Surah Al-Maidah 

(The Repast)

With the name of Allah, the All-Merciful, the Very-Merciful.

O those who believe, fulfill the contracts. The cattles have been made lawful for you, except that which shall be recited (mentioned) to you, provided that you do not treat hunting as lawful while you are in Ihram. Surely, Allah ordains what He wills.[1]

Background of revelation and a summary of subjects

This is the initial verse of Surah al-Ma’idah. As agreed upon, Surah al-Ma’idah is a Madani (Madinite) Surah and also the last among all Madani Chapters (Surah) so much so that some revered elders have identified this as the last Surah of the Qur’an itself. On the authority of narrations from Sayyidna Abdullah ibn ‘Umar and Sayyidah Asma’ bint Yazid, it appears in the Musnad of Ahmad that Surah al-Maidah was revealed to the Holy Prophet while in travel riding the she-camel named ‘Adba’. As explained in the introduction to this Tafsir in Volume 1, there used to be a sense of being under some heavy weight, extraordinary and unexplained, at a time the Wahy (revelation) came to the Holy Prophet . So, this is what happened as customary. When the she-camel could bear the phenomenon of unusual weight no more, he dismounted from her back. This journey is obviously the journey he made to perform his last Hajj as supported by some relevant reports. The Last Hajj took place in the tenth year of Hijrah. After his return from there, his blessed life in the mortal world lasted for about eighty more days. In al-Bahr al-Muhit, commentator Ibn Hayyan has said that some portions of Surah al-Ma’idah were revealed during the journey of Hudaybiyah, some others during the journey of the Conquest of Makkah and still others during the journey of the Last Hajj. This tells us that Surah al-Ma’idah has been revealed during the final stages of the revelation of the Qur’an - though, it may not be the very last Surah.

Ruh al-Ma‘ani on the authority of Abu ‘Ubaydh, cites a narration of ibn Habib and ‘Atiyyah ibn Qays in which the Holy Prophet ř has been reported to have said:

Surah al-Ma’idah is from what has been revealed towards the last stage of the revelation of the Qur’an. So, take what has been made lawful there as lawful for ever and take what has been made unlawful there as unlawful for ever.

Referring to Mustadrak al-Hakim, Ibn Kathir cites a similar narration from Sayyidna Jubayr ibn Nufayr in which he has been reported to have called upon Sayyidah Aishah soon after Hajj. She asked him: “Do you read Surah al-Ma’idah, O Jubayr?” He submitted: “I do.” Sayyidah Aishah then said: “This is the last Surah of the Holy Qur’an. The injunctions about things lawful and unlawful in it are Muhkam (of established meaning). The probability of any abrogation (Naskh) does not exist there. So, be specially particular about them.”

Like Surah Al-Nisa’, Surah al-Ma’idah too carries many subsidiary injunctions relating to dealings and contracts. Accordingly, Ruh al-Ma‘ani notices subject homogeneity in Surah al-Baqarah and Al-’Imran because both of them mostly feature injunctions relating to Principles, Doctrines, Unicity, Prophethood, Doomsday and similar other basic concerns of importance. As for subsidiary injunctions, they appear there as corollaries. Regarding Surah al-Nisa’ and Surah al-Ma’idah, it can be said that they are homogeneous subject-wise because both of them describe subsidiary injunctions. Any description of basic principles appears there by implication. In Surah al-Nisa’, emphasis has been laid on mutual dealings, particularly on rights servants of Allah have on each other (Huquq al-‘Ibad). Then, in it, there are details of the rights of the husband and the wife, the rights of orphans and the rights of the parents and other relatives. In the very first verse of Surah al-Ma’idah, there appears the instruction to stand by all dealings made and pledges given. The words of the Verse: (O those who believe, fulfill the contracts) command that all such commitments must be met. Therefore, Surah al-Ma’idah is also referred to as Surah al-‘Uqud (Al-Bahr al-Muhit).

This Surah, specially its opening verse, has a special bearing on matters relating to mutual dealings and contractual agreements. Therefore, when the Holy Prophet sent Sayyidna ‘Amru ibn Hazm as the ‘Amil (Governor) of Yaman, he gave him a written decree of appointment at the head of which he had this verse written (Al-Bahr al-Muhit).

Commentary

The first sentence of the first verse of this Surah is so comprehensive that its proper discussion would deservedly go beyond thousands of pages. In fact, Muslim scholars and jurists have done exactly that. The verse says: (O those who believe, fulfill the contracts). Here, the very form of address: (O those who believe ...) helps to divert attention to the very crucial nature of the subject for the command being given here is centrally required by one’s faith. Then comes the command: (fulfill the contracts). The word, al-uqud, used in the Qur’an is the plural form of al-‘aqd, the literal meaning of which is to tie. A contract which ties two individuals or groups to each other is also known as ‘aqd. Thus, al-‘uqud takes the meaning of al-‘uhud or contracts.

Commentator Ibn Jarir has reported the consensus of revered exegetes among the Sahabah and Tabi’in on this approach. Imam al-Jassas explains that ‘aqd (contract) or ‘ahd (pledge) or Mu‘ahadah (pact) are all applied to a transaction in which two parties have placed the responsibility of doing or not doing something on each other and to which both of them agree and are bound by. According to our recognized practice, this is what a contractual agreement is. Therefore, the essential meaning of the sentence is: Take the fulfilling of mutual contracts to be binding and necessary.

Now, we have to determine the nature of contracts meant here. The interpretations of commentators appear to be different, though outwardly only. Some say that it refers to the Covenant of Allah under which His created beings are bound to believe in and obey Him, or they refer to pledges Allah has taken from His created beings regarding His revealed injunctions of things lawful and unlawful. This is what has been reported from Sayyidna Ibn Abbas . Others say that here it means the contracts people enter into with each other, such as, the Contract of Marriage and the Contract of Buying and Selling. Commentators Ibn Zayd and Zayd ibn Aslam have taken this very line of interpretation. Still others take contracts to mean sworn alliances and pacts which the tribes of Jahiliyyah entered into with each other for mutual assistance when needed. This is also the position taken by Commentators such as Mujahid, Rabi‘ and Qatadah. But, the truth is that there is no contradiction or difference in what they have said. Instead, all these varied contracts come under the Qur’anic word, “al-‘uqud”, appearing in this verse and the instruction to fulfill all of them comes from the Qur’an itself.

Therefore, Imam Raghib al-Isfahani has said that all kinds of contracts and binding agreements are included under the imperative of this word. He further divides these into three kinds as given below:

1. The Covenant which human beings have with their Creator who is Lord of all the worlds, such as, the pledge to believe in Him, to obey Him, or to observe the restrictions imposed by Him on matters and things lawful and unlawful.

2. The vow or promise or commitment one enters into with one’s own self, such as, to commit to fulfill a vow (nadhr) for something, or to bind oneself on oath that something will be done.

3. The contract that one human being enters with another which includes all contracts which bind two persons or two groups or parties or governments.

So, in the light of this verse, strict adherence to all permissible provisions and conditions which have been mutually agreed upon is mandatory and all parties must observe and fulfill these. This covers all international pacts and treaties between governments, bilateral agreements, all commitments, alliances, charters between groups and parties, also all sorts of contracts and deals between two human beings ranging from marriage, business, partnership, leasing, gift deed to many other bi-partite human dealings. Please note that the restriction of ‘permissible’ imposed a little earlier has a reason, for entering into a contract against the dictates of the Shari’ah, or accepting it, is not permissible for anyone.

The Logic of the Lawful

After the initial declaration of the general rule in the first sentence of the verse, its particular details appear in the second sentence where it has been said: (The cattle have been made lawful for you ...). The word, bahimah used here is applied to animals usually considered to be devoid of understanding because people usually do not understand their speech which thus remains obscure. Imam al-Sha‘rani says: The name ‘bahimah’ is not given to an animal just because it has no sense and everything sensible remains obscure for it - as people commonly think. But, the truth is that no animal or beast, not even trees and rocks, can be taken to be devoid of sense as such - of course, subject to the difference in its degrees. They do not have the same measure of sense as human beings do. This is the reason why human beings have been obligated to observe the percepts and injunctions revealed for them. Animals have not been so obligated, otherwise Allah has given to every animal sense and awareness within the limits of its needs - even to all trees and rocks, for that matter. This is why everything glorifies Allah in its own way: : That is, ‘there is nothing which does not but glorify Him with His praise’ (17:44). How then, without sense, would it have ever recognized its creator and master and how would it have, thus, been able to engage in the act of glorifying Allah?

The word, al-Anam, used in the text is the plural form of na‘am (grazing livestock). Eight kinds of domestic animals or cattles such as the camel, the cow, the buffalow, the goat which have been described in Surah al-An‘am are called the An‘am. Since the word, bahimah (animal) was general, the word, Al-Anam (the cattle) has made it particular. So, the meaning of the verse comes to be that ‘eight kinds of domestic animals have been made lawful for you.’ Under the discussion about the word, ‘al-‘uqud’, you have already read a little earlier that it includes all kinds of contracts. One of these is the pledge Allah Almighty has taken from His created beings that they would observe the restrictions of the lawful and the unlawful. The present sentence is refering to this particular pledge when it says that Allah has made the cattle lawful for you and they can be eaten after having been slaughtered in accordance with the Islamic manner.

Thus believers have been exhorted to obey this injunction by staying within its limits. They should not take it upon themselves, as do the fire-worshippers and the idolators, to declare the very slaughter of these animals as absolutely unlawful, for this is raising an objection against the wisdom of the Creator and certainly an open ingratitude for His blessing. Nor should they become like some other meat-eating people who would, totally unfettered, go about eating all sorts of animals. Rather than do something like that, believers must eat from animals Allah Almighty has made lawful to eat under the Law given by Him. Similarly, they should abstain from animals which have been declared unlawful to eat. The reason is that Allah Almighty is the Creator of the Universe. He knows the nature and the properties of all animals and He is also aware of the effects they bring about when in the human body. He, in His grace, makes what is good and pure openly lawful for human consumption, things which leave no ill effects on physical health and moral strength. Similarly, He forbids unclean and impure animals which are either harmful for human health or contribute metabolically into the generation of evil morals. Therefore, there are a few things exempted from this general rule. These are as follows:

1. The first exemption is contained in: It means: Except animals which have been declared unlawful in the Qur’an, that is, dead animal or the swine.

2. The other exemption appears in: . It means: Quadruped animals are lawful for you and wild game too. But, in the state when you have entered into the garments of Ihram with the intention of doing Hajj or ‘Umrah, hunting becomes a crime and sin. Stay away from it.

Living under the Authority and Wisdom of the Creator

Towards the end of the verse, it was said: which means that Allah Almighty ordains what He wills. Nobody has the right to ask questions or take exception in obeying it. This statement is perhaps indicative of an element of wisdom - that the permission given to human beings to slaughter and eat some animals is no act of injustice. The Creator and Master who has made all these life forms is also the One who has formulated, in His perfect wisdom and insight, the law that the lower form shall be the sustenance of the higher. The soil of the earth is food for trees and trees are food for animals and animals are food for human beings. There is no higher form of creation in this world, therefore, human beings cannot become food for anyone.