Chapter Scripts

Surah Saba: 34:21-30

34:21 And yet, he had no power at all over them: [for if We allow him to tempt man,] it is only to the end that We might make a clear distinction between those who [truly] believe in the life to come and those who are in doubt thereof: for thy Sustainer watches over all things.

Explanation

Al-ghayb, “that which is beyond the reach of [a created being’s] perception”, either in an absolute or – as in this instance – in a relative, temporary sense.

34:22 Say “Call upon those [beings] whom you imagine [to be endowed with divine powers] beside God: they have not an atom’s weight of power either in the heavens or on earth, nor have they any share in [governing] either, nor does He [choose to] have any helper from among them.”

Explanation

i.e., because they would have known that Solomon’s sway over them had ended. In the elliptic manner so characteristic of the Qur’an, stress is laid here, firstly, on the limited nature of all empirical knowledge, including the result of deductions and inferences based on no more than observable or calculable phenomena, and, secondly, on the impossibility to determine correctly, on the basis of such limited fragments of knowledge alone, what course of action would be right in a given situation. Although the story as such relates to “invisible beings”, its moral lesson (which may be summed up in the statement that empirical knowledge cannot provide any ethical guideline unless it is accompanied, and completed, by divine guidance) is obviously addressed to human beings as well.

34:23 And, before Him, intercession can be of no avail [to any] save one in whose case He may have granted leave [therefor]: so much so that when the terror [of the Last Hour] is lifted from their hearts, they [who have been resurrected) will ask [one another], “What has your Sustainer decreed [for you]?” – [to which) the others will answer, “Whatever is true and deserved – for He alone is exalted, great!”

Explanation

This connects with the call to gratitude towards God in the preceding passage, and the mention, at the end of verse 13, that “few are the truly grateful” even among those who think of themselves as “God’s servants” (see note 19 above). The kingdom of Sheba (Saba in Arabic) was situated in south-western Arabia, and at the time of its greatest prosperity (i.e., in the first millennium B.C.) comprised not only Yemen but also a large part of Hadramawt and the Mahrah country, and probably also much of present-day Abyssinia. In the vicinity of its capital Ma’rih sometimes also spelled Marib – the Sabaeans had built in the course of centuries an extraordinary system of dams, dykes, and sluices, which became famous in history, with astonishing remnants extent to this day. It was to this great dam that the whole country of Sheba owed its outstanding prosperity, which became proverbial throughout Arabia. (According to the geographer Al-Hamdani, who died in 334 H., the area irrigated by this system of dams stretched eastward to the desert of Sayhad on the confines of the Rub’ al-Khali.) The flourishing state of the country was reflected in its people’s intense trading activities and their control of the “spice road” which led from Ma’rib northwards to Mecca, Yathrib, and Syria, and eastwards to Dufar on the shores of the Arabian Sea, thus connecting with the maritime routes from India and China. – The period to which the above Qur’anic passage refers is evidently much later than that spoken of in 27:22-44.

34:24 Say “Who is it that provides for you sustenance out of the heavens and the earth?” Say “It is God. And, behold, either we [who believe in Him] or you [who deny His oneness] are on the right path, or have clearly gone astray!”

Explanation

Lit., “the flooding of the dams” (sayl al-‘arim). The date of that catastrophe cannot be established with any certainty, but the most probable period of the first bursting of the Dam of Ma’rib seems to have been the second century of the Christian era. The kingdom of Sheba was largely devastated, and this led to the migration of many southern (Qahtan) tribes towards the north of the Peninsula. Subsequently, it appears, the system of dams and dykes was to some extent repaired, but the country never regained its earlier prosperity, and a few decades before the advent of Islam the great dam collapsed completely and finally.

34:25 Say “Neither shall you be called to account for whatever we may have become guilty of, nor shall we be called to account for whatever you are doing.”

Explanation

Neither the Qur’an nor any authentic hadith tells us anything definite about the way in which the people of Sheba had sinned at the time immediately preceding the final collapse of the Dam of Ma’rib (i.e., in the sixth century of the Christian era). This omission, however, seems to be deliberate. In view of the fact that the story of Sheba’s prosperity and subsequent catastrophic downfall had become a byword in ancient Arabia, it is most probable that its mention in the Qur’an has a purely moral purport similar to that of the immediately preceding legend of Solomon’s death, inasmuch as both these legends, in their Qur’anic presentation, are allegories of the ephemeral nature of all human might and achievement. As mentioned at the beginning of note 23 above, the story of Sheba’s downfall is closely linked with the phenomenon of men’s recurrent ingratitude towards God. (See also verse 20 and the corresponding note 29).

34:26 Say “Our Sustainer will bring us all together [on Judgment Day], and then He will lay open the truth between us, in justice – for He alone is the One who opens all truth, the All-Knowing!”

Explanation

i.e., Mecca and Jerusalem, both of which lay on the caravan route much used by the people of Sheba.

34:27 Say “Point out to me those [beings] that you have joined with Him [in your minds] as partners [in His divinity]! Nay-nay, but He [alone] is God, the Almighty, the Wise!”

Explanation

In its generally-accepted spelling – based on the reading adopted by most of the early scholars of Medina and Kufah – the above phrase reads in the vocative rabbana and the imperative ba’id (“Our Sustainer! Make long the distances …”, etc.), which, however, cannot be convincingly explained. On the other hand, Tabari, Baghawi and Zamakhshari mention, on the authority of some of the earliest Qur’an-commentators, another legitimate reading of the relevant words, namely, rabbuna (in the nominative) and ba’ada (in the indicative), which gives the meaning adopted by me: “Long has our Sustainer made the distances …”, etc. To my mind, this reading is much more appropriate since (as pointed out by Zamakhshari) it expresses the belated regrets and the sorrow of the people of Sheba at the devastation of their country, the exodus of large groups of the population, and the resultant abandonment of many towns and villages on the great caravan routes.

34:28 Now [as for thee, O Muhammad] We have not sent thee otherwise than to mankind at large, to be a herald of glad tidings and a warner, but most people do not understand [this]. 

Explanation

An allusion to the mass-migration of South-Arabian tribes in all directions – particularly towards central and northern Arabia – subsequent to the destruction of the Dam of Ma’rib.

34:29 And so they ask, “When is this promise [of resurrection and judgment] to be fulfilled? [Answer this, O you who believe in it] if you are men of truth!”

Explanation

See 17:62, as well as the last sentence of 7:17, in which Iblis (i.e., Satan) says of the human race, “most of them wilt Thou find ungrateful”.

34:30 Say “There has been appointed for you a Day which you can neither delay nor advance by a single moment.”

Explanation

Cf. a similar phrase placed in the mouth of Iblis in 14:22 (“I had no power at all over you: I but called you – and you responded unto me”), and the corresponding note 31; also, see note 30 on 15:39-40. – Although on the face of it, verses 20-21 of the present surah refer to the people of Sheba, their import is (as the sequence shows) much wider, applying to the human race as such.

President

The divine scriptures are God’s beacons to the world. Surely God offered His trust to the heavens and the earth, and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man undertook it.
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