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Surat Al-Baqarah - Summary

Back Up

Chapter 2: Surat Al-Baqarah
The Cow
(Selected Verses)

By: Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri


The Arabic word surāh, translated as chapter, is derived from the verbal root which means to enclose or surround. It also means a stage in the construction of a building. This implies that the Qur`an is based on stages which have come one after the other, separate from each other in form but related by a unified theme. The essence of the Qur`an is unity (tawhīd), for it is revealed from Allah, the One.

The first twenty verses (ayāt) of this chapter are general and profound. They describe, define and differentiate those who submit to Realty and Truth and those who cover up Reality. Those who submit with faith and sincerity are known as Muslims and those who cover up the spiritual essence of existence are referred to as non-believers (kuffār).

The next thirteen verses describe the nature of the diseased heart which is not unified. That disease, which may be described as unbelief, denial, rejection, or in a more complex sense, as hypocrisy (nifāq), is a sickness which is not cured unless it is treated. Allah does not tyrannize His creation, but one of His unchangeable laws is that if one does not overcome a chronic disease by eliminating its causes, the disease will, by its nature, infect and beset one with more and more affliction.

The heart (qalb), as spoken of in the Qur`an, is that entity whose nature is to turn. Qalb is not a physical organ but an inner faculty. It is derived from the verbal root qalaba, which means to turn. It also means 'to change, transform and transmute'. In a spiritual sense the heart is the pivotal point for inspiration and deeper perception. Like the physical organ, it must allow an uninterrupted flow, purity and openness, or it will become blocked and damaged. If it becomes attached to anything, it will be fixed and its efficiency reduced, no matter what it is set on, no matter how good the cause. Even those working sincerely for charity will come to experience disappointment and dislocation if their original intention contained any kind of attachment. Once the heart is attached, agitation and friction set in, and it loses its freedom and readiness for inspiration. The test of a healthy heart is that it is able to reflect truth from beyond reasoning and rationality. The extent of the reduction in the efficiency of the heart's higher function is directly proportionate to the extent of one's lower attachments and expectations.

The first part of Surat al-Baqarah describes Allah's creation of man as His representative (khalīfah), and the meaning of Shaytān. Man naturally desires knowledge of his origin. He wants to know why he is destined to be born in this world only to die later.

We are told about Adam, the first of humankind, put together from the elements of the earth. All is part of the perfect oneness, a chain reaction with a beginning and an end. Described within this chapter is the deception of Adam, which is essentially man's veiling from his sublime origins. Man is distinguished from all creation, because all the unseen angelic entities were made submissive to him. All the angels prostrated themselves to him, except one: Shaytān. The verbal root of shaytān is Shatana, which means 'to be cast out of the mainstream'. As soon as man came into existence as part of this stream of creational expansion, another element raised itself from within the creational stream and said: 'I am better!' This aspect of arrogant self-assertion is from an expansive attribute which has necessarily gone out of the mainstream. Its creation by Allah was necessary for the full development of human awareness. As long as man continues to say 'I' without the recognition that he has only come to journey back to his essence, trouble is the inevitable result.

Man functions well only if he remains unattached. The moment the lower self, with its qualities of separation and rebellion, comes to dominate, man is doomed. All of his individual and social problems stem from the dominance of this ego. Thus, the seeker of true knowledge continually renews his actions 'in the name of Allah', the Unifier, the One to Whom submission and obedience are due. From this remembrance eventually arises a total, absolute, uncontradicted awareness that everything emanates from the One and is sustained by the One.

The seeker who wishes to awaken to this knowledge must be aware and alert all the time, physically and mentally. Any state other than a fully conscious presence must be instantly rectified. Delay results in stagnation, and this renders change more difficult to achieve. One must be available for any situation as a fully developed human being, with faith, good opinion, optimism and the inner realization that one has come from Allah and to Him one will return. In between the womb and the tomb, existence is but a tiny flicker, combining matter and meaning, the seen and the unseen.

The ongoing domination of man by his ego is echoed by Shaytān in the Qur`an when he promises to assail man from every direction and divert him from the true nature of Reality. Allah allows him this derived power, but He makes an exception: those who are righteous and are constantly in remembrance (dhikr) of Him. Over these Shaytān has no hold, because they have knowledge of his ways and are constantly aware of him in order not to be ensnared by his artifices. At least five times a day they anchor their continual remembrance with standing, bowing and prostrating themselves before their Creator in prayer. In this way Shaytān is kept at bay.

In the creation of Adam, we find an allegory of those who befriend Shaytān, that is, those who fall into the trap of the self and its domination. Nothing has changed in principle since the time of Adam. Adam was given inspiration, spontaneous guidance and freedom through submission. Originally, he had no mental anxieties, concepts or desires. He was in that unseen Garden beyond the realm of ordinary comprehension. The Garden, described in the Qur`an as being fed and sustained by underground, unseen rivers (jannāt tajrī min tahtihā al-anhār), is the realm of spirits (arwāh) and pure energies. In this non-physical realm where time and space have no permanency, no creational growth or destruction exists. Adam and his feminine counterpart, Eve, were in that infinite Garden 'state'. They were warned of shaytānic deception and a certain tree a creation inappropriate to the eternal Garden. They had to leave the Garden to enter a different realm, one which contains the experience of time and change, mental disturbances and attachment. That tree must relate to desire and discontentment, for it is there that Shaytān lurks.

Adam's heart, focused as it was on the outer curiosity of the tree, became distracted. Realizing the gravity of his error, he turned to his Lord in an attempt to reclaim his heritage as a free being with a 'centered' heart. The story of Adam is a parable for our own affliction and testing in life, so that we can reclaim our original condition through direct effort and proper direction. We must, therefore, move from being afflicted by mental desires and attachment to freedom by submission to the will of Allah. This is the deep meaning of Islam.

The story of the 'fall' of Adam is then repeated in terms of communities and nations. The tribe of Israel experienced great turmoil because of their disobedience and insensitivity. They brought about tyranny and trouble upon themselves, thereby creating a demand (again in their hearts) to be saved. That demand was at the root of the creation of Moses. He came to them from among them; one opposite brings about another. But soon they were in doubt and confusion again, for they saw Moses as an ordinary being like themselves. They wanted to be convinced by more miracles, although the whole event of Moses was a miracle. The entire creation is a miracle, but humankind cannot see this!

The tribe of Israel evolved by following the guidance of Moses, until he left them (in the charge of his trusted and divinely guided brother), to answer the call of Allah. He was gone for forty days. Upon his return he found his people worshipping a golden calf. To overcome their deviation and wrong actions, they were later required to sacrifice a cow. One symbolic meaning of sacrificing a cow was to destroy the foundation of worshipping the calf or a desired possession. The tribe of Israel, however, lapsed into arrogance and began to argue in order to avoid carrying out the simple outward act of sacrificing a cow, because, in fact, their intentions had not changed. They asked, 'What sort of cow? What color is it? Where can we find it? There are too many cows, we are confused!' This is their ongoing state of bickering, vanity and disobedience. This is the condition of deception and disbelief.

Humankind always seeks the Garden (jannah). The verbal root for Garden is janna, which means 'hidden', in reference to the grounds of the garden hidden by lush foliage. One must qualify for the hidden or inner Garden. We were dropped into this worldly condition in order to be proven, to evolve through faith (īmān), trust and correct action stemming from pure intentions. The result is that one experiences a freedom and inner joy and certainty, whilst still experiencing a worldly condition contaminated with change, anxieties and confusion. This is why Allah commanded Adam, 'Get down from it, some of you enemies of others!' implying that enmity and disagreement are veils over the pure, original state of tranquility and peace.

Even after man's repeated disobedience Allah is Ever-Forgiving. The Children of Israel were forgiven on numerous occasions. Whenever a messenger was sent to them, they rebelled; but they would be forgiven again and again. The deeper meaning of forgiveness is spontaneous knowledge, which brings about protection from wrong actions. The sincere person will learn what is going to cause him harm from his mistakes. Thus, he will avoid committing the same errors in the future. This avoidance of error by knowledge is called 'safeguarding oneself with fearful awareness', known in the Qur`an as taqwā.

The situation of the tribe of Israel is common to other communities. Their constant doubt, bickering and love of the world can be seen also in the later disobedience of the Muslims during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and throughout the following centuries. The chapters that follow Surat al-Baqarah describe the hypocrisy of some of the Muslims who were with the Prophet as his companions.

Most people want to secure and render permanent the situation and habits which they are used to. The majority of the world is caught in repetition and dogma; and prejudice and dogma are due to insecurity, and the human search for permanency. Yet creation is in constant flux, moving at high speed, like a film which moves quickly through the camera and produces much slower images. Nothing can be fixed. The contemplative person wishes it all would stop so that he could get a really good look at it, but there is no stopping the living continuum of change. In fact, his very existence is based on motion. The desire for the permanent is in its essence based upon love for the Creator's attribute of eternity. Outwardly, we experience age, decay and change, and inwardly we can be certain of a non-changing reality connecting the soul to its next experience beyond time and space.

The reason that people of kufr are against Islam is because the real Muslim cannot be enslaved to the material world. However, the Muslim does have respect for matter, because matter is Allah's creation. He has respect for existence, for relationships and for the law of the land in which he lives. The Muslim is in outer revolution and in inner evolution. What is the point of changing the government, or the head of the government, when the people persist in ignorance and do not want to awaken? Materialist non-believers are much more afraid of reality, because they know that with its establishment a transformation will occur that favors social equity over selfish acquisitiveness and power.

There are no fast cures. There are limitations in every system, although our 'fast' jet-age has over-stretched many systems beyond their limits. Fast food, fast travel, fast marriage and fast divorce, and fast wealth (with its inevitable fast poverty) exemplify this. The cure for this over-indulgence can only be found in restraint, and this is the meaning of the fast in Islam. The word 'fast' has totally opposite meanings. Where there is sickness, there is also the cure. 'Ali ibn Abi Talib said, 'Your cure is in you, but you do not discern it.' He also said, 'You are the clear Book. By its signs the obscure becomes clear.'

In Surat al-Baqarah the plea is repeated: 'Do you not use your reason?' (afalā ta'iqlūn). 'Can you not see? Can you not hear? Do you not use your intellect?' The sound of the name 'Allah' was already heard in the womb. The fetus hears the pulsating sound of the name 'Allah,' exactly as it is pronounced in spiritual invocation and dhikr. The mother's heart has already sung it for the unborn baby.

Surat al-Baqarah constantly reminds us of our state before consciousness and after. 'Do you not remember? Do you not recall? Do you not reflect?' (afalā tadhakkarūn). The basis of spontaneous and genuine remembrance is faith (īmān): faith that life is not without purpose. We have not come into this world just to run about like fools in order to compete and survive, and then end up being devoured by worms, decaying in dust. Faith is the good news, which leads to the knowledge that we are from Allah, and to Allah we are journeying by Allah's grace.

Faith will initiate one into the way of inner joy, but faith without knowledge and awakening is meaningless and barren, like a seed without soil, lighter and water. The seed of faith must interact with virtuous actions. By so doing it rubs off the sheath of the ego (nafs), pushes down roots into the heart, sends forth the stem of knowledge, and in the spring produces the fruit of intimacy and knowledge of the Real. Faith (īmān) can only take root and manifest its meaning by virtuous, 'free' deeds. In the Qur`an, the term for faith (īmān) is invariably coupled with good deeds (salihāt).

The responsibility lies squarely on our own shoulders. If one moves towards knowledge, it is for oneself; and if one does not move, then one remains in darkness and ignorance. No one is accountable for anyone else. We have obligations to one another, but no control or accountability over others' misdeeds. A man's accountability is to his own sincerity of intention from which his actions cannot be separated.

One cannot understand one's true state or situation without sincere questioning, and time to reflect and contemplate higher things. It is not sufficient to become occupied with self-knowledge merely in occasional spiritual gatherings or meditation. Maximum learning occurs when one is in the most difficult times, because it is precisely at these times that what is concealed becomes manifest. This manifestation allows for recognition and change.

The prophets were the greatest spiritual teachers, and the cause of transformation and enlightenment, for man cannot learn how to free himself without a teacher who fully knows the 'spiritual' ropes. This knowledge has always been passed on to the most capable men, who fulfilled the prophetic legacy in the absence of the prophet himself. There is nothing higher or purer than the relationship between the master and the seeker, especially in spiritual teaching.

The condition placed upon spiritual teaching from time immemorial is that it must be given free. Many teachers have even cared for the needs of their students. Those who teach the path of unity (tawhīd) cannot but care for every aspect of their students' lives, because the path is holistic. The student, however, must reciprocate with respect and sincere application of the teaching, otherwise there will be no benefit. The closest people to the teacher have always been those who need him most and have recognized their need. The seeker, will, on occasion, find himself resentful of his teacher, and his dependency on him. This 'vice' is natural, for within the student is the inherent tendency to depend only on Allah and not on creation. The enlightened teacher is not surprised by such rebellion and ingratitude.

As we found in Surat al-Baqarah that man's nature is rebellious, so we find that spiritual seekers often tend to be rebellious, and in fact, the difficult ones are often kept close to the teacher. It takes a teacher who is patient and wise, and who acts in the way of Allah carefully to channel doubt and rebellious energy towards higher things. The teacher may in fact be more cautious and concerned about the student who is always obedient, well-behaved and never causes a ripple; somebody who thinks he really is 'spiritual'.

When Adam experienced disgrace, Allah prescribed the option of repentance by which His forgiveness and 'return' could be obtained. The people of Mecca could not have been more belligerent than they were to the Prophet during the early years of his mission. His forgiveness and compassion were immense, for he was a perfect man whose action reflected the perfect Creator.

Look at Allah's love for his creation. He gives humankind the option to rebel and disobey, yet His own response is none other than generosity and clemency. Man has the option of being foolish, selfish, and greedy, but Allah will never reject him the moment he truly beseeches His forgiveness. The whole affair hinges on approaching one's Lord with a wholesome heart.

Attributes such as selfishness, foolishness, jealousy, meanness, greed and lust find their origin in fear of poverty and ignorance of the way of Allah. This is clearly indicated in the Qur`an. Allah says that it is Saytān, who causes fear and anxiety for a possible lack of provision; thus, if one is generous to others, one opposes this restrictive tendency of the ego and will find as a result that everything one needs is already there. Even if one is only interested in being generous to one's own family and does so genuinely, a greater energy somehow comes forth, and the possibility of giving on a larger scale occurs. The process must begin somewhere; the tap must be turned. To begin with, it merely drips; eventually it flows in a steady stream.

One's inwardness will eventually become manifest outwardly. Inward abandonment leads to appropriate outer action. The Prophet of Islam was the true model of inward abandonment and outer perfect action. He married, cared for his family, and for all those around him.

The test of the Garden (jannah) is clearly described in this chapter: it is based on willingness to abandon and die. The Jewish rabbis said, 'Nobody will enter the Garden of Paradise except those who are Jews', so Allah answered them: 'Tell them then to wish for death!' The Qur`an is talking to men of understanding, sensitive beings who can read the signs in themselves and on the horizon. If one is not willing to die, then one is not qualified for the Garden of freedom, because the qualification for this state is non-attachment.

One may have a family and all the things that go with a conventional life, and yet one must be willing, at a moment's notice to drop whatever one is concerned with and leave it. One should bear outer responsibilities without their becoming a burden to one's heart. Strive diligently outwardly, and keep one's heart in the cave of divine presence. Thus the heart is to be kept empty and pure.

Although we often find that people's hearts yearn for a palace, yet most people, even the wealthy ones, live in confusion and moral squalor. Allah says, 'We have sent you to give them the good news and the warning.' The good news is that the heart is like an eternal bird which must learn how to fly. The cage door will open once the heart is free from attachment. Otherwise, one will remain incarcerated by the lower self.

The Qur`an says in Surat al-Baqarah: 'And you will not be asked about the inhabitants of the Fire.' One comes alone to this world and will depart alone; be wary of the day when nobody can help anybody else. One must live in this body fully, connected outwardly to creation, yet disconnected inwardly from creation and in submission to the Creator. One will then find the Garden of permanent beauty, and everything is according to the laws of Allah.

Some of the laws of the Creator are explained in this chapter. One is told how to behave in a community, the meaning of marriage, the meaning of caring for the weak and orphans. One is told how to conduct business transactions and loans, and the unjust nature of usury is explained. The boundaries of the outer, divine law are made comprehensible.

Women's rights and obligations are carefully emphasized. Prior to Islam, women were regarded as sex objects, and were accorded no respect. This was put right by the laws of Islam. As an equal (in the way of Allah), women should be looked after, respected and protected, not treated or abused as a play-object or body toy, to be replaced when worn out. The husband's responsibility is to provide for the woman in order to help her attain a state of tranquility so that she may evolve spiritually. If he cannot do this, he should limit his limitations to her and be prepared to release her so she can perhaps marry someone who can fulfill her needs. Men, who are generally speaking physically, biologically and emotionally slightly steadier than women, are given a greater responsibility and therefore greater power. In his last public discourse, the Prophet stressed the rights of women as the most important aspect of behavior.

In the phrase, 'We made you a middle community', the Qur`an gives a description of the true Muslim community which must always remain in the middle, steering a course of moderation away from all extremes. 'Ali ibn Abi Talib said: 'The best of affairs is the middle course.' This is the balance between opposites in the creational realm of duality, within which lies all that is conducive to humankind. Opposites must exist, or there would be no creation. The prime example of duality is the creation of the heavens and earth: they are opposites, but one cannot exist without the other. Unity manifests itself in diversity. The Qur`an says that these are the signs for people who have intellect, who reflect. The real Muslim is in the middle. At all times, he has access to inner joy but is also willing to shoulder his outer responsibilities.

There are several verses which are concerned with what to avoid, for example intoxicants and gambling, and also with what is considered appropriate food to eat. We learn that the divinely revealed natural laws are for our benefit, not for our repression and restriction. Therefore, if we are truly in trouble, not wanting to harm ourselves by going against the law, but having no other choice, we can, as an exception, eat what is necessary to stay alive.

We are told in this chapter that the self 'will receive that which it has earned'. We get what we deserve, not what we desire. Action and reaction are equal and opposite. Life is founded upon mercy, and the laws of creation apply to all of creation at all times. By going against them, one creates havoc with oneself, one's family and community.

We are informed about the month of Ramadan, the door to expansion. If we wish to expand, then according to the law of opposites, we must restrict, limit and contract. The door to increase is through decrease. By finding out what one's outer limitations are, one will discover one's license for limitless inner expansion.

We are ordered to observe the fast of Ramadan, and we must pay the zakāt, a tax of about 2.5% on income. Also, we must attempt the arduous journey to Mecca (Hajj), if we are financially and physically able.

It is necessary to experience difficulty in order that we may appreciate ease, as Allah says: 'Indeed, with difficulty comes ease, indeed, with difficulty comes ease' (94:5). We must always keep up our prayers and be on time for them. If one does not perform these duties, the rest is useless. The true essence, or reality (haqīqah), without adherence to the laws pertaining to the outer aspects of life (Sharī'ah), is not attainable. Likewise, the outer law without the inner reality is worthless; it is like a body without a soul. The two are branches of the same tree. Surat al-Baqarah is completely balanced between the two. These are the boundaries of Allah.

'And fight in the way of Allah' (2:190): the meaning of Islam is peace. The main door to the mosque of the Ka'bah in Mecca is called the Door of Peace; but inner peace can only occur if one struggles and fights outwardly. The outer and inner battles are against both injustice and tyranny. Outwardly, the struggle is against social injustice and oppression, while inwardly it is against the tyranny of the lower self.

The Prophet Muhammad described the fight against the self as being the greater struggle of the two. Upon doing battle with the self, one will end with the victory of a heart at peace. Fighting ignorance within the self will give one strength to fight ignorance outside, until mercy and knowledge prevail throughout the world. Life is a struggle. With outer struggle, there is inner contentment. Outwardly, one is in perpetual toil and turmoil, while inwardly, one is calm and contended. That is the way of Allah.

'The life of this world is made to appear beautiful for those who disbelieve and deny [the existence of Allah]' (2:212). This world is superficially decorative: its attractiveness is a bait through which people are hooked and then suffer affliction because of their attachment to it. Desiring permanency in an impermanent world, people become attached to all manner of things. They start collecting but do not know where to put all this intrinsically useless stuff or how to insure its safety. One works for one's entire life towards things which are essentially of no value or even burdensome.

Breaking from one's attachment is an important aspect of flight or migration (hijrah). Historically, this is exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad's departure from Mecca to Medina in 622 A.D. This date marks the beginning of the Islamic lunar calendar. Migration in the way of Allah is the highest act, because a person leaves behind all that he loves. Those who have faith and have traveled in the way of Allah are seeking mercy, by avoiding that which is not conducive to spiritual growth. One tries to change a situation and to improve it: when one cannot, then one must leave it behind.

Allah relates to us the story of David and Saul so that we may understand how a small band of good and firmly committed people can triumph over a larger group. From this we see that one must not judge quantitatively matters which have to do with Allah. The qualities of David embraced both kingdoms: he was the king of the outward and the king of the inward. This is how we, as followers of the Prophet Muhammad, expect a leader to be. The perfect ruling and representation of Allah occurs when a leader combines sovereignty over both the outer and the inner kingdoms.

Man is naturally confused and in doubt, and doubt is a stimulus which can bring about knowledge. We are given the example of Abraham when he asked Allah how the dead are brought to life. He wanted to know, just as some of us rationally ask how certain things happen. Abraham asked only to confirm it in his heart, for he was a human being and human nature seeks knowledge and confirmation. It is important to understand the humanity of the prophets and 'those established in knowledge', their inheritors. Because of our culturization we often visualize them as rabbis or in a theatrical sense; they were in fact the most human of men, and that deep humanity was a sign of their great illumination.

Surat al-Baqarah ends with the profound call that the Lord has granted His slave. 'Our Lord, do not punish us for our forgetfulness and mistakes. Do not overburden us with what we have not the strength to bear. Pardon us, protect us and have mercy upon us, inwardly and outwardly. Unify us and grant us strength against the denial and rejection of Your One true Realty.'

There is no god but Allah, the Master, the Clear Truth. May the tongue of Reality bless the seal of Prophecy, the first light of creation, the beloved of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, and his purified family, companions and devoted followers, according to the number of all created things.

Back Up

The Opening - A Commentary on Chapter 1: Surat Al-Fatiha ] The Cow - A Commentary on Chapter 2: Surat Al-Baqarah ] The Family of 'Imrān - A Commentary on Chapter 3: Surat Al-'Imrān ] The Spider - A Commentary on Chapter 29: Surat Al-'Ankabt ] The Heart of the Qur`an - A Commentary on Chapter 36: Surat Ya Sin ] The Beneficent - A Commentary on Chapter 55: Surat Al-Rahmn ] The Event - A Commentary on Chapter 56: Surat Al-Wqi'ah ] The Kingdom - A Commentary on Chapter 67: Surat Al-Mulk ] The Jinn - A Commentary on Chapter 72: Surat Al-Jinn ] The Unwrapped - A Commentary on Chapter 73: Surat Al-Muzzammil ] A Commentary on the Last Section of the Qur`an ]