When I first set out on this Quran project, I intended it to be merely a journal of my reactions and residual thoughts. Turns out, that’s not how I work and it basically became a series of essays. Because it’s been taking so long to do, I decided some months ago to revise my approach and read ahead to the end of the Quran, just jotting my first impressions down in notes. I did this, using my English-only Quran since it’s small and easy to carry. Months later, now that I’ve come in my blog to Surah 38, ص, “Ṣaad,” (pronounced like “psalm” but with the LM swapped out for a D), I re-read the surah and then re-read my earlier notes:
Yeah, those notes hold up. This is basically my same reaction re-reading Surah Ṣaad for the second time.
So let’s unpack this. If you want a more coherent experience than my own, I’d suggest you read Yusuf Ali’s translation, rather than my usual recommend of Sahih International. He smooths out some of the more surprising wrinkles without reshaping too much of the text. Though there is a lot of interesting theological material and linguistic trivia in this surah, I’m going to center in today on the narratives that most caught my attention: David, Solomon, Job, and Ibliis.
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.
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.”
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.