmolī (b. 1933). In his work Tasnīm, he explicitly states that this verse is not a metaphor, rather it was a real alteration and its resulting species was something that could be referred to as a human-ape (Āmolī,1391 SH, v.5, p.143). He critiques those who make the claim that the usage of the word ape here is figurative and clarifies that transmigration is of two types. If it is of a type where the material form of a body alters, while the reality and essence of a human remains, there exists no rational evidence – a reference to one’s ability to merely be able to conceptualize the possibility of such a thing – for this transformation to be impossible. Another clarification he adds, which the previous two exegetes did not allude to, is that the human intellect must remain even after this transformation (v.5, p.148). Āmolī argues that had the human intellect also been altered to that of an ape’s, those punished would no longer have felt the punishment since they would not realize that they were still in fact humans and possess the primordial human nature (fiṭrah). The punishment is only applicable then as they continued to realize they were humans in essence, and merely existing in the spiritual and physical forms of apes (v.5, p.135).
This is what he claims happened in the case of the select group of Jews. On the other hand, if what is intended by transmigration is that the soul detaches itself from the body of a man, and attaches itself to the body of an animal, or plant, or an inanimate object, or even another human being, he affirms that this is rationally impossible (v.5, p.143).
All three exegetes conclude that what took place was indeed a physical alteration of the apparent human body into that of an ape’s, alongside that of the soul’s. Thus, the usage of the word ape in the verse is literal and not figurative. There are some key points worthy of being addressed here.
One is that they all argue on the basis of having proven with certainty that only a certain type of transmigration of the soul – as discussed above – is rationally possible. This rational argument is referenced to by all three scholars as Burhān or Dalīl ‘Aqli (Ṣadra, vol.1, p.470; al-Sabzwāri, vol.1, p.294; Āmoli, vol.5, p.143 & 152), whose fundamental flaw is the presumption of being eventually justified in self-evident axioms that require no further justification and whose sole motivation is based on the quest for attaining certainty about reality. Through this, they run into the issue of being immune from criticism, as they presume that some of their premises are immune from such a thing, subsequently diminishing any notion of their conclusions being genuine knowledge. An attempt to determine the occurrence of a historical incident through such reasoning is highly problematic.
The attempt to justify the literal meaning of the verse is primarily based on the notion that since a mere rational possibility of such an event occurring exists, thus there exists no reason to interpret the usage of the word as a metaphor. With little deliberation, we see that such conjecture is problematic and fallacious, as there is no relationship between something being merely possible, and its actual occurrence in our actual world. This fallacy of deriving an “ought to have happened in this world” from an “is possible to have happened” is evident. Thus, all three interpretations lack comprehensive textual interrogation when it comes to the historical occurrence of the incident considering what the Qur’ān says and as well as what non-Qur’ānic sources on this matter state. Other than Āmoli, neither of the two scholars attempt to argue comprehensively whether such an incident can survive the scrutiny that historical records can put their arguments through, or discuss the implications of its occurrence vis-à-vis the message the Qur’ān is trying to present through this story. The former is important because Qur’ān is not a book of history per se. It may refer to historical incidents, but it is not a history book where details of events are ironed out. In fact, it is imperative to study history independently and investigate the veracity of events to be able to understand some of the verses. This incident in particular is of importance as it refers to a group whose religious-descendants were still residing around and amongst the Muslims. While historical analysis on this incident has been carried out where strong arguments are produced to show that this verse should be taken metaphorically (Rubin, 2015), we intend on trying to establish this through the Qur’ān itself.
In the case of our exegetes, we argue that the verse is not interpreted in harmony with the very point the Qur’ān is trying to make by citing this incident. To explain this, we begin with a few possible hypotheses about the nature of this incident:
- Both the body and the soul were transformed into apes – a literal transformation
- Only the body was transformed, and not the soul – a literal transformation
- The soul took on certain ape-like traits, but the physical body did not alter and neither was it a complete transformation of the soul – a figurative usage
- The statement is a rhetorical statement and the soul is merely being belittled without any change in the body or soul – a figurative usage
It is important to note that the mark of demarcation between figurative and literal intent in various exegeses is its correspondence with the apparent transformation and that which can be physically seen, as opposed to that which cannot be physically seen. When we look at each of these hypotheses alongside the collection of verses that refer to either this incident or the notion of someone becoming an animal, there are certain arguments we can produce to show why a figurative usage (be it rhetorical or the possession of certain traits by the soul) seems more likely than a literal physical change. The relevant verses appear in al-Baqarah as follows:
2:65 And certainly you know those of you who violated the Sabbath, whereupon We said to them, ‘Be you spurned apes.’
2:66 So We made it an exemplary punishment for the present and the succeeding [generations], and an advice to the Godwary.
In al-A’raf as follows:
7:163 Ask them about the town that was situated on the seaside, when they violated the Sabbath, when their fish would come to them on the Sabbath day, visibly on the shore, but on days when they were not keeping Sabbath they would not come to them. Thus did We test them because of the transgressions they used to commit.
7:164 When a group of them said, ‘Why do you advise a people whom Allah will destroy or punish with a severe punishment?’ They said, ‘As an excuse before your Lord, and [with the hope] that they may be Godwary.’
7:165 So when they forgot what they had been reminded of We delivered those who forbade evil [conduct] and seized the wrongdoers with a terrible punishment because of the transgressions they used to commit.
7:166 When they defied [the command pertaining to] what they were forbidden from, We said to them, ‘Be you spurned apes.’
We conclude from al-Baqarah that the incident is being referred to as an example for the present and succeeding generations to come. This is one of the preliminaries upon which the author of Tafsir al-Manar also argues that the verse has to be figurative, however he does not expand on it more than a few lines (Ridha, 1947, v.1, p.343). In al-A‘raf we also learn that this incident was something that the Jews who were in contact with the Prophet, were well aware of, such that the Qur’ān commands the Prophet to ask them about it. Thus, we can claim that this was a group of Jews who knew about the incident and that this reminder for them was meant to evoke fear and guilt.
The argument produced for claiming that the verse is to be taken figuratively is its reconciliation with the verses saying that this incident is an example and lesson for all as well as its notion of evoking fear. A historical incident of this nature can be made a practical and effective example of, if engaging in those prohibited acts will have similar or congruent consequences for the participants. In the case of Ṣadra and al-Sabzwāri, both suggest that this punishment is not meant to recur since it was an odd-instance of God making apparent the inner dispositions manifest physically. In fact, Ṣadra makes it very clear that such a punishment cannot take place in the nation of Muḥammad (vol.1, p.473). They are conscious of the fact that there is no empirical or reliable oral tradition indicating that such an incident ever happened elsewhere again. Besides the fact that there exists no historically reliable source that corroborates with this physical change, its lack of recurrence goes against it being an exemplar for subsequent nations, as the Qur’ān deems it to be. If such a punishment – literal transformation – has not taken place despite there having been numerous transgressors since then, there is no real reason left for the transgressors to fear.
The only time this story can have a lesson for all is if we are to take the transformation to be a figurative one – be it an allusion to certain traits their soul had taken up or a purely rhetorical remark, and given that it recurs in a similar fashion.
While Āmolī realizes the challenge of reconciling the event with it being a lesson for all, he attempts to respond to it by suggesting their intellect remained intact so that they could be aware of the punishment they were afflicted with. While there is no clear textual or rational evidence that clarifies this, it seems that this distinction between the soul changing, yet the intellect remaining is also without merit, since elsewhere Āmoli gives soul primacy and thus it is what makes man, man (Āmoli, 1386 SH, p.550). He further argues that one cannot expect the punishments given to those who transgressed amongst the Israelites to recur with anyone else due to the status the Israelites had. This is all the while he admits that such a punishment in its specific form has not occurred again (1391 SH, v.5, p.141). This is hardly a reconciliation and does not resolve the issue of how an event is then to be taken as an exemplary by future generations if it was something that should not be expected again and was to take place only for certain transgressors amongst the Israelites – not even amongst all transgressors that existed amongst them.
The literal meaning’s lack of reconciliation with it being marked as an exemplary lesson for all future generations points us to conclude that the usage is figurative and metaphorical. This sort of usage is of course widespread across Islamic literature. The question however remains, does this figurative use refer to the state of their souls, or is it being used as a rhetorical device like we find in [17:50] Say, ‘Be you be stones, or iron? where Qurtūbī understands it as “As you wish then, be apes, as you have chosen to be” (in Nasr, 2016, p.33).
The former – a reference to the state of their souls – seems more plausible, both grammatically and when tied with the notion of the event being a message for all. The notion of being set as an example in the subsequent verse suggests that an actual lesson was made of these individuals and that the command to become apes was not merely a rhetorical response. They had truly acquired certain traits which would make them spiritually deprived, such that resembling these actions or transgressing the boundaries set out by God, would result in similar consequences for future generations. These traits – namely, greed and deception – can and were expressed through their physical bodies by their actions, and at that point arguably becomes a moral lesson to be taken by all.
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Sayyid Ali Imran studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from The Islamic College of London in the summer of 2018. He continued his seminary studies in legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is also a regular instructor for Mizan Institute.