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Sūrat al-Baqarah (Part 1)
Part 1 of observations on the structure, organization, and cohesion of Sūrat al-Baqarah
Sūrat al-Baqarah (The Cow) is famously the longest sūrah in the Quran and covers a myriad of topics. The subject matter seems to flow between such a variety of ideas, without obvious relevance to each other, that most readers find it difficult to comprehend the coherence of it all.
The alleged “randomness” of it seems to make any attempt to understand this sūrah’s structure a lost cause. Many scholars of the past abandoned trying to tie all the āyāt together, and instead took an atomistic approach to their work. However, relatively recent studies have revealed a high degree of structure and organization in this lengthy sūrah.
Because of the multiple layers of depth, it may be best to demonstrate the macro-structuring of the sūrah and break up the analysis based on each section therein. When the entire sūrah’s subject matter is summarized, it appears that the contents can be organized into a ring structure.1
We will revisit this ring towards the end once we have delved a bit into each of the sections. The connections we make then will be easier to understand.
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Section [A] – Believers vs Disbelievers
Section [A] can be broken down into five smaller mirror or ring structures.
[A1.1]/[A1.1’] – The first structure in this sūrah begins and ends with guidance. The Quran is called hudan (guidance) for the God-conscious, and the believers are described as on hudan from their Master.
[A1.2]/[A1.2’] – Both these sections highlight the virtue of faith. The God-conscious are those who yu’minūna (believe) in the unseen and, as described in the complementary section, yu’minūna in what was revealed to the Messenger ﷺ, what was revealed to the previous prophets, and in the afterlife.
[A1.3]/[A1.3’] – The center focuses on actions; establishing prayers and spending on good causes. Thus, the entire mirror structure summarizes what it means to be a believer. One must recognize guidance, believe in it, and then act according to it.
[A2.1]/[A2.1’] – The sealing of the hearts, vision, and hearing is paired with them being described later on as deaf, dumb, and blind. Their disbelief has cost them all faculties for comprehension.
[A2.2]/[A2.2’] – Allah ﷻ describes people who say “āmannā (We believed),” but they do not truly believe. They try and deceive Allah ﷻ and the believers, but they only succeed in deceiving themselves. Complementing this, the disbelievers are quoted as saying to the believers, “āmannā (We believed)” in an attempt to deceive and mock them. However, Allah ﷻ says that it is in fact they who are mocked and their efforts will not benefit them.
[A2.3]/[A2.3’] – Both sections share very similar wordings. Both begin, “wa idhā qīla la-hum (And when it is said to them), ‘Do not cause corruption’/’Believe,’ they say…” And both sections end “alā inna-hum hum (but it is they, they are the) corrupters/fools.”
[A3.1]/[A3.1’] – This section begins by imploring mankind to worship our Master who “khalaqa-kum (created you).” And then Allah ﷻ goes on to list the things He created like the earth, sky, and our sustenance. Finally, the opening ends with Allah ﷻ criticizing the disbelievers for setting up partners with Him “wa antum tʿalamūn (while you know).” Similarly, the section ends with Allah ﷻ appealing to His ability to create, and recreate (i.e., resurrect) us. He also says that He “khalaqa la-kum (created for you all), all that is on the earth,” and that He made “seven skies.” Finally, it ends with Allah ﷻ describing Himself as completely “ʿalīm (knowledgeable).”
[A3.2]/[A3.2’] – Both parts deal with the disbelievers and their inability to engage with the Quran. When they are challenged to create a single sūrah to rival the Quran, they fail. And when they cannot deal with the Quran’s challenge, they resort to questioning its contents and mocking the examples therein. They cannot compete with Allah’s Word on any level.
[A3.3] – The ring centers on the believers and their heavenly reward for belief and good actions.
For the sake of keeping these posts relatively brief, in shā’ Allah we will stop here and continue our analysis next week.
If you would like to see the original inspiration for this analysis, please see:
Farrin, Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation.
If you want to see a more (maybe the most?) detailed breakdown of this sūrah, I refer you to:
Ali Khan, Nouman and Sharif Randhawa. Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature. Bayyinah Institute, 2016.
What follows is a summary of Randhawa and Khan’s work. Because of the length of their writing, I am only going to focus on the structures without looking into the extensive integrative coherence that they highlighted. However, I have added the details of the “CONNECTIONS” as those were absent from the original sources.