Translation & Commentary of Verses from Surah 27, Al-Naml [17-19]

[17] And marshalled before Sulayman were his forces of Jinn, men, and birds, duly distributed (in order and ranks).23


23. Sayyid comments: “So that was the retinue of Sulayman, comprising of the Jinn, men, and birds. We know about mankind. As for the Jinn, we do not know anything about them except for what the Qur’an has taught us, viz., they are created from the flames of fire, that they see the humankind but humankind do not see them, (“he sees you, he and his tribe, while you see them not” – 7: 27); and that they are capable of inciting humans to evil and inspire sins in them, although we do not know how; and that a group of them had believed in the Prophet … and that a group of them were made submissive to Sulayman who built for him niches, statues, and huge pots for cooking, who dived into the sea for him – following his command, doing Allah’s will.

“Allah had subjugated for Sulayman a group of the Jinn and birds, just as He subjugated a group of men for him. And, just as not all the people of the world constituted the forces of Sulayman, since his kingdom did not go beyond the areas known as Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq up to the banks of river Euphrates, in a similar manner all of the Jinn or birds would not have been subjugated to him. It was only a group of them that were subjugated to him.”

[18] At length, when they came upon the valley of ants, an ant said,24 ‘O ants! Get into your homes, lest Sulayman and his forces crush you, being unaware.’25


24. It is said that when Qatadah came to Kufa, people flocked around him eager to learn. He said, “Ask what you will.” Abu Hanifah was also present. He was a teenager then. He suggested to them to ask Qatadah about Sulayman’s ant. Was it male or female? (Since, adds Razi, “namlah” – like “shatah” or “hamamah” – is the name of a species which can either be male or female: Au.). Qatadah was quiet. Abu Hanifah said it was female. They asked him how he knew it. He said because Allah had said, “qaalat” (Zamakhshari, Razi, Alusi).

Qurtubi must have had an eye.  He reports, a finding presented in modern biology works, that ants are so clever that they slice a seed into two so that it doesn’t sprout and, since slicing a coriander seed does not prevent it from sprouting, the ants slice them into four! Alusi adds that the ants slice a lentil seed also into four.

“The anthropoid apes no doubt approach nearer to man in bodily structure than do other animals, but when we consider the habits of ants, their social organization, their large communities and elaborate habitations, their roadways, their possession of domestic animals, and even, in some cases, of slaves, it must be admitted that they have a fair claim to rank next to man in intelligence.’ (DB.I. 103).” – Majid.

25. Alusi presents various opinions about the ant’s ability to speak and Sulayman’s ability to hear. One is the obvious opinion that he could hear the animals’ speech just as our Prophet (saws) heard a few animals’ speech to him. Another is that Sulayman heard her from a distance of three miles. Alusi does not rule out that the winds could have carried the ant’s voice to Sulayman’s ear from that distance but adds another opinion that he did not hear the voice of the ant, but rather, her speech was relayed to him by Allah through revelation. But, he also adds, one cannot see why we need to deny that the animals have the power of speech. We have the example of a dabb (lizard-like desert animal, but large in size) speaking to the Prophet (saws).

Alusi’s allusion is to the hadith in Tabarani’s Al-Saghir as well as his Awsat, which, in the judgment of Haythami, has – but for one narrator – a chain accepted by the Sihah compilers as trustworthy.

In sum, writes Shafi`, Qur’anic deliberations lead us to understand that animals possess the power to reason, in some measure or the other, perhaps of the kind that is enough for organizing their simple lives, although not enough for them to be charged with observation of revealed Law.

Ibn al-Qayyim adds the following story: “Hisham b. Hassan narrates that Ahnaf b. Qays’s clan was greatly inconvenienced by ants. Ahnaf b. Qays ordered a chair placed between two of their nests. He sat down in it, recited praises to Allah and then said, “If you will not desist, we will set you on fire.” It is said that they vacated the area (Bada’i`).

Jewish sources also accept the Qur’anic version. Majid quotes, “While sailing over a valley where there were many swarms of ants, Solomon heard one ant say to the others, ‘Enter your houses; otherwise Solomon’s legion will destroy you.’” (JE. XI. P. 440)

However, Jewish sources also leave a dark patch on Solomon’s character. Mawdudi explains and quotes, “The event in question is mentioned in Israelite traditions but the last part of their account is contrary to its Qur’anic version… to quote from the Israelite tradition, ‘The king greatly angered (at the speech of the ant), threw her down, saying, Dost thou know who I am? I am Solomon, the son of David! She (the ant answered), I know that thou art created of a corrupted drop; therefore, thou oughtest not to be proud’ (The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. XI, p. 440).

“Amazingly (Mawdudi continues), these are the traditions, according to Orientalists’ claims, from which the Qur’an has drawn its content.”

We might close the topic by pointing out that advances in audio technology have enabled scientists to discover that the ants routinely talk to each other in their nests. The ants rub segments of their abdomen to produce a sound that is understood by others. They change the rhythm to produce different kinds of communications. Insertion of miniaturized microphones and speakers into the ant nests has resulted in recording instructions by the queen. When the recorded queen’s instructions were replayed within the nest colony, the worker ants responded by standing motionless in rapt attention. The noise they produce sounds like the clattering of the teeth or croaking of the frogs, but without the chorus (Au.).

[19] He smiled, laughingly26 at her words and said, ‘My Lord! Dispose me that I may be grateful to You for the blessings wherewith You have blessed me and my parents, and that I may do good deeds (that are) pleasing to You. And admit me by Your grace amongst Your righteous slaves.’27


26. That is, it was a show of happiness between a smile and laughter (Zamakhshari, Razi, Qurtubi). Qurtubi suggests that dahikan could be interpreted as “bemused” since not every smile is a result of happiness.

27. This refutes the Jewish and Christian charge that, writes Majid, “(Solomon) had become ungodly in the later part of his life.”

A Prophet’s rank is above that of the awliya’ and salihin. Why then, do they supplicate that they be placed amongst the salihin? It is because a kamil salih (perfectly righteous) is someone who never disobeys Allah in the slightest. Even the thought of sin does not occur to him. Accordingly, we find the Qur’an narrating to us the prayer-words of several Prophets and Messengers to the effect that they be joined with, or placed amongst the salihin (Razi).

Ashraf Ali Thanwi demonstrates that “Salih” is a status of which there are several levels, the highest belongs to Prophets and Messengers, and the lowest to ordinary believers in Paradise (Au. from Ashraf al-Tafasir, vol.1).

In this context, Qurtubi and Ibn Kathir report from Muslim who has a report on the authority of Abu Hurayrah that the Prophet (saws) said, “One of the Prophets was bitten by an ant. He ordered that the anthill be burnt down. It was done. Allah revealed to him, ‘Is it for a single ant’s bite that you destroyed a nation (of ants) that used to chant Glory? Why not a single ant?’” That is, why did you not kill a single ant?

It is also reported in the hadith literature, such as in Ibn Abi Hatim that: Sulayman (asws) went out with his followers to supplicate for rain. He found an ant fallen on its back, with its forearms raised toward the heaven saying, “O Allah, we are a creation of the many of Your creations. We cannot do without Your water and food. So, either You send down rain and feed us, or destroy us.” He said, “Return. You will be sent the rains by the supplication of (someone) other than you.” (Ibn Kathir)

The hadith is also in Ahmad, Daylami and Hakim, the last of whom declared it trustworthy, and Dhahabi gave his approval. See Jami` Saghir, H. No. 3906. (Au.)

Qurtubi further reports that one of the Prophets harbored some doubt about the destruction of a town inhabited by unbelieving transgressors but which also had a few righteous people. The same Prophet was once sleeping under a tree when he was woken up by an ant’s bite. He ordered the nest burnt down. Allah reminded him of his doubt over the destruction of a town the majority of whose dwellers were transgressors. (This is not a hadith: Au.). Nevertheless, Qurtubi concludes, punishment through burning must have been permissible in the Shari`ah of that Prophet. In our Shari`ah, it is disallowed. The Prophet has specifically prohibited it.

(To be continued)

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