Surah al-Baqarah (The Cow) 2 : 213

كَانَ ٱلنَّاسُ أُمَّةً وَٰحِدَةً فَبَعَثَ ٱللَّهُ ٱلنَّبِيِّۦنَ مُبَشِّرِينَ وَمُنذِرِينَ وَأَنزَلَ مَعَهُمُ ٱلْكِتَٰبَ بِٱلْحَقِّ لِيَحْكُمَ بَيْنَ ٱلنَّاسِ فِيمَا ٱخْتَلَفُوا۟ فِيهِ ۚ وَمَا ٱخْتَلَفَ فِيهِ إِلَّا ٱلَّذِينَ أُوتُوهُ مِنۢ بَعْدِ مَا جَآءَتْهُمُ ٱلْبَيِّنَٰتُ بَغْيًۢا بَيْنَهُمْ ۖ فَهَدَى ٱللَّهُ ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ لِمَا ٱخْتَلَفُوا۟ فِيهِ مِنَ ٱلْحَقِّ بِإِذْنِهِۦ ۗ وَٱللَّهُ يَهْدِى مَن يَشَآءُ إِلَىٰ صِرَٰطٍ مُّسْتَقِيمٍ

Translations

 
 Muhsin Khan
 Pickthall
 Yusuf Ali
Quran Project
Mankind was [of] one religion [before their deviation]; then Allāh sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings and warners and sent down with them the Book in truth to judge between the people concerning that in which they differed. And none differed over it [i.e., the Book] except those who were given it - after the clear proofs came to them - out of jealous animosity among themselves. And Allāh guided those who believed to the truth concerning that over which they had differed, by His permission. And Allāh guides whom He wills to a straight path.

1. Lessons/Guidance/Reflections/Gems

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Explanatory Note
 
The sūrah continues to elaborate on the differences among human beings in their beliefs, outlook, values and standards, concluding with a statement identifying the ultimate judgement and criteria to pronounce on those differences.

That is it in a nutshell! Humanity emerged as a single community, living according to the same code and upholding similar beliefs. This may be taken as reference to the very first nucleus of human beings to live on earth, consisting of Adam, Eve and their offspring, before they multiplied and adopted various beliefs and ways of life. What the Qur’ān asserts here, however, is that mankind shares the same origin and that we are members of the same human family. Such was the will of God, to instil the family principle in human life and establish it as the cornerstone of the human community. Time was when that early group remained close-knit and uniform in its outlook and understanding, but it was later to grow, multiply and scatter in various directions; their way of life evolved in different ways, and so did their mental and cultural abilities and norms. New trends, fresh ideas and advanced social and cultural forms emerged which, as God knew, would be useful and advantageous to human society.

With progress and diversity came differences, disagreements and divisions. New beliefs, traditions and ideologies appeared and were accepted in various degrees by various communities. It was then that God, in His infinite wisdom, decided to send forth Prophets to convey the promise of success and to warn against deviation. With the Prophets, God “sent down the Book, setting forth the truth, to judge between people over all on which they differed.

Here is a profound truth: it is in the nature of human beings to differ and disagree. Such a propensity is fundamental to the human disposition, and essential for the fulfilment of man’s role as God’s vicegerent on earth. This task calls for a divergence of functions, aptitudes and talents that are compatible and complementary to one another and come together in harmony, according to God’s universal scheme and wisdom. Different needs require different abilities.

Differences of ability and function lead to differences in perception, outlook, interests, approach and method. These differences and variations, however, are harmonised and regulated within the wide, all-embracing framework of the divine order of faith where abilities, faculties and resources are given the best chance to grow and develop for the good of the individual and the community, as well as for the benefit of humanity at large.

However, it is essential that there should be a proper and valid by which differences and divisions may be judged and evaluated. Such a point of reference is alluded to in the sūrah when it says that God: “sent down the Book, setting forth the truth, to judge between people over all on which they differed”.

It is worth pausing here to consider the statement that the Book is “setting forth the truth”. This is an affirmation that the Book, the revelation from God to mankind, has come with the definitive and absolute truth. It is the ultimate, pre-eminent and sole arbiter and judge of all human thought and behaviour. Without this authority society would be at a loss, life would descend into chaos, confusion and strife, and mankind would know no peace or happiness.

This is vital in determining the source of human values, thought and understanding, and for defining the laws that govern human relations. The source is God, and God alone, who has sent down revelations, the Book, to establish the truth and maintain harmony, justice and peace in the world.

The Book is, in essence, one and the same, whose message all Messengers had delivered. Its teachings convey a faith based on belief in one God and the same set of laws and values for all mankind. As time goes on, changes occur according to peoples’ needs from generation to generation, and from one stage of development to another, culminating in the ultimate version of God’s message represented by the Islamic faith. Under the caring eye of God Almighty and the vibrant and dynamic laws and teachings of divine revelation, Islam took the scope of human experience to new horizons, enabling man to reach new heights of progress and achievement within the all-embracing framework of values provided by the faith.

What the Qur’ān states here is the definitive Islamic view of the origin and development of religion and religious ideology in the world. Briefly stated, this says that every Prophet came with teachings based on the fundamental principle of God’s absolute oneness. Inevitably, after some time, deviations and myths crept in, causing people to depart from the original authentic traditions and teachings, thereby precipitating the need for a new Prophet and a new set of teachings to revive and restore the preceding one, taking into account the mental, cultural and material developments and changes society had undergone and the new conditions prevailing. This is a far more estimable theory of the history of religion than others advanced by secular thinkers, and unwittingly adopted by some Muslim students of religion.

The united kinship of religious faith is congruous with the role and function of the Book God has revealed to mankind at every phase through all the Prophets and messengers, throughout human history.

The fact is that it was necessary for a definite and firm standard to exist as a reference point for all mankind. It was likewise necessary that this standard should come from a source above the human mind and independent from it. It had to come from an impartial source, not encumbered or swayed by human prejudices or shortcomings.

Such a responsibility requires an infinite and comprehensive knowledge of past, present and future events, not restricted by the limitations of time and space. It also requires perfection, total self- sufficiency, and freedom from all the needs, instincts, ambitions, desires and fears that constrain and control human beings. It can then be given only by God who is influenced neither by personal purpose, prejudice or desire, nor by weakness or shortcoming.

Man’s role is one of facing change and coping with new circumstances and needs that arise as a result of it, and of adapting to them within the prevailing conditions. The divine criteria act as a reference point and a guide, directing mankind to what is best and most advantageous. Thus life proceeds along proper lines, and people are confident that their fate and destiny are in the hands of an impartial, fair and caring God.

The Book was not revealed in order to eliminate or restrict the differences and variety in human talent, ability or inclination, but it is there as an arbiter and a reference point whenever disputes and controversies arise.

This argument gives rise to another fundamental aspect of the Islamic view of human history. Islam considers the Book revealed by God as a criterion and an arbiter for mankind, a foundation for human life on which it can rise or fall. Society will progress and improve as long as it adheres to the teachings of God’s Book, and it will falter and deviate when it neglects them, even if this was the choice of the majority in society. Right and wrong are not to be decided by human individuals or through a ballot box. The Islamic view is that the norms, traditions, systems, and laws people may adopt and accept as a way of life for human society at any particular time in history have no merit or consistency if they are at variance or in contradiction with God’s Book. The whole philosophy on which such a way of life is based would be discredited, no matter how durable it might prove in practice.

This argument is important in protecting the foundations of religious thought against human interference. In Muslim society, for example, serious deviations have occurred at certain stages of its history, and such deviation continued to move further away. But it would be a travesty of the truth to argue that these darker chapters are in any way representative of the true image or spirit of Muslim life. Islam, as a religion and a way of life, will remain unsullied by that inauspicious history, which must be discredited and renounced. For genuine Islamic life to be resumed and a distinctive Muslim society to be rebuilt, deviant practices that might have occurred at certain periods of Muslim history have to be cast aside. Reference should be made again directly to the Book that God has revealed, containing the whole truth as arbiter and guide for all mankind.

The sūrah goes on to explain why people allowed their whims and prejudices to cause them to neglect God’s Book and turn away from the truth and the guidance it had brought them: “Yet none other than those who had been given the Book started, out of injustice to one another, to dispute it after clear evidence of the truth had come to them.” Jealousy, greed, caprice and self-aggrandisement were some of the motives behind the divisions, disagreements and conflict that have beset mankind throughout history.

No two people could disagree over the veracity and authenticity of God’s revelations unless one or both of them are adversely motivated. True believers are in full agreement: “God, by His will, guided the believers to the truth concerning which they had differed. God guides whom He will to the straight path.

God guides believers to the true and straight path outlined by His revelations, for their sincerity and devotion and for their genuine desire to seek the truth and live by the truth. God, in His infinite wisdom, bestows such grace and privilege on those who earn it with their passion and enthusiasm for the truth. Those are they who shall be liberated to enjoy peace and happiness and the favour of God Almighty. They are the ones who submit themselves totally to God, and they are the ones who are granted the highest position by God. This is true even though people who are ignorant of God’s standards may think them to lead a deprived sort of life in this world. It is true even though they may be derided or scoffed at by foolish unbelievers.

2. Linguistic Analysis

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Frequency of Root words in this Ayat used in this Surah *


3. Surah Overview

4. Miscellaneous Information

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5. Connected/Related Ayat

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6. Frequency of the word

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7. Period of Revelation

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The scholars are unanimous that Surah al-Baqarah is Madani and that it was the first Surah revealed in Madinah. [Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani in Fath al-Bari no. 160/8].

Despite it being the first Surah to be revealed in Madinah, it contains Ayaat from a later period also. In fact, according to Ibn Abbas [as mentioned in Ibn Kathir] the last Ayat revealed to the Prophet was Ayat no. 281 from Surah al-Baqarah and this occurred 8 days or so before his death [which corresponds to the year 11 Hijri].

8. Reasons for Revelation

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In order to understand the meaning of this Surah, we should know its historical background:

1. At Makkah, the Quran generally addressed the polytheist Quraysh who were ignorant of Islam, but at Madinah it was also concerned with the Jews who were acquainted with the creed of Monotheism, Prophethood, Revelation, the Hereafter and Angels. They also professed to believe in the law which was revealed by God to their Prophet Moses, and in principle, their way was the same (Islam) that was being taught by Prophet Muhammad. But they had strayed away from it during the centuries of degeneration and had adopted many un-Islamic creeds, rites and customs of which there was no mention and for which there was no sanction in the Torah. Not only this: they had tampered with the Torah by inserting their own explanations and interpretations into its text. They had distorted even that part of the Word of God which had remained intact in their Scriptures and taken out of it the real spirit of true religion and were now clinging to a lifeless frame of rituals. Consequently their beliefs, their morals and their conduct had gone to the lowest depths of degeneration. The pity is that they were not only satisfied with their condition but loved to cling to it. Besides this, they had no intention or inclination to accept any kind of reform. So they became bitter enemies of those who came to teach them the Right Way and did their utmost to defeat every such effort. Though they were originally Muslims, they had swerved from the real Islam and made innovations and alterations in it and had fallen victims to hair splitting and sectarianism. They had forgotten and forsaken God and begun to serve material wealth. So much so that they had even given up their original name “Muslim” and adopted the name “Jew” instead, and made religion the sole monopoly of the children of Israel. This was their religious condition when the Prophet went to Madinah and invited the Jews to the true religion. That is why more than one third of this Surah has been addressed to the children of Israel. A critical review of their history, their moral degeneration and their religious perversions has been made. Side by side with this, the high standard of morality and the fundamental principles of the pure religion have been put forward in order to bring out clearly the nature of the degeneration of the community of a prophet when it goes astray and to draw clear lines of demarcation between real piety and formalism, and the essentials and non-essentials of the true religion.

2. At Makkah, Islam was mainly concerned with the propagation of its fundamental principles and the moral training of its followers. But after the migration of the Prophet to Madinah, where Muslims had come to settle from all over Arabia and where a tiny Islamic State had been set up with the help of the ‘local supporters’ (Ansar), naturally the Quran had to turn its attention to the social, cultural, economic, political and legal problems as well. This accounts for the difference between the themes of the Surahs revealed at Makkah and those at Madinah. Accordingly about half of this Surah deals with those principles and regulations which are essential for the integration and solidarity of a community and for the solution of its problems.

After the migration to Madinah, the struggle between Islam and disbelief (Kufr) had also entered a new phase. Before this the Believers, who propagated Islam among their own clans and tribes, had to face its opponents at their own risk. But the conditions had changed at Madinah, where Muslims from all parts of Arabia had come and settled as one community, and had established an independent city state. Here it became a struggle for the survival of the Community itself, for the whole of non-Muslim Arabia was bent upon and united in crushing it totally. Hence the following instructions, upon which depended not only its success but its very survival, were revealed in this Surah:

a. The Community should work with the utmost zeal to propagate its ideology and win over to its side the greatest possible number of people.

b. It should so expose its opponents as to leave no room for doubt in the mind of any sensible person that they were adhering to an absolutely wrong position.

c. It should infuse in its members (the majority of whom were homeless and indigent and surrounded on all sides by enemies) that courage and fortitude which is so indispensable to their very existence in the adverse circumstances in which they were struggling and to prepare them to face these boldly.

d. It should also keep them ready and prepared to meet any armed menace, which might come from any side to suppress and crush their ideology, and to oppose it tooth and nail without minding the overwhelming numerical strength and the material resources of its enemies.

e. It should also create in them that courage which is needed for the eradication of evil ways and for the establishment of the Islamic Way instead. That is why God has revealed in this Surah such instructions as may help achieve all the above mentioned objects.

At the time of the revelation of Al-Baqarah, all sorts of hypocrites had begun to appear. God has, therefore, briefly pointed out their characteristics here. Afterwards when their evil characteristics and mischievous deeds became manifest, God sent detailed instructions about them. [REF: Mawdudi]

9. Relevant Hadith

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  • when Allah's Messenger used to wake up at night to pray, he would say 'O Allah, the Lord of (angels) Jibril, Mika'il and Israfil, Creator of the heavens and earth and Knower of the seen and the unseen. You judge between Your servants regarding what they have disputed in, so guide me to what have been the subject of dispute of the truth by Your leave. Indeed, You guide whom You will to the straight path.' [Muslim & Bukhari]

 

10. Wiki Forum

Comments in this section are statements made by general users – these are not necessarily explanations of the Ayah – rather a place to share personal thoughts and stories…

11. Tafsir Zone

 

12. External Links

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