¡ O you who believe! Fulfill your pacts. Lawful unto you are grazing cattle, save that which is recited unto you, hunted game being unlawful when you are in the state of pilgrim sanctity. Truly God decrees whatsoever He desires.
1 This verse is widely understood as being addressed to Muslims in general; it enjoins them to fulfill their pacts, meaning to complete in full the religious commitments they have made to God (cf. 2:40; 3:76; 13:20; 16:91; 33:23). Some early commentators, however, considered it to be addressed to the People of the Book as well, or to the People of the Book specifically, since they are all enjoined to fulfill their pacts or their
covenant with God (see 2:40). The prominent early Ḥadīth scholar Ibn Shihāb al-Zuhrī (d. 124/741) claims to have seen a letter that the Prophet sent to the Christians of Najrān containing the first four verses of this sūrah (Q), indicating that they were addressed to Christian believers as well. Some have suggested the pacts here may also refer to the pacts of alliance and protection made among the Arabs in pre-Islamic times (Q, Ṭ).
However, as this is the opening verse of a sūrah largely concerned with Muslim religious obligations as well as the covenantal obligations of all the People of the Book, it most likely refers to fulfilling religious pacts with God generally (Ṭ), which may also include the proper conclusion of marital, commercial, and treaty agreements, which are governed by religious Law (Q; see 2:177; 6:152, where this phrase is used in relation to religiously prescribed social transactions).
Grazing cattle (bahīmat al-anʿām) designates camels, cows, and sheep (Ṭ), grazing animals commonly eaten in Arabia, and, according to some commentators, includes all forms of such animals, even their young and those in the womb when the mother is slaughtered (Ṭ). It may also include wild grazing animals, such as deer (Ṭ), although others argue these animals fall under the rules governing hunted animals (Q). The exception, save that which is recited unto you (see also 22:30), refers to carrion, the blood of the lawful animals (Ṭ), any animal over which the Name of God has not been mentioned, and any animal that has been slaughtered according to idolatrous rites (vv. 3-4; 6:118-19, 121, 145) or been killed in an unacceptable manner (see v. 3). The flesh of swine is also forbidden (v. 3), but is not considered to be among the exceptions to lawful grazing cattle, specifically, as swine are not “grazing” animals (Ṭ).
This sūrah, revealed partly in the context of the Prophet’s Farewell Pilgrimage (in 10/632), contains several passages related to the pilgrimage (ḥajj). Thus the verse also mentions the ban on hunting game while performing the pilgrimage, which requires a special state of purity (iḥrām) that prohibits hunting or slaughtering animals, with the exception of sea creatures (see 5:95-96).