This is a Medinan sura and the longest in the Quran, containing material revealed over several years, and named after the story of the cow which the Israelites were ordered to slaughter (verses 67 ff.). The sura opens with a response to the plea for guidance in Sura 1, ‘The Opening’, dividing mankind into three groups in their response to this guidance––the believers, the disbelievers, and the hypocrites––and closes confirming the tenets of faith given in the opening verses (3–5).
In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy
Book of Guidance
1 Alif Lam Mim [a]
2 This is the Scripture in which there is no doubt, [b] containing guidance for those who are mindful [c] of God, 3 who believe in the unseen, [d] keep up the prayer, [e] and give [f] out of what We have provided for them; 4 those who believe in the revelation sent down to you [Muhammad], and in what was sent before you, those who have firm faith in the Hereafter. 5 Such people are following their Lord’s guidance and it is they who will prosper. 6 As for those who disbelieve, it makes no difference whether you warn them or not: they will not believe. 7 God has sealed their hearts and their ears, and their eyes are covered. They will have great torment. [g]
8 Some people say, ‘We believe in God and the Last Day,’ when really they do not believe. 9 They seek to deceive God and the believers but they only deceive themselves, though they do not realize it. 10 There is a disease in their hearts, to which God has added more: agonizing torment awaits them for their persistent lying. 11 When it is said to them, ‘Do not cause corruption in the land,’ they say, ‘We are only putting things right,’ 12 but really they are causing corruption, though they do not realize it. 13 When it is said to them, ‘Believe, as the others believe,’ they say, ‘Should we believe as the fools do?’ but they are the fools, though they do not know it. 14 When they meet the believers, they say, ‘We believe,’ but when they are alone with their evil ones, they say, ‘We’re really with you; we were only mocking.’ 15 God is mocking them, and allowing them more slack to wander blindly in their insolence. 16 They have bought error in exchange for guidance, so their trade reaps no profit, and they are not rightly guided. 17 They are like people who [labour to] kindle a fire: when it lights up everything around them, God takes away all their light, leaving them in utter darkness, unable to see– 18 deaf, dumb, and blind: they will never return. 19 Or [like people who, under] a cloudburst from the sky, with its darkness, thunder, and lightning, put their fingers into their ears to keep out the thunderclaps for fear of death– God surrounds the disbelievers. 20 The lightning almost snatches away their sight: whenever it flashes on them they walk on and when darkness falls around them they stand still. If God so willed, He could take away their hearing and sight: God has power over everything.
Worship God Alone
21 People, worship your Lord, who created you and those before you, so that you may be mindful [of Him] 22 who spread out the earth for you and built the sky; who sent water down from it and with that water produced things for your sustenance. Do not, knowing this, set up rivals to God. 23 If you have doubts about the revelation We have sent down to Our servant, then produce a single sura like it– enlist whatever supporters [h] you have other than God– if you truly [think you can]. 24 If you cannot do this– and you never will– then beware of the Fire prepared for the disbelievers, whose fuel is men and stones. 25 [Prophet], give those who believe and do good the news that they will have Gardens graced with flowing streams. Whenever they are given sustenance from the fruits of these Gardens, they will say, ‘We have been given this before,’ because they were provided with something like it. [i] They will have pure spouses and there they will stay. 26 God does not shy from drawing comparisons even with something as small as a gnat, or larger: [j] the believers know it is the truth from their Lord, but the disbelievers say, ‘What does God mean by such a comparison?’ Through it He makes many go astray and leads many to the right path. But it is only the rebels He makes go astray: 27 those who break their covenant with God after it has been confirmed, who sever the bonds that God has commanded to be joined, who spread corruption on the earth– these are the losers. 28 How can you ignore God when you were lifeless and He gave you life, when He will cause you to die, then resurrect you to be returned to Him? 29 It was He who created all that is on the earth for you, then turned to the sky and made the seven heavens; it is He who has knowledge of all things.
a. These are the names of the three Arabic letters a, l, and m. Twenty-nine suras of the Quran begin with separate alphabetical letters like these, from one individual letter up to five. Various interpretations have been offered. It is sufficient to mention two here: (1) these letters indicated to the Arabs who first heard the Quran that the Quran consists of letters and words of their own language, although it was superior to any speech of their own, being of divine origin; (2) they are an exclamatory device intended to arrest the listeners’ attention, similar to the custom of starting poems with an emphatic ‘No!’ or ‘Indeed!’ Exegetes normally added, after expounding their theories, ‘God knows best.’
b. The Arabic construction la rayba fihi carries more than one meaning, including ‘there is nothing dubious about/in it’ and ‘it is not to be doubted’ as regards its origin or contents.
c. The root w–q–y in this morphological form has the meaning of being mindful or being wary of something. The opposite of being mindful of God is to ignore Him or have no reference to Him in your thought, feeling, or action. This is a fundamental concept about God and the believers’ relation to Him. Many translators render the term as ‘those who fear God’, but this is an over-expression of the term and does not correctly convey the meaning of the concept, which is a very common one in the Quran.
d. What is beyond their perception, literally ‘absent’–this applies to the nature of God, the Hereafter, historical information not witnessed, etc.
e. This means regular and proper performance of the formal prayer (salah), as taught by the Prophet Muhammad.
f. Yunfiquna in the Arabic of the Quran literally means ‘spend’, on others, in good causes, in the way of God.
g. The basic meaning of adhab is ‘to restrain (from doing wrong)’, extended to mean anything difficult or painful, punishment, famine (see 23: 78). See Majaz al-Quran, by Izz al-Din Ibn Abdul-Salam (London: Al-Furqan Foundation, 1999), 194, and E. W. Lane, Arabic–English Lexicon (Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1968).
h. Literally ‘whatever witnesses’. Razi interprets this as referring either to their idols or to their leaders.
i. One interpretation is that they enjoy each meal so much that they are delighted to see favourite dishes again; another interpretation is that the food of Paradise resembles the delicacies of this world in appearance.
j. Comparisons such as those given here were seen by some as inappropriate for God, and this is an answer to these critics.
The Qur'an (Oxford World's Classics)
The Qur'an / a new translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, copyright © 2004 Oxford World's Classics (Oxford University Press). Used by permission. All rights reserved.