2:61 And [remember] when you said: “O Moses, indeed we cannot endure but one kind of food; pray, then, to thy Sustainer that He bring forth for us aught of what grows from the earth – of its herbs, its cucumbers, its garlic, its lentils, its onions.” Said [Moses]: “Would you take a lesser thing in exchange for what is [so much] better?46 Go back in shame to Egypt, and then you can have what you are asking for!”47 And so, ignominy and humiliation overshadowed them, and they earned the burden of God’s condemnation: all this, because they persisted in denying the truth of God’s messages and in slaying the prophets against all right: all this, because they rebelled [against God], and persisted in transgressing the bounds of what is right.48
2:62 VERILY, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians49 – all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds – shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.50
2:63 AND LO! We accepted your solemn pledge, raising Mount Sinai high above you,51 [and saying;] “Hold fast with [all your] strength unto what We have vouchsafed you, and bear in mind all that is herein, so that you might remain conscious of God!”
2:64 And you turned away after that! And had it not been for God’s favour upon you and His grace, you would surely have found yourselves among the lost;
2:65 for you are well aware of those from among you who profaned the Sabbath, whereupon We said unto them, “Be as apes despicable!” –
2:66 and set them up as a warning example for their time and for all times to come, as well as an admonition to all who are conscious of God.52
46 i.e., “Would you exchange your freedom for the paltry comforts which you enjoyed in your Egyptian captivity?” In the course of their wanderings in the desert of Sinai, many Jews looked back with longing to the comparative security of their life in Egypt, as has been explicitly stated in the Bible (Numbers xi), and is, moreover, evident from Moses’ allusion to it in the next sentence of the above Qur’anic passage.
47 The verb habata means, literally, “he went down a declivity”; it is also used figuratively in the sense of falling from dignity and becoming mean and abject (cf. Lane VIII, 2876). Since the bitter exclamation of Moses cannot be taken literally, both of the above meanings of the verb may be combined in this context and agreeably translated as “go back in shame to Egypt”.
48 This passage obviously refers to a later phase of Jewish history. That the Jews actually did kill some of their prophets is evidenced, for instance, in the story of John the Baptist, as well as in the more general accusation uttered, according to the Gospel, by Jesus: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee” (Matthew xxiii, 37). See also Matthew xxiii, 34-35, Luke xi, 51 – both of which, refer to the murder of Zachariah – and I Thessalonians ii, 15. The implication of continuity in, or persistent repetition of, their wrongdoing transpires from the use of the auxiliary verb kanu in this context.
49 The Sabians seem to have been a monotheistic religious group intermediate between Judaism and Christianity. Their name (probably derived from the Aramaic verb ‘tsebha‘, “he immersed himself [in water]”) would indicate that they were followers of John the Baptist – in which case they could be identified with the Mandaeans, a community which to this day is to be found in Iraq. They are not to be confused with the so-called “Sabians of Harran”, a gnostic sect which still existed in the early centuries of Islam, and which may have deliberately adopted the name of the true Sabians in order to obtain the advantages accorded by the Muslims to the followers of every monotheistic faith.
50 The above passage – which recurs in the Qur’an several times – lays down a fundamental doctrine of Islam. With a breadth of vision unparalleled in any other religious faith, the idea of “salvation” is here made conditional upon three elements only: belief in God, belief in the Day of Judgment, and righteous action in life. The statement of this doctrine at this juncture – that is, in the midst of an appeal to the children of Israel – is warranted by the false Jewish belief that their descent from Abraham entitles them to be regarded as “God’s chosen people”.
51 Lit., “and We raised the mountain (at-tur) above you”: i.e., letting the lofty mountain bear witness, as it were, to their solemn pledge, spelled out in verse 83 below. Throughout my translation of the Qur’an, I am rendering the expression at-tur as “Mount Sinai”, since it is invariably used in this sense alone.
52 For the full story of the Sabbath-breakers, and the metaphorical allusion to “apes”, see 7:163-166. The expression ma bayna yadayhd, rendered here as “their time”, is explained in surah 3, note 3.