2:251 makes reference to an important
event in Jewish history – the Israelites’ victory over the Philistines during
the period of the prophet Samuel. In this battle, the young Dāwūd (David)
distinguished himself by killing the formidable Philistine warrior, Jālūt
(Goliath), and his heroism had important consequences for later Israelite
history. But 2:251 does not simply relate an event in Biblical history; it
touches on a number of issues of religious significance, so that it can
justifiably be cited as an instance of Qur’ānic Ijāz (terseness). A translation
of the verse is followed by commentary.
And so they [Israelites] defeated them
[philistines] by Allah’s will, and David killed Goliath and Allah gave him
kingdom and wisdom, and taught him of that which He wishes. And were Allah not
to repulse one people by means of another, the earth would be filled with
corruption. Allah, however, is full of compassion for the world. (2:251)
(1) The verse begins with the particle
‘fa’ (‘And so’), which represents an omission. The preceding verse reports the
prayer of the troops of Tālūt (Bible: Saul): ‘Our Lord, pour out steadfastness
upon us, make us stand our ground, and give us victory over the disbelieving
people.’ The particle ‘fa’ in verse 251 alludes to the suppressed detail: Allah
accepted their prayer, and so they became victorious see (see Tabarī, 2:396).
(2) The Israelites’ victory over the
Philistines was a watershed in their history, and yet a single – and simple –
Arabic word is used to describe it: fa-hazamūhum. The word brings into sharp
focus the ease and speed with which the Israelites defeated the Philistines. The
Israelites were afraid to take on the Philistines (see the Qur’ān 2:249; 1
Samuel 17:11, 24), and the odds were stacked against them. And yet the battle
proved to be a walk-over for them; for when Dāwūd killed Jālūt, the Philistines
fled. The one-word Qur’ānic description thus suggests that the Israelites made
short work of the Philistines, so that no more than a brief reference to the
event was called for.
(3) The Arabic for ‘by Allah’s will’ is
bi-idhni llāhi. The word idhn represents the twin notions of command and
facilitation. That is, Allah commanded that this happen, and He made it easy for
the Israelites to achieve victory (see Daryābādī, 101). The victory, in other
words, was the result not of any superior military ability or force on their
part, but of Allah’s favour. Tabari explains the phrase fa-hazamūhum bi-idhni
llāhi as follows: fa-qatalūhum bi-qadā’i llāhi wa-qadarihi (2:396).
(4) The verse identifies the most
important incident of the battle: Dāwūd’s slaying of Jālūt. It was this incident
which caused the Philistines to lose heart and filled the Israelites with
courage and optimism.
(5) In reading a text like the Qur’ān,
proper intonation can be important. The phrase wa-qatala Dāwūdu Jālūta is a case
in point. Read this phrase, placing the stress on Dāwūd and putting a mental
exclamation mark at the end of the phrase. The translation now would be: ‘And
Dāwūd killed Jālūt!’ Imagine, the verse would be saying, a young boy killing a
gigantic warrior! Isn’t that surprising? Not so surprising, the verse itself
would seem to suggest, because that is how Allah willed it (bi-idhn illāh would
be relevant here, too). And the verse would become suggestive in other ways too.
Sayyid Qutb writes: ‘He [Allah] decided that this oppressive tyrant should fall
at the hands of this youth so that people may realise that tyrants who terrorise
them can be overpowered by youngsters when He wishes to kill them’, (1:271).
(6) The verse alludes to the
significance of the incident in later Israelite history: Dāwūd’s heroism was one
of the factors that ultimately led to his election as king of the Israelites.
(7) Dāwūd, the verse says, was given al-Mulk
wa al-Hikmah. Al-Mulk stands for kingdom – or the kingdom, if the definite
article in the word is taken to mean the kingdom of Tālūt, who preceded Dāwūd
-–while al-Hikmah stands for prophethood (Tabarī, 2:403; Zamakhsharī, 1:151),
though it may be argued that it (al-Hikmah) represents wisdom in general, whose
highest form, a gift from God, is prophethood (see Daryābādī, 100). The next
phrase, ‘And He taught him of that what He wishes’ refers to the arts and crafts
Dāwūd was known to be an expert at, such as making fine coats of mail (Tabarī,
2:403; see the Qur’ān 34:11, 21:81).
(8) In saying that God gave Dāwūd both
kingdom and wisdom, the verse is saying that kingship and prophethood,
represented, before Dāwūd, in two different individuals – Samuel was the
prophet, Tālūt was the king – were combined in Dāwūd. This double honour, then,
was a special distinction of Dāwūd’s. By implication the verse is saying that
Dāwūd was not only a great king out also a wise man, so that his rule was a
blessing for the Israelites. It is, of course, also implied that power
uninformed by wisdom can be a curse.
(9) According to the verse, Allah taught
Dāwūd what He wishes, not what He wished. The use of the Mudāri‘ (‘imperfect’)
instead of the expect Mādī (‘perfect’) imparts universal value to the statement:
not only Dāwūd but all people like him receive their gift of wisdom,
understanding, and knowledge from Allah (Islāhī, 1:537).
(10) The verse underscores the fact that
Dāwūd’s kingdom and wisdom were both gifts from Allah, just as the Israelites’
victory over the Philistines was due to Allah’s will. In other words, Dāwūd as
an individual, like the Israelites as a nation, owed gratitude to Allah.
(11) It lays down the principle in
accordance with which Allah governs the course of history: Allah does not allow
evil to become dominant forever but keeps purging it, for otherwise endless
misery for mankind would be the result. The implication is that a nation that
becomes dominant – in this case the Israelites – must not suffer from the
delusion that it has now risen above the said law. But there is another
implication also: Jihād is an important means of eliminating evil, and the
Israelites’ fight against the Philistines was but one instance in the series of
Jihād-struggles that have been made in the past or will be made in the future to
combat evil (see Islāhī, 1:538).
(12) An important question arises here:
If God purges the evil perpetrated by one people by means of another, are we to
suppose that this latter people is necessarily good? This is what Tabarī seems
to think. Allah, he says, removes the evil and the wicked by means of the good
and the pious, the disbelievers by means of the believers (2:403 [cf. Sayyid
Qutb, 1:269, who also seems to accept this view]). But while this is certainly
possible – and in the present case, that of the Israelites and the Philistines,
certainly true – it may not be true in each and every case. For sometimes, the
people that is used as the instrument of purging may be evil, but not as evil as
the people whose evil is purged. Nebuchadnezzar, who enslaved the Israelites,
was not a particularly righteous person, and yet he and his people are called in
17:5 ‘Our servants, of great might’, simply because the Israelites had, in
comparison, sunk to a very low level of religious and moral existence, their
punishment at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar having been foretold in such verses in
the Bible as Jeremiah 25:98-10. Note especially that in Jeremiah 25:9
Nebuchadnezzar is called ‘my [God’s] servant.’ (see Islāhī, 3:724-26).
(13) The verse has some importance for
understanding the Islamic view of history, which, according to the verse, is
essentially optimistic. The caravan of history, whenever it loses its way, is
reoriented by Allah. The overall direction of history, therefore, is positive,
and the message of history is one of hope, not one of despair.
(14) The last part of the verse
establishes a relationship between the said law and Divine mercy, saying that
Allah has put that law in force because He is merciful: it is possible to
generalise this statement: all Divine laws are expressions of Divine mercy.
(15) This part of the verse also
furnishes a valuable philosophical insight. It does not say that in establishing
such a law Allah shows mercy to mankind, but that the law is a mercy for the
whole universe. There is, in other words, a relationship between the natural and
moral worlds. Ultimately, the moral world is but part of the larger scheme of
the universe. In the interest of maintaining balance and order in the universe
at large, the verse is suggesting, it is necessary that balance and order be
maintained in the moral world. It is with this aim in view, therefore, that
Allah has established the moral law of history the verse speaks of.
(16) The passage of Sūrah Baqarah of
which the verse is a part (verses 249-251) was revealed before the battle of
Badr. In fact the Qur’ānic description, in this passage, of the battle between
the Israelites and the Philistines prefigures the battle of Badr. At Badr, too,
a small number of Muslims would face a much larger army and defeat it. The
passage thus prepares the Muslims for the battle, at the same time encouraging
them. When the Battle of Badr took place, the People of the Book in Arabia could
not have failed to notice the resemblance between this battle and the battle
between the Israelites and the Philistines (see Islāhī, 1:533).
(17) The verse in question is a good
illustration of the Qur’ānic method of drawing a general rule from a particular
incident. The incident is related in the first half of the verse, it may be
added, has pedagogical value in that it teaches us to look for general rules in
many other verses where only particular incidents are mentioned, the context
leaving it to the reader to draw general rules.
1. Daryābādī, Abdu’l Majid. Al-Qur’ān
al-Hakīm Ma‘a Tarjumah-o-Tafsīr. Lahore and Karachi, prob. 1373 H.
2. Islāhī, Amīn Ahsān. Tadabbur-i-Qur’ān. 9
vols. Lahore, 1973-80.
3. Qutb, Sayyid. Fi Zilāl al-Qur’ān. 6
vols. Beirut, 1393-94/1973-74.
4. Tabarī, Abū Ja‘far. Jāmi‘ al-Bayān. 30
vols. In 12. Beirut, 1406/1986-1407/1987 (reprint of
Bulaq edition, 1323 H.).
5. Zamakhsharī, Abu’l-Qāsim Mahmūd. Al-Kashshāf.
4 vols. Egypt, 1385/1966.