As the Opening Surah sums up in seven beautiful verses the essence of the Qur’an, so this Surah sums up in 286 verses the whole teaching of the Qur’an. It is a closely reasoned argument.
Summary – It begins (verses 1-29) by classifying men into three broad categories, depending on how they receive God’s message.
This leads to the story of the creation of man, the high destiny intended for him, his fall, and the hope held out to him (2:30-39).
Israel’s story is then told according to their own traditions – what privileges they received and how they abused them (2:40-86), thus illustrating again as a parable the general story of man.
In particular, reference is made to Moses and Jesus and their struggles with an unruly people; how people of the Book played false their own lights and in their pride rejected Muhammad, who came in the true line of Prophets (2:87-121). They falsely laid claim to the virtues of Father Abraham: he was indeed a righteous Imam, but he was the progenitor of Ishmael’s line (Arabs) as well as of Israel’s line, and he with Ishmael built the Ka’bah (the House of God in Mecca) and purified it, thus establishing a common religion, of which Islam is the universal exponent (2:122-141).
The Ka’bah was now to be the centre of universal worship and the symbol of Islamic unity (2:142-167).
The Islamic Ummah (brotherhood) having thus been established with its definite centre and symbol, ordinances are laid out for the social life of the community, with the proviso (2:177) that righteousness does not consist in formalities, but in faith, kindness, prayer, charity, probity, and patience under suffering. The ordinances relate to food and drink, bequests, fasts, jihad, wine and gambling, treatment of orphans and women, etc. (2:168-242).
Lest the subject of jihad should be misunderstood, it is taken up again in the story of Saul, Goliath and David, in contrast to the story of Jesus (2:243-253).
And so the lesson is enforced that true virtue lies in practical deeds of manliness, kindness, and good faith (2:254-283), and God’s nature is called to mind in the sublime Ayah al-Kursi, the Verse of the Throne (2:255).
The Surah ends with an exhortation to Faith, Obedience, a sense of Personal Responsibility, and Prayer (2:284-286).
This is the longest Surah of the Qur’an, and in it occurs the longest verse (2:282).
The name of the Surah is from the Parable of the Heifer in 2:67-71, which illustrates the insufficiency of carping obedience. When faith is lost, people put off obedience with various excuses: even when at last they obey in the letter, they fail in the spirit, which means that they get fossilised and their self-sufficiency prevents them from seeing that spiritually they are not alive but dead. For life is movement, activity, striving, fighting against baser things. And this is the burden of the Surah.