Sūrat al-Fātiḥah and Sūrat al-Baqarah (Part 1)
Observations on how the longest sūrah of the Quran continues where Sūrah al-Fātiḥah left off
Thus far we’ve shown examples of the Quran’s coherence on the level of an āyah, a short sūrah and even a medium-sized sūrah, but does this structuring hold true for longer suwar? What about the longest sūrah in the Quran?
After contemplating the brief and elegantly simple opening sūrah of the Quran, the reader turns the page and is confronted with the longest and one of the most complex suwar of the entire Scripture, Sūrah al-Baqarah (The Cow). The main themes and lessons of the sūrah are not difficult to grasp, but what challenges many readers - including seasoned scholars - is understanding the flow of the sūrah’s discourse, the connections between its diverse topics, and its structure.
To such readers, the sūrah seems to address a bewildering variety of issues, without obvious relevance to each other, and frequently shifts from one topic, to the next and back to earlier ones. The reader encounters, in order, the following topics:
believers and disbelievers
Paradise, Hell and Resurrection
the story of Adam
a lengthy and non-chronological review of the history of the Children and Israel
the story of Abraham and the Kaʿbah
testament of Jacob (also known as Israel) to his sons
the religion of Abraham and the prophets among his descendants
the change in the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to the Kaʿbah
the establishment of the new Muslim community
warnings of upcoming tests from Allah ﷻ
pilgrimage to the Kaʿbah
idolatry and disbelief
regulations concerning the crime of manslaughter, inheritance, fasting, pilgrimage, battle, spending in charity, marriage and divorce
the Biblical story of Saul
regulations about financial transactions
the Day of Judgment
and a concluding prayer
…with some other topics briefly in between. In the judgment of many readers and scholars, the sheer variety and supposed randomness of the sūrah’s subject matter counter any attempt to view it as a unified composition. Similar to the other long suwar, dividing this sūrah into smaller thematic sections is more difficult, as a single section may address a stream of issues, the rhyme scheme of the sūrah is more uniform, and the transition from one thematic section to another tends to be subtle.
Accordingly, many scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim, have suggested that long suwar like Sūrah al-Baqarah are largely miscellaneous patchworks of revelation from different occasions, collected together without any meaningful structure or arrangement.
Given the aforementioned state of affairs, it is all the more remarkable that recent studies have uncovered a stunning degree of unity, coherence, and organization in this, and many other long suwar. For this upcoming series, we will do our best to observe how Allah ﷻ has structured the longest sūrah in the Quran, Sūrah al-Baqarah. We will see how the topics of the sūrah are presented in light of a central theme, how the topics are ordered in a meaningful sequence, and how the sūrah possesses a beautiful and intimate structure.
Sūrah al-Fātiḥah to Sūrah al-Baqarah
But before we go into those details, we’ll take a quick look back at Sūrah al-Fātiḥah and observe how the contents of that sūrah feed seamlessly into the beginning of Sūrah al-Baqarah. Think of this as a brief consideration of the Linear Coherence of the Quran as a whole.
In our post on Sūrah al-Fātiḥah one aspect we didn’t examine was the linear coherence of the sūrah. Below you will find a summary of how the themes of the sūrah progress:
We see that Sūrah al-Fātiḥah begins with knowledge about Allah ﷻ. Knowledge, when it comes from Allah ﷻ may also be labeled as “guidance”. Next the sūrah progresses to two statements labeled as “Correctly acting on guidance” which can be summarized as “belief”. The rest of the sūrah then outlines the possible ways knowledge and action can be applied. We can choose to be of (1) the “favored” who applied their knowledge into appropriate action (i.e., become believers), (2) those who have guidance and reject it or (3) those who act without proper knowledge.
With the above in mind, let us observe how the first five āyāt of Sūrah al-Baqarah are organized:
As can be seen above, the ring structure of the first five āyāt of Sūrah al-Baqarah perfectly reflect the themes outlined in Sūrah al-Fātiḥah. The ideas of “Guidance,” “Belief,” and “Action” are shared by both and is a continued theme we’ll see throughout Sūrah al-Baqarah. It’s a beautiful transition from the first sūrah to the second sūrah.
In shā’ Allah (God willing), for the next several weeks we will observe the beautiful and multilayered structure of Sūrah al-Baqarah. As we go through this study, keep in mind that this sūrah was revealed over the course of many years, not in the order it is compiled today, while responding to real-time events.
واللّهُ أَعلَمُ - And Allah knows best
Ali Khan, Nouman and Sharif Randhawa. Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature. Bayyinah Institute, 2016.
Amīn Aḥsan Iṣlāḥī, Tadabbur-e-Qur’ān: Pondering Over the Qur’ān Volume 1: Tafsīr of Surah al-Fātiḥah and Surah al-Baqarah, trans. Mohammad Saleem Kayani (Kual Lampur: Islamic Book Trust, 2006), 526-527
Mustansir Mir, “The Sūra as a Unity: A Twentieth Century Development in Qur’an Exegesis” in Approaches to the Qur’an, eds. G. R. Hawting and Abdul-Kader A. Shareef, eds. (London: Routledge, 1993), 211-224
Robinson, Discovering the Qur’an, 201-223
A. H. Mathias Zahniser, “Major Transitions and Thematic Borders in Two Long Sūras: al-Baqara and al-Nisā’” in Literary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Qur’an, ed. Issa J. Boulatta (RichmondL Curzon, 2000)
Raymond Farrin, “Surat al-Baqara: A Structural Analysis,” Muslim World 100.1 (2010): 17-32
Nevin Reda El-Tehry, Textual Integrity and Coherence in the Qur’an: Repetition and Narrative Structure in Surat al-Baqara (PhD diss., University of Toronto, Toronto, 2010)
Farrin, Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation, 9-21