“The Spotlight” brings to light the stories of Muslim women of the past and present. In this instalment, we find inspiration in the Qur’anic story of Queen Bilqis of Sheba.
Queen Bilqis of Sheba may be the most famous woman in literary history. Her story lies at the intersection of three great world traditions; Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Although her origin continues to be an unsolved mystery, the most authentic sources reveal that Queen Bilqis was an Ethiopian queen whose kingdom was so large, it covered the western coast of Arabia and across the Red Sea in Ethiopia and modern Eritrea. The people of Sheba were wealthy and sophisticated. They were primarily peaceful traders specializing in spices, frankincense, myrrh, ivory and gold and they transported these products and others in long camel caravans. Queen Bilqis was said to have ascended the throne upon her father’s death. Her story, describing her encounter with Prophet Solomon and her subsequent embrace of his faith, permeated through centuries.
The Qur’an’s description of Queen Bilqis is undeniable proof that a woman can be a ‘head of state’ and that her femininity would rather serve her well by bringing her closer to her people and their daily realities. In Queen Bilqis’ example, her logical reasoning prevailed in managing the affairs of the state.
The Qur’anic Account of Queen Bilqis of Sheba
Prophet Solomon had several messengers amongst the Jinns and animals. He had the power to control them and speak their languages. Amongst his messengers was a bird called the Hoopoe (Hud-Hud in Arabic). This bird would travel far and wide to run errands and bring messages to his master. On one of such errands, the Hoopoe travelled to a distant land and brought back tidings about a land called Sheba, who had “a woman ruling over them and had been given the abundance and a mighty throne.” (27:23). However, Queen Bilqis and her people worshipped the sun. She lived in a palace of 360 windows that allowed beams of sunlight every morning before she prostrated in front of them.
Upon receiving the news of Queen Bilqis and her Kingdom, Prophet Solomon ordered the Hoopoe to travel back to Sheba with a letter containing the message of monotheism. The Quran describes this female figure, not only as a mighty monarch but a wise enlightened one.
At this point, Queen Bilqis, being the diplomatic leader that she was, resorted to council with the elders and the courtiers. She revealed the content of the letter and asked for advice: “She said: O chiefs! give me advice respecting my affair: I never decide an affair until you are in my presence.” (27:31). Her council members recommended the option of war, but Queen Bilqis was wise enough to turn this down. She was not a power-drunk leader who would resort to asserting power over other kingdoms. She chose the diplomatic route, disagreed with the violent approach and decided to send an abundant gift, as a more peaceful solution, and an attempt to avoid an aimless war which ultimately: “renders the honoured of its people humbled.” (27:34) Her peaceful decision further reveals a sign of mercy and compassion which are ingredients needed for true leadership. While these characteristics are usually ascribed to femininity and depicted as indicators of weakness, they are symbolized in the Quran as a sign of wisdom, insight, and excellence.
Queen Bilqis knew that if Prophet Solomon accepted the gift, then his message was that of material ambition rather than admonishment and uprightness. However, if he refused the gift, then Prophet Solomon’s exhortation was genuine. When the gifts arrived at Prophet Solomon’s kingdom, He was furious: “Do you provide me with wealth? But what Allah has given me is better than what He has given you. Rather, it is you who rejoice in your gift” (27:36). This response indicated that he had no ulterior motive and that his sole intention was to call Queen Bilqis to submit to the One God.
Prophet Solomon returned the gift and decided to invite Queen Bilqis to his kingdom. When she approached his kingdom and was about to make her way into his palace, Prophet Solomon ordered his fastest Jinn messenger to fetch the queen’s throne from her kingdom within the bat of an eye and place it beside his. He did this by the will of God to show her that the God that he worshipped was Omni-potent and able to do all things “whether she follows the right way or chooses to be of those who do not go aright.” (27:41).
Upon the marvellous scene of her own throne at Prophet Solomon’s kingdom, Queen Bilqis was bewildered, not only by the replicate of her castle but also by Prophet Solomon’s modesty and humility. As she entered the castle, she was astounded at the sight of the most beautiful architecture she had ever seen. She thought it was a pool of water, then she raised her garment and uncovered her shins to wade through. But Prophet Solomon assured her, Indeed, it is a palace [whose floor is] made smooth with glass.”. (27:44)
Queen Bilqis was also surprised at Prophet Solomon’s humility. Unlike other male rulers, he exuded a particularly warm attitude filled with compassion. The story ended with her submission to “God, the Lord of Solomon and the Lord of the worlds.” She realized how unjust she was to herself by worshipping the sun, which was merely a creation of God, and that Solomon was not a mighty king who wished to increase his dominion in the name of monotheism, but a genuine Prophet of God who strove to guide people and show them the right path.
She said: ‘My Lord, indeed I have wronged myself, and I submit with Solomon to Allah, Lord of the worlds.” (27:44)
Against the patriarchal reconstructions by medieval Muslim biographers, the heart of the Qur’anic account of the sovereignty of Queen Bilqis of Sheba and her encounter with Prophet Solomon was the centrality of faith. God’s concern was not about her marital status, neither was it about engineering a marital relationship between the two. Queen Bilqis’ gender was immaterial to God for her leadership and sovereignty. But history writers had reconstructed the narrative and pushed gender politics to the fore. The Queen’s brilliant diplomacy and peace-making initiative to avert a war that would have taken place meant nothing to the patriarchal manipulators of history. Rather, the control and restriction of her agency and sexuality through marriage took the center stage in their exegesis.
Nowhere in the Qur’an was it narrated that Queen Bilqis gave up her throne upon submitting to God, neither was it said that she submitted to Prophet Solomon in marriage. Her story teaches us about women and political authority, leadership and charisma, wisdom and genuine empathy. She is an example of the kind of leadership the world needs today; one that values peace over war and destruction; negotiation over domination. She is an inspiration for the entire world.
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Wardah Abbas is the Founding Editor of The Muslim Women Times. She is a Lawyer, Writer and Social Justice activist.