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

Tafsir Zone

Surah al-Baqarah 2:65

Overview (Verses 65 - 66) 

Where Mockery Is Inadmissible

The sūrah moves on to yet another manifestation of their violations of their covenant with God, and their failure to fulfil its requirements. This time it takes the form of weakness in the face of temptation and the prospect of short-term gain. “You are well aware of those of you who broke the Sabbath. To them We said, Be as despicable apes.’ Through that [punishment] We set an example to their own time and for all times to come, and an admonition to the God-fearing.” (Verses 65-66)

Elsewhere in the Qur’ān we have the details of their violation of the Sabbath: “Ask them about the town which stood by the sea: how its people profaned the Sabbath. Each Sabbath their fish appeared before them breaking the water’s surface, but they would not come near them on other than Sabbath days.” (7: 163) They had requested that a day should be assigned to them for rest. God set them Saturday as a day when they do not work for a living. He then put them to a clear test when fish would come to the shore in large numbers on the Sabbath but not on other days of the week. Overwhelmed by greed, the Israelites were not able to pass that test. It was not in their nature to let such an opportunity go by for the sake of such a trivial matter as the observance of a certain covenant made with God!

Thus, deviously and flagrantly, they violated the Sabbath by trapping the fish when they came to the shore and waiting until the next day, when the Sabbath was over, to collect them. As a consequence, they were severely reprimanded and rated as no more than ‘despicable apes’, since their mentality and behaviour had sunk to utterly revolting depths.

They had earned their due punishment for breaching the trust God had placed in them, abased their humanity by losing their self discipline and control, and descended to the lowest level of animals who have no free will of their own, but are driven by their needs and desires. It is not imperative that they should be physically changed into apes, as the Arabic text may be taken to mean. They had already sunk into that level by thought and spirit.

This episode was marked in their history as a useful lesson for them and for the generations of believers that would come after them.