‘Apes and pigs’: What does Islam teach?

By Dr Anthony McRoy 

The Muslim Weekly

In the light of the now infamous ‘Despatches’ programme, where a Muslim speaker derided non-Muslims by giving a ‘oink’ sound, equating infidels with swine, we should see what Islam actually teaches on the subject. The issue has been raised on TV before, and is very present on the Internet, usually with often Islamophobic articles asserting that Muslims insult Jews and Christians by equating them with apes and pigs. It follows that the PR fall-out from the programme on this issue is disastrous for the Muslim community, yet no Muslim scholar has yet managed to address the subject in any media statement.

Let us begin by examining what the Qur’an actually states. In Surah Baqara 2:65 we read: ‘And ye know of those of you who broke the Sabbath, how We said unto them: Be ye apes, despised and hated!’ This is often employed as evidence that Islam believes that Jews, and indeed all non-Muslims, are animals. First of all, let us examine the context. It is not a general condemnation of Jews, but of certain Israelites during the time of Moses, as illustrated by Ayah 63: ‘And (remember, O Children of Israel) when We made a covenant with you and caused the mount to tower above you, (saying): Hold fast that which We have given you, and remember that which is therein, that ye may ward off (evil).’ The following verse then relates: ‘Then, even after that, ye turned away, and if it had not been for the grace of Allah and His mercy ye had been among the losers.’

I find it extremely tiresome encountering young Muslims, desperate to convert me, who ransack the Bible, wrenching verses out of context. It is equally tiresome when non-Muslims do the same to the Qur’an. Scholarly integrity is what should guide everyone in the interpretation of any text. As Biblical scholars often say, a text taken out of context is a pretext. This is also true when distorting Surah 2:65 as some kind of hate-polemic against non-Muslims. The context is about the disobedience of some (note: not all) Israelites after the Exodus, as Ayah 64 demonstrates (and it should be remembered that the Surah takes its name - ‘The Cow’ - from the story of the Golden Calf). 

The same general concept is found in the Bible regarding disobedient Israelites at this time: Psalm 78:31 ‘God’s anger rose against them; He put to death the sturdiest among them… 32. In spite of all this, they kept on sinning…33. So He ended their days in futility and their years in terror.’ Similarly, Exodus 32:35, addressing the sin of the Golden Calf, records God’s judgment on apostate Israelites: ‘Then the LORD smote the people, because of what they did with the calf which Aaron had made.’ The nature of the judgment may be different, but the common point is that disobedient believers will suffer divine punishment. 

Islam considers itself the continuation of the Prophetic line from Abraham (indeed, from Adam and Noah). Hence, for Muslims, Moses is one of their prophets and the story is how God punishes those who were supposed to believe in Him – that is, submit to His guidance, i.e. Islam, but also who disobeyed His commands. To explain for all non-Muslim readers: in the eyes of Muslims, the Israelites under Moses were themselves Muslims! This is vital to understand if we are to interpret the text properly. Finally, we understand the import when we reach Ayah 66: ‘And We made it an example to their own and to succeeding generations, and an admonition to the God-fearing.’ Since Islam considers itself the continuation of the Abraham line, then the stories of the prophets and their peoples are exemplary for contemporary Muslims. The New Testament has a similar concept: 1 Corinthians 10:6 ‘Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved’ 

The next verse to consider is Surah Maida 5:60: ‘…(Worse is the case of him) whom Allah hath cursed, him on whom His wrath hath fallen and of whose sort Allah hath turned some to apes and swine, and who serveth idols.’ This seems to somewhat of a ‘missionary’ verse, preceded as it is by a call to the ‘People of the Book’ (in this context, probably certain Jews of Medina) to cease being ‘evil-livers’ (v59) in regards to their actions towards Muslims. The message seems to be eschatological in nature – those who reject Islam will suffer God’s punishment. Obviously, the Bible teaches the same from a different perspective.

Finally, Surah Araaf 7:166 ‘So when they took pride in that which they had been forbidden, We said unto them: Be ye apes despised and loathed’. The context concerns a presumably Israelite port (there is no comparable Biblical story) where the people broke the Sabbath by fishing, v163. Therefore God punished those who did so by changing them into apes and pigs, whilst saving others who ‘forbade wrong’, v165. Again, there is no sectarian element involved: the issue is purely one of divine punishment for sin, and reward (of the same community) for obedience.

Some commentators, such as Qutb, regarded the punishment as metaphorical (i.e. referring to their manners being ape- and pig-like), whereas others, such as Ibn Kathir and more latterly Mawdudi, saw it as actual. The text would support the latter conclusion, especially when we consider Surah an-Nisa 4:47: ‘O ye unto whom the Scripture hath been given! Believe in what We have revealed confirming that which ye possess, before We destroy countenances so as to confound them, or curse them as We cursed the Sabbath-breakers (of old time)...’ 

The next step in Qur’anic exegesis is to see what the Hadith states, since Muslims believe Muhammad to be the Uswah Hasanah – the ‘beautiful pattern of conduct’, the embodied hermeneutic of the Qur’an. We find narrations clearly referring to the post-exodus Israelites: Narrated by Ammar ibn Yasir ,Mishkat Al-Masabih 5150, ‘… "The table was sent down from Heaven with bread and meat, and they were commanded not to be unfaithful nor to store up for the morrow. But they were unfaithful, sorted up and laid by for the morrow, so they were changed into apes and swine"…’ This resembles Exodus 16:19-20, where God is angry at those Israelites who sinned by storing up manna overnight (although no punishment ensues).

In a hadith narrated by Abdullah, it is indicated that there was a genuine metamorphosis of the sinners into animals: Sahih Muslim 6438 ‘…Thereupon he (the Holy Prophet) said: Verily, Allah did not cause the race of those which suffered metamorphosis to grow, or they were not survived by young ones. Monkeys and swine have been in existence even before (the metamorphosis of the human beings). Abdullah also narrates another important hadith: Sahih Al-Bukhari 7.494B, ‘He heard the Prophet (peace be upon him) saying, "From among my followers there will be some people who will consider illegal sexual intercourse, the wearing of silk, the drinking of alcohol and the use of musical instruments, as lawful. And there will be some people who will stay near the side of a mountain and in the evening their shepherd will come to them with their sheep and ask them for something, but they will say to him, ‘Return to us tomorrow.’ Allah will destroy them during the night and will let the mountain fall on them, and He will transform the rest of them into monkeys and pigs and they will remain so till the Day of Resurrection."’ (There is a parallel hadith in Abu Dawud 4028 narrated by AbuAmir or AbuMalik)

If disobedient contemporary Muslims (i.e. of Muhammad’s ummah) are to suffer the same metamorphosis, then we can say that the Qur’anic depictions are in no way sectarian, but rather a warning to all, Muslim and non-Muslim, of the consequence of sinning against God. Another hadith warns against staying in some contemporary city of sin: Narrated by Anas ibn Malik, Abu Dawud 4293, ‘The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: The people will establish cities, Anas, and one of them will be called al-Basrah or al-Busayrah. If you should pass by it or enter it, avoid its salt-marshes, its Kall, its market, and the gate of its commanders, and keep to its environs, for the earth will swallow some people up, pelting rain will fall and earthquakes will take place in it, and there will be people who will spend the night in it and become apes and swine in the morning.’ No sectarian distinction is offered in this narration.

Similar ideas are found in the Shi‘ite hadith: (Usul al-Kafi H 1491, Ch. 14, h1) 

Ali ibn Muhammad has narrated from certain persons of his people from Adam ibn Ishaq from ‘abd al-Razzaq from ibn Mihran from al-Husayn ibn Maymun from Muhammad ibn Salim from abu Ja’far who has said the following:

"…Allah…commanded Moses to follow … al-Sabbath.… Those who violated its sanctity …Allah…sent them to hellfire because they made the fishes lawful. They captured them and ate them on Sabbath…"You certainly knew about those among you who were transgressors on the Sabbath. We commanded them, "Become detested apes..." (2:65) 

Other Shia hadiths concern the response to Jesus: (Bihàr, 14, 235, 8) ‘…Verily, when the people of Jesus asked him to have Allah bring down a spread from heaven, Allah said, "I will send it down to you, then whoever of you disbelieves after that, I will punish as I will not punish any other being. (5:115)" Then He sent it down to them, and all of them who disbelieved after that, Allah transformed them into either a pig, monkey, bear, cat, or in the form of some birds, animals of the land or sea. So, they were transformed into four hundred forms."’ A parallel hadith says the same: (Bihàr, 14, 236, 10) ‘… Abu al-Hasan said, "Verily, the swine among the people of Jesus (‘a) asked for a table spread to come down. Then they did not believe. So, Allah transformed them into swine."’ ‘Again, a missionary message of eschatological judgment is apparent. 

Another narration links this with Jesus and the story of the Gadarene swine in Matthew 8:28ff, where Jesus delivers two men from demon-possession by sending the evil spirits into a herd of swine: (‘Ilal al-Sharà’i‘, 2, 487), ‘… "The transformed among the children of Adam are thirteen kinds: monkey, swine and… As for the monkeys, they were a group that came down to a town near the beach of the sea, acted unlawfully on Saturday and fished. So Allah, the Exalted, transformed them into monkeys. As for the swine, they were a group among the children of Israel that Jesus the son of Mary (‘a) cursed. So Allah, the Exalted, transformed them into swine."’

The Qur’anic and Hadith texts on ‘apes and pigs’ are meant to serve as a warning to all, Muslim and Non-Muslim, of the consequences of disobeying God, and they should also serve as a warning to all Muslims and Non-Muslims who attempt to distort their meaning for sectarian purposes.


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