Tafseer

Qur’anic Path: Surah Baqrah: The Introduction 1-29

This is the first of a series of blogs, where I’m going to discuss certain verses of Qur’an which I find interesting and the lessons we can learn from it today. In my opinion, Qur’an is an answer to the prayer found in the first chapter of the Qur’an verse 1:6 “Guide us to the straight path”. As we move forward in time with the change of culture, language, and society it becomes very hard for a layman to understand what this actual path is. The job of a scholar of Islam is to translate the Qur’an in a way so that the applicability of it in our society is clearly understood and hence the path remains clearer. This will be my goal.

It’s important to remember for both you and me that the lessons which I will derive from these verses are going to be purely SUBJECTIVE. But, I will try to remain as objective as possible in my understanding of the actual verse of the Qur’an and do my best job explaining the original context before giving my subjective connection of how we can relate to it.

There are certain principles which I follow when understanding Qur’an, most of them are taken from the principles of understanding Qur’an by Javed Ahmed Ghamidi.

Surah Baqrah is the Chapter 2 of Qur’an. The main theme of this chapter is the establishment of a Muslim community as an organized religion with a set of rituals and rules to follow. Before this is done a criticism of organized religion is put forward so that the new community is well aware of the challenges it’s about to encounter and conscious of the things it needs to be away from as an Organized Religion. The criticism is done on one of the organized religion of its time, which was Judaism [An important note, this is Judaism of the 7th century in the region of Hejaz(Makkah-Madina), when I say Jews or refer to Judaism I’m referring to Jews of that time and region only and so is Qur’an]. After that, the new community is established by discussing its origin and giving various commandments to solve its immediate issues. The purpose of setting up such a community is explained and the Surah concludes by comprehending the two main principles by which the community should always abide by EMPATHY and HUMILITY.

The entire Surah can be divided into four parts. The first part forms the introduction from verses 1-39, the second part is a critique of an Organized religion 40-141, the third part is the Establishment of the Muslim Community 142-245 and the final part is the conclusion 246-286.

In this blog, we are going to discuss some key features from the introduction

The Law of Guidance and Misguidance:

In the first section of the introduction, the Law of Guidance and Misguidance is described. This is done by contrasting the behavior of two types of people, those who are humble in their approach towards truth and those who are prejudiced against it. If a Person is truly humble and is ready to accept the truth, irrespective of where it comes from, then he will be guided. Whereas, if a person has become prejudiced and arrogant and is only concerned about proving the veracity of his prejudice, then, no matter what he does, in the end, he will remain misguided.

They are believing in what has been revealed to you and in what was revealed before you, and, in reality [they are the one who]are certain of the Hereafter 2:4

The above verse gives a clear impression that the person isn’t concerned with the source of information but more so with the actual knowledge. He will accept truth if it comes from his religion or other religion on the basis of merit, compare this with

When it is said to them: ‘Accept faith as these people have accepted faith’, they [vainly] say: ‘Shall we accept faith as these fools accepted faith?’ – Listen, they themselves are fools, but they do not know. 2:13

In this verse, we can see that the person is dodging true knowledge by using ad hominem attack. He is only concerned with making sure that his religion is true if something positive comes from the other religion he will not like it and if some inaccuracy is provided from his religion he will start attacking instead of reflecting.

Though Qur’an is describing the behavior of the people who are dealing with Qur’an directly, it can easily be applied as a general rule. We see these two types of people in almost every field. People who are concerned with understanding and solving issues and there are others who are only concerned with proving their supremacy.

Unfortunately, We see a similar reaction of many religious scholars. If someone disagrees with them, they go complete ad hominem, calling him with names like Gumraah, western agent,  cursing him, and doing takfir on him. 

It is these [prejudiced people] who have given preference to error over guidance so their deal has yielded absolutely no profit for them, and neither have they been able to find a way out. 2:16

This is the sad end of their state. One very interesting thing to ponder is that there is no apparent difference between good religious people and bad religious people.  Both claim to believe, both pray and both give charity. The disbelief is hidden and is revealed to us in two ways. The first is where Allah reveals to us directly. Now, this is not possible in our case as the communication has ended. The second is to see their approach towards truth and how they handle a critique of their beliefs coming from an external source. Or some sort of truth which comes to them that goes against their prejudice. A good pious person will be humble and accept it, whereas a bad one will either completely reject it or will come up with unnecessary excuses. We see the latter behavior in the majority of scholars of organized religion.

Plurality in Religion:

Another interesting verse on the same subject is

When it is said to them: ‘make not mischief in the earth [by adopting this attitude]’ they say: ‘Why we are only reformers!’ Of a surety, they are the ones who make mischief, but they realize it not. 2:11-12

Here Jews were claiming that this method of questioning the current knowledge and putting forward a new theory is causing discord, the best method is that of plurality so that everyone is happy. As the matter of religion is not like science and one should accept the difference of opinion. No doubt, mutual respect, and plurality is a very important factor in a society where there is no messenger and prophet as there is no way to convincingly say who is right, but when we have a way to find out absolute truth, then pleading to plurality is absurd and illogical. Just like we can’t accept 2+2 = 5 in mathematics in the name of plurality, DURING THE TIME OF PROPHET, such plurality cannot be accepted. Needless to say, many Muslims forget that with the seal on Prophecy, this lack of plurality has ended. Now we have to promote mutual respect and be open to plurality.

The reason why Qur’an criticizes Jews is that they are doing it in the presence of Prophet and hence their case of plurality was a mere curtain to hide their prejudice. In our time we are seeing a similar issue. Muslims as a whole are in deep trouble and two different type of scholars have come forward to solve their issue. The first ones are those who are blaming Muslims themselves and are speaking against the attitude of Muslims towards Caliphate, Jihad, Islamic State etc. They plead Muslims to correct their behavior and their perception. On the other hand, The other set of scholars insist on blaming the West for the problems of Muslims.  When such scholars are critiqued they claim that they are the true problem solvers and taking us to peace, whereas it’s not the case. Just like how Jews were using plurality to hide their hidden prejudice–so that their and their ancestor’s religion is not proven wrong–the same thing is being done by such scholars where they are hiding behind the curtain of criticizing the West,  but in reality, they are prejudiced and are afraid that they will be proven wrong. Interestingly, Allah makes it clear that Jews are not able to understand what their conduct is leading them to. The same state is of such scholars.

A Critique of Polytheism:

The second part of introduction critiques polytheism. This was the second organized religion in the Makkah-Madina region after Judaism. Before we get into this it should be understood that this was a critique of those people who chose polytheism to dodge Accountability. In Polytheism accountability concept is dodged by two ways. First by creating this idea of mini-Gods or daughter of Gods or Jinns or and their own Ancestors or Walis who they think will come to their aid on the day of Judgement. Hence creating a workaround instead of being accountable for their deeds. Secondly, by denying the accountability itself, claiming it’s impossible that once we die and become nothing we will rise again. So why live in fear of accountability and not live life doing what one wants.

O mankind, worship your Lord, who created you and those before you, that you may become righteous 2:21

The first point is critiqued by stating that God is the creator of themselves and their walis as well, so if they think these people are too holy and are only capable to talk with God, why can’t they themselves reach the same position.

[He] who made for you the earth a bed [spread out] and the sky a ceiling and sent down from the sky, rain and brought forth thereby fruits as provision for you. So do not attribute to Allah equals while you know [that there is nothing similar to Him]. 2:22

In this verse, the argument is critiqued from another perspective. The argument that you need intercession because God is so magnificent that mortal souls can’t reach him. It’s believed that the majesty of God will not let him be bothered by infinitism small earthly problems. The same argument is also present among some sects with Islam. They argue by using an analogy of a Multi National Company. A company may have thousands of employees ranging from CEO to VP, to Directors, to Engineers, to Interns, to Help Desk and Janitors. The Janitor will not be going to the CEO for an issue which he has but will be consulting with his lead who in turn may consult with his lead and the chain goes on to the Director or above. In a similar way, a human should understand that compared to the magnificence of God he is not even at a level of Janitor and hence cannot expect to meet the Divine or fall victim to arrogance by even thinking that the divine has any time to interact with him. He is just too majestic to be concerned with the issues of a mortal.

This thinking is critiqued by using the elements of nature on how though they remain at a distant in their majesty but at the same time provide the basic needs of humans. Implying that God is both magnificent and also connected at an intimate level. Both these two things are not mutually exclusive of each other. If they can empirically observe this behavior right in front of their eyes, why is there any issue for them to accept that a Divine with no help, in his entre Majesty can also be there for each and every human being, from major problems to petty issues?

How can you disbelieve in Allah when you were lifeless and He brought you to life; then He will cause you to die, then He will bring you [back] to life, and then to Him you will be returned. 2:28

This is a critique of people who deny Day of Judgement (DoJ) by saying how can we come back to life when we are dead and our body merged back to the environment and the flora and fauna have transformed it to something else. This notion is criticized by stating that if one was able to emerge as a fully functioning human being out of nothing (sperm) then how can one be so puzzled at coming back to life after being merged back in the environment.  Here, it should be noted that they are not denying God, they are coming up with workarounds to be saved from being accountable on the Day of Judgement, hence, denying the day of Judgement. But, instead of directly saying how can you deny Day of Judgement, it’s said, how can you deny God. Hence implying in a very subtle way that belief in God means a belief that you are accountable for your actions. Hence the belief in accountability.

An answer to Atheism:

It’s usually understood by religious people that Atheism emerges because of the lack of empirical evidence of God. In my opinion, this is not the case. Atheism emerges because of the failure of religion to provide an answer to their questions. The main question being if there is God why is there so much injustice, pain, suffering, discord, and bloodshed in this world. Qur’an provides an interesting answer to this question.

Qur’an states the story of Adam (the first Human Being with a conscience) and Angels where it’s explained that these problems are because of the free will and the power to exert this free will given to humans. This was done to allow a selection of eligible humans who will use this power and manage to come out as good men. This test, to see who emerge as good pious men form the basis of the creation of this world. Since the basis is testing the human, they are going to be tested in various ways and most of the time it won’t be fair and hence this world is not created on the basis of Justice.

[In order to make them understand Our scheme regarding this world, narrate to them the incident] when your Lord said to the angels: ‘I am going to create someone[human] who will be given the sovereignty of the earth’.[That is He will be god on earth] They said: ‘Will You create in it one who will make mischief therein and shed blood? – whereas we glorify and sanctify You while praising You?’[Angels hinting that God shouldn’t do this] He said: ‘I know what you know not’. And [in order to make them understand] He taught Adam the names of all things[That is all pious people of humanity]; then He placed before the angels [the people whose names had been taught to Adam]. Then said: ‘Inform Us of the names of these people if you are truthful [in your claim]’. They said: ‘You are free from all flaws; of knowledge, we have none save what You have taught us: in truth, it is You who have knowledge and wisdom’.[Angels humbling themselves after understanding God’s plan]  2:30-32

The Two Warnings:

Since Qur’an claims that humans are here on earth for a relatively short time, where they will face various challenges where they will either pass or fail.  Two main challenges are pointed out which can lead to their failure. TEMPTATION and ARROGANCE.

The Arrogance Warning is explained by narrating the rejection of Iblis(Satan) to prostrate before Adam. Iblis, since he was a better creation than human, felt it was beneath him to prostrate and thought God was on the wrong to ask him to do such an act and in this arrogance completely forgot that it was God who was commanding him to do so and went on to rebel against God.

And [in order to communicate the nature of trial through which man will be put through in this world, also narrate to them the incident] when We asked the angels[and Iblis] to bow down to Adam and they bowed down except Iblīs: he refused and showed arrogance and in this manner became among the rejecters. (2:34)

One interesting technical point to note here is that Iblis becomes a rejector (Kafir) after the act of arrogant rejection. He didn’t misunderstand the directive nor was there any miscommunication. He understood the directive and then REJECTED it. This is the correct usage of this technical term. A person who doesn’t accept something to be true because of lack of understanding is not technically a ‘Kafir’

The second warning is explained by the fall of Adam and Eve for the sexual temptation. They are commanded by God to not be involved in sex for a set amount of time but they come under the influence of Iblis and fail to abide by it. Sex is symbolically hinted at by using the expression not to eat from the tree. In other parts of the Qur’an, this is called tree of life (20:120) and it’s said that Iblis strip them off their clothes(7:27), this further verifies that the tree is used as a metaphor for sex.

And We said: ‘O Adam! dwell you and your wife in this garden and eat freely in it from where ever you want to, but both of you! Do not go near this tree or you will become transgressors. Then did Satan make them slip from the garden, and had them turned out from the state they were in…(2:35-36)

In the introduction, we can see the necessary hints of the subject which is about to start. The pious accepted the reality and implication of God without seeing him empirically. Whereas the prejudiced contended that they would believe in God only if they were able to see Him (2:55). The pious established the habit of prayer in their life whereas the prejudiced abandoned the prayer (19:59) and the believers gave charity whereas the prejudiced instead of spending in the way of Allah went as far in its negation as urging people to miserliness (4:37). The pious people truly believed in the day of Accountability whereas the prejudiced belief in the Hereafter was nothing more than a dogma and in fact possessed a great greed to live forever (2:92-4).

 

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