38:21 And yet, has the story of the litigants come within thy ken – [the story of the two] who surmounted the walls of the sanctuary [in which David prayed]?
See surah 21, note 73.
38:22 As they came upon David, and he shrank back in fear from them, they said “Fear not! [We are but] two litigants. One of us has wronged the other, so judge thou between us with justice, and deviate not from what is right, and show [both of] us the way to rectitude.
The story which, according to the oldest sources at our disposal, is alluded to in verses 2l-26 affects the question as to whether God’s elect, the prophets – all of whom were endowed, like David, with “wisdom and sagacity in judgment” – could or could not ever commit a sin: in other words, whether they, too, were originally subject to the weaknesses inherent in human nature as such or were a priori endowed with an essential purity of character which rendered each of them “incapable of sinning” (ma’sum). In the form in which it has been handed down from the earliest authorities (including, according to Tabari and Baghawi, Companions like ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbas and Anas ibn Malik, as well as several of the most prominent of their immediate successors), the story contradicts the doctrine – somewhat arbitrarily developed by Muslim theologians in the course of the centuries – that prophets cannot sin by virtue of their very nature, and tends to show that their purity and subsequent sinlessness is a result of inner struggles and trials and, thus, represents in each case a moral achievement rather than an inborn quality. As narrated in some detail by Tabari and other early commentators, David fell in love with a beautiful woman whom he accidentally observed from his roof terrace. On inquiring, he was told that she was the wife of one of his officers, named Uriah. Impelled by his passion, David ordered his field commander to place Uriah in a particularly exposed battle position, where he would be certain to be killed; and as soon as his order was fulfilled and Uriab died, David married the widow (who subsequently became the mother of Solomon). This story agrees more or less with the Old Testament, which gives the woman’s name as Bath-Sheba (II Samuel xi), barring the Biblical allegation that David committed adultery with her before Uriab’s death (ibid. xi, ~5) – an allegation which has always been rejected by Muslims as highly offensive and slanderous: cf. the saying of the fourth Caliph, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (quoted by Zamakhshari on the authority of Sa’id ibn al-Musayyab): “If anyone should narrate the story of David in the manner in which the story-tellers narrate it, I will have him flogged with one hundred and sixty stripes for this is a [suitable] punishment for slandering prophets” (thus indirectly recalling the Qur’anic ordinance, in 24:4, which stipulates flogging with eighty stripes for accusing ordinary persons of adultery without legal proof). According to most of the commentators, the two “litigants” who suddenly appeared before David were angels sent to bring home to him his sin. It is possible, however, to see in their appearance an allegory of David’s own realization of having sinned: voices of his own conscience which at last “surmounted the walls” of the passion that had blinded him for a time.
38:23 “Behold, this is my brother, he has ninety-nine ewes, whereas I have [only] one ewe – and yet he said, ‘Make her over to me,’ and forcibly prevailed against me in this [our] dispute.”
The term khulata’ (sing. khalit) denotes, literally, “people who mix [i.e., are familiar or intimate] with others” or “with one another”. In the present instance, it evidently alludes to the “brotherhood” between the two mysterious litigants,
38:24 Said [David], “He has certainly wronged thee by demanding that thy ewe be added to his ewes! Thus, behold, do many kinsmen wrong one another – [all] save those who believe [in God] and do righteous deeds, but how few are they!” And [suddenly] David understood that We had tried him, and so he asked his Sustainer to forgive him his sin, and fell down in prostration, and turned unto Him in repentance.
Sc., “and that he had failed” (in the matter of Bath-Sheba).
38:25 And thereupon We forgave him that [sin]: and, verily, nearness to Us awaits him [in the life to come], and the most beauteous of all goals!
Cf. 3: 191. The above statement appears in the Qur’an in several formulations; see, in particular, note 11 on 10:5. In the present instance, it connects with the mention of the Day of Reckoning in the preceding verse, thus leading organically from a specific aspect of David’s story to moral teaching of wider import.
38:26 [And We said] “O David! Behold, We have made thee a [prophet and, thus, Our] vicegerent on earth: judge, then, between men with justice, and do not follow vain desire, lest it leads thee astray from the path of God, Verily, for those who go astray from the path of God there is suffering severely in store for having forgotten the Day of Reckoning!”
i.e., a deliberate rejection of the belief that the universe – and, in particular, human life – is imbued with meaning and purpose leads unavoidably – though sometimes imperceptibly – to a rejection of all moral imperatives, to spiritual blindness, and, hence, to suffering in the life to come.
38:27 And [thus it is] We have not created heaven and earth and all that is between them without meaning and purpose, as is the surmise of those who are bent on denying the truth, but then, woe from the fire [of hell] unto all who are bent on denying the truth!
By implication, belief in resurrection, judgment, and life after death is postulated in this passage (verses 27-28) as a logical corollary – almost a premise – of all belief in God: for, since we see that many righteous people suffer all manner of misery and deprivations in this world, while, on the other hand, many of the wicked and depraved enjoy their lives in peace and affluence, we must either assume that God does not exist (because the concept of injustice is incompatible with that of Godhead), or – alternatively – that there is a hereafter in which both the righteous and the unrighteous will harvest in full what they had morally sown during their lives on earth.
38:28 [For] would We treat those who have attained to faith and do righteous deeds in the same manner as [We shall treat] those who spread corruption on earth? Would We treat the God-conscious in the same manner as the wicked?
I.e., he would always think of God, as illustrated by the example given in the sequence.
38:29 [All this have We expounded in this] blessed divine writ which We have revealed unto thee, [O Muhammad] so that men may ponder over its messages, and that those who are endowed with insight may take them to heart.
Lit, “because of [or “out of”] (‘an) the remembrance of my Sustainer”.
38:30 And unto David We granted Solomon [as a son – and] how excellent a servant [of Ours he grew up to be]! Behold, he would always turn unto Us –
This and the preceding interpolation are based on Razi’s interpretation of this passage.