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Mir, MusLansir.

of Shebats Conversion
21:44: A Problem Examined." Journal of
Studies IX, no. II
of Sheba's Conversion in
A Problem Examined
Mustansir Mir
YouNcsrowx Srere UxlvpRstrY
In a thought-provoking
paper presented at a conference in London in 2003, Oliver
Leaman raised the problem of the all-too-sudden conversion of the
of Sheba as
mentioned in
27:44. The aya reads:r
It was said to her,
'Enter the palace.' When she saw it, she took it to be
cleep water and uncovered her shanks- He
is a
castle smoothed over with crystal!' She said,
'My Lord, I have
wronged mysetf. I submit, along with Solomon, to God, the Lord of the
The situation can be described as follows: During her visit to Solomon's palace, the
of Sheba is asked to step into a pavilion with a glass floor. Mistaking the floor
for water,
she pulls up her skirt, baring her legs. When Solomon tells her what the
pavilion is made of, the queen forsakes her idolatrous religion by announcing her
submission to the God of Solomon,
Lord of the universe'' According to Leaman,
the queen's conversion to Solomon's religion is a little too abrupt and makes one
wonder whether it is
by the occasion. For the queen was tricked by the
architectural design of the palace and it is hard to believe that one so tricked would be
persuaded on the spot to renounce one's own faith and embrace another. Leaman's
suggested solution to the problem was that the queen, probably analogising from her
mistake of regarding the glass for water, concluded that she was mistaken, too, in
regarding idolatry as the right religion.
Leaman deserves credit for pointing out that
27:44 presents a potential exegetical
one that few Muslim exegetes, classical or modern, seem to have noticed
and identified in such clear terms.2 Taking a line of interpretation different from
Leaman's, this paper argues that
27:44reptesents not a moment of illumination'
leading to sudden conversion on the queen's part but a logical culmination of a
process of change of heart the queen had been undergoing long before her visit to
palace. The paper is divided into four sections. The first section
summarises the conversion passage in Sura 2l; the second section discusses, with
reference to the argument of this paper, the conversion of Pharaoh's magicians in
Sura 20; the third section compares the
account of the
of Sheba with
Journal of
the Biblical: the final section offers brief remarks about the
mode of
reasoning, an ancillary issue which the queen's conversion Seems to raise.
Conversion in Context
The relevant passage in the sura
(ayas 2344) being too long to be quoted in its
entirety, I will summarise it, quoting ayas in part oI in full as necessary. The passage
makes the following
points sequentially:
1) The hoopoe, having returned from the land of Sheba, arrives in Solomon's
presence3 and reports that it has seen a sun-worshipping
peopie that are ruled by a
powerful queen who possesses a great throne, and that Satan, by making their
actions alluring to them, has kept the people from discovering the Right Path
namely, that they may not prostrate themselves before the God Who brings
what is hidden in the heavens and the earth and knows what you hide and what
you proclaim
(Q. 21 :23-5),
2) Solomon dispatches the hoopoe with a letter, commanding it to drop the letter by
the rulers of Saba" and then observe their reaction
3) The
on picking up the letter, tells her courtiers that she has received an
esteemed letter which reads: In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the
Very Merciful. Do not rise up against me, but come to me in submission. On being
asked to give their counsel, the courtiers express their resolve to fight Solomon if
necessary but leave the final decision to the queen. Observing that kings devastate
the land they enter, humiliating its nobles, the
decides to send Solomon a
gift in order to see how he would respond
4) Refusing to accept the gift, Solomon tells the queen's emissary of his intention to
invade the queen's country with an irresistible army that will drive her people out
of their land
(Q. 2l:36--7);
5) To fulfill Solomon's wish, a
offers to fetch the queen's throne before you can
your seat, but one possessed of knowledge of the Book says that he can
bring the throne before he
can blink his eyes. On finding the throne
placed next to him, Solomon offers gratitude to God for His blessings upon him
6) Solomon has the shape of the throne altered. When the queen visits him, he asks her
if her throne is like the one in Solomon's
presence. 'It does look like l/', she replies,
'And we had been given knowledge before this, and we were in submission' -
comments that the queen hadbeenprevented
that is, from submitting
to Solomon
by her idolatry, and that she had been an unbeliever
7) Asked to entef the castle, the queen, taking the floor to be deep water, pulls up her
skirt, exposing her legs. Realising her mistake, she declares that she submits, along
with Solomon, to the Lord of the universe
(Q. 27:aD-
of Sheba's Conversion
If we read ayas 23-44 as telling a connected story
albeit one that covers a long span
of time-wewillseethat
the story's climax. Consider the following:
First, the queen, upon receiving Solomon's
letter, announces to her courtiers that'an
letter has been dropped in to me'
(Q. 27:29). The adjective describing
letter is kartm,which,
signifying esteem and honour, sums up the queen's favourable
judgement of the letter and, one presumes, of the writer of the letter as well' The
queen's description of the letter to the courtiers seems to be calculated to influence
their opinion
when the courtiers tell her that they are willing and able to fight against
the queen dissuacles them from taking the path of war. Adopting a
approach instead, she decides to send a present to Solomon with a view to
finding out how he would respond. She evidently has respect for Solomon's
and is afraid of antagonising
Third, the queen seems to have learnt
through report or investigation or both
good deal about Solomon and is very impressed
with what she has learnt. The second
hatf of
which consists of a remark by her, when read together with the
aya, adivine comment, supplies a crucial piece of information:
'And vve had
been given knowledge before this, and we were in submission'. What she worshipped
other than God had held her back; indeed, she had belonged to an unbelieving
There is, here, a strong suggestion that, from what she knew about Solomon, the
queen was in'awe of him
so much so that, while she had inwardly acknowledged
the supremacy of Solomon not only in terms of military might but also in terms of
religious belief, the force or pressure of her nation's idolatrous
tradition had kept her
from actually converting
to that faith.a In all probability, then, her experience at the
glass castle, rather than causing her embarrassment,
added to her already
considerably high estimation of a king who combined
in himself, so to speak, the
best of both worlds
a king whose personality and works evidenced
the existence
an ideal synthesis
of the mundane and the spiritual.
Here is a king, she must have
thought, who has built a marvelous
piece of architecture but who, in his humility'
attributes all his achievements
to God.s It is highly unlikely that her experience at the
castle made her feel duped and humiliated;
it is much more probable that it removed
the last obstacie in her way to conversion,
serving as the last straw that broke
the camel's
her tradition's
tilting her in favor of Solomon's
Supporting evidence for the thesis
just put forward is found not only in the conversion
passage in Sura 2J,blt elsewhere
in the
as well'
46 Journal of
Immediately preceding the glass castle incident in Sura 27 tsthe incident involving the
changing of the outward form of the queen's throne. Solomon commands his servants:
'Change the
of her throne
her, that we may see whether she is led in the right
direction or whether she remains one of those who would not be so led' (Q.27:4I).
The reason given by Solomon for the test is, in the Arabic original: nanTur alahtadt
am takunu mina'lladhtna la yahtaduna. The key verb here is ihtadA,
'to be rightly
guided', and an understanding of the full import of its use in this aya is crucial to a
proper interpretation of the
narrative. It would be a trivialisation of the entire
and especially of the character of Solomon, whom the
presents not
only as a mighty king, but also as a prophet
if the word is taken to mean that
Solomon is playing a practical
and is curious to flnd out whether the
Sheba would recognise her throne in its changed form. On the contrary, it would make
eminently good sense to interpret the word to mean that Solomon wants to find out
whether the throne in its changed form does or does not lead the queen to see the truth
of the faith to which he himself subscribes. Three points need to be noted:
1) The periphrastic construction used by Solomon to give the reason for the test
nanzLff a-tahtadl am takilnu mina'lladhTna la yahtaduna
will, upon close reading,
be seen to signify, flrst, the impofiance Solomon attaches to the test; second,
Solomon's expectation that the queen will make the right choice; and, third,
Solomon's anticipatory regret over the queen's wrong decision should she happen to
make such a choice.T
2) The use of the verb ihtada rn
27:41 resonates with the use of the same word in
in which the hoopoe reports to Solomon about the people of Saba" in the
following words: 'I
her and her people prostrating themselves before the sun, to
the neglect of God; and Satan has made their actions alluring to them, and has, in this
way, kept themfrom the Path, and so they are not rightly guided' . The Arabic original
for and so they are not rightly guided rs
la yahtaduna; the people of Saba" are
here said to have failed to reach the correct path (al-sabtl). In this aya, it is the
Sabaeans' worship of the sun that is called their lack of ihtida'
and this lack of ihttda'
is, in the next two ayas, contrasted with worship of the One God, this monotheistic
worship constituting true ihtida', or the correct path. Here is how Ibn Janr al-Taban
explains the individual phrases making tp
And Satan had made their actions rtlluring to them (wa-gyyana
lahumu'l-Shaytanu a'malahum): It
hoopoe] says:
'Ibhs presented
to them in a favorable light their worship of the sun and their
prostration before it to the disregard of God, endearing this act to them.
And he has kept them
the Path (fa-saddahum 'ani'l-sabll).' It
'And so, by glamorising that act to them, he
has kept
them from following the straight path
namely, the religion of God
of Sheba's Conversion in
with which He sent his prophets.' The meaning is: and so he has kept
them from the path of truth. And so they were not rightly guided (fa'
hum la yahtaduna). It says:
'and so, with Satan having glamorised to
them what he did glamorise
namely, their prostration before the sun,
to the disregard of God, and their disbelief in Him
they are not
guided to the path of truth and do not tread it but are caught up in
misguidance, and so are in a dither.'
It is reasonable to assume that, having already learnt about the Sabaeans' lack of
guidance, Solomon should, upon using the verb ihtada in the latter part of the passage,
be thinking of the same guidance that is defined by al-Taban as knowledge and
practice of monotheism as contrasted with idolatry.
3) Both Solomon and the queen try, on more than one occasion, to size each other
up: Solomon does so, initially, by sending her a letter that is to be delivered by the
hoopoe and, subsequently, by sending a message through the queen's emissary; the
queen does so, initially, by sending gifts to Solomon and, subsequently, by visiting him
in person. The
context of the entire interaction between the queen and
Solomon is religious. The tone of that context is determined by Solomon's pithy letter,
which begins with the basmala,In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Very
(Q. 27:30), and ends with do not defy me, but come to me in subtnission
(Q.27:3I). The Arabic for
'come to me in submission' is wa-"tr,1ni muslimtn, which
means, according to al-Taban,
'aqbilu ilayya mudh'intn li'Uah bi'l-wahdaniyya
('come to me having made submission to God, accepting His oneness and
obeying Him').e In other words, the queen is being asked to submit to God and, as a
token of that submission, to submit to Solomon. Solomon's second message, in which
he threatens the people of Saba' with military action, can only be understood as
expressing his intention to enforce the submission that he demands in the letter
namely, that the queen abandon idolatry in favor of monotheism and accept Solomon's
authority. As for the queen, she first sends Solomon a gift with the express intention
of 'determining what response the emissaries bring back'
21:35). What does she wish to determine? Given the fact that
Solomon wants the queen to accept the oneness of God and Solomon's authority, it
would be natural for her to seek to probe Solomon's motives; she would like to know
whether, like most kings, he is interested in plundering and looting other lands or
whether he stands for higher principles. Solomon's letter must have intrigued her
greatly. According to the exegesis provided by Wahb ibn Munabbih, the queen says to
her courtiers:10
I have received a letter the like of which I have never received from
any king previously. If the man is a prophet, then we do not possess the
power or ability to match him; and if the man is a king set upon
Journal of
aggrandisement, then he is not mightier than we and is not better-
equipped than we.
When the courtiers tell her that they are prepared to fight against Solomon if
necessary, the queen dissuades them from the thought by saying, 'Kings, when they
enter a city, lay it in ruins and humiliate its nobles, and this is what they
and his troopsl, too, will do'
(Q.27:34).rr She would rather try to find out his real
intentions by sending him a gift. 'So', al-Taban writes,
'she prepared gifts, those that
are offered to kings and that kings are enamoured of'.12 He explains:l3
It is related that she said,
'1 am going to send him
so that she might assess him and learn about him by means of it,
whether he is a king or a prophet. And she said,
'If he is a prophet, he
will not accept the gift and will not be pleased with us except that we
should follow him, accepting his religion; and if he is a king, he will
accept the gift and go his waY.'
Having rejected the queen's gift, Solomon sends word to her that he would invade her
country unless, it is implied, she makes submission, in the twin senses noted above
(Q.21:37).Theverynextayareads: He said,'Nobles,whichone
of youwillbringher
throne to me before they come to me in submission?'His
question suggests that,
having noted the course of events since the delivery of his letter to the queen,
Solomon is now fairly sure that the Sabaeans will submit to him, and he expresses this
confi.dence by stating to his courtiers that
the Sabaean ruling elite
indeed come to him in submission. In order to drive home the point in no uncertain
terms, Solomon decides to have the queen's throne brought over, and he does so, in
al-Taban's considered view,
'so that he may assert it to her as a manifest proof of his
prophethood and apprise her, by means of it, of God's might and His great glory'.ra
When the queen realises her mistake of regarding the floor of the glass castle as water,
she exclaims,'I have wronged myself; I submit, along with Solomon, to God, the Lord
of the universe'
(Q. 27:44). What does the expression,
'to wrong oneself,' here mean?
It would be logical to interpret the flrst part of the statement
t have wronged myself
in light of the second
I submit, along with Solomon, to God,
the Lorcl of the universe
and conclude that the queen's
consisted in
withholding belief in the God of Solomon.r5
We said above that the context of the narrative about Solomon and the queen in Sura
27 is reygtous. Further evidence for this is furnished by the
portrayal of
Solomon's character. According to
27:38--40, when Solomon expresses his desire
to have the queen's throne brought to him and a member of the cotrt who possessed
knowledge of the Book offers to bring it before
you can blink
your eyes, Solomon, on
seeing the throne placed before him, expresses gratitude to God: This is of the bounty
of Sheba's Conversion in
of my Lord, that He may put me to the test, whether I am grateful or whether
I am; he who is gratefiil is grateful to his own good; and he who is
my Lord is Self-sfficient, Possessor of Glory. These two ayas tell us
important about Solomon: a recipient of special blessings of God, he is
conscious of the imperative to offer gratitude to God, from whom all blessings
proceed; worldly glory and power has not turned Solomon's head.16
34:13, which talks about Solomon in a different but not unrelated context, makes a
point (the pronoun 'they' at the start of the aya refers to the
according to
(see also
38:37-8), God had subjected into Solomon's
34:13 reads: they used to make
him anything he wished
houses, statues, bowls as large as water-pools, and cooking pots
held in place.
Practice gratitude, pro7eny of David; and only a
few, from
among my selvants, are
the gratefitl ones!
This text highlights three qua'lities of Solomon: devotion to God, love of art, and
magnanimity. To explain: Solomon had the
(iii) large bowls and cooking pots to feed people. The three qualities seem to be
interrelated: Solomon's devotion to God was not exclusive of an interest in what
would be called pleasures of the world, pursuit of art constituting one such pleasure;
in fact, going by Biblical evidence, Solomon's art was strongly religious in
character, so that art was one of the manifestations of his devotional spirit. And
neither Solomon's religious orientation nor his aesthetic sensibility caused him to
become wrapped up in himself. He neither led a life of cloistered piety nor lost
himself in the pursuit of pleasure; rather, he showed his concem for the welfare of
his people by ensuring that the blessings he had received from God flowed out to
them, and one way in which he showed this concern was by feeding people
which purpose he had the
make large bowls and cooking pots. The cooking pots
'firmly secured in the ground' (rastyat), that is, they were permanent fixtures,
signifying that he always kept an open house or a table laid for any and all. In sum,
Solomon had, in his life and in his conduct, achieved a balanced view of the
relationship between this world
(at-dunya) and the next (at-akhira).re The second
part of
furnishes an insight into the unifying link between Solomon's
concern for al-dunya and his concern for al-akhira: it was his attitude of gratefulness
towards God that kept him on an even keel, and this gratitude is what the Israelites
are exhorted to emulate: practice gratitude, progeny of David, that is, be like
David's son, Solomon, who was a model figure as far as offering gratitude to God is
:8:30 speaks of Solomon as being awwab,'one who turns to God',
and the ayas that follow immediately provide two instances of this turning to God:
on one occasion, he blamed himself for holding love of khayr, or wealth, dearer than
God (Q. 38:32), and, on another, he was put to the test by God and turned to God
(Q. 38:34).2'
Journal of
We can now see the several relationships.between
and other
First, both
27:44 (with its mention of the glass castle) and
(with its
mention of statues) are evidence of Solomon's love of art and architecture. Second,
the queen's formal declaration of faith, aslamtu ma'a Sulaymana li'llAhi
submit, along with Solomon, to the Lord of the universe') in
21:44 would seem to be the logical outcome of her confession in aya 42, wa-kunna
('and we were in submission')
(the construction kunna muslimrn signifles
that the inward change had occurred some time ago and that she had been a 'subrnitter'
for quite some time). The key to Solomon's chatacter, however, is provided in the
by his traits of devotion to God and service to humanity. In light of all this,
when the
of Sheba says, in
submit, along with Solomon, to God,
the Lord of the universe'
she obviously takes Solomon to be her model. The Arabic
'I submit' in this aya
(aslamta), is a formal declaration of faith, as the words
Gocl, the Lord of the tmiverse' signify. The occurrence of two words from the same
(muslimtn rn aya42 and aslamtu in aya 44), thus, represent a logical development:
the queen had, for some time, been inwardly convinced of the truth of Solomon's faith
(Q. 27:42), and the incident at the glass castle caused her to take the final step of
formally and publicly
her conversion
2. A Comparative Note on Pharaoh's Magicians
explains itself is a well-known dictum of
Invoking this principle, scholars elucidate, for example, a story
(such as the story
of Adam, Abraham, or Moses) told briefly in one part of the
by means of a
more detailed presentation of the same story elsewhere in the
But the principle
may be extended to apply
to continue with our example
to two or more stories
which, though unrelated, can be subsumed under one conceptual rubric. In the
of Sheba's conversion bears some notable resemblances to the conversion
of Pharaoh's magicians to the faith of Moses as repofted in Sura 20. The resemblances
establish a certain structural similarity between the two incidents, and, insofar as they
do so, the incident involving the magicians can be cited in support of the argument of
this paper. The following points are worthy of note:
First, when they see Moses' staff gobbling up their serpents
or rather the illusion
they had created of the selpents
(Q. 20:66)
the magicians fall prostrate on the
ground. The verb denoting the prostration is in the passive voice, ulqiya, which
suggests both involuntariness and instantaneity: the magicians were so overwhelmed
by the sight that they could not control their reaction; it was as if some external force,
which they found irresistible, made them prostrate themselves. Something similar
happens in the case of the
of Sheba. She, too, is so overwhelmed by what she
observes at the glass palace that she can no longer resist expressing what, until now,
she has kept to herself.
of Sheba's Conversion in
equally in the case of the queen and in that of Pharaoh's magicians, the
though apparently involuntary and instantaneous, is preceded by an
change that has already occurred and, equally in the case of the queen and in
that of the magicians, a certain psychological moment converts that inward change
into a public proclamation. The details of the change in the case of the queen were
noted above.In the story of the magicians in Sura 20,there occurs a crucial phrase. In
their defiant response to Pharaoh's threat of persecution, the magicians tell Pharaoh
that they will seek God's forgiveness for their sins and
the crucial phrase
- for
ws to perform magic (wa-ma akrahtana 'alayhi mina'l-sihr,
To bring out in full the implications of the magicians' complete statement in the sura
(ayas 70 andTl-3): even before engaging in a competition with Moses, the magicians
had sensed that they were not facing
another magician; that the source of Moses'
'skill' was different than the source of their own skill; that, in view of this recognition,
they were reluctant to compete with Moses; and that they had been forced to compete
with him at Pharaoh's behest, who, as the word akrahtana unmistakably indicates,
had threatened them with unpleasant consequences if they were to refuse to obey his
orders to perform magic to defeat Moses.2a
Third, the
of Sheba, on announcing her conversion, exclaims, 'I submit, along
with Solomon, to God, the Lord of the universe!' The magicians, too, while
announcing their conversion, exclaim, using words similar to the queen's'. 'We believe
in the Lord of Aaron and Moses!' (Q. 20:70). Besides using similar expressions, both
the queen and the magicians, while recognising the
respectively, of Solomon
and Moses, pass beyond the two flgures, affirming their faith in God; they seem to
have sensed that the source of the 'skill' of their counteryarts
Solomon in the case of
the queen, Moses in the case of the magicians
is not those counterparts themselves
but a higher power, God
the 'Lord of Solomon' in the queen's words and the 'Lord
of Aaron and Moses' in the magicians' words
to whom both the queen and the
magicians submit.25 Thus, the story of the conversion of Pharaoh's magicians can be
seen as providing a parallel, in respect both of structure and of theme, to the story of
of Sheba's conversion. One can say that the two stories are brought
together and seen from a single perspective in the
3. The Biblical Account
Scholars often refer to the Bible in explicating the
but this reference is usually
made respecting the content of the two scriptures. The style, structure, and language of
the two scriptures also can make for fruitful comparison.
46:9 clearly says that
Muhammad's prophetic message is not anomalous or unexampled: Say,
'I am not a
peculiar one among the prophets' (bid'an mina'l-rusul). If, in terms of content, the
does not feel threatened by its identity or similarity to the Bible, then, in
stylistic or other terms, too, it should not feel threatened by such identity or similarity.
Journal of
some major differences bedween the
and Biblical accounts
of the story of the
of Sheba and Solomon,26 a significant similarity exists
between the two accounts, and this similarity furnishes another
indirect, yet
piece of evidence supporting the interpretation of
here presented.
1 Kings l0:1-13 naffates the queen's visit to Solomon
(2 Chronicles9:l-12 is almost
identical). According to the passage, the queen, upon witnessing the luxuries available
to Solomon, was struck with amazement, so that
'there was no more spirit in her'
(verse 5). Butin the Biblical account, too, the amazement has a'history'to it. The
passage in 1 Kings makes it clear that, even before her visit to Solomon, the queen had
heard about the famous Solomon:
So she said to the king,
'The report was true that I heard in my own
land of your accomplishments and of your wisdom, but I did not
believe the reports until I came and my own eyes saw it. Not even half
of the greatness of your wisdom had been told to me; you far surpass
the reports that I had heard'
(1 Kings 9:6J).
This passage is not about the queen's credence or lack of credence in the reports she
had received, for, if she had completely distrusted the reporls, she would not have
entertained the idea of paying a visit to Solomon. In other words, the reports about
Solomon that had reached the queen were both impressive enough and intriguing
enough to motivate her to make the visit. The import of
'And we had been
given knowtedge before this, and we were in submission', is very similar. ln both the
Bible and the
the queen speaks of her prior knowledge about Solomon,2T and,
in both, she speaks of him in favourable terms. Thus, neither in the Biblical nor in the
account is the queen's public acknowledgment of Solomon's accomplish-
ments the result of a sudden illumination but that of a realisation that has grown over
time, culminating in the acknowledgment she makes in the end'28
4. Concluding Comment
I said at the beginning that the problem raised by Leaman bears some relation to that of
mode of reasoning. Within the confines of the present discussion, Leaman's
explanation of the queen's conversion would make the
mode of reasoning
analogical: the queen converts because she realises, on the analogy of her mistake of
taking the glass floor for water, that she is mistaken in worshipping anyone or anything
other than God. In terms of the historical discourse of Islamic philosophy, such
reasoning, being
'rhetoncal' (khitabi) in character, would befit scripture, which aims at
persuading the masses, who are seen as incapable of following higher types of reasoning.
On the view taken in this paper, the queen's conversion would make the
of reasoning here logical
not in the sense that the conversion constitutes an instance
of the so-called
'demonstrative' (burhant) reasoning, but in the sense that, possessing as
of Sheba's Conversion in
it does internal coherence, the
naprative moves in a certain, determinate
producing the queen's conversion as a 'necessary' outcome of the course
of events. In order to appreciate the logical nature of this outcome, the conversion verse
of Sura 27 mtst be seen as integrally related to the larger passage in which it occurs.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, the translation of the
ayas cited in this paper is my own.
2 Jacob Lassner in Demonizing the
of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culttre m
Postbiblical Judaism and Medieval Islam (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press,
1993) anticipates Leaman. Referring to the queen's lifting of her skirt, Lassner asks: 'But what
is the point of this and what does it all have to do with the major theme of the story, her
renunciation of unbelief? And what is it that ultimately forces her to realize that further
resistance is futile? She seemingly remains proud until the very last moment. Can the
architectural oddity of the glass court be a reason for the great queen to bend to the will of a
foreign ruler and his God? The text begs for an explanation' (p. 43). But Leaman, besides
finding design rather than oddity in the palace's architecture, considers that design to be
significant enough to make it the basis of an explanation of the queen's conversion.
3 According to ayas 20-2, Solomon, upon examining his forces, notes the absence of the
hoopoe, a member of his bird force. He declares that the hoopoe will be severely punished
unless it
its absence. The hoopoe arrives soon thereafter.
4 Amrn Alrsan Islahl, Tadabbur-i
(9 vols, Lahore: Faran Foundation, 2000), vol. 5,
pp. 605-6.
5 Islahi, Taclabbur-i
vol. 5, pp.606-7.
6 Ab['l-"Ala" al-Mawd[di's summary of the queen's thinking process, covering a long span of
time, is gernane to the argument presented in this paper and deserves to be quoted in full. He
writes in his Urdu
commentary (my translation): 'This
remark, in aya 44,
that the queen had stepped into a crystal castlel was the final thing that opened the queen's eyes.
The first thing was Solomon's letter, which, departing from the practice of common kings, opened
with the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Very Mercful. The second thing was his
spurning of her valuable gifts, which indicated to her that this king was of a different type. The
third thing was the statement made by the queen's embassy, which apprised her of Solomon's
pious life, of his wisdom, and of the invitation to truth he stood for. This is what induced her to set
out in person to meet him, and this is what she alluded to in the following statement of hers: andwe
had been given knowledge before this, and we were in submissiorz. The fourth thing was the
instantaneous arrival of that grand throne from Ma'rib to Jerusalem, from which the queen leamt
that he was backed by God's might. And the final thing, now, was her recognition that this man,
who possessed all these resources of luxury and dwelled in such a magnificent palace, was so
completely free of arrogance, was so deeply God-fearing and virtuous, ever so often bowed his
head before God in gratitude, and lived a life so markedly different from the life of those who have
set their hearts on life in this world. This was what compelled her to exclaim what she is reported
to have said next
public announcement of her submission to God]'
(AbD'l-"Ala' al-Mawd0di,
TffiIm al-QtLr'an (6 vols, Lahore: Idarah-i Tarjumanu'l-Qur'an, 1972), vol.3, p. 580).
7 Solomon's expectation and 'anticipatory regret' are both brought into relief upon contrasting
this test, which is signaled by atahtadl am takuntt mina'lladhma la yahtaduna, wirh his test of
the hoopoe in aya27
which is signaled by sananluru a-sadaqta am kttnta mina'l-kadhibtn ('we
will see whether you have told the truth or
you are one of those who tell lles'). In the
latter case, the antonymical contrast between truth ar,.d lie indicates that, in Solomon's eyes,
only one of the two otherwise equally strong possibilities is allowed, whereas in the former
J- Journal of
case, the contrast between guidance and ab;ence-of-guidance shows the centrality of gtLidance
as reference point.
8 AbJa"far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Taban, Jami' al-bayan
tafstr al-Qur'an (30 parts in 12
vols, Egypt: Maktabat Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi wa-Awladihi,I40l/1954), vol. 19, pp.92-3.
9 al-Taban, Jami' al-bayan, vol. 19, p. 96.
10 al-Taban, Jami' al-bayan, vol. 19, pp.97-8.
11 On reading this aya, I get the impression that the queen, while convinced of Solomon's
moral superiority, uses the then popular view about kings' conduct toward vanquished nations
in order to dissuade her chieftains from flghting. She refers to this view since her personal
conviction would not have carried much weight with them.
12 al-Taban-, Jami' al-bayan, vol. 19, p. 98.
13 al-Taban-, Jami' al-bayan, vol. L9, p.91 .
14 al-Taban, Jami' al-bayan, vol. 19, p. 101.
15 al-Zamakhshan glosses
nafsl as turtdu bi-kufrihd: the queen means that she
committed a wrong insofar as she disbelieved (Mahm[d ibn'Umar al-Zamakhshan, al-
Kashshaf 'an haqa'iq al-tanztl wa-'uyt1n al-cLclawtl (4 vols, Cairo and Beirut: Dar al-Ma"rifa,
n.d.), vol. 3, p. 145). Al-Qurtubi observes that the queen wronged herself bi'l-shirk alladht
kanat 'alaylt I 'by means of her practice of polytheism' (Abn
'Abd Allah al-Qurtubi, al-Janti' li-
ahkam al-Qur'an (30 vols in 20, Cairo: Dar al-Katib al-'Arabi, 138111961), vol. 13, p. 213).It
may be noted that
31:13 calls polytheism'great lttlm'
16 Solomon's gratefulness to God is emphasised in Sura 27 (see ayas 15, 19 and 40).
Montgomery Watt conectly notes that, in the
story of the
of Sheba and
'there is a parallel between the wealth of Solomon and that of the queen . . . pointfing]
the contrast between Solomon's gratitude to God for all his favours, together with
his acknowledgement of him as God, and the queen's failure to acknowledge God'
W. Montgomery Watt, 'The
of Sheba in Islamic Tradition' in James B. Pritchard (ed.),
Solomon and ShebcL (London: Phaidon, 1914), p. 94.
17 Muhammad ibn Ya'qub al-FayrizabadT, aL-Qamus al-Muhtt (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1415/
1995), explains mahanb as 'mahartb Bant Isra'Tl'. masajiduhum allatl kanu yajlistlna
Ll-r-b' . The word may also be interpreted in the literal sense of 'arches'. See Islahi, Tadabbur-i
vol.6, p.303.
18 Several verses in the Biblical books of 1 Krngs 6 andl give details of these statues.
19 This discussion is adapted fromlslahl, TadabbtLr-i
vol. 6, pp.303-5.
93:11 concludes with the injunction, wa-ammd bi-ni'mati rabbika
blessings of your Lord, do mention them). The theme of tahdlth bi-ni'mat Allah ('mentioning
the blessings of God') occurs in several hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad, who said that a
man's appearance and lifestyle should reflect God's blessings upon him. For instance, once a
person came to him in tattered clothes. On finding out that the man was quite well-off, the
Prophet remarked, 'idhd atdka Allah malan
athanLhu "alayka'
('When God gives you
wealth, its effect should be seen upon your person'). See al-Qurtubt, al-Jami', vol.20, pp. 102-
3. Solomon, who is spoken of approvingly in the
was acting quite in accordance with
the pnnciple of tahdtth bi-ni"mat Allah, which pnnciple would be regarded in Islam as one of
perennial validity and relevance.
21 A detailed discussion of the two situations referred to here will take us too far afield; for our
purposes, it is sufficient to note that, in each situation, Solomon tumed toward God.
22 If the aboveexplanationof theQur'anicnarrativeaboutSolomonandtheQueenof Shebais
correct and the end of the narrative is seen as losically connected to its start. then the 'plot' of
of Sheba's Conversion in
the narrative would appear to have both coherence
continuity. In his book, Lassner, without
offenng much explanation olvvarrant, calls the
narrative 'highly
disjointed' (Lassner,
Demonizing the
of Sheba, p. 45; also p. 36). He also finds aspects of the narrative
puzzling, though a careful review of the
material might eliminate some of the
(i) The hoopoe's report, that it has observed a land ruled by a rich queen, is glossed by
Lassner with this note: 'The reward of this material splendor would seem anomalous with
her religious beliefs and practices' (p. 31).Neither in this passage, nor anywhere else in
is material prosperity said to be consequent Llpon subscription to certain types
of religious beliefs or practices. In fact, time and again, the
Qur'an -
whether it is
speaking of the
of Mulrammad's time or of other affluent but defiant nations of
the past
says that individuals and nations may possess wealth and yet be misguided, or
that they may be poor and yet be on the right path, the thrust of the
on this subject being that possession of wealth by one is no proof that one
God's favour.
(ii) When 'the
one possessed of knowledge of the Book' in
fetches the queen's
throne in less time than it takes one to blink one's eyes, Solomon, in Lassner's
translation, 'gives thanks to God in a rather ptzzling statement, "This
is the grace of my
Lord in order to test me. Shall I give thanks or be ungrateful? Indeed my Lord is rich and
generous"' (p 38) Here, curiously, Lassner disjoins a-ashkuru ant-al{uru from the
preceding li-yabluwanl, translating each as an independent sentence, whereas the entire
phrase is to be taken together, a-ashktrnL am-akftru being in the accusative Io li-
yabluwanl since it has been used as tamyu (specification);
See Ab[ Hayyan, al-Bahr al-
ntuhtt (10 vols, Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1412/1992), vol. 8, p.241. For two other
explanations of the accusative, see Mahmud al-AlDsi, Ruh al-ma'anr (30 vols in 15,
BeirtLt: Dar Ihya' al-Turath al-"Arabi, 1390?/1970?), vol. 19, p. 206. Al-Qurtubi's
explanation of the phrase as 'li-yakhtabirant
a-ashkr,Lnt ni'matahu am akfuruha' (vol. 13,
p. 206) is typical of classical and modem exegesis on this point. The understanding of
translators is no different. George Sale, whose translation first appeared in 1134,
renders the phrase as that he may ntake trial of me, whether I will be grateful, or whether
I will be ungrateftLl (George Sale, The Koran: Translated into English
the Original
Artrbic, 'tvith ExpLanatory Notes
the Most Approved Commentarles (London,
York: Frederick Warne and Co., n.d.)). The translations by J.M. Rodwell, M. Marmaduke
Pickthall, A.J. Arberry, Muhammad Asad, Majid Fakhry, Savary, Kasimirski, Jean
Grosjean, Jacque Berque (the last four in French), Max Henning and Rudi Paret (both
German) interpret the phrase in question similarly. Lassner's rendition is, to use his own
puzzling' .
23 In Arabic 'al-Qur'an yufassiru bcL'cluhu ba'dan'.
24 See Islahl, Tadabbur-i
vol. 6, pp, 65-8.
25 The situations of the
of Sheba and the magicians may admit of another comparison.
The two figures with whom the queen and the magicians happen to be dealing with
and Moses, respectively
are both prophet-statesmen in the
of Sheba and
the magicians represent, in their own right, power and authority, the queen directly
since she
is the ruler of Saba'
and the magicians indirectly
since they are the instruments of
Pharaoh's power. But though she is the ruler, the queen depends on her courtiers in the exercise
of her power (Q.27:32). In a sense, then, her'direct' authority becomes indirect. As for the
magicians, their support is crucial to Pharaoh, as is evidenced by
20:57-64, in which
Pharaoh, staking his all on the ability of the magicians in his retinue, boasts to Moses that he,
Pharaoh, will confront him with magic skill very similar to that displayed by Moses (ayas
56-1), and in which, with ominous irony, he announces on the day of competition: wa-qad
Jourral of
aflaha'l-yatvma mcmi'sta'ta
(and whoever gets the upper hand today will have truly succeeded,
the use of the particl e qad wtlh the verb aflaha lends decisiveness to the statement.
Because Pharaoh depends so heavily on the magicians for his success, the magicians' power,
though indirect, in a sense becomes direct.
26 For example, the Bible does not mention the queen's conversion.
27 Some exegetes and scholars ask as to who utters this part of aya 42
('and we had been given
knowleclge before this'). Al-Zamakhshari
prefers the view that it is spoken by Solomon, and
then offers a less-than-satisfactory
(al-Zamakhshalr, al-KashshAf, vol' 3, p' 144; see
also Watt, 'The
of Sheba', p.94:
'it is not stated by whom ... the latter part of 42
spoken'). But this latter part of the verse is a seamless continuation of the former, which is
spoken by the queen and with which it is
joined by the conjunctive waw.The point I wish to
emphasise here, though, is that the Biblical evidence of the queen's
'prior knowledge' provides
not inconsiderable support for interpreting the latter part of
21 :42 as having been spoken by
the queen.
28 The
account, with its explicit mention of God inQ.27:44, would appear to be
much more
'religious' than the Biblical. But the Biblical account is not completely without a
religious element. I Kings 10:9 has the queen say to Solomon,
'Blessed be the Lord your God,
who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel. Because the Lord loved Israel
forever, he has made you king to execute
justice and righteousness.'
Likewise in 2 Chronicles
'Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on his throne as king
for the Lord your God ...'.
DOI: I 0.33661E1 465359 I 08000053