Translation & Commentary of Verses from Surah 27, Al-Naml [26-31]

[26] Allah, there is no deity save He – Lord of the Magnificent `Arsh.’41

Commentary

41. According to Ibn Zayd, hoopoe’s words end at this point (Ibn Jarir).

[27] He said, ‘We shall presently see whether you told the truth or you are of the liars.42

Commentary

42. Do animals lie that Sulayman should have said, “We shall presently see whether you told the truth or you are of the liars?” The answer is that we do not know the language of the birds to be able to say yes or no. But biologists, bird-watchers and ornithologists report quite incredible things about birds. Their finding is that the birds do deceive each other, in fact, they even commit theft (Au.).

Ibn al-Qayyim reports that someone narrated the following story:

“It so happened that an ant came out of its nest and encountered a locust carcass. She tried to carry it to the nest but could not. So she retreated and brought back a group of ants to carry it. But, as I saw them coming, I lifted the carcass off the ground. They came, encircled the ground and, not finding anything, retreated. I replaced the locust. She came back and tried to carry it but could not. So she went back and once again brought back a group of ants to help her. But I lifted it off the ground once again. Once again, not finding anything they retreated. I replaced the locust and back she was after a while trying to drag it to the nest. But failing, once again, she went back to the nest, and I did my trick. I did this several times. Finally, when she brought her mates and they did not find anything, they surrounded her and cut her up to pieces.” (Badai` al-Tafsir)

When this was mentioned to the Sheikh (Ibn Qayyim perhaps means Ibn Taymiyyah), he remarked that by nature ants abhor lies.

Ants

Significantly, the Qur’an has made mention of such animals which have evoked human interest to this day. In our times, the ant is studied as a subject by hundreds of scientists and amateur researchers over the world. There are scientists who have obtained doctorate degrees in ant related subjects, while others study their genetics to determine their behavior.

An ant has three parts to its body, six legs and a pair of antennae which are also used for sense of smell. It can run very fast. If a man were to run as fast as an ant runs for its body-size, he would have to run as fast as a race horse. It has two stomachs, one for digesting its own food, and the other for food to be shared with other ants, e.g., nest workers and the larvae. It has no lungs. Touching of antennae seems to be one of the ways of communicating with each other. It has the largest brain size among all animals in terms of body size, (altogether some 250,000 brain cells). It has strong limbs and is ordinarily capable of lifting a weight 20 times its own weight. (No other animal can lift the weight that ants can lift. Humans can ordinarily lift half their body weight). The likeness of a leaf cutter ant’s weight carrying capacity is to a man carrying 250 kg for a distance of one km in 2.5 minutes. An ant has been photographed tenaciously holding on to a lizard thousands of times its own weight, clinging to the bottom of a thick branch while the lizard hung. It held on for several hours waiting for help before dropping it down. The Arabs knew of the strength of ant’s joints. A proverb was struck:

A proverb is struck by the ant and said, ‘He is stronger than an ant,’ because she can carry weights several times larger than her own weight.

Ants live in colonies comprising of thousands to millions of individuals. A colony starts when a female ant flies off followed by male ants. (Although most nests have a single queen, among some species, such as fire ants, a single ant colony can have as many as 500 queens. Ants in such colonies seem to work cooperatively for the interest of the entire group). After mating the ant settles in some place, making a little hole where she starts to lay eggs. As they hatch, the colony grows. The queen keeps laying eggs, until its death some 10-14 years later.

There are tens of thousands of ant species. But members of one species are not accepted by another. If they try to enter, the soldier ants tear them apart. However, if eggs are placed in their nests, they bestow equal care on them and accept them as their own when the larvae hatch out. Some species raid nests of other ants and steal their pupae. When these foreign pupae hatch, they are employed as slaves within the colony. Some species are migratory. They are known as Army Ants or Driver Ants. They number up to 700,000 and are always on the move just like nomads, carrying their eggs and pupae with them – always moving in a column.

A biologist writes his personal account:

“As an adult in Panama I have stepped aside and contemplated the New World equivalent of the driver ants that I had feared as a child in Africa, flowing by me like a crackling river, and I can testify to the strangeness and wonder. Hour after hour the legions marched past, walking as much over each others’ bodies as over the ground, while I waited for the queen. Finally she came, and hers was an awesome presence. It was impossible to see her body. She appeared only as a moving wave of worker frenzy, a boiling peristaltic ball of ants with linked arms. She was somewhere in the middle of the seething ball of workers, while all around it the massed rank of soldiers faced threateningly outwards with jaws agape, everyone ready to kill and to die in defense of the queen. Forgive my curiosity to see her: I prodded the ball of workers with a long stick, in a vain attempt to flush out the queen. Instantly, 20 soldiers buried their massively muscled pincers in my stick, possibly never to let go, while dozens more swarmed up the stick causing me to let go with alacrity.” (Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, p. 108, 1996, W.W. Norton and Company)

Not all ants bite, but some bites can be dangerous, even fatal. The ubiquitous black large ant in the Gulf can be fatal to some. A man bitten by one of them can have bobs all over his body in ten minutes, within which time his body throws out the entire store of the sperm. A girl had to be hospitalized after being bitten by a black ant of this class. The doctors warned her that she might not survive another bite. Sadly, they proved correct. In India a female farmer coming back to her shack found her little one killed by thousands of ants tenaciously clinging to the child’s body.

The nest grows in size as the population increases. Its size is limited by the number of eggs laid by the queen, and by the water level of the land. Some nests go as deep as 7-8 meters and are equally as wide. A nest contains a labyrinth of tunnels, neatly cut through, with myriad of branches, resembling brain nerves. Amazingly, they start boring tunnels from opposite sides advancing towards each other from two ends to arrive perfectly face to face with each other when the two holes open into each other.

Adjacent to the tunnels there are chambers with beautiful curved ceilings, breeding houses of special shapes, stockyards, large work stations, processing plants, and, in case of leaf-cutter ants, plantation fields, harvesting areas, and pits for decomposing waste. The nest and its pathways are efficiently designed for the heat rising from chemical processes to find its way out into the atmosphere and to be replaced by cool oxygen-rich air allowed in through side tunnels. Maintenance of a constant temperature is an important factor in the development of the pupae. The entrances can be successfully sealed off in case of rains, severe cold, or attacks.

At the social level, there are various castes among the ants, but always headed by a queen. In actual fact the queen is no queen. Much larger in size than others, it is merely an egg-laying apparatus. No one lays eggs except the queen. She coats her eggs with a pheromone – a hydrocarbon blend – that helps their identification as queen-laid eggs. In experiments, when the queen-laid eggs were removed, the worker ants began to lay their own eggs. But more surprisingly, when queen-laid eggs were brought back, the ants destroyed the worker-laid eggs. The eggs hatch into varieties of ants: soldier ants, worker ants, male, female, etc. Somehow the ratio is maintained. In experiments, when soldier ants of a colony were destroyed, the eggs that had already been laid hatched more soldier ants. And when worker ants were destroyed, the eggs that had already been laid, produced more of the worker ants. The eggs somehow knew what was happening outside.

The nest usually consists of patrol ants, maintenance ants, worker ants, (of several varieties, normally determined by size and age), soldier ants, a few males, and of course, at least one queen. But the basic mystery about these ant colonies is that neither is there any hierarchy, nor management, nor a central control. Yet everyone seems to know its function, and does it pretty efficiently, in the quickest time possible, without receiving orders, and without reporting work performance. Duties can change from hour to hour, day to day, and from situation to situation. The worker ants for example, perform a myriad of activities: food gathering, processing, stockpiling, nest cleaning, larvae-care, and several others, such as, in case of leaf-cutter ants, de-fungi-ing the leaves, cultivation, harvesting, storage, and waste disposal. But, although no command is ever issued to anyone of the tens of thousands, sometimes even millions of ants, yet, as a whole the nest functions like a perfectly organized kingdom.

Ibn al-Qayyim seems to have known about the absence of central command. He writes what modern biologists have learnt after decades of painstaking research:

“Ants do not have any leader or commander assigning them tasks as is the case with the leaders among bees to whom the message of food is first passed on, and who in turn send a host of bees in the direction of food. In case of ants, every one of them seems to be working for the benefit of the colony, without any regard for their own likes and dislikes.” (Bada’i`)

Ant activity begins with the patroller ants popping their queer heads out of the nest entrance early in the morning. For some time they eye the area around the nest. With “all’s well” message passed on, the patroller ants come out in good numbers and head in different directions in search of food. The directions differ from day to day. The patrollers are very sensitive to predators.

Writes a researcher:

“Collecting patrollers (for laboratory research: Au.) was completely different. Even the most careful of aspirating of only a few patrollers, well apart from each other, could cause the whole colony to shut down. The nest maintenance workers and other patrollers would go back into the nest, and later the foragers (food collectors: Au.), would not come out at all… What puzzled me most about this observation was the rapidity of the patrollers’ reaction. When some patrollers outside the nest disappeared, the rest of the patrollers sometimes headed back into the nest immediately, within seconds – long before there was time for anyone to go back into the nest and assess the rate at which the patrollers were returning.” (Ants at Work, Deborah Gordon, p. 152, The Free Press, 1999)

With the patrollers’ return to the nest, foragers or food collectors pour out. They head straight in the directions the patrollers took. They go back and forth the nest several times carrying food, collecting only that which the patrollers had encountered in the morning. What the patrollers ignored, the collectors also ignore. If the food is too heavy, an ant goes back to fetch others. When she re-emerges, she has an army behind her, which moves in a column and never as a crowd.

Leaf cutter ants first cut leaves of manageable transport size. They drop them at the first level chambers in the anthill. There other ants (smaller than the ants that went out) spray the leaves with a sort of antibiotic. That assures that no bacteria will escape death. After that other ants, (normally smaller than the ones that did their work at the upper chamber), cut the leaves to smaller pieces and lay them in another area. Within 48 hours the leaves turn into fungus. At the fourth level of activity, harvesting is done. Then come in other ants, the smallest, to collect the leftovers and prepare the field for the next harvest. During plantation they use caterpillar faeces as manure.

Some ants take care of the larvae of aphids or other insects. The reason is that these insects release a sweet sap, and the ants seem to be raising them to obtain a supply of the sap rather than eating them. As long as these insects are being cared for by ants, they are protected from other enemies and the ants collect their honey.

When the sun is in the middle of the sky, the forager ants retreat and attend to tasks within the nest. Inside, they care for the larvae and pupae, attend to cleaning, dig the nest deeper in response to the queen laying more eggs, carry back sand to the top, thus creating the mount or the anthill, and perform several other tasks. Sometimes by evening, if the weather is not good, the mouth to the nest is closed with sand. With compound eyes, they seem to have infrared capabilities, which explains how they can work in the dark tunnels. Ants have also been seen collecting food at night, but that seems to be related to good quality food. For instance, a cockroach which has recently been dead, draws them out in the dark. However, within the nest, the ants work at night also. They move the eggs and larvae deep into the nest to protect them from the cold. During daytime, they move the eggs and larvae of the colony to the top of the nest so that they can be warmer.

Nothing seems to ever go wrong in a nest for the decade and a half of its life-cycle, although individual ants live for anything between a month and a half, which is normal, to a year, which is the case for some species. But the queen lives for, averagely, 15-20 years, although in some rare species, up to 50 years. And, as soon as the egg-laying machine dies, it is the end of the others also. Instead of adopting a new queen, they give up their ghosts, no one knows why, and the nest is turned into a vast graveyard. A close parallel of this is the cells of the human body. Each cell functions, apparently without any central command, producing the kind of proteins required, hour to hour, without ever failing in its specific functions: depending on where the cell is – liver, intestine, nails or knee cap. Each cell somehow knows what it has to do. Like an ant colony members, individual cells do not live out the whole life that the body does. Cells come and go, like ants in a nest, but the body goes on, for sixty-seventy years. Then the queen dies and that is the end of the individual ants. Similarly, the human body dies, and that is the end of the hundred trillion cells. Scientists are unable to explain how the cells know that it is time for them to die, altogether, at one time. Interestingly, a 400,000 ant colony of ants collectively has the same sized brain as humans.

It is ants and their sister species termites who bring down what man builds. From the very first day that man completes his proud construction, these littlest of Allah’s creatures begin their work of removing the foundation, grain by grain, to one day bringing down the entire structure! In the Arabian Gulf region, it has been found that the effects of deterioration caused by the ants on concrete buildings are visible within one week of the finish of construction (Au).

[28] Carry this my letter and drop it before them;43 then drawback and see what shall they respond.’

Commentary

43. “The use of birds as letter-carriers need not surprise the modern mind. ‘The use of homing pigeons to carry messages is as old as Solomon and the ancient Greeks, to whom the art of training the birds came probably from the Persians, (they) conveyed the names of Olympic victors to their various cities by this means. Before the electric telegraph this mode of communication had considerable vogue amongst stockbrokers and financiers.’ (EBr. XVII. p. 921).” – Majid

[29] She (the queen) said, ‘You chiefs, a letter worthy of respect has been delivered to me.44

Commentary

44. “The letter was important to Queen Sheba for several reasons: (i) It had arrived in an unusual fashion; delivered and dropped in front of her by a bird. (ii) It was from Solomon the magnificent, the ruler of Palestine and Syria. (iii) It commenced with the name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful, even though this formula was not used anywhere in the world for diplomatic state correspondence. (iv) To write a letter in the name of Almighty God in disregard of all deities was something uncommon for them. (v) The letter contained a clear message to Queen Sheba to give up defiance, to commit her allegiance to Solomon and to go to him in the state of submission ‘as a Muslim.’

“To come as ‘Muslim’ can have two meanings: (i) to come in the state of submission, or (ii) to accept Islam and come to him in that capacity.” (Mawdudi)

[30] Verily, it is from Sulayman and verily it is, “In the name of Allah, the Kind, the Compassionate.45

Commentary

45. Following this Qur’anic lead, it is desirable to commence any piece of writing with the basmalah. However, if one fears that one’s writing might be discarded, and Allah’s name desecrated, then it is better to merely pronounce the basmalah at the start of the writing, and not write the words. (Shafi`)

[31] (Saying) Rise up not against me, but come to me in submission.”’46

Commentary

46. Alluding to the briefness of the letter, Qatadah has pointed out that this is how Prophets wrote letters: no loose talk, no verbiage, just plain truth. (Our own Prophet’s letters were as brief: Au.). And, the invitation was to submit to the Lord One God (Ibn Jarir). In Shabbir’s words, “Rarely such a brief, terse, and to the point letter was ever written.”

(To be concluded)