Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
And among the people is the one who sells himself in pursuit of God’s good pleasure. God is All-Compassionate towards His servants. (Chapter 2:Verse 207)
The verb “sells” is translated from the Arabic origin ‘Shara.’ When God uses this verb in the Quran it could mean either selling or buying. In chapter 12, narrating the story of Prophet Joseph, God uses the verb ‘shara’ in the following way:
and they sold him for a small price, a few pieces of silver: so little did they value him. (12:20)
It is the context of the verse that determines if the verb ‘shara’ means to buy or to sell. This is one of the aspects of the true beauty of the Arabic language. It is a language that invites people to communicate with an alert mind, and to let the context dictate proper understanding of the meaning.
This brings us back to the verse under study. From the phrase: “And among the people is the one who sells himself in pursuit of God’s good pleasure.’ We understand that it is a transaction in which one loses him or herself in exchange for something else. So, it is a process of selling: sacrificing one’s self in exchange for God's pleasures. Allah grants paradise to the person who sells himself in exchange. He says in verse 111 of chapter 9:
Indeed Allah has bought from the faithful their selves and their possessions for paradise to be theirs
But what if we were to look at the verse under study from the opposite angle? What if we were to examine the verse with the verb ‘Shara’ indicating buying one’s self? In this case, you would buy yourself back –in essence saving yourself from ruin- by offering what you have in exchange. Let’s look at two examples from the prophet’s companions:
The verse was revealed in regards to a companion named Suhaib bin Sinan al-Rumi. He embraced Islam in Mecca and wanted to migrate to Medina to join the prophet –peace be upon him-. A spokesman for Quarish told him: By the Gods, we shall not let you leave with your life and money. You came to Mecca weak and poor; we welcomed and helped you; now look at all the wealth and strength you have. Suhaib answered: "What would you say if I leave you all my wealth? Would you let me go?" The spokesman said: "Yes," and so it was. Thus, Suahib bought his faith and freedom in exchange for all his wealth. Before Suhaib reached Medina, the Angel Gabriel narrated his story to Prophet Muhammad. He (peace be upon him) said to Suhaib as he arrived: "Your trade has been fruitful.” So the meaning of the verse, and more specifically the meaning of the verb ‘Shara’ is to purchase one’s self with wealth and sacrifice. This is one of the miracles of Quranic performance, where one word serves two opposing meanings in a single verse without violating the context.
Let’s look at another example of a companion where the story supports the opposite meaning: in essence to sell one’s self. During the battle of Badr, the elites of Quraish had gathered to fight the Muslims. The Muslims managed to kill some of Quraish’s leaders and to capture some. Amongst the ones killed was Abu Uqbah al-Harith. He was killed by a companion named Khubaib from the Aws clan of Medina. After their defeat, some of the disbelievers conspired and said to the Prophet: “we have embraced Islam, so send us men who would teach us the religion.” The Messenger of God (peace be upon him) agreed and sent ten of his companions to teach them the Qur'an. The disbelievers betrayed and killed them except Khubayb who managed to escape along with another companion named Zayd. Quraish went in their pursuit and captured Khubayb. One of his captors recognized him as the killer of Abu Uqbah. He sold him to the son of Abu Uqbah so that he could take revenge for his father. The son did not want to kill him; rather he chose to crucify him. When Quraish gathered for the crucifixion, Khubaib requested a few moments to perform a prayer. They agreed. After completing his prayer he said: "I would have asked for more time for prayer, but I don’t want you to think that I am afraid and trying to delay my death” Then, he said the following poem:
I have no concern as I face death
As long as it is on the path of God that I face it
These were Khubaib’s last words. While he was left hanging, the Prophet learned about the incident. He (peace be upon him) asked his companions: "Whoever amongst you can bring back the body of Khubaib from the cross will earn for himself a spot in paradise." Zubair and Miqdad replied: “we can bring him back, O Prophet of God.” They departed to Mecca on this very dangerous journey knowing that they may not make it back. When they reached the place of the crucifixion, they waited till the guards fell asleep and took the body back. Quraish realized what had happened, and followed their trail. Zubair caught a glance of the knights approaching, so he placed Khubaib’s body on the ground. The body immediately sank into the sand. Thereafter, Khubaib was given the title "the one whom the earth had swallowed." Zubair turned to the disbelievers, exposed his face and said: “I am Zubair, my mother is Safiyya, and this Miqdad my companion. If you have the courage to stop us then do so. If not, then leave us alone." When the Quraishies saw that they did not have the body anymore, they turned around and headed back. Hence, Khubaib earned Paradise. So did Zubair and Miqdad, selling themselves, putting everything –including their lives- on the line.
The verse ends with “and God is All-Compassionate towards His servants.’ Allah –the All Merciful- is not asking every Muslim to go through these exceptional sacrifices in order to prove his or her faith and earn paradise. God gave each one of us a mission in life, and it is up to each person to carry out the message of Islam.