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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Solomon & the languages of animals

In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Beneficent

He inspected the birds and said: “Why is it that I do not see the hoopoe? Is he among the absentees? I will certainly punish him severely, or I will kill him, unless He brings me a clear warrant” (for his absence). But the hoopoe did not take long in coming. He said: “I have just learned things that are unknown to you, and I come to you from Sheba with accurate information. I found there a woman ruling over them; and she has been given of all good things, and hers is a magnificent throne. I found her and her people prostrating themselves to the sun instead of God; and Satan has made their deeds seem goodly to them, thus turning them away from the path (of God), so that they cannot find the right way.” (The Ants; Al-Naml: 27: 20-24)

So far the surah has given details about the knowledge God had chosen to give to His prophet, Solomon (as - peace be upon him). It relates Solomon’s (as) own words as he expressed gratitude for the special privileges God granted him, such as understanding the speech of birds, and favors of all sorts. The surah (chapter) also mentions that Solomon (as) had armies from among the jinn and the birds, in addition to his human army. It tells us how he understood the language of ants when he heard one of them warning its community of ants to hide before they could be crushed by Solomon and his hosts.

All this was a prelude to Solomon’s (as) story with the Queen of Sheba in which the hoopoe plays an important role. The story is told in six scenes with certain gaps deliberately left out, but we can easily understand them. Indeed these gaps serve to enhance the artistic beauty of the story. We also have comments on some of the scenes to alert us to their spiritual significance and enhance the moral we gather from the story. The comments are in perfect harmony, artistically and religiously, with the scenes and the gaps left between them.

Since the reference to Solomon (as) started with mentioning the jinn, humans and birds, as well as highlighting the importance of knowledge, the story gives roles to all three and shows the value of knowledge. It is as if the opening verses were meant to point out the key actors in the story. This is one of the finer artistic features of story telling in the Qur’an.

As told in the surah, the story paints the personal and distinctive features of the main characters: Solomon (as), the queen, the hoopoe and the queen’s courtiers. It portrays different reactions of these characters in different situations.

The first scene begins in the military parade, after the procession has passed the valley of the ants: “He inspected the birds and said: Why is it that I do not see the hoopoe? Is he among the absentees? I will certainly punish him severely, or I will kill him, unless He brings me a clear warrant (for his absence).” (Verses 20-21)

We see Solomon (as), a prophet and a king, marshalling his troops, and inspecting the birds to discover the absence of the hoopoe. We understand that it is a special hoopoe, with a position assigned to it in the procession. It was not just one of thousands or millions of hoopoes on the face of the earth. We note that Solomon (as) was alert and firm to miss a mere soldier in the great multitude composed of jinn, men and birds. His inquiry is of the type that befits a commander: it is flexible, looking at different possibilities: “Why is it that I do not see the hoopoe? Is he among the absentees?” (Verse 20)

It soon becomes clear to all that he is absent without prior permission. Hence, the matter should be firmly dealt with in order to keep matters under control. With the king’s inquiry, the hoopoe’s absence is no longer a secret. Unless firmness applied, it could become a precedent leading to worse consequences. Hence, Solomon (as) threatens the absent hoopoe: “I will certainly punish him severely, or I will kill him.” (Verse 21) But Solomon (as) is not a tyrant; he is a prophet. He must not issue a final judgment on the hoopoe before listening to what it had to say in its own defense. Therefore, we immediately see him as a just ruler: “Unless He brings me a clear warrant,” to justify his absence.

The curtains are drawn here, or may be the scene continues as the hoopoe arrives. He carries a great piece of news that represents a great surprise for Solomon (as) and for us who are observing events as they unfold: “But the hoopoe did not take long in coming. He said: ‘I have just learned things that are unknown to you, and I come to you from Sheba with accurate information. I found there a woman ruling over them; and she has been given of all good things, and hers is a magnificent throne. I found her and her people prostrating themselves to the sun instead of God; and Satan has made their deeds seem goodly to them, thus turning them away from the path (of God), so that they cannot find the right way. That they should not prostrate themselves in worship of God who brings forth all that is hidden in the heavens and the earth, and knows what you conceal and what you reveal. God, other than whom there is no deity, the Lord of the (truly) magnificent Throne.” (Verses 22-26)

The hoopoe is fully aware of the king’s firmness and serious approach. Therefore, he begins his report with a surprise that overshadows the fault of his absence and ensures that the king will listen to him: “I have just learned things that are unknown to you.” What king would not listen when one of his subjects tells him that he has learned something unknown to him?


Commentary by Sheik Sayyid Qutb

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