Sūrat al-Baqarah (Part 10)
Final part of observations on the structure, organization, and cohesion of Sūrat al-Baqarah
This is a continuation of our series on Sūrat al-Baqarah. Please see last week’s post for Part 9.
Sūrat al-Baqarah revolves around the Ka'bah
Section [D] (The Change of Prayer Direction to the Kaʿbah) in the sūrah serves as the pivotal point around which the entire sūrah revolves. It focuses on the significant shift in the direction of prayer, from Jerusalem to the Kaʿbah, which holds great importance for believers who physically turn towards it during their ritual prayers and circle around it during the pilgrimage. This section also marks the formal announcement by Allah ﷻ of the establishment of the Muslim community as a balanced nation.
With the change in prayer direction and the revelation of this section, the Muslims are established as the newly chosen religious community or nation (ummah), taking over the role previously held by the Children of Israel. This transition is explicitly mentioned in āyah 150, where Allah ﷻ declares, "It is so that I may complete My favor upon you and so that you may be guided," recalling earlier mentions of Allah's favor upon the Children of Israel.
This central section also reveals the overarching theme of the sūrah: the establishment of the new Muslim nation, tasked with preserving and carrying forward the legacy of Abraham. This community is characterized by its submission to Allah ﷻ and unwavering faith in all of Allah's messengers and revelations, in contrast to the previous religious community, the Children of Israel. Each section and topic within the sūrah align harmoniously with this central theme, contributing to its overall development.
The Motifs of Election, Instruction, and Test
Interestingly, it has been observed that there is a recurring pattern in the sūrah, which involves a combination of the topics of election, instruction, and test.1 “Election” refers to the divine appointment of a person or group to a special role and position. “Test” refers to a test of the obedience of a person or group. “Instruction” refers to Allah’s provision of guidance in the form of a command or counsel. In each case, it is Allah ﷻ who does the electing, testing and instructing of human beings. These motifs appear throughout the sūrah in varying combinations:
In Section [A], Adam, representing the human race, is divinely elected to the position of Allah’s representative on the earth. He is then tested with the command not to approach the forbidden tree. Finally, when he “slips” and eats from the tree, Allah ﷻ provides Adam instructions on how to obtain His forgiveness.
Section [B] alludes to the Israelites’ election to the position of Allah’s chosen nation. The section refers to the instructions they were given in the form of the Covenant (the Torah). However, they were repeatedly tested and failed the tests, eventually resulting in their loss of their elected positions.
In Section [C], Abraham is tested. As a result of passing these tests, he is elected to the position of being “a leader for mankind.” Finally, he is instructed to build and purify the Kaʿbah.
In Section [D], the people of Madinah - including both the Muslims and Jews - are tested with the change of ritual prayer direction and instructed to pray towards Makkah. The Muslims obeyed the command, and were thus elected as the new divinely chosen nation, taking over the position the Israelites previously held.
In Section [C’], the community is warned that, because of their election to this role, they will face upcoming tests, which will involve a loss of lives and fruits. However, they are given various instructions to prepare them for these tests, which extend all through Sections [B’] and [A’].
The above analysis also reveals another interesting pattern:
Notice that the first and last examples, “the story of Adam” and the “address to the Muslim nation” display an identical pattern: election, test, instruction. Then, in the second and second-to-last examples, “the Children of Israel” and “the change of ritual prayer direction,” these occur in the opposite order: election, instruction, test and test, instruction, election. Finally, and very appropriately, in the center is “the story of Abraham,” which is characterized by its own unique pattern of test, election, instruction.
In the case of Sūrat al-Baqarah, until recently regarded as the most chaotic of all suwar in the Quran, we have seen that a careful study reveals a beautiful and intricate structure, as well as profound logic and coherence. And this is despite this series being a truncated summary of the available research on the topic—we did not properly broach the subject of linear coherence, for example.
In the beginning, we said to 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.
Having now gone through a preliminary analysis of the sūrah’s structuring, one can only wonder how much more there is to discover in this burgeoning field.
And that concludes our study of Sūrat al-Baqarah!
And Allah ﷻ knows best.
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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)