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

Tafsir Zone

Surah al-Baqarah 2:213

Overview (Verse 213)
A Single Community and Divergent Views

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.
All mankind were once one single community. Then God sent forth Prophets to give them good tidings and to warn them, and with them He sent down the Book, setting forth the truth, to judge between people over all on which they differed. 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. God, by His will, guided the believers to the truth concerning which they had differed. God guides whom He will to the straight path. (Verse 213)
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.” (Verse 213)
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 harmonized 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”. (Verse 213)
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.” (Verse 213) Jealousy, greed, caprice and self-aggrandizement 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.” (Verse 213)
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.