Part 3: Proper Exegesis of the Ant Story
What is the correct interpretation of the story in Surah 27:18-19? Before turning to the text of the Qur’an I want to present a couple of other stories of talking ants found in ancient literature. Observing similarities and differences between these stories and the story of the ant in the Qur’an will be relevant for a proper interpretation.
More than a thousand years before Muhammad, we read about
The Ant and the Grasshopper
In a field one summer’s day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart’s content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest. 1
“Why not come and chat with me,” said the Grasshopper, “instead of toiling and moiling in that way?” 2
“I am helping to lay up food for the winter,” said the Ant, “and recommend you to do the same.” 3
“Why bother about winter?” said the Grasshopper; “we have got plenty of food at present.” But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil. When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food, and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew:
“IT IS BEST TO PREPARE FOR THE DAYS OF NECESSITY.” 4
(Æsop (Sixth century B.C.), Fables, The Harvard Classics, 1909–14; Online Source)
The next example is an old Chinese text:
In the province of Taishu, in China, there was a pious man who, every day, during many years, fervently worshiped a certain goddess. One morning, while he was engaged in his devotions, a beautiful woman, wearing a yellow robe, came into his chamber and stood before him. He, greatly surprised, asked her what she wanted, and why she had entered unannounced. She answered: “I am not a woman: I am the goddess whom you have so long and so faithfully worshiped; and I have now come to prove to you that your devotion has not been in vain… Are you acquainted with the language of Ants?” The worshiper replied: “I am only a low-born and ignorant person,–not a scholar; and even of the language of superior men I know nothing.” At these words the goddess smiled, and drew from her bosom a little box, shaped like an incense box. She opened the box, dipped a finger into it, and took therefrom some kind of ointment with which she anointed the ears of the man. “Now,” she said to him, “try to find some Ants, and when you find any, stoop down, and listen carefully to their talk. You will be able to understand it; and you will hear of something to your advantage… Only remember that you must not frighten or vex the Ants.” Then the goddess vanished away.
The man immediately went out to look for some Ants. He had scarcely crossed the threshold of his door when he perceived two Ants upon a stone supporting one of the house-pillars. He stooped over them, and listened; and he was astonished to find that he could hear them talking, and could understand what they said. “Let us try to find a warmer place,” proposed one of the Ants. “Why a warmer place?” asked the other;–“what is the matter with this place?” “It is too damp and cold below,” said the first Ant; “there is a big treasure buried here; and the sunshine cannot warm the ground about it.” Then the two Ants went away together, and the listener ran for a spade.
By digging in the neighborhood of the pillar, he soon found a number of large jars full of gold coin. The discovery of this treasure made him a very rich man.
Afterwards he often tried to listen to the conversation of Ants. But he was never again able to hear them speak. The ointment of the goddess had opened his ears to their mysterious language for only a single day.
(Source: Lafcadio Hearn, KWAIDAN: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Boston; Houghton, Mifflin and Co. , Chapter 21: Ants. This book is included in an online collection of/about Sacred Shinto Texts.)
As last example, here is a Jewish legend:
On one occasion he strayed into the valley of the ants in the course of his wanderings. He heard one ant order all the others to withdraw, to avoid being crushed by the armies of Solomon. The king halted and summoned the ant that had spoken. She told him that she was the queen of the ants, and she gave her reasons for the order of withdrawal. Solomon wanted to put a question to the ant queen, but she refused to answer unless the king took her up and placed her on his hand. He acquiesced, and then he put his question: “Is there any one greater than I am in all the world?” “Yes,” said the ant.
Ant: “I am.”
Solomon: “How is that possible?”
Ant: “Were I not greater than thou, God would not have led thee hither to put me on thy hand.”
Exasperated, Solomon threw her to the ground, and said: “Thou knowest who I am? I am Solomon, the son of David.”
Not at all intimidated, the ant reminded the king of his earthly origin, and admonished him to humility, and the king went off abashed.
We will come back to these stories. Let us turn to the Qur’an now.
To gain a correct understanding of the verses about the talking ant in the Qur’an, we need to read them in the context of the complete story of Solomon that is found in Surah 27:15-44.
The Story of Solomon, Surah 27
15. And We verily gave knowledge unto David and Solomon, and they said (qala): Praise be to Allah, Who hath preferred us above many of His believing slaves!
16. And Solomon was David’s heir. And he said (qala): O mankind! Lo! we have been taught the language of birds, and have been given (abundance) of all things. This surely is evident favour.
17. And there were gathered together unto Solomon his armies of the jinn and humankind, and of the birds, and they were set in battle order;
18. Till, when they reached the Valley of the Ants, an ant said (qalat [feminine form]): O ants! Enter your dwellings lest Solomon and his armies crush you, unperceiving.
19. And (Solomon) smiled, laughing at her speech, and said (qala): My Lord, arouse me to be thankful for Thy favour wherewith Thou hast favoured me and my parents, and to do good that shall be pleasing unto Thee, and include me in (the number of) Thy righteous slaves.
20. And he sought among the birds and said (qala): How is it that I see not the hoopoe, or is he among the absent?
21. I verily will punish him with hard punishment or I verily will slay him, or he verily shall bring me a plain excuse.
22. But he was not long in coming, and he said (qala): I have found out (a thing) that thou apprehendest not, and I come unto thee from Sheba with sure tidings.
23. Lo! I found a woman ruling over them, and she hath been given (abundance) of all things, and hers is a mighty throne.
24. I found her and her people worshipping the sun instead of Allah; and Satan maketh their works fairseeming unto them, and debarreth them from the way (of Truth), so that they go not aright;
25. So that they worship not Allah, Who bringeth forth the hidden in the heavens and the earth, and knoweth what ye hide and what ye proclaim,
26. Allah; there is no God save Him, the Lord of the Tremendous Throne.
27. (Solomon) said (qala): We shall see whether thou speakest truth or whether thou art of the liars.
28. Go with this my letter and throw it down unto them; then turn away and see what (answer) they return,
29. (The Queen of Sheba) said (qalat) (when she received the letter): O chieftains! Lo! there hath been thrown unto me a noble letter.
30. Lo! it is from Solomon, and lo! it is: In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful;
31. Exalt not yourselves against me, but come unto me as those who surrender.
32. She said (qalat): O chieftains! Pronounce for me in my case. I decide no case till ye are present with me.
33. They said (qaloo): We are lords of might and lords of great prowess, but it is for thee to command; so consider what thou wilt command.
34. She said (qalat): Lo! kings, when they enter a township, ruin it and make the honour of its people shame. Thus will they do.
35. But lo! I am going to send a present unto them, and to see with what (answer) the messengers return.
36. So when (the envoy) came unto Solomon, (the King) said (qala): What! Would ye help me with wealth? But that which Allah hath given me is better than that which He hath given you. Nay it is ye (and not I) who exult in your gift.
37. Return unto them. We verily shall come unto them with hosts that they cannot resist, and we shall drive them out from thence with shame, and they will be abased.
38. He said (qala): O chiefs! Which of you will bring me her throne before they come unto me, surrendering?
39. A stalwart of the jinn said (qala): I will bring it thee before thou canst rise from thy place. Lo! I verily am strong and trusty for such work.
40. One with whom was knowledge of the Scripture said (qala): I will bring it thee before thy gaze returneth unto thee. And when he saw it set in his presence, (Solomon) said (qala): This is of the bounty of my Lord, that He may try me whether I give thanks or am ungrateful. Whosoever giveth thanks he only giveth thanks for (the good of) his own soul; and whosoever is ungrateful (is ungrateful only to his own soul’s hurt). For lo! my Lord is Absolute in independence, Bountiful.
41. He said (qala): Disguise her throne for her that we may see whether she will go aright or be of those not rightly guided.
42. So, when she came, it was said (unto her) (qeela): Is thy throne like this? She said (qalat): (It is) as though it were the very one. And (Solomon said): We were given the knowledge before her and we had surrendered (to Allah).
43. And (all) that she was wont to worship instead of Allah hindered her, for she came of disbelieving folk.
44. It was said (qeela): unto her: Enter the hall. And when she saw it she deemed it a pool and bared her legs. (Solomon) said (qala): Lo! it is a hall, made smooth, of glass. She said (qalat): My Lord! Lo! I have wronged myself, and I surrender with Solomon unto Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.
Though much less important than the issue of complexity of ant communication, the mode of communication was discussed as first topic in the section on scientific issues, and is also the first topic I want to comment on in this section. What can we say about the communication mode of the ant in Surah 27:18 based on its context in the Qur’an?
What are the words used to express speech or communication throughout Surah 27:15-44?
We observe that it is always the same word (qala, qalat, qeela) that is used in all these communication events: David and Solomon praise God (v. 15), or Solomon speaks to many people (16), one ant speaks to other ants, Solomon prays/speaks to God (19), Solomon speaks to his birds [or to himself?] (20), the hoopoe bird speaks to Solomon (22-26), Solomon speaks to the bird (27-28), the Queen of Sheba speaks to the chiefs of her people (29, 32, 34), they answer her (33), Solomon speaking to the jinn (38), the jinn speaking to Solomon (39), the Queen talking to Solomon and Solomon to her (42-44), the Queen speaking to God (44).
In English, there are many different verbs for communication: speak, talk, tell, say, state, report, chat, babble, exclaim, scream, bellow, whisper, lisp, croak, mutter, murmur, mumble, interject, ask, answer, reply, communicate, convey, express, announce, inform, explain, suggest, propose, etc. …
The Arabic language does not lack words to describe even fine differences of communication either! All verbs given in the following are in the past tense, parallel to the form qala that is mostly used in the above text: qala, takallama, taha’ddatha, rawa, kassa, a’lama, akhbara, hamasa, tharthara, abbara an, ballagha, ablagha, nakala, hatha, hatafa, sarakha, saha, zaaka, a’lana, fassara, sharaha.
Even more, English is not the only language that has plenty of words for animal ‘communication’ (e.g., moo, purr, bark, growl, neigh, bray, chirr, squeak, chirp, hum, etc.), but Arabic provides for that too: khaara, kharkhara, nabaha, harra, sahala, nahaka, sarra, saksaka, hamhama, dandana, etc.
If the author of the Qur’an would have wanted the reader or listener to understand that the ant (v. 18) and the bird (v. 22) and the jinn (v. 39) communicated in a fundamentally different way (mode), not comparable to human speech which was certainly used when Solomon and the Queen and the officials of their governments were speaking to each other, then he could easily have used different words to indicate the different kinds of communication.
The claim that the same word “qala” (said) within the same story is supposed to mean something entirely different when used for the ant and the bird, e.g. chemical communication instead of spoken language in case of the ant, is an assumption imposed upon the Qur’an, but cannot be deduced from the text itself. The text does not give any indication that this should be understood differently.
[ Side remark: What are the implications of the above observation for the claimed miraculous and unsurpassed eloquence of the Qur’an? Anyone submitting an article to a newspaper, or a book to a publisher that contains a passage reading like: “He said, … she said, … he said, … they said, … he said, … she said, …” would not have much of a chance to get this published without changes. Repetitiveness is very boring, considered bad style, and anything but eloquent. Any competent author tries to vary the words, for example, like: “He said (qala), … she interrupted (kaata’at), … he answered (ajaaba ), … they replied (raddoo), … then he told (akhbara), …” That makes a much more pleasant reading. ]
In The Holy Qur’an: Arabic Text, English Translation and Commentary, Maulana Muhammad Ali offers the following dictionary definition, found in footnote 1844 to verse 27:16 regarding the statement “we have been taught the speech of birds” (`ullimnâ mantiqa-tayrî):
The root word nutq, from which the word mantiq is derived, signifies originally articulate speech or jointed voices uttered by the tongue and kept by the ear (R). …
(R) = Al-Mufradat fi Gharib al-Qur’an (Dictionary of the Qur’an), by Shaikh Abu-l-Qasim Al-Husain al-Raghib al Isfahani.
If anything, this seems to indicate that the mode of communication envisioned by the author of the Qur’an was indeed acoustic.
Since mantiq occurs in the Qur’an only once, we cannot determine a more precise meaning by comparing the use of the word in various passages in the same work.
In Islamic philosophy the word mantiq is used to denote “logic” which may be taken as a further indication that it is not just about making sounds, but about communicating intelligibly. This directly leads us to the next point.
As discussed at length in Part 2, it is not the mode but the complexity of the claimed communication that is the essential issue. What information does the context in Surah 27 provide?
In verse 27:16, we read that Solomon was taught the language of birds. Zaman wants to this verse to be understood this way:
In verse 27:16 which is 2 verses before the topic of this discussion, Solomon states: “`ullimnâ mantiqa-tayrî..” meaning, “we have been taught the mode of communication for those things which fly (birds, etc)”. The word “tayr” literally means to fly as the words for “bird” and “airplane” also derive from the same root of “tayr” in the Arabic language. This is the opinion of ash-Shu`bî as related in al-QurTubî’s tafsîr, vol. 13 who states: “These ‘Namlah’ had two wings, thus they were categorized as tayr.” I use the word “naml” instead of “ant” and “things that fly” instead of “bird”, since the English translations have failed to capture these linguistic nuances which must be explained.
Since the very first instance given of Solomon’s understanding an animal refers to the speech of the ant (not a bird), this seems to be a reasonable explanation, and I will accept the extension of “birds” to “things that fly” for the time being.
Given that the whole text says nothing about the “mode of communication” (how the ant and bird communicate), but reports the content of their communcation in the conversation of ants, and of Solomon and the hoopoe bird, the rendering of “language” seems to fit the context better than Zaman’s suggestion “mode of communication”.
We have already analyzed how amazingly complex even the one sentence is that was spoken by the ant. Though I will not discuss it in detail here, I just want to state in summary that the conversation between Solomon and the hoopoe bird in 27:22-26 is even more astonishing in regard to the complexity of language construction used as well as the theological concepts that the bird is able to understand and express.
Carefully reread the verses 27:17,20-21. We learn that Solomon was not conversing occasionally with a special (miraculous?) pet bird, but that he had a multitude of birds in his armies (17: armies of the jinn and humankind, and of the birds) which were “set in battle order” just like the humans and jinn.
Make no mistake: These birds were not intended for food. Nobody would speak of “an army of humans, cows and chicken”, just because the army kitchen unit had some living animals with them as supply for fresh meat, and meat certainly keeps fresh best while alive. These birds were understood to be operational units, playing an essential and active role in Solomon’s army, whether in fighting or in intelligence or both.
Furthermore, vs. 20-21 indicate that Solomon was apparently regularly summoning his commanders, or his council, and there were several birds in this group. One day, when surveying them, he realizes that one of the birds is missing from its place, and threatens to punish it if it doesn’t have a good excuse to be absent. All this is not told as if there is a special miracle happening at this instance, but Solomon’s conversation with animals is a daily routine. It is part of how he manages his government. Additionally, this one bird is distinguished from the other birds not by its personal name, but by the name of the species it belongs to; it is the hoopoe, not an eagle or a parrot. This indicates there were many species of birds involved (perhaps, this one hoopoe was the commander/representative of the hoopoe birds division in Solomon’s army, or the head of Solomon’s secret service, given that it then brings news from foreign kingdoms).
What is the implication of having active units of birds in Solomon’s army?
At home, Solomon may be able to manage all the animals in his army personally, when they are arrayed before him. But an army is not created for sitting at home. The purpose of an army is that it functions in battle. In battle, however, Solomon can’t be everywhere, and every fighting unit needs to have a working command structure, officers making strategic and tactical decisions under constantly changing circumstances, giving instructions to the ranks below them, and the soldiers understanding these orders and obeying them intelligently. This can only work if (a) each individual bird soldier is able to think on a level that is needed for military operations, (b) all the various species of birds employed in the army are able to understand each other, and (c) they can communicate with the rest of the army in effective ways. In battle, not all communication can go through Solomon as the sole interpreter between men and birds and possibly even between the different species of birds as well.
Talking about an army of “men, jinn and birds” presupposes that birds in general have basically the same level of intelligence as humans. This means that the ant speaking in verse 27:18 and the hoopoe bird speaking in verses 22-26 are not two miraculous individuals, but all animals think and speak on this level. The only problem being, that we are (usually) not able to understand their language. This is also confirmed by the fact, that the ant in v. 18 is not speaking to Solomon, but to the other ants. This makes sense only if these other ants understand what the first one is saying, i.e., they need to have the same level of complexity of thinking as the first ant.
This presupposition that ants, birds (or animals in general) have a level of intelligence and language(s) with a complexity and power of expression comparable to that of human beings is scientific nonsense.
These reported conversations of animals among themselves, and between Solomon and the animals, put these stories squarely into the realm of fables and legends.
The account of Solomon in the Qur’an is told in the same manner as the fable of “The ant and the grashopper” by Æsop, as the above quoted Chinese legend, and as the Jewish legend of Solomon and the ant. All these legends have in common the presupposition that ants (animals) have intelligence comparable to humans and a language complexity sufficient to communicate their thinking. The handicap is only on the human side: Usually, we cannot understand them since we have not learned their language as Solomon did for daily use, or as it was miraculously bestowed for one time only on the worshipper of the Chinese goddess.
There is one more detail that the Qur’an shares with these fables and legends. I have already argued that the various species of birds and the human soldiers in Solomon’s army need to be able to understand each other if we want to have an army that actually functions. That this is a valid concern seems to never have entered the mind of the Qur’anic author, since he was working with a specific presupposition. Verse 27:16 states that Solomon was “taught the language (mantiq) of birds (or: things that fly)”. The Arabic word is in the singular: language, not languages. Fables have the common feature that all animals understand each other without interpreters. The author of the Qur’an has apparently the same basic assumption. Solomon needed to learn only one language, and then he could understand all the birds, and even the insects. Obviously, this claim will become ever more fabulous the more species are included in expression “things that fly”.
Such fables were not only created in ancient times. A modern example is Walt Disney’s famous movie The Jungle Book. It is a good story with lessons about loyalty and friendship, the value of helping one another, and it is without doubt great entertainment, but nobody claims that this is reality.
The difference between these stories and the Qur’an is that these other stories were understood to be fables and legends, not reality, while the Qur’an reports fables and legends as if they were historical reality.
These fables and legends were invented to teach wisdom (see the punch line in the fable “The Ant and the Grashopper”), or a lesson in morality or spirituality, but they were (usually) not understood to teach about historical or scientific reality. The Jews have plenty of such legends (cf. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews), but they are NOT part of their canon of inspired scripture.
[ Note: The Bible contains some fables, allegories and parables (e.g., Judges 9:8-15, 2 Kings 14:9, 2 Samuel 12:1-4, Matthew 13) that are used as a teaching aid, as illustrations for the purpose of driving home a certain point, but the context makes it clear that these stories are imaginative and not to be understood as historical reality. ]
Apparently, Muhammad heard many of these legends and believed them to be true historically. I have no problem to imagine that Muhammad believed these and similar stories to be true. There was a lot of superstition in Muhammad’s thinking and faith (just one example is his attitude to dogs and snakes). But it is a serious problem to assume that God would not be able to distinguish fables and legends from reality. Surah 27:15-44 and various other legends which became included into the Qur’an (e.g., in Surah 18 we find the legend of the sleepers in the cave and the elaborate legends of the exploits of Dhul-Qarnain), are one weighty reason among many to reject the Qur’an as being from God, and should lead any thinking person to seriously question the authenticity of the Qur’an and its claim to be revelation from God.
The question is not whether this story of the ant or the hoopoe bird has a deep spiritual message for us. All good fables and legends have valuable messages, or they would not have been narrated for centuries. The crucial issue is whether this story and other stories in the Qur’an are presented as historical events, or whether they are just metaphorical and belong to the genre of fable, parable, or allegory.
There are some modern translators and commentators of the Qur’an who realize the problem and want to understand these stories either as allegories (e.g. Muhammad Asad, see the article The Qur’an and Myths for quotations) or they completely reinterpret them in order to remove all mythological elements (e.g. the Ahmadiyya scholar Maulana Muhammad Ali). Ahmadiyya Muslims do not believe in miracles, and try to delete everything miraculous from the Qur’an. In the following, as one example, just a couple of verses from Surah 27 together with excerpts from Ali’s copious footnotes:
16 And Solomon was David’s heir, and he said: O men, we have been taught the speech of birds, and we have been granted of all things. Surely this is manifest grace.
17 And his hosts of the jinn and the men and the birds were gathered to Solomon, and they were formed into groups.
18 Until when they came to the valley of Naml, a Namlite said: O Naml, enter your houses, (lest) Solomon and his hosts crush you, while they know not. …
20 And he reviewed the birds, then said: How is it I see not Hudhud, or is it that he is one of the absentees?
21 I will certainly punish him with a severe punishment, or kill him, or he shall bring me a clear excuse.
1844 … Solomon’s understanding of the speech of birds may imply the use he made of birds in conveying messages from one place to another, these messages being metaphorically called the speech of birds. … Note also that Solomon does not speak of himself alone; his people are included when he is made to say: We have been taught. This shows that his people also knew that speech.
1846 The hosts of Solomon are here divided into three classes, the jinn, the men, and the tair. As regards the jinn, it has been shown in 1647 that these were men belonging to certain mountain tribes whom Solomon had subjugated. Tair may mean either birds or horse, i.e., cavalry. The gathering together of all three classes and their division into groups shows that all three were human beings. … tair (the word used here) is a plural, may also be applied to swift animals such as horses. … Thus the context taken in the light of these explanations would justify the conclusion that tair here means horse, i.e., cavalry, because it could be moved quickly. …
1847 Many of the fables regarding Solomon have been due to a misconception of the word naml. It should be noted that wadi-l-Naml cannot be properly translated as the valley of the ants, for Naml is a proper noun … the valley of the Naml is situated between Jibrin and ‘Asqalan. And Namlah is the name of a tribe, like Mazin, which literally signifies the eggs of the ants. Namil means a clever man … the Namlah are plainly spoken of as a tribe in the Qamus, which says under the word barq, Abriqah is of the waters of Namlah.
1849 The opening words may mean either a review of birds or a review of horses; see 1848. By Hudhud is not to be understood the lapwing, but a person of that name. In every language many of the proper names given to men will be found to be identical with the names of animals. The Arab writers speak of a king of Himyat as Hudad (LA), which is almost identical with Hudhud mentioned in the Qur’an. The Bible speaks of a king of Syria, named Ben Hadad (I Kings 15:18, etc.) … This shows that there is nothing strange in such a name being given to men. The verses that follow show clearly that Solomon was speaking of one of his own officers: the infliction of severe punishment on a small bird by such a mighty monarch, as Solomon, and the exposition of the great religious doctrine of Unity by the lawping, are quite inconceivable.
(Source: Maulana Muhammad Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Arabic Text, English Translation and Commentary, Ahmadiyyah Anjuman Ishaa’at Islam, Lahore, Inc. U.S.A, 1995, pp. 730-32; bold emphasis mine)
Contrary to Zaman, Muhammad Ali has realized how truly embarrassing these stories are, and how damaging to the credibility of the Qur’an. Thus, he works very hard to ‘de-mythologize’ them, detail for detail. However, he seemingly overlooked in this transformation of naml into a human being of the tribe of Namlites, that it would be rather strange for Solomon and his soldiers to crush a whole group of men without even noticing, … unless Muhammad Ali imagines the members of this particular tribe to be of very very small stature, maybe about the size of an ant! Furthermore, Muhammad Ali is not able to give one consistent interpretation of words throughout the story, but is jumping from one idea for a possible alternative meaning to the next, one more fantastic than the other. In verse 16, fn. 1844, the birds are still real birds, but their language is metaphorical, since they are only transporting messages written by humans and sent to other humans. This obviously and elegantly avoids the scientific problem that the birds appear to have a language like humans (although it is somewhat mystifying why knowing this metaphorical kind of “bird language” is considered a special favor from Allah). But in verse 17, fn. 1846, the same word suddenly means two other and different things, (a) human beings (since the divisions of the armies can only be human beings) and (b) horses (animals that are so fast that one could say they are flying). There are many reasons why the Ahmadiyya interpretation is not able to withstand careful scrutiny, but this article is not a rebuttal to the anti-supernaturalism of the Ahmadiyya variety. Therefore, I will refrain from commenting further on these particular speculations.
What is my point? Why do I refer to interpretations of the story of Solomon as given by two Muslim scholars when I disagree with both of them?
Muhammad Asad tries to solve the problem by claiming that the legends in the Qur’an are just allegories and were never intended to be understood as historical, but he does not provide any evidence from the Qur’an that would give legitimacy to his transferral of these narrations into a different literary genre. The Qur’an definitely narrates them as being historical reality.
Muhammad Ali, on the other hand, recognizes the historical nature of these narrations, but makes an elaborate effort to remove all the mythological elements by reinterpreting the words as meaning something else altogether.
Both of these Muslim interpreters indirectly support my conclusion that these stories cannot possibly be true when taken at face value. Otherwise, there would not have been the need to re-interpret them.
Interestingly, Zaman’s main argument that these events are miracles – and we are not supposed to explain the supernatural – did not seem to be an option for these interpreters. Why not?
Is the incident of the talking ant a miracle?
What is a miracle? Philosophers and theologians have written many books about the issue. For our purpose a very simple definition should suffice.
A miracle is an event that could not have happened without a special supernatural intervention (by God).
Let me introduce my most important argument with an illustration:
Various men of God have raised people from the dead. The Bible reports this, for example, about Elijah, Jesus, and the apostle Peter. Raising a dead person is a miracle, a sign of the power of God, and not subject to scientific explanation. Imagine, however, the following fictitious situation:
One day, Jesus and his disciples walked from Jericho to Jerusalem. Suddenly, about half way between the two cities they saw a dead unicorn lying at the side of the road. Overcome by compassion, Jesus stooped down, touched the head of the unicorn and said: Get up and live! The unicorn raised his head, got on his feet and, jumping for joy, went away into the woods.
Does the reader have any objection to this story? What is the problem?
There would be no question that if Jesus can raise a human being from death to life, that he could also raise an animal. However, the whole story would still not be credible, but belong to the realm of myths because there are no unicorns. The existence of unicorns is a scientific issue. The claim that the story is supposed to be a miracle doesn’t make the report any more credible. Should any sacred scripture contain such a story, it would not only raise doubt about the authenticity of this one story, but about the authenticity of the whole book as revelation from God.
Since the point I am trying to make is absolutely essential, let me vary the example a little and remove the unicorn from the scene.
Every miracle is embedded in a story with many elements that are not miraculous. Without question, it is a miracle if somebody is raised from the dead, but the observation that there are dead people in general, or that a particular person died, or that somebody is suddenly coming to a place where a dead person is lying on the floor, that is not a miracle. That happens every day. However, the raising of a dead person presupposes that there is a dead person. Nobody can raise a person from death to life if no dead person is currently available.
One more element: A miracle is something that transforms reality. Merely imagining to raise a person from the dead does not constitute a miracle. Only if a person is first definitely dead and then really alive afterwards, that is a miracle.
So then, what exactly is the miraculous element in the story of the talking ant?
Let’s read the relevant verses of Surah 27 again:
16. And Solomon was David’s heir. And he said: O mankind! Lo! we have been taught the language of birds (or: flying things), and have been given (abundance) of all things. This surely is evident favour.
17. And there were gathered together unto Solomon his armies of the jinn and humankind, and of the birds, and they were set in battle order;
18. Till, when they reached the Valley of the Ants, an ant said: O ants! Enter your dwellings lest Solomon and his armies crush you, unperceiving.
19. And (Solomon) smiled, laughing at her speech, and said: My Lord, arouse me to be thankful for Thy favour wherewith Thou hast favoured me and my parents, and to do good that shall be pleasing unto Thee, and include me in (the number of) Thy righteous slaves.
If there is anything to be considered miraculous in these verses, it is the claim that Solomon was given the ability to understand the language of the “things that fly”. This is what people cannot usually do, and it had to be God (?) who taught him to understand it.
However, here is the crunch: Nobody can raise non-existent dead unicorns, nobody can do the miracle of raising a dead person if there is nobody dead around, and nobody can learn the language of ants, hear them speak and understand what they say, if ants do not have such a language.
Frankly: Hearing voices that do not exist is not a miracle, that is a medical condition going by the name of hallucinations.
Solomon’s miraculous perception of the speech of the ant is not possible if there is no speech to perceive in the first place.
The severe problem for the credibility of the Qur’an resides with the talking of the ant in verse 18, specifically with the complexity of her statement, not with the perceiving of her speech by Solomon in verse 19. The latter could be considered a miracle, just as in the Chinese legend we are told that the goddess did a one-time miracle to let her worshiper hear the conversation of the ants in order to make him rich as reward for his faithful worship.
What criteria could possibly be the basis for Zaman to explain to his children, that the talking ants in the Qur’an are credible reality, historically and scientifically, but the Chinese story is nothing but a legend? How can he himself discern whether any story is a fable or reality if he truly believes Surah 27:16-44 to have happened in history as it is told in the Qur’an?
Interestingly, six years ago, Zaman posted on the Islamic newsgroup an article seeking to discredit the authority of the Shi’a Muslim sources, and one of his arguments was:
No shia`a on this planet will dispute the veracity of al Kulayni and his work. Usool al Kaafi is the primary source of narrations for their distorted sunnah. This is the same Usool al Kaafi which quotes the donkey of the Prophet (s) as a narrator in a chain of transmission (isnaad) which al Kulayni declared authentic. It literally says “`an Himaar ar rasooli-Llah” meaning “On the authority of the donkey of the Prophet (s)”! (Shibli Zaman, newsgroup posting on the forum soc.religion.islam, April 8, 1997)
If Zaman has no problem to accept as credible the human-like speech of ants and birds in the Qur’an and defend it in public, on what basis could he deny the donkey of Muhammad to be a credible witness? This question becomes even more relevant, since his own Sunni Muslim sources testify that Muhammad believes in talking animals in his own time which are even arguing theological issues (cf. this hadith)! A similar inconsistency shows up in Zaman’s statements against praying dogs.
Even more, Zaman does not only accept the Qur’an despite being somewhat uncomfortable with the talking ant story in Surah 27, but he even claimed that this story constitutes a scientific miracle that is positive proof for the divine origin of the Qur’an, i.e. because of it we should believe in the Qur’an. If he were to apply his criteria consistently, should existence of the hadith narrating donkey then not also imply the authentication of the Shi’a hadith for him?
Not for a second do I want Zaman to accept Shi’a hadith as credible because a donkey is one of the narrators. No, it is the other way around. If Zaman can see the implications so clearly in the case of Shi’a hadith, why can’t he see that this same element also disqualifies the Qur’an as being authentic revelation from God?
What options are left for Zaman to respond to the above? If he doesn’t want to take the approach of Muhammad Asad who is allegorizing or of Muhammad Ali who is de-mythologizing the story, both of which would contradict the position Zaman has defended so far, then he could perhaps propose that these were not normal animals, but were all miracle ants and miracle birds. Transfering these animals into the realm of the supernatural would remove them from scientific scrutiny. However, there is not a shred of evidence in the text of the Qur’an to justify such a move.
Moreover, Zaman had originally tried to argue that the Qur’anic statement regarding the speech of the ants is confirmed by modern science and even more, is one of the amazing evidences for the divine origin of the Qur’an since Muhammad could not have known this information. For him to turn around and then claim that these were not normal but miraculous animals would be an implicit admission that his appeal to the Qur’an’s alleged miraculous knowledge of modern scienitific discoveries as proof of Muhammad’s prophethood was a smokescreen all along. It would only demonstrate that when it is convenient, Muslims will reinterpret and even pervert the Qur’an in order to fit in with modern scientific discoveries. Yet, when the Quran cannot be twisted to agree with modern science, Muslims will then quickly draw the miracle card as a way of saving the Qur’an from being exposed for its errors. In other words, Muslims want to use agreement with modern science (however tenuous) as a proof for divine origin, but will not allow science to falsify the Qur’an. For a detailed discussion on the (non-)validity of appealing to modern science as a basis of belief in the Qur’an see the article Can “Modern Science” be found in the Qur’an?
There is only one more possible response that I can currently imagine, but it would be so embarrassing that I do not want to suggest that Zaman would ever take refuge to such an excuse, and I will just wait if there will be a response at all, whether by him or by other Muslims.
Although there seems little hope left for a generally credible defense of the talking ant story in the Qur’an, could Zaman at least embarrass the Christians (Zaman’s choice of words, not mine) by appealing to Baalam’s donkey for help to save the Qur’an?
Baalam’s Ass to the Rescue!
Zaman has so far made two attempts to vindicate / rescue the story in the Qur’an by equating it with passages in the Bible. The first comparison of the talking ant in Surah 27:18 with an apocalyptic symbol in a dream of Daniel was so absolutely inappropriate that it thoroughly backfired on him. It was perhaps Zaman’s fancy for etymology together with a complete disregard for context that led him to make that particular (and particularly bad) choice. The detailed discussion presented in Sam Shamoun’s response is sufficient. There is no need for further comment on that first attempt.
The second comparison, this time to Baalam’s talking donkey in Numbers 22, was much more carefully chosen and argued. Let’s read the whole story before we discuss the validity of this example.
21Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. 22But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the LORD stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, she turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat her to get her back on the road.
24Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between two vineyards, with walls on both sides. 25When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD , she pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat her again.
26Then the angel of the LORD moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. 27When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD , she lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat her with his staff. 28Then the LORD opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
29Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”
30The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
“No,” he said.
31Then the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.
32The angel of the LORD asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. 33The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her.”
34Balaam said to the angel of the LORD , “I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.”
Does this Biblical story about Baalam and his donkey pose the same problem to Christians as Muslims have with the Qur’anic story of the talking ant?
Those who have understood the discussion thus far should be able to spot the difference immediately. Here is the essential observation:
Quran: In Surah 27, the miracle is Solomon’s ability to understand (and speak) the language of the animals. The miracle is performed on Solomon. Solomon’s abilities are transformed. That animals speak is presupposed. This presupposition is wrong, and therefore the Qur’an has a problem.
Bible: In Numbers 22, the speaking of the donkey is the miracle. Numbers 22:28 states: Then the LORD opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said … The miracle is performed on the animal. It is God who made this one particular donkey speak at this particular time. She does not speak “naturally” but only miraculously.
In the Qur’an, the conversation of animals among themselves and with Solomon is daily routine. On the other hand, Baalam’s donkey did not speak this way to other donkeys, nor did she communicate with any other animals (rabbits, snakes, ants etc.) that they may have met on their journey, nor would anyone expect that she spoke this way to Baalam ever again after this particular incident. It is a singular miraculous act of God for a very specific purpose.
As Zaman emphasized correctly: The supernatural is not supposed to be explained scientifically. God chose to speak to Baalam through his donkey because Baalam was about to disobey God and had closed his ears to God’s normal way of communication.
This should sufficiently answer Zaman’s appeal to Baalam’s donkey, and thus all of his arguments put forward in the two articles (Talking Ants in the Qur’ân? and Balaam’s Ass vs. Solomon’s Ants) are shown to be either insufficient or just plain wrong.
Merely concluding that Zaman chose the wrong Bible texts and attempted to draw up inappropriate connections between the Qur’anic fable of the talking ant and two Biblical passages would be unsatisfactory. The reader should also know what the Bible actually says about Solomon and the animals.
“God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than any other man, including Ethan the Ezrahite – wiser than Heman, Calcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. Men of all nations came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.” 1 Kings 4:29-34
The Bible reports the historical fact that Solomon knew botany and zoology and taught his knowledge of these disciplines to many people. A very credible and reasonable report of “Solomon speaking ABOUT animals” is turned by the author of the Quran into a clearly fictional story on “Solomon speaking WITH animals”.
This speech of the ant in the Qur’an takes up just one verse and as such it constitutes only a small fraction of the Muslim scripture (which contains more than 6000 verses). Nevertheless, it will be hard to dismiss the problems of this verse as minor and irrelevant for a general evaluation of the Qur’an. Not only is it followed immediately by the longer legend about Solomon and the hoopoe bird that poses the same problems, this story is apparently deemed so important, that the whole surah of 93 verses was named “The Ant” after this one verse.
In the next few paragraphs, I want to present a few observations which are more tentative in nature, but which may nevertheless throw further light on the discussion, although they will not fundamentally change anything regarding the above conclusions.
Does the Qur’an speak of any miracle at all?
15. And We verily gave knowledge unto David and Solomon, and they said: Praise be to Allah, Who hath preferred us above many of His believing slaves!
16. And Solomon was David’s heir. And he said: O mankind! Lo! we have been taught the language of birds, and have been given (abundance) of all things. This surely is evident favour.
17. And there were gathered together unto Solomon his armies of the jinn and humankind, and of the birds, and they were set in battle order;
Let us take a closer look at some of the words used in verse 27:16.
Who is addressed with “O mankind!”? Pickthall’s translation makes it appear quite dramatic. Maulana Muhammad Ali translates more appropriately: “O men, …” It is not a universal declaration to all people of all nations of all time, but just means “Hi men”. Solomon is addressing his people.
Given the context, one likely interpretation is that he addresses the soldiers that he is going to lead into the war. It looks like a military propaganda speech through which Solomon seeks to lift his soldiers’ spirit and give his people confidence. Very loosly translated: “We are superior and are going to be victorious, because we have a secret weapon (knowledge of the language of birds) and an abundance of everything else necessary. It is evident, the favor of God is on our side.”
If this is the appropriate understanding, then it becomes somewhat likely that Maulana Muhammad Ali’s footnote 1844 quoted above is correct, “that Solomon does not speak of himself alone; his people are included when he is made to say: We have been taught. This shows that his people also knew that speech.”
Others want to understand the plural “we have been taught” as a plural of majesty and refering to the person of Solomon only. Both is possible when looking at it only from the viewpoint of Arabic language and usage in the Qur’an, although, as already indicated, the army of “jinn, men and birds” will have logistical problems if Solomon is the only one who has to manage all the communications with the birds.
There is, however, a more serious problem for the advocates of the “royal we”. A plural of majesty is unattested for in Biblical Hebrew. Solomon did not speak that way. Please consult the various articles linked in the rebuttal to Misha’al Ibn Abdullah Al-Kadhi for detailed discussions regarding this issue. Muslims who want to insist that this is an instance of a plural of majesty and refers only to Solomon, will then have to admit that the Qur’an contains an error (whether it is classified as a historical or as a translation error) since it fictionalizes speeches for prophets that they couldn’t have uttered this way.
“We have been taught” (ullimnâ): The verb does not indicate who taught him (or them), but this word is not usually understood in a miraculous way. It does not mean “bestowed” or “imparted” which would indicate instantaneously and miraculously acquired knowledge. It rather conveys that there was a process of learning. Usually, what I have been taught, I can in turn teach others. I cannot necessarily transfer a miraculous ability, but I can teach knowledge that I have been taught myself.
“… and have been given (abundance) of all things”. This may refer to material wealth, to technology, to wisdom and education, everything needed in a large and powerful kingdom. The same expression is found again in verse 23, where it is said about the Queen of Sheba and her kingdom.
“This is evident favor” (from Allah) is the way Solomon sums it up. All we have comes from God who is gracious to us. The favor of Allah may refer to something miraculous that God does or gives, but the expression does not demand it. It is a very general term. It is favor from Allah, when we have enough to eat every day, when we have a job, or a house, good health, children that we can be proud of. All of these are only by God’s grace, but they are not miracles in the sense we are discussing here.
Nowhere in these verses do we find the usual words used in the Qur’an for a miracle or sign (ayah or bayyanat).
The language of birds was taught to him in a conscious learning process. It was not instantaneously bestowed on him in such way that he then understood their language but did not understand how. What we can learn, we can also pass on. And as already observed, there are reasons to assume that he has passed this knowledge on to others, or the army could not have functioned.
It certainly was a FAVOR from God to teach him, but just as wealth is not a miracle, and God made him very wealthy as a favor, so it was one of his favors for Solomon in the Qur’an to be taught the language of birds, but the Qur’an does not seem to depict this as a supernatural event.
Though not a definite proof, but a further indication for the plausibility of this view is found in another of the Jewish legends about Solomon:
Annually a man came from a great distance to pay a visit to the wise king, and when he departed Solomon was in the habit of bestowing a gift upon him. Once the guest refused the gift, and asked the king to teach him the language of the birds and the animals instead. The king was ready to grant his request, but he did not fail to warn him first of the great danger connected with such knowledge. “If thou tellest others a word of what thou hearest from an animal,” he said, “thou wilt surely suffer death; thy destruction is inevitable.” Nothing daunted, the visitor persisted in his wish, and the king instructed him in the secret art. Returned home, he overheard a conversation between his ox and his ass. … (Source: Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, Vol. IV, Chapter V: Solomon)
For this particular aspect of our discussion it matters little whether Muhammad was dependent on the Jewish legends for this story, or the Jewish legends were dependent on the Muslim ones. This quotation may be illustrating a general Middle Eastern understanding current around the time of Muhammad, plus or minus a couple of centuries.
If the observations in this section are correct, then the aspect of a “special miracle from God” has completely evaporated from this story of the Qur’an, and only fable and legend remains.
Additionally, the following hadith shows that Muhammad and (some of) his companions had the conviction that animals talking to men and men understanding the language of animals were not something unique to Solomon and his time:
Narrated Abu Huraira:
I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, “While a shepherd was amongst his sheep, a wolf attacked them and took away one sheep. When the shepherd chased the wolf, the wolf turned towards him and said, ‘Who will be its guard on the day of wild animals when nobody except I will be its shepherd.’ And while a man was driving a cow with a load on it, it turned towards him and spoke to him saying, ‘I have not been created for this purpose, but for ploughing.’” The people said, “Glorified be Allah.” The Prophet said, “But I believe in it and so does Abu Bakr and ‘Umar.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 5, Book 57, Number 15)
Possible sources of the story
That the longer and detailed legend of the Queen of Sheba as narrated in the Qur’an (Surah 27:20-44) has its source in the Jewish Targum is well documented, see, for example, the section on it found in Tisdall’s book The Original Sources of the Qur’an, p. 80 ff., and the detailed discussion in these two articles (, ).
A parallel to the two verses 27:18-19 about the talking ant has so far not been found in sources that are definitely pre-Islamic (see, e.g. Geiger, Judaism and Islam, p. 150). The above quoted Jewish legend about Solomon and the ant is found in a collection that shows traces of Islamic influences (e.g., the two paragraphs before it speak of a flying carpet). Naturally, a body of legends and folk-tales has no need for a rigid textual form (this is different for the Scriptures and also the Talmud), and can easily adapt to new circumstances and be updated to remain meaningful and interesting. Nor would there be much pressure to carefully preserve legends in writing as it is with those sources that form the foundation of a faith. Personally, I consider it improbable that the ant story is original with the Qur’an, but find it more likely, that an earlier version was told among the Jews, Muhammad adapted it into the Qur’an as he did with much other material, and then the Islamic version has again influenced to a certain degree the Jewish legends. I consider it unlikely that the Jews, on the one hand refusing the pressure to convert to Islam, would on the other hand incorporate stories from the Qur’an into their religion and culture wholesale if these were entirely strange to them. Further development of already accepted stories is more likely.
Muhammad borrowed large amounts of his material from outside sources. See the section Sources of the Qur’an for a detailed discussion of this issue. Muhammad modulated known material for his own purposes, but created very little himself. Charles Cutler Torrey formulates one reason for this:
Here was a dilemma which evidently gave the Arabian prophet some trouble. If he should merely reproduce the story of Joseph, or of Jonah, wholly or in part, from the Jewish tradition, he would be charged with plagiarism. If he should tell the stories with any essential difference, he would be accused of falsifying. …
… Mohammed does slip out of the dilemma into which he had seemed to be forced; and the manner in which he does this is highly interesting – and instructive. … (C.C. Torrey, The Narratives of the Koran)
Torrey’s lecture is well worth reading to gain a deeper understanding of these dynamics.
It is therefore likely that this story was current among the Jews of Arabia in some form (even though we do not have this documented), and Muhammad adapted it. Perhaps weaving the ant story together with the story about the Queen of Sheba is Muhammad’s contribution. In Ginzberg’s collection of Jewish legends, the legend of the ant and the legendary version about the visit of the Queen of Sheba at Solomon’s court are unrelated.
However, the main issue was and is not, whether we can positively identify a source for the story, but that the story itself clearly betrays its nature, being a legend and not historical, but the Qur’an nevertheless presenting legend as history.
For the classification of the talking ant story as a legend that is pretending to be history it is irrelevant whether the story in Surah 27:18-19 is original to Muhammad, or he had heard it somewhere else and then adapted it into the Qur’an.
The amazing scientific insight
Finally, let us turn our attention to Zaman’s punch line:
So in conclusion, how does the Qur’ân document such detail which would have literally been unknowable in the 7th century CE? According to those who say the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) invented the Qur’ân, one would have to conclude that he was a Biblical Scholar, a Semitic Etymologist with prowess in Hebrew, Syriac and Greek on a scholarly level, an OB-Gyn, a Chemist, a Meterologist, a Geologist, a Zoologist, a Chemist, etc, etc, and now an Entomologist!! Maybe he had a time machine, eh? Dismissing the Qur’ân as the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) invention creates more problems than it addresses.
Needless to say, despite the steep claims made here, Zaman has neither shown what exactly is this alleged amazing entomological detail that is found in the story of the talking ant in the Qur’an, nor has he proven that it was unknowable in the 7th century CE, nor has he given evidence for all the other claimed miracles in the disciplines mentioned by him.
Does Zaman really want to convince the world that Muhammad’s belief in ants that are talking like humans makes him an expert entomologist? Zaman must be joking.
There is no need to discuss the above quoted paragraph in any detail. Statements like these disqualify themselves.
If Zaman feels that being confronted with an ancient text that mentions talking ants is so incredible that it constitutes positive proof for the divine origin of that text, then Zaman would have to believe not only in the Qur’an but also in the Chinese legend of the goddess worshiper, and he needs to canonize the collection of Æsop’s fables as divine revelation, since it makes the same statement more than 1000 years before Muhammad was born.
Even if it were true that ants are talking, Zaman’s claim that this was unknowable in the 7th century CE would still be wrong since Æsop knew this already a millenium earlier, and the Chinese goddess religion also had this knowledge.