Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Queen's Throne and a Prophet's Challenge

A long time ago, in a land far away, a bird called the Hudhud (Hoopoe) flew over the land of Sheba and gazed in shock at the sight he saw. He winged his way back to the kingdom of Prophet Sulaymân (Solomon), and announced:
{I have encompassed [in knowledge] that which you have not encompassed, and I have come to you from Sheba with certain news. Indeed, I found [there] a woman ruling them, and she has been given of all things, and she has a great throne. I found her and her people prostrating to the sun instead of to Allah, and Satan has made their deeds pleasing to them and averted them from [His] way, so they are not guided, [and] so they do not prostrate to Allah, who brings forth what is hidden within the heavens and the earth and knows what you conceal and what you declare. Allah! – there is no deity except Him, Lord of the Great Throne!} [Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:22-26]
The Hudhud’s words express amazement and dismay alike at this marvel which he witnessed. Then as now, a woman in a position of such ruler-ship was not the norm – and clearly, this woman enjoyed many blessings of Allah in addition to her power. Yet what was most shocking to the Hudhud was that despite the greatness of her throne and of her land, this remarkable queen did not worship Allah, but worshipped the sun instead. Nor was the queen alone in her sun worship. The Hudhud noted that “she and her people” were engaged in this worship together, which illustrates the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. Inevitably, wherever one goes in the world, the faith of the ruler(s) will affect the faith of a nation; the beliefs of those in authority will always impact the people they rule over.
The Hudhud was both fascinated and concerned at this state of affairs. How could someone not recognize Allah’s existence and worship Him as He deserves, when they were already showered with His blessings? As a prophet of Allah, Sulaymân knew that he had a duty to engage in da'wah with this fellow leader.
Sulaymân instructed the Hudhud:
{Take this letter of mine and deliver it to them. Then leave them and see what [answer] they will return.} [Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:28]
Thoughtfully, he wondered what kind of ruler the queen really was, and what response he would receive.
Allah introduces us to the Balqîs, Queen of Sheba (Saba’: Yemen/Ethiopia), in the most beautiful of ways.
{She said, “O eminent ones, indeed, to me has been delivered a noble letter. Indeed, it is from Sulayman, and indeed, it reads: ‘In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful. Be not haughty with me but come to me in submission.} ‘[Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:29-31]
Immediately, an image is conjured – a woman of grace and wisdom, a ruler who does not hold herself aloof from her people, but who consults with those around her. Balqîs is a woman whose intellect and poise is clear from her every word.
As she reads the letter out to her cabinet, it is clear that she has already read the letter. She has thought about it, and considered it seriously; she is impressed, not afraid, of what she has read, for she describes it as ‘kitâbun karîm’ – a noble and gracious message.
Sulaymân’s letter begins with the basmala, invoking the Name of Allah, and she recognizes that this is not about himself and how great he is, but about something far more serious. What he says and does is not out of his own sense of superiority, but out of submission to Allah.
Balqîs also recognizes the nuances of his words: when he said “allâ ta'lû ‘alayya,” he was telling her not to be arrogant towards him – but also carried the meaning of warning her not to advance against him militarily. The Hudhud, having noted Sheba’s influence and might, may have implied that the queendom of Sheba was considering expansion of its borders.
Sulaymân had continued, saying, “wa âtûni muslimîn” – “come to me in a state of non-aggression, of submission” to Allah.
{She said, “O eminent ones, advise me in my affair. I would not decide a matter unless you are present.”} [Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:32]
The Queen of Sheba’s success as a ruler no doubt had something to do with the fact that she was far from reckless, hasty, or emotional. The word aftûnî “advise me”—related to ‘fatwah’—as used in this verse, carries in its meaning the connotation of empowering someone to make a decision, to provide them with the evidence required to make a correct decision. Balqîs did not simply tell her ministers that she had received a message from Sulaymân, but she made a point of reading out the letter in its entirety; she provided them with the complete information rather than merely her own perception.
{They said, “We are men of strength and of great military might, but the command is yours, so see what you will command.”} [Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:33]
Balqîs’ cabinet of ministers were as foresighted as she was: though they were men of influence and authority, who wielded military power, they still acknowledged her power and trusted her to make the right decision.
{She said, “Indeed, kings – when they enter a city – they ruin it and render the honored of its people humbled. And thus do they do. But indeed, I will send to them a gift and see with what [reply] the messengers will return.”} [Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:34-35]
The Queen’s comment about the behavior of kings displayed her political astuteness. She knew better than anyone that conquerors engage in media campaigns – that they inflict political oppression and brutally crush any opposition. Her decision was one of sharp insight: she decided to send gifts to Sulaymân to test him, to see if his invitation to Islam was really one of principle, or whether it was just an excuse for exerting political power and asking for bribes.
Qatadah said about her thought process: “May Allah have mercy on her and be pleased with her—how wise she was as a Muslim and (before that) as an idolater! She understood how gift-giving has a good effect on people.” Ibn `Abbas and others said: “She said to her people, if he accepts the gift, he is a king, so fight him; but if he does not accept it, he is a Prophet, so follow him.”[1]
Now comes the response of Prophet Sulaymân, his dignity offended by the very idea of accepting what could be construed as a bribe.
{So when they came to Sulaymân, he said, “Do you provide me with wealth? But what Allah has given me is better than what He has given you. Rather, it is you who rejoice in your gift! Return to them, for we will surely come to them with soldiers that they will be powerless to encounter, and we will surely expel them therefrom in humiliation, and they will be debased.”} [Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:36-37]
Sulaymân’s answer first and foremost speaks about Allah, acknowledging that everything is from Him, and that He is the One Who gives. His response is also one of political know-how: he is basically saying that he is insulted at the idea that they think they can buy him off, that they are so confident that he will be easy to manipulate. Though his threat may seem harsh, it is to display his refusal to be seen as weak. The exchange of messages is that of rulers testing each other’s mettle, examining the other’s strength and commitment to honor and principle.
Finally, a meeting is arranged between the two monarchs – but the matching of wits is not yet over.
{He (Sulaymân) said, “O assembly [of jinn], which of you will 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, and indeed, I am for this [task] strong and trustworthy. Said one who had knowledge from Scripture, “I will bring it to you before your glance returns to you.” And when he (Sulaymân) saw it placed before him, he said, “This is from the favor of my Lord to test me whether I will be grateful or ungrateful. And whoever is grateful, his gratitude is only for [the benefit of] himself; and whoever is ungrateful, then indeed, my Lord is Free of Need and Generous.” He said, “Disguise her throne for her; we will see whether she will be guided [to truth] or will be of those who is not guided.” So when she arrived, it was said [to her], “Is your throne like this?” She said, “[It is] as though [this] was it.”} [Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:38-42]
Sulaymân had one final test to put before Balqîs, a challenge to her intellect. Mujahid said: “He issued orders that it should be changed, so whatever was red should be made yellow and vice versa, and whatever was green should be made red, so everything was altered.” Ikrimah said, “They added some things and took some things away.” Qatadah said, “It was turned upside down and back to front, and some things were added and some things were taken away.”[2]
Balqîs was a woman of caution and keen acumen, wary of passing judgment swiftly or making quick decisions. She neither affirmed nor denied that the throne before her now was the same throne she presided over in Sheba; instead, calm and unruffled, she merely acknowledged the similarity between what she knew of her own possession, and the throne she looked upon in that moment.
{She was told, “Enter the palace.” But when she saw it, she thought it was a body of water and uncovered her shins [to wade through]. He said, “Indeed, it is a palace [whose floor is] made smooth with glass.” She said, “My Lord, indeed I have wronged myself, and I submit with Sulaymân to Allah, Lord of the worlds.”} [Sûrat Al-Naml, 27:44]
How beautiful is the Queen of Sheba’s conduct! Her intelligence, her dignity, and her grace are all highlighted in just a few words. There is no arrogance whatsoever—no stubbornness or reluctance to admitting previous wrongdoing, just honesty. She had borne witness to amazing things on this day, and she would not allow her ego interfere with her testimony of truth. On this day, she submitted with Sulaymân to Allah – the submission of equals before their Lord. There is a sense of dignity to it all, a powerful aura of respect.
What is truly amazing about how Allah tells the story in the Quran is that it ends with her declaration of faith in Him, with such grace. Many people turn the story of Balqîs into a romantic tale or argue that she gave up her queendom to Sulaymân, but none of that is even hinted at in the âyât that speak about her.
Allah so clearly brings our attention to a woman who had both power and wisdom; who did not allow herself to be swayed by fear, but who was determined to make her decisions based upon actual experience. She demonstrates to us the attitude that we should all have: a willingness to go out there and seek knowledge and experience for ourselves; to be cautious but not stubborn; open-minded but not easily dazzled… and above all, the ability to acknowledge that we have done wrong, and to turn to Allah with a heart full of faith and repentance—with dignity.
The Queen of Sheba is the perfect example of how submitting ourselves to Allah does not bring us down, but simply raises us higher.
The relationship between Sulaymân and Balqîs as hinted at from that final declaration of Balqîs, also encapsulates the ideal relationship between men and women; that they both be seen as individuals capable of authority, and of humility at the same time. Most importantly, that each party respect the other – acknowledging each other’s strengths and seeking only to assist each other in improving as human beings, and above all, to support each other in turning to Allah and worshiping Him alone. The image we are left with in the Quran is that of Sulaymân and Balqîs, king and queen, submitting themselves equally as slaves to Allah alone. How much more beautiful could their relationship be?
From beginning to end, the Queen of Sheba is presented to us as an example of an amazing individual. Though initially she was of those misguided, who wrongfully worshipped other than Allah, her intelligence and her honesty led her to recognize the truth and submit herself to her Creator in the most beautiful of ways. In her personality, we see a true heroine – someone who did not allow her position of power or her possession of great luxury to prevent her from humbling herself spiritually.
Like Balqîs and Sulaymân, men and women are meant to be strive together to realize their full potential, in terms of both worldly accomplishments and spiritual submission. Only when we recognize that our strength lies in supporting each other will we find contentment and success alike. By following the footsteps of a Prophet and a Queen, we will ultimately find ourselves submitting to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.

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