Surah 34: Sheba

Where is Sheba, the wealthy land of that legendary Biblical and Quranic Queen? In certainty, we don’t actually know, and since there are many motivated reasons for people to take or be given that legacy, it’s hard to find researched facts confirming any specific place as that location. We do have records of a civilization self-identified as Sabaa’, generally accepted to be what the Bible intended by the name “Sheba”, and that thrived in the southern Arabian Penninsula that we today called Yemen. Of course, Ethiopia claims its own civilization is the continuation of Sheba.

They aren’t that far away, after all.

Again, there’s a lot of motivated cognition at work in identifying Sheba.

The Quran’s mention of Saba’ in today’s eponymous surah is completely divorced from that ancient, mystical lore. The event it records was much more contemporary and verifiable. However, the story read earlier in an-Naml links Saba’ to Sheba explicitly, so today’s surah title likewise gets translated as “Sheba.”

Saba’

Can I introduce you to Saba’? When we think “Arabian”, we usually think either Islamic Golden Age glory…

How rich and sublime!
(source)

…or Bedouin pastoralism.

unsplash-logoLibrary of Congress
How exotically savage!

And when we think “pre-oil Arabian Peninsula,” we basically think only of Bedouins eking existence out of the sand through herding and pillaging. But that was not true for much of life in the peninsula, where very ancient civilizations started and thrived. The area with the most impressive civilization, in my book, was the region of Yemen in which we find many ancient inscriptions for the land of “Saba'”. That region of the peninsula benefited from a predictable monsoon season, and its people developed dams and irrigation systems to build a stable economy from agriculture. They developed a luxury good market selling aromatics (famously frankincense and myrrh) to the rich Mediterranean and Mesopotamian empires to the north. All this was started even as far back as 1500 B.C! A few centuries before Muhammad, this region’s leadership largely converted to Judaism and became known as the Himyarite Kingdom, though they were later taken over by Christians as a sort of puppet state of Ethiopia. Historians also think that region was in decline for the century or two leading up to Muhammad. Here’s some further reading

Anyhow, all this is to set the stage for the titular story of the dam told in ayat 15-16 of today’s surah. As told, the Sabaens have fruitful gardens “on the right and on the left,” but are not grateful for them, and thus God sends the “flood of the dam” to destroy and replace their gardens with desert shrubs and sparse foraging.

Saba’ survived off of dams, but these ayat are remembering the very specific incident of a very specific dam break, which we actually know about through archaeology.

You could hardly miss that one.

This is the Ma’rib dam. It’s original foundation is extremely ancient, but its extant size is the result of centuries of maintenance and upgrading. The final collapse of this dam happened within the first few years of Muhammad’s life, meaning this story was very familiar to the Quran’s original listeners. Mecca was a trade community, meaning their economy would’ve been dependent upon the prosperity of the southern kingdom’s agriculture. The news and effects of a disaster like this dam breaking would’ve probably extended into the life of Mecca. If the Quran’s original listeners had no memory of this event, their parents and elders would have. This is fascinating because the Quran is not merely citing stories that cannot be certified, but interpreting events that people would’ve been sure of. Muhammad is anchoring his message in things that his audience knew.

David and Solomon

However, while the sign of the dam is an interpretation of contemporary history for which we have distinct archeological remnants, the stories of David and Solomon preceding the mention of Saba’ are decidedly more fantastical. This surah makes several bold statements about the technological advancements of Israel under the rules of David and Solomon, advancements that are part scientific and part supernatural in nature. The technology of fashioning iron into chain mail is given to David through what we infer to be divine inspiration. Solomon is less directly inspired with technological insight, but is given administration over supernatural forces that do the work for him.

So here’s the thing, the Bible also makes incidental claims about technology and population in ancient Israel that are judged anachronistic by our archaeological evidence. I’m not here to discuss those today except to say that when the Quran makes such claims, I recognize the defenses and complications of debating this field. Yes, to even say that King David (circa 1010-970 BC) invented iron chain mail (for which earliest testimony is potentially 500 BC) is an “unlikely” event would be an understatement. That Solomon had a spring of molten copper and thus generated a great material culture? Again, to say such is “unlikely” is an understatement. However, in the Quran’s case these things are even harder to argue over because they are being given emphatically supernatural origins. The idea that these two figures were specifically being blessed with these things through supernatural means easily gives way to the idea that these things were lost once those figures died. Their sources don’t need to come from a history of technological/material advancement, and don’t need to continue into a larger culture. Indeed, their absence from the records actually works towards the message of human impermanence and dependence upon God. The lack of evidence could be blamed on the ignorance and waste of undeserving Israelites who came after. So while the impossibility of these claims would be frustrating to historians and archaeologists, their frustration would probably be compounded by the irrelevance of that impossibility to the claims or purposes of the Quran.

For me, the greater thing to observe is how the Quran envisions ascendancy without examining it. In this surah’s examples of David and Solomon we see spiritual ascendancy rewarded with situational ascendancy in the form of military and luxury materialism. Their example serves as a retribution to Mecca, which ayah 45 says hasn’t received a tenth of its potential fortune due to ingratitude and ignorance. I’ve already mentioned that David and Solomon’s prophetic legacies are different from other prophets; we are seeing them in a state of ascendancy rather than as scrappy underdogs speaking to power. What we actually lack in David and Solomon’s narratives are the reasons and stories explaining why God would bless them so lavishly. Other prophetic stories are all struggle and no reward, these two are all reward and no struggle. And given the extreme scale of their reward, we cannot help but be curious as to what kind of people would deserve such dispensation and what kinds of narratives would culminate in such unprecedented blessings?

The mention of Solomon concludes in ayah 14 with a quirky little story surrounding his death. It’s kind of Bugs Bunny on God’s part. The jinn are enslaved to Solomon as a humiliation. When Solomon dies, God arranges it so that he dies in some kind of life-like pose, supported by a stick. Unaware that Solomon has died, the jinn keep up their enslavement, until the point where a worm…

Like this guy, in case you needed a visual. You’re welcome.

…eats the stick and Solomon literally keels over. This serves to put the jinn in their place and demonstrate to them their own impotence, and further to signal to Muhammad’s listeners that the jinn were not worthy of worship. It also begs the question in my mind of what kind of quality of life Solomon was really leading in his last days. Were there no human attendants to take notice of his death? Was he just a wildly wealthy hermit living in an enchanted castle by the end of his reign? Or was it his human servants who propped him up on the stick to keep the jinn in line? It’s just funny to picture.

That Iblees Was Right

Of course, the broader message of this surah is much more concerned with the certainty of The Last Day, and the arguments and despair of the disbelievers in the face of it. The introduction of this surah is first addressing those who mock Muhammmad and call him crazy for believing in the resurrection. The narratives of David, Solomon, and Sheba are there to establish the proper attitude of gratitude to God. The rest of the surah focuses on the ingratitude of the Meccans. and their demise arguing at the threshold of judgement without intercessors as they are sentenced to hell. Then the surah circles back to their dismissal of Muhammad (who is the first prophet their people has ever received, and furthermore is a prophet to all mankind) and the Quran, reasserting Muhammad’s veracity and closing with a “if you could but see…” and portrayal of their failure and despair in Hell.

Something that this surah reinforces is that all humans who end up in Hell deserve their ending. Amongst the squabbling is the followers accusing their leaders, and the poor identifying that the rich confounded the truth to them. The leaders rebuff this accountability and lay fault at the very nature of those accusers, calling them criminals. The Quran agrees implicitly with these leaders, in that it does not make a comment that the leaders are punished for their role. The more explicit argument the surah makes in this direction, however, is in ayah 20, wherein God says that He had already confirmed Iblees’ assumption about humanity’s base character. The Quran sometimes has harsh words directed specifically at those who lead in the field of disbelief, but it does not really blame them for the disbelief of others. Men who believe are the exception –and a divinely manufactured one at that– but not the rule. Men who believe are given special dispensation from the authority of Satan, exposed to him just enough to validate their belief or expose doubt. But the reason Satan is given authority over the general popolus of men is because they are already faulty.

The idea that humankind is so fundamentally weak in character –and Iblees’ correctness in judging such– has led to some interesting contemplations about Iblees’ refusal to bow to them. So the Quran states that the reason for Iblees’ refusal was the belief that he was of fundamentally better material than humankind, flame verses mud. Only twice of the seven Eden narrative does he actually point out that he himself is of flame, so the emphasis is more on the lowliness of human substance. Indeed, debasing the fundamental substance of that to which he’s being commanded to bow is how prophets have debased the idols to which their communities have demanded they bow. And God’s command to the angels to “prostrate” is the verb sajad, which is the Quran’s go-to word for worship (but it should be noted that Joseph’s brothers sajad before him, so the word is not exclusive to worship). Because the Quran leans so hard into the fundamental moral failure of humankind –a failure so pervasive that only special dispensation from God gets anyone into Paradise– some Muslims have struggled to reconcile why Iblees was in the wrong to not bow to Adam, or why God would have commanded such in the first place. Most famously, a few leaders of Sufi Islam took the stance that Iblees was in fact appropriately responding to a test from God, and that his role in the drama of earthly life is a form of worship appropriate for him. I would say the full text of what the Quran says about the story doesn’t support the Sufi view, but that their view is a creative and appropriate response to questions the Quran inadvertently raises.

For Believers

So something I feel it is upon me to do is to distill from each surah some positive takeaway for the believer. This surah is to and for disbelievers, and Muhammad clearly would have preached this to them directly at its advent. Anymore the Quran is a document only accessed and contemplated directly by believers. A fear of mine is that in exploring the Quran and finding it so mean-spirited and underhanded on the topic of disbelievers –and publishing those findings as I go in a public place– I’m promoting an idea that Islam as a culture and Muslims as a people are imbued with this cynical outlook too. And it can be, I cannot deny that there are those cultures and people within Islam, but I also want to be sure to extend grace to these people and communities. I see in Muslims and Islamic ideas a desire to keep on the sunny side and focus on their own faith, which leads to different moral takeaways and emphases than perhaps the Quran itself is directly laying out.

So what positive guidance is there here for a Muslim to glean? Well, the main thread of this surah is the importance of gratitude to God. Humankind has so much to be grateful for, having been positioned by God at the top of creation, with even the strength of the jinn intended for a subservient role to humanity. With the proper gratitude, there is incredible freedom to find joy. The example of Solomon and David is that there really is not such thing as having too much or enjoying too much on the earth as long as it is enjoyed within the bounds of gratitude to God. And if you are grateful, then God will bless you such, only exposing you enough to the trials offered by Satan to vindicate your gratitude. Even if you are not materially blessed on earth, it is only the weight of your faith that matters, and for that you will be compensated in the future. The day of judgement is a fearful thing, but for believers there is nothing to fear, but only to anticipate with eagerness. Muhammad was not mad, nor a liar, nor was his message bound to only one people at one time. So rest assured that your expenditures, inconveniences, and good deeds in this life will be rewarded, and enjoy the fruits of your gratitude.

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