An Excerpt from Solomon and the Ant: The Qur’an in Conversation with the Bible
From the Introduction
In what follows, I analyze nine stories from the Qur’an. Although some of these Qur’anic tales involve biblical characters (Moses, Solomon, and the queen of Sheba), those I have chosen scarcely overlap with the Jewish or Christian Scriptures. However, in many ways these stories bring to mind biblical texts, ones that address similar themes and concerns to those found in the Qur’an. Bringing the Qur’an and Bible together in this way enriches understanding of both. . . My training is in the Hebrew Bible. I here examine what for me is an alien text, a strange text, and a whole interpretive tradition that had been unfamiliar to me. Why have I strayed so far from my chosen field? At least in part, it was because of the Muslim claim that the sublimity and uniqueness of the Qur’an will be obvious in any serious examination. This drew me. I am curious about the attraction to this book and about its veneration by over a billion people
From Chapter 6 “King Solomon and the Ant”
The ant is a universal suffering figure, like Job. This ant expects that Solomon and his armies will not even notice the devastation they inflict upon the ant village. She warns her kin: Ants! Enter your dwellings, or Solomon and his forces will crush you without realizing (it). (Q 27:18; my trans.) However, Solomon does notice. He finds it amusing. What is the nature of that amusement? Mocking and condescending? Warm and affectionate? Does Solomon feel sadistic glee? Does he smash the ant city to be entertained? Or does he feel protective toward the ants? . . . The inhabitants of the ant city receive his disdain. Ancient readers . . . quickly recognized the ant as the protagonist animal, . . . [and] identified with the ants’ plight. It was their plight as well—standing small and vulnerable in the face of large, destructive, exploitive powers they did not understand and could not control.
The ant is a prophet who warns her people of impending destruction. However, note this important distinction. The prophets warn that God will take an active role in destroying the wicked. In the case of this ant, she warns of an impersonal force (as far as she is concerned) barreling down to destroy all her compatriots. . . Solomon laughs at the plight of the ants. He finds their life-and-death predicament (in their own homes, invaded by an alien force) amusing. The ant and her community suffer not because they have rejected God’s “clear signs,” . . . but only because they are small and in the way. Solomon, divinely equipped to understand their plight, finds it laughable and an occasion to thank God for his own fortunate position when compared to theirs.
The ants, confronted with Solomon’s indifferent army, face the terrifying universe. This crisis portrays the naked vulnerability of most peoples to the forces that remain outside their control. . .The ant narrative portrays existence on the edge. The ants find themselves mocked by God who does not care. . . we also see that God crushes humanity without awareness; or worse, that God, like Solomon, mocks the suffering of sentient beings. . .These verses constitute a sophisticated theodicy, able to maintain ambiguity and thus avoid the ever-present temptation to absolutism. . . the ant stands for those who suffer. Like Job’s protestations, the ant’s cry of danger and despair takes on a universal hue and becomes the strong, unanswered cry of the downtrodden.