Quranic Reflection No. 476. Āyat 2:189 – Following the Right Course of Action

وَلَيْسَ الْبِرُّ بِأَن تَأْتُوا الْبُيُوتَ مِن ظُهُورِهَا وَلَـٰكِنَّ الْبِرَّ مَنِ اتَّقَىٰ ۗ  وَأْتُوا الْبُيُوتَ مِنْ أَبْوَابِهَا ۚ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّـهَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ
Wa laysal-birru bi-an ta’tūl-buyūta min zuhūrihā wallakinnal-birra manittaqā, wa’tul-buyūta min abwābiha. wattaqullāha la‘allakum tuflihūn
It is not righteousness that you enter houses from the back; rather, righteousness is [personified by] one who is God conscious, and enter houses from their doors and be conscious of Allah, so that you may be successful.
(Sūrat al-Baqarah, No 2, Āyat 189)

When people came to the Prophet sallal-lāhu ‘alayhi wa-ālihi wasallam and asked him about the benefit of the new moon (and the stages of the moon) Allah ‘azza wajall told him to tell them it was for time keeping. Human beings need order and structure in their lives. The stages of the moon help keep time which brings about order in human life. Then in the same verse Allah subhānahu wata‘ālā says that it is not righteousness to enter houses from their rear; rather piety is when a person enters a house through its door.

What does the entering a house through its front door signify in this verse? Commentators mention the following understandings:
1. The verse mentions timekeeping as necessary for Hajj. One of the misguided rituals at the time of Jāhiliyya was for people in Ihrām to enter from the back of their home rather than from the front. They believed it was forbidden for the pilgrims (muhrims) to do normal things, one of which was to enter the home as they did regularly. Islam abolished that practice.
2. The verse could be a rebuke to those who are concerned about matters like the new moon and keep asking about it that rather than inquiring about deeper matters of religious importance. To harp on secondary issues of religion and ignore the primary ones is like entering into it from the back.
3. Piety is to do things in the natural and appropriate manner, in matters of religion or in worldly matters. Everything that is done has a right time, a right manner of doing it, and a right role model to follow in doing it. To depart from these is to not give justice to the action.
4. To find righteousness and piety we must go to the right sources. To understand true Islam, we must enter the House of Islam from the teachings of the Ahlul Bayt of Prophet Muhammad (s) – who are the sources of guidance sent by Allah (swt). To ignore them and use other sources is akin to entering the house of religion from the back. A Hadith of Imam Muhammad al-Bāqir ‘alayhis salām says: We are the doors of God and the inviters and guides towards Paradise, until the Day of Judgment (Tafsīr Majma‘ al- Bayān). The famous hadith of the Prophet (s) says: I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate.

Note that the phrase ‘enter houses from their doors’ is sandwiched between two mentions of taqwā – righteousness is when there is taqwā, and then a command to practice taqwā. This shows that following an appropriate and correct course of action can only be done when accompanied with piety and God-wariness (taqwā). God consciousness paves the way towards righteousness.

Following the right course of action in life must be determined by revelation from Allah (swt). It is not up to human beings themselves to chart their own paths without taking into consideration the guidance sent by Almighty God. True righteousness is to enter the home of religion through the correct point of entry, the entrance identified by Allah as the appropriate one. All other ways, including manipulating religion to fit one’s desires, is to enter it from the back. Let this verse remind us of the importance of doing things as prescribed by the Sharī‘ah sent by Allah ‘azza wajall.

Sources: Shaykh Fadhl b. Hasan Tabrisī, Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Bayān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; Agha Muhsin Qarā’atī, Tafsīr Nūr