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Tafsir (Sura 7: verse 152) - false religion (the golden calf)

 Added March 15, 2005


Sura 7, verses 152 reads as follows:

"(As for) those who took the calf (for worship), surely wrath from their Lord and humiliation shall overtake them, and thus do We recompense the devisers of lies. (Qur'an 7:152)"


This verse refers to the story of the golden calf made and worshipped by the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt. While Moses (Musa (a.s.)) was in communion with God on the heights of mount Sinai, while revelation was in the process of being sent down to him, while God was manifesting His presence to Moses and divulging to him the secrets of creation and of the structure of religion, some of the Israelites (under the direction and supervision of a person called Samiri) constructed and worshipped a statue of a golden calf.

 

The worshippers of the calf had not turned against religion in and of itself – they were not rejecters of belief in God. They sought the divine but they sought it through the worship of a concrete manifestation - through a visible, tangible object, an idol - one constructed of ornaments that were a symbol of worldly wealth, power, and pleasures. They engaged in shirk (idolatry or association). Through this desire of theirs for a worldly, visible, ostentatious representation of the divine, they became deceived.


This deception came about through the action of Samiri, a person who was endowed with a degree of knowledge and insight into religion, but who used that insight to fasify rather than clarify matters for the Israelites. Together with Samiri they became inventors of a counterfeit religion – a counterfeit belief - a belief that was a direct antithesis to the purity of the revelation that was simultaneously manifesting on Mount Sinai and within the heart of Moses. While this powerful descent of Divine knowledge occured on the heights of Sinai, at the base of the mountain a caricature, a parody of this Divine process was unfolding. This forgery emerged when the nascent belief of the Israelites was still taking shape and was, historically, still in it's infancy. This is perhaps, part of the reason for the qur'an's harsh condemnation of their action. Samiri's deception was an attempt to "knife the baby", to kill or distort the religion before it took on an aspect of solidity and maturity, by creating a counter-religion.


What does this mean? What is a counterfeit religion? It is one that imitates real religion, but it exteriorizes and materializes that which is above and beyond matter, that which remains unseen and that which is only represented by abstract symbols in real religion. It takes something which is, in its essence, non-material, super-sensory (beyond the senses), spiritual, of a higher order – and converts it into something of a lower order, one that is nevertheless compelling because it is immediate, tangible, material, worldly, easily perceptible. It makes a solidified (but gross and distorted) image here in this lower world and in doing so attempts to waylay or kill deeper understanding.


In order to do this it imitates real religion but it is an imitation that is gross, materialistic, feeble, and low – a burlesque of traditional religion. But for this false religion to achieve acceptance, it must have some element of truth in it. For a deception in any realm to succeed, it must have some connection, however tenuous, with a true source - just as a counterfeit coin must be struck in the image of a real coin even while the substance it is made of is of lower value than the gold of the original. And just as a counterfeit currency creates confusion and mischief once it's in wide circulation, the same is true with a counterfeit or deluded belief.


The nafs (the soul) is the locus where unseen realities unfold and manifest – they unfurl within, and expand human knowledge, intellect, and consciousness beyond the limits of the many and varying systems of knowledge created and utilized by man. Our internal self is the place for apperception of the unseen – God manifests His truths to the purified human heart and displays his signs within the human nafs – within those nafs which have awoken to the awareness that in man there is hidden an axis that cuts across all the worlds, both high and low. The imitative religion of Samiri moves the locus away from the internal to the external (a crude and vulgar external).


In Sura 20 (verses 85 to 98), the qur'an tells the story of how Samiri deceived the people with the golden calf. When Moses departs for Sinai, his whole being is suffused with the power of the Divine attraction that calls him to Itself. Samiri notices something in the dust of the footsteps of Moses. It is as if there is a trace, a perfume, a presence left behind in the footsteps of those who are close to God. Samiri is able to discern this presence where others are not - so he has some degree of insight which they lack - but at the same time the lower aspect of his self (nafs al-amarra) is strong and misdirects his discernment towards a base end.


"He (Samiri) said: I saw what they did not see, so I took a handful (of the dust) from the footsteps of the messenger, then I threw it in the casting (of the calf); thus did my soul (nafs) commend to me." (Qur'an 20:96)


It is the spirit, the spiritual presence in the dust that causes a semblance of life to come into the calf  - a feeble but nevertheless mysterious facsimile of life. Samiri knew something of the value of spirit, so he knew a spiritual force was communicated to the place where the messenger had struck his foot. He seized the dust in the traces of the Messenger and threw it into the casting for the golden calf. In this way he gives a spiritual aura to the calf.


"Phenomena, by themselves, are not proof of spiritual truth" (Rene Guenon). Samiri uses his perceptiveness of the spiritual phenomena of the dust for gain, for ego, for deception - he turns the qualities of true religion on their head and deceives others through this to create a counter to Moses' religion.


Samiri clearly has some level of spiritual insight but his insight is used to commit a kind of spiritual theft in order to deceive the people and create a counterfeit religion, a counter to the religion manifested through Moses. In the absence of a messenger who is connected to the spiritual world, in the absence of someone whose essential being is consciously present not just in this world but through all the higher worlds, feeble but deceptive counterfeits to religion are able to emerge. When Moses was absent for forty days and nights, Samiri used his insight to deceive - he mixed truth and falsehood in order to lead into complete falsehood.


This can occur in the absence of real knowledge, when people's discernment of truth and fasehood becomes based on opinion and desire and even spiritual truths exist only to serve the goals of the lower nafs (self). When Moses returned from Sinai, Samiri's deception crumbled away. In the presence of truth, the shallowness and decrepitude of Samiri's counterfeit became manifest.


The world is now in a situation similar to the one described in the story of Samiri. Moses withdrew to Sinai for only forty days. We are in a time when the line of the Prophets has been sealed for over fourteen hundred years. Many Samiri's have come and gone and many more will emerge and multiply in the future. Their trait is that they use their discernment and considerable abilities to create a path, a way, a worldview that bends religion and revelation to the service of the nafs amarra (the lower self that commands one to move in a direction counter to what is set out in revelation). Those that follow them will perhaps distort religion till it bears little or no resemblance to the profound truths that descended through the Messenger and which were clarified through the lives of his close companions and the Imams. The result can only be an enfeebled, ineffective religion which substitutes vague sentiments or a deluded extremism in place of the profoundity of the highest aql, a bending to desire in place of bending to revelation, a removal of the boundaries set by the revelation and creation of strictures and norms that are counter to revelation - deceptive counterfeits of real religion.

The story of the golden calf is a pointer to the importance of making intense and continuous efforts in maintaining, cultivating, developing, and inculcating deep understanding and knowledge of religion and revelation - an understanding that is not hampered, conditioned and shaped by the changing currents, desires, trends, fashions, pressures, politics, and ideologies of our times. In the absence of such efforts, golden calves and Samiris will flourish...until the Mehdi from the family of the Prophet, like Moses descending from the mountain, returns bearing the illuminative gift of true perspicacity and profound knowledge.


-Irshaad Hussain

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