Qur’an 17: Talking Birds, Talking Ants

I’m a British humanist reading The Qur’an (Tarif Khalidi’s translation) and blogging about it as I go. I’m doing my best not to make assumptions, apart from assuming it was written – not necessarily in the order given – by a man (or men) in Arabia in the 7th century. I realise that some Muslims will consider the whole exercise blasphemous, and some anti-theists will say it’s not critical enough. The aim is not to be offensive, but simply to share a personal, non-scholarly, view of one of the most influential texts of our time. [More…]

Chapter 27 (“The Ants”) includes a world of Jinn and talking animals: “To Solomon were mustered his troops of Jinn, humans and birds, all held in strict order. Until, when they arrived at the Valley of Ants, an ant said ‘O ants, enter your dwellings lest Solomon and his troops crush you unawares.’ He smiled with amusement at its words and said: ‘My Lord, inspire me to offer thanks for the bountry You bestowed on me….. .” The Biblical Solomon refers to ants in Proverbs as a source of inspiration, for example: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.” But they don’t talk and there’s nothing about being crushed by troops of Jinn, humans and birds.

After that, Solomon becomes angry because one of the birds, the hoopoe, is missing. But the bird turns up with a report about the riches of Saba (=Sheba) and their queen – they’re sun-worshippers. That’s the starting point for a confused story in which Solomon exchanges written messages with the Queen of Sheba and she travels to visit his court. At the same time Solomon asks for someone to bring him her throne, and a “giant Jinni” obliges.

That leads to some interesting logic: “This [the throne] is a favour from my Lord, in order ro test me whether I shall give thanks or be ungrateful. Whoso gives thanks, gives thanks only for his own good. Whoso is ungrateful, my Lord is All-Sufficient, All-Forgiving.” In other words, don’t thank God for good things, he doesn’t need it.

Solomon disguises the throne and asks her whether it look like hers. She says “It is nearly so” and Solomon claims that her inability to spot it is because she doesn’t have “right guidance” – that is, she’s not a believer. But she is so dazzled by the wealth of Solomon’s court, including a roof terrace made of glass which she thinks is water, that she submits to God.

This seems to be another example of an amended, abbreviated rather badly-told version of a Bible narative. The throne puzzle seems unnecessary, and doesn’t appear  in the Biblical version, where instead it is the Queen who tests Solomon with riddles. On the other hand, the outcome – that she’s so dazzled she takes on belief in Solomon’s God – is the same.

We have here again Moses and his staff turning into a serpent, as well as reference to fire, though not specifically a burning bush. There’s yet another repeat of the Thamud tribe failing to heed the prophet Salih; and of Lot. But unlike the previous chapter, where it was an “old woman” who remained behind when Lot escaped the destruction of his town, here “…his wife, whom We destined to remain behind”.

And here again we encounter the wonders of creation, what will happen on the Last Day and blasphemers who doubt that the dead will be resurrected.

The chapter starts with another example of the strange idea that God deliberately misleads unbelievers so that they end up being tortured in hell: “We have made their deeds appear attractive in their sight, so they stumble aimlessly in their error.It is they whom an evil torment awaits, who shall be the greatest losers in the hereafter.”

And near the end the author reports that God is generously providing the Qur’an to help out the local Jews: “This Qur’an narrates to the Children of Israel most of what they dispute about.  It is a guidance and a mercy to the faithful. Your Lord shall judge between them with His decree. He is Almighty, Omniscient.”

It seems that quite a few people take this whole chapter literally, one even claiming that the use of the feminine form of Arabic to refer to ants is a miracle of science in the Qur’an, since it been found only recently that worker ants are female and have no wings to get away from trampling armies, while males do have wings and could simply fly away.



Author: HumanistJ

I'm a humanist - someone who thinks you can live a good life without believing in anything supernatural. I'm active in Humanism in the UK, both through Humanists UK and as chair of South West London Humanists. This blog is purely my personal view.

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