Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
O you who believe! Do not say 'ra‘ina', but say, 'unzurna', and listen. A painful punishment awaits the unbelievers.
(Chapter 2, Verse 104)
Each time you hear a verse begin with the phrase ‘o you who have believe’, you should pay attention because Allah is addressing you personally. When God calls on to you, He uses your faith as the reason behind the command or prohibition to follow. God does not assign any duty or prohibition to the disbelievers, because they did not seek Him. Only the believers, who declared their love for the Lord and entrusted Him with their affairs, receive His commands and obligations.
Thus ‘O you who believe’ precedes any command to any person who accepted faith in God and is pleased with Him as the Legislator. The phrase that follows in the verse under study says: ‘Do not say 'ra‘ina'’ which is a prohibition. This suggests that this word had been used in the past and God wants it to stop.
What does ‘ra’ina’ mean? In everyday language it means: take care of us and hold our hands. It is derived from the Arabic word for shepherd: ‘ra’ee.’ A shepherd guides a herd of sheep and cattle towards places rich in grass and water. He or she has to also look after the herd and protect it from predators. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Surely, each one of you is a shepherd and each one of you is responsible for his or her herd”.
So, why did Allah prohibit the companions from using the word ‘ra’ina’ and asked them to use the word ‘Unzurna’ instead? If you look into the Arabic meaning of both words, you find it to be very similar, almost identical.......There must be another reason for prohibiting one word, and commanding the use of the other.
Here is the story behind this verse: The companions of the Prophet used to ask for his blessing and supplication using the word ‘rai’na.’ In the Hebrew and Syriac languages, a similar sounding word ‘rai’na’ is used as an insult against a person who is negligent and sloppy. The Jewish residents of Medina found a way to insult Muhammad openly. They also began to address him with ‘rai’na’. Thus, Allah commanded the Muslims to use the word 'Unzurna' instead in order to frustrate the intentions of the Jews.
Saad bn Muath, one of the prophet's closest companions, heard one of the Jewish residents of Medina say to the Prophet (peace be upon him): ‘ra’ina.’ Saad who had converted from Judaism into Islam immediately understood that it was meant as an insult. Thus, he approached the Jewish man and threatened: 'If I hear it again from you, I will ring your neck.' The man replied: 'Isn't that how you address Muhammad? Is it OK for you and prohibited for us?' Shortly after, the verse was revealed: O you who believe! Do not say 'ra‘ina', but say, 'unzurna'. which stripped those who wished the prophet ill from this tool.
The verse continues with the command: ‘and listen.’ Here God Almighty wants to highlight another difference between those who oppose the prophet and the believers. Recall how the Israelites responded to prophet Moses' instructions and the teachings of their Lord. God says:
Remember when We took your pledge, making the mountain tower above you, and said, ‘Hold on firmly to what We have given you, and listen.’ They said, ‘We hear' and we disobey (2:93)
And in another verse when they were instructed to enter the holy land:
They said, ‘Moses, we will never enter while they are still there, so you and your Lord go in and fight, and we will stay here.’ (5:21)
So the Israelites heard God's commands, and heard Moses' teachings and then disobeyed. Allah wants the believers to hold the words of prophet Muhammad dear and to listen to him for the sake of putting his words into practice. If you do not practice your faith, it is as if you have no faith at all.
The last part of the verse states: 'a painful punishment awaits the disbelievers.’ This is a warning to whomever seeks to harm the prophet (peace be upon him) or mock him using words or actions from this moment until the day of judgment. He or she will face excruciating punishment from God.