Friday, March 26, 2010

Language of the Quran


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 Dawud (David) distinguished himself by killing the formidable Philistine warrior, Jalut (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'anic i'jaz (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 Talut (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 Tabari, 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-hazamuhum. 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'an 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 Dawud killed Jalut, the Philistines fled. The one-word Qur'anic 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.
The Arabic for 'by Allah's will' is bi-idhni llahi. 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 Daryabadi, 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-hazamuhum bi-idhni llahi as follows: fa-qataluhum bi-qada'i llahi wa-qadarihi (2:396).
The verse identifies the most important incident of the battle: Dawud's slaying of Jalut. 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'an, proper intonation can be important. The phrase wa-qatala dawudu jaluta is a case in point. Read this phrase, placing the stress on Dawud and putting a mental exclamation mark at the end of the phrase. The translation now would be: 'And Dawud killed Jalut!' 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 illah 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: Dawud's heroism was one of the factors that ultimately led to his election as king of the Israelites.
Dawud, 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 Talut, who preceded Dawud - while al-Hikmah stands for prophethood (Tabari, 2:403; Zamakhshari, 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 Daryabadi, 100). The next phrase, 'And He taught him of that what He wishes' refers to the arts and crafts Dawud was known to be an expert at, such as making fine coats of mail (Tabari, 2:403; see the Qur'an 34:11, 21:80).
In saying that God gave Dawud both kingdom and wisdom, the verse is saying that kingship and prophethood, represented, before Dawud, in two different individuals - Samuel was the prophet, Talut was the king - were combined in Dawud. This double honour, then, was a special distinction of Dawud's. By implication the verse is saying that Dawud 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 Dawud what He wishes, not what He wished. The use of the Mudari ('imperfect') instead of the expect Madi ('perfect') imparts universal value to the statement: not only Dawud but all people like him receive their gift of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge from Allah (Islahi, 1:537).
The verse underscores the fact that Dawud'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, Dawud 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: Jihad is an important means of eliminating evil, and the Israelites' fight against the Philistines was but one instance in the series of Jihad - struggles that have been made in the past or will be made in the future to combat evil (see Islahi, 1:538).
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 Tabari 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 Islahi, 3:724-26).
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 Surah Baqarah of which the verse is a part (verses 249-251) was revealed before the battle of Badr. In fact the Qur'anic 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 Islahi, 1:533).
The verse in question is a good illustration of the Qur'anic 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.
References1. Daryabadi, cAbdul Majid, Al-Qur'an al-Hakim Ma'a Tarjumah-o-Tafsir, Lahore and Karachi, prob. 1373 H. 2. Islahi, Amin Ahsan, Tadabbur-i-Qur'an, 9 vols., Lahore, 1973-80. 3. Qutb, Sayyid, Fi Zilal al-Qur'an, 6 vols. Beirut, 1393-94/1973-74. 4. Tabari, Abu Jacfar, Jamic al-Bayan, 30 vols. in 12, Beirut, 1406/1986-1407/1987 (reprint of Bulaq edition, 1323 H.). 5. Zamakhshari, Abu'l-Qasim Mahmud, Al-Kashshaf, 4 vols. Egypt, 1385/1966.

Source: Renaissance, 2000, Volume 10, No. 1.

No comments: