Abbas - Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs
((Moses) answered: Lo! He saith: Surely she is a cow unyoked) unfettered; (she plougheth not the soil) she is not subjugated for the ploughing of the soil (nor watereth the tilth) nor for carrying water to irrigate it; (whole) free from any blemish (and without mark) spots or flecks of white. (They said: now thou bringest the Truth) now we know the cow's right description. They looked for it and bought her in exchange for her weight in gold. (So they sacrificed her, though almost they did not) i.e. initially; as it is said because the cow was hugely expensive.
He said, ‘He says she shall be a cow not broken, not subdued for labour, that is, to plough the earth, churning its soil for sowing (tuthīr al-ard: the clause describes the word dhalūl, and constitutes part of the negation); or to water the tillage, that is, the land prepared for sowing; one safe, from faults and the effects of toil; with no blemish, of a colour other than her own, on her’. They said, ‘Now you have brought the truth’, that is, [now] you have explained it clearly; they thus sought it out and found it with a boy very dutiful towards his mother, and they eventually purchased it for the equivalent of its weight in gold; and so they sacrificed her, even though they very nearly did not, on account of its excessive cost. In a hadīth [it is stated that], ‘Had they sacrificed any cow, it would have sufficed them, but they made it difficult for themselves and so God made it difficult for them’.
[He said, 'He says she shall be a cow] not broken, made submissive and pliant to the command of the Law, to plough the earth, the earth of preparedness with righteous deeds and acts of worship, or to water the tillage, the tillage of gnoses and wisdoms that reside therein potentially by exhausting the waters of acquired sciences and piercing reflections, since a cow of this kind does not need to be sacrificed; one handed over, its owners had left it to graze without being shepherded by exotericisms (rusūm), habits, laws and manners; with no blemish on her', that is, it does not have any convictions or dogma engrained in it for not being suitable for sacrifice. [They said, 'Now] you have brought the truth', firm [truth] illustrating the prepared one who yearns and seeks perfection] and so they sacrificed her, even though they very nearly did not, because of their many questions, exaggerations and probing in the search and scrutiny of her state, and [because of] their superfluous talk in the attempt to seek clarification regarding her, all of which proves how the soul refuses to submit quickly and refrain from spiritual discipline and the prevalence upon it of curiosity: their difficulty in [finding] what they sought and their procrastination regarding it is because of that. That is why the Messenger of God said: 'Had they seized the nearest cow and sacrificed them it would have sufficed them, but they made it more difficult and so God made it more difficult for them. In other words, had they not been so obstrusive in seeking her out and asking [about her] what they sought would not have been so difficult for them on account of the strength of their acceptance and their will: the one who is compliant is easy to lead. The Prophet forbade excessive questioning, saying 'Verily too much questioning destroyed those before you'. God, exalted be He, says: do not ask about things, which if disclosed to you, would trouble you [Q. 5:101]. The story of this is that a calf with that description was born to an old man from among the Children of Israel who had an infant son. He brought it to his old wife and told her that it would be this infant's and that she should let it graze freely until he comes of age, that perhaps it might be of benefit to him.
When this incident took place and the Children of Israel had been seeking out the cow for forty years, the old woman heard about it and informed her son, who had now grown up, about what his father had said. So he went to the field and found her there and took it. They then began to bargain with him over her, but the old woman forbade him from selling her until they paid her weight in gold: the old man represents the spirit, the old woman corporeal nature, his infant son the intellect which issues from the spirit; the slaughtered young man is the heart. The old man of the spirit handed over the calf of the soul to the old woman of nature so that it would graze in the grazing field of natural pleasures until such time as it had grown, that perhaps the infant of the intellect might profit from it upon coming of age by the extraction of intelligibles from their sensory forms and the use of reflection that constitutes one of its faculties in the acquisition of rational sciences, which is what he [the young man] brought from the grazing field. The forty-year endeavour of the Children of Israel is an allusion to the journeying to God with deeds, manners and the adoption of the character traits until the time for the true coming of age and the disengagement of the heart arrives, as God says: when he is mature and reaches forty years [Q. 46:15]. Their bargaining over her [the cow] is an allusion to the quest of the spiritual powers that are illumined by the light of the guidance of the Law and [by] the will, and the extraction of these [spiritual powers] from an intellect blemished by illusion and the enslavement of these [powers] by the intellect by means of analogical intelligibles and the subjugation of these through reflective processes, and their being veiled from the light of the guidance of the Law by means of rational analogies and their not being adorned by matters of the Law: that is what necessarily caused their officious questioning, their delaying and procrastination in fulfilling [God's demand]. The old woman's prohibition [to her son] is nature's resistance to comply with the Law and the intellect's conforming to that [resistance], since the intellect takes the side of nature far more into consideration than it does the Law when it comes to one's best interests in terms of [securing one's] livelihood, with the improved lifestyle, empowerment and enrichment that it brings for it.
Selling the cow for the equivalent of her weight in gold is an allusion to its being adorned, after its sacrifice and skinning, with the beneficial sciences of the Law, the intellectual moral [sciences] and the secondary stipulations of religion so that her form is subsumed by these [sciences], [the form] which conforms to the intellect and nature and benefits both of these when they employ her for the purpose of securing the welfare of livelihood, natural desiderata and the intellectual and practical pursuits sanctioned by the Law as being wholesome, as well as what is permissible behaviour and various kinds of dispensations for all forms of enjoyment once perfection and complete wayfaring have been achieved.
The Stubbornness of the Jews regarding the Cow; Allah made the Matter difficult for Them
Allah mentioned the stubbornness of the Children of Israel and the many unnecessary questions they asked their Messengers. This is why when they were stubborn, Allah made the decisions difficult for them. Had they slaughtered a cow, any cow, it would have been sufficient for them, as Ibn `Abbas and `Ubaydah have said. Instead, they made the matter difficult, and this is why Allah made it even more difficult for them. They said,
ادْعُ لَنَا رَبَّكَ يُبَيِّنَ لَّنَا مَا هِىَ
(Call upon your Lord for us that He may make plain to us what it is!), meaning, "What is this cow and what is its description'' Musa said,
(He says, `Verily, it is a cow neither too old nor too young'), meaning, that it is neither old nor below the age of breeding. This is the opinion of Abu Al-`Aliyah, As-Suddi, Mujahid, `Ikrimah, `Atiyah Al-`Awfi, `Ata', Al-Khurasani, Wahb bin Munabbih, Ad-Dahhak, Al-Hasan, Qatadah and Ibn `Abbas. Ad-Dahhak reported that Ibn `Abbas said that,
عَوَانٌ بَيْنَ ذلِكَ
(But (it is) between the two conditions) means, "Neither old nor young. Rather, she was at the age when the cow is strongest and fittest.'' In his Tafsir Al-`Awfi reported from Ibn `Abbas that,
(bright in its colour) "A deep yellowish white.''
(pleasing the beholder) meaning, that it pleases those who see it. This is also the opinion of Abu Al-`Aliyah, Qatadah and Ar-Rabi` bin Anas. Furthermore, Wahb bin Munabbih said, "If you look at the cow's skin, you will think that the sun's rays radiate through its skin.'' The modern version of the Tawrah mentions that the cow in the Ayah was red, but this is an error. Or, it might be that the cow was so yellow that it appeared blackish or reddish in color. Allah's knows best.
إِنَّ البَقَرَ تَشَـبَهَ عَلَيْنَا
(Verily, to us all cows are alike) this means, that since cows are plentiful, then describe this cow for us further,
وَإِنَّآ إِن شَآءَ اللَّهُ
(And surely, if Allah wills) and if you further describe it to us,
(He says, `It is a cow neither trained to till the soil nor water the fields') meaning, it is not used in farming, or for watering purposes. Rather, it is honorable and fair looking. `Abdur-Razzaq said that Ma`mar said that Qatadah said that,
(sound) means, "The cow does not suffer from any defects.'' This is also the opinion of Abu Al-`Aliyah and Ar-Rabi`. Mujahid also said that the Ayah means the cow is free from defects. Further, `Ata' Al-Khurasani said that the Ayah means that its legs and body are free of physical defects.
Also, Ad-Dahhak said that Ibn `Abbas said that the Ayah,
فَذَبَحُوهَا وَمَا كَادُواْ يَفْعَلُونَ
(So they slaughtered it though they were near to not doing it) means, "They did not want to slaughter it.''
This means that even after all the questions and answers about the cow's description, the Jews were still reluctant to slaughter the cow. This part of the Qur'an criticized the Jews for their behavior, because their only goal was to be stubborn, and this is why they nearly did not slaughter the cow. Also, `Ubaydah, Mujahid, Wahb bin Munabbih, Abu Al-`Aliyah and `Abdur-Rahman bin Zayd bin Aslam said, "The Jews bought the cow with a large amount of money.'' There is a difference of opinion over this.
Maududi - Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi - Tafhim al-Qur'an
The Israelites were commanded to sacrifice a cow in order to rid them of the sanctity and worship of cow which they had adopted from the pagan nations around them. It was a test of their faith: if they really believed in Allah as their only Deity and did not make anyone or anything else the object of their worship, they should break the idol of their former worship with their own hands. But this proved to be a very hard test. They tried to evade and avoid the sacrifice because their belief in One God had not become firm as yet. They went on asking one detail after the other in order to put it off, but the more questions they asked the more they were driven into a tight corner. So much so that at last they were specifically told to sacrifice that very golden-coloured cow, which was being specially chosen for worship at that time. The Bible also mentions this incident, but does not tell how the Israelites tried to put it off by asking a number of unnecessary questions. (Please refer to Numbers, 19: 1-10).
He said “He says she shall be a cow not broken to plow the earth or to water the tillage with no blemish on her.” They said “Now you have brought the truth”; and so they sacrificed her even though they very nearly did not. Just as this cow was not to have been broken in for work nor worn out for the purposes of profits there was to be no color in her inconsistent with the overall grandeur of her color. The allusion in this is to the people of divine friendship walāya who do not exert themselves with anyone or anything other [than God] which is to say that they do not seek to obtain anything through secondary causes and who do not rely in their hearts on external appearances and simulacra. They do not trust in their own choices and contrivance. They are not prey to the claims of desire nor game in the claws of the present world. Carnal desires do not rule them and no human authority controls them. They do not strive at all to obtain what they desire and are not concerned with attaining what they wish for. There is no mark of others upon them nor any sign of [their seeking anything through] secondary causes for they are supported by God annihilated from all else nay effaced as God turns them this way and that. God has conquered their hearts. Just as their object of worship maʿbūd is God so their only aim maqṣūd is God. Just as their aim maqṣūd is God so what they bear witness to mashhūd is God and what they have found mawjūd is God. Nay they are effaced in God and [only] God remains after them. The one who spoke for them recited: If you want me to be pleased and you to be pleased and to take the reins of our life together then look at the world through my eyes and listen with my ears and speak with my tongue. They said “Now you have brought the truth”; and so they sacrificed her even though they very nearly did not. They sought a stratagem for themselves but when their stratagems failed they submitted to the decree and were rid of the difficulties of the demands. If they had done what they were commanded to do [straight away] their misery would not have been doubled.
…and without blemish… When asked about this verse Sahl said:This means that there should be no mark on it which blemishes it, nor a patch of colour which differs from the colour of the rest of its body. In this there is wisdom from its Maker and a lesson for the one who takes heed by it, and grows in certainty because of his faith and his profession of God’s oneness.