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
i'jāz (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)
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 Tabarī, 2:396).
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
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. Tabarī explains the phrase fa-hazamūhum
bi-idhni llāhi as follows: fa-qatalūhum bi-qadā'i llāhi
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.
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).
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.
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, 21:80).
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.
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,
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.
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,
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,
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.
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.
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.
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).
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, `Abdul Majīd, Al-Qur'ān
al-Hakīm Ma'a Tarjumah-o-Tafsīr, Lahore and Karachi,
prob. 1373 H.