Sura 2, Al-Baqara (“The Cow”), like almost all of the chapters of the Qur’an, takes its title from something recounted within it – in this case, the story of Moses relaying Allah’s command to the Israelites that they sacrifice a cow (2:67-73). It is the longest sura of the Qur’an – 286 verses – and begins the Qur’an’s general (but not absolute) pattern of running from the longest to the shortest chapters, with the exception of the Fatiha, which has pride of place as the first sura because of its centrality in Islam. Surat Al-Baqara, “The Cow,” was revealed to Muhammad at Medina – that is, during the second part of his prophetic career, which began in Mecca in 610. In 622 Muhammad and the fledgling Muslim community moved to Medina, where for the first time Muhammad became a political and military leader. Islamic theologians generally regard Medinan suras as taking precedence over Meccan ones wherever there is a disagreement, in accord with verse 106 of this chapter of the Qur’an, in which Allah speaks about abrogating verses and replacing them with better ones. (This interpretation of verse 106, however, is not universally accepted. Some say it refers to the abrogation of nothing in the Qur’an, but only of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. More on that when the time comes.)

Sura 2 contains a great deal of important material for Muslims, and is held in high regard. The medieval Qur’anic commentator Ibn Kathir (whose commentary is still read and respected by Muslims) conveys in an earthy way that recitation of this sura distresses Satan, recounting that one of Muhammad’s early followers, Ibn Mas’ud, remarked that Satan “departs the house where Surat Al-Baqarah is being recited, and as he leaves, he passes gas.” Without Ibn Mas’ud’s poor taste, Muhammad himself says: “Satan runs away from the house in which Surah Baqara is recited.”

The chapter begins with three Arabic letters: alif, lam, and mim. Many chapters of the Qur’an begin with three Arabic letters in this way, which has given rise to a considerable amount of mystical speculation as to what they might mean. But the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, another classic Qur’anic commentary, succinctly sums up the prevailing view: “God knows best what He means by these [letters].”

The verse immediately following those letters contains a key Islamic doctrine: “This is the Scripture whereof there is no doubt.” The Qur’an is not to be questioned or judged by any standard outside itself; rather, it is the standard by which all other things are to be judged. That, of course, is not significantly different from the way many other religions regard their Holy Writ. But there has been no development in Islam of the historical and textual criticism that have transformed the ways Jews and Christians understand their scriptures today. The Qur’an is a book never to be doubted, never to be questioned: when one Islamic scholar, Suliman Bashear, taught his students at An-Najah National University in Nablus that the Qur’an and Islam were the products of historical development rather than being delivered in perfect form to Muhammad, his students threw him out of the window of his classroom.

2:1-29 is an extended disquisition on the perversity of those who reject belief in Allah, and sounds several themes that will recur many times. The Qur’an, we’re told, is guidance to those who believe in what was revealed to Muhammad as well as in “that which was revealed before” him (v. 4). This involves the Qur’an’s oft-stated assumption that it is the confirmation of the Torah and the Gospel, which teach the same message Muhammad is receiving in the Qur’anic revelations (see 5:44-48). When the Torah and Gospel were found not to agree with the Qur’an, the charge arose that Jews and Christians had corrupted their Scriptures — which is mainstream Islamic belief today. Muhammad Asad states it positively: “the religion of the Qur’an can be properly understood only against the background of the great monotheistic faiths which preceded it, and which, according to Muslim belief, culminate and achieve their final formulation in the faith of Islam.”

Another theme is Allah’s absolute control over everything, even the choices of individual souls to believe in him or reject him: “As to those who reject Faith, it is the same to them whether thou warn them or do not warn them; they will not believe. Allah hath set a seal on their hearts and on their hearing, and on their eyes is a veil; great is the penalty they (incur)” (vv. 6-7). The Qadaris of early Islamic history held that mankind had free will, and was thus capable of choosing to do good or evil. Their opponents maintained that Allah determined everything. While both sides had abundant Qur’anic citations to support their views, eventually Muslim authorities condemned Qadarism as a heresy, as it restricted Allah’s absolute sovereignty over all things. Thus those who reject faith do so because Allah wills it, as per these verses, not because they have free choice. Says Ibn Kathir: “These Ayat [verses] indicate that whomever Allah has written to be miserable, they shall never find anyone to guide them to happiness, and whomever Allah directs to misguidance, he shall never find anyone to guide him.” (A good brief overview of the Qadari controversy can be found in the renowned Islamic scholar Ignaz Goldziher’s Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law.)

Then comes the condemnation of hypocrites and false believers, who frequently bedeviled Muhammad during his career as a prophet (vv. 13-20). And finally there is the assertion of the sublimity of the Qur’an, such that doubters are challenged to produce a sura like it if they refuse to believe its divine provenance (v. 23). This is a challenge many have taken up, but of course it is the kind of challenge that can never be successfully met in the eyes of those who issue it – “they could not produce the like thereof” (17:88).

2:25 introduces the famous gardens of Paradise, wherein the believers shall reside — about which more later.

2:30-39 tells the story of Adam and Eve, in a manner suggesting that the hearers of the recitation are already familiar with the story. Allah tells the angels to prostrate themselves before Adam (v. 34), a command that appears to depend upon the Biblical notion of mankind’s having been created in the image of God, although that idea does not appear here. According to Ibn Kathir, “Allah stated the virtue of Adam above the angels, because He taught Adam, rather than them, the names of everything.” Satan refuses to prostrate himself, thereby becoming an unbeliever (v. 34), and tempts Adam and Eve with the forbidden fruit. Allah promises revelations to guide mankind, warning them that those who ignore these revelations will be punished with hellfire.

Then the sura turns in verses 40-75 to the Children of Israel, who play such an important role in the Qur’an — and, not coincidentally, in the modern Islamic consciousness — that we will devote next week’s Qur’an blog to them.

Here is a link to Bryan Preston’s introduction to the series, where you’ll find links to the earlier segments.

(Here is a good Arabic/English Qur’an, here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)