Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Chapter 2, Verse 83
Remember when We took a pledge from the Children of Israel: ‘Worship none but God; be good to your parents and relatives, to orphans and the poor; speak good words to all people; establish the prayer and pay the prescribed alms.’ Then all but a few of you turned away and paid no heed. (Chapter 2:Verse 83)
This verse speaks of the pledge God took from the Israelites. A pledge is a solemn and formal vow. Let's take a look at a few pledges mentioned in the Holy book: First, God instilled within each one of us a drive towards faith, and He took an oath from entire mankind to seek His path. We all experience this through our human instinct to search for a higher power and seek our creator. God points to this pledge in the following verse:
And when your Lord took out the offspring from the loins of the Children of Adam and made them bear witness about themselves, He said, ‘Am I not your Lord?’ and they replied, ‘Yes, we bear witness.’ So you cannot say on the Day of Resurrection, ‘We were not aware of this,’ (7:172)
Another pledge is the one Allah took from His prophets and messengers that they will inform their nations of the coming of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). They pledged to support him and ask their followers to believe in him when he arrives as mentioned in the following verse:
God took a pledge from the prophets, saying, ‘If, after I have bestowed Scripture and wisdom upon you, a messenger comes confirming what you have been given, you must believe in him and support him. Do you affirm this and accept My pledge as binding on you?’ They said, ‘We do.’ He said, ‘Then bear witness and I too will bear witness.’(3:81)
We find another pledge in chapter 4 of the Quran referring to the contract of marriage. God says:
If you wish to replace one wife with another, do not take any of her bride-gift back, even if you have given her a great amount of gold. How could you take it when you have been intimate with one another and they have taken a solemn pledge from you? (04:20-21)
In fact, marriage contract is emphasized as a 'solemn pledge' because it creates a bond that, in some respects, surpasses the bond between children and parents. If a father, for example, enters his daughter's room while she is changing her clothes, she would rush to cover herself, and he would turn and leave the room. On the other hand, a strange man, after entering into the marriage contract with the daughter, would have no issues seeing her in that situation. God says in the 187th verse of 'The Cow'
On the night of the fast it is lawful for you to have sexual relations with your wives. They are clothing for you and you for them.
Now, let's examine in detail the pledge God took from the Children of Israel. It starts with 'We took a pledge from the Children of Israel: ‘Worship none but God.' Monotheism is both: the paramount and the foundation of faith. This includes the belief in the Torah -God's book-, and in His Messenger Moses.
The next element in the pledge is: ‘be good to your parents’ because, after your Lord, they are the means for your existence. They brought you up while you were a child and catered to your every need. To deny the favour of your parents is to deny the favour of your Lord. In fact, when Allah ordered us to be 'be good to our parents,' He used the Arabic word (ihsan) which means to go beyond duty and obligation. For example, when you offer the obligatory prayers, you are performing your duty. But if you add additional prayers and stay up at night worshipping the Lord, you would be doing ‘ihsan’. God says describing those who go beyond duty and do Ihsan:
As for the God-revering, pious: they will be in Gardens and springs, Taking what their Lord gave them, that they were before that good doers. sleeping only little at night, praying at dawn for God’s forgiveness, giving a rightful share of their wealth to the beggar and the deprived. (51:15-19)
After ordering us to treat our parents very well, God extends His mercy to include our relatives. It is a safeguard for the entire society. If all of us sincerely fulfil this duty, there would be no needy or poor in the community. Allah also extends His command for help and good treatment to those who lost family: the orphans. An orphan is any child whose father dies before he or she reaches the age of puberty. The father is the head of the family, usually the wage earner, and the protector of the children. This protection, is lost when the father dies. If we, as a community, follow Allah's command and properly take care of the orphans, then we will all stop living in fear of what will happen to our kids in case we die. Taking care of an orphan means that his or her rights should be fully protected, and his or her wealth fully guarded until the age of reason. Sadly, in many instances, we see greed and opportunism hovering over the wealth orphans.
How about those with no body to take care of them? those who have poor families, or live away from all relatives? Allah wants each one of us to help and protect the needy who cannot even meet their basic needs. A person in need may have some possessions, but they are insufficient. Thus, Islam established social solidarity. When the poor are taken care of by the rich, it produces a healthy society free of grudges and ill feelings. This type of environment can only be achieved when everyone is treated with respect, thus the next command comes from Allah telling us to 'speak good words to all people.' Note that Allah wants you to treat all people well regardless of faith, race or social status. God says:
Call them to the path of your Lord with wisdom and words of good advice; and reason with them in the most courteous way possible. Your Lord surely knows who strays from His path, and He knows those who are guided the right way. (16:125)
Next, the verse moves from commands that protect the community to commands that protect the individual. God says: ‘And establish prayer.’ Take note that Allah does not want you to simply perform prayer, rather He used the word 'establish'. This means that you should perform and execute the prayer in its proper form on a regular and consistent basis. This includes both the outward and inward aspects of prayer. You are asked to perfect the physical act of prayer, and to accompany it with diligence, humbleness and humility.
Next, Allah commands to ‘pay the prescribed alms.’ The system of Zakat is a system for the rich to support the poor by giving them a small percentage of their wealth, hence, each person’s basic needs in the society are met. When a person in need receives his or her right from Zakat, he or she will pray for the wealthy to be blessed, rather than be resentful towards them. In Islam, poverty has its own right. If for example, you have a relative that is poor, then this person will have two rights on you; the right of poverty and the right of kinship. Likewise, the orphan who is poor also has two rights; one for being an orphan and the other for being poor.
God says at the end of the verse: ‘Then all but a few of you turned away and paid no heed.' meaning that those who followed the Lord's commands and honoured their pledge were only a small group of the Israelites. Allah is just, He respects those who obeyed His commands and raises them above the rest. He does not target the Jewish people as a group, rather He targets the specific behaviours of those who wilfully go astray.