Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The patriarch Jacob in the Qur'an

A while ago I wrote a series of posts about Jacob, one of the Old Testament (Torah) patriarchs. I promised to then turn to examining the Qur’an for all references to Jacob (Yaqoub) contained therein, and so now, here is that continuation of the topic. See previous posts about Jacob under the label of “Jacob.”

As a reminder of who Jacob is and his genealogy, here is a summary. Remember that Abraham, the patriarch of what would become the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, was commanded by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac. This was a test of Abraham before granting him to be the father of all the divine faiths in the one God, and when Abraham demonstrated that he would do as the Lord commanded the angel of the Lord stopped him and substituted a ram. Isaac became prosperous, had sons, one of whom was Jacob, who supplanted the birthright of his brother Esau. Jacob was blessed by his father Isaac and earned through his faithfulness the blessings of God. Jacob had twelve sons, each of whom became the founder and patriarch of one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. One son, Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, became favored by the Pharaoh due to his gift of dream interpretation by God, and hence saved not only Egypt but the entire region, including the Israelites, from seven years of famine.

Jacob is first mentioned in the second chapter of the Qur’an. In the Qur’an, the first chapter is a seven line introduction, while the second chapter is a lengthy two hundred and eighty six lines which sets forward the basic origins and belief context of Islam. The purpose of this chapter regarding the events that are recorded in the Torah (Old Testament of the Bible) is to neither refute them, copy and modify them, or exclusively claim them, as many Christians (and some Muslims) have incorrectly believed. Rather, the Prophet (PBUH) is recording what he has learned from God, through the archangel Gabriel, which is that the people who will become the Muslims are faith descendants of Abraham, just like the Jews and the Christians. To use a secular expression, the Qur’an is like a person who discovers his or her ancestry, and finds they belong to a third branch of a shared family. This shared family is defined as those to acknowledge only the one God, the one who created Adam, whose descendants faithfully knew and worshipped God, culminating in God’s blessing of Abraham and his descendants.

Because that is the purpose of this chapter, and indeed the entire Qur’an, this is why 1) the Qur’an does not record events in the detail that is in the Torah (Old Testament) because Muslims accept that all of those events took place and Gabriel therefore certainly did not repeat them all in the telling for the Prophet (PBUH) and 2) the patriarchs call themselves “Muslims.” “Muslim” a believer in Islam where Islam is defined as belief in the one true God, the same one who created Adam and was worshipped and served by his descendants in the faith, culminating in God’s covenant with Abraham where God promises Abraham will “father a multitude.” The archangel Gabriel is like someone who seeks out a branch of the family who do not even know who they are, and who explains it to them, and Gabriel does this, as in all things, at the behest of God. The Qur’an serves this one purpose, in addition to its other purposes, of recording the explanation that the archangel Gabriel (Jibreel) provides to the Prophet (PBUH) of the origins and the purpose of these Arabic people who will now become the Muslim people. At that time the Arabians lived among Jews and Christians, but did not realize their common origin or that they shared the same God. They also did not realize that they lived among sacred sites established by Adam and Abraham.

So here is the first mention of, specifically, Jacob.

Surah 2: 132-133, 136, 140
And the same did Ibrahim [Abraham] enjoin on his sons and (so did) Yaqoub [Jacob]. O my sons! Surely Allah [God] has chosen for you (this) faith, therefore die not unless you are Muslims.

Nay! Were you witnesses when death visited Yaqoub, when he said to his sons: What will you serve after me? They said: We will serve your God and the God of your fathers, Ibrahim [Abraham] and Ismail [Ishmael] and Ishaq [Isaac], one God only, and to Him do we submit.

Say: We believe in Allah and (in) that which had been revealed to us, and (in) that which was revealed to Ibrahim [Abraham] and Ismail [Ishmael] and Ishaq [Isaac] and Yaqoub [Jacob] and the tribes, and (in that which was given to Musa [Moses] and Isa [Jesus], and (in) that which was given to the prophets from their Lord, we do not make any distinction between any of them, and to Him do we submit.

Nay! Do you say that Ibrahim [Abraham] and Ismail [Ishmael] and Yaqoub [Jacob] and the tribes were Jews or Christians? Say: Are you better knowing or Allah? And who is more unjust than he who conceals a testimony that he has from Allah? And Allah is not at all heedless of what you do.

So Jacob is mentioned in the context of the other patriarchs, as a list of those faithful patriarchs who personally pledged themselves in covenant with God. The archangel Gabriel, therefore, is explaining to the Prophet (PBUH) what has transpired in the ages past, where the forefathers pledged themselves to the one and only God and rather than repeating all that is in the Torah (Old Testament) Gabriel provides statements of faith and avowal that summarize the feelings and faith of these forefathers.

For example, look at 2:133, which is a one line summary of Jacob’s deathbed reiteration of faith, which he solicits from his sons before he dies. This is a one line summary of what is described in detail in Genesis 48 and 49, two chapters that give a detailed accounting of Jacob being sick, taking to his deathbed, and blessing Joseph and his sons, and then to bless and prophesy for each of his own “twelve tribes of Israel” sons. The archangel Gabriel is, at the behest of God, taking the Prophet (PBUH) “back in time” in a sense, to learn “the bottom line” of the events that form what will become the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths.

This is why God did not send the archangel Gabriel to say to the Arab people, “You shall become either Jews or Christians.” That would be theologically incorrect. In the time of the patriarchs there were, obviously, no Christians yet but also, if you think about it, there were no “Jews” either. The Exodus had not happened yet, and thus Moses and the Law giving by God were still in the future. Thus in 2:140 God, through the archangel Gabriel, strongly enforces upon the Prophet (PBUH) that the patriarchs had a covenant of recognition and worshipping the one true God, a covenant that cannot yet be ascribed to a particular name of faith. This overall covenant with God is what the name “Islam” and the followers of Islam, “Muslims,” now comes into being, but the “new” name of the “new” faith is not disparaging Judaism or Christianity, but referencing back to the common faith source and giving themselves identification of that branch of the faith.

To look at our analogy, suppose our genealogist discovers that he and two of his neighbors have descended from an ancestor called “Smith.” The last names of the genealogist’s neighbors are “Csmith” and “Jsmith” and Jsmith is a descendent of Abraham through Moses, and Csmith is a descendant of Abraham through Jesus. Well, discovering that all three trace back to “Smith” means that it would be incorrect for the genealogist who has just discovered his place in this family tree to now change his name to “Csmith” or “Jsmith.” He is a descendent of “Smith.” So what should he call himself and his family to now become part of the authentic fold that he has just discovered that he belongs to? He decides that he cannot trace every relationship and descendent from Smith to the present, and thus pick up one of names in his own lineage, so he calls his entire family “Smith.” “Smith” is “Muslim.”

To use a contemporary term, this is “reconnecting with one’s roots.” The Arabians at the time of the Prophet (PBUH) obviously did not have a written record of their biological lineage all the way back to Abraham, as clearly do the Jews and the Christians. So it would be incorrect, both theologically and culturally, to now “decide” that the future “Muslims” is of either Jews or Christians. Finding one shares with others a great etc. grandfather does not mean that you are now the sons and daughters of the other two branches; you are sons and daughters of the common faith ancestor. This is why God, through the archangel Gabriel, gifted Muslims with the right to refer to the patriarchs as being “Muslims.” It is God’s way of saying, “Because you do not have in writing your lineage, then call yourselves ‘Smith,’ do not call yourself or adopt the ways of “Csmith” or “Jsmith.” In 2:136 you see that Muslims acknowledge and revere the Moses and Jesus “ancestry,” but they do not claim to insert themselves now into those branches of the tree.

Another way to understand this is to realize that what God had with the patriarchs, “Covenant,” is the heart of both of the ancestral Jewish and Christian faiths. Over time as the faiths matured, “Covenant” came to mean more than pledges of belief by the patriarchs to God, and God’s blessing in return. “Covenant” came to mean the set of Law for the Jews, and the fulfillment of the Old Covenant and the making of the New Covenant for the Christians. Thus use of the word or concept of “Covenant” would be problematic for these new Muslims and God, with his all-knowing and foreseeing, avoided this problem without eliminating, clearly, that Muslims are heirs of the patriarchal covenants. Pledging to God and having God confer recognition and gift in return, a covenant, is the basis for the Muslim “branch of faith and heritage” too. The covenant with these people who have now had their faith ancestry revealed to them, therefore, became codified not by that word “covenant,” but by the Qur’an. The Qur’an is God’s “covenant” with Muslims.

See, I know that this last sentence gives some Jewish and Christian readers a shock. That is exactly why God, in his wisdom, foresaw this problem of understanding and therefore gave the Muslims their own path and terminology to reference their share of Abraham’s covenantal descendant multitude. God never errs and he is never inconsistent; it is humans who fail to understand God’s consistency. God gathered the people who would become Muslims, believers who did not know their own faith history and heritage, and reintroduced them to the patriarchs, but gave them the terminology that would not cause confusion with the other children of Abraham.

There is a further problem that God avoids on behalf of humans by giving the Muslims their own “covenant” that references back to the original covenants with the forefathers and patriarchs. That problem is that the Jewish faith struggled with continual idolatry, as is repeatedly documented in the Old Testament, with even King Solomon succumbing to it in his old age. This is another reason why there are swipes at the Jewish faith regarding being “polytheistic” in the Qur’an and why Muslims are made by God to basically hit the “reset” button for themselves, rather than become Jews and enter the fray of keeping pure the continuity of that faith. Likewise early Christianity suffered from the inevitable arising of heresies. Muslims, as you see clearly in these and other citations, do not deny at all Jesus, and instead revere him. The concern is that early Christians (and indeed many nominally Christian moderns) argue about the “true nature” of Jesus for two thousand years, endangering their own faith in the one God. This is why God permitted Muslims to revere Jesus, but run rather than embrace Christianity and thus, as I commented above about Jews, “enter the fray” of idolatry.

It is like even if our genealogist was tempted to rename his family either Csmith or Jsmith, and join in their branches wholeheartedly, but he discovers that many of them quarrel about the foundations of their family, Smith. Worse he discovers that sects of those branches claim to have “Mr. Real-smiith” and “Ms. Super-smyth.” This is why one observes what seems to be a contradiction in the Qur’an, which is reverence for Moses and Jesus, and their descendent branches of the faith, but also a disparaging caution about those faiths. That is a topic for a whole other commentary and discussion, but I’d be remiss not to mention and explain it here as we cite passages from the Qur’an that are right next to what are, for many, both Muslim or not, some difficult to understand statements about Judaism and Christianity.

Surah 3:84

Say: We believe in Allah and what has been revealed to us, and what was revealed to Ibrahim and Ismail and Ishaq and Yaqoub and the tribes, and what was given to Musa and Isa and to the prophets from their Lord; we do not make any distinction between any of them, and to Him do we submit.

This is a repeat of what was said in 2:136, which is to punctuate throughout the Qur’an the basic statements of belief as asserted by the faith ancestry.

Surah 6:84
And We gave to him Ishaq and Yaqoub; each did We guide, and Nuh [Noah] did We guide before, and of his descendants, Dawood [David] and Sulaiman [Solomon] and Ayub [Job] and Yusuf [Joseph] and Haroon [Aaron]; and thus do We reward those who do good (to others).

Here Jacob is mentioned in a list of the holy people who God has given to humanity, through Abraham, as gifts. Notice that God is stating his guidance of these faith forefathers, a mixed list of patriarchs, kings, prophets and the faithful and his reward for those who are charitable. This is an example of where the passage goes in a slightly different direction than those who detract from religion may expect. God guides these faithful and rewards them, but where one expects to read that God rewards them for their faith, one sees that God rewards those he guides when they do good to others, when they love their neighbor and are charitable.

Surah 11:71
And his [Abraham] wife [Sarah] was standing (by), so she laughed, then We gave her the good news of Ishaq [Isaac] and after Ishaq of (a son’s son) Yaqoub [Jacob].

Here Jacob is mentioned that through the one miracle of God providing Abraham and Sarah with a child in their old age, Isaac, there is a cascading of goodness forward in time beyond the one child, such as the grandchild, Jacob now coming into being because his father was conceived through the gift of God. So the deeper meaning of this passage beyond reiterating the laughter of Sarah at the thought of becoming pregnant in her old age and restating that God keeps his word of the miracle, but that the “good news” cascades forward through the generations.

Surah 12:38
And I follow the religion of my fathers, Ibrahim and Ishaq and Yaqoub; it beseems us not that we should associate aught with Allah; this is by Allah’s grace upon us and on mankind, but most people do not give thanks.

Here Joseph attests his faith in front of the Pharaoh, including mention of his father Jacob, before interpreting the dream of famine of the Pharaoh.

Surah 19:6
Who should inherit me and inherit from the children of Yaqoub, and make him, my Lord, one in whom Thou art well pleased.

These are words that describe the concern that Zakariya (Zacharias), the Jewish priest during the time just before the birth of Jesus, had because he and his wife had no children. The Qur’an relates what we know from the Gospel of St. Luke 1, which is that the angel of the Lord appears to Zacharias as he was in the temple serving God with incense sacrifice, and announced that he and Elizabeth would give birth to the son who will be called John. This son will be John the Baptist, the herald of the coming of Jesus Christ.

This is an example of what is common in the Qur’an, which is to express an interior or exterior dialogue (spoken or unspoken) that quickly illuminates the faith of the speaker or thinker. Rather than repeat all of the dialogue that is in the Bible, as here in the New Testament Luke 1, in the Qur’an the priestly concern and heritage of Zacharias is illustrated by his thought where he is sad that he has no son to serve God, in the heritage of the children of Jacob.

Surah 19:49
So when he withdrew from them and what they worshipped besides Allah, We gave to him Ishaq and Yaqoub, and each one of them We made a prophet.

This passage recounts how once Abraham committed to God and withdrew from contact with pagans and non-believers, God have him sons and descendents that are true prophets.

Surah 21:72-3
And We gave him Ishaq and Yaqoub, a son’s son, and We made (them) all good.
And we made them Imams who guided (people) by Our command, and We revealed to them the doing of good and the keeping up of prayer and the giving of the alms, and Us (alone) did they serve.

Ah, now, see; take a close look at these two passages. One is a restatement of how Abraham received as a gift of God not only Abraham’s son, Isaac, but as the out flowing of having a son who is a prophet, Abraham’s son Isaac also fathers a prophet, Jacob. So at first it looks as just a restatement of how God’s mercy in granting a son moves forward in time in goodness, as that son also has a son who serves God.

But when you look at the next line, you now see that God is giving to the Muslims Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as “role models” for their Imams. Muslim Imams are not modeled after the priesthood, and this is why they are not priests, and they are not modeled after evangelists, preachers, scholars or rabbis. Muslim Imams are role modeled after the father-son-grandson filial relationship in faith as gifted by God. This is why the Imamate, the genealogy and authority of the Imams who descend from the Prophet (PBUH) are such crucial and often contentious component of Islamic faith. When Muslims ponder the Imams of their early history, and the Imams of their present, they think of the Imams as being “sons” and “grandsons” of the authentic faith, just as were Isaac and Jacob from Abraham. This is an essential component of understanding not only the theology but the living structure and dynamics of the faith of Islam, and the divisions therein.

Surah 29:27
And We granted him Ishaq and Yaqoub, and caused the prophethood and the book to remain in his seed, and We gave him his reward in this world, and in the hereafter he will most surely be among the good.

The idea of the Imam is developed further here, even though this passage does not refer to the Imamate, but is contained within a retelling of Lot’s rescue by God from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. There is the idea that the prophethood, as role modeled by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is contained and remains in their “seed.” Now this does not mean that literally it is a genetic basis for passing on the faith and prophecy. Here the Qur’an is explaining that faith is and passed on from father to son as each generation affirms their faith. Jacob would not have been the recipient and container of the “seed” of his father Isaac if Jacob disavowed God. Rather, each father must be understood as being not only a biological father, but a spiritual father, who passes on the seed of faith to their son. It is this role modeling that result in many modern day imams having sons who follow their footsteps, just as many rabbis have sons who are rabbis in the Jewish faith. The equivalent in the Catholic faith is the “laying on of the hands” when priests and bishops are consecrated and confirmed. If one looks in the Catholic Church hierarchy database, one can trace the ancestry of the consecrating bishops, back to when these records are last reliable and kept, which is the fourteenth century. The father to son to grandson role model of passing the seed of the faith is a fundamental understanding of all of the Abrahamic faiths.

Surah 38:45-7
And remember Our servants Ibrahim and Ishaq and Yaqoub, men of power and insight.
Surely We purified them by a pure quality, the keeping in mind of the (final) abode.
And most surely they were with Us, of the elect, the best.

By now it is familiar spiritual motif for you to observe that this progression from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob is a crucial role model constantly referenced within the theology of Islam. Having discovered, through revelation by God, their connection and spiritual ancestry to Abraham and his descendants, with great firmness and repetition the Muslims study and imitate the foundational manifestation of faith of these patriarchs. This passage builds on this understanding to make two points. One is that God purified each one of them. Again, it is not as though biology is the reason to pass along the seed of faith. Each spiritual heir and prophet must be purified and kept pure by God, since humans are not by themselves enough; only God can make and keep them pure. This purity allows them to always keep in mind that the earthly life is not the final destination, but the final abode is of either heaven or hell. That is the second point, which is that receiving and accepting purity from God results in both earthly gifts, such as power and insight, and also the eternal gift of being among the best, the elect, in heaven.

I hope that you have found this tracing of mentions of Jacob in the Qur’an and my accompanying commentary helpful.