The Coherence of al-Baqarah
Surah Al-Baqarah is considered one of the richest chapters of the Quran. This is not necessarily due to its length or the fact that it is at the beginning of the Quran, but due to its content. In fact, it has been said that it contains a thousand incidents, a thousand commands and a thousand prohibitions. It is such an important section of the Quran that it has even been argued that the entire Quran revolves around it. Due to the sheer number of topics mentioned therein commentators have disagreed as to the main aims (maqaasid) of the Surah. These have ranged from succession (istikhlaaf), to faith in the resurrection, to calling people to Islam (dawah), all of which shape how the coherence of the chapter is understood. This article attempts to highlight the relationship between each of the topics based on what literary circles term ‘ring composition’. The easiest way to describe a ring composition is to put a mirror in the middle of a chapter – what is mentioned in the first half of the Surah will be reflected in the second half in terms of topics. Some attention has been made in tafseer literature regarding the link between the beginning and the ending of a chapter but little has been written regarding the relationship of topics within a surah comprehensively.
With the loss of the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) two main aides, his uncle Abu Talib and his wife Khadijah, the position of the Muslims became increasingly untenable. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was seeking an alternative home for the believers by his visit to Taif. A major breakthrough ensued in the form of an invitation from the people of Medina in which the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the believers settled. Surah Al-Baqarah being the first chapter to be revealed after the Prophet’s migration (hijrah) therefore encapsulates a dawn of a new era. It encompassed almost everything that could be branded new. A new beginning, a new community, a new identity, new rulings, interaction with new cultures which brought about new challenges. On one hand, it dealt with the Jewish community awaiting the coming of the Prophet as well as the newly formed hypocrite community in Medina. And on the other hand, a confrontation that appeared in the early Medinan phase in the form of the battle of Badr against the Makkan idolaters. With Medina being a new stronghold for the believers, it had inevitably become a place that was exposed to other cultures different to Makkah such as the Christian community which is discussed in the next Surah.
Surah Al-Baqarah consists of 286 verses and can be divided into nine main sections. The coherence in the form of a ring composition is best illustrated in the diagram below.
It can be noted from the diagram above that with the exception of A, E and I (which are the introduction, middle and conclusion), the sections begin with specific addresses: O mankind, O children of Israel and O you who believe. It is quite fascinating that when all mankind are addressed, the story that follows is of Adam – the one who all of us relate to. Naturally, the story of Musa follows on from the address ‘O children of Israel’ and the Muslims with ‘O you who believe’. Section A and I have a clear link between belief in the unseen and messengers. In the beginning the characteristics of the disbelievers are highlighted (6, 7) and the end mentions a supplication (286) for help against them; this demonstrates that taqwa (2) is a means to nasr (286).
Section B and H focuses on Allah’s encompassing knowledge. Although, this is a broad title, a number of similarities can be drawn between the two sections. In H, Allah mentions: The heavens and earth belong to Him (Ayatul-Kursi 255), there is no compulsion in the religion (256), He protects those who believe (257), Ibrahim challenges a King (Nimrod) (258), matters related to life and death (in the story of Uzair 259-260), a similitude of a garden (264), a threat from satan and Allah’s promise of forgiveness (268), charity (263), usury (riba) (275) amongst other things. Some of these very same themes occur in B, such as: A challenge to the disbelievers to produce a surah like the Quran (23) (as Ibrahim challenged the King), matters related to life and death (28), Allah created the heavens and earth (29) and in the story of Adam, satan makes him and his wife slip from the garden which results in their forgiveness.
The concept of intrigue is at the heart of the stories mentioned in both sections of B. On one hand, the angels question Allah about the wisdom of creating Adam (30) and a few verses earlier Allah responds with a parable of a mosquito to the hypocrites questioning Him (26). In contrast, Uzair and Ibrahim asked Allah matters pertaining to life and death (259-260). A parallel that can also be found is that in the earlier passage, life is discussed in contrast to the latter in which death is mentioned. Compare: “Who created you and those who were before you” (21); the sending of rain for crops (22), “you were dead and He gave you life then He will give you death, then again will bring you to life” (28) and the creating of Adam which follows on from this. With the later passage in which Ibrahim says to the king “”My Lord is He Who gives life and causes death.’” (258), Uzair says: “”How will Allah ever bring it to life after its death”” (259) Ibrahim says: “”My Lord! Show me how You give life to the dead.”” (260)
A matter that requires further research is whether the very same laws that Musa came to deliver to the Bani Israel (some of which are in section C), are the very same laws the Prophet (peace be upon him) delivered to the believers (in section G). In at least some of the matters mentioned, there are parallels and the way in which they are described are quite exquisite. Allah says in verse 53 that Musa was given the book (kitab) and yet we find that Allah uses this very same word to prescribe various laws for the Muslims: kutiba alaykum al-qisas, siyam etc (178, 180 and 183).
Of the laws which are similar or at least indicated are: The fasting of Ashurah (which is not mentioned) as a result of Pharaoh drowning (50) in contrast to the fasting of Ramadhan (183) mentioned in the latter passages. Jihad being commanded to the Bani Israel and the believers, in the former case it was in Jerusalem (58) and in the latter – Masjidul Haram (Makkah) (191). The transgressing of the Sabbath (65) and the warning of fighting in the sacred months (194). The slaughter of the cow (67) and the hady (sacrifice) of Hajj which can include a cow (196). The excessive questioning of the Bani Israel (67-74) and in at least seven instances: ‘They ask you’ is mentioned in section G, which is of a different nature. Whilst the Bani Israel asked their question to avoid performing actions, that resulted in the end ruling being more difficult than the original. The questions of the believers were genuine and were considered to be beneficial knowledge. In the tafseer of the story of the cow, it is stated that a man killed his uncle to gain the inheritance quickly, whilst later the concept of the will (180) is mentioned as well as qisaas (retaliation for the murder, 178). Part of the covenant of the Bani Israel was to be good to the family and orphans, which also appears later. Allah asks in verse 210, the number of favours that the Bani Israel were given which are mentioned in the earlier passages.
Allah mentions in section C, seeking help in patience through the salah and the end of G, divorcees are instructed to guard the middle prayer (238). The mention of drinking appears in both passages; water from the twelve springs and the river. In both cases, there was a warning attached; for the case of the twelve spring, “do not act corruptly, making mischief on the earth” (60) and the river was a form of a test (249). Another connection is that that river and the two angels were a test for the people (102). In both situations, the result was of separation, one between a husband and wife and the other from fighting against the army of Jalut. In C, the Bani Israel complained about manna and salwa (two types of heavenly food) (57) and in the G, another generation of them complained about Talut (247) who was appointed a King over them. Both sections allude to angels that are seen, in the earlier instance it was Haurt and Marut (99-103) and in the latter, it was the angels carrying the Tabut (249). A final example is that Dawud (peace be upon him) was mentioned in section G, whilst his son Sulayman (peace be upon him) mentioned in section C.%