I was reading the story of Sulaiman and the Queen in chapter 27 the other day and found myself questioning the traditional interpretation (I know, shock horror, right?). Here are some of my thoughts.
27/16 And inherited Sulaiman David and he said, “Oh you people, we have been taught speech of the bird [al-tayri] and we have been given from every thing/matter [utina min kulli shay]. Indeed, this is surely the bounty [al fadlu] evident.
Sulaiman is addressing the people. Note how the pronoun ‘we’ is used to refer to the skills that have been bestowed by God. A literal understanding of ‘mantiqa al-tayri’, (speech of the bird) would imply the people of Sulaiman could communicate with birds and was not just an ability granted to the Prophet alone.
Although there is nothing to suggest it wasn’t a literal skill, there are also possible symbolic meanings layered within the verse. There is a suggestion that Sulaiman and his people were able to communicate with beings that were free and had ability of flight, possibly in a metaphorical sense. The ability to communicate and thus come to common terms with people/beings that are otherwise free without conquering or subjugating them is a gift and a blessing.
Also, I noted that the verse says Sulaiman and his people were ‘utina min kulli shay’, ‘given from every thing/matter’. This is interesting when analysing 27/23.
27/18 Until when they came upon the valley/lowly [wadi] of the ant [al namli]. Said an ant, “Oh you of ant! Enter your dwellings, not will break you apart Sulaiman and his hosts whilst they do not perceive.”
Although these could literally be ants, I’m not entirely convinced they are. The call is for the ‘namlatun’ to hide in their dwellings in the hope Sulaiman and his hosts do not see them, hence ‘they will not crush you whilst they don’t see you’. It seems that Sulaiman’s army was greatly feared.
Is there a contrast being made here between the bird, i.e. something that flies in the sky freely, and the ant, something that crawls on the floor, vulnerable? Sulaiman is portrayed as interacting with both i.e. he had knowledge of how to speak with those who are free and in flight and understood those who crawl and were at his mercy.
Sulaiman is given word of the Queen:
27/23 “Indeed I found a woman ruling them and she has been given from every thing/matter [utiyat min kulli shay] and for her a dominion [‘arsh] great.
Notice the Queen was also ‘utiyat min kulli shay’, just like Sulaiman back in 27/16. Does that mean she was also given the speech of the bird and skills ascribed to Sulaiman? If yes, then can Sulaiman’s skills really be considered a miracle if the Queen was given the same? She is also described as having a great ‘arsh’, usually translated as ‘throne’. Would the throne not imply a great dominion? The traditional interpretation of a grand, big chair doesn’t sit well with me (no pun intended).
Sulaiman then sends a message to the Queen.
27/31 “That not exalt yourselves against me but come to me as muslims.”
What I find interesting is that she does not fear Sulaiman when discussing with her chiefs. It supports the idea that she was also ‘utiyat min kulli shay’ and was perhaps on par with the Prophet in terms of worldly means. She does not comply with the demand of the Prophet and in fact sends messengers with a counter-offer. Sulaiman refuses.
27/38 He said, “Oh you chiefs! Which of you will come to me with her dominion [‘arsh] before that they come to me as muslims?
Now we’re probably all familiar with what the traditional interpretation is: that Sulaiman was asking someone to bring the Queen’s chair to him. This is not how I read it.
I believe Sulaiman was asking who amongst his people could deliver her dominion to him i.e. her chiefs, administrators and those who ensure her rule, before he conquers them. He wants someone to turn her officials.
27/39 Said a strong one of the jin, “I will come to you with it before you rise from your place. And indeed I am for it surely strong and trustworthy.”
The means of force is being offered here. Does Sulaiman accept this method? Remember, he has been given ability from every matter/thing, so he has much at his disposal. Instead, we see Sulaiman adopting a different approach in the next verse: use of The Book.
27/40 Said one who had knowledge from the Book, “I will bring it with you before that returns to you your glance.” So when he saw it settled before him, he said, “This is from the favour of my Lord to test me whether I will be grateful or ungrateful. And whoever is grateful – his gratitude is only for himself. And whoever is ungrateful – then indeed, my Lord is Free of need and Noble.”
Thus the one with knowledge of The Book is appointed the task. He succeeds. The dominion of the Queen is settled before Sulaiman.
The words of Sulaiman come across as strange if all that was placed before him was a fancy chair. I believe what was presented to him was the chiefs/administrators of the Queen’s dominion. The favour from his Lord was that he now had within his grasp a whole new kingdom/domain without fighting. The Book was sufficient in converting those who held the keys to the Queen’s power. Sulaiman is reminding himself to be grateful and show restraint.
27/41 He said, “Deny [nakkiru] for her her dominion [arsh], we will see whether she will be guided or will be of those who are not guided.
Although I’ve translated it as ‘deny’, I was speaking to Farouk earlier who suggested that ‘nakkiru’ means disguise. I’m not decided yet either way, but the verse is suggesting that her ‘arsh’ be presented in a way that she would not have access to them.
7/42 So when she came it was said, “Is thus your dominion [‘arshuki]?” She said “It is as if it is.” “And we were given the knowledge [al-‘ilm] before her and we have been muslims.”
She is not stupid. She knows something is up. I believe the response, “and we were given the knowledge [al-‘ilm] before her and we have been muslims,” is coming from her dominion [arsh] that had converted to muslims. They are telling her that they received the knowledge via the one who was sent by Sulaiman and had abandoned her rule. They became muslims behind her back.
27/43 And averted her what she did worship alongside Allah. Indeed she was from a people disbelieving/ungrateful [kaafirina].
Her ungratefulness had cost her not her fancy chair, but her kingdom.
27/44 It was said to her, “Enter the [al-sarha]” Then when she saw it/him she thought it/him excessive [lujjatan] and uncovered from her shanks [saqayha]. He said “Indeed it is [sarhun] smoothed/softened [mumarradun] from glass/crystal [qawarira]. She said, “My Lord, indeed I have wronged myself, and I submit in place with Sulaiman to Allah the Lord of the Worlds.
I’ve left a few words untranslated here as I haven’t quite finished my studies on them. Understanding this verse requires a new look at the word ‘sarha’ which is usually translated as ‘palace’ or ‘lofty tower’. I’ll post my studies in part II, inshAllah.