Prophet David: Unravelling false narratives

Aqeel Ahmed Kang, Al Hakam
The Holy Quran

Belief in the sinlessness – ismah – of the Prophets is among the cardinal beliefs of Islam (Five-Volume Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 36). The Promised Messiahas states: 

“The word jurm or sin is always used for such an offence which is deserving of punishment. However, dhanb is applicable also to human frailty. Hence, the word dhanb applies to Prophets due to their human weakness, but the word jurm is never applicable to them. No Prophet has ever been referred to as a sinner in the Book of God.” (The Honour of Prophets, p. 31)

Over the centuries, this belief of Muslims decayed so much that some Muslims started attributing moral weaknesses to prophets which one would hesitate to attribute to even ordinary decent men. Not a single prophet escaped their accusations.

This can be attributed to a number of factors. Firstly, fictitious stories regarding various prophets were current among the Jews and ultimately became a part of their national belief. Some of those reports were deliberately calumnious “fake news” spread at that time. Later, as the number of Jews coming to Islam increased, and the hold of the pure principles of Islam relaxed with the lapse of time, fresh credence was gained by those false tales and in this manner, they found their way to some careless commentators of the Holy Quran. (The Review of Religions, August 1903, pp. 289-297) 

In early Islamic exegetical tradition, the reliance on biblical lore was very strong, identifiable in a specific genre of narrative known as isra‘iliyyat – the tales and legends regarding ancient Prophets found in Jewish literature – until the overwhelming majority of later scholars rejected this source. (David in the Muslim Tradition, Khaleel Mohammed, 2015, p. 2) 

It is possible that some of the Muslim exegetes were misled by the superficial resemblances between the true and accurate accounts of the Holy Quran and isra‘iliyyat. (Invitation to Ahmadiyyat, pp. 239-246)

It is also possible that slanderous stories about Prophets crept into Muslim writings through Christian influence. In Christian polemics, it had been the aim to enumerate the faults of prophets in general to prove the supposed divinity of Jesusas. Unless Jesusas was absolutely without sin and other prophets were sinners to some extent, Jesusas could not be proved superhuman and God-like. (Ibid.)

Critics of Islam today rely more heavily on false tales cited in Muslim-authored books than on their own fabrications.

The Promised Messiahas and his Khulafa, in light of the Holy Quran, reasserted the true status of Prophets and reestablished their honour, especially the honour of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa. Below, we will discuss the example of one of the Prophets namely Hazrat Daudas [David] in light of the verses of the Holy Quran. Like many other Prophets, he was also calumniated knowingly or inadvertently as mentioned above. 

Prophet Davidas in the Quran

Davidas lived around the 10th century BCE in the Holy Land and is especially known for defeating Goliath [Jalut]; being the Jewish king; receiving the Zabur and being highly gifted vocally.

The name of Davidas has been mentioned 16 times in the Holy Quran. He killed Jalut and God granted him sovereignty [al-mulk] and wisdom [al-hikmah] (Surah al-Baqarah, 2:252). He was the recipient of (al-)Zabur (Surah al-Nisa, Ch.4:V.164; Surah Bani Isra‘il, Ch.17:V.56). He appears in the Holy Quran as a link in the chain of various prophets (Surah al-Nisa, Ch.4:V.164; Surah al-An‘am, Ch.6:V.85). He cursed the disbelievers from among the Children of Israel (Surah al-Ma‘idah, Ch.5:V.79). Together with his son Solomonas, he gave judgement in a case of damage to the fields (Surah al-Anbiya, Ch.21:V.79). Mountains and birds obeyed him in praising God (Surah al-Anbiya, Ch.21:V.80; Surah al-Saba, Ch.34:V.11). God softened iron for him and instructed him to make coats of mail (Surah al-Anbiya, Ch.21:V.81; Surah Saba, Ch.34:V.11-12). God also gave him and his heir the right understanding [hukm] and knowledge [ilm] (Surah al-Anbiya, Ch.21:V.80; Surah al-Naml, Ch.27:V.16). Davidas was a man of strong hands [za l-’aid] (Surah Sad, Ch.38:V.18). He was given the ability for decisive judgement [fasl al-khitab] (Surah Sad, Ch.38:V.20). He thought that he was tried by God. Then he prayed and God bestowed His mercy on him (Surah Sad, Ch.38:V.25-26). He was appointed a vicegerent [khalifa] on the earth (Surah Sad, 38:27). 

False charges against Prophet Davidas

In the reign of Hazrat Solomon’sas [Sulaiman] son, as much of the glory departed, the Jews, who had shaken off his yoke, conceived an aversion towards him and, therefore, also towards his father and grandfather, Davidas. With the lapse of time, this hatred grew stronger and ripened into bitter enmity. Hence they went so far as to circulate false reports about Davidas and Solomonas (The Review of Religions, August 1903, pp. 289-297). One such story, recorded in 2 Samuel, accuses Davidas of murder and adultery. As has been mentioned above, this fable also found its way into commentaries written by Muslim exegetes. 

According to the accusation, David has 99 wives. One day, he happens to see a woman bathing alone. He lusts her and enquires about her. He comes to know that she is the wife of one of his loyal army commanders, Uriah. So, he sends Uriah away deliberately into difficult battles so that he may be killed. After Uriah is killed, he marries Uriah’s wife. Shortly after that, two angels come to his private chamber to inform him of his sin. The guards at the gate prevent them from entering. Hence, they scale the wall of his private apartment to reach him. They say that they were just two litigants and ask him to be the arbitrator between them. One of them has one ewe which is taken from him by the other who already owns ninety-nine ewes. David judges in favour of the one who has lost his only ewe. At this instant, David realises his error in having Uriah killed and taking his wife given that he already has ninety-nine wives. David seeks God’s forgiveness and eventually, God forgives him. (The History of Al-Tabari, Volume III, The Children of Israel, trans. William M. Brunner [State University of New York Press, Albany 1991], pp. 144-146 et al. with varying accounts)

The eleventh-century Shafi‘i scholar Abu Ishaq al-Tha‘labi, while adding to the charge sheet, mentions two possible causes for the alleged trial of Davida, and states that, when Davidas was appointed as king over Israel, he vowed, “I will certainly judge with justice among you,” but omitted to say “If God wills,” and the other cause being arrogance on account of his intense worship. [God forbid!] (Al-Kashf wal-Bayan by al-Tha‘labi under 8:18)

It is also important to note that although the earliest exegetes were familiar with, and even accepted the stories of the murder of Uriah, not a single one of them ever alludes even faintly to the charge of adultery (David in the Muslim Tradition, Khaleel Mohammed, 2015, p. 195). Another aspect of this discussion is also the later revision and evolution of the status of Davidas in the Jewish and Christian traditions, something that falls outside the scope of this article. 

The Story of Davidas in the Holy Quran 

The charge of manslaughter and adultery brought against Prophet Davidas may have some support in the Bible or the isra‘iliyyat but not a single word of the Holy Quran leads to such a conclusion.

The Holy Quran relates the story of Davidas in Surah Sad. It translates as follows: 

“Bear patiently what they say, and remember Our servant David, (man) of (strong) hands; surely he was always turning (to God). We subjected (to him) the mountains. They celebrated God’s praises with him at nightfall and sunrise. And (We subjected to him) the birds gathered together: all turned to him. And We strengthened his kingdom, and gave him wisdom and decisive judgment. And has the story of the disputants reached thee when they climbed over the wall of (his) chamber? – When they entered in upon David, and he was afraid of them. They said, “Fear not. (We are) two disputants; one of us has transgressed against the other; so judge between us with justice, and deviate not from the right course and guide us to the right way. “This is my brother; he has 99 ewes, and I have one ewe. Yet he says, ‘Give it to me,’ and has been overbearing to me in his address.” (David) said, ‘Surely, he has wronged thee in demanding thy ewe in addition to his own ewes. And certainly many partners transgress against one another, except those who believe (in God) and do good works; and these are but few.’ And David perceived that We had tried him; so he asked forgiveness of his Lord, and fell down bowing in worship and turned (to Him). So We forgave him that; and indeed, he had a position of nearness with Us and an excellent retreat. ‘O David, We have made thee a vicegerent in the earth; so judge between men with justice, and follow not vain desire, lest it should lead thee astray from the way of Allah.’ Surely those who go astray from the way of Allah will have a severe punishment, because they forgot the Day of Reckoning.” (Surah Sad, Ch.38:Vs.18-27)

Meaning of the verses of Surah Sad

An immediate observation about the story, as narrated in these verses, is that it is filled with praise for Davidas, and it is simply absurd to suppose that an incident relating a most impious deed should have such highly commendatory words. The story begins with the words: 

اِصۡبِرۡ عَلٰي مَا يَقُوۡلُوۡنَ وَاذۡكُرۡ عَبۡدَنَا دَاوٗدَ ذَا الۡاَيۡدِ ۚ اِنَّهٗۤ اَوَّابٌ

“Bear patiently what they say, and remember Our servant David, (man) of (strong) hands; surely he was always turning (to God).” (Surah Sad, Ch.38:V.18)

God revealed this Surah to the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa at Mecca, where he was severely persecuted and, in the above verse, God enjoined him to follow Prophet Davidas in his quality of forbearing the evil. Thus, it is clear then that the story following this injunction must relate to some act of great and exemplary forbearance done by Davidas, and not a heinous crime for in that case the Holy Prophetsa would not have been called upon to follow him. Moreover, the Holy Prophetsa could not be commanded to follow Prophet Davidas in his quality of patience if the latter was unable to resist his evil passions, as is falsely alleged. 

In the above-mentioned verse, God honours Prophet Davidas with the title of ‘Our Servant’ [abd]. A man becomes the abd of God when he is quite lost in his Master. A description of God’s servants [ibad] is given in Surah al-Furqan where among other high qualifications, it is stated that they do not shed innocent blood or commit adultery (Surah al-Furqan, Ch.25:V.59). Thus, a narrative of manslaughter and adultery is not consistent with such a dignified title. 

Similarly, when one examines the many other praiseworthy titles Davidas is accorded by the Holy Quran in the above-mentioned as well as other verses, one comes to the same conclusion. Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi has focused on this aspect of the pericope and has highlighted that the various titles mentioned in the verses under discussion, instead of imputing wrongdoing of any sort to Davidas, in fact indicate the richest of praise and glory in his favour. (Tafsir al-Kabir by Imam al-Razi, under Surah Sad)

One such title is “vicegerent” [khalifa]. In consequence of the deeds related in the narrative, the Almighty God is so pleased with Prophet Davidas that he says to him in one of the subsequent verses:

يٰدَاوٗدُ‭ ‬اِنَّا‭ ‬جَعَلۡنٰكَ‭ ‬خَلِيۡفَةً‭ ‬فِي‭ ‬الۡاَرۡضِ 

‘O David, We have made thee a vicegerent in the earth…’ (Surah Sad, Ch.38:V.27)

How can it be possible that a man who, for the perpetration of an evil deed i.e. adultery, went so far as to cause innocent bloodshed, is just at that moment declared by Almighty God as His own representative? Hence, the context of the Quranic narrative does not lend any support to the charge. 

A ruling in legal theory (usul al-fiqh) must be in accordance with the circumstances of a case, according to Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razirh. If we accept that the pericope is about David’sas wrongdoing and that God’s appointment of Davidas as caliph is the divine declaration, we must infer that such a verdict was the reward for bad behaviour. In contrast to this plainly absurd notion, we can conclude that the account was intended to demonstrate David’sas innocence. Moreover, if a king learns that one of his subjects is seeking the blood, property, or women of the people, he would not award the caliphate to that subject. (Tafsir al-Kabir by Imam al-Razi, under Surah Sad)

Holy Quran

The Quranic narrative

It appears from history that though Israelite power was at its height in the reigns of Davidas and Solomonas, rebels tried to stir up discord and disaffection; and false charges were constantly raked up and spread against them and some mischief-mongers even sought to kill Davidas. It is to one such attempt at David’sas life that reference has been made in the Holy Quran. 

Two of his enemies – not angels – scaled the wall of his private chamber with the intention of taking him unawares and killing him, but finding him on his guard and realising that their plan had miscarried they tried to put him at ease by concocting a story. They pretended as if they were merely two litigants who had come to seek his decision in a dispute. Davidas, however, rightly understood their evil intention, and so naturally he was afraid of them. (Five-Volume Commentary, Vol. 4, p. 2720) 

The story they concocted implied an accusation that Davidas, despite being powerful, was devouring the surrounding poor tribes even though they were fewer in number. But that was a wrong assertion and accusation. David’sas chiefdom was very small and the surrounding tribes were spread as far as Iraq. (Tafsir-e-Saghir, commentary of 38:24; also see Finkelstein, Israel; Silberman, Neil Asher [2002]. The Bible Unearthed, pp. 142-145) 

Seeing that rebellion had reached the point where his enemies were even daring to take his life, which was, therefore, in great danger, Davidas perceived that unless the Almighty God took him under His special care and protection, he could not be safe, and therefore, he prayed to God for His protection (istighfar) which, on account of his near access to God and his constantly turning to Him, Almighty God bestowed on him and removing all danger to his life, made him His vicegerent in that country (The Review of Religions, August 1903, pp. 289-297). That was the meaning of his being “tested” and “seeking maghfirah”. 

Meaning of istighfar 

“Seeking forgiveness” mentioned in the verses of Surah Sad in relation to Davidas does not imply any wrongdoing. Istighfar is a prayer for the protection against sins. It means to implore God to continuously protect, nourish and strengthen the roots of the tree of one’s faith. It means that the light that has been obtained from God Almighty may be safeguarded and may be fostered. Indeed, istighfar is a prayer for divine assistance in reaching ever-higher levels of spiritual perfection. Hence, even those who have already entered Heaven are depicted as praying to God for maghfirah:

يَقُوۡلُوۡنَ‭ ‬رَبَّنَاۤ‭ ‬اَتۡمِمۡ‭ ‬لَنَا‭ ‬نُوۡرَنَا‭ ‬وَاغۡفِرۡ‭ ‬لَنَا

They will say, “Our Lord, perfect our light for us and forgive us.” (Surah al-Tahrim, Ch.66:V.9)

Allah says in the Holy Quran: 

وَاسۡتَغۡفِرۡ‭ ‬لِذَنۡۢبِكَ‭ ‬وَلِلۡمُؤۡمِنِيۡنَ‭ ‬وَالۡمُؤۡمِنٰتِ

“And ask forgiveness for thy frailties, and for believing men and believing women.” (Surah Muhammad, Ch.47:V.20)

While commenting on the above verse, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Promised Messiah and Imam Mahdias stated: 

“This means that the Holy Prophet was directed to supplicate: pray to God that He may safeguard your nature against human weakness and that He may strengthen your disposition with His own strength, so that this weakness does not become manifest. Pray also by way of intercession for those men and women who believe in you so that they may be saved from punishment for faults they commit on account of the weakness of their nature and so that their subsequent course of life may be safeguarded against sin.

“This verse comprises the sublime philosophy of protection against sin and intercession. Moreover, this indicates that a person can only achieve the lofty rank of sinlessness and intercession if they pray for the suppression of their own weakness and if they constantly implore God as well for the deliverance of others from the poison of sin; and only if they draw divine strength to themselves by earnestly supplicating God Almighty and then desire that others who are bound to them in faith also benefit from this strength. A sinless person is in need of seeking strength from God because human nature possesses no excellence of its own but at every moment, attains to perfection from God; and possesses no strength of its own but at every moment, receives strength from God; and possesses no perfect light of its own, but at every moment light descends upon it from God. The underlying secret here is that a perfect nature is bestowed an attraction so that it may draw to itself strength from on high, but it is God alone who is the treasure trove of power. It is from this very treasure that the angels too draw strength and so also the perfect man draws the strength of sinlessness and grace from this fountainhead of strength through the channel of devotion and servitude to God. And so, he alone from among men is perfectly sinless who draws divine power to himself through istighfar and occupies himself without fail in passionate and humble prayers so that light continues to descend upon him. Such a heart resembles the house whose doors open to the East and to the West and every other direction, and faces the sun from every aspect so that the sun illuminates it at all times. However, a person who does not seek strength from God is like the cell whose doors are shut on all sides, so that not a ray of light may creep into it.

“Now, what is istighfar? If likened to a thing, it is the instrument through which power is obtained. The entire secret of God’s Oneness lies in the principle that the attribute of sinlessness be not regarded as the permanent possession of man, but that God be deemed the sole fountain from which it may be attained. By way of illustration, it may be understood that God Almighty resembles the heart which houses a store of pure blood and the istighfar of a perfect man are like the veins and arteries which are connected with the heart and draw pure blood from it, conveying it to the limbs that stand in need.” (Honour of the Prophets, pp. 29-30)

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