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The ungrateful nation of Saba

Syed Sharfuddin

In Surah Saba (Chapter 34) Allah Subhanuhu wa Taala compares the life of two types of people – those who are humble and grateful for His blessings and those who are ungrateful and impatient. To illustrate the former, Allah gives the examples of two of His great peygambers (messengers) who were blessed with power and knowledge. They were father and son David and Solomon. They had extraordinary powers as kings but their own lives were simple and down to earth. Kings David made armour for his livelihood. Solomon stitched caps. The enormous wealth they controlled in their kingdoms was not for their personal use; it was a trust in their care to be spent on the welfare and good of their people. They were gifted by Allah with numerous blessings because they were grateful. David was formerly an ordinary soldier in the army of Taloot before he was made king. Solomon had a kingdom no other human will ever have in this world. They are described in verses 10 to 14 as follows:

Indeed, We granted David a [great] privilege from Us, [and commanded] “O mountains! Echo his hymns! And the birds as well.” We made iron mouldable for him [and instructed] “Make full-length armour, [perfectly] balancing the links. And work righteousness [O family of David!]. Indeed, I am All-Seeing of what you do.” And to Solomon [We subjected] the wind: its morning stride was a month’s journey and its evening stride a month. And We caused a stream of molten copper to flow for him, and [We subjected] some of the jinns to work under him by his Lord’s Will. And whoever of them deviated from Our command, We made that jinn taste the torment of the blaze. The jinns made for him [Solomon] whatever he desired of sanctuaries, statues,1 basins as large as reservoirs, and cooking pots fixed [into the ground]. [We ordered] “Work gratefully, O  family of David!” [Only] a few of My servants are [truly] grateful. When We decreed Solomon’s death, nothing indicated to the [subjugated] jinns that he was dead except the termites eating away his [wooden] staff.1 So when he collapsed, the jinns realized that had they [really] known the unseen, they would not have remained in [such] humiliating servitude [Chapter 34: Verses 10-14].

The other type of people, the ungrateful ones were the people of Saba. Their story is described in the verses that immediately follow the description of David and Solomon:

Indeed, there was a sign for [the tribe of] Sheba in their homeland: two orchards—one to the right and the other to the left. [They were told] “Eat from the provision of your Lord, and be grateful to Him. [Yours is] a good land and a forgiving Lord.” But they turned away. So We sent against them a devastating flood, and replaced their orchards with two others producing bitter fruit, fruitless bushes, and a few [sparse] thorny trees. This is how We rewarded them for their ingratitude. Would We ever punish [anyone in such a way] except the ungrateful? We had also [comfortably] placed between them and the cities.  We showered with blessings [many small] towns within sight of one another. And We set moderate travel distances in between, [saying,] “Travel between them by day and night safely.” But they wronged themselves and said: “Our Lord! Make [the distances of] our journeys longer.” So We reduced them to [cautionary] tales, and scattered them utterly. Surely in this are lessons for whoever is steadfast, grateful. Indeed, Iblîs [Satan] assumption about them has come true, so they [all] follow him, except a group of [true] believers. He does not have any authority over them, but [Our Will is] only to distinguish those who believe in the Hereafter from those who are in doubt about it. And your Lord is a [vigilant] Keeper over all things.” [Chapter 34: Verses 15-21]

Historians have tried to explain the background and location of the people of Saba referred to in the Quran. It is said that they were the descendants of the Queen of Sheba (Bilquis of Yemen) who accepted Islam on the invitation of Prophet Solomon. After many years of remaining Muslims, the nation of Saba abandoned Islam and became idol worshippers. It is also said that Saba was the name of the head of a tribe linked to the royal family of Yemen who had many children. They spread out to establish their own small communities in Yemen, near modern day Sana, and along the way to Syria and Palestine. Historians also point out that the location of the flood was in the ancient city of Marib where the ruins of a dam and a palace associated with Queen Bilquis can still be seen. The date of the collapse of the dam is reported circa 6th century AD.

The Saba people lived in a fertile valley surrounded by mountains. They also constructed a spectacular dam for their water needs. Arid rain would fill up the dam and provide year-long water for irrigation. Their cities were built in very close proximity to each other in such a way that they could easy move from one city to another for conducting their trade. The dam irrigated their two large gardens which bore the best of fruits. Allah gave them peace and tranquillity and they enjoyed abundant provisions of their fertile gardens as freely as Adam and Eve enjoyed their life in the Garden of Eden. Their lives were peaceful and without any security problems. Their travels were facilitated by several small settlements along their trading route, so they never felt the need to take the burden of their provisions along with them or guard their belongings. Their women could walk in the day and night without any fear. In every way they were facilitated and had no worries.

But then Satan put doubt in their hearts and just as Satan misguided Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. Satan also created doubt in the minds of the people of Saba. He sowed the seed of impatience in their hearts. They became bored with their peaceful lifestyle. They prayed to Allah to make their travelling distances long so that they could take loads of provisions on their camels and travel like other caravans searching for water and oasis to stay en-route in the desert.

They made a big mistake by exchanging the good with the bad. They  stopped being thankful to Allah and started worshipping the sun. No less then 13 messengers were sent by Allah on their nation to mend their ways, but they did not listen to these messengers. Eventually, for their ungratefulness, Allah caused a rat to dig a hole in the mountain which acted as the wall of the dam of Iram. When the dam broke their homes and gardens were completely flooded. The unity of their community was torn apart. Their people left the destroyed homes. Their settlements were deserted. The distances between their cities and communes increased and became far part. Their travels were no longer safe; security of life and property became an issue. The vegetation of their gardens was replaced by scattered bushes, trees bearing bitter fruits and new trees with thorns that gave no shade. The birds that used to come to their gardens flew away. An ungrateful community of people that had everything others would envy had brought its own misfortune by wishing to replace their blessings and peace with troubles and hardship.

This parable is a reminder from Allah to the faithful that if we have peace at home and in our community; if we have a halal job and livelihood; if our life and property is safe from dispute and conflict; if we do not have struggle or strife, we should always be thankful for what we have, just as King David and King Solomon were grateful to Allah for their blessings which increased as they progressed in their lives. If we reject our blessings and become like the nation of Saba, wishing for things we do not have, then our blessings can be taken away from us and replaced by troubles and misery.

Think for a moment what is meant by Allah’s blessings and how can one be ungrateful for them. People who have halal and tayyeb income, but their greed makes them take bribes and become corrupt by amassing illegal wealth is ungratefulness. People who have faithful spouses, but they go out flirting with other women to chat and spend time with them outside is ungratefulness. People who have a pure and simple lifestyle struggling to replace it with a stressful and materially bloated living is ungratefulness. People who have good relatives and neighbours, but they ignore these precious ties and instead go out making introductions and friends in other cities and countries is ungratefulness. People who have good means of living but who still complain and crib about their condition is ungratefulness. People who have families and children, but they do not spend time with them and leave them to grow up without education and good manners while they themselves keep drowned in entertainment is ungratefulness. People who have faith, a blessed living, a home, a family, a job and yet they are unhappy because they find it very boring is ungratefulness.

Therefore, next time you get bored with your living, your job, your earnings, your home, your car and your friends and surroundings, think of the people of Saba. But if you are satisfied that your dissatisfaction is caused by some other reason such as inability to practice your faith freely, or there are circumstances which threaten your health, safety and peace, then it would be a different thing. To strive for better is good for progress, but to be impatient and not count your blessings and be grateful for what you have is an act of Satan and downright criminal.

By nature, man is born good. He is kind and merciful. But man is also given to fanciful desires and perpetual change. In his heart there is also a small space for ungratefulness and impatience which is exploited by Satan. Surely Satan has no control over man, but he causes doubt and uncertainty and makes people turn away from faith. By narrating such parables in the Quran, Allah warns His slaves that there are lessons for those who remain steadfast.