The Narrative of David and Uriah: An Examination of Selected Classical Exegetes


[This is the sixteenth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on approaching the Qur’an and Sunnah held in Herndon, VA. These notes are raw material for an edited report I will write on the conference later and represent my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. The Minaret of Freedom Institute thanks IIIT for the grant that makes the publication of these notes possible. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone.]

Session 16. Moderator: Ahmad Kazemi Mousavi
Paper Presentation by Khaleel Mohammad
“The Narrative of David and Uriah: An Examination of Selected Classical Exegetes”

II Samuel 12 tells the story of David and Nathan and the rich and poor man. Surah Sâd is different.  Except for Surah 12, every Qur’anic allusion to a Biblical story is truncated. These shared narratives could be the basis of harmonious interfaith interactions, but they can also be the source of incompatibility as in the distinction between the Muslim view of David as a prophet-king and the Jewish view that he is just a king advised by a prophet. Prophets in the Bible are not inerrant. They are, however, agents of God and reminders of kings when they deviate from the divine law. Muslims hold David cannot in some major way deviate from the divine law and therefore he seeks forgiveness only for minor errors, but the Hebrew text is clear that he has committed a major transgression.

Tabari quotes many reports (“it was said”) that David had ninety-nine wives and sent to death a man with only one. He explains the Qur’anic reference with explanations clearly not from the Biblical source. While David is praying, Gabriel comes in the form of a pigeon. David follows it, and sees a beautiful woman washing herself. Learning her husband s in battle, he orders the man be sent into the thick of battle. Twice he survives, acquitting himself with valor, and the third time he dies in battle. When David realizes that he had failed the test he goes into great remorse. God forgives him and when David asks how a just God could forgive him for this, God says on the Day of Judgment he will offer Uriah entry to paradise in exchange for forgiving David. In none of the variations is David accused of adultery. Samarkandy offers that we cannot accept such a grave sin from David and that instead his sin was to pass judgment before hearing the defendant. Hasan at-Tusi relates that the woman was not married but engaged to Uriah and his sin is to propose to an engaged woman. Yet at-Tusi opts for the claim that his fault was one-sidedly accepting the testimony of the plaintiff. Ibn Arabi, a Maliki jurist rebuts several narratives saying that minor sins in Prophets are major because they are prophets, and that for that reason we tend to avoid mentioning the lapses of the prophets. Al-Ashary adds that it was common among the Hebrews in those days that if a man saw a married woman he liked he would ask the husband to divorce her. By the 13th century Ahmad Qurtubi had summarized the narratives into six versions: (1) he looked at the woman too long; (2) he sent her husband away on a military campaign; (3) he intended the husband fall in battle; (4) he proposed to the family; (5) he failed to grieve but hastened to marry; (6) he failed to hear the defendant before issuing judgment. Ibn Kathir in the 14th century finds none of the stories have been proven acceptable and instead we should just accept the Qur’anic narrative as it is and leave the truth to God. Said Hawa, unlike the others, refers to the Biblical text, but in the end agrees that any narratives that impugn the prophets must be rejected. He adds that the émigrés to Medina would make similar requests of divorce from the men of Medina. A later writer says God doesn’t identify David’s transgression. All later writers agree we cannot accept the contradiction of `usma. Maududi claims the story was so well known there was no need for the Qur’an to detail it. What I have shown is that after the 5th century the attempts at exoneration become stronger. In scriptural narratives there is no single story but multiple versions aimed at a moral message.

Discussant 1: Mahmoud Ayoub

I have suggested that a scripture should be read on its own and differences from another simply reflect a difference in their worldviews. For example, Surah 79 asks the Prophet “Has the account of Moses reached you?” and then relates that God sent Moses to Pharaoh not to demand the release of the Hebrews from Egypt but to teach him the unity of God. Pharaoh’s response was rejection, the declaration that he is the Lord most high, and it was from that point that Moses and his people start planning to leave Egypt. The same applies in a way to David’s story. Actually some historians consider David is a prophet not only for his piety, but because he wrote the psalms. Jews generally view him as a king only. In the Biblical version he sleeps with the woman before her husband’s death. That version is in a way a more human treatment, acknowledging the humanity of the prophets. Uriah is more noble, troubled to enjoy his wife while his men are dying in battle. The Qur’an skirts the biblical version, evoking it through David’s remorse without endorsing the details. According to Deuteronomy, David should have been stoned.

Discussant 2: Aisha Musa

It seems the early mufassirs were not as concerned as the later ones about the sinlessness of the prophets. Is there a way in which we see the other scriptures as a form of hadith?

Response by Khaleel Mohammad

Al-Baqa’iyy in the 8th c. H. says some of the Jewish converts informed him that they created this narrative to malign David who is in the genealogical tree of Jesus. Maududi says something similar that those who hated Solomon created it. All these variations are found in the Sanhedron, except the claim that it was common to ask a married man to divorce his wife. In the Talmudic version the story is twisted completely around, saying God meant her to be his and his sin was simply to take her prematurely. When any warrior went into battle he would give his wife a conditional divorce. The Muslim exegetical position is that the particulars of David’s sin are irrelevant since the verse is aimed at our sins and at the necessity of our recognizing them and seeking forgiveness. Some of the rabbis speak of David’s disappointment that people don’t refer to the divinity as the “God of David” and invites is a test that he does not pass.

Louay Safi: I believe we have to exhaust the possible Qur’anic exegesis before we rely on extra-Qur’anic sources. The following verse makes the point of the story about judgment between two people.

Mohammed: All that you say was encapsulated in a statement by Umar ibn Abdul Aziz: Stick to the talâwa and the moral imperative of the Qur’an.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad: The Qur’an does not limit its focus to judgment, but refers to the lusts (hawa) of David’s heart.  I find the failure to mention adultery significant.

Ayoub: Islamic tradition distinguishes between a nabi and a rasûl. A nabi could be an individual, or sent to a small group or a large group, or to humanity, which is a rasûl when he is sent with a new religious dispensation.

Safi: But David received zabûr.

Ayoub: These are poems of praise with no legal implications. The reference to David as khalifah is the only place in the Qur’an where it is used with political implications.

Safi: Hawa means desire in judgment other than what God has revealed.

Ahmad: “Nine parts desire” is a translation of hawa.

Safi: But in the Qur’an it is used to mean judgment.

Ayoub: It is interesting that Solomon is the child of this lady. David is the grandson of Ruth. I appreciate the Bible avoiding making the human superhuman although it goes to far in saying Abraham lies about his wife in Egypt even if it means she will sleep with the pharaoh.

Rafiq: There is no asbab an-nazûl for these verses?

Safi: We have to stick with our understanding of the prophets as humans who can err but cannot commit a sin that would undermine their mission. I have a problem with prophets who bring a message they cannot uphold themselves.

Ayoub: `usma is a general Islamic concept. It is not a quality, like tall or short or dark or light, but it is a divine gift. The Shia argument is that if the prophet or imam can err or lie, how would people know when to believe them?

Safi: Prophets are protected in the context of transmitting the message. There character is beyond question.

Ahmad: Clarify the Shia assertion that prophets and imams have no polytheists in their ancestry. Is the hadith about the dates?

Ayoub: Azar was not Abraham’s father but his maternal grandfather or uncle.

Ahmad: What about 19:41-47? And why doesn’t a maternal grandfather count as an ancestor?

Ayoub: This was not his father; he was only using a term of respect.

Safi: We force the Qur’an to fit our views.

Ayoub: Abu Talib is quoted in the seerah as saying I do not want a religion in which my behind is higher than the rest of my body.

Ahmad: But the Prophet’s grandfather was named Abdul Muttalib—

Ayoub: By mistake.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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