The Kings of Israel

Surah 27 (Al-Naml/The Ants): 18

18. When they came to the Valley of the Ants, an ant said ‘Go into your dwellings, ants, lest Solomon and his warriors should unwittingly crush you.’

19. (Solomon) smiled, laughing at her words, and said ‘Inspire me, Lord, to render thanks for the favours with which You have favoured me and my parents, and to do good works that will please You. Admit me, through Your mercy, among Your righteous servants.‘

[‘The Qur’an’ , Dawood, 1954 (commissioned by Penguin Classic as first popular translation of the Qur’an)]

Saul

In the Torah, Joshua assumed the leadership of the Israelites after the death of Moses and under his leadership they entered into Canaan (Joshua 1 ) and carved out a nation for themselves through force of arms. Israel was at that time depicted as a loose confederation of twelves tribes united under the Mosaic law and through the ark of the covenant, an ornate golden casket that contained the tablets of the ten commandments. Following Joshua’s death, the Israelites foremost judge and priest, Samuel, acceded to popular demands to establish for the Israelites a united monarchy (1 Samuel 8 ) and chose Saul to be their first king, (1 Samuel 9-11).

 

The kingdom of Israel began with several military successes against its main foe, the Philistines. However, when Saul failed to comply fully with an instruction from God to kill all of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15   ) he was rejected as king by Samuel, who gave his blessing to the shepherd David instead. As it happened, David, was summonsed to Saul’s court to play the harp for him. Whilst he was so engaged, David volunteered to duel with the giant Philistine warrior Goliath, whom he famously felled by a slingshot (1 Samuel 17 ). As relations between Saul and David soured due to David’s rising popularity, Saul drove David into exile, from which David returned after Saul’s death to become the second king of Israel (2 Samuel 2-5).

The establishment by an unnamed prophet of the united monarchy under Saul (who in the Qur’an is called Ṭālūt – see 〈3.〉 above), David’s slaying of Goliath, and the granting of sovereignty to David are all referred to in the Qur’an at {2.246-252}. This sequence of verses also includes:

 

  • an admonition by Saul to his soldiers not to lap water straight from a river rather than raising it to their lips in cupped hands – an instruction that in the Hebrew Bible is given by Gideon to his men in Judges 7.5 , and

 

  • the return of the ark of the covenant as a sign of Saul’s sovereignty – although in the Book of Samuel the capture of the ark by the Philistines, and its return to them after the Philistines discovered that for them it brought nothing but misfortune had occurred prior to the anointing of Saul as king (1 Samuel 4-6).

 

David

In the Qur’an David is referred to as wise with two of his legal judgments referred to. One of these judgements appears at {21.78-80}, arrived at together with his son, Solomon, but the Qur’an fails to provide sufficient detail for the reader to understand either the problem or its solution. The other at {38.21-24} is a variation of the parable put to David by the prophet Nathan in 2 Samuel 12 to reproach David for his lying with Bathsheeba. 2 Samuel 11 had described King David seeing Bathsheeba bathing upon her roof and, moved by lust, sleeping with her, despite knowing that she was married to his armour bearer, Uriah the Hittite. When Bathseeba informed David that she was pregnant with his child, David sent Uriah into battle whilst giving instructions to his army’s commander to place him where the fighting is fiercest and then to pull back, allowing him to be killed. This treacherous plan was carried out and after Uriah’s death David married Bathsheba. However, the Lord punished David for his sin with the death of their child (2 Samuel 12.13-23 ). In {38.21-24} Nathan’s allegory of David’s sinfulness, which he put to David as a hypothetical case prior to informing David that it was his own behaviour that he had condemned, is transformed in the Qur’an into an actual case that David judged (although David’s response to his own judgment, pleading with God for forgiveness, {38.4} retains an element of the original version).

 

The Qur’an refers to David having received the Zabur (scripture: likely intended to refer to the Psalms, see 〈19.〉 above). On two occasions the Qur’an implies, and on the third it expressly states, that this text had been composed by God himself:

{4.163} and {17.55}: ‘Unto David We gave the Zabur’,

and

{21.105}: ‘We have indeed written the Zabur, after the Reminder, that My righteous servants will inherit the earth〈19.〉

 

In a foretaste of the magical qualities that would feature in the story of his son, Solomon, David is presented as having the power to charm birds, {21.79} and {38.19}, and it appears from {27.15} that, as with Solomon, he was granted the power to understand the language of birds. God is said to have taught David how to make chain mail, {34.10-11} (see also {21.80}): a claim that recalls the metalworking skills taught to the children of men by the rebel angel Azazel in 1 Enoch 〈14.〉

Muhammad as David, Abraham

Whilst the biblical prophets are generally limited in the Qur’an to warning their respective peoples of the dangers of God’s wrath, the kings of Israel are more pro-active. David is presumably making armour for a purpose, and the story may emerge from a period in which the Qur’an’s author was preparing his followers for the prospect of fighting.

 

In Muhammad is Not the Father of Any of Your Men, David S Powers points out parallels between biblical David and the traditional story of Muhammad’s marriage to Zaynab bint Jahsh, the wife of his adopted son, Zayd. Just as David’s lust for Bathsheeba, was aroused by a chance sighting of her naked, so Muhammad had called unexpectedly at his son’s house and saw his daughter in law undressed. Muhammad received a revelation permitting him to marry Zaynab, after she had been divorced by Zayd, see 〈62.〉 below. and shortly afterwards, Muhammad had sent Zayd to his death at the head of a small force facing overwhelmingly stronger army at the Battle of Mutah. The final element of the death of a son, Powers suggests, is provided by the death of Ibrahim, the only son born to Muhammad after the death of Khadija. The traditional accounts of Muhammad’s life record that Muhammad consummated between ten and thirteen marriages after the death of Khadija, 〈D.〉 The fact that notwithstanding this large number of spouses, his only post-Khadija child had been born to Maryam, an Egyptian slave, seems to render this story a version of Abraham impregnating Hagar (also Egyptian) after Sarah’s failure to conceive. In other words, as with the similarities between Muhammad’s prophetic career and that of Moses, 〈22.〉 the scandalous story of his marriage to Zaynab, the death of Zayd, and the birth and death of Ibrahim, all show too many signs of recycling elements of biblical stories such as those of Abraham and David, to be regarded as objective biography.

 

Solomon

David’s son, Solomon, was the third king of Israel and is traditionally renowned for his wisdom, and for having overseen the building of the first Jewish temple in 957 BC in what is now Jerusalem.

As with David’s making of armour, the Qur’an’s Solomon hints at a coming conflict. When the Queen of Sheba hears from Solomon she fears that he will sack her kingdom, {27.34}, and indeed when she offers him gifts, his response is to command his armies:

{27.37} Return to (Sheba) for we shall come upon them with hosts that they cannot withstand and we shall expel them hence, abased and they shall be humbled

{27.38} He said ‘O notables! Which of you will bring me her throne before they come to me in submission?’

 

If the Quranic David’s ability to understand birds and his being taught metalworking skills by God, made him into a more magical figure than the prophets who had preceded him, the accounts of Solomon in the Qur’an are far more imaginative yet. It will be recalled that it was in the time of Solomon that the two angels Harut and Marut had descended to the earth to teach men magic 〈14.〉 In so far as the Quranic narrative of Solomon has a start, it appears to be {38.30-40}, where Solomon, already a king, is presented stroking some horses at eventide and regretting having prioritised the love of good things over the remembrance of God. This leads to the mysterious passage:

{38.34} And We did indeed try Solomon and We cast a corpse upon his throne.

He then repented,

{38.35} Saying: ‘My Lord forgive me and bestow a kingdom upon me such as shall not befit anyone after me.’

Truly thou art the Bestower

 

These initially puzzling verses seem to recall a variation of the story of Solomon and the demon prince Ashmedai. Contained in the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 68a ), this story is based upon an earlier attribute of Solomon, described in the first or second century text, The Testament of Solomon , namely that he had been given a ring by the archangel Michael with which he could bind and command demons (no doubt the origin of the ‘genie of the ring’ character). In Gittin 68a a particular demon called Ashmedai (also called Asmodeus, and traditionally associated with the husband-slaying demon in the biblical Book of Tobit) tricks Solomon into releasing him from his chains and handing over a magical ring. Upon Solomon having surrendered his power, Ashmedai transports Solomon away to a distant place and takes on his appearance. Solomon is reduced to begging, whilst all of his court mistake the usurper Ashmedia for him. However, Ashmedai is unable to disguise his rooster-like feet, and when, at last Solomon is in a position to suggest that these be examined, Ashmedai flees allowing Solomon to regain his throne. The Qur’an describes the demon as a corpse, literally ‘a body’, often translated as ‘a (lifeless) body’, but using a little creativity Sale renders it, more meaningfully as ‘a counterfeit body’.

 

Complying with Solomon’s audacious request in {38.35}, God ‘made the wind subservient’ to him, a power also referred to in {21.81} and {34.12}, and, echoing The Testament of Solomon ,  ‘gave him mastery of shaitans, every builder and diver and others bound together in fetters’. In The Testament of Solomon the king enlists the demons to help him to raise the stones to construct the Jewish temple. The Qur’an does not link the jinn workforce to the construction of the temple, which may have been theologically unappealing idea. Rather, some underwhelming examples of the building works that Solomon was able to achieve with his supernatural workforce – ‘elevated chambers, statues, basins like reservoirs and cauldrons firmly anchored’ – are described in {34.13}.

 

{27.15-45} recounts how Solomon, like David, could communicate with animals, and that he ‘gathered … his hosts of jinn (〈15.〉), men and birds marshalled in ordered ranks’. In the passage produced at the beginning of this section, Solomon is described smiling when Passing through ‘the Valley of the Ants’ he overheard one ant warn its fellow ants of his army’s approach.

 

A late-arriving hoopoe bird, explained its tardiness to Solomon’s conference of the birds by recounting its discovery of the land of Sheba ruled over by a queen. Solomon sent the hoopoe bird back to Sheba with a letter inviting the queen to visit him and worship God, which she does (a retelling of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon that is described in the Bible in 1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9 ). By far the most interesting aspect of the story for casting light on the origins of the Qur’an, lies in its conclusion, in which the Queen of Sheba raises the hem of her tunic to paddle in a crystal floor, having mistaken it for a pool of water. This odd tale could fairly be said to have tested the powers of Quranic commentators to find its intended purpose, but it can, at least partially, be explained by reference to another Jewish mystical story, that of The Four Who Entered Paradise. This story exists in several pre-Quranic forms, the earliest in the second century Tosefta . It describes four rabbis who entered Pardes (the word ‘pardes’ from the Persian word for a walled garden or orchard, and clearly here used to refer to a heavenly place; from which the word ‘paradise’ is derived). In order to progress in their journey, these four were obliged to pass several tests, one of which involved a marble floor so shiny that it appeared to be beneath a layer of water. One of the four rabbis, Rabbi ben Azzai, is described as having gazed upon it and mistaking it for water to have said ‘Water! Water!’ whereupon he was promptly cut to pieces as the penalty for lacking the requisite discernment to pass the test.

 

In the fourth century this element of the Pardes story was adopted in a Talmudic commentary on the Book of Esther (the Second Targum of Esther). It was in this book that the test became associated with the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, and gains a surprising new element concerning the queen’s feet:

Then Beneyahu (a member of Solomon’s court) conducted her to the King, who, when he heard she was coming, went and sat down in an apartment of glass. When the queen saw the king sitting there she thought in her heart, and in fact said, that he was sitting in water and she raised her dress to cross the water.

When the king noticed that her foot was covered with hair, he said to her: ‘Thy beauty is the beauty of women but thy hair is the hair of men. Hair is becoming to a man, but to a woman it is shame.’

 

The story of the deceptively dry floor is sufficiently bizarre that it can only have been a variation of The Four Who Entered Pardes, with the additional element of the queen’s hirsute foot apparently added to make the point that in leading a country she had lost her femininity. The Qur’an makes no direct reference to the Queen’s foot hair, but the detail of her baring of her shins hints at this element of the targum story. Later Quranic commentators took the theme and developed it still further with Solomon commanding jinn to concoct the first depilatory cream, with which the queen was able to solve her problem.

 

Such is Solomon’s authority over the jinn in the Qur’an that whilst he is overseeing their labours, he passes away standing upright and leaning upon his staff, so that his demon workforce toil on, unaware of their taskmaster’s death. The jinn only discovered that Solomon had died when a termite ate through his staff causing it to break and his body to fall to the ground, in possibly the Qur’an’s one and only attempt at comedy:

{34.14}And when he fell down, the jinn saw clearly that, had they known the Unseen, they would not have tarried in humiliating punishment.

 

See also the Battle of Badr 〈40.〉