Solomon and Sheba: The Love Story

Jacob Lassner
Demonizing the Queen of Sheba:
Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Post biblical Judaism and Medieval Islam
Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993, xv, 281 pp.

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 35(1994):31-32

There are few people &emdash; Jews, Christian, or Muslim &emdash; who have not heard of the famous encounter between the legendary Queen of Sheba and Solomon, wisest of all men. The story of Solomon and Sheba, still just a story as far as archeological and historical evidence is concerned, was first recorded in the biblical book of I Kings (10:1-3). Here we find a wealthy queen coming to Jerusalem to see if Solomon was as wise and impressive as people said he was. When he passed the test, she brought forth bars of gold, precious stones and, of course, spices, along with praise for Solomon's God. In many respects this is little more than a simple, self-serving tale of tribute. Solomon, we are supposed to think, must be important to receive such praise and gifts from exotic, foreign leaders.

But, reading between the lines, this is far from a simple story in the hands of religious commentators. In both Jewish and Muslim contexts the stories of this encounter take on expanded entertainment and didactic roles. A thorough survey of how the story played in the medieval Middle East is now provided by Jacob Lassner, Distinguished Professor of Near Eastern and Asian Studies at Wayne State University. This is Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Post biblical Judaism and Medieval Islam (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993, xv, 281 pp.).Lassner, cast in the role as a modern, secular commentator, both documents and analyzes some of the major primary texts on the Queen of Sheba. The texts in translation (pp. 161-214) include in the Jewish tradition: the well-known biblical account, two midrash versions, the Targum Sheni, Pseudo Ben Sira, the Yemenite Saadiah Ben Joseph, and recent folklore. On the Muslim side there is the major Quranic account in The Ant (27:15-44), supplemented by shorter mentions of Solomon in Sad (38:30-36), Saba' (34:12-14), and The Prophets (21:81-82), as well as the major accounts of al-Tha'labi andal-Kisa'i.

The ultimate purpose of Lassner's study is to examine how a Jewish theme was woven into the Islamic framework, or more appropriately interwoven between oral and textual renditions of the encounter of Solomon and Sheba on the wider stage of worldview. Lassner argues that medieval Jewish and Muslim writers reshaped the story of a diplomatic mission "from international to sexual politics and from diplomatic relations to the more complicated relations between men and women. That is, in its post biblical and Islamic versions, the queen's joust with Solomon was portrayed as a dangerous attempt to subvert time-honored rules of gender" (p. 1).Fully aware of the caution needed to explore the social context of "a highly didactic literature," Lassner provides a balanced, stimulating and provocative reading of a too-well-known story. Hopefully other scholars will take the cue from this pioneering study and address similar concerns in other islamicized biblical tales.

First, to the story itself, or at least a brief version of it. The Quranic account is clearly not a clone of the biblical story and, as Lassner argues, it would be wrong to assume that early Islamic writers blindly copied from existing Jewish or Christian traditions. One of the main embellished accounts is from the 11th century al-Tha'labi in his 'Ara'is al-majalis, which is translated here by Lassner. In a very shortened account of this story, Solomon leaves off from building his temple in Jerusalem to visit both Mecca and Yemen. He is able to arrive in Sanaa in a mere matter of hours on a journey which would take ordinary people about a month. Solomon camps in a lush valley and calls for his hoopoe to help find water for ablutions. Here the plot thickens, for the hoopoe is not around and Solomon grows so vexed he vows "I shall surely punish him severely or slaughter him unless he brings me a clear excuse" (surah 27:21). The hoopoe returns with news of a land called Sheba with a woman as ruler, clearly something out of the ordinary. The story is then told of how Bilquis, half-jinn herself, came to power in Yemen by cleverly agreeing to marry and then decapitating a young and undisciplined rival to the throne. Since she worshipped the sun, Solomon had it in mind to convert her to the true God, and sent Bilquis a letter to this effect. The queen is unsure of what to do, but finally sends a delegation to Solomon to see if he is a prophet or not. Solomon is able to answer all her queries with aplomb and Bilquis resolves to visit him herself. Before leaving she locks up her most precious possession, her beautiful throne, but Solomon arranges through magic to have this throne brought to him in a twinkling of an eye. Now it is Bilquis who must answer the riddles. But the highlight of the visit is when she is tricked into lifting her skirt and thus revealing her hairy legs. This is the occasion for the first use of a depilatory, we are told. Bilquis and Solomon match wits until she agrees to become a Muslim. Now you can pick your ending. Some say they were married, others that she returned to Yemen and married Tubba' the Elder.

So what is this story all about? Lassner reads it as a moral tale about the need for an orderly universe. The problem is that Bilquis is not prepared to accept the typical role of a female. Despite her beauty, she did not choose a suitable mate and refused to serve any man. Not unimportantly, she also had refused to serve God. It was up to Solomon, who had mastery over the evil spirits, to put this dangerous woman in her place and restore natural order. On this gender issue of setting things straight, Lassner argues that both Judaism and Islam concurred. But there is more at play here than gender roles. There is a process by which the story is islamicized and this is what Lassner focuses on. One of the elements in the story is that Solomon prophesizes the coming of Muhammad. In a sense this story serves notice on all unbelievers since "Muslims tended to view an ancient Israelite past as the mirror image of the last and most perfect development of monotheism: the Islam that began with Muhammad's revelation" (p. 116). Lassner is quick to point out that the incorporation of Jewish themes "did not at all compromise the magnificent creative imagination of medieval Islam" (p. 120).Yet, the biblical stories helped legitimize Muhammad as the last in a series of prophets with the same God in the background.

On the whole this is a well argued and well documented study, well worth reading by anyone interested in the legend of the Queen of Sheba or preIslamic and early Islamic Yemen. While I realize the author did not set out to examine the entire literature on the subject, I am surprised that he did not pursue more “Yemeni" commentary on the Queen of Sheba. For example, the Kitabal-Tijan fi muluk Himyar, attributed to Wahb ibn Munabbih(published in Sanaa in the 1970s), has an extensive discussion of Bilquis and Solomon (pp. 147-179). There are also relevant passages in several of al-Hamdani's texts.

On a technical level, this volume is well produced except for a few minor printing errors. For example, an extra comma is inserted on p. 78 (line 4), words are missing after “simply" on p. 126 (line 4) and on p. 130 (line 9), "his" should be “him" on p. 140 (line 6), and a period is missing on p. 157 (line12). I found the postscript on a recent study by Meyers to be confusing; how does the narrative thus analyzed contribute to the issue of medieval and earlier gender issues raised by Meyers? It is curious that the index to scriptural verses includes the Talmud and Bible, but not the Quran!

A final note relates to the back cover, where one finds a laudatory comment from Bernard Lewis. The quote is certainly well deserved, but it is interesting to note that Lassner levels a rather loud broadside at Edward Said's criticism of Lewis with the following statement (pp. 120-121): "To claim, as some recently have, that 'orientalist' scholars were engaged in a cultural conspiracy would be silly if it were not patently self-serving and deliberately mischievous." While such a strong statement is obviously not necessary for the argument of his book, Lassner (quid proquoishly) in no uncertain terms befriends his colleague with the friendly comment on the back cover. I wonder if it is really necessary to demonize Edward Said after reviving Bilquis from her genderized demonizing in medieval male minds.

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