Tafsir Zone - Surah 2: al-Baqarah (The Cow)

Tafsir Zone

Surah al-Baqarah 2:142

Overview (Verses 142 - 143)
This passage is almost entirely devoted to a discussion of the change of the qiblah, or direction faced in prayer, which occurred sixteen or seventeen months after the Prophet’s arrival in Madinah in 622 CE, and the controversy that attended it. The Jews of Madinah tried to exploit the qiblah issue to create division and confusion among the Muslims. The Qur’ān denounces their allegations, and warns of the damage they might cause to the more vulnerable members of the Muslim community. No reference can be found in the Qur’ān to the exact date of the change of the qiblah.
The main facts of the situation make it clear that prayer was made a daily religious duty for Muslims while they were still in Makkah. They faced the Ka`bah when they prayed. No specific order is given in the Qur’ān on this point. When the Muslims emigrated from Makkah to Madinah, the instruction was given to the Prophet that instead of the Ka`bah in Makkah, Muslims should face Jerusalem. The fact that in both cases the instruction had come from the Prophet rather than in Qur’ānic statements in no way diminishes its validity or authority.
This continued to be the practice until the revelation of the instructions in the present section, which superseded the previous ones. The Prophet, and the Muslims with him, were told to “Turn your face, then, towards the Sacred Mosque, and wherever you all may be, turn your faces [in prayer] towards it.” (Verse 144)
Jerusalem happened to be the qiblah for the Jews and the Christians also, and the fact that the Muslims too had been instructed to use it as theirs gave the Jews of Madinah a ready excuse for refusing to recognize or accept Islam. They saw the fact that the Prophet and his companions faced Jerusalem when they prayed as proof that theirs was the true religion and their qiblah was the original and legitimate one. Muĥammad and his followers, they argued, should follow their religion and refrain from trying to convert them to Islam.
This was not easy for the Arab Muslims to accept, since they had always revered the Ka`bah and considered it their most sacred religious symbol. The Jewish arguments made the situation even harder for the Muslims.
The Prophet Muĥammad entertained a wish to turn towards the Ka`bah, and could be seen looking up to heaven anxiously, without uttering a word, trusting to God and His wisdom.
Not long afterwards instructions were revealed that the Muslims should turn towards the Ka`bah. Some Muslims were reportedly in the middle of performing their prayer when they heard the news, and immediately turned to face the Ka`bah.
The Jews resented that decision which deprived them of their argument. They began to question the wisdom of the Muslim leadership and to raise doubts about the validity of the religious basis of Islam. Did the change of qiblah from Jerusalem to the Ka`bah mean that the Muslims had been praying towards the wrong qiblah all that time? And, if Jerusalem was the right qiblah, and it was correct to pray towards it, then it must have been wrong to change to another one. Praying towards the new qiblah, the Ka`bah, would, in this case, not be valid. They further argued that such abrogation of earlier orders could not be done by God. Hence, the decision must have been made by Muĥammad himself, proving that he was not receiving any divine revelations.
The gravity of the controversy surrounding this event is clear from the considerable attention given in the Qur’ān to its ramifications and the effect it had on some rank-and-file Muslims. It is also clear in the way the sūrah deals with the concept of abrogation. This is discussed in full in Chapters 5 and 6, beginning with Verse 106. More on this later.
The change of the qiblah was a central event in the history of Islam with far- reaching long-term consequences. It gave Islam a new focus and identified the Muslim community as an independent nation with a qiblah of its own.
The earlier decision to declare Jerusalem rather than the Ka`bah as the qiblah was for specific educational reasons, as explained in Verse 143: “We appointed the direction of prayer [i.e. the qiblah] which you formerly followed in order that We might distinguish those who follow the Messenger from those who turn on their heels.”
Before Islam, the Arabs revered the Ka`bah and considered it a symbol of their religious and cultural heritage and glory. But in order to test their sincerity in accepting Islam, and ensure that their hearts were totally free of narrow racial or tribal loyalties, God initially instructed the Prophet to command his followers to adopt Jerusalem as the direction they faced in prayer. It was a difficult instruction to carry out, but it was a crucial test of how much they really understood the nature and the spirit of their new religion. It was necessary in order to establish how far some of those early Muslims were still influenced by pre-Islamic racial and tribal traditions.
When the Muslims adopted their new direction, and the Jews had begun to exploit that situation, fresh divine instructions were received to revert to the Ka`bah as the direction to face in prayer. The basis for the new decision was, however, made clear. It stemmed from the fact that the Sacred Mosque at Makkah had, in the first instance, been established by Abraham and Ishmael as a monument to pure unadulterated monotheism. It was part of the heritage of Islam which had come about, as seen earlier in verses 124-141, in answer to Abraham’s prayer that a Messenger should be sent to his descendants, the inhabitants of Makkah, with the pure faith based on complete submission to God.
That part of the sūrah, giving the background and the circumstances surrounding the construction of the Ka`bah, provided a fitting introduction to the issue of the qiblah. Changing the qiblah back to the Ka`bah seems the only logical conclusion from that discussion of the dispute between the Muslims on the one hand, and the Jews, Christians and polytheist Arabs on the other, concerning Abraham’s covenant with God and the right to his heritage. That covenant bound Abraham and his descendants, from one generation to another, to total submission to God.
The construction of the Sacred Mosque at the Ka`bah was carried out by Abraham and his son Ishmael at God’s specific instruction. It is, therefore, part of the heritage passed on to their offspring. Muĥammad, a direct descendant of Abraham and a beneficiary of his covenant with God, and his followers, are rightful and natural heirs to that heritage, of which the Ka`bah is an important part. The decision to declare it a permanent qiblah for Islam and the Muslims is the natural one that brings reality, history and feeling together in unison.
The decision could not have come sooner. Jewish hostility towards Islam and Muĥammad, despite the temporary declaration of Jerusalem as a qiblah, did not diminish. They could see that their right to Abraham’s religious legacy was being forfeited as the days passed, and the time had come when the Muslims could emerge as independent and rightful claimants to that heritage, and move on to declare its universal and eternal message to the rest of the world.
It had become imperative for the Muslims to forge ahead in that way and to establish their distinct identity as a religious force for advocating the central principle of God’s oneness, or tawĥīd. The symbolism of the Ka`bah as the exclusive and permanent direction in prayer for the Muslim community was most important.
Symbolism, ritual and form in religious practice can be easily misunderstood, if taken in isolation from the ideals and principles of the religious faith itself. Physical expression of feelings and emotions is a natural human tendency, because man has a material as well as a spiritual aspect to his nature. Emotions and feelings are only fulfilled when expressed in a physical or tangible form, through which they are released to one’s happiness and satisfaction. This action brings about balance and harmony between the outer and inner aspects of the human soul, and provides a means of fulfilling man’s desire to know what lies behind the apparent symbol and the outward physical form.
All Islamic religious rituals are based on this basic natural philosophy. Mere intention expressed privately, or abstract spiritual meditation, is not enough to satisfy the requirements of religious worship. These involve the participation of the senses, coordinated movement of the body, and position, direction, dress, and recitation of set text, as well as abstention at specified times from food and drink. In this way, every movement and bodily action will have a religious significance attached to it, while religious ritual assumes meaning and dignity, thus bringing soul and body into full harmony.
In those religious communities where this innate human craving for symbolism and physical expression and representation of religious devotion is misunderstood or abused, people have gone astray. Idolatry and the worship of inanimate objects such as stones, trees, planets and stars, as well as animals and birds, can be traced to such abuse and misunderstanding. Islam presents a unique, straightforward concept of the nature of God Almighty, who is not anthropomorphic and whose attributes cannot be defined or represented in physical form. Nevertheless, physical means, or symbols, such as the qiblah, that point man’s senses, heart, soul and body towards God are important. God cannot be restricted by the confines of space, but man needs the dimension of space to direct and concentrate his devotion and feelings towards God. That is how the important need for the qiblah arises.
Once that principle was understood, it was necessary for the new direction in prayer, qiblah, to be unique and exclusive to Islam, in order to underline Islam’s distinction and eminence.
A corollary of this principle says that Muslims are specifically forbidden to emulate or adopt other, non-Muslim, religious and cultural customs. However, it would be wrong to put this down to bigotry or prejudice on the part of Islam, since outward religious and social behaviour is a reflection of the inner beliefs and ideals that motivate and determine behaviour and outlook. These beliefs and ideals are the main factors that distinguish between different nations, outlooks, ethical systems, moral values and ways of life.
Abū Hurayrah quotes the Prophet as saying, “The Jews and the Christians do not dye their hair. So, adopt a different line.” [Related by Mālik, al-Bukhārī, Muslim and Abū Dāwūd] He was also reported to have told a group of his Companions who stood up to greet him, “Do not be like other communities who stand up in reverence to one another.” [Related by Abū Dāwūd and Ibn Mājah] He also said, “Do not revere me in the same way the Christians revered Jesus, son of Mary. I am a mere servant of God. So refer to me as God’s servant and messenger.” [Related by al- Bukhārī]
The Prophet Muĥammad strongly advised against imitating non- Muslims in appearance, dress, manners, etiquette and behaviour. Behind all these outward aspects lie the emotions and convictions that shape man’s outlook, character and way of life.
More importantly, the Prophet strongly rules out the adoption of ideas and concepts not emanating from, or reconcilable with, the world order God has commissioned the Muslim community to promote and establish. He warns against defeatism and feelings of inferiority among the Muslims who, being selected to lead mankind, should derive their values and traditions, and the basis of their faith, from the original source of their religion: God Almighty.
The Qur’ān describes the Muslim community variously as the leading community, a consummately upright nation and a paradigm of moderation. This special acclaim is only conferred upon them by virtue of the fact that they draw their philosophy, outlook, traditions and way of life from God’s revelations.
It is not out of religious bigotry and intolerance that Islam presents itself to the world as a universal and most complete way of life. Islam sees itself as a unifying force in the world, because it advocates the unity of all mankind under one God- given social, political and economic way of life. It offers equality to all in the eyes of God, and does not recognize or advance the interests of one group at the expense of others.
Today, Muslims are called on once again to understand the significance of having their own exclusive qiblah. It is not merely a direction to which they turn in their Prayers, nor is it an empty symbol. It is a feature that distinguishes Islam’s whole outlook on life, its concerns and aims, and its identity.
Muslims today, more than at any other time in their history, need to assert their identity. They need to set themselves apart in the world, which is suffering under the tyranny of false religions, oppressive and arrogant ideologies, flawed political and economic systems and heedless leadership. They have to offer new and effective remedies to save mankind and fulfil God’s will, so that the world will acknowledge their community as the central and righteous nation commissioned by God to carry His message to all mankind.
Islam is a complete way of life. Through Islam, Muslims become fit to inherit God’s trust and the leadership of mankind, and to stand witness before God for all humanity. But it is only when they adhere faithfully to Islam that they take on their distinctive and unique features and qualities. Without it they lose their way; and their influence and status in the world diminish and evaporate.
We will now look at the passage in more detail.
A Middle Community and a Pure Faith
The weak-minded among people will say, ‘What has turned them away from the direction of prayer which they have so far observed?’ Say, ‘To God belong the east and the west. He guides whomever He wills to a straight path.’ Thus We have made you the community [ummah] of the middle way, so that you may stand witness against the rest of mankind, and the Messenger shall be a witness against you. We appointed the direction of prayer which you formerly followed in order that We might distinguish those who follow the Messenger from those who turn on their heels. It was indeed a hard test except for those whom God has guided. God would never have let your faith be in vain. God is Compassionate and Merciful to mankind. (Verses 142-143)
It is clear from the course of the discussion that ‘the weak-minded’ is a reference to the Jews of Madinah. They were the ones who stirred up the controversy about the change of qiblah from Jerusalem to Makkah, and questioned its validity and the wisdom behind it.
Al-Barā’ ibn `Āzib reported: “When the Prophet first arrived in Madinah, he stayed at his grandparents [or maybe he said at his maternal uncles] of the Anşār. The Prophet used to pray facing Jerusalem for the first sixteen or seventeen months, though he would have preferred to face the Ka`bah. The first prayer he offered [facing the Ka`bah] was `Aşr, when he was joined by a group of people. One of them later passed by another group praying in a mosque and said to them, ‘I bear witness before God that I have just prayed with the Prophet facing the Ka`bah.’ They all turned towards it without interrupting their prayer. The Jews were happy while the Prophet faced Jerusalem in prayer, but when he now turned towards the Ka`bah they were dismayed. It was then that this verse was revealed describing the Jews as weak- minded.” [Related by Mālik, al-Bukhārī, Muslim and al-Tirmidhī]
The way the Qur’ān deals with this issue clearly indicates the enormity of the effect that the Jewish campaign was then having on some ordinary Muslims. From the first few words one is made aware that a change of the direction to be faced in prayer is going to be announced. The tone is clearly meant to forestall the doubts and questions that were inevitably going to be raised by troublemakers. But the Qur’ān was ready with the appropriate reply to the argument they would put forward.
The Qur’ān goes on to direct the Prophet to the proper course of action in dealing with the questions that would arise and how to put the whole issue in its proper perspective.
“Say: ‘To God belong the east and the west. He guides whomever He wills to a straight path.’“ (Verse 142) Places and directions carry no intrinsic merit in themselves, except inasmuch as God assigns them such merit, and to whatever direction one turns, God will be there. It is God’s prerogative to guide whomever He wishes to the right path.
What He designates as the direction to be faced in prayer is the right and proper choice, and His designation of it is for the good of the community.
On such criteria Islam defines the relative merits of places and directions, and specifies the source of those criteria: God Almighty to whom all should turn and submit.
The sūrah goes on to outline the central position the Muslim community, or ummah, occupies in the world, and the great role it is destined to play in the history and development of mankind. A prerequisite of that status and role is that the Muslim ummah should have its own exclusive qiblah and distinct identity. It must, first and foremost, owe allegiance to none other than God Almighty, who has commissioned it for that great task.
“We have made you the community of the middle way, so that you may stand witness against the rest of mankind, and the Messenger shall be a witness against you.” (Verse 143)

The Arabic term wasaţ, used in this verse to describe the global Muslim community, is a vivid epithet which evokes a much wider range of meaning than is given by its literal equivalent of ‘middle’. The term is used here in a very broad sense. Thus, the Muslim community, or ummah, to use the Qur’ānic term, is a middle- of-the- road community which stands witness against other nations and communities in the sense that it upholds and defends justice and equality for all people. It weighs up their values, standards, traditions, concepts and objectives, judging them as either true or false. It occupies the dual position of being a witness against mankind and an umpire administering justice among them. God’s Messenger, Muĥammad, is in turn a witness against the Muslim community in the sense that, as its leader and guardian, he defines its aims, activities and obligations, and charts the direction it should take. His teachings, example and leadership stimulate the community to appreciate its role and position in the world, and live up to their requirements.
The Muslim community occupies the middle ground in its beliefs and outlook on life. It maintains a healthy and equitable balance between the two extremes of spiritual asceticism and materialism. It treats man as a balanced combination of body and soul, and allows him the opportunity and means to satisfy them both in such a way as to uplift the spirit and enhance the quality of human life. Within this framework of balance and moderation, every constructive talent, ability, aptitude, and activity is nourished and encouraged to grow and play its part in society.
The Muslim community is balanced in the sense that it is not rigid or dogmatic. It holds fast to its ideals and traditions, and to the sources of its religion and way of life, while fostering change and progress in all fields. It is an open society that welcomes new ideas and learns from the work and experience of other societies, cultures and civilizations. Its main objective is to seek the truth, wherever that may come from, and to adopt it with courage and confidence.
Balance and moderation are clear in the way Muslim society is run and organized. It is neither a permissive, undisciplined community nor a regimented one run by brute force or rigid rules. It is a society raised on learning, education and rich cultural and social traditions.
Within the Muslim ‘middle’ community, equitable and fair relationships are cultivated and regulated among all individuals and social groups in the community. Individual rights and liberties are guaranteed and protected in order to encourage innovation, production and growth, in a manner that will serve the common good without infringing upon the rights of the individual, or endangering society as a whole. Individual as well as collective rights and obligations are clearly defined to enable people to serve a society that will care for them and protect their rights and interests.
The Muslim community is also the middle nation geographically, because the part of the world where Islam first emerged, and which continues to represent the heart of the Muslim world, occupies a central position in the world as a whole. It has been a crucible of cultures and civilizations and a busy crossroads for trade from all corners of the earth. It has been, throughout history, a rich source of vital natural resources and raw materials of many kinds for nations and civilizations all over the world. This position has given the Islamic community a strategic and influential role to play on the world stage.
Islam emerged at a time that can be said to mark the beginning of maturity in human thinking. It brought a religious and social order that appealed to the human mind and rescued man from religions and philosophies founded on mythology, superstition, paganism or nihilistic thinking. It ushered in a new era of enlightenment that brought together genuine divine revelations, authentic philosophical thought and sound practical human experience to chart the proper course for man’s progress, happiness and prosperity.
What stops Muslims today from assuming the position and role in the world that God has assigned to them is the fact that they have abandoned the religion God has chosen for them, and adopted social and political philosophies and systems that are inconsistent with it.
World leadership imposes its own demands and responsibilities. For the Muslim community to legitimately earn that position again, it must undergo severe trials and make great sacrifices, prove its loyalty and dedication to God and show total allegiance to its wise leadership.
Having announced that the Ka`bah was to be the permanent, universal direction of prayer for Muslims, the sūrah now reveals the purpose behind the previous choice of Jerusalem as a temporary qiblah.
“We appointed the direction of prayer which you formerly followed in order that We might distinguish those who follow the Messenger from those who turn on their heels.” (Verse 143) From these few words one can immediately identify the divine approach in educating the Muslims and preparing them, from that early stage of their development, for the role of custodian of God’s message and the leadership of mankind. As part of that transformation, it was essential for that nascent community to be freed of all traces of paganism and ethnocentricity, and to become totally obedient and dedicated to the new religion of Islam. The early Muslims had to realize that their values and standards in life must, from then on, be derived from the divine revelations being regularly communicated to the Prophet Muĥammad.
In pre-Islamic days, certain elements of polytheism and racism had crept into the Arabs’ understanding of the faith of Abraham and the status of the Sacred House in Makkah. The Ka`bah had come to be venerated as an exclusively Arab shrine. This was contrary to its intended purpose, since it had been established by Abraham and his son Ishmael as a symbol of purely monotheistic faith and for the reverence and worship of God alone.
To correct the situation and to test their faith and loyalty to the Prophet Muĥammad, God commanded the Muslims to adopt Jerusalem as the direction they face in prayer. Although it was not clear to the Muslims at the time, the measure was meant to be a temporary one, specifically intended to decide where their allegiance would really lie.
It was a delicate decision, but Islam is a complete and self-sufficient religion. It does not need to be supplemented or augmented by other religious beliefs. It does not accept any lingering traces of un-Islamic ways, serious or trivial. This is indeed the point implied in the Qur’ānic statement: “We appointed the direction of prayer which you formerly followed in order that We might distinguish those who follow the Messenger from those who turn on their heels.” (Verse 143) God certainly knows everything before it happens. However, He wishes that what is kept deep in people’s hearts should first appear in action before He holds them accountable for it. His grace means that He does not hold man answerable for his thoughts and feelings; He only holds man accountable for what he does.
It was also a critical decision because God was aware that it was going to be a hard test for some Muslims, still fresh from idolatry. But He was also there to provide help and support for the sincere ones: “It was indeed a hard test except for those whom God has guided.” (Verse 143) With God’s guidance every difficulty becomes easy.
For yet further reassurance, God affirms that the prayers the Muslims had performed facing Jerusalem were valid and the reward for them guaranteed. “God would never have let your faith be in vain. God is Compassionate and Merciful to mankind.” (Verse 143) God would have never burdened the Muslims with more than He knew they would be able to bear. As long as their intentions were genuine and their determination sincere, God was sure to come to their assistance and lighten the tasks expected of them. If a certain hardship or test is meant to reflect God’s wisdom and purpose, passing such a test is indicative of His mercy and compassion.
Thus the Muslims could feel content, confident and free of worry about the past and the future.