وَلَقَدْ عَلِمْتُمُ الَّذِينَ اعْتَدَوْا مِنكُمْ فِي السَّبْتِ فَقُلْنَا لَهُمْ كُونُوا قِرَدَةً خَاسِئِينَ
You surely know of those among you who exceeded the bounds with respect to the Sabbath, and so We said to them, ‘Be you apes, miserably slinking and rejected.’ (Al-Baqarah 2:65)
As Mujāhid, one of the earliest interpreters of the Qur’ān, also states—and God knows the best—the verse refers to the inner deformation of Sabbath-breakers rather than their actual transformation into apes. In other words, their moral degeneration reached the extent that they became like apes that imitated others. That is, they followed others and slunk towards them for help and refuge but were rejected. Moreover, the inner transformation or deformation is something observable throughout history from generation to generation. It may be said that some communities are currently suffering from it.
The word “Sabbath” means both “Saturday” and “the day of resting” and is revered by Jewish people as they spend that day worshipping. The verse may well be referring to it as the “holy, resting day” consecrated by the Jews. The verse can be explained in light of this last meaning of the day of “Sabbath” to be spent in worship: The Jews who broke the Sabbath withdrew from such an easy responsibility as devoting one day to God, and they broke the covenant which the Creator made with them as the requirement of both having been created as humans and being once a chosen community. They degraded themselves by committing such a serious sin and became ungrateful to God in response to being once chosen over other nations. Thus, God transformed them into ape-natured people in terms of their senses, opinions, and philosophies, and this deformation was also visible in the outside.