Solomon and the Queen of Sheba
Most of the story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba is told in surah 27 The Ants (yes, there is a verse about ants, talking ants no less). Their story begins after Allah’s first recollection of His first encounter with Moses.
27:15 And We gave David and Solomon knowledge. They said: “Praise be to Allah Who preferred us over many of His believing servants.”
Solomon’s people could talk to birds.
27:16 Solomon inherited David, and he said: “O people we have been taught the speech of birds and have been given part of everything. This is indeed the manifest bounty.
Both birds and the jinn served in the armies of Solomon. When this army of men, jinn and birds was about to trample on some ants, Allah held them in check until the ants could find safety in their anthill.
27:17 And Solomon’s troops, jinn, men and birds, were mustered and duly held in check.
27:18 Until they reached an ants’ hill; when an ant said: “O ants, enter your dwellings, lest Solomon and his troops crush you, without noticing it.”
The ant’s words remind Solomon to be grateful for small mercies.
27:19 Then he (Solomon) smiled, laughing at its words, and said: “Lord, inspire me to be thankful for Your Blessing, with which You blessed me and my parents, and to do the right pleasing to You. Admit me, by Your Mercy, into the company of Your righteous servants.”
Finally, we get to the verses about his meeting with the Queen of Sheba which starts with Solomon wondering out loud where his hoopoe, a colourful bird that is found in Africa and Eurasia, has gone.
27:20 He inspected the birds, then said: “Why do I not see the hoopoe (the hoopoe served Solomon as a carrier-pigeon would)? Or is it gone away with the absent ones (the birds who were on an expedition with the troops of men and jinns, Moududi)?
The hoopoe better have a good reason for being away or he could be dinner. He does, his flying orders came from Allah Himself; the “manifest authority” in the following verse:
27:21 “I will punish it grievously or slaughter it, unless it brings me a manifest authority.”
The hoopoe returns with news of a land ruled by a woman,
27:22 He lingered not for long, and so it (the hoopoe) said: “I have learnt what you have not learnt and have brought from Sheba news which is certain.
27:23 “I have found a woman ruling over them and she has been given a share of everything and she has a great throne.
Not only that, the hoopoe reports that the people of Sheba do not worship Allah and it is all Satan’s doing!
27:24 “I found her and her people prostrating themselves to the sun, instead of Allah, and Satan has embellished their actions, barring them from the Path. Therefore they are not well-guided;
27:25 “So that they may not prostrate themselves to Allah, Who brings out what is hidden in the heavens and the earth and knows what you conceal and what you reveal.”
Solomon doesn’t believe the bird and asks it to take a letter, an ultimatum in effect, requesting the Queen’s presence.
27:26 Allah, there is no god but He, the Lord of the Great Throne.
27:27 He (Solomon) said: “We will see if you are telling the truth or are a liar.
27:28 “Take this letter of mine and deliver it to them; then turn away from them and see what they will give back in response.”
27:29 She said (the Queen of Sheba): “O my dignitaries, a gracious letter has been delivered to me.
27:30 “It is from Solomon and it says: ‘In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful,
27:31 “'Do not rise against me, and come to me submissively.’
The Queen of Sheba is gracious in labelling a letter which demands that she, a Queen, in effect, come crawling to the sender. Fakhry, in a footnote, explains that this was the equivalent of insisting that the Queen of Sheba become a Muslim.
What to do? The queen decides to consult her dignitaries.
27:32 She said: “O my dignitaries, give me your counsel in this, my affair. I will make no decision until you bear witness to me.”
It is your affair, it is your call, is her dignitaries’ response!
27:33 They said: “We are endowed with force and great might, but the command is yours; so see what you will command.”
The Queen decides to send Solomon a tribute to avoid having to appear before him “submissively.” But before doing so, she pauses to reflect on what absolute rulers like her and Solomon do to a people when they enter a city.
27:34 She said: “When kings enter a city, they ruin it and reduce its proud inhabitants to subjection. Thus they will always do.
27:35 “I am sending them a gift and will see what the envoys will bring back.”
Solomon does not want her money. The hoopoe reported that the people of Sheba bowed to the sun, therefore they were idol worshippers. Idol worshippers, unlike Christians and Jews who can keep their religion and their lives if they pay a head tax, must convert when asked to do so.
27:36 When [the emissary] came to Solomon, he said: “Are you supplying me with money? What Allah has given me is better than what He gave you. You are rather rejoicing in your gift.
Solomon threatens to invade, and not only defeat the people of Sheba, but humiliate and demean them.
27:37 “Go back to them (the people of Sheba); for we shall array against them troops which they cannot resist and we shall drive them out of it degraded and abased.”
Solomon then hits upon the idea of stealing the Queen’s throne. A jinn by the name of ‘Ifreet volunteers to go steal it, and does so in the blink of an eye.
27:38 He said: “O dignitaries, which of you will bring me her throne, before they come forward submitting?”
27:39 A ‘Ifreet of the jinn said: “I will bring it to you, before you rise from your seat, and I am indeed capable of it and faithful.”
The jinn is true to his word, but of course, Solomon knows who conjured up the throne and who to thank. Like David he fears that this is a test from Allah.
27:40 He who had knowledge of the Book said: “I will bring it to you, before your glance returns to you.” So when he (Solomon) saw it ensconced before him, he said: “This is a bounty from my Lord, to test me, whether I am grateful or ungrateful. He who gives thanks, only gives thanks to his own credit, and he who is ungrateful (?) will find my Lord All Sufficient and Generous.”
With the throne in his possession Solomon decides to disguise it and when the Queen comes to get it back, to test her faith. If she recognizes her throne immediately it will mean the Queen of Sheba believes in Allah.
27:41 He said: “Disguise her throne for her, so that we might see whether she will be well-guided or will be one of those who are not well-guided.”
27:42 When she arrived, it was said (to her): “Is your throne like this one?” She said: “It looks like it.” “We (Solomon) were given the knowledge before her and were submissive.”
Her hesitancy in identifying her throne seems to confirm that the Queen did not bow before any man, not even Allah.
27:43 However, what she worshipped, apart from Allah, barred her; she was indeed one of the unbelieving people.
During her visit the Queen of Sheba committed another faux pas, which, when it was pointed out to her by Solomon, caused her to change her mind about Allah.
27:44 It was said to her: “Enter the mansion”; but when she saw it, she thought it was a deep pond, and she bared her legs. He (Solomon) said: “This is actually a mansion made of glass.” She said: “Lord, I have wronged myself and have submitted, along with Solomon, to Allah the Lord of the Worlds.”
Solomon and the Light-Footed Horses
38:30 And We granted David, Solomon, a blessed servant. Indeed, he was penitent.
38:31 When the light-footed horses were presented to him in the evening,
38:32 He said: “I have preferred the love of earthly good to the mention of my Lord, till the sun disappeared behind the veil.”
38:33 “Bring them back to me.” Then he proceeded to wipe their shanks and necks.
In other translations such as Pickthall's and Shakir's, the horses are killed because they caused Solomon to forget to perform the night prayer
Pickhall: (Then he said): Bring them back to me, and fell to slashing (with his sword their) legs and necks.
Shakir: Bring them back to me; so he began to slash (their) legs and necks.
Mohsin Khan's translation is similar to Fakhry's:
38:33 Then he said "Bring them (horses) back to me." Then he began to pass his hand over their legs and their necks.
38:34 And We tried Solomon and cast upon his throne a dead body; then he repented.
38:35 He said: “Lord, forgive me and grant me a kingdom that no one after me will deserve; you are indeed the All-Giver.”
38:36 So, We subjected the wind unto him, to blow at his command softly, wherever he wished;
38:37 And of the demons every builder and diver;
38:38 And others shackled in fetters.
38:39 “This is Our Bounty; so give or withhold without account.”
38:40 And he has to Us a close relationship and a fair recourse.
Death and the Fate of the People of Sheba
Solomon died while watching jinns who, as a punishment from Allah, were commanded to help Solomon build his temple. People might not have noticed his passing had it not been for a worm gnawing at his staff which, when it broke, caused the dead body to fall down.
34:14 When We decreed his death, nothing indicated to them that he was dead except an earth-worm gnawing away at his staff. Then, when he fell down, the jinn realized that, had they known the Unseen, they would not have continued in the demeaning punishment.
As for the people of Sheba, their Queen might have seen the light, but not her people for Allah visited a punishment on them reminiscent of the great flood.
34:15 For Sheba there also was a sign in their dwelling two gardens, to the right and the left: “Eat of your Lord’s provision and give thanks to Him; a good land and an All-Forgiving Lord.”
34:16 But they turned away; and so We loosed upon them the Overwhelming Flood, and We substituted for their two gardens another two gardens bearing bitter fruit and having fir trees and a few lotus trees.
34:17 Thus We penalized them for their disbelief; and do We ever penalize any but the unbeliever?
Penalties upon perplexing penalties; why Allah would penalize people for asking Him to give them more time between their travels? If that is why He utterly “tore them up”, then the “personification of pettiness” is not adequate to describe a god who would do such a thing?
34:18 We established between them and between the cities, which we blessed, other visible cities, and We determined the measure of travel therein; “Travel therein for nights and days in perfect security.”
34:19 Then they said: “Lord, prolong the stages between our travels.“ They wronged themselves, so we reduced them to mere tales and tore them up utterly. Surely, there are in that signs for every steadfast and thankful man.
Giving credit to the devil for being a good judge of character:
34:20 And Iblis definitely proved right his opinion of them, and so they followed him, except for a group of believers.
34:21 Yet he had no authority over them; but that We might distinguish him who believed in the Hereafter, from him who was in doubt regarding it. Your Lord is watchful over everything.