The Coherence of al-Baqarah


Surah Al-Baqarah is considered one of the richest chapters of the Quran. This is not necessarily due to its length or the fact that it is at the beginning of the Quran [1], but due to its content. In fact, it has been said that it contains a thousand incidents, a thousand commands and a thousand prohibitions.[2] It is such an important section of the Quran that it has even been argued that the entire Quran revolves around it.[3] Due to the sheer number of topics mentioned therein [4] commentators have disagreed as to the main aims (maqaasid) of the Surah. These have ranged from succession (istikhlaaf),[5] to faith in the resurrection,[6] to calling people to Islam (dawah), all of which shape how the coherence of the chapter is understood. This article attempts to highlight the relationship between each of the topics based on what literary circles term ‘ring composition’.[7] The easiest way to describe a ring composition is to put a mirror in the middle of a chapter – what is mentioned in the first half of the Surah will be reflected in the second half in terms of topics. Some attention has been made in tafseer literature regarding the link between the beginning and the ending of a chapter [8] but little has been written regarding the relationship of topics within a surah comprehensively.[9]

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With the loss of the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) two main aides, his uncle Abu Talib and his wife Khadijah, the position of the Muslims became increasingly untenable. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was seeking an alternative home for the believers by his visit to Taif.[10] A major breakthrough ensued in the form of an invitation from the people of Medina in which the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the believers settled. Surah Al-Baqarah being the first chapter to be revealed after the Prophet’s migration (hijrah) therefore encapsulates a dawn of a new era. It encompassed almost everything that could be branded new. A new beginning, a new community, a new identity, new rulings, interaction with new cultures which brought about new challenges. On one hand, it dealt with the Jewish community awaiting the coming of the Prophet as well as the newly formed [11] hypocrite community in Medina.[12] And on the other hand, a confrontation that appeared in the early Medinan phase in the form of the battle of Badr against the Makkan idolaters. With Medina being a new stronghold for the believers, it had inevitably become a place that was exposed to other cultures different to Makkah such as the Christian community which is discussed in the next Surah.[13]


Surah Al-Baqarah consists of 286 verses and can be divided into nine main sections. The coherence in the form of a ring composition is best illustrated in the diagram below:

It can be noted from the diagram above that with the exception of A, E and I (which are the introduction, middle and conclusion), the sections begin with specific addresses: O mankind, O children of Israel and O you who believe. It is quite fascinating that when all mankind are addressed, the story that follows is of Adam [14] – the one who all of us relate to. Naturally, the story of Musa follows on from the address ‘O children of Israel’ and the Muslims with ‘O you who believe’. Section A and I have a clear link between belief in the unseen and messengers. In the beginning the characteristics of the disbelievers are highlighted (6, 7) and the end mentions a supplication (286) for help against them; this demonstrates that taqwa (2) is a means to nasr (286).

Section B and H focuses on Allah’s encompassing knowledge. Although, this is a broad title, a number of similarities can be drawn between the two sections. In H, Allah mentions: The heavens and earth belong to Him (Ayatul-Kursi 255), there is no compulsion in the religion (256), He protects those who believe (257), Ibrahim challenges a King (Nimrod) (258), matters related to life and death (in the story of Uzair 259-260), a similitude of a garden (264), a threat from satan and Allah’s promise of forgiveness (268), charity (263), usury (riba) (275) amongst other things. Some of these very same themes occur in B, such as: A challenge to the disbelievers to produce a surah like the Quran (23) (as Ibrahim challenged the King), matters related to life and death (28), Allah created the heavens and earth (29) and in the story of Adam, satan makes him and his wife slip from the garden which results in their forgiveness.

The concept of intrigue is at the heart of the stories mentioned in both sections of B. On one hand, the angels question Allah about the wisdom of creating Adam (30) and a few verses earlier Allah responds with a parable of a mosquito to the hypocrites questioning Him (26). In contrast, Uzair and Ibrahim asked Allah matters pertaining to life and death (259-260). A parallel that can also be found is that in the earlier passage, life is discussed in contrast to the latter in which death is mentioned. Compare:

  “Who created you and those who were before you” (21);

the sending of rain for crops (22),

  “you were dead and He gave you life then He will give you death, then again will bring you to life” (28)

and the creating of Adam which follows on from this. With the later passage in which Ibrahim says to the king

  “”My Lord is He Who gives life and causes death.’” (258),

Uzair says: “”How will Allah ever bring it to life after its death”” (259) Ibrahim says:

  “”My Lord! Show me how You give life to the dead.”” (260)[15]

A matter that requires further research is whether the very same laws that Musa came to deliver to the Bani Israel (some of which are in section C), are the very same laws the Prophet (peace be upon him) delivered to the believers (in section G).[16] In at least some of the matters mentioned, there are parallels and the way in which they are described are quite exquisite. Allah says in verse 53 that Musa was given the book (kitab) and yet we find that Allah uses this very same word to prescribe various laws for the Muslims: kutiba alaykum al-qisas, siyam etc (178, 180 and 183).

Of the laws which are similar or at least indicated are: The fasting of Ashurah (which is not mentioned) as a result of Pharaoh drowning (50) in contrast to the fasting of Ramadhan (183) mentioned in the latter passages.[17] Jihad being commanded to the Bani Israel and the believers, in the former case it was in Jerusalem (58) and in the latter – Masjidul Haram (Makkah) (191).[18] The transgressing of the Sabbath (65) and the warning of fighting in the sacred months (194). The slaughter of the cow (67) and the hady (sacrifice) of Hajj which can include a cow (196). The excessive questioning of the Bani Israel (67-74) and in at least seven instances: ‘They ask you’ is mentioned in section G, which is of a different nature. Whilst the Bani Israel asked their question to avoid performing actions, that resulted in the end ruling being more difficult than the original. The questions of the believers were genuine and were considered to be beneficial knowledge. In the tafseer of the story of the cow, it is stated that a man killed his uncle to gain the inheritance quickly, whilst later the concept of the will (180) is mentioned as well as qisaas (retaliation for the murder, 178). Part of the covenant of the Bani Israel was to be good to the family and orphans, which also appears later. Allah asks in verse 210, the number of favours that the Bani Israel were given which are mentioned in the earlier passages.

Allah mentions in section C, seeking help in patience through the salah and the end of G, divorcees are instructed to guard the middle prayer (238). The mention of drinking appears in both passages; water from the twelve springs and the river. In both cases, there was a warning attached; for the case of the twelve spring,

  “do not act corruptly, making mischief on the earth” (60)

and the river was a form of a test (249). Another connection is that that river and the two angels were a test for the people (102). In both situations, the result was of separation, one between a husband and wife and the other from fighting against the army of Jalut. In C, the Bani Israel complained about manna and salwa (two types of heavenly food) (57) and in the G, another generation of them complained about Talut (247) who was appointed a King over them. Both sections allude to angels that are seen, in the earlier instance it was Haurt and Marut (99-103) and in the latter, it was the angels carrying the Tabut (249). A final example is that Dawud (peace be upon him) was mentioned in section G, whilst his son Sulayman (peace be upon him) mentioned in section C.

In section D, Allah mentions that wherever you turn, is the Face of Allah (115), whilst in the later passage, Allah states that it is not from Al-Birr (righteousness) that you turn your face to east or the west (177). Ibrahim (peace be upon him) is mentioned as one who will be tried and he was made an Imam (124) in contrast to, Allah stating that He will test the believers with fear, hunger, loss of wealth and their lives (155). The Kabah being built by Ibrahim and his son (peace be upon them both) (125) and Safa and Marwa being signs of Allah are mentioned later (158). Ibrahim (peace be upon him) makes a dua to make Makkah a place in which fruits and sustenance are provided (128). There is so much of this food as a result of this dua that in the later passage, certain types of food is prohibited (168-169). In verse 170, the people say they will follow the footsteps of their forefathers – Allah mentions them earlier; Ibrahim, Ismael, Ishaq, Yaqub, Al Asbaat (twelve sons of Yusuf), Musa and Isa (peace be upon them all) (136).[19] But the emphasis remains on Ibrahim (peace be upon him) as the Makkan idolaters are being addressed.[20]

In the middle of the Surah, Allah states:

  “Thus We have made you a Wasat nation, that you be witnesses over mankind and the Messenger (Muhammad) be a witness over you.”

The word wasat carries the meaning of just, best and middle. The Kabah being the central location for Muslim community fits in well with its placement in the Surah.


As can be seen from this brief article, the Quran is not an incoherent book. It is true that many of the scholars of the past did not discuss this matter in detail. Perhaps it was the aspersions the Orientalists purported that the words of Allah were incoherent, brought about an effort from the scholars of our time to respond to them. For every doubt they bring, this gives us time to reflect upon a matter that we had perhaps not thought of previously. Rather than being a source of doubt and confusion, it becomes a reason to increase our faith and appreciate the words of Allah even more. [21]

This Surah represents the highest levels of eloquence and it contains such deep meanings that it is said that it took Ibn Umar 8 years to memorise and act upon it. [22] In addition, Umar asked the famous poet, Lubaid to recite some of his famous poetry. He recited Surah Al-Baqarah instead and said: I cannot recite poetry after Allah has taught me Surah Al-Baqarah. And whilst we are moved and taken aback from the sheer miraculous nature of the Quran, we must also remember that Waleed Ibn Mugheerah (an enemy of the Muslims during the time of the Prophet) was also mesmerised by the Quran. Appreciation of a text can be claimed by anyone, even a non-Muslim. But real appreciation is thanking Allah that he has given us this message and that we can thereby act upon it.


Taken from

[1] It is worth noting that it is fascinating that that longest chapter of the Quran is at the beginning of it. Moreover, the fact it is a Madani chapter.

[2] Ibn Kathir, Tafserul Adheem

[3] Saeed Hawaa writes his Assasu-Tafaaseer attempting to prove that all of the chapters in the Quran revolve around Surah Al-Baqarah.

[4] To take one example, there are at least sixteen different chapters related to rulings alone such as fasting, marriage, divorce etc.

[5] Rashid Rida in Al-Mannar and Syed Qutb in Fee Thilal.

[6] Buqai, Maqaasid As-Suwar. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that five stories are mentioned about life after death.

[7] Thus, this article relies on the structure of the chapter presented by Farrin, R. K. Surat al-Baqara: A Structural Analysis. The Muslim World, Volume 100, Issue 1, p17–32. January 2010

[8] At least two books have been written on this. One by Suyuti named Tanasuq Ad-Durar Fee Tanasub As-Suwar. Samaraai has added also the relationship between the end of a Surah and the beginning of the next one in At-Tanaasub bayna Suwar fil maftatih wal khawateem. Although, those who have given some attention to this in their tafseers are Razi, Alusi, Ibn Ashur amongst others.

[9] Amongst those who have written on this is Mustansir Mir on Surah Al-Fatiha and Surah Yusuf. The author is in the process of writing on something similar with respect to Surah Al-Maoon and Al-Kauthar. Islahi’s tadabbur-e-Quran is written with the purpose of highlighting this. He divides the Quran into seven groups, each of which revolve around one main subject. However, more research is needed in understanding the chapter from a bird-eye view.

[10] Qutb argues that that Prophet did this prior to Taif, by sending his companions to Abysinnia. Refer to the Introduction to Surah Al-Baqarah in Fee Dhilalil Quran.

[11] The advent of the hypocrite community spearheaded by Abdullah ibn Salool arose when the Muslims were victorious at the battle of Badr.

[12] The commonalties of these two groups are very interesting. They represent the internal corruption of those who know the truth, but do not accept it either by way of their actions (Jews) or by way of their heart (hypocrites). This is why the Surah is replete with terms to ‘Iman’ which represents an internal form of the religion in contrast to the term Islam which represent an outward form of the religion which is commonly used in the next Surah, Aali Imran.

[13] Half of the Surah Aali Imran discusses the delegation of Najran – a Christian community coming to meet the Prophet in Medina. How beautiful is the structure of the Quran in which Allah ends Surah Al-Fatiha by alluding to the Jews (those who have incurred anger) and the Christians (those who have gone astray), which is discussed in more detail in Surah Al-Baqarah (the Jews) and Surah Aal-Imran (the Christians)! In fact, Suyuti argues that a surah expands on topics that were mentioned in the previous Surah which occurs throughout the entire Quran.

[14] There is also a subtle connection between Adam and the Bani Israel (who come after these verses). This was to show the evil of refusing the knowledge in spite of knowing the truth, which was done by Iblis. It was not simply a case of simply refusing to prostrate to him, but it became a source of leading everyone astray and to block the means of the people to him. So they will be a cause of others not entering Paradise just as Iblis was a cause for our parents Adam and Hawa to exit Jannah.

[15] There is a link between riba (275-79) along with charity and the provision that Allah has given us (22).

[16] Some of the reasons of revelation regarding some rulings in the Quran were as a result of differing from the Jews in Medina. One example of this is the manner to treat a wife who is in her menstrual cycle. Islam prohibits intercourse during this period, whilst the Jews in Medina during the time of the Prophet would have them stay in a separate room.

[17] It is worth noting that the stages of fasting culminating to the obligatory fasting in Ramadhan began with the fasting of Ashurah.

[18] This was only if the mushirkeen would fight them first as stated in the ayah.

[19] While the main addresses of Surah Al-Baqarah are the earlier Ahlul Kitab (Jews), the Prophets mentioned are from that generation. In contrast to Surah Aali ‘Imran which addresses the later Ahlul Kitab (Christians) mentioning the later Prophets Zakariyah, Yahya, Isa and the righteous amongst them like Maryam and her mother.

[20] When the Bani Israel is mentioned, Allah turns to the Jews at the time of the Prophet. And when Ibrahim is mentioned, Allah turns to the Makkan idolaters during the time of the Prophet.

[21] In fact, Raymond goes as far as finding a ring composition within a ring composition. Cuypers is said to have done the same with Surah Al-Maidah. It is a shame that non-Muslims are amongst those finding these miracles. It therefore requires more effort from the Muslims to build a closer relationship in regards to this.

[22] Muwatta

(NOTE: If you want to build a strong and powerful relationship with Allah, check out Islamia TV, where you can watch Islamic speakers from across the globe deliver inspiring and motivational courses. Learn more at


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