In their tendentious list of “Qur’an Contradictions”, the padres at “Answering Islam” had pointed out some contradictions in the Qur’anic narrative of the worship of a Golden Calf by the Israelites, which they find “very confusing”. An attempt will therefore be made in the following to address these two “contradictions” and help the padres overcome their “confusions”.
Part (I): Before or After Moses Returned?
According to the missionaries:
…in 7:149, the people repented about worshipping the golden calf BEFORE Moses returned, but according to 20:91 they refused to repent but rather continued to worship the calf it until Moses came back. (Emphasis already in the quote)
Here is an accurate rendering of the Qur’anic verses alluded to in the above quote:
But when they fell on their hands, and they saw that they had gone astray, they said: “Assuredly, if our Lord does not show mercy to us and forgive us, we shall be of the losers.” (7:149)
When Moses returned to his people angry and grieved, he said: “I’ll have ye acted as my successors after I left you…” (7:150)
They said: “We shall not cease to cleave to it until Moses return to us.” (20:91)
Even a brief look at them is sufficient for a diligent render for the identification of the fallacy in the reasoning of the author of the above-cited quote: his misapprehension of the factor, the occurrence of which caused the Israelites to repent.
That factor, after whose occurrence Moses’(P) people repented, is specified in the verse 7:149 as their realization of their having gone astray:
“But when they fell on their hands, and they saw that they had gone astray, they said:…”
Does this verse, or the verse 7:150, or any other verse in this context, say that the Israelites realized they had gone astray at a point in time before Moses’(P) return? Or, in other words, does the verse 7:149 or 7:150 tell us that the Israelites realized their error before Moses’(P) return?
No. What the verse 7:149 describes as the factor, which caused the Israelites to repent, was their realization of their error (i.e., “when they stumbled/ repented”).
No information is given in these verses as to whether they stumbled/ repented BEFORE or AFTER Moses’(P) return. Just because the verse 7:150 begins with the words:
“When Moses returned to his people, angry and grieved…”
does not imply that the stumbling/repenting of the Israelites was sequentially earlier than Moses’(P) return to them. In short, the only factor, which the verse 7:149 actually mentions as having caused the Israelites to repent, was their realization of their having gone astray, which is independent of Moses’(P) return.
On the other hand, since the (above-cited) other Qur’anic verse 20:91 clearly makes the Israelites say that they would not abandon the golden calf until Moses’(P) return, therefore, this additional information leads us to conclude that the realization by the Israelites of their having gone astray, when Moses(P) told them that they had grievously sinned, is what caused them to repent, and which occurred only after Moses’(P) return.
Therefore, the verses 7:149-50 and 20:91 are complementary, and not contradictory.
Part (II): Did He or Didn’t He? Aaron and the Making of the Golden Calf
According to the missionaries:
In Sura 20:85, Allah told Moses “We have tested thy people in thy absence; the Samiri has led them astray”. Allah did not place any blame on Aaron. Aaron admitted that he did no wrong: “O my people! Ye are being tested in this … so follow me and obey my command” (20:90).
Since Moses knew this (because Allah told him already), why did he place the blame on Aaron? “O Aaron! What kept thee back, when thou sawest them going wrong, from following me? Didst thou then disobey my order?” (20:92). And why did he drag him by the hair (7:150)? These two accounts contradict.
According to (7:151), Aaron was partly responsible for the sins of his people because Moses prayed for Aaron’s forgiveness. And this time (contrary to his other confession), Aaron admits to idol making/idol worshipping in verse 150 “because of the people who nearly killed him when he tried to resist it. But seemingly he gave in and did as they said.
Allah told Moses(P) that his people were being tested in his absence. That test was in the form of Samiri’s fraud. By definition, those submitted to a test can either pass or fail it depending upon their training and capability. So, the reason why Moses(P) upon return reprimanded Aaron(P) was not that he was holding the latter responsible for leading his people astray. On the contrary, the reason why Moses(P) rebuked Aaron(P) was that he had been made the man in-charge in his absence by Moses(P) (see 7:142) and was therefore expected by Moses(P) to have rescued his people by dint of his leadership, which he had been unable to do.
In contrast to Exodus 32, at no place in the Qur’an was Aaron(P) blamed for the sin of the Israelites. In 7:151, Moses(P) prays for forgiveness, not just for Aaron(P), but for himself as well — not because they were responsible for making the Israelites sin, but because they were unable to stop them from sinning.
We have thus used the traditional method of Qur’anic exegesis, i.e., al-Qur’an yufassiru ba’duhu ba’dan (different parts of the Qur’an explain each other). What is given in a general way in one place is discussed in detail in some other place in the Qur’an. What is dealt with briefly at one place is expanded in some other place.
Further Observation: The OT and NT Contradicts on Aaron’s Guilt?
It is further interesting to note that the New Testament contradicts the Old Testament on the matter of blaming Aaron(P). Exodus 32 squarely puts the responsibility of making the calf on Aaron:
“He [Aaron] took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf.” (Exodus 32:4)
Compare this with Stephen’s speech in the Acts of the Apostles, which clearly shifts the blame on the Israelite people themselves by employing the plural number:
“At that time they made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands.” (Acts 7:41)
And only God knows best!