This surah once again highlights that the two fundamental beliefs in Islam, which it shares with Judaism and Christianity, are belief in the Transcendent God and accountability in the life after death. The former is discussed at some length in the commentary of Surah Fatihah and the latter in the commentary of Surah Waqi’ah.
This is a Makkan surah and was most likely revealed just a year before migration to Madinah.
According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr and colleagues in their recent commentary published in 2015:
Revealed in the Makkan period, al—An’am clearly addresses the challenges faced by the Prophet and the Muslims engaged in a religious struggle with the idolatrous Makkans. The surah takes its name from the discussion of idolatrous ritual prohibitions on the consumption of certain kinds of cattle and the Quranic assertion, in response, that God puts no such restrictions on the cattle He has created and allowed for human consumption (vv. 136-45). The primary concern of the surah is to refute through powerful arguments various kinds of idolatry in general—including the worship of idols, celestial bodies, and jinn —and to discredit the idolatrous and humanly invented ritual practices of the Makkans in particular. Many consider this surah to be a late Makkan one and thus to reﬂect the culmination of the Prophet’s struggle and effort to persuade the Makkans to abandon idolatry and follow the Quranic message prior to his migration from Makkah to Madinah in 622. The Prophet is directly addressed throughout the surah and given speciﬁc arguments and challenges to pose to the disbelievers in Makkah. Its verses collectively sum up the Quranic argument against all forms of idolatry.
The surah highlights different proofs for Monotheism and also has the knock out argument against Jesus’ divinity: The Originator of the heavens and the earth! How can He have a son when He has no consort, and when He has created everything and has knowledge of all things?” (6:101) If Allah cannot have a spouse or a consort then there is no literal son of God and Jesus becomes like one of God’s numerous other creations, however miraculous or special.
The surah begins with a powerful statement of God as the universal and omniscient Creator (vv. 1-3). According to Muhammad Ali, in the introduction to this surah:
The object of Islam was not simply to preach Unity, but to make it the basis of a Muslim’s practical life, and so to uproot all idolatrous practices. The last chapter deals towards its close with the Christian doctrine of the deiﬁcation of Jesus, and hence this chapter is introduced to deal at length with the doctrine of Divine Unity and its ultimate triumph, not only over idolatry, but over all kinds of polytheism.
This is the theme of the first section of this surah, which also rejects the Makkans’ excuses for not heeding the warning of the Prophet Muhammad. The next two sections continue with a reminder of the fate that befell previous generations who had ignored the warnings of the messengers God had sent them and a preview of the fate that awaits them in the Hereafter. The fourth section seeks to console the Prophet in the face of the Makkans’ rejection. The next four sections include a series of arguments and statements that the Prophet is instructed to present in the face of the idolaters’ continued rejection of the Quranic message.
According to Muhammad Asad in the introduction to this surah:
However ephemeral those idolatrous beliefs and practices may appear in the light of later Arabian history, they serve in the Qur’an as an illustration of man’s propensity to attribute divine or semi-divine qualities to created beings or imaginary powers. In fact, most of this surah can be described as a many-sided argument against this tendency, which is by no means conﬁned to openly polytheistic beliefs. The core of the argument is an exposition of God’s oneness and uniqueness. He is the Prime Cause of all that exists, but ‘no human vision can encompass Him’ (verse 103), either physically or conceptually: and, therefore, ‘He is sublimely exalted above anything that men may devise by way of deﬁnition’ (Verse 100). Consequently, any endeavour to ‘deﬁne’ God within the categories of human thought, or to reduce Him to the concept of a ‘person,’ constitutes a blasphemous attempt at limiting His inﬁnite existence. (To avoid a conception of God as a ‘person,’ the Qur’an always varies the pronouns relating to Him: He is spoken of – frequently in one and the same sentence – as ‘He,’ ‘I,’ and ‘We’; similarly, the possessive pronouns referring to God ﬂuctuate constantly between ‘His,’ ‘My,’ and ‘Ours.’)
One of the outstanding passages of this surah is the statement (in verse 50) to the effect that the Prophet is a mere mortal, like all other human beings, not endowed with any supernatural powers, and ‘following only what is revealed to him.’ And, ﬁnally, he is commanded to say (in verses 162-163): ‘Behold, my prayer, and all my acts of worship, and my living and my dying are for God alone … in whose divinity none has a share.’
The ninth section, while calling attention to the necessity of submission to the Divine Being, the pith of Abraham’s religion, mentions the arguments by which Abraham, that great Patriarch who may be said to be the father of monotheism, convinced his countrymen of the futility of the worship of any object other than Allah. He pointed out to his people that even the celestial bodies, which they considered to have great power over the earth and its inhabitants, were ephemeral and changing:
Thus, it happened, that when he Was enveloped in the darkness of night, he saw a star, whereupon he exclaimed: Can that be my Lord? and when it set, he muttered: I like not those that set. Then when he saw the moon rising, he said: Can this be my Lord? and When it set he said: Had my Lord not guided me, I would surely have been of those who go astray. Finally, when he saw the sun rising, he said: Can this be my Lord, no doubt this is the biggest? But when that also set, he said to his people: Most certainly, I have no truck with that which you associate with Allah; I have single-mindedly devoted the Whole of my attention to Him Who created the heavens and the earth, and I am not of those Who associate partners with Allah. (6:76-79)
The reason why Abraham is chosen for special mention in this surah is because the Makkans claimed to be following his religion.
The tenth section mentions the names of seventeen other prophets who preached the Unity of the Divine Being, and the Holy Prophet is enjoined to follow in their footsteps. The eleventh section draws attention to the truth of the Divine revelation of the Qur’an, which was now the bearer of that noble message of Divine Unity to mankind, and the next speaks of the ultimate triumph of that message.
The thirteenth section strikes a knock out blow to Jesus’ sonship and divinity (6:101), and beautifully describe the attributes al-Khaliq, al-Lateef and al-Khabir of Allah.
This surah also refutes another kind of polytheism, as suggested by Zoroastrianism. According to Malik Ghulam Farid:
In this Surah there is a change in the treatment of the subject-matter from that adopted in the previous Surahs. It contains a refutation of non-Israelite religions and starts with the refutation of the Zoroastrian Faith, which believes in the duality of Godhead—in two separate gods of good and evil. The Qur’an exposes this doctrine by declaring that both the powers of doing good and evil are, in reality, two links of the same chain, one remaining incomplete without the other; so they cannot be said to have been created by two different gods. Light and darkness are indeed Divine creation of the same God, and instead of pointing to the duality of the Godhead, they really constitute a strong argument in favor of Oneness of God and possess a peculiar affinity with the creation of man and his natural powers and faculties. The Surah proceeds to discuss the important subject that evil is born of the wrong use of God-given faculties.
The fourteenth section refers to the polytheists’ opposition. The plans adopted by the chief opponents are then hinted at in the ﬁfteenth, and their failure prophesied in the sixteenth section, which deals with some of the evils of idolatry. The landscape at the time of revelation was that the polytheist Makkans were not allowing religious freedom to the nascent Muslim community, the implications of these sections cannot be literal in our global village, where religious freedoms are generally allowed by the non-Muslims and it is the Muslims in the Muslim majority countries that are proposing worldly punishment for apostasy and blasphemy.
The next two refer to the polytheists’ self-imposed superstitious restrictions against the use of the ﬂesh of certain animals, and the prohibited foods, and are countered with a simpler set of dietary restrictions as revealed to the Prophet (vv. 116-21, 136, 138-50) and a concise list of Divinely imposed commands and prohibitions (vv. 151-53).
The guiding rules of life are then brieﬂy stated in the nineteenth section, while the last section draws attention to the great goal before the faithful; because, undoubtedly, the doctrine of Unity raised the ideal of human life to a very high standard.
The last two verses stress human accountability and the last one stresses the grand plan of life that Allah has made humans His successors on earth. The term used here is خَلَائِفَ الْأَرْضِ successor or vicegerent on earth. The last verse reads in favor of the genuine believers in Monotheism: “And He it is Who has made you successors in the land and exalted some of you in rank above others, that He may try you by what He has given you. Surely, your Lord is quick in requiting and He is surely Forgiving, the Merciful.” Please also see 35:39.