Sulaiman and the Queen Part II

In Part I I gave some of my thought on the story of Sulaiman and the Queen up to 27/44.

Part II is simply my ideas on 27/44.

27/44 It was said to her, “Enter al-sarha” Then when she saw it she thought it lujjatan and she uncovered from her saqayha. He said “Indeed it is mumarradun from/of qawarira. She said, “My Lord, indeed I have wronged myself, and I submit in place with Sulaiman to Allah the Lord of the Worlds.

According to the traditional interpretation, the Queen was invited into Sulaiman’s palace, where the floor was so flawless that she imagined it to be water. She lifted her skirt to her knees, only to realize it was not water at all. Her surprise led her to becoming muslim.

I find this to be a little difficult to digest. What is the relevance of this detail? There is also a problem of having to fill in a few gaps. Was the entire structure made of glass? Read literally, Sulaiman describes the sarhan as glass, so presumably, yes. So would the floor not look like the walls? Why would she mistake the floor for water if the entire structure was made of the same material? If the entire sarhan was not of the same material, are we not simply assuming the floor is the only thing made of flawless glass? Where does it say that specifically the floor was made of glass?

So what is the sarhan?

According to Lane’s Lexicon, sarhan does have a meaning of palace or lofty structure:

Sad-Ra-Ha = to make manifest, explain, clarify. sarhun – palace, high tower, lofty structure, castle.

However, when examining the instances of sarhan in quran, I believe the word must either take a metaphorical meaning or the dictionary definition is not entirely accurate. “Allow the dhikr to define the words,” as a good friend once told me.

28/38 And said Firawn, “Oh you chiefs! Not I know for you any god other than me, so kindle/heat [awqid] for me, O Haman, upon the clay so make/constitute [ij’al] for me a grand-structure [sarhan] that I may rise up [attali’u] to [ila] the god of Musa. And indeed I think he is of the liars.

Is Firawn asking Haman to literally build him a palace from clay? If you look carefully at the structure of the words, it does not say “make me a sarhan from clay”. I think Firawn is asking Haman to think/innovate something or kindle an idea upon the clay. Clay is supple and malleable and is symbolic of making something from scratch. Firawn is demanding ideas from his chiefs.

Note the reasoning: so I may rise up to the God of Musa. The God of Musa was not sitting up in the sky, nor did He reside in a palace. So why is Firawn demanding a palace? The sarhan here is something that will make Firawn seem as godly as the God of Musa. This grand-structure [sarhan] may be a political/social system which revolves around creating a greater/transcendent image for himself in the minds of his people. Thus far he had ruled through tyranny and fear, which was not the way of the God of Musa. The sarhan would let him rise up to the God of Musa.

40/36 And said Firawn, “O Haman! Construct for me a sarhan that I may reach the means [al asbaba]

40/37 The means [al asbab] of the heavens [al samawat] so I may rise up [attaliʿa] to [ila] the god of Musa. And indeed I surely think him a liar. And thus was made attractive to Firawn the evil of his deed, and he was averted from the way. And the plan of Firawn was not except in ruin.

The sarhan is described as a means to the heavens. Does any physical structure provide the means of the heavens?

It is clear Firawn did not lack in material wealth or power over his dominion. What he lacked was the loyalty, affection and good faith of the people and a true God status. Firawn understood that the God of Musa had this from a section of his community i.e. the followers of Musa, and he desired this. He wished to rise to this status.

The sarhan would give him the means of the heavens i.e. encompass his kingdom like the heavens through being a transcendent god which would be like the true God. A physical structure can not achieve this but a political/social structure could.

Also note that Firawn wanted a sarhan whereas Sulaiman already had one (27/44). It seems odd that Firawn would only demand a physical palace after encountering Musa. Surely he had physical palaces already? How would another building counter the preaching of Musa?

If we take this understanding of sarhan, we can re-visit 27/44 and analyse the sarhan mentioned there.

27/44 It was said to her, “Enter the grand-structure/framework [al-sarha]” Then when she saw it she thought it lujjatan and uncovered [wakashafat] from her saqayha. He said “Indeed it is a structure/framework [sarhun] mumarradun from/of qawarira. She said, “My Lord, indeed I have wronged myself, and I submit in place with Sulaiman to Allah the Lord of the Worlds.

Having lost her kingdom, the Queen is invited to enter the framework/sarhan of Sulaiman.

The sarhan is described as ‘lujjatan’. It is translated as deep pool, but examining other instances of word in quran does not suggest this is the appropriate meaning in this verse. See 23/75, 24/40 for variations of the same word where there is no connection with water. In 67/21 it is used as an adjective to describe the sea as ‘deep’. From Lane’s Lexicon we find the following:

Lam-Jiim-Jiim = To exceed the limit, persist obstinately, persevere, insist upon a thing, be querulous, continue in opposition/contention/litigation/wrangling.
Main sea or body of water, fathomless deep sea, great expanse of sea of which the limits cannot be seen, great & confused.

The framework was in her eyes excessive or deep or something beyond her comprehension. It doesn’t suggest she was witnessing a deep pool of water. Thus, ‘lujjatan’ may be translated as excessive/deep.

On seeing it as deep/excessive, we’re told of the Queen’s reaction:

‘And she uncovered [wakashafat] from her shanks [saqayha].’

Literally, this would imply she lifted her skirt. However, according to Lane’s Lexicon, this was a common phrase which denotes getting ready for an argument. Similar to the English expression of ‘baring ones teeth’ to denote being angry.

Siin-Waw-Qaf = to drive/impel/urge. yusaquna – they are driven or led. saiqun – driver. suq (pl. aswaq) – market, stem, leg, kashafat an saqaiha (27:44) is a well known Arabic idiom meaning to become prepared to meet the difficulty or to become perturbed/perplexed or taken aback, the literal meaning is “she uncovered and bared her shanks”. yukshafu an saqin (68:42) means ther eis severe affliction and the truth laid here, it is indicative of a grievous and terrible calamity and difficulty. masaq – the act of driving.

The underlying meaning of ‘saqaya’ being to urge or drive lends support to the expression. ‘Uncovering her urge’ suggests she was not happy with the framework she was invited into by Sulaiman, and thus prepared to argue her case.

The Queen considered the framework excessive so she bared her shanks to argue against it.

Sulaiman then responds to her reaction:

He said “Indeed it is a framework [sarhun] mumarradun from/of [min] qawarira. She said, “My Lord, indeed I have wronged myself, and I submit in place with Sulaiman to Allah the Lord of the Worlds.

The phrase ‘mumarradun min qawarira’ is usually translated as ‘made smooth from glass’. Mumarradun has a meaning of becoming soft or smooth or refined. The word qawarira is usually translated as glass or crystal.

My friend Asfora pointed out that the root meaning of the word qawarira revolves around something being firm or stable. This is confirmed from Lane’s Lexicon:

Qaf-Ra-Ra = to be or become cool, remain quiet, be steadfast, be firm, refresh, be stable, be firm, receive satisfy, affirm, agree, settle, last. qarar – stability, a fixed or secure place, depository, place ahead. qurratun – coolness, delight. aqarra (vb. 4) – to confirm, cause to rest or remain. istaqarra (vb. 10) – to remain firm. mustaqirrun – that which remains firmly fixed or confirmed, in hiding, is lasting, which certainly comes to pass, which is settled in its being/goal/purpose. mustaqar – firmly fixed/established, sojourn, abode. qurratun – coolness, refreshment, source of joy and comfort. qawarir (pl. of qaruratun) – glasses, crystals.

I’m not entirely sure if qawarira actually means glass/crystal. It’s used in verses 76/15-16 in an odd way. Verse 15 gives the phrase ‘akwabin kanat qawarira’ – cups that are glass, and then immediately after in verse 16 we get, ‘qawarira min fiddatin’ – glass of silver. I’m not sure yet what to make of ‘glass of silver’ which seems to me an awkward phrase. Seeing as I can’t yet pinpoint an exact meaning of the word, I’ve looked at the general root meaning to see if it fits with the context of 27/44.

He said “Indeed it is a framework [sarhun] smoothed/refined [mumarradun] from/of [min] firm-purpose [qawarira]. She said, “My Lord, indeed I have wronged myself, and I submit in place with Sulaiman to Allah the Lord of the Worlds.

Whatever the exact phrase ‘mumarradun min qawarira’ is, it is obviously a refutation of the Queen’s claim that the framework was excessive/deep. Sulaiman is assuring her that it has been refined and is firmly established i.e. it’s been working for a long time, and it is not what she claims it to be. On understanding this, the Queen regrets her mistake and becomes muslim.

27/44 It was said to her, “Enter the grand-structure/framework [al-sarha]” Then when she saw it she thought it excessive/deep [lujjatan] and uncovered [wakashafat] from her shanks [saqayha]. He said “Indeed it is a structure/framework [sarhun] smoothened/refined [mumarradun] from/of firm-purpose [qawarira]. She said, “My Lord, indeed I have wronged myself, and I submit in place with Sulaiman to Allah the Lord of the Worlds.

This ties up my understanding of the story of Sulaiman and the Queen. The underlying theme/message of the story is about being grateful for the abilities and means we have been given by Allah. The Prophet Sulaiman gives us an excellent example of how to be grateful and how to treat people under our influence. The story shows us that for all her power and ability, the Queen was unable to hold her domain due to her ungratefulness. And we also see the mercy of Allah who guides her to the straight path through the guidance of the Prophet.

Sulaiman and the Queen Part I

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.