To put last week’s post in brief, Surah al-Baqarah (lit. The Cow’s Chapter) is structured as a palindrome (and in fact, a palindrome consisting of palindromes!). The first half is largely about the willful rebellion among men and angels, the failed covenant of Judaism, the corruptions of revelation in Christianity, and the judgement of God over all things. The middle is going to pivot on a literal turning point in Islam. After that the surah will step backwards through the themes of the first half, but this time focusing on the new direction Islam is establishing. The structure that I was using to navigate the surah is as follows:
Although I had originally endeavored to cover the whole first half, I found it better to stop within the content of section D. The chart above doesn’t do full justice, as this section is more about asserting the authority of Muhammad as prophet*, the legitimacy of Ishmaelites/Arabs as heirs of Abraham, and the failures of the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) to preserve and understand God’s revelation within their own history and in Muhammad’s teachings. Again, this post will probably make the most sense only if you read the entire surah, as the material is scattered and I can’t follow the themes without jumping through the whole chapter. Otherwise today I’ll cover on ayat 94-203, approximately.
Oy-vay. So perhaps, like the Bible, I would not suggest reading the Quran from front to back on your first time through. Having read through the light and gentle Introduction, the reader must next face Al-Baqarah, “The Cow.” It is the longest chapter of the Quran, with 286 ayat, and in fact also contains the longest ayah, the 282nd, which fills a whole page of the Quran. Are all these words about some cow? Certainly not! But a certain cow story (or two) within the chapter is memorable enough to warrant the moniker.
But more than the size of this surah, the content is problematic for a first-time reader with limited awareness of Islam. If you are predisposed to think Islam hateful or violent, there is plenty of content to feed that suspicion. Quite a bit of the surah denounces the failures of the Jewish and Christian communities (but particularly Jewish) to live by their own covenants. Many of the passages suggest a paranoia about members within and surrounding the Islamic community. Some of the violent mandates seem history specific, but that history is not included in the text and leaves the reader confused about their application. In a way, this surah practically opens itself up for the reader who wants to quote without context, because so many things are near this state already. I had to re-read the surah multiple times in order to keep re-evaluating it and giving it a fair chance. Knowing that this surah is important to so many people…
…I thought it was important to take the time and look with as much sympathy as I could at its intent and meaning.
Firstly, I must start this post with a shame-faced admission that the resource I found most helpful when researching the structure of the Quran turned out to be…Wikipedia.
…but it was hard to use other resources for what I needed. I mostly wanted information about the Quran’s organization and literary qualities. What translations are best? How is it divided? Is there a method behind the way it is arranged? While most sites only offered pious instructions, Allahsquran.com,Wikipedia: Surah, and some scattered forums proved to be my best sources of general information. I’m sure that if I spoke Arabic properly, there would be many more quality resources available to me. As my current vocabulary only covers asking for coffee (an important life priority), it’ll be a while before I can get to them. Continue reading →