Will you explain "the incident of Samiri's making a statue” mentioned in verses 87-96 of the chapter of Taha?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

The verses in question:

83. What made thee hasten in advance of thy people, O Moses?

84. Moses replied: "Behold, they are close on my footsteps: I hastened to thee, O my Lord, to please thee."

85. Allah said: "We have tested thy people in thy absence: the Samiri has led them astray."

86. So Moses returned to his people in a state of indignation and sorrow. He said: "O my people! did not your Lord make a handsome promise to you? Did then the promise seem to you long (in coming)? Or did ye desire that Wrath should descend from your Lord on you, and so ye broke your promise to me?

87. They said: "We broke not the promise to thee, as far as lay in our power: but we were made to carry the weight of the ornaments of the (whole) people, and we threw them (into the fire), and that was what the Samiri suggested.

88. "Then he brought out (of the fire) before the (people) the image of a calf: It seemed to low: so they said: This is your god, and the god of Moses, but (Moses) has forgotten!"

89. Could they not see that it could not return them a word (for answer), and that it had no power either to harm them or to do them good?

90. Aaron had already, before this said to them: "O my people! Ye are being tested in this: for verily your Lord is (Allah) Most Gracious; so follow me and obey my command.".

91. They had said: "We will not abandon this cult, but we will devote ourselves to it until Moses returns to us."

92. (Moses) said: "O Aaron! what kept thee back, when thou sawest them going wrong.

93. "From following me? Didst thou then disobey my order?"

94. (Aaron) replied: "O son of my mother! Seize (me) not by my beard nor by (the hair of) my head! Truly I feared lest thou shouldst say, ´Thou has caused a division among the children of Israel, and thou didst not respect my word.´"

95. (Moses) said: "What then is thy case, O Samiri?"

96. He replied: "I saw what they saw not: so I took a handful (of dust) from the footprint of the Messenger, and threw it (into the calf): thus did my soul suggest to me."

97. (Moses) said: "Get thee gone! But thy (punishment) in this life will be that thou wilt say, ´touch me not´; and moreover (for a future penalty) thou hast a promise that will not fail: Now look at thy god, of whom thou hast become a devoted worshipper: We will certainly (melt) it in a blazing fire and scatter it broadcast in the sea!" 

Hz. Musa (Moses) was called to the presence of Allah for a meeting that would take forty nights. When Musa left his nation, he appointed his brother Hz. Harun (Aaron) as his deputy and addressed him as follows: 

"Act for me amongst my people: Do right, and follow not the way of those who do mischief." (al-A'raf, 7/142)

When he was away, a jeweler called Samiri made a calf out of gold and persuaded Sons of Israel to worship it. Hz. Harun tried to prevent him but he failed. When Hz. Musa was informed by revelation that his nation was deviated by Samiri, he returned furiously and sadly; he reprimanded his brother Harun because he thought Harun could not fulfill his duty. However, Harun was worried that he would be accused of causing a division among his nation if he acted insistently while trying to prevent this deviation of Samiri. When he explained it to Musa, his fury cooled down.     

It is possible that the people indicated in verse 87 were Egyptians. When the exodus from Egypt is described in the Torah, the following is stated:

"The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. And the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians."(Exodus, 12/35-36)

The explanation in the Torah regarding the issue seems parallel to that of the Quran but the narration above seems open to criticism in terms of the information about the material used in the production of the statue. For, the Quran states that Sons of Israel carried the weight of the ornaments of the people but according to the phrase “they plundered the Egyptians” used in the Torah, they probably asked silver and gold things from them (probably borrowed them but with the intention of not returning). In the description of the production of the calf statue mentioned above, it is stated that only the golden earrings in their ears were removed and thrown into the fire.

The word "rasul" mentioned in verse 96 and translated as "messenger" was generally understood as "Jibril" by tafsir scholars and the other parts of the verse were translated accordingly. The summary of those explanations are as follows:  "Samiri saw Jibril and took a handful of dust from his footprint." According to this interpretation, the meaning of the statement "I saw what they did not see" is that Samiri claimed to have seen Jibril. According to the explanation of Raghib al-Isfahani, the use of the verb "basura" in Arabic as the perception of the seeing organ only, without a mental perception, is rare. This verb generally expresses "understanding the color, the insight of something, conscious knowledge." (al-Mufradat, "bsr")

Acting upon this explanation of Isfahani, Razi criticizes the interpretations based on Jibril and states that Hz. Musa is meant by the word "messenger". According to the interpretation of Razi, the meaning of the sentence uttered by Samiri in the verse is as follows: " I saw what they could not see; that is, I realized that the way you followed was not right and (O Messenger) I removed some of your religion and sunnah." 

In his explanations based on this interpretation of Razi, Asad attracts attention to the fact first that Samiri opposed the idea of lofty and invisible god or Allah and thought that people should believe in a concrete god that can be touched; he explains Samiri’s statement "I took a handful (of dust) from the footprint of the Messenger, and threw it" as "I took a handful of the teaching of the messenger (some of it) and removed it (from the content of his teaching)."

The following explanation that Asad makes later about the theme of this story in the Quran is remarkable:

"In our opinion, Samiri’s rejecting some of Hz. Musa’s teaching reveals his subconscious tendencies toward idolatry and attributing divine qualities to things and beings other than Allah. To produce a concrete image of the divine being or at least something that can be designed as His manifestation is useless and deceptive imagination aiming to make what is imperceptible and undesignable approach man’s field of perception and sensing. All of the efforts in this way make man’s perception of Allah more blurred instead of making it more illuminated; every step taken in this way damages its own purpose first and the spiritual potential of a person with religious inclinations that is driven into a cul-de-sac is harmed completely. This is what is meant by the story of the golden calf in the way it is described in the Quran."

When Hz. Musa sent Samiri away, he prohibited Sons of Israel from being in the same place as him; thus, Samiri was given a severe punishment of isolation from the community. It is understood that this issue is indicated in verse 97. (Tabari, XVI/206) In addition, it is also interpreted that Allah gave Samiri a physical illness that forced him to keep away from people or that prevented him from having children (Razi, XXII/112). (see Diyanet Tefsiri, Kur’an Yolu: III/550-553)

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