David in the Muslim Tradition

The Bathsheba Affair

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Khaleel Mohammed
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , December
     238 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Khaleel Mohammed’s book, David in the Muslim Tradition, like several other recent contributions in the field of Qurʾānic studies, helps to reveal the “biblical subtext” of the Qurʾān. One prominent example is 2 Samuel 11-12, which recounts the story of David committing adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. David subsequently placed Uriah at the front line of battle where he was killed. But the prophet Nathan accused David of his sins, which David admitted to in repentance. Mohammed’s book examines the reception history of Q 38:21-25, which alludes to the same episode. In it he examines David’s role in the Bathsheba affair according to Muslim exegesis from late antiquity through the modern period. Mohammed shows how Muslim interpretations shifted over time from acknowledging David’s sin, to granting it was a minor error, to finally absolving David of any transgression. Mohammed identifies three reasons for this shift in attitude: (1) an increasing skepticism toward material of Jewish and/or Christian origins (isrāʾīlīyyāt); (2) the rise of the doctrine of prophetic inerrancy (ʿiṣma); and (3) the doctrine of the corruption of earlier biblical scriptures (taḥrīf). He demonstrates that Islamic creedal principles and skepticism regarding other sources led to the declining importance of the Bible as a source for Muslim commentators.

Mohammed’s useful periodization of the commentary tradition includes four stages: the Formative Period (737-900), the Golden Age (900-1258), the Era of Qurʾānic Supercommentaries (1258-1800), and the Early Modern and Contemporary Period (1800-2000). Each chapter contains a four-part structure, including a historical overview of commentaries from that time period, a biographical survey of significant exegetes analyzed in the chapter, an analysis of Q 38:21-25 by the exegetes, and an English translation of representative texts under examination. Mohammed concludes that the David-Bathsheba narrative can be read in various stages throughout history. First, the Qurʾān indicates that David committed a grave sin, and the original readers/listeners needed no additional allusions to know its biblical references. Second, the earliest generations relied upon Jewish and Christian literature that echoed the same sentiment. Third, during the Golden Age commentators began to reject oral traditions based upon biblical themes and preferred their own reasoned exegesis. By the eleventh century, there was a swing toward creedal exegesis over source-based analysis, and so David was proclaimed sinless because of prophetic doctrine. Muslims no longer considered Christian and Jewish literature reliable sources for interpretation of the Qurʾān. Fourth, by the later medieval period, commentators generally pardoned David of significant wrongdoing. These latter works by authors such as al-Rāzī became the standard interpretation for the modern Muslim community. While claiming fidelity to traditional interpretation, it was actually replaced by radical reinterpretations of the context. General theological principles such as prophetic impeccability and scriptural corruption undermined literary and historical exegesis. Doctrine trumped context. David became a model of Muslim morality. His rehabilitation from sin was complete.

In the modern period, attitudes have not changed. The establishment of the State of Israel, Mohammed argues, has been a leading factor in contemporary Muslim reticence to acknowledge biblical connections with the Qurʾān. The Qurʾān is understood through a creedal lens rather than in its historical context. Even though twentieth-century Qurʾān scholars Yūsuf ʿAlī, Mawdūdī, Quṭb, and Ṭabaṭabāʾī were aware of 2 Samuel 11-12, they eschewed historical-critical approaches to Q 38:21-25 in favor of recycling creedal ideas established in the medieval era (168). Denying any biblical subtext became a motivating factor in Qurʾānic interpretation.

David’s absolution from major sins in the Islamic tradition also has parallels with some pre-Islamic Jewish and Christian interpretations of 2 Samuel 11-12. Based on this correspondence, Mohammed favors the idea that Jewish sources provided the setting for Muḥammad’s homiletic recitation of Q 38. Because Q 38:21-25 does not conform to any specific Jewish or Christian account, he postulates it originated from an oral retelling, or from an unknown document (192). However, Mohammed also acknowledges that David was connected with the messianic kingdom in Christianity; he is called a prophet in Acts 2:29-31. If David’s prophetic status was a Christian concept, then David’s status as a prophet in the Qurʾān aligns well with late antique Syriac Christian exegesis, if that was the stimulus for Q 38:21-25. Although Mohammed’s work does not focus on this passage’s origins, a closer study of Syriac Christian commentaries on 2 Samuel 11-12 (e.g., Jacob of Serugh and Narsai) may yield fruit on this subject.

Mohammed’s book also makes a convincing argument that David’s biography parallels the traditional account of Muḥammad’s life: they both rose from humble beginnings, came to leadership, fled their own tribes, returned triumphant, and experienced scandals involving women. But medieval Muslims asked: if David did in fact sin by committing adultery and having Uriah murdered, then why would Muḥammad take him as a prophetic exemplar? Still, the historical parallels between the lives of David and Muḥammad suggest that it was precisely these sins and God’s forgiveness of them that made David a compelling model for Muḥammad in the first place. Q 38:21-25 is an idealized scriptural biography and autobiography—its purpose is to teach about sin and forgiveness using mythological types (198). Although Khaleel Mohammed does not explicitly make this argument, the evidence he provides makes that case.

Mohammed closes with the statement that his book will have little to no impact on contemporary Islamic institutions of higher learning, and that his historical analysis of the Bathsheba affair will remain confined to Western academic circles. If that is the case, then it will be unfortunate that a serious study of David in the Muslim tradition should be overlooked.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Bertaina is Assistant Professor of Religion in the History Department at University of Illinois, Springfield.

Date of Review: 
May 25, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Khaleel Mohammed is Professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University.



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