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Sūrah al-Aʿrāf includes the main themes that are found in chapters which start with Alif-Lām-Mīm (Chapters 2, 3, 29, 30, 31 and 32), and the one chapter which starts with Sād (Chapter 38). We shall elaborate this further when we discuss the disjointed letters in the Qur’an at the beginning of Chapter 42 (al-Shūrá), by the will of God.
What seems to be central in this chapter is God’s covenant with humankind to serve Him alone and not associate anything with Him. The chapter discusses how humanity has kept up with this covenant throughout its history, explaining how the divine covenant was broken and forgotten by most nations and societies. As a result, whenever they faced divine signs or prophets that reminded them of their covenant and called them to it, most people denied the signs, persecuted the prophets, and failed to pay heed—except for a minority.
The divine covenant is a concise version of the entire religious call. Meanwhile, people vary in terms of their capacity to accept or reject this call when they face it, and the call also varies in terms of the place, conditions and environment where it appears. The result is that some souls—not all— find their way to believing in God and His signs, because they have remained loyal to their initial purity and pristine disposition. However, the souls of most people incline toward the earthly life and plunge into worldly pleasures. Thus, they end in disbelief and defiance. Following this division, the believers receive aid, support and victory from God in this world; and are saved from hell, admitted to paradise, and blessed with abundant heavenly pleasures in the hereafter. As for the disbelievers, in this world they meet God’s wrath, curse and punishment which kills them, cuts their line of progeny, extinguishes their fire of mischief, and turns them into shattered stories in history. Yet the punishment of the hereafter is surely more disgraceful, and they will not be helped (41:16). This has been God’s custom in dealing with the previous nations, and it shall be the same with the future generations. Allah judges, and there is none who may repeal His judgement (13:41); and He is on a straight path (11:56).
Explaining this custom of God to the unbelievers so that they may believe in God and His communications would be an example of “warning” (indhār). If the audience are already believers who have an overall knowledge of God and His Lordship, the discussion would serve as a “reminder” (tadhkīr) of God’s signs, whereby they are taught what they need to know about God, His excellent names, His splendid attributes, and His custom in dealing with people in this world and the next. This twofold objective is mentioned in the second verse of the chapter, saying that the purpose of the sūrah is to warn and remind: that you may warn thereby and as a reminder for the believers.
This chapter was revealed in Mecca, although there is some difference of opinion about some of its verses. Accordingly, the verses are directed at the polytheists and a minority of believers who had believed in the Prophet in Mecca. The beginning and ending verses show that the chapter is a general warning for all people, as it includes proofs, admonitions and lessons. This is seen throughout the chapter, discussing the stories of Adam, Satan (Iblīs), Noah, Hūd, Sālih, Lot, Shuʿayb (Jethro, Reuel) and Moses. At the same time, it is a reminder for the believers because it includes a brief description of their faith in God, the hereafter, and the signs of God.
Some of the sublime discussions in this chapter are:
The chapter also includes a concise reference to religious obligations and prohibitions, as we read: Say: My Lord has enjoined justice (7:29) and: Say: Who has forbidden the adornment of Allah which He has brought forth for His servants, and the good things of (His) provision? (7:32).
We can infer that this chapter was revealed before Chapter 6 (Sūrah al-Anʿām), because there we read: Say: I do not find in what has been revealed to me that anyone be forbidden to eat except… (6:145). Based on this verse, the lawfulness of consuming anything that God has not specifically forbidden was revealed prior to Chapter 6. This law of permissibility is to be found in verse 7:32.
Another indication that this chapter was revealed before Chapter 6 is that the legal and practical rulings found in this chapter are more concise and less differentiated than the ones mentioned in Sūrah al-Anʿām, where we read: Say: Come, I will recount what your Lord has forbidden you from… (6:151-153). This is how the rules in Islam were legislated: through a gradual process from concise laws to more elaborate ones.