This is an early Makkan surah when the Muslims were being severely persecuted there, yet it has a grand prophecy that Islam will prevail in the very same city and the holy prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, will be hailed as a great national and international hero.
This surah once again stresses, in very powerful metaphors that the very purpose of religion is to guide us into compassionate living, a message often repeated in the Quran. Please see the commentary of Surah Al Ma’un – The Common Kindness and an article: Two Hundred Verses about Compassionate Living in the Quran.
بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
|1. I call this city as a witness.||
لَا أُقْسِمُ بِهَـٰذَا الْبَلَدِ
|2. And you [Muhammad] are an inhabitant of this city.||
وَأَنتَ حِلٌّ بِهَـٰذَا الْبَلَدِ
|3. And I cite the father Abraham and the son Ishmael as a witness.||
وَوَالِدٍ وَمَا وَلَدَ
|4. That We have created man for toil and trial.||
لَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الْإِنسَانَ فِي كَبَدٍ
|5. Does he think that no one will have power over him?||
أَيَحْسَبُ أَن لَّن يَقْدِرَ عَلَيْهِ أَحَدٌ
|6. He boasts about his wealth.||
يَقُولُ أَهْلَكْتُ مَالًا لُّبَدًا
|7. Does he think no one observes him?||
أَيَحْسَبُ أَن لَّمْ يَرَهُ أَحَدٌ
|8. Did We not give him two eyes?||
أَلَمْ نَجْعَل لَّهُ عَيْنَيْنِ
|9. And a tongue and two lips?||
|10. And point out to him the two clear ways [of good and evil]?||
|11. Yet he has not attempted the steep path.||
فَلَا اقْتَحَمَ الْعَقَبَةَ
|12. What will explain to you what the steep path is?||
وَمَا أَدْرَاكَ مَا الْعَقَبَةُ
|13. It is to free a slave.||
|14. It is to feed at a time of hunger.||
أَوْ إِطْعَامٌ فِي يَوْمٍ ذِي مَسْغَبَةٍ
|15. An orphaned relative.||
يَتِيمًا ذَا مَقْرَبَةٍ
|16. Or a poor person in distress.||
أَوْ مِسْكِينًا ذَا مَتْرَبَةٍ
|17. Then he is of those who believe and exhort one another to patience, and exhort one another to mercy.||
ثُمَّ كَانَ مِنَ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالصَّبْرِ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالْمَرْحَمَةِ
|18. These are the people of the right hand.||
أُولَـٰئِكَ أَصْحَابُ الْمَيْمَنَةِ
|19. And those who disbelieve in Our messages, they are the people of the left hand.||
وَالَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا بِآيَاتِنَا هُمْ أَصْحَابُ الْمَشْأَمَةِ
|20. And the Fire will close in on them.||
عَلَيْهِمْ نَارٌ مُّؤْصَدَةٌ
This is a Makkan surah, while the prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, was engaged in a struggle of survival against large odds in the city of Makkah in the early part of his ministry. Given his triumph in the city later on and the earlier triumph of Abraham and Ishmael in settling the city of Makkah in wilderness some 2400 years ago and how the spring of Zam Zam came to be, described else where in the holy Quran, the city becomes a witness to the truth of Islam, the Quran and the prophet Muhammad.
In this surah, Allah describes the ‘steep path’ to excellence starting in verse number 11. In verse 4 of the surah it was mentioned that human psyche is given to toil towards some goal, so it is better that he or she works towards the steep path of excellence in humanitarian works and to free slaves and captives and feed the hungry and take care of the orphans and weak, rather than pursuing some frivolous goal.
Humanitarian service should be done in a fashion that we set the orphans or the vulnerable free to achieve their best potentials rather than embroiling them into strings to use them for our purposes, like any selfish god-father figure would do, to serve his own needs. Else where the Quran says: “And they feed, for love of Allah, the poor, the orphan, and the prisoner, saying, ‘We feed you for Allah’s pleasure only. We desire no payback nor thanks from you.'” (Al Quran 76:8-9)
This surah very powerfully demonstrates that the purpose of religion or of Islam is to instill compassion and love of humanity and not an obsession with the religious dogma. For example else where we read:
Goodness does not consist in turning your face towards East or West. The truly good are those who believe in God and the Last Day, in the angels, the Scripture, and the prophets; who give away some of their wealth, however much they cherish it, to their relatives, to orphans, the needy, travelers and beggars and to liberate those in debt and bondage; those who keep up the prayers and pay the prescribed alms; who keep pledges whenever they make them; who are steadfast in misfortune, adversity and times of danger. These are the ones who are true, and it is they who are aware of God. (Al Quran 2:177)
This verse talks about a set of beliefs and then a set of good deeds, the intricate relationship between the two escapes many if not most. Many take a set of beliefs as dogma or a magical wand that if believed in will lead to certain success here and in the hereafter. But, see if we believe that Jesus died for our sins or for that matter Moses or Joseph died for our sins or Muhammad, may peace be on him, went to heaven in his physical body, such ideas or deeply held beliefs are no different from knowing or believing that the table I am looking at in the center of my room right now is made of wood. This belief has no trans-formative value on my character. But, a belief gathered through life long experience, in All-Knowing, All-Powerful, Merciful and Gracious God, who loves us and has revealed Himself through prophets and scriptures and taught us accountability on the Day of Judgment, has the ability to jolt our psyche and make our character compassionate, truthful and honest. Such a deeply held and experienced belief and not any set of dogmas is implied in this verse of Surah Baqarah. In short, religion is about leading an honest life of compassion demonstrating kindness and not about obsession over dogma or ritual or who has the religious authority.
According to Muhammad Ali in commentary of the verses under discussion:
Note the tone of these earliest revelations. The service of humanity (along with the service of God) is the one topic. The doing of good to the oppressed, the poor, and the orphans is called an uphill road or a high mountain because of the difﬁculty of doing it. The constant reference to the helping of the poor and the orphans and the setting free of slaves brings to light the real character of the Prophet, who is described by one knowing him most intimately as one who earned for those who had no means themselves (B. 1:1). No religion has laid so much stress on the uplift of the poor and the distressed as Islam, and it is the only religion which enjoins the duty of granting freedom to slaves, and the Holy Prophet Muhammad is the only founder of a religion who showed the noble example of freeing all slaves that he ever had and helping in the freedom of others. Yet prejudiced writers blame Islam for not taking any steps to uproot slavery. There is even a suggestion that such precepts regarding the nobility of liberating slaves as exist in the Makkan chapters were abrogated by later revelation (see Wherry), a preposterous statement in view of the plain directions given in 9:60 (the latest revelation) to the State itself to spend a part of the public funds in purchasing freedom for slaves.
For a more detailed discussion of love, compassion and emphasis on humanitarian work in the holy Quran, please read: Two Hundred Verses about Compassionate Living in the Quran.