Introduction to Surah Al Baqarah: The Cow

In the opening chapter Allah introduced Himself and His four main attributes and this chapter begins with introduction of His modus operandi, as to how He reveals Himself to the mankind. For the details of that please go to the section below: Know yourself, your universe, your God and His prophets.

This is the longest surah of the holy Quran and comprises almost 12% of it by volume.

In the first few surahs of the holy Quran, it presents itself and Islam as a continuation of the Abrahamic faiths and of the divine model of sending prophets to all parts of the world for the moral and spiritual guidance of mankind.

Joseph Lumbard writes in his essay, the Quranic view of sacred history and other religions, which is included in the recent commentary of the holy Quran, presented by Seyyed Hossein Nasr and his asscociates:

As in the Bible, the Quranic view of human history is one of people being called time and again to observe a covenant  with God. The Quran honors the covenant made by God with previous religious communities, though each is seen as but one manifestation of a pre-eternal covenant that God made with all of humanity when they were still in Adam’s loins: Anal when thy Lord took from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their progeny and made them bear witness concerning themselves, ‘Am I not your Lord?’ they said, ‘Yea, we bear witness’ (7:172). Though reminiscent of God’s  Promise to the Israelites in Exodus,” this verse refers to existence before creation, when the spirits of all human beings are said to have been assembled before God. Am I not your Lord? is a rhetorical question whereby God affirms His principal Reality as the Lord of all that is on earth and in Heaven. And the human response is the everlasting affirmation of this covenant. Every covenant made while human beings are on earth is thus a recognition, renewal, and continuation of this pretemporal covenant. From this perspective, the history of religion is a multifaceted series of temporal reassertions of a single pretemporal covenant.  The next verses reveal that God has reminded human beings of this pretemporal covenant through the various prophets, so that no human beings can claim that they are not responsible for observing it:

Lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection, ‘Truly of this we were heedless,’ or lest you should say, ‘[It is] only that our fathers ascribed partners unto God aforetime, and we were their progeny after them. Wilt Thou destroy us for that which the falsifiers have alone?’ (7:172—73)

Seen in this light, all of humanity bears the imprint of the pretemporal covenant within. The functions of revelation and prophecy are to reawaken the awareness of this imprint and remind all people that they must observe the covenant with God. Hence every human collectivity has been sent a reminder: We indeed sent a messenger unto every community (16:36). This is reinforced by 10:47: For every community there is a messenger, and when their messenger comes, judgment shall be rendered between them with justice, and they will not be wronged. The Quran mentions a handful of these messengers by name, yet also alludes to the existence of others:

Verily We have revealed unto thee, as We revealed unto Noah and the prophets after him, and as We revealed unto Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the Tribes, and Jesus and Job and Jonah and Aaron and Solomon, and unto David We gave the Psalms, and messengers We have recounted unto thee before, and messengers We have not recounted  unto thee; and unto Moses God spoke directly, messengers as bearers of glad tidings and as warners, that mankind might have no argument against God after the messengers. And God is Mighty, Wise. (4.:163—65)

According to Islamic tradition, the messengers not recounted in the Quran are far more numerous than those recounted; the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have stated that there have been 315 messengers in human  history and 124,000 prophets.

Presented as a continuation of the Abrahamic line of prophecy, the Quran confirms explicitly the covenant that God made with previous communities through the revelations to His messengers. But whereas the New Testament claims to establish a new covenant that  supplants the covenant between God and the Israelites.

So, Islam reaffirms the Jewish model of the prophets of God, as opposed to the Christian model of vicarious atonement, of Jesus dying for our sins.

The kindle version of the above mentioned commentary can be bought in Amazon in seventeen dollars.

According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in the introduction to this surah:

Few subjects discussed in the Quran do not find some mention in al-Baqarah; topics include matters of theology, law, sacred history, metaphysics, cosmology, and the spiritual life. The surah opens with a general description of belief in the seen and Unseen, the multiplicity of prophets, and the imperative to give from what we possess, whether spiritual or material. After a section addressing the hypocrisy of the protestations and claims of those who disbelieve in God, the surah turns to an account of the creation of Adam and the fall from the Garden, including the status of the angels in relation to human beings and the role of Satan in Adam’s fall.

The history of the Children of Israel figures prominently in this surah. Stressed are the blessings of God upon the Israelites throughout their history, beginning with one of the several accounts provided by the Quran describing the encounter between Moses and Pharaoh as well as the events at Mt. Sinai and the parable of the sacrificial cow (baqarah), to which the surah owes its name. This history is interwoven with theological questions debated between Jews and Muslims, such as the duration of one’s stay in Hell, the status of the Archangel Gabriel, and other accusations and challenges exchanged between the two communities.

Al-Baqarah is one of the most important surahs as far as the question of the status of other religions is concerned, addressing this matter from a theological and legal perspective and also as a question of sacred history. Abraham is discussed as a prophet who predated Judaism and Christianity, who established the Ka‘bah as a temple of worship, and who was a Hanif, or primordial monotheist.

Important rituals and acts of worship are legislated in this surah, including the pilgrimage, the required fast during the month of Ramadan, and other matters such as the direction (qiblah) one should face while reciting the canonical prayers. Other legal matters discussed are economic contracts, usury, marriage and divorce, the status of orphans, the causes and conduct of war, inheritance, alcohol consumption and gambling, and punishment for capital crimes. Some of the Quran’s most famous and most recited verses are found in this surah, including v. 255, called the Pedestal Verse (Ayat al-Kursi), and the final two verses, which are important in Muslim devotional life.

Concerning this surah the Prophet is reported to have said, ‘Everything has a zenith, and the zenith of the Quran is Surah al- Baqarah, and it has a verse which is the lord of the verses of the Quran, the Pedestal Verse [v. 255];’ ‘Truly Satan leaves a house when he hears Surah al-Baqarah recited in it;’ and ‘Learn al-Baqarah. Holding to it is a blessing, leaving it is an affliction, and falsehood has no power over it.’

We agree with every thing that Seyyed Hossein Nasr has said, except that we do believe that the Hadith about the Pedestal or the Crown Verse has a profound metaphorical meaning, but cannot be literally true about Satan leaving a house when he hears Surah al-Baqarah.  Firstly, Satan is metaphorical concept and is equivalent to ‘id,’ in the Freudian understanding of human psyche and secondly he does not literally leave a home, just because a verse is being recited. The verse is indeed a beautiful description of attributes of Allah and of Monotheism and its importance can be judged from the fact that the staunchest critics of Islam, could not help but be impressed by its sublime beauty.

Rev. Elwood Morris Wherry (1843- 1927) was an American Presbyterian missionary to India, who wrote a number of books and was a famous Christian apologist and Orientalist in his time. He wrote acknowledging the beauty of Unity of God in Islam:

A few passages, like the oases in the deserts of Arabia, stand out as truly beautiful both in their setting and in their thought. Take the first chapter, the Fatihat:

‘In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful. Praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds! The compassionate, the merciful! King on the Day of Judgment! Thee do we worship, and to thee do we cry for help! Guide then us in the right way! The path of those to whom thou art gracious! Not of those with whom thou art angered, nor of those who go astray.’

The celebrated throne verse in Chap. II., 255, is as follows: ‘God! there is no God but he; the living, the self-subsisting: neither slumber nor sleep seizeth him; to him belongeth whatsoever is in heaven and on earth. Who is he that can intercede with him, but through his good pleasure? He knoweth that which is past, and that which is to come unto them, and they shall not comprehend anything of his knowledge, but so far as he pleaseth. His throne is extended over heaven and earth, and the preservation of both is no burden unto him. He is high, the Mighty.’

The question is often asked why a book of such singular composition should hold such sway over the millions of the Moslem world. In reply two reasons may be given: first, the beautiful rhythm, and often sweet cadences of the original language, which like some enchanting song hold multitudes with rapt attention who understand scarcely a word they hear; secondly, there is a vast amount of truth contained in the book, especially the truth of the divine unity and of man’s dependence upon God, as seen in the throne verse just now quoted.[1]

Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall the first British convert to Islam, finds a different beauty in the Crown Verse, by linking it with the verse that follows, he conveys an amazing message of religious freedom for the mankind. He writes:

‘Allah! There is none to be worshipped save Him, the Alive, the Enduring. Age and slumber come not night Him. His is all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. Who is he that intercedeth with him save by His leave? He knoweth all that is in front of them and all that is behind them, while they encompass nothing of His know­ledge save what He will, His throne ex­tendeth beyond the Heavens and the Earth, and He is never weary of preserving them. He is the Sublime, the Tremendous.’ (2:255)

&

‘There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. And whose rejecteth vain superstitions and believeth in Allah hath grasped a firm handle which will not give way. Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.’ (2:256)

The two verses are supplementary. Where there is that realization of the majesty and dominion of Allah, there is no compulsion in religion. Men choose their path–allegiance or opposition–and it is sufficient punishment for those who oppose that they draw further and further away from the light of truth.

What Muslims do not generally consider is that this law applies to our own community just as much as to the folk outside, the laws of Allah being universal; and that intolerance of Muslims for other men’s opinions and beliefs is evidence that they themselves have, at the moment, forgotten the vision of the Majesty and mercy of Allah which the Quran presents to them.[2]

According to Muhammad Asad, in the introduction to this surah:

Starting with a declaration of the purpose underlying the revelation of the Qur’an as a whole – namely, man’s guidance in all his spiritual and worldly affairs – Al- Baqarah contains, side by side with its constant stress on the necessity of God-consciousness, frequent allusions to the errors committed by people who followed the earlier revelations, in particular the children of Israel. The reference, in verse 106, to the abrogation of all earlier messages by that granted to the Prophet Muhammad is of the greatest importance for a correct understanding of this surah, and indeed of the entire Quran. Much of the legal ordinances provided here (especially in the later part of the surah ) – touching upon questions of ethics, social relations, warfare, etc. – are a direct consequence of that pivotal statement. Again and again it is pointed out that the legislation of the Qur’an corresponds to the true requirements of man’s nature, and as such is but a continuation of the ethical guidance offered by God to man ever since the beginning of human history. Particular attention is drawn to Abraham, the prophet-patriarch whose in- tense preoccupation with the idea of God’s oneness lies at the root of the three great monotheistic religions; and the establishment of Abraham’s Temple, the Ka‘ bah, as the direction of prayer for ‘those who surrender themselves to God’ (which is the meaning of the word musliman, sing. muslim), sets a seal, as it were, on the conscious self-identification of all true believers with the faith of Abraham.

Throughout this surah runs the five-fold Qur’anic doctrine that God is the self-sufficient fount of all being (al-qayyum); that the fact of His existence, reiterated by prophet after prophet, is accessible to man’s intellect; that righteous living — and not merely believing – is a necessary corollary of this intellectual perception; that bodily death will be followed by resurrection and judgment; and that all who are truly conscious of their responsibility to God ‘need have no fear, and neither shall they grieve.’

Those who are truly God conscious are likely to appreciate any truth and gradually evolve in truth, including a better understanding of Islam and the prophethood of Muhammad, may peace be on him.

However, as was stated in the very first surah of the Quran and repeated numerous times elsewhere in the Quran that God is the final Judge and it is not up to the humans to judge the final worth of the others. We want to be seen in positive light and the Golden Rule that has basis in all religions, including the Quran and the Hadith, will require that we reciprocate that.

Know yourself, your universe, your God and His prophets

One of the main purpose of religion is to give us a broad worldview, understanding of our Creator and our place in it and our purpose of life and how to lead a good life.

The holy Quran in the very beginning says that it a book, which is guidance for the straight forward person, who calls a spade a spade.

According to Muhammad Ali, in the introduction to this surah:

The guidance is afforded in the opening words: ‘This book, there is no doubt in it, is a guide’ (V. 2). But though this chapter follows the Fatihah, it is really the first chapter, because the Fatihah is placed at the head, being the essence of the whole of the Qur’an. This affords very clear evidence of the wisdom displayed in the arrangement of the chapters of the Holy Book. For this chapter fittingly opens with a prelude as to the object which is aimed at in the revelation of the Holy Qur’an, and contains in its very opening verses the fundamental principles of the Islamic religion, which are also in fact the fundamental principles which can form the basis of the natural religion of man. These principles are five in number, three of them containing theoretical ordinances or articles of belief and two containing practical ordinances or principles of action. The theoretical ordinances are a belief in the Unseen, i.e. Allah, in Divine revelation to the Holy Prophet as well as to the prophets before him, and in the life to come, while on the practical side is mentioned prayer, which is the source from which springs true Divine love, and charity in its broadest sense. The result of the acceptance of these fundamental principles is mentioned in v.5, being guidance in the right direction and success. Similarly, it is with a reiteration of the broad principles of the Islamic faith and with a prayer for the triumph of the Truth that the chapter ends, and the whole of the chapter is really an illustration of the truth of the principles enunciated in its beginning.

The verse 164 of the surah describes our universe for us:

Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and in the alternation of night and day, and in the ships which sail in the sea with that which profits men, and in the water which Allah sends down from the sky and quickens therewith the earth after its death and scatters therein all kinds of beasts, and in the change of the winds, and the clouds pressed into service between the heaven and the earth — are indeed Signs for the people who understand. (2:164)

Even though the Quran repeatedly stresses the ephemeral nature of our worldly life as opposed to the eternity of Afterlife, but, does not teach asceticism.  It teaches us to also seek the legitimate good of the present life with a nobler purpose in mind, by saying the following, in this surah:

And of them there are some who say: ‘Our Lord, grant us good in this world as well as good in the world to come, and protect us from the torment of the Fire.’ (2:201)

And:

And every one has a goal which dominates him; vie, then, with one another in good works. Wherever you be, Allah will bring you all together. Surely, Allah has the power to do all that He wills. (2:148)

Pluralistic message of Islam

Does the Islam teach a pluralistic message or condemn all other religions? This surah has the verse, which liberal Muslims in the West often quote in interfaith meetings to befriend their Christian and Jewish neighbors or inter-faith leaders:

Surely, the Believers, and the Jews, and the Christians and the Sabians — whichever party from among these truly believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good deeds — shall have their reward with their Lord, and no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve. (2:62)

Please also read 5:69 and 22:17.

In the third surah of the Quran we read:

Among the people of the book is an upright community who recite God’s signs in the watches of the night, while they prostrate. They believe in God and the Last Day, enjoin right and forbid wrong, and hasten unto good deeds. And they are among the righteous. Whatsoever good they do, they will not be denied it. (3:113-115)

Islam cannot be described as a new religion with the exclusion of Judaism and Christianity as it makes its case with their history and describes the prophet Abraham, who was almost 2500 years before the prophet Muhammad, may peace be on both, as a Hanif, or primordial Monotheist, a Muslim and a great role model. For example it says:

And they say, ‘Be ye Jews or Christians that you may be rightly guided.’ Say: ‘Nay, follow ye the religion of Abraham who was ever inclined to God; he was not of those who set up gods with God.’ (2:135)

And:

Say, ‘Allah has spoken the truth: follow, therefore, the religion of Abraham, who was ever inclined to God; and he was not of those who associate gods with God.’ (3:95)

And:

And remember the time when We made the House a resort for mankind and a place of security; and take ye the station of Abraham as a place of Prayer. And We commanded Abraham and Ishmael, saying, ‘Purify My House for those who perform the circuit and those who remain therein for devotion and those who bow down and fall prostrate in Prayer.’ (2:125)

And:

Surely, the nearest of men to Abraham are those who followed him, and this Prophet and those who believe; and Allah is the friend of believers. (3:68)

Please also see 4:125 and 6:161.

We want to conclude the introduction of this very important surah, with one of the most important verses.  The Quran after laying down reasons for worship and all the rituals, tells us that the real purpose of the religion is to develop selflessness and compassion in the one human family.  The Quran stresses that righteousness is not in precise observance of the rituals, but in acts of compassion and kindness.  It says that the litmus test for true belief and genuine worship is that it leads to compassionate living:

It is not righteousness that you turn your faces to the East or the West, but truly righteous is he who believes in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Book and the Prophets, and spends his money for love of Him, on the kindred and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and those who ask for charity, and for ransoming the captives; and who observes Prayer and pays the Zakat; and those who fulfill their promise when they have made one, and the patient in poverty and afflictions and the steadfast in time of war; it is these who have proved truthful and it is these who are the God-fearing.  (2:177)

References

  1. Islam and Christianity in India and the Far East By Elwood Morris Wherry. Fleming H Revell Company, 1907. Page 25-26.
  2. This is taken from a group of lectures given by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthal in 1925. These were published by The Committee of Madras Lectures on Islam in 1927, under the title Cultural Side of Islam. We have reproduced it from 1976 reprinting by the Publisher, Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, Kashmiri Bazar, Lahore, Pakistan. The lectures were also published under the title Islamic Culture by the University of Michigan in 1929. https://themuslimtimes.info/2011/07/04/tolerance-cultural-side-of-islam-by-pickthall-the-first-british-muslim-2/

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