Prophet Aaron allowed ‘the worship of the golden calf’, to avoid conflicts among his people. Can we learn some insight from his example?
Question: I see in the Quran a contradiction. In one place it says that Aaron shared in the guilt of worshipping the golden calf (7:151, 20:92). Then elsewhere it says that Aaron did not share in the guilt (20:85-90). How do you reconcile that?
Answer: Contrary to the Pentateuchal account (Exodus 32:1-5), the Quran doesn’t accuse Aaron of having actually participated in making or worshipping the golden calf; his alleged “guilt” consisted in having remained tactfully passive in the face of his people’s idolatry, for fear of causing a split among them (7:150; cf. 20:90-94). I do not see a contradiction here.
Question: Can you check out in the Quran 20:92 and 7:151 that Aaron actually participated in worshipping the golden calf?
Answer: I do not see in the Quran that Aaron actually participated in worshipping the golden calf. Let us read the verses you mentioned:
And Aaron said to them before: “My people, you are being tested with it. Your Sustainer is the Gracious, so follow me and obey my command!” / They answered: “We will continue to worship it until Moses comes back to us!” / He said: “O Aaron, what prevented you when you saw them being astray?” 20:90-92
He said: “O my Sustainer, forgive me and my brother, and admit us in Your grace; and You are the most Merciful of the merciful!” 7:151
Question: But this was a blatant act of idolatry. As the deputy of Moses and the leader in charge of the Israelites, it was his responsibility to stop it. Don’t you think that the silent approval of a sin is a sin in itself?
Answer: The point is that the Quran here doesn’t really contradict itself. Aaron never supported idolatry. He simply tried to avoid a split and bloodshed among his people (20:94). The Quran is quite clear on this issue:
I was concerned that you would say that I have caused a split between the Children of Israel, and that I did not follow your orders (to keep them united). 20:94
Question: If Aaron did not commit a sin, then why did Moses accuse him (20:92-93) and drag him by the hair (7:150, 20:94)? Also, why did Moses pray for Aaron’s forgiveness, if it was not for his sin (7:151)?
Answer: Moses blames Aaron before understanding the bigger picture. And Aaron clarifies his position that he didn’t support idolatry but rather tried to prevent conflicts and bloodshed among his people (7:150, 20:94). Subsequently, Moses prays for his own forgiveness (apparently for his hasty judgement and inapt response) as well as for Aaron’s (in case there was any unintentional shortcoming on his part. 7:151). This is in compliance with the divine directive to always remain conscious of the fallibility of our human nature.
Please note that, besides painting Aaron in the golden calf story in a positive light, the Quran invariably holds him with high regard as a prophet (19:53) with a ‘clear authority’ (23:45), who was very eloquent (28:34) and blessed (37:120), and was ‘on the right path’ (37:118), hence presented as a great legacy to be commemorated by the generations (37:119; cf. 4:163, 10:75, 10:87, 20:29-30). In line with this, the great Sufi teacher Ibn ‘Arabi alleges the stance of Aaron in the golden calf story as rightful and that of Moses as hasty. He even asks: Shouldn’t Moses know, as a prophet, that God is everywhere, even in the golden calf?
Question: Suppose you are a grand mufti and you ask an imam to lead the worshippers of a local mosque. After a week you are back to the mosque wherein you see a large Buddha statue being worshipped by an assembly of devotees. The imam explains to you that he allowed this idolatry only because he wanted to avoid conflicts among the people. Do you think he acted rightly and that he did not violate God’s commandments?
Answer: Your analogy with a mosque is incorrect in this instance. It was not a mosque and Aaron was not leading a few worshippers but a nation.
Even if I had to take this inadequate comparison seriously, the answer is really simple and straightforward. Yes, if I was a grand mufti and if I discovered after a week that my imam of that mosque allowed some people to worship a statue of a ‘golden calf’ (say, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna and so on), for a few days, and that he allowed it with a sincere intent to avoid conflict and bloodshed, I will fully understand him.
Based on my conscience and common sense, yes, I will say that what the imam has done is not anything insensible. Please note that ‘avoid bloodshed’ is also one of the major commandments of God. Aaron showed his respect to this divine commandment. We can certainly learn a good moral from Aaron.
Question: It is true that a main divine command is not to kill. Yet, God’s Will must be established on Earth and this cannot be done without sacrifices and sufferings. The prophets should know this better than others. Didn’t the Aaron of the Quran forget the importance of this prophetic responsibility he was entrusted with?
Answer: The Pentateuchal account portrays Aaron as one who instigated idol-worship (Exodus 32:1-5). In contrast, the Aaron of the Quran reluctantly tolerated idolatry to avoid conflicts and disunity among his people. Thus, as he was instructed to keep the guidelines of God – that included preventing idol-worship and also to keep the people united – he tried to make a balance between the two (7:150; cf. 20:92).
In other words, while the Quranic Aaron tried to make a right balance between the two divine commandments, the Pentateuchal Aaron blatantly violated the first commandment. I can go with the Quranic Aaron all the way, but not with his counterpart.
Question: So, are you saying that, for the sake of peace in our societies, we should now follow the Quranic Aaron and approve ‘the worship of the golden calf’?
Answer: Well, to deal with the issue of idol worship, all modern governments are in fact following an approach similar to that of the Quranic Aaron: they are emphasizing ‘the unity in diversity’ of their citizens by ‘tolerating’ every religious group to worship its own ‘golden calf’. Thus, in a secular state, Christians, Muhammadans, Buddhists, Hindus and others are all being allowed to worship their own idols (Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Krishna and so on) without being interfered by the government.
As a prophetic figure, the Aaron of the Quran can present as an excellent role model to be followed by us in the real life situations of our today’s multicultural, multi-coloured, multi-religious world.