Books islam

Qur’an 27: The Ants

The twenty-seventh chapter of the Qur’an, The Ants, centers around Solomon’s seduction of the Queen of Sheba, as expanded upon in the introduction to the Second Targum of Esther. In this allegory to God’s love, Solomon’s erotic desire to Sheba can be understood as God’s erotic love of His people, known to Catholics as “the Church,” but perhaps thought of by the Qur’anic author as “Israel.” By the Last Day all will yield to God as the Queen of Sheba yielded to Solomon — but will it be too late?

Readings

Entrance Antiphon

Toward morning the queen went out to worship the sea, when the birds obscured the sunlight, so that the queen out of astonishment took hold of her clothes and tore them in pieces.
Second Targum of Esther IV

A Reading, from the Song of Songs

The song of songs, which is Solomon’s.

The Banquet
The Shulamite
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
For your love is better than wine.
Because of the fragrance of your good ointments,
Your name is ointment poured forth;
Therefore the virgins love you.
Draw me away!

The Daughters of Jerusalem
We will run after you.

The Shulamite
The king has brought me into his chambers.

The Daughters of Jerusalem
We will be glad and rejoice in you.

We will remember your love more than wine.

The Shulamite
Rightly do they love you.

I am dark, but lovely,
O daughters of Jerusalem,
Like the tents of Kedar,
Like the curtains of Solomon.
Song of Songs 1:1-5

A Psalm, from the Psalms:

He shall have dominion also from sea to sea,
And from the River to the ends of the earth.
Those who dwell in the wilderness will bow before Him,
And His enemies will lick the dust.
The kings of Tarshish and of the isles
Will bring presents;
The kings of Sheba and Seba
Will offer gifts.
Yes, all kings shall fall down before Him;
All nations shall serve Him.

For He will deliver the needy when he cries,
The poor also, and him who has no helper.
He will spare the poor and needy,
And will save the souls of the needy.
He will redeem their life from oppression and violence;
And precious shall be their blood in His sight.

And He shall live;
And the gold of Sheba will be given to Him;
Prayer also will be made for Him continually,
And daily He shall be praised
Psalms 72:8-15

A reading, from the Revelation to St. John

And I saw the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army. Then the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who worked signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image. These two were cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the rest were killed with the sword which proceeded from the mouth of Him who sat on the horse. And all the birds were filled with their flesh.
Revelations 19:19-21

Alleluia, Alleluia

Also he spoke of trees, from the cedar tree of Lebanon even to the hyssop that springs out of the wall; he spoke also of animals, of birds, of creeping things, and of fish.
1 Kings 4:33

Alleluia, Alleluia

A Reading, from the Gospel according to St. Matthew:

The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here.

“When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation.”
Matthew 12:42-45

Communion Antiphon:

The merchants of Sheba and Raamah were your merchants. They traded for your wares the choicest spices, all kinds of precious stones, and gold. Haran, Canneh, Eden, the merchants of Sheba, Assyria, and Chilmad were your merchants. These were your merchants in choice items—in purple clothes, in embroidered garments, in chests of multicolored apparel, in sturdy woven cords, which were in your marketplace.
Ezekiel 27:22-24

A Qur’anic Homily

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis described affection, friendship, and eros as shadows of or signs pointing towards agape, self-giving love. Verses that describe the relationship of God to His people as affection and friendship are easy to understand because of the current religious culture, but erotic passages can even be harder to detect. In The Ants, the Qur’anic author presents the relationship of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as a type of the erotic relationship of God and the people of God.

Solomon and Sheba

You know this chapter is going to be fun, when it includes an ant’s reaction to Solomon’s great (and partially supernatural) army:

Solomon’s hosts, comprising jinn, humans and birds, were marched out for him, and they were held in check.

When they came to the Valley of Ants, an ant said:

“O ants! Enter your dwellings, lest Solomon and his hosts should trample on you while they are unaware.”

Whereat he smiled, amused at its words, and he said,

“My Lord! Inspire me to give thanks for Your blessing with which You have blessed me and my parents, and that I may do righteous deeds which please You, and admit me, by Your mercy, among Your righteous servants.”
Qur’an 27:17-19

The context for this is Scripture recording that Solomon possessed great wisdom, and spoke “of” the birds and animals. The Qur’anic author, following the Second Targum of Esther, hyperbolicly reimagines this as speaking “to” the birds and animals:

Solomon inherited from David, and he said, “O people! We have been taught the speech of the birds, and we have been given out of everything. This indeed is a clear advantage.”
Qur’an 27:16

The imaginative retelling of course has a point. It is from an animal, and not from the Queen of Sheba, that Solomon learns of that beauty to the south. And it is even from Solomon’s interrogation of a bird that the conversation begins. Solomon is the center of action in this story. He’s the only protagonist.

He reviewed the birds, and said, “Why do I not see the hoopoe? Or is he absent? I will punish him with a severe punishment, or I will behead him, unless he brings me a credible excuse.”

He did not stay for long and said, “I have aligned on something which you have not alighted on, and I have brought you from Sheba a definite report.”
Qur’an 27:20-22

The report of the Queen of Sheba. But here there’s a small, but important, difference with the Second Targum of Esther. In that book Queen of Sheba was worshiping the Sea, emphasizing her femininity. But here we see the Queen of Sheba worshiping the Sun. Because the Qur’anic author (like both Catholics and Arians) emphasizes that God is the Light, Sheba is not seductively worshiping femininity, but worshiping the True Light through the intermediary of the Sun:

“I found a woman ruling over them, and she has been given everything, and she has a great thrown. I found her and her people prostrating to the sun instead of God, and Satan has made their deeds seem decorous to them — thus he has barred them from the Way, so that they are not guided.
Qur’an 27:23-25

Solomon as God, Sheba as the “Church” or “Israel”

The analogy becomes thin here, as Solomon’s God-like position is made explicit. Sheba, closest Qur’anic personification to the Church (or Israel), receives a Book over the air (by spirit, in the form of a bird).

Solomon said to the bird:

“Take this letter of mine and deliver it to them. Then draw away form them and observe what they return.”

She said, “O elite! A noble letter has indeed been delivered to me! It is from Solomon, and it begins in the Name of God, the All-Beneficent, the All-Merciful:

“Do not defy me, and come to me in submission.”
Qur’an 27:27-31

To the Qur’anic author, God wants a Marian heart, a heart of pondering and submission, and not the use of intermediaries or “gods”-on-earth. No intermediary is needed to worship God, but God will use intermediaries for His will be done. As God used Cyrus to re-build the temple, and even the Romans to crucify Christ, so Solomon used Jinn to bring him the Queen of Sheba’s thrown:

He said, “O elite! Which of you will bring me her throne before they come to me in submission! An afreet from among the jinn said, “I will bring it you before you rise from your place. I have the power to do it and I am trustworthy.”
Qur’an 27:38-39

The apocalyptic imagery of the Book of Enoch and Revelations, of a heavenly palace paved of ice crystal, is repurposed to personify the experience of being converted towards the Lord

It was said to her, “Enter the palace.” So when she saw it, she supposed it to be a pool of water, and she bared her shanks. She said, “it is a palace paved with crystal.” She said, “My Lord! I have indeed wronged myself, and I submit with Solomon to God, the Lord of All the Worlds.”
Qur’an 27:44

Intro and Extro

The same lessons of the story are presented abstractly across the beginning and end of the chapter. God is One intelligence and One desire. His burning can be experienced across creation. He knows all, and others can at best respond to Him. All of creation will see Him at last, according to the Qur’anic author, and even the Beast will prophecy towards Him. He knows you — He knows what is beloved does, and where she walks, and where she rests along the way.

When Moses said to his family, “Indeed, I descry a fire! I will bring you some news from it, or bring you a firebrand so that you may warm yourselves.”

When he came to it, he was called: “Blessed is He who is in the fire and who is around it, and immaculate is God, the Lord of all the Worlds.”
Qur’an 27:7-8

It is through the Logos that God knows all things, as Solomon knew many things through his wisdom:

Say, “No one in the heavens or the earth knows the Unseen except God, nor are they aware when they will be resurrected.”
Qur’an 27:65

There is no invisible thing in the heaven or the earth but it is in a manifest Book.
Qur’an 27:75

No individual, according to the Qur’anic author, has the supernatural gifts of Christ, but all have a share in the universal cal to prophethood:

You cannot make the dead hear, nor can you make the deaf hear your call when they turn their backs, nor can you lead the blind out of their error .You can make only those who hear you who believe in Our signs and have submitted.
Qur’an 27:80-81

In the Eschaton, the last things, all will see the Truth. That which survives in all things pointed to God all along. From Caiaphas the High Priest, to the Beast, the right order for all of them was pointing to God:

When the Word falls upon them, We will bring out for them a Beast from the earth who will tell them the people had no faith in Our signs. On that day We will resurrect from every nation a group of those who denied Our signs, and they will be held in check.
Qur’an 27:82-83

All will submit:

The day when the trumpet is blown, whoever is in the heavens and whoever is int he earth will be terrified, except such as God wishes, and all will come to Him in utter humility.
Qur’an 27:87

And all will praise the Omniscient.

And say, “All praise belongs to God. Soon He will show you His signs and you will recognize them.”

Your Lord is not oblivious of what you do.
Qur’an 87:93

Conclusion

C.S. Lewis wrote that in affection we love unconditionally, in friendship we desire a naked personality, and in eros we desire a naked body. Eros is incarnate form of love. In the incarnate reality of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as retold by the Qur’anic author, we see something of the God using His Spirit and Logos to draw all things towards Himself.

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