Commentary by Sayyid Qutb, translated by A.A. Salahi & S.A. Shamsi
In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful.
Have you reflected on (the case of) the elders to the children of Israel, after the time of Moses, when they said to a Prophet of theirs: Appoint for us a king, and we shall fight for the cause of Allah, He said: “Would you, perchance, refrain from fighting if fighting is ordained for you?” They answered: “Why should we not fight for the cause of Allah when we have been driven out of our homes and our children? Yet, when fighting was ordained for them, they turned back, save for a few of them. Allah is fully aware of the wrongdoers.
Their Prophet said to them: “Allah has appointed Taloot to be your King.” they said: “How can he have the kingship over us when we are better entitled to the kingship than he is? Besides, he has not been given abundance of wealth.” He said: “Allah has chosen him in preference to you, and has added to his superiority in wisdom and physical stature. Allah bestows His dominion on whom He wills. Allah gives without limits; He is all knowing.
Their Prophet also said to them: “The portent of his kingship is that there will come to you a casket wherein you shall have peace of reassurance from your Lord, and a legacy left behind by the House of Moses and the House of Aaron. It will be borne by angels. That will be a sign for you, if you are true believers.(The Cow, "Al-Baqarah":2;246-248)
This passage begins the second experience to which the Surah draws the attentions of the Muslim community. The heroes here are the Israelites, or a generation of them who lived some time after the death of Moses. It begins with the instruction to reflect on this case of the Israelites, as if it is something one sees happening now in front of one’s own eyes. The elders of the Israelites who commanded much respect in their community met a Prophet of theirs. The name of that Prophet is not given here, since naming him does not add anything to the value of the story. The Israelites had a succession of Prophets in their long history. When those elders met their Prophet, they asked him to appoint for them a king who would command them in battle “for the cause of Allah”. Their definition of the nature of the fight suggests that they were experiencing a resurgence of faith. An awareness that they were following the right faith was rekindled in their hearts. They were certain that their enemies were following false beliefs. Hence, it was clear to them that they had to launch a campaign of struggle for the cause of Allah.
This decisive clarity is half the battle. Any believer must feel very clearly that he follows the truth and that his enemy follows falsehood. His goal must also be clear before him. He should know where he is going, and for what he is fighting: “For the cause of Allah.” Their Prophet wanted to make sure of their determination to shoulder their heavy responsibility, and that their request was serious indeed: He said: Would you, perchance, refrain from fighting if fighting is ordained for you? Might it not be that you would hesitate if fighting is imposed on you as a duty? Your responsibility now is much lighter. Should I respond to your request and fighting becomes ordained, then there is no going back on it. It is the sort of questioning which behoves a Prophet. Once a Prophet has issued his order, it cannot be taken lightly.
At this point, their enthusiasm was at its highest. They mentioned other reasons for their desire to fight for Allah’s cause, which made fighting the only course open to them in their particular circumstances: They answered: Why should we not fight for the cause of Allah when we have been driven out of our homes and our children? The situation, then, was very clear to them. Their minds were made up. Their enemies were the enemies of Allah and His religion. They had forced them to flee their homelands and enslaved their children. Hence, the only way open to them was to fight. There was no giong back, and their determination was very strong.
That peacetime enthusiasm, however, was short-lived. The Surah immediately turns the page and we are told: Yet, when fighting was ordained for them, they turned back, save for a few of them. Here we are given an insight into one of the characteristics of the children of Israel which takes the form of violating pledges, breaking promises, trying to evade religious duties, disunity, and turning back on what is manifestly the right course. This characteristic, however, is true of any community which does not acquire a mature education through faith. It is a human characteristic which can be rectified only by means of an education of a high standard through faith which is progressive and profoundly effective. Hence, the leadership of any community which wants to implement faith, must be wary of this characteristic. It must take it into account as it moves on toward its goal, so that it is not taken by surprise. Any human community which has not been purged of its weaknesses, its rough edges not smoothed out, can be expected to show this characteristic.
The comment given here on this attitude of turning back runs as follows: Allah is fully aware of the wrongdoers.
It is a comment which implies denunciation of the majority who, even before they were called on to fight, have turned their backs on this duty after having requested its imposition. They are described here as wrongdoers. They have done wrong to themselves and to their Prophet and to the cause of truth, for failing to do their duty by it when they knew that it is the truth. Anyone who knows that his cause is the cause of truth, and that his enemy is the enemy of truth, in the same way as those elders of the children of Israel realized when they requested their Prophet to appoint a king for them in order to fight for Allah’s cause, and then turns his back on Jihad, or fighting, does wrong will suffer the punishment meted out to the wrongdoers.
We then notice, in their polemics, another characteristic of the Israelites which has often been mentioned in this Surah. Their initial request was for the appointment of a king to lead them in their fighting, which they stated to be a fight “for the cause of Allah”. But then they hung down their heads before turning up their cheeks to argue about Allah’s choice which has been intimated to them through their Prophet. They find it hard to accept Taloot, whom Allah has chosen to be their king. The reason is that they feel to be better entitled on hereditary grounds, to the kingship. Taloot did not belong to a royal family. Nor had he been given abundant wealth to justify the overlooking of the hereditary factor. All this betrays a lack of clarity of vision, in addition to its being a well-known characteristic of the children of Israel.
Their Prophet, however, explained to them that Taloot was personally worthy of the position assigned to him. Allah makes His choice wisely: He said: Allah has chosen him in preference to you, and has added to his superiority in wisdom and physical stature. Allah bestows his dominion on whom He wills. Allah gives without limits; He is all knowing. For one thing, he is Allah’s choice. For another, he has been endowed with superior wisdom and physical strength. Moreover, Allah bestows His dominion on whom He wills. After all, it is His dominion and He is free to choose any of His servants to be king. His bounty is limitless and He grants His favours as He chooses. He knows what is beneficial and what is not, and He is fully aware of what is suitable in any and all situations.
These factors, having been stated so clearly, should have been sufficient to remove any confusion or clarity of vision. But the nature of the Israelites, which was well known to their Prophet, makes them unsatisfied with these considerations alone. As they were facing a battle, they needed something miraculous to reawaken their hearts and to fully reassure them: Their Prophet also said to them: The portent of his kingship is that there will come to you a casket wehrein you shall have peace of reassurance from your Lord, and a legacy left behind by the House of Moses and the House of Aaron. It will be borne by angels. That will be a sign for you, if you are true believers.
After the Israelites were able to impose their authority on the Holy Land under the leadership of their Prophet Joshua, who came after Moses, they suffered a heavy defeat by their enemies who dispersed them in their diaspora, and looted their sacred legacy represented in the casket in which they kept the relics of their former Prophets of the Houses of Moses and Aaron. It is said that the casket was an ark which contained the tablets given to, Moses on Mount Sinai.. Their Prophet told them, ‘borne by angels’, giving them great reassurance.
That sign was, as their Prophet told them, more than sufficient for them as a reassurance that Taloot was Allah’s own choice to be their king. The Qur’anic text suggests that this miraculous event actually took place, and they were absolutely reassured.