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Lesson - 40
"Hast thou not thought of the leaders of the Children of
Israel after Moses? When they said to a prophet of theirs: Raise
up for us a king, that he may fight in the way of Allah. He said:
May it not be that you will not fight if fighting is ordained
for you? They said: And what reason have we that we should not
fight in Allah's way and we have indeed been deprived of our homes
and our children? But when fighting was ordained for them, they
turned back, except a few of them. And Allah is Knower of the
And their prophet said to them: Surely Allah has raised Saul
to be a king over you. They said: How can he have a kingdom over
us while we have a greater right to kingdom than he, and he has
not been granted abundance of wealth? He said: Surely Allah has
chosen him above you, and has increased him abundantly in knowledge
and physique. And Allah grants His kingdom to whom He pleases.
And Allah is Ample-giving Knowing.
And their prophet said to them: Surely the sign of his kingdom
is that there shall come to you the heart in which there is tranquillity
from your Lord and the best of what the followers of Moses and
the followers of Aaron have left, the angels bearing it. Surely
there is a sign in this for you if you are believers.
So when Saul set out with the forces, he said: Surely Allah will
try you with a river. Whoever drinks from it, he is not of me,
and whoever tastes it not, he is surely of me, except he who takes
a handful with his hand. But they drank of it save a few of them.
So when he had crossed it, he and those who believed with him,
they said: We have to-day no power against Goliath and his forces.
Those who were sure that they would meet their Lord said : How
often has a small party vanquished a numerous host by Allah's
permission! And Allah is with the steadfast.
And when they went out against Goliath and his forces, they said:
Our Lord, pour out patience on us and make our steps firm and
help us against the disbelieving people."
I have selected this portion of the Holy Quran for our discussion
because it contains many lessons for the Muslims on how to choose
their worldly leaders, and it also removes many misconceptions in
this regard. Also in some older translations of the Holy Quran,
the translators have incorrectly interpreted some of these verses,
and these mistakes persist to this day. These interpretations have
been ridiculed by some western influenced persons, but the fact
is that when properly interpreted, these verses are full of profound
knowledge waiting to be unveiled.
Purpose of warfare
Verse 253 of this section gives the rational for why previous
prophets had to be involved in fighting. Verse 251 states that if
Allah does not cause the removal of some by others, disorder would
prevail upon the earth (or it would be destroyed). In the verse
that follows it is stated:
"These are the messages of Allah-We recite them to thee
with truth: and surely thou art of the messengers" (2 :252).
These Divine words informed the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings
of Allah be upon him) that like the preceding prophets, he too will
have to participate in armed conflicts. In fact, since he is the
leader of all prophets, his involvement in warfare will be greater.
In relation to this, certain incidents from the history of the Israelites
are mentioned, including certain events from the battle between
Prophet David (Daud) and Goliath (Jaloot). This narration is meant
as a lesson for the Muslims, as is apparent from the opening words,
"Hast thou not thought of." The historical perspective of these
incidents is that during that time period the Israelite nation was
repeatedly defeated, and overpowered by the Philistines. Hundreds
and thousands of Israelites had been put to the sword. They had
lost their land, and many of their youth had been enslaved by the
enemy. The Muslims at the time of this revelation were facing a
similar situation. After thirteen years of severe persecution at
Mecca, they had to leave their homes and migrate to Medina. They
had been separated from their families, and now the enemy was preparing
a final assault to annihilate them at Medina. This lesson from history
was, therefore presented to the Muslims to tell them that though
smaller in numbers, they should not be intimidated by the great
numbers of the enemy. They were urged on to defend themselves with
patience and stead-fastness, and not to accept a humiliating peace
which would ultimately lead to their defeat. Allah never forsakes
his patient and steadfast servants. In fact, He makes them prevail
over an enemy which is numerically greater and stronger.
Similarities between leaders of Israelite nation
and modern politicians
The verses of this lesson refer to a period, when after repeated
setbacks in the battlefield, the Israelites consulted their Prophet
Samuel to appoint a king to lead them. The leaders from amongst
the Israelites were all competing for this position because of their
greed for the acquisition of worldly status (unfortunately we see
examples of similar competition amongst modern leaders and nations).
They consulted their prophet because they could not come to an agreement
on this matter. (Even in this age, the worldly wise may resort to
a person of good moral character to decide their differences, because
of their trust in his fairness and honesty.) Prophet Samuel did
not make a personal choice, but asked for Divine guidance in this
matter. Allah selected Saul for this purpose. The Israelites quarreled
amongst themselves even regarding this selection made by Allah,
and His Prophet. They were hoping that a leader from amongst their
existing leaders would be chosen for this office, but the standards
of Divine selection are quite different. They questioned how Saul
could be given power over them, while they were more deserving of
such a choice. (Is this not reminiscent of modern politics, of leaders
and parties, vying for position of power.) In those days, lineage
of royal descent, or being from a ruling family, used to be the
basis of the claim for leadership. (Even in modern times a family
can assume the role of leadership, as appears to be the case of
the Nehru family in India.) The first objection of the Israelites
was, therefore that Saul was not from amongst the royal, or the
ruling class. Their second objection was that he was a poor man.
He had neither the distinction of having power, nor wealth.
Divine criteria for selection of leaders
How appropriate was the reply of their Prophet! The first lesson
he addressed was that Allah had chosen him over them because of
his goodness. A leader who is immoral and guilty of misdeeds, will
lead the nation on the very path that he is following. This can
influence the results of battles as is well illustrated by the following
People knowledgeable of the true history of the early caliphate
know that both Persia and the Byzantine empire, the two super powers
of the time were concerned about the rising power of the Arabs.
They came up with their own strategies to curb this perceived danger.
Heraclius, the Emperor of Byzantine empire, instigated the border
tribes of Arabia, who had accepted Christianity under his influence,
to rise up against the Muslims and promised them the support of
his own forces. It was because of these incidents that the Holy
Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) had to undertake
the expedition to Tabuk. However, the Prophet's dignity inspired
so much awe in these tribes that they fled away without giving battle.
The promised help of the Byzantine forces also failed to materialize.
Later, during the time of the early caliphate, this Christian power
embarked upon hostilities against the Muslims. The Persian polytheists
also forced war upon the Muslims by fanning rebellion, and sedition
on the borders of the Muslim territory. Hazrat Umar, the second
Caliph, once remarked that he wished there was a wall of fire between
the Muslims and the Persians, which the Persians could not cross
to create mischief for the Muslims. The Muslims were therefore,
forced to fight on two fronts, which as every military strategist
knows is a very precarious situation. But no one can destroy whom
Allah wants to save. The condition on both fronts was such that
if the enemy forces numbered a hundred thousand, there were only
ten thousand Muslims facing them. The enemy, however, suffered one
defeat after another. The Heraclius of Byzantine was extremely perplexed
by this. He questioned his minister, why the Muslims were victorious
despite the fact that the Roman forces were more experienced, had
more sophisticated weapons and outnumbered the Muslim forces ten
to one? To this, the minister replied, "Your Majesty should observe
the behavior of your soldiers before and after the battle. They
spend most of the night in drinking, gambling and womanizing, while
the Muslim soldiers spend their nights in prostrating before the
Lord." "This," he said, "was the difference."
The second reason Prophet Samuel gave the Israelites was that Allah
had chosen Saul because of his superiority in knowledge and physique.
The selection had to be made first for commander in chief, and then
for king. Superiority of knowledge, therefore refers to both these
offices. Fighting the enemy successfully is a great art, which is
learned by soldiers not only in various staff courses, but also
in the battlefield, and prior to that by means of military exercises.
Governing, also involves a great degree of skill and knowledge (to
this I can testify by my forty years of experience working for the
government in various capacities). It was stated that Saul was not
only a capable and experienced soldier, but also knowledgeable in
worldly and administrative matters.
The physical superiority of Saul, is mentioned because it is necessary
for a military commander to be in good health, and the need for
this is self evident. I have observed this during my public service
that even in the civil administration, ailing officers cannot perform
their duties satisfactorily.
After mentioning the qualities of Saul, the Holy Quran states:
"And Allah grants His kingdom to whom He pleases."
Note that the three qualities of Saul are mentioned before the statement,
"And Allah grants His kingdom to whom He pleases." The sequencing
of these statements shows that when the Holy Quran uses phrases
like, 'Allah gives to whom He pleases,' or 'Allah selects whom He
pleases,' the decision is made on the basis of firmly established
principles, and not (we seek refuge in Allah from saying so) merely
on whim, or without any rhyme or reason. The words, "And Allah is
Ample-giving Knowing," provides further rationale for the decision
i.e., that Divine knowledge extends across the broadest range, encompassing
not only the leaders, but all the people, and is complete, and perfect
in comparison with that of mankind.
More signs about the kingship of Saul are given further on in the
"And their prophet said to them: Surely the sign of
His kingdom is that there shall come to you the heart in which
there is tranquillity from your Lord and the best of what the
followers of Moses and the followers of Aaron have left, the angels
bearing it. Surely there is a sign in this for you if you are
A literal interpretation of the Arabic words has led to some strange
explanations. It has been said that the angels came actually bearing
a box which contained a thing called sakeena with a head
like that of a cat and it also contained the stone tablets of Prophet
Moses (with the ten commandments), and the rod of Prophet Aaron
which had miraculously sprouted branches etc. If this was actually
the case, it is difficult to comprehend how this proves the superiority
of Saul as the best choice. The fact of the matter is that these
stories have been imported from Israelite traditions, and are not
deserving of serious consideration. The Arabic word taaboot
besides being used for a box, also stands for a man's heart or mind
(for reference see Lisaan-ul-Arab and Mufradaat of
Raghib). Interpreted in this sense, the statement is a great prophecy
made by their Prophet. It prophesies that when the Israelites go
into battle, they will witness the great tranquillity with which
the heart of Saul has been inspired. Tranquillity is inspired into
the heart of a person, and obviously does not come in a box containing
a kitty cat. The Holy Quran itself, where it mentions the believers
being blessed with tranquillity, uses the words:
"He it is who sent down tranquillity into the hearts
of the believers" (48:4).
All combat tested veterans know that when the battle is raging,
the most essential quality of a commander is to remain tranquil.
If the commander becomes anxious and loses his composure, then it
is inevitable that chaos will ensue among the fighting units, and
they will lose ground. The heart of Saul being upheld by angels,
means steadfastness, which has been explained by the Holy Quran
in another verse:
"When Thy Lord revealed to the angels: I am with you,
so make firm those who believe" (8:12).
The last sign mentioned is that the heart of Saul has:
"the best of what the followers of Moses, and the followers
of Aaron have left."
This prophecy refers to the time when Saul was to rule as king.
Prophet Moses spent a lifetime in giving the law, and settling the
differences amongst his people, and Prophet Aaron led them in worship.
It was thus prophesied that when Saul becomes king, he will not
only be a lawgiver, but also a spiritual leader. That is why the
fulfillment of this prophecy was referred to as a sign from Allah,
"Surely there is a sign in this for you if you are believers."
Trial of the Israelite forces
When Saul marched on with the army, he said:
"Surely Allah will try you with a river (nahr)."
The Arabic word nahr stands for both river and stream. Many
commentators have interpreted this statement literally, and stated
that it means that these soldiers on foot were tried by being given
instructions that they could only drink a handful of water from
a river they had to cross. Most of them, however, drank to their
hearts content. If someone is content with this interpretation,
it is their choice. I prefer the other meaning of the word nahr,
which means 'affluence' (Mufradat of Raghib). The statement thus
refers to trial by affluence. Whenever a fighting force adopts a
life of comfort and luxury, it loses the will to fight. This reminds
me of a story related about the soldiers of the Mughal Emperor Muhammad
Shah Rangeela. They were carried into the battlefield sitting in
portable carriages, dressed in fine cotton, and fanning themselves
Divine criteria for granting victory
Further on, this blessed verse after mentioning the large numbers
of the enemy forces, and the smaller numbers of believers, states
that Allah made the believers victorious by His permission. Certain
pre-conditions are mentioned before Allah grants His permission
to make the believers victorious, and these are patience, consistency,
steadfastness and bowing down humbly in prayer before Allah. In
the battle of Somnath when the army of Mahmood Ghaznavi was at the
verge of being routed under assault by hundreds of elephants from
the enemy side, he dismounted from his horse and prostrated humbly
before Allah with his head in the dust. How the tide of battle turned
after this is something that I invite the reader to read in the
books of history.
There is another tradition in this regard that I would like to
mention before closing. It is written that after the Battle of Somnath,
Mahmood Ghaznavi saw his deceased spiritual mentor in a dream. The
mentor told him that Allah so loved his gesture of humility that
if he had prayed for the whole of India to accept Islam, his wish
would have been granted. Unfortunately, besides the Companions of
the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), and
a few generations after them, the Muslims ignored these Divine requirements
for permission to grant victory, otherwise Spain would not have
been lost, and all of India today would have been in the fold of