The Story of Talut

Saul, Gideon, David and Goliath

Jochen Katz

In Surat al-Baqara we find the Qur'anic version of the story of King Saul.

Hast thou not turned thy vision to the Chiefs of the Children of Israel after (the time of) Moses? They said to a prophet (that was) among them: "Appoint for us a king, that we may fight in the cause of Allah." He said: "Is it not possible, if ye were commanded to fight, that that ye will not fight?" They said: "How could we refuse to fight in the cause of Allah, seeing that we were turned out of our homes and our families?" But when they were commanded to fight, they turned back, except a small band among them. But Allah Has full knowledge of those who do wrong.
Their Prophet said to them: "Allah hath appointed Talut as king over you." They said: "How can he exercise authority over us when we are better fitted than he to exercise authority, and he is not even gifted, with wealth in abundance?" He said: "Allah hath chosen him above you, and hath gifted him abundantly with knowledge and bodily prowess: Allah granteth His authority to whom He pleaseth. Allah careth for all, and He knoweth all things."
And (further) their Prophet said to them: "A Sign of his authority is that there shall come to you the Ark of the covenant, with (an assurance) therein of security from your Lord, and the relics left by the family of Moses and the family of Aaron, carried by angels. In this is a symbol for you if ye indeed have faith."
When Talut set forth with the armies, he said: "Allah will test you at the stream: if any drinks of its water, He goes not with my army: Only those who taste not of it go with me: A mere sip out of the hand is excused." But they all drank of it, except a few. When they crossed the river,- He and the faithful ones with him,- they said: "This day We cannot cope with Jalut and his forces." But those who were convinced that they must meet Allah, said: "How oft, by Allah's will, Hath a small force vanquished a big one? Allah is with those who steadfastly persevere."
When they advanced to meet Jalut and his forces, they prayed: "Our Lord! Pour out constancy on us and make our steps firm: Help us against those that reject faith."
By Allah's will they routed them; and Dawud slew Jalut; and Allah gave him power and wisdom and taught him whatever (else) He willed. And did not Allah check one set of people by means of another, the earth would indeed be full of mischief: But Allah is full of bounty to all the worlds.
These are the Signs of Allah: we rehearse them to thee in truth: verily Thou art one of the messengers.

Ayahs 2:246-248 give an account of the appointment of Israel's first king, and 249-251 report on preparation and result of his first battle. Muslim translators usually write Saul, David and Goliath in their English translations for the Arabic names Talut, Dawud and Jalut in the Qur'an. And all commentators and encyclopedias of Islam (that I have seen) agree that these are the correct identifications without indicating any diverging opinion. Al-Baqarah 2:246-251 presents a story that is essentially an exhortation to the Israelites to fight in the cause of Allah and recounting their first battle and Allah's miraculous help to victory.

In comparison with the Bible we make the following observations:

  1. The prophet is Samuel and the first king of Israel is Saul (1 Samuel 10:1,24-25). The author of the Qur'an does not name the prophet (a/their prophet: 2:246-248) (may we ask "Why?") nor correctly state the name of the king. The prophet remains anonymous and the king is instead called Talut in the Qur'an (2:247,249).

  2. The Israelites asked for a king because the new judges (Samuel's sons) were evil; furthermore they wanted a king just like other nations (1 Samuel 8:1-5). In the Bible, the Israelites left Egypt by God's command and they were even sent away with gifts (Exodus 11:1-2; 12:35-36). During Samuel's time, "being forced from their homes" was no issue. The Qur'an states that the Israelites asked for a king so that they may fight in the cause of Allah, because they had been forced from their homes! (2:246)

  3. Samuel was displeased with this proposal, and asked the LORD what to do. And God answers: Although this request means the people's rejection of Me as their king, Samuel should do as they say after first setting before them the disadvantages of having a king, like heavy taxes, drafting their sons into his army and more as detailed in 1 Samuel 8:6-22). In the Bible Samuel tries to dissuade the people from their desire for a king. The Qur'an on the other hand presents Samuel asking them whether they would fight for God if they were so commanded. Since this was their original request(!), he only reinforces the wish of the people.

  4. Fighting was prescribed in the Qur'anic verses (2:244) and fighting in Allah's cause leads to victory (2:251), but many failed to fight when the time came and they are severely reprimanded for this by Allah (2:246). According to the Qur'an the Israelites asked for a king so that they could (start to) fight in the cause of Allah. But under the leadership of Moses, Joshua and the Judges, they have already been fighting their enemies for centuries, especially the Midianites and the Philistines, long before they asked for a king! See the Torah, the book of Joshua and large parts of the book of Judges as well as 1 Samuel 7, the chapter just before their request for the king when the judge and prophet Samuel lead them in the battle against the Philistines and Israel is victorious.

  5. In 1 Samuel 10:17-27, we read how Saul is made king and we find that the majority of people are very pleased to receive him as king (10:24). Only a very small minority of a few trouble makers despised him (10:27). In the Qur'an (2:247) it looks as if most (of the leaders) rejected his authority and appointment as king.

  6. The Qur'an declares the return of the Ark to the Israelites to be the sign of Allah's election of Saul as king. Indeed, the Ark was captured at some time by the Philistines (1 Samuel 5), but the ark had been returned (1 Samuel 6) long before Saul became king (1 Samuel 10). According to 1 Samuel 7:2, the Ark had come back to Israel over 20 years before the events in chapter 7 happen, and only after that, Israel asks for a king (1 Samuel 8:1-5). The Ark was continually in Israel's possession long before and all the time throughout Saul's reign. This is the first detail of the historical compressions in this account. This is a compression of about 20-30 years, in addition to the false statement that the return of the Ark would be a sign of Allah for Saul's authority.

  7. In regard to his (first) battle, the Qur'an claims that Saul separated the fighters and picked only a few by the way they drank from the river (2:249). Nothing like this is mentioned in 1 Samuel 11-12, the report on Saul's first battle, or even in the complete account of Saul's reign ranging over chapters 9 - 31. Instead this story is found in Judges 7, where Gideon lead the Israelites into battle. This is again a historical compression where the author of the Qur'an confuses details of separate stories and weaves them into one. In fact, Gideon's first battle against the Midianites where this story of separating the men according to their drinking behavior is taken from, took place about 1160 BC, while Saul's first battle was against the Ammonites, and took place approximately 110 years later! Furthermore, the Qur'an loses the whole point of the testing and separating of men, when Talut supposedly tells his men the terms of the test before they drink. As such it becomes an act of open disobedience instead of means of separating out the soldiers chosen by God according to his secret knowledge as in Judges 7:4-8.

  8. And there is even more historical compression is this same story. The first battle of Saul did not involve Goliath and the Philistines either. Instead they fought against the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11). Goliath came on the scene much later when Saul had sinned against God in blatant disobedience, was then rejected by God and replaced by David. The Qur'an implied that David was serving with Saul at his first battle! But the battle against Goliath and the Philistines was about 1025 B.C., 25 years after Saul's first battle against the Ammonites and after David was already secretely annointed the new king (1 Samuel 16-17). One last small detail is that Muhammad mistook Jalut for the Philistine military commander when speaking of "Jalut and his forces". But a close reading of 1 Samuel 17 shows that Goliath was the best fighter of the Philistines being called "their hero" or "their champion" but neither the king nor a general in command of the Philistine army.

Observing all these differences, the obvious question is:

Why are these accounts so different?

There seems to be no theological reason for altering these many details as there might be in regard to passages on the crucifixion (since the Qur'an rejects the idea of atonement) or the various claims of Jesus to be the unique Son of God and other doctrinally important texts. No such theological motivation presented itself to Muhammad, nor is there any reason why the Israelites should produce such an elaborate fraud over many chapters and even books in order falsify their history.

What would be a reasonable explanation? What would a Muslim answer be?

My own conclusion is based not only on this text but several similar ones and I think the following presents consistent and coherent explanation.

Muhammad had heard many stories from the Jews, but as it regularly happens with hearsay, one remembers some parts, other details are forgotten, and one might confuse parts of separate stories. Muhammad recites the story depending on his own memory and, more importantly, to suit his purposes and current needs. The latter claim of deliberate invention is obviously even more serious than the charge of forgetfulness. Yet, there seems to be sufficient evidence for this conclusion.

According to Yusuf Ali's introduction to Surat al-Baqara, most of this sura is an early Medinan sura. This means it was "revealed" shortly after Muhammad and his Meccan followers had to flee from Mecca to Medina, and had to leave behind their homes and families (2:246). This is the first piece of information that does not at all fit in Saul's time, but it perfectly fits in Muhammad's situation.

What is the motivation for this story about Talut?
The context of the passage in the Qur'an clearly states it.

Didst thou not turn by vision to those who abandoned their homes, though they were thousands (in number), for fear of death? God said to them: "Die": Then He restored them to life. For God is full of bounty to mankind, but Most of them are ungrateful.
Then fight in the cause of Allah, and know that Allah Heareth and knoweth all things.
Who is he that will loan to Allah a beautiful loan, which God will double unto his credit and multiply many times? It is God that giveth (you) want or plenty, and to Him shall be your return.
Hast thou not turned thy vision to the Chiefs of the Children of Israel after (the time of) Moses? They said to a prophet (that was) among them: "Appoint for us a king, that we May fight in the cause of Allah." He said: "Is it not possible, if ye were commanded to fight, that that ye will not fight?" They said: "How could we refuse to fight in the cause of Allah, seeing that we were turned out of our homes and our families?" But when they were commanded to fight, they turned back, except a small band among them. But Allah Has full knowledge of those who do wrong.

The motivation is very clear. Verses 243 and 244 set the topic of having had to abandon homes and the consequence is the command to fight now in the cause of Allah. In order to support this purpose, the story of Talut is recited in a way that is tailor-made for the current situation of the Muslim community. The truth of historical accuracy is not a major concern. The issue is the call to fight for Allah (meaning: for Muhammad and the Muslim community). Current reality is projected back into the old stories, and used to warn the listeners that turning back and refusing to fight will incur the displeasure of Allah (2:246 - "those who do wrong"), and to call for investment not only of their life (fighting) but all they have (their possessions) into this cause (2:245).

Why the inclusion of David and Gideon into the story? This could be part of the motivation: The Muslims were still few, and the enemies were many. One of the great victories over a fearsome enemy was little David's slaying of the giant Goliath. So this well known story got included into Muhammad's recitation because he wanted to give his followers confidence for the upcoming battles. The same dynamic holds for Gideon's case. It surely looked like a small group of Muslims would have to fight a large Meccan army. This is similar to Gideon who was called to fight with only 300 men against ten thousands of the Midianites (Judges 7:12) and God deliberately downsized Gideon's army several times, so that the victory is God's, not Gideon's (Judges 7:1-8). The number of fighters is not a problem for God. This is a very motivational element.

Has Muhammad only confused the stories because he didn't remember all the details he had heard from the Jews? That might be part of the reason for the historical confusion and compression in these verses, and this partial memory and confusion based on hearsay can be seen even clearer in some other Qur'anic passages. One part pointing to memory problems is the fact that the author of the Qur'an is seemingly not able to name the prophet, and so he leaves him anonymous. But it was probably not only a problem of Mohammed's memory - more likely the changes were motivated in part by his desire to use the inspiring stories of courage and God's miraculous intervention in the past to encourage and spur on his small band of followers to obey him without questioning as the one on whom Allah has put his authority (2:248). And indeed, that verse is an exhortation challenging the listener with the question for self-examination: "if ye indeed have faith".

In the 4th point above, it was already pointed out that it is historically incorrect to claim that the Israelites supposedly wanted to begin fighting, since they have been fighting their enemies under God's command already for centuries. However, military action is new for the Muslim community at this time. Muhammad was only their spiritual leader during the time in Mecca. After the flight to Medina, Muhammad becomes their political leader and chief commander of the Muslim armies. The beginning of fighting is the historical situation for the Muslims, not the Israelites. Symbolically speaking, Muhammad was a prophet before (like the the unnamed Samuel who is seen in a spiritual leadership role only), but now he becomes like the king Saul, who is a military commander. And just as Muhammad encounters the resistence of his people who do not want to follow him for various reasons - including that he is not among the most respected leaders, or not wealthy enough, not a noble one - so he lets the enemies of Talut speak out these accusations, and then let's Allah answers on his behalf that these are not valid reasons and that he has chosen Talut in His own superior knowledge (He knows all things) and His sovereign will (Allah chooses whom he pleases).

Furthermore, the prayer of the Israelites in ayah 2:250 does not reflect historical reality. The Philistines might have mocked the faith of the children of Israel as part of their general war propaganda, but they were not in a religious war. They just wanted to conquer and loot Israel for the booty they could get. Nor was Israel fighting against the Philistines because they were unbelievers, but because they were attacking the land and cities of Israel and they had to defend themselves. The recurring phrases of "fighting in the cause of Allah" and "help us against those who reject faith" are distinctly Muslim phrases that are projected back into the mouth of the Israelites. Muhammad was waging a religious war against the Meccans who had rejected him and the message he had preached to them for many years. Israel was only defending against a military attacker to whom they had never preached their faith.

In point 5 we noted, that Saul was not rejected by the majority of his people, but celebrated as their king. There is no mention of open opposition to Saul at all (even though this might have been justifiably included in the light of the later development of his disobedience and rejection by God himself. They could have said: See, I told you from the beginning). But Muhammad was mostly rejected in Mecca and only a few followed his message and recognized his authority over them. Again, it is Muhammad's story that is narrated as if it were Talut's.

This is a further strange point: How come Talut has an army, even a large army as it seems, if he is rejected by the people? Where does this army come from? This is not coherent.

In point 7, we saw that Talut publically explains Allah's test to the soldiers. This again makes the story incoherent in regard to the original purpose of this test, but it is not about history, it is a sermon and call to action in the present time of need for the Muslim community. The issue is not the way people drink water, it is about being obedient. The challenge of obedience to Allah through obedience to Muhammad is placed before the listener. (And so the incoherence of the story makes sense in the historical context of the sermon.) And we see this challenge many times in the Qur'an when we read "Obey Allah and His messenger". Muhammad very cleverly binds the allegience of the people to himself.

A last small observation: Why did Muhammad name Saul "Talut"? This is seemingly the only name in the Qur'an for a Biblical figure which seems to have no linguistic connection to its Biblical name. According to the Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam it is most probably chosen for poetic reasons to make his name rhyme with Jalut (Goliath, 2:249,250). Maybe another reason is that Muhammad correctly remembered that Saul was very tall (1 Samuel 10:21-24), and hence he is called Talut under the influence of the Arabic word taala (to be long/tall) as suggested in Paret's commentary on the Qur'an. But this is not directly stated in the Qur'an, and thus must remain speculative. The Qur'an does state that he had an impressive physique (bodily prowess: 2:247).


The Qur'anic story of Talut exhibits many historical inaccuracies. In particular we recognized the merging of several events that took place decades or even more than a century apart. The motivation for this version of the account is obviously the current situation of the early Muslim community in Medina which was in need of being encouraged for the upcoming battles.

Muhammad uses examples from "history" to inspire and encourage his companions to follow him in these battles and that Allah would give them victory just as he had given victory to the believers in earlier times, when they were in similar situations. He is not, at this point, concerned with historical accuracy and so, in order to make the account more applicable to the current situation, he takes liberties with history and produces a story which is conspicuously divergent from the historical narrative in the Biblical account.

Muhammad's message appeals to the experience and circumstances of his listeners, who were forced from their homes and families for the sake of following Muhammad's message. That would indeed be a reason for them to fight. But it has no foundation in the history of the Israelites at the time of Samuel.

Through the Qur'an (presumably from Allah) Muhammad is asking his followers (through the mouth of Samuel) if they would fight for Allah if they were so commanded! This exactly was Muhammad's call (2:244), and the current believers should follow the example of the old believers... And the displeasure of Allah on those who refused to fight (in the old story) is a warning to the current the listeners that Allah certainly will be displeased if they act likewise. This is Muhammad's way of indirect accusation against those who would not want to fight without having to confront them directly and personally. Honor and shame are very important elements in Middle Eastern culture and that might be one reason for using a story - since this allowed not having to shame anyone by naming them directly for their resistance, but nevertheless effectively communicating to them what Allah would think of them depending on their action.

To this day story telling, parables, are very popular means in the Middle East to communicate truth. Basically, Muhammad is creating a parable to get his message across in this indirect but nevertheless clear manner. The same method is used by the prophet Nathan to convict king David of his sin (2 Samuel 12:1-10) and Jesus tells many parables for the same reason, for example see Matthew 21:33-45 where the intended meaning is understood clearly by the audience. The problem is that Muhammad has chosen a historical figure for his parable and corrupted historical truth for his own ends. This is the reason we cannot accept this passage as a revelation from God, who is the truth, nor Muhammad as a true prophet. He has shown himself as an effective communicator, a great leader and motivator, but the standard to evaluate a prophet is whether he speaks truth, not whether he can get a large following through his oratory and people skills.

Muhammad recognizes that the bottom line is about truth. And so he concludes this section with

These are the Signs of Allah: We rehearse them to thee in truth:
verily thou art one of the messengers.

This is the ultimate purpose of this whole story. The listener is again called to accept Muhammad as the messenger of God. But the standard has to be truth. And according to his own standard of truth pointed to in this verse, Muhammad has failed this test. How then can we accept him as a true messenger of God?

I am indebted to this article on Saul in the Comparative Index to Islam for some of the details and for setting my research on this topic in motion.

The argument of this article is strengthened and greatly expanded by similar observations in other stories of the Qur'an, cf. I am all the Prophets.

There are different ways in which Muslims try to deal with the problem. Interestingly, even people from the same sectarian Muslim movement hold to contradictory opinions.

Saqib Virk, who is (as far as I know) a member of the larger Qadiani group of the Ahmadiyya sect (probably taking his opinion from the Quran commentary of their group which I currently do not have access to), argues that this story is only about Gideon, not about Saul:

"The Quran does not name Saul. It refers to Talut who many believe must have been Saul. Personally, I believe Talut corresponds to Gideon." (Source; and arguing the same position in more detail in this newsgroup posting.)

The Lahori branch of Ahmadiyya sect take the opposite view:

249a. “The story of Saul is here confounded with that of Gideon” says a Christian critic. All that the Qur’an states is that Saul tried his forces by a river, and the Bible does not say anything about it. On the other hand, the Bible speaks of a trial of a somewhat similar nature by Gideon (Judges 7:1–6), while the Qur’an does not speak of Gideon at all. The Qur’an does not undertake to give a full and detailed history of the Israelites, and no Christian does, I think, hold the belief that the Bible gives a full and detailed record of the whole of the Israelite nation, so that it could not have omitted a single incident. Nor is there anything strange if Saul followed the example of Gideon. That these are two different incidents is made clear by the fact that while Gideon tried his forces by “the well of Harod” (Judges 7:1), Saul tried his forces by a river, as stated in the Qur’an. It further appears from the Bible that the river Jordan was there: “Some of the Hebrews went over Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead” (1 Sam. 13:7).

249b. The Arabic word is Jalut, of the same measure as Talut, meaning he assailed or assaulted in the battle (LL), and thus instead of Goliath the Holy Qur’an has adopted a name which expresses his chief characteristic. Source

The latter view is close to the opinion of the conservative Muslim commentator Maududi, which is cited and discussed by James Arlandson.

Sources of the Qur'an
Historical Compressions in the Qur'an
Answering Islam Home Page