Whoa… the Quran is weird.
Or at least, I find it weird.
Surah an-Naml, “The Ants,” is a case study in discovering the lore of another culture. There’s a lot of weird stuff in the Bible too, I’m aware of this. Most of what I’d call weird in the Bible I’d categorize a little more as –to be colloquial– “messed up.” The Bible features some really twisted relationships and decisions, like Shakespeare but all the harder to understand because it’s from an entirely different culture. The Bible also features extra-scientific events, miracles. While I’ll admit I’m cynical of the existence of such things in my own life, the existence of such things in my religious lore does not surprise me. Indeed, I have a vaguely developed sense of what kinds of extra-scientific material fit into the Bible’s view of the world. I wouldn’t say I perceive rules for this material, but maybe instead “norms.” The miracles claimed in the Bible are shocking in their own right, but I’m familiar with them and so they cease to surprise.
Today the Quran surprised me. Though this trip through the Quran has been one of discovery, I would say that most of the things I’ve found are pretty relatable to broader religious/human lines of thought. Things have intrigued me too, but not really registered as full surprise. There is a lot of other material in this surah that I will neglect today because it is thoroughly un-surprising. Instead I’m going to focus at length on Surah an-Naml‘s version of King Solomon contained within ayat 15-44. It departs so radically from the Solomon that I know, and features such unexpected details, that it left me quite… surprised.
Solomon the Wise and Terrible
So one natural source of my surprise is that I’m already familiar with King Solomon through the Tanakh (Old Testament) and the Quran’s Solomon is an entirely different person. This is not the first time the Quran has redacted or changed biblical characters, and some of the characters were quite substantially altered (particularly Talut, who is a choppy mixture of Gideon and Saul). Though such precedents have been set, this King Solomon is so utterly alien to the Tanakh’s account in a mirror-world kind of way. I feel I need to really explain this so that you’ll understand my reaction.
I’m actually not a fan of King Solomon in the Tanakh. He’s interesting for being praised highly and for his role in starting the wisdom culture that is responsible for several other books of the Tanakh –but he ultimately gets portrayed in the histories rather poorly. If Christians read any part of Solomon’s history from the Bible, it’ll reliably be the part where he forgoes asking God for wealth or longevity in order to pray for wisdom, and then the part after when God’s fulfillment is demonstrated in the trial of the two mothers. The rest of Solomon’s records get skipped, and I’d suspect this is because it’s full of a bunch of warning flags about the moral ambiguity of political authority and the mixed results of opulence.
Solomon starts his reign by solidifying power through killing off potential dissidents and past enemies of his father. He amasses in his treasury large amounts of wealth for the sake of public benefit (building the Temple and city walls) and for status (building his palaces and simply hoarding stuff). These actions are ambiguous because they are politically savvy but also morally reprehensible. The opulence of his spending is great for the national economy and culture, but also oppressive and negligent of the poor. Solomon fulfills David’s ambition and replaces the portable Tabernacle with the fixed Temple, but he does this with forced labor. While the Torah’s view of slavery is complicated and problematic, it is worthy to note that the rebellion that undermined Solomon’s dynasty was led by the man in charge of the forced labor and fueled by outrage at the public cost of royal opulence. Solomon’s ultimate failing is accredited in the Tanakh’s histories to him marrying foreign wives and embracing syncretism, but within the summary of his reign is the truth that his fall was consistent with the flaws of his character and actions. The mixed portrayal of Solomon is that his success provided the best and most glorious time for Israel, but also set the nation up for its conflict and destruction. Solomon received every blessing from God and wasted it.
So Solomon’s legacy is very mixed, indeed he personifies the whole moral arc the prophets read into Israel’s history. It’s important to understand that the biblical books recording his reign were written after the fall of Israel, as evidenced by the fact that those books continue on to describe all the other conflicted, destructive, war-stricken reigns of the following kings all the way until the decimation of the Hebrew polities. From that vantage point, Solomon’s reign –for all its problems– was a time of peace and cultural renaissance. The country had enough political and cultural legitimacy to be treated with a dignitary visit from a foreign monarch. He led no war or conquest, which the text several times reminds us is the feature that God required of the king who would build a permanent temple of worship. So despite its flaws, prosperity and peace is what defined Solomon’s reign to the later Jews and Christians.
The Solomon who we meet in the Quran is the exact opposite. He’s an infallible moral paragon who’s armed and ready to make conquest.
It’s Incredible, It’s Impossible, but It’s True…
So this is actually the second time we have seen Solomon examined as an exemplar. The first time was in Al-Anbiya 78-82. Despite the brevity of his mention there, I sat up and took notice because, beyond merely wisdom and knowledge, he was credited with supernatural powers and authority. One of those powers –command of forceful winds– was suggestive of conquest. Today’s surah elaborates much more about Solomon’s reign, and it leans into those traits of supernatural powers and militance.
Starting in ayah 15, the surah introduces David and Solomon together. They are praising God for bestowing favor upon them, and this is important for contextualizing the coming content. I’ve said simply that Solomon has supernatural powers and authority, but the Quran is very clear that the powers are not inherent to Solomon but a thing that God has enabled for him. Solomon does not have command over birds and jinn because he’s charismatic or a demi-god, but because God has subjected them to him. What he can do and have command over is all a gift from God, and Solomon’s main virtue is that he never loses sight of this.
So what are these supernatural qualities that God has given Solomon? Well, the first one presented is that Solomon (and it’s implied David) can understand the language of birds. More than birds, as revealed in the eponymous ant incident, but birds are integral to Solomon’s authority. Solomon has also been given authority over the supernatural jinn, and through them there are a great number of other powers available to Solomon. He organizes birds, men, and jinn into an army that marches in rows, and thus we would assume has military dominance over his neighbors.
So you see why this shocked me? I’m struggling to encapsulate my shock and reconcile it with my attitude towards the likewise extraordinary miracles of the Bible, something that would exceed the limits of this post. Maybe in the future I’ll revisit miracles in the Bible and Quran. What I will say is that other miracles in the Quran haven’t shocked me. Indeed, I haven’t been this weirded out by anything except for the banquet of Mrs. Al-Aziz, and that story didn’t feature any miracles. I think my primary bewilderment derives from the ostentatious, aggrandizing nature of the miracles, and moreover the inherent near-human sentience of the animal kingdom. The ants not only recognize and name Solomon, but understand the concept of an army. These animals aren’t being granted the power of speech, rather Solomon has been granted the ability to understand their language, and that requires me to question the whole relationship of Islam with animals. If animals and insects inherently have human-like sentience concealed within their languages, then shouldn’t that affect how we interact and relate to them? But while Solomon praises God for his comprehension, he doesn’t actually show care for the ants who are fleeing the tramping feet of his troops.
Solomon and the Queen of Sheba
So with Solomon’s gifting and gratitude established in ayat 15-19, ayat 20-44 move on to give an account of how he uses it. The story is a retelling of the Queen of Sheba’s visit. In the Bible, the Queen’s visit is the unique case of a foreign sovereign coming to Israel and paying it the dignity and homage of a legitimate country. When you consider that Canaan was historically a land of little city states, and Israel a land of tribal pastoralists, then you can imagine the visit of a foreign sovereign would have been quite the status symbol.
In the Quran, the Queen visits in order to allay threats made by Solomon that he would conquer her territory if she would not come submit herself to him in compliance with God’s order of things. The reason Solomon threatens her is not in response to any threat or encounter with the people of Sheba, but because a hoopoe in Solomon’s army goes out of its way to tell Solomon of this exotic other nation of Sheba, ruled by a woman, worshiping the sun, and doing all sorts of evil.
I’m going to encourage you to read the Quran’s story from its own text. I fear any recap I would write would convey too much of the humor which my surprise has stirred up within me.
So this isn’t the first time I’ve heard an elaborated version of Solomon’s encounter with the Queen of Sheba. I’ve heard vaguely about the fanfic-y “shipping” of Solomon and the Queen in other traditional lore. Indeed, I know that Ethiopia maintained that its kings were descendants of the two rulers and that through this relationship the Ark of the Covenant came to reside in Axum.
But what I had never done was look into these stories or explore the wider lore about Solomon, so in the course of writing this blog I looked for some. The Ethiopian story in which Solomon impregnates the queen of Ethiopia and gives their resulting son the Ark comes from the Kebra Nagast, an Ethiopian medieval document. There are some references in the Babylonian Talmud to Solomon having a ring with which he could control demons, and which he used to build the Temple. I discovered the “Colloquy of Sheba and Solomon” which strongly resembles this surah down to the tattling hoopoe, but has even more content and gets even weirder… like, apparently the Queen had hairy legs and Solomon wanted to sleep with her but was disgusted by her legs, and therefore he invented ancient Nair. Actually, the “Colloquy” document post-dates the rise of Islam, so it’s not clear to me whether it is a Jewish/Christian adoption of the Islamic story, or whether it and this surah are both documenting a much older tradition. Anyhow, having read this other material, I can now appreciate that the Quran’s version is relatively toned down. There was a wild and imaginative lore about Solomon well alive in circulation before and after the Quran.
The Queen of Sheba, traditionally named in Islam as Bilqiis (Bilqis), is a character worth noting. She isn’t outright called a Queen, just a “woman ruling” them, but that’s splitting hairs. Bilqis’ example is really noteworthy on both the level of her womanhood and her reaction to prophetic warnings. Framing Solomon’s story in this surah are the stories of Moses, Salih, and Lot, all of whom face hostile opposition (particularly in Salih’s case, where his opponents plan to assassinate him). These prophets all threaten their opposition with the usual God-administered judgement. By contrast, Solomon’s threat to Bilqis is far more potent and tangible than the warning of any other prophet: submit to God by submitting to me, or I will make you do so through decimating conquest. Rather than take security or action through military means, as her advisers mention, Bilqis operates with cautious negotiation. She first tries appeasement, then inquiry, and then capitulates upon recognizing Solomon’s greater blessings in wealth and intellect. These are all the opposite actions to what we usually find in a prophet’s opposition. That Bilqis is unique in making these positive responses combines well with her representation of women in the Quran. She is a woman, a competent ruler, and an open-minded disbeliever. Of course, in counterpoint to that representation, she is only treated positively as a disbeliever because she converts (more of a former unbeliever than a former disbeliever), and arguably her submission involves submitting her own authority to a male authority figure’s according to God’s order of things (she’s explicitly told to submit to Solomon in order to submit to God). But I’d call her a net positive, nonetheless.
Solomon the Righteous and Dominant
Solomon’s contribution to the Quran is interesting when put into context with the other prophetic stories. First I want to examine how his story conforms well to that of the generic prophetic calling. Then I want to examine how it clashes against the Quran’s other messages.
So first: how Solomon’s biblical character has been redacted to look more prophetic. Keep in mind that, as we’ve seen through the traditional material, Solomon in popular culture was already a far cry from his biblical self. His reputation for having control of spiritual forces, dialogue with anthropomorphized animals, and being a mischievous trickster seems to predate the Quran. The Quran is not breaking ground in envisioning Solomon as a demigod-like figure, and in fact it looks more likely that the Quran is redacting these traditional versions and perhaps unaware of the Biblical one. The one time the Quran seems to redact Biblical Solomon’s reputation was waaaaay back in Al-Baqarah 102. That ayah insisted Solomon was not responsible for the moral failing of Israel during his reign, but instead blame is squarely placed upon the Israelites and devils who believed the self-proclaimed false teachings of two God-sent angels. This surah’s Solomon is a super-powered paragon, but of a distinctly Quranic brand. The central moral in Solomon’s speeches is that he knows and is grateful for the ways that God has provided supernatural blessings for him. Solomon also snubs Bilqis’ initial tribute in order to declare his preference for divine blessings, which conforms directly to how other prophets declare they are not out for money but prefer divine reward. Today’s surah also keeps Solomon’s relationship with Sheba chaste, unlike in the traditional stories, and thus elevates his moral standing to an Islamic model. So the Quran’s Solomon is the perfect embodiment of virtue and knowledge, and he is exonerated from any missteps in the areas of wealth, morality, or faith.
Yet Solomon’s story, particularly for being so exemplary, also runs really afoul of other messages in the Quran, namely in that he instigates war against Sheba and demands direct submission. Other prophets have denied that their motives include usurping control of their opponents, even though some degree of such would be implied in their message. I can’t remember any other prophet being so explicit in the “submit to me” part of his message except for the example of, well, Muhammad. The Quran has been strong on its message that violence is only to be done in response to other violence, and that Muslims are not to strike the first blow. Sheba poses no threat to Israel, nor do we even have a hint that it was abusing its people. Sheba only gets targeted because it has a different religion than Islam, and Up With That Solomon Will Not Put!
So there is a way to make sense of why Solomon resembles other prophets and yet also differs from them. The other prophets were given special knowledge, but we never get to see them in their capacity as administrators. Whatever the happily-ever-after they get to live out after God destroys their opposition looks like, we don’t get to see it. Instead, prophets are always fighting from the bottom up, and their fight is with harsh words and patience. Solomon is both prophet and king. He is the ruler of a sovereign nation, and thus positioned differently from the other prophets. The unfortunate model that he provides for a prophet-king is that his outreach is defined through demonstration of ascendancy (flexing one’s earthly and supernatural blessings) and through domination of other polities. His area of responsibility is as far as his military can reach. No other prophet in the Quran has had this kind of political predominance except Dhul-Qarnayn, who likewise used military dominance for evangelism, and we assume David (though he has no narrative portrayals yet except for killing Goliath). Moses most approximately had this power after Egypt, but what we do see in that case is him struggling against his own stubborn people. The only other prophet to get and use this kind of authority in the Quran is post-Meccan Muhammad.
Options for Interpretation
The question that remains is whether the Quran, in including these stories within its text, is posing this as the paragon model of Islamic leadership. Are Muslim sovereigns supposed to model themselves after these exemplars and use their sovereignty to establish Islamic law as far as their military might can take them?
So one option, one that was embraced as a supporting narrative for past expansionist empires such as the Arab, Turkish, and Mughal empires is –yes! With great power comes great responsibility, and if you’ve established Islamic rule, then it is incumbent upon you to encompass other nations and improve their quality of life through your administration of justice and charity. Just like Solomon, Dhul-Qarnayn, and Muhammad [and whichever of the successors to Muhammad you deem legitimate]. This kind of justification is distinctly human. New Testament scriptures in no way support political expansionism, but Christian empires applying this same principle are in no shortage! Of course, that the Quran accommodates and bakes this way of thinking explicitly into its text is something to be concerned over. Whether this text inspires military expansionism or merely supplies a narrative to support those already so inclined, it does play an important part.
Another optional interpretation, though, is to feel the absence of a prophet in your leadership. A key thing about these figures is that they are all prophet-kings. The Quran does not offer prophethood to its adherents. Though it seems a person has to be morally qualified to become a prophet, prophethood is a thing given by God and not strictly earned. By most Islamic interpretations —Ahmadiyya being the largest exception (and they are mostly pacifist)– that kind of prophetic authority is sealed in the past. If your polity is not administered by a prophet, or at the very least by a person morally qualified to be a prophet, then you do not have the authority to conquer other kingdoms. Moreover, if your dominion more resembles Moses’ Israelites in the desert –struggling, ignorant, and impure in faith– then you have no business even thinking about conquering other nations. For Muslims who observe this lack of prophetic or moral guidance in their leadership, the Quran’s stories of political dominance and conquest are sealed in the past and not relevant to the present.
Adherents to this second line of thinking might look more to Joseph to model the way of a politically active Muslim. Joseph participated in a non-Islamic government. Although the Quran gives no hint to how he balanced his faith and his submission to a pagan authority, it does describe him as handling secular duties. Thus, Muslims of this second way would be inclined to throw their support into fulfilling the secular duties of their host government with full integrity.
So much of Muslim belief and practice hinges upon that question of what to do without the guidance of a living prophet, something the Quran has yet to portray. While Solomon’s power and dominance might serve to inspire or justify similar attempts in later Islamic rulers, it does remain a thoroughly unachievable example.