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CHAPTER SIX

LATER HEBREW PROPHETS


ELIJAH (IDRIS OR ILYAS) AND ELISHA
The majority of the classical commentators identify the Prophet Idris with the Biblical Enoch (Genesis v, l8-19 and 21-24),
without, however, being able to adduce any authority for this purely conjectural identification. Some modern Quran
commentators suggest that the name Idris may be the Arabicized form of Osiris (which, in its turn, was the ancient Greek version
of the Egyptian name As-ar or Us-ar), said to have been a wise king and/or prophet whom the Egyptians subsequently deified, but
this assumption is too far-fetched to deserve any serious consideration. Finally, some of the earliest Quran commentators assert
with great plausibility that “ldris” is but another name for Ilyas, the Biblical Elijah (see 37:123). The Hebrew prophet Elijah (Ilyas
in Arabic) is mentioned in the Bible (I Kings xvii ff. And II Kings i-ii) as having lived in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during
the reigns of Ahab and Ahaziah - i.e., in the ninth century B.C. - and having been succeeded by Elisha (Al-Yasa in Arabic).
(19:56-57) And call to mind, through this divine writ, ldris. Behold, he was a man of truth, a prophet, whom We exalted
onto a lofty station. [As regards “whom We exalted”, see 3:55 and 4:158, where the same expression is used with reference to
Jesus.]
(21:85-86) And [remember] Ishmael and Idris and every one who [like them] has pledged himself [unto God]: they all
were among those who are patient in adversity, and so We admitted them unto Our grace: behold, they were among the
righteous! [The expression “pledged himself” to do something signifies he became responsible for something or someone. What
we have here (as in the identical expression in 38:48) a generic term applying to every one of the prophets, as each of them
pledged himself unreservedly to God and accepted the responsibility for delivering His message to man.]
INVOKING BAAL AND FORSAKING GOD
(37:123-132) And, behold, Elijah [too] was indeed one of Our message-bearers when he spoke [thus] to his people: “Will
you not remain conscious of God? Will you invoke Baal and forsake [God,] the best of artisans - God, your Sustainer and
the Sustainer of your forebears of old?” [The above stress on his, too, having been “one of the message-bearers” recalls the
Quranic principle that God makes no distinction between any of His apostles (see 2:136 and 285, 3:84, 4:152). The term bal
(conventionally spelt Baal in European languages) signified “lord” or “master” in all branches of ancient Arabic, including
Hebrew and Phoenician; it was an honorific applied to every one of the many male deities worshipped by the ancient Semites,
especially in Syria and Palestine. In the Old Testament this designation has sometimes the generic connotation of “idol-worship” -
a sin into which, according to the Bible, the early Israelites often relapsed.] But they gave him the lie: and therefore they will
most surely be arraigned [on Judgment Day], excepting only [those who were] God’s true servants; and him We left thus
to be remembered among later generations: “Peace be upon Elijah and his followers!” Verily, thus do We reward the doers
of good - for he was truly one of Our believing servants! [The form IL-Yasin in which this name appears in the above verse is
either a variant of llyas (Elijah) or, more probably, a plural - the Elijahs - meaning Elijah and his followers. Abd Allah ibn Masud
used to read this verse as “Peace be upon Idrasin”, which, apart from giving us a variant or a plural of Idris (Idris and his
followers), lends support to the view that Idris and llyas are but two designations of one and the same person, the Biblical Elijah.]
ELISHA, (AL-YASA)
(38:48) And call to mind Ishmael and Elisha, [Al-Yasa in Arabic - the Biblical prophet who succeeded Elijah.] and every one
who [like them] has pledged himself [unto Us]: for, each of them was of the truly good!
SAMUEL AND KING SAUL
OVERCOMING FEAR OF DEATH THROUGH STRONG FAITH
(2:246-249) Are you not aware of those elders of the children of Israel, after the time of Moses, how they said unto a
prophet of theirs, [The prophet referred to here is Samuel (see Old Testament, I Samuel viii ff.).] “Raise up a king for us, [and]
we shall fight in God’s cause”? Said he: “Would you, perchance, refrain from fighting if fighting is ordained for you?”
They answered: “And why should we not fight in God’s cause when we and our children have been driven from our
homelands?” [Obviously a reference to the many invasions of their homelands by their perennial enemies, the Philistines,
Amorites, Amalekites and other Semitic and non-Semitic tribes living in and around Palestine; and, by implication, a reminder to
believers of all times that fighting in God’s cause as defined in the Quran is an act of faith.] Yet, when fighting was ordained for
them, they did turn back, save for a few of them; but God had full knowledge of the evildoers. And their prophet said unto
those elders: [The next sentence shows that the elders were thus addressed by Samuel] “Behold, now God has raised up Saul to
be your king.” They said: “How can he have dominion over us when we have a better claim to dominion than he, and he
has not [even] been endowed with abundant wealth?” [The prophet] replied: “Behold, God has exalted him above you,
and endowed him abundantly with knowledge and bodily perfection. And God bestows His dominion upon whom He
wills: for God is infinite, all-knowing.” [An allusion to the Quranic doctrine that all dominion and all that may be owned by man
belongs to God alone, and that man holds it only in trust from Him.] And their prophet said unto them: “Behold, it shall be a
sign of his [rightful] dominion that you will be granted a heart [The word tabut has the meaning of “bosom” or “heart”: an
allusion to the Israelites’ coming change of heart. In view of the subsequent mention of the “inner peace” in the tabut, the
rendering as “heart” is appropriate.] endowed by your Sustainer with inner peace and with all that is enduring in the angel-
borne heritage left behind by the House of Moses and the House of Aaron. [The expression “borne by the angels” is an
allusion to the God-inspired nature of the spiritual heritage left by those two prophets; while the “remainder” denotes that which
is lasting or enduring in that heritage.] Herein, behold, there shall indeed be a sign for you if you are [truly] believers.” And
when Saul set out with his forces, he said: “Behold, God will now try you by a river: he who shall drink of it will not
belong to me, whereas he who shall refrain from tasting it - he, indeed, will belong to me; but forgiven shall be he who
shall scoop up but a single handful.”[The symbolic implication is that belief in the justice of one’s cause has no value unless it
is accompanied by heightened self-discipline and disregard of one’s material interests.] However, save for a few of them, they
all drank [their fill] of it. And as soon as he and those who had kept faith with him had crossed the river, the others said:
“No strength have we today [to stand up] against Goliath and his forces!” [Yet] those who knew with certainty that they
were destined to meet God, replied: “How often has a small host overcome a great host by God’s leave! For God is with
those who are patient in adversity.”
DAVID
DAVID VERSES GOLIATH
(2:250-251) And when they came face to face with Goliath and his forces, they prayed: “O our Sustainer! Shower us with
patience in adversity, and make firm our steps, and succor us against the people who deny the truth!” And thereupon, by
God’s leave, they routed them. And David slew Goliath; and God bestowed upon him dominion, and wisdom, and
imparted to him the knowledge of whatever He willed. And if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against
one another, corruption would surely overwhelm the earth: but God is limitless in His bounty unto all the worlds.
[Reference to God’s enabling people to defend themselves against aggression or oppression.]
IN THE DEFENSE OF DAVID
(38:17-29) And remember Our servant David, him who was endowed with [so much] inner strength! He, verily, would
always turn unto Us: [and for this,] behold, We caused [Or constrained] the mountains to join him in extolling Our limitless
glory at eventide and at sunrise, and [likewise] the birds in their assemblies: [together] they all would turn again and again
unto Him [who had created them]. And We strengthened his dominion, and bestowed upon him wisdom and sagacity in
judgment. And yet, has the story of the litigants come within your ken - [the story of the two] who surmounted the walls of
the sanctuary [in which David prayed]? [The story which, according to the oldest sources at our disposal, is alluded to in verses
21-26 affects the question as to whether God’s elect, the prophets - all of whom were endowed, like David, with wisdom and
sagacity in judgment - could or could not ever commit a sin: in other words, whether they, too, were originally subject to the
weaknesses inherent in human nature as such or were a priori endowed with an essential purity of character which rendered each
of them incapable of sinning”. The story of David contradicts the doctrine - somewhat arbitrarily developed by Muslim
theologians in the course of the centuries that prophets cannot sin by virtue of their very nature. The purity and subsequent
sinlessness among prophets is a result of inner struggles and trials and, thus, represents in each case a moral achievement rather
than an inborn quality.
David fell in love with a beautiful woman whom he accidentally observed from his roof terrace. On inquiring, he was told that she
was the wife of one of his officers, named Uriah. Impelled by his passion, David ordered his field-commander to place Uriah in a
particularly exposed battle position, where he would be certain to be killed; and as soon as his order was fulfilled and Uriah died,
David married the widow (who subsequently became the mother of Solomon). This story agrees more or less with the Old
Testament, which gives the woman’s name as Bath-Sheba (II Samuel xi), barring the Biblical allegation that David committed
adultery with her before Uriah’s death (xi, 4-5) - an allegation which has always been rejected by Muslims as highly offensive and
slanderous: see the saying of the fourth Caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib: “If anyone should narrate the story of David in the manner in
which the story-tellers narrate it, I will have him flogged with one hundred and sixty stripes - for this is a suitable punishment for
slandering prophets” (thus indirectly recalling the Quranic ordinance, in 24:4, which stipulates flogging with eighty stripes for
accusing ordinary persons of adultery without legal proof). The two “litigants” who suddenly appeared before David were angels
sent to bring home to him his sin. However, it is possible to see in their appearance an allegory of David’s own realization of
having sinned: voices of his own conscience which at last “surmounted the walls” of the passion that had blinded him for a time.]
As they came upon David, and he shrank back in fear from them, they said: “Fear not! [We are but] two litigants. One of
us has wronged the other: so you judge between us with justice, and deviate not from what is right, and show [both of] us
the way to rectitude. “Behold, this is my brother: he has ninety-nine ewes, whereas I have [only] one ewe - and yet he said,
‘Make her over to me,’ and forcibly prevailed against me in this [our] dispute.” Said [David]: “He has certainly wronged
you by demanding that your ewe be added to his ewes! Thus, behold, do many kinsmen wrong one another - [all] save
those who believe [in God] and do righteous deeds: but how few are they!” And [suddenly] David understood that We had
tried him: [And that he had failed in the matter of Bath-Sheba] and so he asked his Sustainer to forgive him his sin, and fell
down in prostration, and turned unto Him in repentance. And thereupon We forgave him that [sin]: and, verily, nearness
to Us awaits him [in the life to come], and the most beauteous of all goals! [And We said:] “O David! Behold, We have
made you a [prophet and, thus, Our] vicegerent on earth: judge, then, between men with justice, and do not follow vain
desire, lest it lead you astray from the path of God: verily, for those who go astray from the path of God there is suffering
severe in store for having forgotten the Day of Reckoning!” And [thus it is:] We have not created heaven and earth and all
that is between them without meaning and purpose, as is the surmise of those who are bent on denying the truth: [The
above statement appears in the Quran in several formulations. In the present instance it connects with the mention of the Day of
Reckoning in the preceding verse, thus leading organically from a specific aspect of David’s story to a moral teaching of wider
import.] but then, woe from the fire [of hell] unto all who are bent on denying the truth! [I.e., a deliberate rejection of the
belief that the universe - and, in particular, human life - is imbued with meaning and purpose leads unavoidably - though
sometimes imperceptibly - to a rejection of all moral imperatives, to spiritual blindness and, hence, to suffering in the life to
come.] [For,] would We treat those who have attained to faith and do righteous deeds in the same manner as [We shall
treat] those who spread corruption on earth? Would We treat the God-conscious in the same manner as the wicked? [By
implication, belief in resurrection, judgment and life after death is postulated in this passage (verses 27-28) as a logical corollary -
almost a premise - of all belief in God: for, since we see that many righteous people suffer all manner of misery and deprivations
in this world, while, on the other hand, many of the wicked and depraved enjoy their lives in peace and affluence, we must either
assume that God does not exist (because the concept of injustice is incompatible with that of Godhead), or - alternatively - that
there is a hereafter in which both the righteous and the unrighteous will harvest in full what they had morally sown during their
lives on earth.] [All this have We expounded in this] blessed divine writ which We have revealed unto you, [O Muhammad,]
so that men may ponder over its messages, and that those who are endowed with insight may take them to heart.
REPENTANCE OF SIN
(34:9-11) In all this, behold, there is a message indeed for every servant [of God] who is wont to turn unto Him [in
repentance]. And [thus], indeed, did We grace David with Our favor: [David is singled out for special mention in view of the
allusion, in surah 38 (above), to his having suddenly become aware that he had committed a sin, whereupon “he asked his
Sustainer to forgive him his sin… and turned unto Him in repentance” (38:24).] “O you mountains! Sing with him the praise of
God! And [likewise] you birds!” And We softened all sharpness in him, [The term hadid denotes, primarily, something that is
“sharp” in both the concrete and abstract senses of the word. God’s having “softened all sharpness” in David is evidently an
allusion to his exalted sense of beauty (expressed in the poetry of his Psalms) as well as to his goodness and humility. An
alternative rendering of the above phrase would be: “We caused iron to become soft for him”, which might be an allusion to his
outstanding abilities as poet, warrior and ruler.] [and inspired him thus:] “Do good deeds lavishly, without stint, and give deep
thought to their steady flow.” And [thus should you all, O believers,] do righteous deeds: for, verily, I see all that you do!
[I.e., good deeds done abundantly and without stint]
BOOK OF DIVINE WISDOM
(17:55) We bestowed upon David a book of divine wisdom [in token of Our grace]. [I.e., just as David’s “book of divine
wisdom” (the Psalms) had outlived the glory of his earthly kingdom]
SOLOMON (SULEMAN OR SULAIMAN) AND HIS LEGENDS
The Quran often employs legends as a vehicle for allegories expressing certain universal ethical truths. Even before the advent of
Islam many legends had become so firmly embedded in the poetic memories of the Arabs that most of these legends had acquired
a cultural reality of their own, which made a denial or a confirmation of their mythical origin utterly irrelevant. Within the context
of the Quran, the only thing that is relevant in this respect is the spiritual truth underlying each one of these legends: a many-
sided, many-layered truth which the Quran invariably brings out, sometimes explicitly, sometimes elliptically, often allegorically,
but always with a definite bearing on some of the hidden depths and conflicts within our own human psyche.
VALLEY OF ANTS
(27:15-19) And, indeed, We granted [true] knowledge [I.e., spiritual insight.] unto David and Solomon [as well]; and both
were wont to say: All praise is due to God, who has [thus] favored us above many of His believing servants!” And [in this
insight] Solomon was [truly] David’s heir; and he would say: “O you people! We have been taught the speech of birds, and
have been given [in abundance] of all [good] things: this, behold, is indeed a manifest favor [from God]!” And [one day]
there were assembled before Solomon his hosts of invisible beings, [Apart from 114:6, which contains the earliest Quranic
reference to the concept of jinn, the above is apparently the oldest instance where this concept occurs in the personalized form of
“invisible beings”. (For a fuller discussion, see the chapter al-ghayb.)] and of men, and of birds; and then they were led forth
in orderly ranks, till, when they came upon a valley [full] of ants, an ant exclaimed: “O you ants! Get into your dwellings,
lest Solomon and his hosts crush you without [even] being aware [of you]!” Thereupon [Solomon] smiled joyously at her
words, and said: “O my Sustainer! Inspire me so that I may forever be grateful for those blessings of Thine with which
Thou hast graced me and my parents, [In this instance, Solomon evidently refers to his own understanding and admiration of
nature (see 38:31-33) as well as to his loving compassion for the humblest of God’s creatures, as a great divine blessing: and this
is the Quranic moral of the legendary story of the ant.] and that I may do what is right [in a manner] that will please Thee;
and include me, by Thy grace, among Thy righteous servants!”
HOOPOE AND QUEEN SHEBA
(27:20-44) And [one day] he looked in vain for [a particular one of] the birds; and so he said: How is it that I do not see the
hoopoe? Or could he be among the absent? [If so,] I will punish him most severely or will kill him unless he brings me a
convincing excuse!” [The threat of “killing” the hoopoe is, of course, purely idiomatic and not to be taken literally.] But [the
hoopoe] tarried but a short while; and [when it came] it said: “I have encompassed [with my knowledge] something that
you have never yet encompassed [with thine] - for I have come to you from Sheba with a tiding sure! [Thus, we are
parabolically reminded that even the most lowly being can - and on occasion does - have knowledge of things of which even a
Solomon in all his wisdom may be ignorant - a reminder which ought to counteract the ever-present danger of self-conceit to
which learned men, more than anyone else, are exposed. As regards the kingdom of Sheba, see 34:15.] “Behold, I found there a
woman ruling over them; and she has been given [abundance] of all [good] things, and hers is a mighty throne, And I
found her and her people adoring the sun instead of God; and Satan has made these doings of theirs seem goodly to them,
and [thus] has barred them from the path [of God], so that they cannot find the right way: [for they have come to believe]
that they ought not to adore God - [I.e., their own immoral impulses (which is the meaning of ash-shaytan in this context) had
persuaded them that they should not submit to the idea of man’s responsibility to a Supreme Being who, by definition, is beyond
the reach of human perception but should worship certain perceivable natural phenomena instead.] [although it is He] who
brings forth all that is hidden in the heavens and on earth, [An allusion to the appearance and disappearance of the sun and
other celestial bodies which the Sabeans - in common with almost all the Semites of antiquity - used to worship, (See the story of
Abraham’s search for God in 6:74.)] and knows all that you would conceal as well as all that you bring into the open: God,
save whom there is no deity - the Sustainer, in awesome almightiness enthroned!” Said [Solomon]: “We shall see whether
you have told the truth or are one of the liars! Go with this my letter and convey it to them; and thereafter withdraw from
them and see what [answer] they return.” [When the Queen had read Solomon’s letter,] she said: “O you nobles! A truly
distinguished letter has been conveyed unto me. Behold, it is from Solomon, and it says, ‘In the name of God, the Most
Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace: [God says:] Exalt not yourselves against Me, but come unto Me in willing surrender!’ ”
[In the above legend, the information brought by the hoopoe is the very first link between the kingdoms of Sheba and of Solomon.
In the absence of any previous contact, hostile or otherwise, there would have been no point whatever in Solomon’s telling the
people of Sheba that they should not exalt themselves against or above himself. On the other hand, the narrative of the hoopoe
makes it clear that the Sabeans did exalt themselves against God by worshipping the sun and by being convinced that they ought
not to worship God (verses 24-25 above). Hence, Solomon, being a prophet, is justified in calling upon them, in the name of God,
to abandon this blasphemy and to surrender themselves to Him. (See the almost identical phrase, “Exalt not yourselves against
God”, in 44:19.)] She added: “O you nobles! Give me your opinion on the problem with which I am now faced; I would
never make a [weighty] decision unless you are present with me.” They answered: “We are endowed with power and with
mighty prowess in war - but the command is yours; consider, then, what you would command.” Said she: “Verily,
whenever kings enter a country they corrupt it, [The term dukhul connotes “entering by force”, whether it be by armed
invasion or by usurpation of political power from within the country. The term muluk, lit., “kings”, may he understood to denote
also persons who, while not being “kings” in the conventional sense of this word, wrongfully seize and forcibly hold absolute
power over their subjects.] and turn the noblest of its people into the most abject. And this is the way they [always] behave?
[Thus, the Queen of Sheba rules out force as a suitable method for dealing with Solomon. Implied in her statement is the Quranic
condemnation of all political power obtained through violence as it is bound to give rise to oppression, suffering and moral
corruption.] Hence, behold, I am going to send a gift to those [people], and await whatever [answer] the envoys bring
back.” Now when [the Queen’s messenger] came unto Solomon, he said: “Do you people mean to add to my wealth? But
that which God has given me is [so much] better than all that He has given you! [I.e., not only worldly wealth but also faith,
wisdom and an insight into realities normally hidden from other men] Nay, it is [only such as] you [I.e., people who prize only
material things and have no inkling of spiritual values.] that would rejoice in this gift of yours! “You go back unto them [that
have sent you]! For, [God says:] ‘We shall most certainly come upon them with forces which they will never be able to
withstand, and shall most certainly cause them to be driven from that [land of theirs], despicable and humbled!’ ” [Since
the Quran explicitly prohibits all wars of aggression (see 2:190 -194), it is not plausible that this same Quran should place a crude
threat of warlike aggression in the mouth of a prophet. We must, therefore, assume that here again, as in verse 31 above, it is God
who, through His prophet, warns the people of Sheba of His coming upon them - i.e., punishing them - unless they abandon their
blasphemous belief that they ought not to worship God. This interpretation finds considerable support in the sudden change from
the singular in which Solomon speaks of himself in the preceding (as well as in the subsequent) verses, to the majestic plural
“We” appearing in the above sentence.] [When Solomon learned that the Queen of Sheba was coming,] [I.e., evidently in
response to his message.] he said [to his council]: “O you nobles! Which of you can bring me her throne before she and her
followers come unto me in willing surrender to God?” [Lit., “before they come unto me as people who surrender themselves
(muslimin)” i.e., to God (see verse 31 above). The term throne (arsh) is used here in the sense of dominion or regal power. It
appears that Solomon intends to confront his guest with an image of her worldly power, and thus to convince her that her throne is
as nothing when compared with the awesome almightiness of God.] Said a bold one of the invisible beings [subject to
Solomon]: “I shall bring it to you before you rise from your council-seat - for, behold, I am powerful enough to do it, [and]
worthy of trust!” Answered he who was illumined by revelation: [Lit., “he who had knowledge out of revelation (al-kitab)” -
i.e., Solomon himself.] “[Nay,] as for me - I shall bring it to you before the twinkling of your eye ceases!” [I.e., faster than
any magic could achieve: thus alluding to the symbolic nature of the forthcoming appearance of the throne. Here, as in the whole
of the story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, symbolism and legendary “fact” are subtly intertwined, evolving into an
allegory of the human soul’s awakening to a gradual realization of spiritual values.] And when he saw it truly before him, he
exclaimed: [I.e., actually before him] “This is [an outcome] of my Sustainer’s bounty, to test me as to whether I am grateful
or ungrateful! [I.e., “whether I attribute my spiritual powers to God or, vaingloriously, to myself] However, he who is grateful
[to God] is but grateful for his own good; and he who is ungrateful [should know that], verily, my Sustainer is self-
sufficient, most generous in giving!” [And] he continued: Alter her throne so that she may not know it as hers: let us see
whether she allows herself to be guided [to the truth] or remains one of those who will not be guided.” [I.e., whether she
remains satisfied with perceiving only the outward appearance of things and happenings, or endeavors to fathom their spiritual
reality. Seeing that the people of Sheba were, until then, motivated by love of luxury and worldly power; Solomon intends to
show the Queen her “throne”, or the image of her dominion, as it could be if it were inspired by faith in God and, hence, by a
consciousness of moral responsibility.] And so, as soon as she arrived, she was asked: “Is thy throne like this?” She
answered: “It is as though it were the same!” [And yet not quite the same: thus, she expresses doubt - and doubt is the first step
in all spiritual progress. She realizes that the “altered throne” is outwardly the same as that which she has left behind; but she
perceives intuitively that it is imbued with a spiritual quality which the other did not possess, and which she cannot yet quite
understand.] [And Solomon said to his nobles: “She has arrived at the truth without any help from us,] although it is we
who have been given [divine] knowledge before her, and have [long ago] surrendered ourselves unto God! [And she has
recognized the truth] although that which she has been wont to worship instead of God had kept her away [from the right
path]: [An allusion to her and her people’s worship of celestial bodies (see verses 24-25.] for, behold, she is descended of
people who deny the truth!” [Thus stressing the role of the idolatrous tradition in which she had grown up, and which in the past
had made it difficult for her to find the right path. Considering this cultural background, Solomon points out her awakening at the
very moment of her leaving her ancestral environment must be deemed most remarkable and praiseworthy.] [After a while] she
was told: “Enter this court!” - but when she saw it, she thought that it was a fathomless expanse of water, and she bared
her legs. [I.e., in order to wade into it, or perhaps to swim through it, thus braving the seemingly fathomless deep: possibly a
symbolic indication of the fear which a human being may feel when his own search after truth forces him to abandon the warm,
soothing security of his erstwhile social and mental environment, and to venture into the as yet unknown realm of the spirit.] Said
he: “Behold, it is [but] a court smoothly paved with glass!” [I.e., not a dangerous, bottomless deep, as it appeared at first
glance, but, rather, the firm, glass-clear light of truth: and with her perception of the ever-existing difference between appearance
and reality, the Queen of Sheba comes to the end of her spiritual journey.] Cried she: “O my Sustainer! I have been sinning
against myself thy worshipping aught but Thee]: but [now] I have surrendered myself, with Solomon, unto the Sustainer
of all the worlds!”
SOLOMON’S JUSTICE (when flock of sheep strayed into neighboring field)
(21:78-80) And [remember] David and Solomon - [how it was] when both of them gave judgment concerning the field into
which some people’s sheep had strayed by night and pastured therein, and [how] We bore witness to their judgment: [For
an elucidation of the story - or, rather, legend - to which the above verse alludes, we must rely exclusively on the Companions of
the Prophet, since neither the Quran nor any authentic saying of the Prophet spells it out to us. Since, a good many Companions
and their immediate successors fully agreed on the substance of the story, differing only in one or two insignificant details seems
to indicate that at that period it was already well-established in ancient Arabian tradition. According to this story, a flock of sheep
strayed at night into a neighboring field and destroyed its crop. The case was brought before King David for judicial decision. On
finding that the incident was due to the negligence of the owner of the sheep, David awarded the whole flock - the value of which
corresponded roughly to the extent of the damage - as an indemnity to the owner of the field. David’s young son, Solomon,
regarded this judgment as too severe, as the sheep represented the defendant’s capital, whereas the damage was of a transitory
nature, involving no more than the loss of one years crop, i.e., of income. He therefore suggested to his father that the judgment
should be altered: the owner of the field should have the temporary possession and usufruct of the sheep (milk, wool, newborn
lambs, etc.), while their owner should tend the damaged field until it was restored to its former productivity, whereupon both the
field and the flock of sheep should revert to their erstwhile owners; in this way the plaintiff would be fully compensated for his
loss without depriving the defendant of his substance. David realized that his son’s solution of the case was better than his own,
and passed judgment accordingly; but since he and Solomon had been inspired by a deep sense of justice, God - in the words of
the Quran “bore witness to their judgment”.] for, [though] We made Solomon understand the case [more profoundly] yet We
vouchsafed unto both of them sound judgment and knowledge [of right and wrong]. [I.e., the fact that Solomon’s judgment
was more profound did not disprove the intrinsic justice of David’s original judgment or deprive it of its merit.] And We caused
the mountains to join David in extolling Our limitless glory, and likewise the birds: for We are able to do [all things]. [A
reference to the Psalms of David, which call upon all nature to extol the glory of God - similar to the Quranic verses, “The seven
heavens extol His limitless glory, and the earth, and all that they contain” (17:44), or “All that is in the heavens and on earth
extols God’s limitless glory” (57:1).] And We taught him how to make garments [of God- consciousness] for you, [O men,]
so that they might fortify you against all that may cause you fear: but are you grateful [for this boon]? [The primary
significance of “garment” in this case is the metaphorical “garment of God-consciousness” of which the Quran speaks in 7:26.
The above verse expresses the idea that the Almighty taught David how to imbue his followers with that deep God-consciousness
which frees men from all spiritual distress and all fears, whether it be fear of one another or the subconscious fear of the
Unknown. The concluding rhetorical question, “but are you grateful [for this boon]?” implies that, as a rule, man does not fully
realize - and, hence, is not really grateful for - the spiritual bounty thus offered him by God.]
REVERENCE OF BEAUTY CREATED BY GOD
(38:30-33) And unto David We granted Solomon [as a son - and] how excellent a servant [of Ours he grew up to be]!
Behold, he would always turn unto Us - [I.e., he would always think of God, as illustrated by the example given in the
sequence.] [and even] when, towards the close of day, nobly-bred, swift-footed steeds were brought before him, he would
say, “Verily, I have come to love the love of all that is good because 1 bear my Sustainer in mind!” [Lit., “because of or out
of the remembrance of my Sustainer”] - [repeating these words as the steeds raced away,] until they were hidden by the veil
[of distance - whereupon he would command], “Bring them back unto me!”- and would [lovingly] stroke their legs and
their necks. [The story of Solomon’s love of beautiful horses is meant to show that all true love of God is bound to be reflected in
one’s realization of, and reverence for, the beauty created by Him.]
SPIRITUAL KINGDOM OF SOLOMON
(38:34-35) But [before this], indeed, We had tried Solomon by placing upon his throne a [lifeless] body; [To explain this
verse, some of the commentators advance the most fantastic stories, almost all of them going back to Talmudic sources unworthy
of serious consideration. The “body” upon Solomon’s throne is an allusion to his own body, and - metonymically - to his kingly
power, which was bound to remain “lifeless” so long as it was not inspired by God-willed ethical values. In classical Arabic a
person utterly weakened by illness, worry or fear, or devoid of moral values, is often described as “a body without a soul”. In
other words, Solomon’s early trial consisted in his inheriting no more than a kingly position, and it rested upon him to endow that
position with spiritual essence and meaning.] and thereupon he turned [towards Us; and] he prayed: “O my Sustainer!
Forgive me my sins, and bestow upon me the gift of a kingdom which may not suit anyone after me: verily, Thou alone art
a giver of gifts!” [I.e., a spiritual kingdom, which could not be inherited by anyone and, hence, would not be exposed to envy or
worldly intrigue]
SUBSERVIENCE OF WIND AND INVISIBLE FORCES
(21:81-82) And unto Solomon [We made subservient] the stormy wind, so that it sped at his behest towards the land which
We had blessed: for it is We who have knowledge of everything. [This is apparently an allusion to the fleets of sailing ships
which brought untold riches to Palestine (the land which We had blessed) and made Solomon’s wealth proverbial.] And among
the rebellious forces [which We made subservient to him] [The rendering of shayatin (lit., “satans”) as “rebellious forces” is
based on the term shaytan in the sense of anything “rebellious”, “inordinately proud’’ or “insolent” - in this case, possibly a
reference to subdued and enslaved enemies or, more probably, to rebellious forces of nature which Solomon was able to tame and
utilize.] there were some that dived for him [into the sea] and performed other works, besides: but it was We who kept
watch over them. [The Quran alludes to the many poetic legends which were associated with his name since early antiquity and
had become part and parcel of Judeo-Christian and Arabian lore long before the advent of Islam. Although it is undoubtedly
possible to interpret such passages in a rationalistic manner, but this is not really necessary. Because they were so deeply
ingrained in the imagination of the people to whom the Quran addressed itself in the first instance, these legendary accounts of
Solomon’s wisdom and magic powers had acquired a cultural reality of their own and were, therefore, eminently suited to serve as
a medium for the parabolic exposition of certain ethical truths with which this book is concerned: and so, without denying or
confirming their mythical character, the Quran uses them as a foil for the idea that God is the ultimate source of all human power
and glory, and that all achievements of human ingenuity, even though they may sometimes border on the miraculous, are but an
expression of His transcendental creativity.]
(34:12-13) And unto Solomon [We made subservient] the wind: its morning course [covered the distance of] a month’s
journey, and its evening course, a month’s journey. And We caused a fountain of molten copper to flow at his behest;
[Probably a reference to the many furnishings of copper and brass which, according to the Bible (cf. II Chronicles iv), Solomon
caused to be made for his newly-built temple.] and [even] among the invisible beings there were some that had [been
constrained] to labor for him by his Sustainer’s leave [I.e., subject to his will. For the rendering of jinn as “invisible beings”,
see the chapter al-ghayb.]- and whichever of them deviated from Our command, him would We let taste suffering through a
blazing flame -: they made for him whatever he wished of sanctuaries, and statues, and basins as [large as] great watering
- troughs, and cauldrons firmly anchored. [See II Chronicles iii, 10-13, where statues (images) of cherubim are mentioned, as
well as iv, 2–5, describing a molten sea (i.e., basin) of huge dimensions, resting upon twelve statues of oxen, and meant to contain
water for the priests to wash in (iv, 6). The sanctuaries were apparently the various halls of the new temple.] [And We said:]
“Labor, O David’s people, in gratitude [towards Me] [These words, ostensibly addressed to the family of David, are in reality
an admonition to all believers, at all times, since all of them are, spiritually, David’s people.] - and [remember that] few are the
truly grateful [even] among My servants!” [I.e., even among those who consider themselves God’s servants - for truly grateful
to God is only he who realizes his inability to render adequate thanks to Him.]
(38:36-40) And so [I.e., as a reward for his humility and turning-away from worldly ambitions, implied in the prayer, “Forgive
me my sins”.] We made subservient to him the wind, so that it gently sped at his behest whither so ever he willed, [For the
meaning, in general, of the many legends surrounding the person of Solomon, see 21:82 below.] as well as all the rebellious
forces [that We made to work for him] - every kind of builder and diver - and others linked together in fetters. [I.e.,
subdued and, as it were, tamed by him: the rendering, in this context, of shayatin as rebellious forces.] [And We told him:] “This
is Our gift, for you to bestow freely on others, or to withhold, without [having to render] account!” And, verily, nearness to
Us awaits him [in the life to come], and the most beauteous of all goals!
LEGEND OF DEATH OF SOLOMON
(34:14) Yet [even Solomon had to die; but] when We decreed that he should die, nothing showed them that he was dead
except an earthworm that gnawed away his staff. [This is yet another of the many Solomonic legends which had become an
inalienable part of ancient Arabian tradition, and which the Quran uses as a vehicle for the allegorical illustration of some of its
teachings. According to the legend, Solomon died on his throne leaning forward on his staff, and for a length of time nobody
became aware of his death: with the result that the jinn, who had been constrained to work for him, went on laboring at the heavy
tasks assigned to them. Gradually, however, a termite ate away Solomon’s staff, and his body, deprived of support, fell to the
ground. This story - only hinted at in its outline - is apparently used here as an allegory of the insignificance and inherent
brittleness of human life and of the perishable nature and emptiness of all worldly might and glory.] And when he fell to the
ground, those invisible beings [subservient to him] saw clearly that, had they but understood the reality which was beyond
the reach of their perception, [Al-ghayb, “that which is beyond the reach of [a created being’s] perception”, either in an absolute
or - as in this instance - in a relative, temporary sense.] they would not have continued [to toil] in the shameful suffering [of
servitude] [I.e., because they would have known that Solomon’s sway over them had ended. In the elliptic manner so
characteristic of the Quran, stress is laid here, firstly, on the limited nature of all empirical knowledge, including the result of
deductions and inferences based on no more than observable or calculable phenomena, and, secondly, on the impossibility to
determine correctly, on the basis of such limited fragments of knowledge alone, what course of action would be right in a given
situation. Although the story as such relates to invisible beings, its moral lesson (which may be summed up in the statement that
empirical knowledge cannot provide any ethical guideline unless it is accompanied, and completed, by divine guidance) is
obviously addressed to human beings as well.]
SOLOMON DID NOT PRACTICE MAGIC
(2:102-103) And follow [instead] that which the evil ones used to practice during Solomon’s reign - for it was not Solomon
who denied the truth, but those evil ones denied it by teaching people sorcery; [The expression ash-shayatin rendered as “the
evil ones”, apparently refers to human beings, but may also allude to the evil, immoral impulses within man’s heart (see 2:14).
The above parenthetic sentence constitutes the Quranic refutation of the Biblical statement that Solomon had been guilty of
idolatrous practices (see I Kings xi, 1-10), as well as of the legend that he was the originator of the magic arts popularly
associated with his name.] and [they follow] that which has come down through the two angels in Babylon, Harut and
Marut - although these two never taught it to anyone without first declaring, “We are but a temptation to evil: do not,
then, deny [God’s] truth!” [This declaration circumscribes, metonymically, man’s moral duty to reject every attempt at sorcery
irrespective of whether it succeeds or fails - it aims at subverting the order of nature as instituted by God. - As regards the
designation of Harut and Marut, most of the readings of the Quran give the spelling malakayn (“the two angels”); but it is
authentically recorded that the great Companion of the Prophet, Ibn Abbas, read it as malikayn (“the two kings”). Some of the
commentators are of the opinion that, whichever of the two readings is followed, it ought to be taken in a metaphorical sense,
namely, “the two kingly persons”, or “the two angelic persons”: in this they rely on a saying of Ibn Abbas to the effect that Harut
and Marut were “two men who practiced sorcery in Babylon”. At any rate, it is certain that from very ancient times Babylon was
reputed to be the home of magic arts, symbolized in the legendary persons - perhaps kings - Harut and Marut and it is to this
legend that the Quran refers with a view to condemning every attempt at magic and sorcery, as well as all preoccupation with
occult sciences in general.] And they learn from these two how to create discord between a man and his wife; but whereas
they can harm none thereby save by God’s leave, they acquire a knowledge that only harms themselves and does not
benefit them - although they know, indeed, that he who acquires this [knowledge] shall have no share in the good of the life
to come. For, vile indeed is that [art] for which they have sold their own selves - had they but known it! [The above passage
does not raise the question as to whether there is an objective truth in the occult phenomena loosely described as magic, or
whether they are based on self-deception. The intent here is no more and no less than to warn man that any attempt at influencing
the course of events by means which - at least in the mind of the person responsible for it - have a “supernatural” connotation is a
spiritual offence, and must inevitably result in a most serious damage to their author's spiritual status.] And had they but
believed and been conscious of Him, reward from God would indeed have brought them good - had they but known it!
PEOPLE OF SHEBA AND TUBBA
The people of Saba (the Biblical Sheba) are cited as an example of the impermanence of all human power, wealth and glory. The
kingdom of Sheba (Saba in Arabic) was situated in south-western Arabia, and at the time of its greatest prosperity (i.e., in the first
millennium B.C.) comprised not only the Yemen but also a large part of Hadramawt and the Mahrah country, and probably also
much of present-day Abyssinia. In the vicinity of its capital Marib - the Sabaeans had built in the course of centuries an
extraordinary system of dams, dykes and sluices, which became famous in history, with astonishing remnants extant to this day. It
was to this great dam that the whole country of Sheba owed its outstanding prosperity, which became proverbial throughout
Arabia. According to the geographer Al-Hamdani, who died in 334 H., the area irrigated by this system of dams stretched
eastward to the desert of Sayhad on the confines of the Rub al-Khali. The flourishing state of the country was reflected in its
people’s intense trading activities and their control of the spice road which led from Marib northwards to Mecca, Yathrib and
Syria; and eastwards to Dufar on the shores of the Arabian Sea, thus connecting with the maritime routes from India and China.
(For the story of encounter between Solomon and Sheba, see 27:22-44)
(34:15-19) Indeed, in [the luxuriant beauty of] their homeland, the people of Sheba had an evidence [of God’s grace] - two
[vast expanses of] gardens, to the right and to the left, [calling out to them, as it were:] “Eat of what your Sustainer has
provided for you, and render thanks unto Him: a land most goodly, and a Sustainer much-forgiving!” But they turned
away [from Us], and so We let loose upon them a flood that overwhelmed the dams, [The date of that catastrophe cannot be
established with any certainty, but the most probable period of the first bursting of the Dam of Marib seems to have been the
second century of the Christian era. The kingdom of Sheba was largely devastated, and this led to the migration of many southern
tribes towards the north of the Peninsula. Subsequently, it appears, the system of dams and dykes was to some extent repaired, but
the country never regained its earlier prosperity; and a few decades before the advent of Islam the great dam collapsed completely
and finally.] and changed their two [expanses of luxuriant] gardens into a couple of gardens yielding bitter fruit, and
tamarisks, and some few [wild] lote-trees: thus We requited them for their having denied the truth. But do We ever requite
[thus] any but the utterly ingrate? [Neither the Quran nor any authentic hadith tells us anything definite about the way in
which the people of Sheba had sinned at the time immediately preceding the final collapse of the Dam of Marib (i.e.. in the sixth
century of the Christian era). This omission, however, seems to be deliberate. In view of the fact that the story of Sheba’s
prosperity and subsequent catastrophic downfall had become a byword in ancient Arabia, it is most probable that its mention in
the Quran has a purely moral purport, as this legend in the Quranic presentation, is allegory of the ephemeral nature of all human
might and achievement. As mentioned above, the story of Sheba’s downfall is closely linked with the phenomenon of men’s
recurrent ingratitude towards God. (See also verse 20 below.)] Now [before their downfall,] We had placed between them and
the cities which We had blessed [I.e., Mecca and Jerusalem, both of which lay on the caravan route much used by the people of
Sheba.] [many] towns within sight of one another; and thus We had made traveling easy [for them, as if to say]: “Travel
safely in this [land], by night or by day!” But now they would say, “Long has our Sustainer made the distance between our
journey- stages!” - for they had sinned against themselves. [This shows the sorrow of the people of Sheba at the devastation of
their country, the exodus of large groups of the population, and the resultant abandonment of many towns and villages on the
great caravan routes.] And in the end We caused them to become [one of those] tales [of things long past], and scattered
them in countless fragments. [This is an allusion to the mass-migration of South-Arabian tribes in all directions - particularly
towards central and northern Arabia - subsequent to the destruction of the Dam of Marib.] Herein, behold, there are messages
indeed for all who are wholly patient in adversity and deeply grateful [to God].
DENIAL OF AFTERLIFE BY PEOPLE OF TUBBA
Tubba was the title borne by a succession of powerful Himyar kings who ruled for centuries over the whole of South Arabia, and
were finally overcome by the Abyssinians in the fourth century of the Christian era. They are mentioned elsewhere in the Quran
(50:14) as having denied the truth of resurrection and God’s judgment.]
(44:37-39) Are they (Jews), then, better than the people of Tubba and those before them, whom We destroyed because they
were truly lost in [the same] sin? For [thus it is:] We have not created the heavens and the earth and all that is between
them in mere idle play: [I.e., without meaning or purpose (see 21:16) - implying that if there were no hereafter, man’s life on
earth would be utterly meaningless, and thus in contradiction to the above as well as the subsequent statement, “none of all this
have We created without [an inner] truth”.] none of this have We created without [an inner] truth: but most of them under-
stand it not. This is meant to illustrate the reverse of God’s grace, namely, His inevitable chastisement of deliberate, unrepented
sinning.
JONAH
According to the book of Jonah in Old Testament, God sent Jonah who was a Hebrew to a foreign city of Nineveh to preach
against wickedness. The story of Jonah teaches that God’s mercy is universal and not limited to any racial or religious group.
(21:87-88) And [remember] him of the great fish [I.e., the Prophet Jonah, who is said to have been swallowed by a great fish, as
mentioned in 37:139, and more fully narrated in the Old Testament (The Book of Jonah).] - when he went off in wrath, thinking
that We had no power over him! [According to the Biblical account (which more or less agrees with the Quranic references to
his story), Jonah was a prophet sent to the people of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. At first his preaching was disregarded by his
people, and he left them in anger, thus abandoning the mission entrusted to him by God; in the words of the Quran (37:140), “he
fled like a runaway slave”. The allegory of his temporary punishment and his subsequent rescue and redemption is referred to
elsewhere in the Quran (i.e., in 37:139-148). It is to that punishment, repentance and salvation that the present and the next verse
allude. (The redemption of Jonah’s people is mentioned in 10:98 and 37:47-148.)] But then heeded out in the deep darkness [of
his distress]: “There is no deity save Thee! Limitless art Thou in Thy glory! Verily, I have done wrong!” [Lit., “I was among
the wrongdoers’’.] And so We responded unto him and delivered him from [his] distress: for thus do We deliver all who
have faith.
(37:139-148) And, behold, Jonah was indeed one of Our message-bearers (37:140) when he fled like a runaway slave onto a
laden ship. [I.e., when he abandoned the mission with which he had been entrusted by God (see 21:87 above, which gives the
first part of Jonah’s story), and thus, in the words of the Bible (The Book of Jonah i, 3 and 10), committed the sin of “fleeing from
the presence of the Lord”. Jonah is spoken of as having fled like a runaway slave because - although he was God’s message-
bearer - he abandoned his task under the stress of violent anger. The subsequent mention of the laden ship alludes to the central,
allegorical part of Jonah’s story. The ship ran into a storm and was about to founder; and the mariners said everyone to his fellow,
Come and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us (The Book of Jonah i, 7) - a procedure to which
Jonah agreed.] And then they cast lots, and he was the one who lost; [According to the Biblical account (The Book of Jonah i,
10-15), Jonah told them that he had fled from the presence of the Lord, and that it was because of this sin of his that they all were
now in danger of drowning. “And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto
you: for I know that for my sake this tempest is upon you .... So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea
ceased from her raging.”] [and they cast him into the sea,] whereupon the great fish swallowed him, for he had been
blameworthy. [In all the three instances where Jonah’s “great fish” is explicitly mentioned in the Quran (above verse, 68:48 and
21:87), it carries the definite article al. This may possibly be due to the fact that the legend of Jonah was and is so widely known
that every reference to the allegory of “the great fish” is presumed to be self-explanatory. The inside of the fish that “swallowed”
Jonah apparently symbolizes the deep darkness of spiritual distress of which 21:87 speaks: the distress at having “fled like a
runaway slave” from his prophetic mission and, thus, “from the presence of the Lord”. Parenthetically, the story is meant to show
that, since man has been created weak (4:28), even prophets are not immune against all the failings inherent in human nature.]
And had he not been of those who [even in the deep darkness of their distress are able to] extol God’s limitless glory, [I.e.,
to remember God and to repent: see 21:87, which reveals in its very formulation the universal purport of Jonah’s story.] he would
indeed have remained in its belly till the Day when all shall be raised from the dead: but We caused him to be cast forth on
a desert shore, sick [at heart] as he was, and caused a creeping plant to grow over him [out of the barren soil]. [I.e., to
shade and comfort him. Thus, rounding off the allegory of Jonah and the fish, the Quran points out in the figurative manner so
characteristic of its style that God, who can cause a plant to grow out of the most arid and barren soil, can equally well cause a
heart lost in darkness to come back to light and spiritual life.] And [then] We sent him [once again] to [his people,] a hundred
thousand [souls] or more: and [this time] they believed [in him] [See the reference to the people of Jonah in 10:98 below.] -
and so We allowed them to enjoy their life during the time allotted to them? [I.e., for the duration of their natural lives]
ACCEPTANCE OF DIVINE GUIDANCE BY PEOPLE OF JONAH (An exception to the rule)
(10:98) For, alas, there has never yet been any community that attained to faith [in its entirety,] and thereupon benefited
by its faith, except the people of Jonah. [The above passage, although seemingly phrased in a conditional or an interrogatory
form, implies a positive statement: namely that “there has never yet been...”, etc. The Quran points out in many places that no
prophet has ever been immediately accepted as such and followed by all of his people, and that many a community perished in
result of the stubborn refusal, by the majority of its members, to listen to the divine message. The only exception in this respect is
said to have been the people of Nineveh, who - after having at first rejected their prophet Jonah - later responded to his call in
unison, and were saved. The mention of Jonah's people - who alone among the communities of the past heeded their prophet
before it was too late - is meant to warn the readers of the Quran that a deliberate rejection of its message by “those against whom
God’s word (of judgment) has come true” is bound to result in their spiritual doom and, consequently, in grievous suffering in the
life to come.] When they came to believe, We removed from them the suffering of disgrace [which otherwise would have
befallen them even] in the life of this world, and allowed them to enjoy their life during the time allotted to them.
PERSEVERANCE IN PROPHETIC MISSION
(68:48-52) Bear, then, with patience thy Sustainer’s will, and be not like him of the great fish, who cried out [in distress]
after having given in to anger. [So Muhammad is exhorted not to give in to despair or anger at the opposition shown to him by
most of his contemporaries in Mecca and persevere in his prophetic mission.] [And remember:] had not grace from his
Sustainer reached him, [See 37:143 - “had he not been of those who even in the deep darkness of their distress are able to extol
God’s limitless glory”: i.e., who always remember God and pray for His forgiveness.] he would indeed have been cast forth
upon that barren shore in a state of disgrace: [I.e., burdened with sin and unredeemed by repentance: implying that but for
God’s grace he would have died as a sinner.] but [as it was,] his Sustainer had elected him and placed him among the
righteous. Hence, [be patient,] even though they who are bent on denying the truth would all but kill you with their eyes
whenever they hear this reminder, and [though] they say, “[As for Muhammad,] behold, most surely he is a madman!” [Be
patient:] for this is nought else but a reminder [from God] to all mankind.