Al-Baqarah (vv.1-5): Pigeonholing People in Terms of Faith
THIS IS THE CHAPTER which mentions the incident of the Israelites and the baqarah, or cow (v.67) designated for sacrificial offering, whereby God tested their sincerity of faith. It is the longest surah of the Holy Qur’an, with very little discussed in the Qur’an not finding some mention or another in it. Revealed in Madinah, it contains some of the most famous and most recited verses, including v.255, ayat al-kursi – ‘the Verse of the Throne’.
There are discernible contrasts with the chapters revealed during the first thirteen years of the Prophet’s call in Makkah, and those revealed over the next decade after his hijrah, or migration to Madinah. The Makkan surahs, for instance, tend to be shorter, their cadence or tempo more rhythmical, and their core themes concerned with the inner substance of faith; the nature of Allah; the true reality of monotheism; final reckoning in the Afterlife; and interrogating unethical practices so as to live a virtuous, ethical life. Madinan surahs, by contrast, tended to be longer; their verses less punchy and pulsating; and their themes more legal and communal, largely as a response to the nascent social order and growing community of believers forming around the Prophet ﷺ.
It has been said that another distinction between the Makkan and Madinan chapters is a journey from the ‘why’ question, to the ‘how’ question: why has Man been put on earth in this vast cosmic drama; and how is Man to live out his life, once the why is understood? It is also held that the Makkan stress on key existential beliefs and ethical ideals allowed for faith to settle into the hearts, before the Madinan phase where the believers were asked to live out the practical implications of these beliefs, in terms of laws and communal duties, unreservedly and with the fullest submission. The Qur’an’s step-by-step way of nurturing firm inner faith, so that the outer duties and demands of religion could be shouldered, is known by scholars as tadrij.
The sense of this distinction is borne out in a report by Yusuf b. Mahak who relates: Once in the presence of the lady ‘A’ishah, a person came and asked that she show him her copy of the Qur’an, in order to learn its chapter arrangements. Before doing so, she said to him: ‘The first of what was revealed were the shorter chapters which mentioned Paradise and Hell. When the people had turned and settled in Islam, the verses about the lawful and the prohibited (al-halal wa’l-haram) were revealed. Had the first thing to be revealed been: “Do not drink alcohol,” they would have replied: “We shall never quit drinking alcohol!” Or if, at the very outset, adultery was forbidden, they would have said: “We shall not stop having illicit sexual affairs!” There was revealed at Makkah to Muhammad ﷺ while I was still a young girl of playing age: No, but the Hour is their appointed time, and the Hour shall be more calamitous and more bitter. [Q.54:46] The chapters of Baqarah and Nisa’ were not revealed till I was with him [as wife].’ She then brought out her copy and dictated to him the order of the surahs. [Al-Bukhari, no.4993]
The Prophet ﷺ spoke of this surah in the following terms: ‘Do not turn your houses into graveyards. Surely Satan flees from a house in which surat al-baqarah is recited.’ [Muslim, no.780]
This surah contains two-hundred and eighty-six verses: v.1 is about the ‘disjointed letters’; vv.2-5 concern the Book and believers; vv.6-7, the disbelievers; while vv.8-20 concern false believers; meaning, the hypocrites. We shall now discuss the first five verses:
This surah, like twenty-nine of the other one-hundred and fourteen surahs of the Qur’an, begins in this rather puzzling manner:
Alif Lam Mim
The meaning of these huruf al-muqatta‘at, or ‘disjointed letters’ of the Arabic alphabet, are a bone of contention among classical Qur’an commentators. There is agreement that there is no evidence of the Prophet ﷺ ever having referred to them in his recorded hadiths, nor of any Companion having ever asked him for an explanation. Beyond that, one group said that their meanings are unknown: others attempted an interpretation, but differed widely in what they thought it meant. Abbreviations of Allah’s names, or names of the surahs, or of significant persons, are three of the more favoured “reconstructions”. In the end, many scholars just settled for the reality that: Allahu a‘lam bi muradihi – ‘God knows best what the intended meaning is’.
As for the function and purpose of these cryptic letters, again there is much differing and ambiguity. One rather attractive explanation has it that although these disjointed letters are part of the Arabic alphabet making up the Arabic language – in which the Arabs took great pride and joy – yet no Arab, not even one having mastery over the language, will be able to use the same Arabic alphabet to produce messages and meanings so eloquent and wondrous. Thus demonstrating the Qur’an’s inimitability (i‘jaz) and divine origin. So it is that meaning and language, essence and form, are wedded in the Qur’an in an elegance and style that can only have come from God.
Eager to find coherence and continuity between sequential surahs, scholars point out that towards the end of the previous surah we asked: Guide us to the Straight Path [Q.1:5] Here, in the second verse of this surah, we are given the response to our prayer:
ذَلِكَ الْكِتَابُ لاَ رَيْبَ فِيهِ هُدًى لِلْمُتَّقِينَ
This is the Book, in it there is no doubt, a guidance for the God-fearing. [Q.2:2]
The Qur’an insists that there is ground to be cleared before we can have any real hope in coming close to the richness of its guidance or meanings. Set on a shelf with other books, the Qur’an has an entirely different purpose to theirs. It is sure and certain guidance from God, and a rope of salvation. It is a treasure-trove of revealed teachings, a roadmap for the journey of life, and a fountain of timeless truths to meditate upon; deepening endlessly one’s sense of the divine glory. It doesn’t really lend itself to by-standers, to polemicists, or disinterested observers. But it does open itself up to lovers of truth, guidance and God consciousness.
The Qur’an, then, is guidance for the God-fearing – al-muttaqun, derived from the Arabic word taqwa. Taqwa is culled from the word wiqayah, which implies: ‘erecting a barrier to ward-off harm from oneself.’ In its religious sense, taqwa means: to shield oneself against divine anger, by avoiding sin and disobedience and doing works of faith and obedience. Its essence lies in obeying God wholeheartedly, whilst being keenly aware of His abiding presence and watchful gaze.
No single word in English can adequately capture the full meaning of taqwa – although terms like ‘piety’, ‘fear of God’, ‘God-consciousness’, ‘mindfulness’ of God, and ‘guarding against sins’ are the usual ways translators of the Qur’an have attempted to give flesh to it. Moulding one’s life in the light of this awareness of God’s presence; that is, striving to become a person of taqwa, is of the utmost merit in Islam.
Not content to leave the idea of taqwa or muttaqun as an abstract, pie in the sky idea, the next set of verses explain its practical embodiment:
الَّذِينَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِالْغَيْبِ وَيُقِيمُونَ الصَّلاَةَ وَمِمَّا رَزَقْنَاهُمْ يُنفِقُونَ. وَالَّذِينَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِمَا أُنْزِلَ إِلَيْكَ وَمَا أُنْزِلَ مِنْ قَبْلِكَ وَبِالآخِرَةِ هُمْ يُوقِنُونَ. أُوْلَئِكَ عَلَى هُدًى مِنْ رَبِّهِمْ وَأُوْلَئِكَ هُمْ الْمُفْلِحُونَ
Those who believe in the unseen, establish the [ritual] prayer, and spend out of what We have given them. And who believe in that which is sent down to you [Muhammad], and that which was sent down before you, and have conviction in the Hereafter. These are on true guidance from their Lord; these are the successful. [Q.2:3-5]
The first trait of the godly muttaqun is their belief in the Unseen (ghayb, lit. ‘absent’). This is a reference to those realities beyond ordinary sense perception, realities such as God, the angels, and heaven and hell. Sometimes something of the Unseen breaks through into the visible world, as in an angelic visitation; revelation to a prophet; or spiritual unveiling to one of God’s saintly devotees, but on the whole the ghayb is veiled and remains absent from our usual bodily senses.
Another quality is to establish the [ritual] prayer, which isn’t the same as merely doing the prayer. To establish the prayer (salat) is, as Qur’an commentators are quick to point out, to institute and maintain the performance of the five daily prayers in terms of the necessary conditions, essential pillars, obligations, recommendations, and the required courtesy; as well as in terms of inner reverence, humility and presence of heart. To imagine, even for a moment, that what God wants from us is mere outward gestures of bowing or prostrating, without the heart being present is, of course, absurd. The Prayer, in all its profundity and punctiliousness, is focused reverence (khushu‘) and concentrated remembrance (dhikr).
To spend out of what We have given them is the next quality of taqwa, or godliness. This spending encompasses the mandatory alms giving or zakah, the obligatory maintenance (nafaqah) of family and dependants, as well as charitable spending (sadaqah) on others. Right from the get go, the Qur’an wants our Islam to be selfless, not selfish. The sharing of wealth, its social function aside, urges us to see that others are as we are: unique beings, created ‘ala suratihi – ‘in God’s own image.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6227; Muslim, no.2841]
That the wealth we own is what We [God] have given them serves to put all our pretensions to rest, by reminding us that it is not by our dint alone that we acquire or earn things, but only by God’s grace: Whatever good comes to you is from Allah, and whatever harm befalls you is from yourselves. [Q.4:79] So while we are to be grateful to God for His bounties, He doesn’t want blind thanks or praise from us; but a joyous recognition of the True Source of all goodness.
Belief in that which is sent down to you [Muhammad], namely the Qur’an, and that which was sent down before you, namely, the Torah, Psalms and Gospel, as originally revealed to their respective prophets – untampered and unrevised, are two further traits. As for belief in the Hereafter or Afterlife (akhirah), the Qur’an assures us the hereafter will be better for you than this world, [Q.93:4] and that the hereafter is better and longer lasting. [Q.87:17] All this suggests is that the afterlife is more real than any ‘reality’ we experience here. In fact, one of the most recurring themes of the Qur’an is man’s flight from reality and from the Ultimate Encounter with Him. Yet when the warnings have all been given, the signs made clear, the rules laid down, and the stories told, the moment comes: When the sun is folded, and when the stars scatter, and when the mountains are moved … and when the seas are set boiling … and when the scrolls of men’s deeds are laid bare, and when the sky is torn apart, and when Hell is set ablaze, and when Paradise is brought near, then every soul will know what it has brought. [Q.81:1-14] To be under the illusion, as many of us moderns can all too often be, that we can just slip quietly away, unnoticed, as long as we lived – by our own opinion – a ‘decent’ and ‘harmless’ life, is the delusion that belief in the Afterlife, with its Reckoning and Final Judgment, wishes to tear away.
The muttaqun; the believers on true guidance from their Lord, they shall be the successful. For they, having grasped the firm handhold; having come with faith and prayer, will have nothing to fear: for whosoever follows My guidance, no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve. [Q.2:38] For their greeting at journey’s end will be: O soul at peace! Return to your Lord, pleased and well pleasing. Enter among My servants; enter My Garden. [Q.89:27-30] And: He will admit them to gardens, beneath which rivers flow, wherein they shall dwell forever. Allah is well pleased with them and they with Him. They are the party of Allah, and Allah’s party are the successful. [Q.58:22]
Allah, having discussed one of the three types of mankind according to their attitudes to faith: the believers, then proceeds to the second and third types; the disbelievers, and the false believers; or hypocrites (to be discussed in the next two posts).
One of the great Qur’an commentators furnished us with a delightful summary explaining the five ascending degrees of taqwa:
‘ That a person guard against disbelief; this is the station (maqam) of Islam.  That one guard against sin and forbidden acts; this is the station of repentance (tawbah).  That one guard against doubtful matters; this is the station of scrupulousness (wara‘).  That one guard against what is lawful [but surplus to one’s needs]; this is the station of worldly detachment (zuhd).  That one guard the heart against other than Allah being present in it (hudur ghayru’Llah fihi); this is the station of spiritually witnessing God (mushahadah).’
The first two levels are an obligation on each Muslim; the third is highly recommended; the fourth is where love of Allah and the Afterlife have truly taken root; the fifth cannot be striven for; it is sheer gift from God!
We ask Allah for His grace and kindness.