NOT GOING LONG, BUT GOING DEEP: Overview on the Heifer this Ramadhan

Bismillahirrahmanirrahim

I have just finished listening to an uploaded lecture by the esteemed Nouman Ali Khan from 2016 as a preparation for Ramadhan this year and found that many points that hit home so hard. He started with the significance of Al-Baqarah and the message that the religion of Islam is congruent with the religion of Ibrahim a.s. and that the Prophet pbuh had come to complete his message. Within the rest of the lecture, he gave some rather hard-hitting facts: the most powerful one for me is that the purpose of Ramadhan is to reconnect with the Book of Allah. In Taraweeh, when the sahabah listened to the Surah when standing in prayer, it was like listening to a lecture by Allah. Now, in my own experience at least, for many of us we don’t know what is being recited in Taraweeh and just look forward to the ruku’ and counting which rakaat we are currently in, often to calculate how long before we take a break and have some of the proffered food at the masjid! This does not seem to be the intended consequence and impact when Umar r.a. introduced the congregational Taraweeh prayer. Ustaz Nouman then ended with the suggestion that for that particular Ramadhan, he would like to just cover Surah Al-Baqarah over the whole of Ramadhan in Taraweeh and focus on explaining what was recited.

Yes, this deviates from my previous intent of explaining the Ring Theory of Dr Bruce Farrin and contributions on others on the Nazm or Coherence of the Quran. Having read more about it, I found that I could not do it justice without further research, analysis and reflection. Therefore take up the aforementioned advice of Ustaz Nouman I shall, and the Heifer is my focus. I do hope to bring a holistic perspective to the Surah, using various sources available through my act of collecting them.

Surah Al-Baqarah is the second Surah in the Quran and its longest with 286 ayat. Now, since the previous sentence mentioned that word ‘Surah’ twice, let us first define the word. The best explanation I have found thus far is in another Ustaz Nouman video (starts at 12:04): the work ‘Surah’, comes from the word ‘Sawra’, denoting a full sharp view like the one you get from standing on a really high place, a long-reaching view. Additionally, the word ‘sur’ denotes high walls that were often found surrounding ancient cities, much like how you’d see from the top of one in the game Assassin’s Creed! Continuing the idea, ‘tasawwara’ means to climb up or scaling up. And the ‘sawra’ often enclosed a whole landscape of an entire city within it with all of its disparate and unique components. Yet when perceived within that long-reaching holistic view, the ‘surah’ shows that it all comes together to form a beautiful scene; those seemingly disparate components in the city are not discrete but organically interconnected. Ustaz Nouman also spoke about his encounter with Dr. Akram Nadwi, the protagonist in Carla Power’s Amazing “If Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran” as well as the author of “Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam”, at the latter’s apartment where Dr. Nadwi likens a surah to standing at the edge of a cliff and looking onto the whole rich landscape comprising trees, rivers, waterfalls, birds in the sky, clouds and the richness of the whole scene. How inspiring!

Now the title of the Surah, ‘Al-Baqarah’ (meaning cow or heifer), is derived from the story narrated in ayat 67-73 where Prophet Musa a.s.’s interaction with the Jews on the sacrifice of a cow and the drama that followed. Yusuf Ali states in his commentary on this ‘Parable of the Heifer’ that it “illustrates the insufficiency of carping obedience” while Muhammad Asad says that it shows those Jew’s “obstinate desire to obtain closer and closer definitions of the simple commandment revealed to them through Moses had made it almost impossible for them to fulfil it.” In short, Musa a.s. had conveyed Allah’s commandment for the descendants of Israelites to sacrifice a cow, and through persistent questioning, they had made it harder on themselves as the characteristics of the cow became more particular and made it difficult to find such a cow; had they sacrificed any cow at the beginning, it would not have come to this point.

Historically, most of the Surah was revealed over the first one and a half years in Madinah after the Hijrah (622) and before the Battle of Badr (624). There was stability for the invited Muslims and their helpers (Ansar) in Madinah after the persecution that the former experienced in Makkah. They became an autonomous community regulated by Quranic revelations and had entered into pacts or covenants with the Jewish tribes to ensure relative peace. However, those tribes became increasingly antagonistic, and the Quraysh became more hostile with the prospect of war looming. It was under these circumstances that the Surah was revealed. (taken from ‘Divine Speech’ by Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa)

Other general traits of this Surah include the fact that this is the longest Surah in the Quran and has the longest Ayat in the Quran (Ayat 282 which talks about debt and contracts, arguably describing a lawyer’s [scribe] work). It also contains Ayatul Kursi (The Ayat of the Throne), one of the most oft-recited ayat in the Quran and had been called the greatest Ayat in the Quran, and according to many hadeeth, it also acts a solid protection to those who recite it. Following this ayat is “There is no compulsion in Islam…”, an oft-quoted ayat by the more liberal Muslims justifying their various viewpoints (this really needs to be studied in context, especially what came before and what comes after). In the middle of the Surah (ayat 143 of 286), “And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way…”, one of the structural coherence of the verse. Ibn Kathir had remarked that the most fearful ayat in the Quran in ayat 279, but I will also quote 278 for context: “(278) O you who have attained faith! Remain conscious of God, and give up all outstanding gains from usury, if you are [truly] believers; (279) for if you do it not, know that you are at war with God and His Apostle. But if you repent, then you shall be entitled to [the return of] your principal; you will do no wrong, and neither will you be wronged.” The Surah ends with two ayat that were revealed during the Isra and Miraj, which includes one part that is of great solace to those who are burdened: “(286) God does not burden any human being with more than he is well able to bear…”. Lastly, in ayat 152, Allah says: “So remember Me, and I shall remember you; and be grateful unto Me, and deny Me not”. [Quran translations are taken from Muhammad Asad’s ‘The Message of the Quran’]

It is hoped that this post would serve as a little taster of what Surah Al-Baqarah offers, and piques your interest to know it better. May we know more of the Quran by the time Ramadhan ends than what we knew before, Ameen!

 

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Treading the Path of the Heifer’s Gaze, this Ramadhan

“Will they not then earnestly seek to understand the Quran, or are there locks upon their hearts?”

Surah Muhammad, 47:24

“It is ironic indeed that the Quran that places so much emphasis on pondering and serious study of its contents in order to gain any real benefit, is also perhaps the only book that is read without any serious thought or attention to its message or substance. Ordinarily, when studying a book, most people would first prepare themselves mentally. In the case of the Quran they usually close their minds the moment they open it up to read”

Introduction, “Pondering over the Quran”, Amin Ahsan Islahi

So yet another Ramadhan approaches, and I echo the thanks of many Muslims that we are alive to greet another of the blessed month. The zeal with which many greet this time of the Islamic calendar year is often great, but undoubtedly for many this does not quite last. Once work and family pressures pile, it is all to easy to slip back into the normal routine, albeit with different meal times.

I am not here to offer a formula to avoid the aforementioned. One only needs to peruse one’s Facebook and subscribed Youtube channels to access countless pieces of advice by the Masyaikhs and friends (usually reposts of the Masyaikhs) alike, much of which are of great use if followed. I can almost hear the countless covers of the Quran being opened (um, just dust it off first, ok?) and pages turned, so many eager to finally finish a full reading by month end. My personal efforts throughout my life have been rather mixed, more often than not significantly short of initial targets. Being a realist, then why not set lower targets, I thought to myself. Why not indeed.

A few days ago, I had updated my Facebook status, which reads “Salam all, hope you all have a wonderful and reflective month of Ramadhan – Rediscover your purpose. Realign your compass. Refresh your target of the ultimate destination. May your journey be blessed and fruitful. Ramadhan Mubarak”. Reflect, rediscover, realign, refresh – not too shabby as goals. Now how could I achieve all that while making it achievable? The answer that came to me is to look in the direction of Bovines. Really.

The link between the month of Ramadhan and the Quran is unmistakable. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was visited by the angel Jibreel on the 17th night of Ramadhan, upon which he received the first ever Revelation in the form of the first five verses of Surah Al-Alaq (The Clot 96:1-5). However, the Quran we have today was not arranged in chronological order;  the Prophet (peace be upon him) arranged the verses as they were revealed through divine guidance. The closest I have come to comprehending the order was covered by my earlier post here.

In that post, it was the approach of the main text that was discussed, Amin Ahsan Islahi’s “Tadabbur-e-Quran” (Pondering over the Quran), that in order to understand the nazm of ‘coherence’ of the Quran, the author had attempted to address the longest Surah in the Quran first and foremost, as it represents the most complex structure of all surahs. This is of course Surah Al-Baqarah (The Heifer, thus my bovine referral), the second surah in the Quran which contains 286 ayat. As today is the third day of Ramadhan, those of you who target to complete the full recitation of the Quran would most probably have completed this surah already, and have moved on to others. My target this year is to read and appreciate the overall meaning of this surah, inshaaAllah.

For those who are interested, I will be giving a talk entitled “Treading the Path of the Heifer’s Gaze: The first Five Ayat of Surah Al-Baqarah” in two week’s time at 3-4pm on 3rd July at UNIEC Inspire, Level 9, UNITAR Kelana Jaya Campus.

heifer