Robert Spencer's Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 2, 'The Cow,' Verses 1-39
Smell that? It's Satan passing gas -- the Qur'an's second chapter must be being recited!
When you see the title of the Qur'an's second chapter, Al-Baqara (“The Cow”), you might be tempted to think that it's about . . . a cow. You'd be wrong. The chapters of the Qur'an generally take their titles from something recounted within them, even if it's an insignificant detail. In this case, the chapter name comes from the story of Moses relaying Allah’s command to the Israelites that they sacrifice a cow (2:67-73), one of the Qur'an's many stories from the Bible and Jewish tradition, altered and retold.
This is the longest chapter (sura) of the Qur’an -- 286 verses. It begins the Qur’an’s general (but not absolute) pattern of being organized not chronologically or thematically, but simply running from the longest to the shortest chapters, with the exception of the Fatiha (sura 1), which has pride of place as the first sura because of its centrality in Islam.
This means that you should not take "The Cow" as the original, first, or primary message of Islam, simply because of its position. According to Islamic tradition, it actually dates from the latter part of Muhammad's career, as it was revealed to Muhammad at Medina — to which he is supposed to have fled from Mecca in the year 622. In Medina 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 later.)
"The Cow" 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) says that recitation of "The Cow" distresses Satan: he says 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.”
What Is Included in the Second Sura of the Qur'an?
"The Cow" 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 Book about which 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.
The Qur'an Is Never To Be Doubted
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.
(No books like this are allowed, for example.)
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.
The Condemnation of Nonbelievers
"The Cow" then gets going with something we find again and again and again in the Qur'an: an extended disquisition on the perversity of those who reject belief in Allah. This one sounds several themes that will recur many, many times. The Qur’an, we're told, is guidance to those who believe in what was revealed to Muhammad as well as in “what was revealed before” him (v. 4).
This refers to 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.
The moderate Muslim Qur'an translator and commentator Muhammad Asad, a convert from Judaism, 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 in this part of "The Cow" is Allah’s absolute control over everything, even the choices of individual souls to believe in him or reject him:
“Indeed, those who disbelieve -- it is all the same for them whether you warn them or do not warn them - they will not believe. Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing, and over their vision is a veil. And for them is a great punishment.” (vv. 6-7).