By Rabi’a Elizabeth Brown
Many of us who grew up in the West heard the phrase “the Queen of Sheba” on TV, from our parents (especially if we wanted an expensive toy), or maybe even in a children’s version of the holy book used in our faith tradition. The impression we often came away with was of an entitled, privileged, physically beautiful woman who used her “feminine wiles” to win only the best the world had to offer.
When we read her story in the Quran, however, we come away with a very different, far more positive impression, and this blog post will cover some reasons why that is.
[Learn more about other incredible women mentioned in the Quran.]
Suleiman and the Queen of Sheba: a summary
The account of the meeting of Suleiman (as) (Solomon in the Torah and Bible) and Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba, can be read in the 27th surah, Surah an-Naml (The Ant), ayahs 15 through 44. The surah is named for an ant who makes a brief appearance in a speaking role: keep reading to find out more!
Suleiman, to whom Allah has given the ability to understand the sounds of animals and birds, learns of the reign of Bilqis from one of his widely-traveled messenger birds, a hoopoe. (The Eurasian hoopoe, whose range includes Quds and Arabia, is a beautiful, impressive bird.)
And Suleiman was Dawud’s heir. He said: “O ye people! We (Suleiman) have been taught the speech of birds, and on us has been bestowed (a little) of all things: this is indeed Grace manifest (from Allah.)” (Quran 27:16)
And Suleiman took a muster of the Birds; and he said: “Why is it I see not the Hoopoe? Or is he among the absentees?” (Quran 27:20)
It was not long before the bird came and said, “I have found out something you do not know. I have just come to you from Sheba with sure news. I found (there) a woman ruling over them and provided with every requisite; and she has a magnificent throne.” (Quran 27:22-23)
The hoopoe lets Suleiman know that while Bilqis’ kingdom is mighty, she and her people are sun-worshipping polytheists whom Allah has not (yet) guided to the Right Way.
I found her and her people prostrating to the sun instead of Allah. For Satan has made their deeds appealing to them—hindering them from the ˹Right˺ Way and leaving them unguided. (Quran 27:24)
Suleiman instructs the bird to take a royal message to Bilqis and to observe the response. The hoopoe does as instructed, and Bilqis privately reads the message. She then reads it aloud to her advisors:
“It is from Suleiman, and it reads: ‘In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful; Be you not arrogant against me, but come to me in submission (to the true Religion).’” (Quran 27:30-31)
Queen Bilqis seeks advice from her learned circle, but they recognize that she is more than capable of responding wisely to the message on her own. As a test of Suleiman’s intentions, she sends back an impressive gift of material wealth, and, like Suleiman did, waits to hear what the response will be. Suleiman, who is not interested in worldly riches, rejects the gift and decides on conquest, but not in the common sense.
He asks for a volunteer from the men and jinn of his court to bring Bilqis’ very throne to him. A powerful jinn steps up first, but then the most knowledgeable (human) scholar of Islam says that he can bring the throne to Suleiman “in the blink of an eye,” and it is the scholar that Suleiman chooses to bring the throne to him. (Quran 27:38-40)
Suleiman orders that the throne be disguised before Bilqis’ arrival, so that he and his court can assess her ability to take the correct message from the uncanny disappearance of her throne. On her arrival in Quds, Suleiman puts the question to her as to whether the disguised throne is indeed hers:
So when she arrived, it was said (to her), “Is your throne like this?” She replied, “It looks to be the same. We have (already) received knowledge (of Suleiman’s prophethood) before this (miracle), and have submitted ˹to Allah˺.” (Quran 27:42)
Even before her arrival in Quds and the transportation of the throne, it was Suleiman’s refusal of her lavish gift that had made her aware that he was a prophet and no ordinary king. At that point she had begun to submit to Allah.
However, the Quran reveals some remaining hesitancy on her part:
But she had been hindered by what she used to worship instead of Allah, for she was indeed from a disbelieving people. (Quran 27:43)
It takes one final uncanny experience for Bilqis to submit completely: Suleiman shows her a crystal-floored palace which she believes is a body of water.
Then she was told, “Enter the palace.” But when she saw the hall, she thought it was a body of water, so she bared her legs. Suleiman said. “It is just a palace paved with crystal.” ˹At last˺ she declared, “My Lord! I have certainly wronged my soul. Now I (fully) submit myself along with Suleiman to Allah, the Lord of all worlds.” (Quran 27:44)
At that point the Quranic account ends. Some traditions say that Bilqis and Suleiman became lovers. What we do know from the Quran is that a powerful polytheistic ruler happily submitted to Allah of her own free will, thanks in large part to Suleiman’s obeying Allah’s direction.
[Learn more about similarities and differences between the Quran and Bible.]
Bilqis and Suleiman, the rulers: wisdom from outside and light from within
The benefits of asking for counsel
Ask those who know well if you do not know. (Quran 16:43)
The account of Bilqis given by the hoopoe to Suleiman, and Suleiman’s thoughtful message to Bilqis, reflect her status as a wise and experienced ruler of a powerful kingdom. This is not someone who has no idea what she is doing.
Like many wise leaders, Bilqis’s first act after privately reading Suleiman’s message is to read it aloud to her advisers and then to ask for their counsel. This act serves two purposes: to draw her circle of advisers further into her confidence by showing that she trusts them AND to gain the benefit of their perspective.
Bilqis’ advisors, however, know that she is more than capable of handling the situation with Suleiman herself, and perhaps they might have been fearful, as polytheists, of the explicitly monotheistic salutation of Suleiman’s message. And so they put the matter squarely back in her hands.
After Bilqis sends him her “test” gift, Suleiman turns for assistance to his supernaturally gifted courtiers, jinn among them. It is no accident that the human scholar is the one whom Suleiman selects for the task. Imam ibn-Ghazzali, the great Persian reviver of the Dīn (Islamic way of life) of the fifth century after the Hijra, notes in his authoritative work The Revival of the Religious Sciences:
The Prophet (pbuh) said … “The nearest people to prophethood are the people of knowledge and the warriors of jihad”: the former have led men to what the prophets have proclaimed, and the latter have wielded their swords on its behalf.4
In the Quran, Allah reveals that consulting with trusted human companions is a praiseworthy practice:
Whatever ye are given (here) is (but) a convenience of this life: but that which is with Allah is better and more lasting: (it is) for those who believe and put their trust in their Lord:
Those who avoid the greater crimes and shameful deeds, and, when they are angry even then forgive;
Those who hearken to their Lord, and establish regular Prayer; who (conduct) their affairs by mutual Consultation; who spend out of what We bestow on them for Sustenance;
And those who, when an oppressive wrong is inflicted on them, (are not cowed but) help and defend themselves. (Quran 42:36-39)
“Consultation” here is a translation of the Arabic شُورَىٰ , or shura. The word for consultation appears in the phrase Majlis ash-Shura, which in the years immediately following the death of the Prophet (pbuh) denoted the advisory council to the caliph (the political and religious leader of the Muslim world).
Many hadith tell us that the Prophet (pbuh) frequently consulted with his Companions and recommended the practice. Just as one example, the trench dug at Medina, which was the fruit of such a consultation, proved to be critical in the victory over Quraysh at Medina.
In modern-day, practical terms:
Shura, in its simplest form, as an Islamic principle, calls upon Muslims to gather and, through articulate debate and sound reason, form productive opinions and strategies of implementation in matters of importance.
Observing carefully and heeding prompts from within
Bilqis notes to herself the way Suleiman addressed her: “in the name of Allah.” She uses what she observes in the present along with what she has learned from her past leadership experience to formulate a wise response to Suleiman.
Given her experience with kings, Bilqis herself privately doubts that Suleiman is as he appears to be from his message.
She said, “In fact when the kings enter a town, they put it to disorder and put its honorable citizens to disgrace, and this is how they normally do.” (Quran 27:34)
But her compunctions do not seem to come from the way Suleiman began his message to her, which she calls “impressive”. Her “test balloon” of a lavish gift sent to him is exactly that: she is not trying to trick him. It is a test of his sincerity and intentions.
It is as if she is already beginning to open to great change, long before her throne disappears to Quds! As we read about Bilqis, the fact that Allah has chosen to guide her back to Islam becomes less and less surprising.
Many revert to Islam during their lifetime. The word “revert” is often used in place of “convert” because in Islam we believe that Allah guides people back to the Straight Way, which is their birthright no matter which religion they were born into.
Those who revert will generally talk to one or more practicing Muslims before they take their shahada, or profession of faith. But there is only so much external advice or encouragement one can receive with an open heart. Some of the guidance toward Islam will come from private observations, perhaps something seen, heard, intuited, or guessed at. Allah guides people to Islam in many different ways. These private promptings were essential to the reversion story of the person writing this entry, and have continued to be so.
Imam al-Ghazzali had this to say about faith and interiority:
“Whoever supposes that faith is realized through speculative theology, abstract proofs, or academic divisions is an innovator. On the contrary, faith is a light that Allah, the Sublime and Exalted, casts into the hearts of His servants with bounty and grace from His presence. Sometimes faith is evidenced internally and is impossible to express; sometimes, through a vision while asleep; other times, by witnessing the state of a pious man and receiving the emanation of his light as a result of his companionship and presence; and then there are times when faith comes by the concurrence of circumstance.” Imam al-Ghazzali, On The Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam
Suleiman himself is a keen observer of the world around him, and what he sees and hears reminds him of Allah and bolsters his iman (faith). We as readers of the Quran encounter the ant after which the surah is named, and we see how Suleiman took the ant’s behavior as an example for his own. As the ant is puny and powerless in front of him, a human, so he, a human, is to Allah, even given his status as a beloved prophet.
And when they came across a valley of ants, an ant warned, “Oh ants! Go quickly into your homes so Suleiman and his armies do not crush you, unknowingly.”
So Suleiman smiled in amusement at her words, and prayed, “My Lord! Inspire me to (always) be thankful for Your favors which You have blessed me and my parents with, and to do good deeds that please you. Admit me, by Your mercy, into ˹the company of˺ Your righteous servants.” (Quran 27:18-19)
The Kingdom of Sheba: what we can know for certain
Saba’ and Sheba: one and the same?
Some sites mentioned in the Quran or in hadith exist to this day, so they are easy for people today to locate. Just to name a few, some examples are: the Ka’aba and the Masjid al-Haram, the Zamzam well, and Bayt al-Maqdis in Quds.
The location of the lands ruled by Queen Bilqis is not as certain. Many believe that “Sheba” refers to ‘Saba’, the pre-Islamic kingdom in what is now Yemen in the south of the Arabian peninsula. It is a worthy candidate for consideration: the Sabaean kingdom was a powerful maritime presence that built its material wealth on trade in frankincense and myrrh.
We cannot be absolutely sure that the place names Saba’ and Sheba refer to what we now know as Yemen. However, if one needs a physical place to keep in mind when reading the account of Bilqis and Suleiman in the Quran, Saba’ (now part of Yemen) has something else to recommend it: it is not terribly far from Quds, the seat of Suleiman’s kingdom. Even a worldly king, not a prophet like Suleiman, would be interested in the goings-on in nearby wealthy kingdoms. However, Suleiman’s interest is inspired by Allah: through Suleiman, Allah will lead Bilqis to Islam.
Certainty on “facts” versus certainty in faith
Some scholars discourage students from being overly preoccupied with physical details of places and events in the Quran. These scholars maintain (wisely) that if a great level of specificity of description were included in the Revelation itself, it would distract readers and listeners from the critical message of the Quran, which is how to submit to Allah and practice the deen.
What’s more, should a student go looking for descriptions outside the Quran, modern Western scholarship tends to provide “explanatory detail” that casts doubt on the originality and truth of the Revelation. A bit of research into “where was the kingdom of Sheba” will lead the reader quickly to these accounts, and this blog post will not link to them.
With those cautions given, it can be helpful to those new to Islam, or those who are not Muslim at all, to try to visualize where certain events might have taken place. And so this series of posts will allude to possibilities where locations, usually of places in the ancient world, are unknown today.
But it is best not to dwell too much on the atomized, individual facts that Western society insists on for “certainty.” Certainty in iman (faith) is above all what Muslims strive for:
“Certainty is power, firmness and stability of faith so great that it becomes as a towering mountain which no doubts can shake and no illusions rock. Rather, doubts and illusions disappear completely, and when they come from outside are neither listened to by the ear nor heeded by the heart.” —Imam al-Ḥaddād
South Yemen today: a fortress of Islam
As we know, Bilqis submitted to Allah during the time of Suleiman, before Allah perfected Islam for the Prophet (pbuh) and his followers. It took several more centuries before Islam as we know it today came definitively to Yemen.
In the fourth year of Hijra (625 CE), the Persian governor of much of what is now Yemen accepted Islam. The people of the influential southern city of Tarim, in the Hadhramaut region of Yemen, accepted Islam on their own behalf in the tenth year of Hijra (631) CE. Abu Bakr himself made du’a to Allah that Tarim’s scholars and water would be increased; and in fact the region began to become a center of Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence.
Today, the city of Tarim is home to several hundred mosques, one of which dates back to the first century AH. And it is the site of the internationally revered Rubat Tarim school for Islamic and Arabic sciences, founded in 1886, with over 13,000 graduates in 2007. Many of the school’s graduates are foreign-born and return to their home countries to found influential Islamic masjids and madrasahs of their own. Al-Maqasid, in Macungie, Pennsylvania, is one such vital community, a personal favorite of this writer’s for learning and guidance.
To learn more…
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What do you think? Share your reflections below!
- For a detailed look at what Islam teaches regarding women as rulers, see the section entitled “Balkis, Queen of Sheba: A democratic queen” in Women in the Qu’ran, an Emancipatory Reading, Asma Lamrabet (tr. Mariam Francois-Cerrah), Square View, 2016.
- Allah had not yet perfected Islam through His revelation to the Prophet (pbuh), but Suleiman, his father Dawud, and the prophets before them all the way back to Ibrahim were monotheistic worshippers of Allah.
- Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (Islamic Texts Society, 1991), “The Trench.”
- Imam ibn-Ghazzali, The Revival of the Religious Sciences, tr. Nabih Amin Faris, Islamic Book Service, New Delhi (1962), p. 5.
- Mehru Nisa, What is the role of Shura in an Islamic polity?, islamiqate.com, July 2020.
- Sh. Mohammad Elshinawy, The Unique Storytelling Style of the Qur’an, Yaqeen Institute, August 15, 2022.
- Burrowes, Robert D., Historical Dictionary of Yemen, Rowman & Littlefield (2010), p. 305.
- Michael M.J. Fischer and Medhi Abedi, Debating Muslims: Cultural Dialogues in Postmodernity and Tradition, University of Wisconsin Press (1990), pp.
- Hasan saeed Ba Udhan, Tarim in a Glance, The Yemen Times, April 14, 2009.
- Tarim, A Historic Landmark of Hadramout. Khuyut. August 3, 2022.
- Mohammad Ahmed Bin Shihab, Rubat Tarim: The spring of knowledge, The Yemen Times, April 16, 2009.