Holy Cow !?!?

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Chapter two of the Qur’ān is entitled al-Baqara, rendered into English as ‘the cow.’


It is the longest chapter of the Qur’ān containing a total of 286 verses and was revealed in Medina. Verses 67 to 74 recount an event following the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt. Musa (Moses, peace be upon him) sets forth a command from the Lord for a cow to be slaughtered.  The complete verse reads as follows:

وَإِذْ قَالَ مُوسَىٰ لِقَوْمِهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَأْمُرُكُمْ أَن تَذْبَحُوا بَقَرَةً قَالُوا أَتَتَّخِذُنَا هُزُوًا قَالَ أَعُوذُ بِاللَّهِ أَنْ أَكُونَ مِنَ الْجَاهِلِينَ

And when Musa said to his people: Surely Allah commands you that you should sacrifice a cow; they said: Do you ridicule us? He said: I seek the protection of Allah from being one of the ignorant [2: 67]

The remainder of the verses contained within this section outline the specific circumstances in which the order arose as well as the intransigence of the Children of Israel concerning it.  All the exegetes (mufassireen) of the Qur’ān have, rightly, focused attention upon the abruptness of the reply that was given to the Prophet Musa (peace be upon him).  Instead of taking the command as it stood – to sacrifice a cow, any cow; the Children of Israel were particularly obstinate in querying this order.  Raising such questions before a Prophet undoubtedly results in further orders of clarification and specification to be revealed.  Furthermore, the exegetes place emphasis upon this manner of engaging with a Prophet and revelation in general; this narrative containing important lessons for the Ummah of Muḥammad (peace and blessings be upon him).

In his exegesis (Tafsir), the acclaimed Imām al-Ṭabari provides the following interpretation of verse 67:

This verse is part of that with which Allah rebukes the Children of Israel who are addressed, for their ancestors’ violation of the compact which He took from them to obey His prophets. ‘Huzu’ is ‘play’, ‘mockery’.  It is not appropriate that there should be jesting or play on the part of Allah’s prophets in any order or prohibition which they transmit from Allah.  Yet they supposed that when Moses commanded them – from Allah’s command to sacrifice the cow for the man who was killed, about whom they were in dispute – he was jesting and playing.  They should not have though that about Allah’s prophet, who was telling them that it was Allah who commanded them to sacrifice the cow.’ (1)

Elsewhere in the Qur’ān we are informed of other events that occurred with the Children of Israel concerning a cow.  In this instance, the narrative details the actions of an individual known as the Sāmiri, who fashions a calf made of gold, claiming that: ‘This is your god and the god of Moses, but he forgot’ (20: 88).

Why a cow?

Exegesis literature of the Qur’ān is extensive.  Yet none of the classicists, nor even more modern modest works, seem to have paid any attention to the object of the verse: ‘And when Musa said to his people: Surely Allah commands you that you should sacrifice a cow…’

Why specifically did the order ask for a cow to be sacrificed?  Why not a sheep, or a ram, or any other animal?  Are there any specific contextual reasons that could be behind the command to sacrifice a cow?  Is the command merely random? 

Regarding the latter question, no verse of the Qur’ān is random; neither are any words expressed haphazardly.  Each word and indeed each sentence that the exalted has revealed is purposeful, deliberate. Perhaps there is an additional point here, that to date, has been inadvertently overlooked by our learned predecessors.   Perhaps there is a significance relating to the cow within the context of the Children of Israel and their residence in Egypt, that has not been given adequate attention.  Our learned classical exegetes can be forgiven for not having had access to the accumulated knowledge that we have now gleaned upon ancient Egypt, especially over the last two-hundred years.  Modern writers though, may not be excused in such a manner.  It is in fact a disgrace that modern Islamic scholarship seems to not have any desire or inkling to even try and build upon what the classicists have bequeathed to us.  The last two-hundred years of scholarship in archaeology, ancient history and associated academic disciplines have uncovered a vast amount of knowledge.  At the very least, Islamic scholarship must pay attention to this body of knowledge, as it will provide some crucial background information and insights into many of the previous nations that are specifically discussed in the Qur’ān.

If we can discern some of the context of how the cow was viewed in ancient Egypt, it is here contended, it may provide some additional meaning to the verse and tellingly, the reply given by the Children of Israel to their Prophet.

Objection 1

The biggest obstacle relating to any scholarly discussion about Musa (peace be upon him) is that thus far, it has not been possible to provide an accurate date for his Prophethood.  Moreover, it cannot be said with any reasonable degree of certitude, to which specific Pharaoh of Egypt he was actually sent.  The Qur’ānic text only refers to the title of Pharaoh, not his name.  A similar difficulty is encountered when looking at the Prophethood of Yusuf (Joseph, peace be upon him).


Copy of the Narmer Palette.  Narmer smiting his enemies upon the unification of upper/lower Egypt.  Note the cow-like figurines at the top of the palateSeveral problems further compound this.  Egypt being the world’s first nation-state has a very long and extensive history.  To give an example, the early dynastic period which follows the unification of lower and upper Egypt by king Narmer, was approximately 5000 years ago.  King Narmer is placed at the beginning of the first dynasty which is roughly dated to be 3000-2890 BCE.

Although by no means adequate, the best working assumption to proceed from would probably be to place the Prophethood of Musa (peace be upon him) roughly somewhere within the 17th / 19th Pharaonic dynasties of Egypt.  That corresponds to the following dates:

  1. Second Intermediate Period, 1650-1550 BCE (17th dynasty: 1580-1550 BCE)
  2. New Kingdom, 1550-1069 BCE (18th dynasty: 1550-1295 BCE)
  3. Ramassid Period, 1295-1069 BCE (19th dynasty: 1295-1186 BCE)

Significance of the Cow in Ancient Egypt: The Account of Herodotus

The ‘father of history’, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, provides us with a fascinating account of ancient Egypt in book II of his histories.  Of particular importance here, is what he wrote in relation to cows (heifers) and their association with the idols in Egypt:

The people of Marea and Apis, on the Libyan frontier, took a dislike to certain religious observances, especially the prohibition against eating the flesh of heifers; accordingly, they sent to the shrine of Ammon and said they were in no way bound by Egyptian custom as they considered themselves not to be Egyptians at all, but Libyans; they lived outside the Delta, had nothing in common with Egypt, and wished to be allowed to eat what they pleased.  The oracle, however, refused their request, and declared that all the country irrigated by the Nile was Egypt and all the people who lived below Elephantine and drank the Nile’s water were Egyptians. (2)

‘All Egyptians use bulls and bull-calves, for sacrifice, if they have passed the test for ‘cleanness’; but they are forbidden to sacrifice heifers, on the ground that they are sacred to Isis.  The statues of Isis show a female figure with cow’s horns, like the Greek representations of Io, and of all animals heifers are universally held by the Egyptians in the greatest reverence.’ (3)

In his masterful commentary upon Herodotus’ book II, Alan B Lloyd furnishes us with some additional contextual information upon these two intriguing passages.  With regards to the first quotation concerning the peoples on the Libyan frontier he writes:

Because cows were sacred to Isis and the cult of Osiris was well entrenched in the area.  At Marea he was worshipped as Osiris…while at Apis, obviously enough, he will have been accorded a cult as the sacred bull of that name (vide supra).  That cattle were of considerable value to the Libyans is clear since they figure prominently in booty captured in the Thnw lands from Pre-Dynastic times down to the reign of Ramesses III… (4).

Elsewhere Lloyd comments:

The cow clearly represented Isis who was identified in the L.P. with many cow-goddesses such as Hathor and Shentayet…whereas the mummy was an embodiment of the dead Osiris.  Cow goddesses frequently figure in Eg. religion as mortuary deities, protecting the dead, nourishing them and restoring them to life…it is clear that in the t3 Rmnt rituals Isis is presented as functioning in precisely this capacity on behalf of the dead gods interred within her image.  The presence of such an object at Sais is not at all surprising since the cult of Osiris was firmly rooted there and played a major part in the religious life of the city. (5).

To summarise, from the writings of Herodotus we learn the following key points regarding the cow in ancient Egypt:

  1. The cow was viewed as a sacred animal
  2. It was associated, at his time of writing, with the Egyptian idols of Isis and Osiris
  3. There was a prohibition concerning their sacrifice and eating of their flesh.

Objection 2

The most obvious objection to be raised concerning what Herodotus describes, for present purposes, is its timing.  Herodotus lived and wrote in the fifth century (around 484-425 BC).  That places his description of Egypt towards the Late Period, around the 27th Dynasty (525-404 BC), which is well outside of the 17 / 19th dynasties for this working assumption.

Are the points he is raising specific to that era, or can they be substantiated earlier?  Cult worship of the cow in Egypt is in fact very old.  While Herodotus may be correct in aligning the cow with the Egyptian idols of Isis and Osiris in his era, earlier epoch’s show that they were associated with other idols.  Turning again to the commentary provided by Lloyd:

Isis, the sister and wife of Osiris, was only connected with cows at a relatively late period.  She is identified with Seshat-Hor and Hesat only in the L.P. while her connection with Shentait, though beginning in the XIXth Dyn., also only becomes important at that time.  Furthermore, her gradual fusion with Hathor led to her taking over Hathor’s iconography with the cow’s horns and solar disc only in the N.K in late Eg. religion the connection between Isis and the cow becomes so important… (6)

From the existing evidence, one cannot say that sacrificing cows never occurred in ancient Egypt.  It is probably more correct to maintain that such cases were in fact very rare and quite early on.  The rituals and iconography associating the cow with Isis and Osiris is a late development.   As noted, there are earlier depictions of the cow and it is not only associated with these two idols, Isis and Osiris (7).  Later writers such as Plutarch have provided much elaboration upon the worship and associated cults of Isis and Osiris.  Significantly because the former became worshipped beyond Egypt in the Greco-Roman world (8).

As noted by Lloyd, the cow was associated with female ‘goddesses’ other than Isis.  The most obvious of which is that of Hathor.  The worship of Hathor can in fact be dated far earlier in ancient Egyptian history.  In fact, it occurs much earlier than the 17th / 19th dynasties as other evidences will show.  Moreover, there are aspects of Hathor which intimately place this idol with the title of Pharaoh itself.

The Egyptian Pantheon: Secondary Source Material

Scholarly writing and research on ancient Egypt is exceptionally vast.  As such it is not possible in such a brief essay like this, to even try to attempt to cover the entire body of scholarship.  Even a brief scan of the secondary source material does though give us some significant knowledge concerning animal worship, the worshipping of cows, the various cults, and to which idols they were associated with.  On a more general point, Islamic scholarship has yet again, been neglectful of this body of knowledge.  It is significant because it can provide some important insights into the nature of polytheism (shirk), which give us an additional independent corroboration of many Qur’ānic passages.

Less well known, though of crucial importance here is the idol of Hathor, the ‘female cow-goddess.’

Even to the modern reader or researcher, the Egyptian pantheon appears vast and very often quite perplexing.  Several Egyptian idols have become particularly well known, not least because of the film industry.  The idols of Ra/Amun-Ra, Isis, Osiris, Horus and Anubis being a case in point.   In relation to the 5000 year-old Narmer palette cited above, Bojana Mojsov writes:

Two colossal heads of the cow goddess dominate both sides of the Narmer palette.  After the invention of writing her name was recorded as Hat-Hor, the “house” or “womb of Horus.”  Thus, with one stroke of the pen, the divine kind appropriated all the attributes of the primeval goddess for himself.  It was through assimilating her powers that the male ruler acquired divine status.  In fact, the entire cosmogony was construed from the king upward to legitimize his supreme position. (9)

Some scholars though have argued that the cow like image as shown in the palette is not in fact Hathor but another idol called Bat or Bet.  Nonetheless, the crucial point is that religious depiction and imagery of the cow stretches deep into ancient Egyptian history.  Some have considered this as being a continuation of older traditions stretching back long before the domestication of the animal in Egypt.  Symbolically, the cow providing milk, much like a mother gives to an infant child, seemed to also carry additional meanings and symbolism relating to physical birth/rebirth, sustenance and nourishment (10).

Hathor occupied a key place within the Egyptian pantheon, in one hymn being described as the ‘Lady of fragrance…Sovereign, revered one…The Two Lands are under your sway.’ (11).  Hathor was one of the twelve primary idols that were worshipped, and had several depictions in ancient Egyptian iconography.  Sometimes as a woman wearing a wig, with cow horns and a sun disc between them.  At other times in only animal form.  There are depictions of Hathor directly associated with the personage of the Pharaoh, with the ruler either being suckled by her or of him drinking from her.  At the Hathoric temples that are found at Denderah, there is also the depiction of her as being an amalgam of a cow and human form (12).

Pyramid texts and the Book of the Dead: Primary Source Material

The worship of cow-idol Hathor is very old in ancient Egypt and pre-dates the dynasties to which we have assumed that Musa (peace be upon him) was sent to.  Hathor appears in the ‘Pyramid Texts’, which is the name that has been given to a collection of inscriptions that were found within the Pharaonic pyramids at Sakkara.  These are very old.  Although believed to be around the Fifth and Sixth dynasties, some scholars have speculated that they represent even older rituals and prayers.

An example from the Pyramid Texts is the following quote that was translated from an inscription of a stela that was inside the tomb of the 11th dynasty king Wahankh Intef II (2070-2020 BCE).  The following ‘hymn’ is dedicated to ‘the mother-goddess Hathor.’  In full the text reads as follows:

O assembled elders of the western sky
O assembled gods of the western sky
O overlords of the shores of the western sky
Who rejoice at Hathor’s coming
Who love to see her beauty exalted
I let her know, I say at her side that I rejoice at seeing her
My hands gesture ‘Come to me, come to me’
My body speaks, my lips repeat: ‘Pure sistrum-playing for Hathor
Sistrum-playing a million times, because you love the sistrum
A million sistrum-playing, for your spirit in every place
I am the one who makes the worshipper waken the sistrum for Hathor
Every day and at every hour she wishes
May your heart be content with the sistrum
May you proceed in perfect satisfaction,
May you rejoice in life and joy
Together with Horus whom you love
Who eats with you from offerings
Who feeds with you from provisions
May you count me (in) for it, every day
The Horus Wahankh, revered before Osiris, the son of Ra, Intef the Great born of Neferu (13).

Reference to Hathor also appears in the infamous ‘Egyptian book of the dead’.  This text seems to originate from hieroglyphics and inscriptions that appeared as early as the Third Dynasty (2670-2613 BCE) and is found in several tombs.  The text later became widely popular by the advent of the New Kingdom, around 1600 BCE (14).   Contained within the book of the dead there is the depiction of the ‘seven Hathors’ or the ‘seven divine cows’:

Relics and reliefs: Primary archaeological evidence

Archaeological evidence gives us yet another insight to the depiction of the cow idol Hathor and her centrality in the Egyptian pantheon and close association with the Pharaonic system.  Below is an image of Queen Ahmose-Merytamun, who was the wife and sister of Amenhotep I from the 18th dynasty (circa 1525-1504 BCE).  The statute was uncovered at Thebes, Karnak from the temple of Amun-Ra.  As the relic shows, the Queen is depicted as embodying Hathor and wearing a Hathor-like wig, showing her royal status.

Statute of Amenhotep I, 18th dynasty

Lastly, there is the triad statute, shown below.  Although it was badly damaged in an earthquake this relic was unearthed at western Thebes.  Here there is the depiction of Amenhotep III from the 18th dynasty, being flanked by both Osiris and Hathor – the Pharaoh joined in hand with each idol.  This demonstrates the centrality of the cult worship of the cow-idol and its intimate link with the ruling system of Egypt, the position of the Pharaoh himself.


Given the very brief overview of the evidence that is available, both from secondary source material and primary material, maybe something more can be added to the existing exegesis of the verse at (2: 67).   Perhaps reading this verse now it could be understood on two distinct levels:

  1. The literal apparent meaning: the command given to the Children of Israel by their Prophet, Musa (peace be upon him) to slaughter a cow, against the existing stated context as found in the verses of al-Baqara, 67-74.
  2. In light of the contextual background as set out above, how the cow / idol-Hathor was viewed in ancient Egypt and its connection to polytheism and the Pharaonic system. The sub-text here to the order itself, perhaps suggests that it carried an additional test: to see whether the Children of Israel had totally repudiated polytheism.  Thus, being asked to slaughter a cow, which was associated with the idol Hathor and being considered a ‘sacred animal’, could perhaps explain the reaction to that order as relayed in the second half of the verse.


By way of clarification, the intention here has not been to claim that there is a ‘hidden’ meaning to the verse (2: 67), or that in some way it has been an attempt at advancing an altogether new interpretation.  Neither should this suggestion be seen as falling foul of the warning outlined in (3: 7).  Rather, it is but to suggest that the verse may itself carry a contextual meaning that hasn’t been previously highlighted.

There are no ‘gods’ or ‘goddesses’; there is no multiplicity of deities or pantheon.  There is only one creator, one god and that is Allah.  He is the existent, having no offspring, partner or consort.  And he has sent his Prophets and Messengers unto this world expounding that. May peace and blessings be upon them all and the greatest salutation for the best and last of them, the mercy to all mankind.


(1) For ease of reference, the English translation of al-Ṭabari’s Tafsir has been cited: The Commentary on the Qur’ān, by Abu Ja’far Muhammad B. Jarir Al-Ṭabari, Abridged translation of al-Jāmi al-Bayān ‘an ta’wil ay al-Qur’ān, Introduction and notes by J Cooper, Vol. 1, (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 367/377.

(2) Herodotus, The Histories, Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt, revised with introduction and notes by John Marincola (London: Penguin Books) 2003, p. 102

(3) Herodotus, The Histories, p.111

(4) Alan B Lloyd (1988), Herodotus Book II, Commentary 99-182, (New York: Brill), p. 89

(5) Alan B Lloyd (1988), Herodotus Book II, Commentary, p. 79

(6) Alan B Lloyd (1988), Herodotus Book II, Commentary, p. 183

(7) Alan B Lloyd (1988), Herodotus Book II, Commentary, pp. 45, 184/185

(8) See Part I of Plutarch’s Morals: Theosophical Essays, translated by C W King, (London: George Bell & Sons), 1903, pp. 1/72, which provides details concerning Isis and Osiris.  Interestingly, Plutarch notes some of the odd rituals concerning these deities and the cow: ‘And again upon the eve of the winter solstice they carry the Cow seven times around the temple; and this circular procession is named the “Seeking for Osiris,” as though the goddess were longing for the winter rays from the Sun; and they walk round so many times, because he completes his journey from the winter solstice to the summer solstice in the seventh month.’ (p. 45)

(9) Bojana Mojsov (2005), Osiris: Death and Afterlife of a God (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing), pp. 10/11

(10) Richard H Wilkinson (2003), The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt (London: Thames & Hutton), p. 15

(11) Richard H Wilkinson (2003), The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt (London: Thames & Hutton), p. 139

(12) For example see: Erik Hornung (1982), Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt (London: Routledge) translated by John Baines; Alan W Shorter (1931), An Introduction to Egyptian Religion: An Account of Religion in Egypt during the Eighteenth Dynasty, (London: Kegan Paul) and Rosalie David (2002), Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt (London: Penguin Books).  David (2002) pp. 254/255, notes that at the Temples of Abu Simbel by Ramessess II, the second rock cut temple to honour his queen, Nefertari is also dedicated to Hathor.

(13) Writings from Ancient Egypt, translated and edited by Toby Wilkinson, 2016, (London: Penguin Books), pp. 94/95

(14) Joshua Mark, 2016, The Egyptian Book of the Dead 

You may also like...