We find the story of the Queen of Sheba in surat Al-Naml (27: 22- 44). The verses within this surah narrate the encounter between the Queen of Sheba and Solomon (PBUH) the Prophet-king. The background theme for this account is the knowledge and the supernatural powers that God granted Solomon (PBUH). The name Al-Naml is translated as “The Ants” and is taken from verse 18, in which Solomon (PBUH) heard an ant who sensed the approaching army of Solomon (PBUH) and was warning its community to move away from the path of the advancing troops. We do not know how the ant recognized that this was Solomon’s (PBUH) army, but we do know that God gifted Solomon (PBUH) the supernatural power of understanding the language of birds and insects.
The story begins with a verse in which Solomon (PBUH) expresses his annoyance that he could not find the hoopoe, a colorful bird known for its distinctive crown of feathers, standing with the rest of the birds who had formed a battalion in his army. The awareness of this bird’s absence illustrates one of Solomon’s (PBUH) traits; his keen observation skills and his firm expectations of his soldiers. The hoopoe was missing and he had left without permission, such careless behavior should be punished. Solomon (PBUH); however, was a prophet, not a tyrant and so he deferred his final judgment until he had heard from the hoopoe itself, “I will certainly punish him with a severe penalty, or I will execute him, unless he brings me a valid excuse.” (27: 21) When the hoopoe returned, he brought with him some surprising news, “But the hoopoe tarried not far. He (came up and) said, ‘I have learnt something that you do not know, and I have come to you from Sheba with certain information. I found a woman ruling over them, and she has been given (abundance) of all things, and hers is a mighty throne. I found her and her people worshipping the sun besides God. Satan has made their deeds seem pleasing to them, and has kept them away from the straight path, so they became misguided. So that they do not worship God, who brings forth the hidden in the heavens and the earth, and who knows what you hide and what you declare. God, there is no deity save Him, the Lord of the great throne.” (27: 22 – 26) It is important to note that the hoopoe begins his speech to the king with a bold statement, “I have learnt something that you do not know.” This must certainly have been intended to capture the king’s attention. The hoopoe then continues to tell the details of its discovery of a woman who reigns over a people in South Yemen in a kingdom with the name of Sheba. She was given an abundance of everything and she had a great throne. But they were worshipping the sun. The hoopoe deduced that the devil must have lured them away from the straight path. We find ourselves in front of an astonishing bird. The verses not only depict an intelligent bird that understands and expresses itself in an eloquent way but also a bird who believes in God and who has the ability to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong.
Although what Solomon heard was upsetting, he (PBUH) did not hasten to make a decision regarding the news he had been given. In order to move forward, Solomon (PBUH) needed to determine if what he had heard was true, “(Solomon) said, ‘Soon we shall see whether you are telling the truth or you are lying. Go with this letter of mine and throw it down to them; then turn away and see what (answer) they return.’” (27: 27 – 28) The contents of the letter were not disclosed at this point.
The following verse depicts another scene, the scene of the Queen’s court. The Queen was asking her counselors, “Chiefs, a noble letter has been delivered to me. It is from Solomon, and it is (as follows), ‘In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy; do not be haughty with me but come to me in submission (to God).’” (27: 29 – 31) As the Queen of Sheba tells her court she has received a letter, it is important to note that at this time, she did not know how or by whom, the letter was delivered. Yet void of these important details, the Queen of Sheba still describes the letter as, “a noble letter.” There must have been something about this simple letter that made her make this statement. One can assume that Solomon (PBUH) must have been well known to her and her people, because she mentioned him by name. The letter itself was a simple letter. It had only one request, “Do not be haughty with me but come to me in submission (to God).” (27: 31) The letter was a request for them to submit to God.
Having shared the contents of the letter with them, she seeks their advice, “She said, ‘Chiefs, advise me in my affair; I would not make a decision except in your presence.’” (27: 32) This showed a leadership that believes in consultation. Her counselors responded, “We are people of might and great power, but the decision is yours, so consider what you will command.” (27: 33) Her response reflects her aversion to violence, “Indeed kings, when they enter a country, they ruin it, and subjugate its dignified people. And thus do they behave. But I am going to send them a present, and (wait) to see with what (answer) will messengers return.” (27: 34 – 35) Clearly the Queen of Sheba knows the devastation that is brought on by war and her preference is to avoid this. Furthermore, she extends an olive branch by sending Solomon (PBUH) a gift. Sheba’s gift is also intended to be a test to find out what kind of a man Solomon (PBUH) is; is he after money, or is he a man of principle? Clearly Sheba is an astute leader, and her initial dealings with Solomon (PBUH) shows a wisdom in dealing with sensitive matters of the state.
The narrative moves to describe the scene of Solomon (PBUH) receiving the queen’s gift, “(the king) said, ‘What! Are you offering me wealth? What God has given me is better than that which He has given you. It is you (and not I) who rejoice in your gift.’” (27: 36) Solomon (PBUH) expressed his dismay over the gift loud and clear. His focus is singular: to guide them to the worship of God alone. He then issues a dire threat, “Return to them. We shall verily come upon them with hosts that they cannot resist, and we shall drive them out from their land in disgrace, and they will be abased.” (27: 37)
The verses do not detail what happened next, but we understand from the text that Solomon (PBUH) knew that the queen and her entourage had accepted his invitation and were on their way to meet him. He may have also anticipated this from the way she handled the situation and guessed at her intention to avoid war. Then Solomon (PBUH) makes a curious request, to the members of his court, “He said (to his own men), ‘Chiefs, which of you can bring me her throne before they come to me in submission?’ A powerful one from among the jinn said, ‘I will bring it to you before you rise from your place; indeed, I am strong and trustworthy.’ The one who had knowledge of the Book said, ‘I will bring it to you within the twinkling of an eye.’” (27: 38 – 40) Why did Solomon (PBUH) want to bring Queen Sheba’s throne before she arrived? Most probably that was his way of impressing her with his power and resources. One of the jinn offered to bring the throne to him before he had finished his meeting, but the one who had knowledge of the Book said that he could bring it in a twinkling of an eye. The verses do not explain who was that who had the knowledge, nor did they specify which Book that had this knowledge. But we understand that he was a believer and that he was given extraordinary powers as a gift from God.
When Solomon (PBUH) saw the throne in front of him, he expressed his gratitude to God, “Then when (Solomon) saw it placed firmly before him, he said, ‘This is by the Grace of my Lord to test me whether I am grateful or ungrateful – and if any is grateful, truly his gratitude is for his own soul; but if any is ungrateful, truly my Lord is Rich, Generous’” (27: 40) Solomon (PBUH) realized the responsibility of being blessed by God and responded by expressing his gratitude. It is a great trial when God bestows His blessings on people. They should recognize the source of their blessings and they should be grateful to Him. Gratitude does not increase or decrease God or His majesty, in any way. When we live in a state of gratitude towards God, it is for our own benefit.
Solomon (PBUH) wanted to test the queen, “He said, ‘Disguise her throne for her that we may see whether she will be guided or remains one of the misguided.’” (27: 41) This was also a way to test the wisdom of the queen when faced with such a surprise. She was asked, “Is this like your throne?” She did not know for sure that this was her throne. So, she was cautious in her answer. She said, “It is as though it were the very one.” (27: 42)
The following verse commented on why she was not a believer, “And what she worshipped besides God prevented her, surely she was of one of people who disbelieve.” (27: 43) She was following the tradition of her forefathers in worshipping the sun.
Yet, there was another surprise that Solomon (PBUH) had for her, “It was said to her, ‘Enter the hall.’ And when she saw it she thought it was a pool and bared her legs. (Solomon) said, ‘It is a hall, paved with smooth glass.’ She said, ‘My Lord, I have wronged myself, and I submit with Solomon to God, the Lord of the Worlds.’” (27: 44) The crystal floor of the hall tricked her into thinking she was entering a shallow pool. She then realized that Solomon (PBUH) was given supernatural powers and she submitted herself to God. She understood that submission is to God alone and that whatever powers Solomon (PBUH) had were from God.
- The story gives a lesson in humility. Solomon (PBUH) was given vast knowledge and supernatural powers, yet he did not disdain to learn from one of his subjects, the hoopoe. He was not aware of the existence and practices of the Queen and people of Sheba until the hoopoe discovered them and brought it to his attention.
- Birds and insects are nations that communicate with each other.
- Solomon’s (PBUH) awareness that he was blessed with enormous powers and knowledge did not make him a tyrant but motivated him to be grateful to God.
- The verses depict the Queen of Sheba to be a wise, prudent, and judicious leader. She reacted wisely to the surprise letter from Solomon (PBUH). She consulted her advisors but she developed an intelligent plan to gauge the situation before taking a drastic measure.
- The Queen of Sheba accepted the truth when she was presented with a clear proof.
- Although Solomon’s (PBUH) approach was firm and he behaved from a position of power, he was not disrespectful towards the Queen of Sheba and provided enough evidence for her to be able to see the truth.