Calf of the Children of Isrāʾīl
(ijl banī isrāʾīl)

Muzaffar Iqbal and Csaba Okvath

A calf made from fine gold and silvery jewelry that was worshipped by the Israelites.The Qurʾān refers to this Calf eight times (Q 2:51, 54, 92, 93; 4:153; 7:148, 152; 20:88) in four suras (Q 2, 4, 7, 20), using the noun ʿijl from the root ʿ-j-l, which carries the basic meaning of “to hasten” (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn; Azharī, Tahdhīb; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisānsub ʿ-j-l). “A calf is called ʿijl because of its agility which is lost by the time it becomes fully grown” (Rāghib, Mufradāt).


The incident of the Calf took place after the Children of Isrāʾīl had been rescued from the tyranny of Pharaoh (see Firʿawn) and they had crossed the sea to safety. It was preceded by their demand to Prophet Mūsā, upon him peace, to make for them a god like the gods of a certain people they saw after crossing the sea (Q 7:138): And We took the Children of Isrāʾīl across the sea and they came upon a people cleaving to their idols. They said, ‘O Mūsā, make for us a god, as they have gods.’ He said, ‘You are surely an ignorant people.’ The exegetes identify “people (qawm)” they met after crossing the sea as Lakhm, as per Qatāda (d. 118/736); or Lakhm and Judhām together, as per Abū ʿImrān al-Jawnī (d. ca 128/745)—both tribes being branches of Sabaʾ (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī; Ibn Abī Ḥātim, sub Q 7:138; Samʿānī sub Q 27:22). A weaker opinion identifies them as a branch of Kanʿān or as ʿAmāliqa (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī; Ibn ʿAṭiyya; Baghawī). The sea side locality where they lived is identified as al-Raqqa of Egypt (Tafsīrs of Thaʿlabī; Baghawī;Khāzin,sub Q 7:138).

The idols they saw were statues of cows (tamāthīl baqar), which seemed pleasing to them and therefore they demanded that Mūsā, upon him peace, should make similar gods for them because they considered these idols were a means for gaining closeness to Allah Most High, just as the idol worshippers claimed, “We do not worship them, save to bring us closer to Allah” (cf. Q 39:3; Tafsīrs of al-Ṭabarī, al-Baghawī, al-Rāzī; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar,sub Q 7:138). Their demand shows that the reality of Divine Oneness (tawḥīd) was not yet firmly established in their hearts and they were inclined to worship “other than Allah” (ghayr Allāh) (Qushayrī, Tafsīr). Although the verse ascribes the demand to the Children of Isrāʾīl, the commentators clarify that it does not mean that all Israelites made the demand; rather, the ascription is “according to the usage of the Arabs” (Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr) and not all the Israelites had asked for the making of these idols, “because among them were the seventy chosen elders and there must have been others whose intellect was higher than such false demands” (Rāzī, Tafsīr). Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. Jarīral-Ṭabarī (224-310/839-923), Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq b. GhālibIbn ʿAṭiyya (480-546/1087-1151), and Abū Muḥammad al-Ḥusayn b. Masʿūd al-Farrāʾ al-Baghawī (d. 516/1122) aver that the sight of these statues was the beginning of the “tribulation of the Calf (fitnat-l-ʿijl)” for the Children of Isrāʾīl (cf. their Tafsīrs sub Q 7:138). According to the majority opinion of the exegetes, it is their love of the Calf that is alluded to in Q 2:93, which causally links it to unbelief: And they were made to imbibe the Calf into their hearts (ushribū fī qulūbihimu-l-ʿijlon account of their unbelief, and where ushribū fī qulūbihimu-l-ʿijl is a metaphor for their love of the Calf (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī;Māwardī;Rāzī; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar).

Fashioning of the Calf

The Calf was made by al-Sāmirī (Q 20:85-87)—variously said to be a hypocrite from an Israelite tribe called al-Sāmira,  or a man who had belonged to a cow-worshiping people and who had joined the Israelites in Egypt, but who remained a cow-worshipper in his heart (Bayḍāwī, Qurṭubī, Tafsīrs, Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf, sub Q 20:85), or a non-Arab from Kirmān (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr)—from “their fine gold and silvery jewelry” (min ḥulīyyihim, cf. Q 7:148), while the Prophet Mūsā, upon him peace, had gone to the mountain to meet his Lord. The jewelry from which the Calf was made had belonged to the people of Pharaoh (āl Firʿawn); the Israelites had either borrowed it or it had come into their possession after the drowning of the original owners. In either case, the jewelry was not lawful for them to keep and they were asked (either by Hārūn, upon him peace, or Sāmirī) to give it up (cf. Tafsīrs of al-Ṭabarī; al-Qurṭubī; and Ibn Kathīr sub Q 20:87-88). When the Israelites piled the jewelry in a pit for fire to come down and consume it, Sāmirī flung a handful of dust into it and said, “Be a calf’s body which lows,” and it became so. The wind went into it from the back and came out from its mouth, and a sound was heard (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, sub Q 2:51; Qurṭubī, sub 20:87-88; Ibn Kathīr, sub Q 2:51). Sāmirī then said to the Israelites, This is your god and the god of Mūsa (Q 20:88) and they loved it more than anything else, even though Hārūn, upon him peace, had already said to them, ‘O my people, you are being tested by it; your Lord is the Most Merciful, so follow me and obey my orders’, but they said, We will never cease our devotion to it until Mūsā returns to us (Q 20:90-91) (Ṭabarī; Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīrs sub Q 2:51). Upon his return, Musā, upon him peace, asked his brother Hārūn, what prevented you from following me when you saw them going astray? He said, “O son of my mother! Seize not my beard or my head. Truly I feared that you would say, ‘You have caused division among the Children of Isrāʾīl, and you have not heeded my word’” (Q 20:94). Mūsa, upon him peace, then asked the fashioner of the Calf, “What was your purpose, O Sāmirī?” He said, “I saw that which they saw not. So I took a handful from the traces of the messenger (athar al-rasūl), and I cast it. Thus did my soul prompt me.” (Q 20:96).

According to the majority view the jewelry transformed into a living Calf that walked and had blood and flesh. This opinion, held by Ibn ʿAbbās, al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 110/728), and Qatāda b. Diʿāma (d. 117/735)—among others—is strengthened by a linguistic argument cited by many exegetes who point out that the Qurʾān uses the words jasad and khuwār for the body and sound of the Calf and both are used for a living creature (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī; Baghawī; ʿAbd al-Razzāq, sub Q 7:148; Rāzī, Tafsīr; Ālūsī Rūḥ, sub Q 2: 51). Jār Allāh Abūl-Qāsim al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/ca.1074-1143) and, in his wake, Fakhr al-Dīn Muhammad b. ʿUmar al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) strengthen the arguments for the transformation of the jewelry into a living Calf by citing a variant reading by ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (13bh-40/609-660)], may Allah be pleased with him, who read khuwār as juʾār (with jīm and hamza), from the verb jaʾara, meaning “to low, to moo” (Kashshāf; Tafsīr, sub Q 7:148). Quoting Ibn ʿAbbās (3bh-68/619-688), Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. Ḥabīb al-Māwardī (364-450/974-1058), however, forwards the view that the Calf produced the sound only once and never again (Nukat, sub Q 20:87; cf. Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 7:148).

Ṭabarī points out that the Sāmirī misled the Israelites as they started to worship a mere body instead of the Lord of the Heavens and the earth, Who manages the affairs of these vast cosmic entities, Who could not be a mere body that bellowed and neither spoke nor guided anyone (Tafsīr, sub Q 7:148). They worshipped the Calf, “prostrated when it bellowed, and raised their heads when it stopped”, as per a report from Ibn ʿAbbās (Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād, sub Q 7:148); or they prostrated on one sound and raised their heads on the next (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 20:89).

The role of the “traces of the Messenger”

When Mūsā, upon him peace, asked the Sāmirī why he did what he did, He said, “I saw that which they saw not. So I took a handful from the footsteps of the messenger, and I cast it. Thus did my soul prompt me” (Q 20:96-97). Based on a variant reading by the Companions Ubayy b. Kaʿb (d. 39/659) and Ibn Masʿūd (d. 32/ca. 652)—both expert Qurʾān readers—who read So I took a handful from the footsteps of the messenger, as So I took a handful from the footsteps of the horse of the messenger, several exegetes hold that the rasūl was Jibrīl who rode a horse and the Sāmirī took a handful of earth from under the footsteps of his horse for the transformation of the jewelry into a Calf (cf. Tafsīrs of Muqātil, Ṭabarī, Māturīdī, Samarqandī, Rāzī, Qurṭubī sub Q 20:96). Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī (d. 333/ca.945), however, advises caution, because “the Qurʾān mentions neither the horse nor does it specify that the messenger was Jibrīl” and hence this explanation is only acceptable if this reading can be authentically traced back to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, otherwise, we cannot add anything to what has been said in the Qurʾān, because the chronicles, which were in their books [books of the Israelites], have been mentioned in the Qurʾān so that the Messenger of Allah can establish a proof against them, and so that they know that [the Prophet] came to know about these [events] only from Allah Most High. Now, if we add or take away from what has been mentioned in their books, then there will be no proof against them; rather, such additions or deletions would amount to lying against them, therefore, it is necessary to preserve the integrity of the Qurʾānic chronicles by neither adding to them nor deleting from them, except if there is an authentically proven report from the Messenger of Allah and if there is no such report, then it is better to refrain as we have said” (Taʾwīlāt, sub Q 20:96).

Māturīdī’s caution notwithstanding, several exegetes consider the reports about the athar al-rasūl to be a handful (qabḍa) or sprinkling (qabṣa, as per the reading of al-Ḥasan) of earth from under the hooves of Jibril’s mount, because they accept reports from Ibn ʿAbbās, Mujāhid b. Jabr (d. ca.104/722) and Qatāda b. Diʿāma (d. 117/735) to be authentic proofs for this interpretation (cf. Tafsīrs of Mujāhid; Yahya b. Sallam; Ṭabarī; Ibn Abī Ḥātim).

The Muʿtazilī view, as expounded by Abū Muslim al-Aṣfahānī (254-322/868-934), the grammarian and author of the Qurʾān commentary Jāmiʿ al-taʾwīl li-muḥkam al-tanzīl—which Fakhr al-Dīn Muhammad b. ʿUmar al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) cites in detail—considers the messenger (rasūl) mentioned in the verse to be Mūsā, upon him peace, and athar al-rasūl to mean “his Way and Method (sunnatahu wa rasmahu) which he was commanded to practice,” and which the Sāmirī rejected, saying to Mūsā, upon him peace, “I have come to realize that the religion on which you are is not true (laysa bi-ḥaqq), and whatever I had taken from your Way and Method, I have thrown it away.” Thereafter, Mūsā, upon him peace, admonishes him and informs him of his punishment in this world and in the Hereafter. Foreseeing objection to his interpretation on the basis of the use of the third person pronoun for Mūsā, upon him peace, while the Sāmirī was actually talking to him, al-Aṣfahānī rationalizes the usage by saying that the Sāmirī used the third person pronoun just as one uses it out of respect for one’s master (li-raʾīsihi) even in his presence (Jāmiʿ al-taʾwīlsub 20:96).

Al-Rāzī approves this interpretation by Abū Muslim primarily because he does not find enough justification for alternate views of the exegetes. His arguments are: (i) Jibrīl, upon him peace, could not be the referent of al-rasūl because he is not generally known (mashhūr) as al-rasūl, and he has not been previously mentioned which could have allowed the consideration that the definite article [lām al-taʿrīf ] is pointing to him, and to apply the word ­al-rasūl to Jibrīl, upon him peace, is tantamount to commissioning him with the knowledge of the Unseen (ghayb); (ii) the interpretation of the exegetes requires an ellipsis in the verse, that is, the verse would be qabḍatun min athar ḥāfiri farasi-l-rasūli, but adding such an ellipsis is against the principles [of interpretation]; (iii) the acceptance of the interpretation of the exegetes requires that one must accept the far-fetched idea that of all the people only the Sāmirī saw and recognized Jibrīl, upon him peace, and he also knew that the dust under the hooves of his horse has this miraculous characteristic. And it is really far-fetched to say—as some exegetes say—that he knew Jibrīl because he had taken care of al-Sāmirī in his childhood (rabbāhu); (iv) if one accepts for a disbeliever to know the miraculous nature of the dust under the hooves of a horse, then one can argue that Mūsā, upon him peace, also knew of such things and that is how he was able to produce miracles; this would lead to closure of the gate of true miracles (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 20:96).

Destruction of the Calf

The ultimate fate of the Calf is mentioned in Q 20:97 in the words of Mūsa, upon him peace: Now observe your god, to whom you remained devoted: we shall surely burn it (la-nuḥarriqannahu) and We shall completely scatter (la-nansifannahu) it into the sea!”. The verse is explained variously based on variant readings (see Readings of the Qurʾān) of the key phrase (la-nuḥarriqannahu). The majority of Readers from Hijaz and Iraq read it as “la-nuḥarriqannahu”, with reduplicated second stem-consonant (Form-II verb) in the sense of “to burn it again and again”. Al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (21-110/642-728) and others, however, read it as “la-nuḥriqannahu”, the Form IV verb, meaning “to burn it once (iḥrāqatan wāḥidatan), while others yet read it as “la-naḥruqannahu”, that is, as a derivative of From-I verb ḥaraqahu, meaning “to scrape away with a rasp” (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, cf. Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, Abū al-Suʿūd, Irshād sub Q 20:97). Al-Ṭabarī’s preference is to read it as la-nuḥarriqannahu, that is, “burn with fire” (al-iḥrāq bi-l-nār); “as transmitted from Ibn ʿAbbās,” and also based on the “consensus proof of the Readers”. He explains that the reading of Abū Jaʿfar (d. ca.127/744) is based on reports from Ismāʿīl b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Suddī (d. 127/745), according to which Mūsa, upon him peace, seized the Calf, slaughtered it, then pounded to powder [its remains] and scattered it in the sea (dharāhu fī-l-yamm). Al-Ṭabarī also mentions another report from Qatāda, who cites yet another variant reading, that of Ibn Masʿūd, in which slaughtering is specified: “and look at your god to which you remained devoted, we will surely slaughter it (la-nadhbaḥannahu), then burn it, then blow it into the sea with a blast” (also see Samarqandī, Baḥr; Thaʿlabī, Kashf; Rāzī, Tafsīr).

The verb describing the fate of the Calf after its burning (“la-nansifannahu”) means “we will disperse the ashes (ramādan) or the remains” in the sea and although there exists another reading (“la-nunassifannahu”), it has the same meaning (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf sub Q 20:97). The blowing into the sea refers to the pulverization of the Calf (la-nudharriyannahu), which were scattered in the sea, as the Arabs say nasafa fulān al-ṭaʿām bi-l-minsaf—when someone winnows to remove “chaff and dust from grain using either hand or air” (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 20:97). All of this indicates increase of punishment and exposure of the idiocy (ghabāwa) of those who were seduced by the Calf and for anyone with a modicum of insight (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr sub Q 20:97).

Number of Calf-Worshippers

The exegetes differ about the number of Calf-worshippers. Abū al-Muẓaffar al-Samʿānī (426-489/1035-1096) says the more correct opinion is that all except Hārūn, upon him peace and twelve hundred other Israelites were Calf-worshippers. This is supported by al-Baghawī (d. 516/1122) and other exegetes on the basis of Q 7:155 and Q 7:181 (Baghawī, Tafsīr, sub Q 7:155; Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 7:148).Arguing from the generality (ʿumūm) of Q 7:148 and from the supplication of Mūsā, upon him peace, (“O my Lord, forgive me and my brother” cf. Q 7:151),al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (21-110/642-728) is quoted as saying all the Israelites except Hārūn, upon him peace, were Calf-worshippers, because if there had been any other, the supplication would not have been so restrictive (Māturīdī, Taʾwīlāt, sub Q 7:155; Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 7:148; Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr, sub Q 2:51).

Repentance and Expiation (Q 2:54)

The specific mode of repentance prescribed for the Calf-worshippers is mentioned in Q 2:54: And when Mūsā said to his nation: “O my nation! verily you have wronged yourselves by resorting to the Calf, so repent to your Creator and kill yourselves, that will be better for you with your Lord.Then He accepted your repentance. Truly, He is the One Who accepts repentance, the Most Merciful. Al-Ṭabarī cites an impressive array of early authorities, including the Companion Ibn ʿAbbās, the Successors Saʿīd b. Jubayr al-Asadī (46-95/666-714), Qatāda, al-Suddī, and other early Qurʾān commentators—ʿAbd al-Malik b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Ibn Jurayj (ca. 80-150/699-767), Muḥammad b. Isḥāq b. Yasār (85-150/704-767), and Abū BisṭāmShuʿba b. al-Ḥajjāj (ca. 85-160/704-776)—all of whom narrate graphic descriptions of the slaying of the Calf-worshippers. According to these reports, an intense darkness engulfed them as the Calf-worshippers sat down with their cloaks over them, and those who had not worshipped the Calf slew them with knives and swords. When the darkness lifted, seventy thousand had been slain; those who had been killed had done their penance, and those who survived had done their penance(Tafsīr, sub Q 2:54). Other reports state that while the Calf-worshippers were being killed, Mūsā, upon them peace, stood with raised hands, supplicating and weeping, with mourning women and children gathered around him, seeking forgiveness for those being slain, until Allah accepted their repentance and Mūsā ordered that swords be withdrawn.

Yet, against the overwhelming majority of these early scholars, the majority of Muʿtazilīand also some later Sunnīinterpretations preferred to read “fa-qtulū” metaphorically by taking the command to mean slay your passions, because—as al-Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār (359-415/969-1025) put it—it is not possible that Allah Most High would command their slaughter, because the excellence of all Divinely ordained acts is in their being beneficial for those who are legally responsible (mukallaf), and benefit can only be in their future, whereas after their death, there would be no benefit (Rāzī, Tafsīr). Al-Rāghib al-Asfahānī(d. ca.502/1108) responded to this opinion rather severely: “This ignorant has called [thecommand to kill] ugly (wa hādhā-l-jāhilinnamāistaqbaḥahu), because he is ignorant of the fact that it is with the command of the Creator of our souls, that wepersist and with His command we gain protection, and that there is a life after this life of amusement and diversion—the Return to the abode of ever-lasting life, as He says, Lo! the abode of the Hereafter—that is Life (Q 29:64), and to kill by His command is to send the soul to a better life” (Tafsīr).

Nonetheless, many Sunnī works, including tafsīrs of al-Sulamī (325-412/936-1031), Abū al-Manṣūr al-Māturīdī (d. 333/ca.945), al-Qushayrī (376-465/ca.986-ca.1073), and al-Bayḍāwī(d. 685/1286), also mention metaphorical reading as a possibility with reservations, or as an additional gloss. For instance, al-Māturīdī says:

Had there not been consensus of the exegetes (ahl al-taʾwīl wa-l-tafsīr) about literal reading of the command of Allah, the Majestic and Exalted, we would have never taken this command literally, because the command (“kill yourself”) comes after the command to repent and after their return to the worship of Allah and after their submission to Himin obedience—for which the proof is Q 7:149 (And when regret overcame them and they saw that they had gone astray, they said, ‘If our Lord does not have mercy upon us and forgive us, we will surely be among the losers.’); it is apparent from this verse that they had already repented before the command to kill came—and the Law only prescribes killing of the disbelievers through the tongues of the Prophets until they become Muslim [ḥattāyuslimū, lit. until they submit], after which it is not permissible; [otherwise] it would seem that the sending of the prophet was for killing and not for religion; and Allah knows best. (Taʾwīlāt.)

More than a century after al-Māturidī, in an apparent attempt to strengthen the Muʿtazilī stance, Jār Allāh Abū al-Qāsim al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/ca.1074-1143) claimed that the literal (ʿalā-l-ẓāhir)—and not just the metaphorical—meaningof “to kill oneself” is“to kill oneself with grief (al-bakhʿ)” (Kashshāf).Ibn ʿAṭiyya (480-546/1087-1151) and al-Nasafī (d. 710/1310) both mention this interpretation; Ibn ʿAṭiyya says some find linguistic support for understanding fa-qtulū as “kill the diseases of the soul such as lust, rebellion, and anger (ʿawāriḍ al-nufūs min shahwawa-taʿannutwa-ghaḍab)” in the usage of the word in the ḥadīth about killing the smell of garlic and onions by boiling them and in a couplet of Ḥassān b. Thābit(ca.60bh-63/563-683), who uses the word (“qatal”) [in that sense] (Muḥarrar).This, however, remains a minority view as most exegetes understand the command in its literal sense to mean it was an act of punishment and expiation—a far less painful outcome when weighed in the scale of the everlasting life of the Hereafter, as Ṭabarī concludes: “Your repentance by killing each other, and your obedience to your Lord shall be far better for you in the sight of your Lord, because you shall thereby be saved from the punishment in the Hereafter for your sins, and you will thereby merit reward from Him…verily He is Ever-Relenting, the All-Merciful. (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:54).


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See also

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