The story of the yellow cow took place during the prophethood of Musa AS. Bani Israel were trying to start a new life away from Pharaoh's oppressive regime, but their tribalism, quarrelsome nature and distrust of each other led to several disputes. They also held on to their love of money, gold, and were at the same time filled with stinginess, jealousy and envy.
Many accounts of Bani Israel are contained in Jewish scriptures. The rule of interpretation is that if the scriptures contradict or are inconsistent with Islam, they are to be rejected entirely. If there is an Islamic version of the same incident (from the Qur'an and Sunnah), then the Islamic version takes priority. If the Jewish scriptures do not contradict Islam, and there is no corresponding account in Islamic literature, the rule is that we should neither accept nor reject it.
In this story, parts of it which relate to the owner of the cow, are from the Israeli traditions (riwayat). However, we have only included the Israeli text which as also been referred to and endorsed by Muslim scholars. We are to neither reject nor accept such information, but we are allowed to take the benefit of the lessons they teach us. Apart from where we have indicated, the rest of the story is from the Qur'an and Sunnah.
According to riwayat, the story begins with a righteous but poor man, whose sole prized possession was a beautiful cow. The cow was very unique, it was unblemished and was yellow in colour. Before he died, the man entrusted the cow to his son. After his father died, the son took care of his mother, who, before she died, left specific instructions that the cow was not to be used for any form of labour. She also instructed that the cow was not to be sold to anyone unless the payment was for a certain amount of money.
The pious son was obedient, and did exactly as his parents bade him even though the request was a strange one. He knew that there was a hidden wisdom behind his parents' instructions. He took good care of the cow, and did not allow her to be used as a beast of burden, which was a rare way to treat cattle during this time.
Meanwhile, there lived a wealthy man amongst Bani Israel. He had a few nephews who would inherit his wealth when he died. One day, someone murdered him, and his body was found lying on the road (or in another version, at the door of one of his own brothers).
The discovery of his body created an uproar. They disputed the identity of the killer, and this murder created a lot of suspicion and distrust within the community. His nephew, the murderer, also participated in these heated debates on finding a solution, and pretended to weep and suffer grief at the death of his uncle.
It was crucial for keeping the peace within Bani Israel that the murderer was identified. However, there were no clues. The Israelites disputed and debated until one of them suggested that they consult Musa AS on how to solve this problem. The dead man's nephew, the murderer, pretended to be innocent and approached Musa AS for help.
Musa AS said: "By Allah! Anyone who knows anything about this murdered man, he should let us know." Yet, no one volunteered any information, and of course, the murderer simply kept quiet and played along with this drama.
Then, they asked Musa AS to ask his Lord for a solution. It is noted here that the phrase used by Bani Israel throughout these conversations, as set out in the Qur'an, is "your Lord" instead of "our Lord", which was an indication that many of Bani Israel still disbelieved in Allah. This is despite all the miracles that they had witnessed, both in Egypt and during their exodus, where those fleeing Egypt with Musa AS were saved when the Red Sea parted and allowed them a dry road. Even though Allah had caused them to triumph over the Pharaoh's regime, they were stubborn in recognizing their Lord. They had also forgotten how Allah had made twelve springs materialize from the parched desert sands in order to supply each tribe of Bani Israel with fresh water. They had forgotten how Allah provided Bani Israel with food from unknown origins without them having to work for it.
At the same time, whenever a dispute arose, they would remember Musa's AS piety, and ask him to obtain divine help on their behalf. When the issue had been settled, they would continue in their denial of Allah and revert to their previous disbelief.
Musa AS asked Allah, and he was commanded by Allah to command his people to slaughter a cow. This announcement was met with incredulity by Bani Israel and they accused him of making fun of them. This was not the first time that they challenged the command of Allah. Instead of cursing them, Musa AS prayed for refuge from the ignorance of his people.
And (remember) when Musa said to his people: "Verily, Allah commands you that you slaughter a cow." They said, "Do you make fun of us?" He said, "I take Allah's Refuge from being among Al-Jahilun (the ignorant or the foolish)." (Al Qur'an 2:67)
Had they slaughtered the cow immediately, the command of Allah would have been fulfilled and the matter would have been brought to rest. However, for various reasons – delay tactics, stinginess, disbelief in Allah – they did not obey Allah immediately. Instead, they asked multiple questions, apparently to ascertain that they would slaughter the cow with the correct characteristics. Therefore, even though Allah had made it easy for them by not specifying any particular cow:
They said, "Call upon your Lord for us that He may make plain to us what it is!" (Al Qur'an 2:68)