Friday, 20 January 2017

Reality of Talut (King Saul); Sura 2:247-251

One of the objections against the Holy Qur’an is that it contains a historical anachronism concerning the figure of Tâlût (peace be upon him). According to the Qur’anic account, Tâlût was designated as the King of Israel by Allah Most High through a Prophet (Sura 2:247). Tâlût tests his army by bringing them to a river and telling them not to drink from it: “whoever drinks from it is not of me, and whoever does not taste it is indeed of me, excepting one who takes [from it] in the hollow of his hand” (2:249).

The argument goes that the Qur’an has confused or blended two different Biblical accounts; the appointment of Saul as King of Israel through the Prophet Samuel (as mentioned in 1 Samuel), and the story of Gideon and how he tested his army with drinking water from the Spring of Harod (as mentioned in the Book of Judges).

Although it is my personal view that the figure of Tâlût is synonymous with the Biblical King Saul, it should nevertheless be pointed out that the name Tâlût does not correspond to either the names Saul or Gideon, and there is indeed a Qur’anic wisdom for this. It has been speculated, and I too personally lean to this view, that the name Tâlût is derived from the Arabic root signifying tallness. Interestingly, King Saul is described as a man singled out for his great height: “from his shoulders and upward he was higher than any of the people” (1 Samuel 9:2). This is a very compelling reason for me to personally identify the figure of Tâlût with King Saul. Another is of course the fact that Tâlût is described as the first King of Israel, whose kingship was revealed as the will of God through a Prophet, mirroring the Biblical account of the crowning of Saul as king through the agency of the Prophet Samuel. Furthermore, the mention of Tâlût’s engagement with Jâlût (Goliath), and finally the latter’s slaying at the hands of David (2:251) all making a compounded and compelling case for the identification of Tâlût with Saul and not Gideon.

Those who argue that the Qur’an confused the account of Saul with that the Gideon in the incident of Tâlût testing his army by a river fail to undertake a critical comparison between the Qur’anic account and the Biblical account in the Book of Judges. One of the crucial differences is that in the Book of Judges, Gideon is testing his army with not drinking from a spring, “Ein Harod”. This spring is is known as “Ain Jalut” (the spring of Goliath) to the Arabs. However, the Qur’anic account of Tâlût makes no mention of a “spring”. The Qur’anic account talks about a river, which was later crossed by Tâlût and his forces to confront Goliath.

The point to remember is that this test was ordained by God. It is therefore not at all a leap to understand that this test may have been repeated in history, although in Gideon’s case it was through a spring, and in Tâlût’s case through a river. In the Biblical account of King Saul, there is a similar test mentioned, although it is about eating and not drinking: “And the men of Israel were distressed that day: for Saul had adjured the people, saying, Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on mine enemies. So none of the people tasted any food” (1 Samuel 14:24). The Qur’an has simply extended this theme by revealing that a similar test was made for drinking water from a river, in which the majority of Tâlût’s army failed the test, and only a few were successful.

In conclusion, there is no historical anachronism in the Holy Qur’an with respect to the story of Tâlût, as there are crucial differences between the Qur’anic account and the Biblical account of Gideon. Some researchers have admitted this fact: “Moreover, unlike the Gideon story, the Qur’an has different aims…One could argue, with no difficulty, that the Qur’an knew not only the Saul story but also the Gideon episode, and it went ahead and used some elements from each to reshape a totally new episode to fit its program.” (Saul in Story and Tradition p. 268)

Of course, the writer of the above quoted lines considers the Holy Qur’an as being a manmade text and not divine revelation, but concedes the fact that whoever wrote the Qur’an (Prophet Muhammad for example) was well acquainted with the differences between the Saul and Gideon episodes of the Bible; yet purposely blended elements from both to create a new narrative. This answers the objection that the Holy Qur’an contains a historical anachronism due to its alleged confusion over the Saul and Gideon accounts and blending them into a single account. The truth, however, is that the Holy Qur’an has revealed an incident from the story of Tâlût (Saul) that was not recorded in the Hebrew Bible, though the latter hints at a similar theme in 1 Samuel 14:24.

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