“And (when) he (Nabi Sulaimaan) inspected the birds, he exclaimed: ‘Why do I not see Hud-Hud or is he among the absentees? Either he brings to me a valid proof (explanation) or I shall most certainly give him a severe punishment or slaughter him. The Hud-Hud stayed away for just a short time. (Upon his return) he said: ‘I have discovered what you have not discovered, and I come to you from (the land of) Saba with reliable information. Verily, I found a woman ruling over people. She has been given everything (of worldly wealth) and she has a wonderful throne. I have found her and her people prostrating to the sun besides Allah. Shaitaan has adorned for them their deeds and has prevented them from the Path of Allah, hence they do not derive guidance.”
(Surah Namal, Aayat 20 – 24)
These are the Qur’aanic aayaat commencing the story of Nabi Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam) and Queen Bilqees, the ruler of Yemen at that time. The story begins with an inspection of the birds by Nabi Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam). Allah Ta’ala had bestowed to Nabi Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam) the ability to understand and speak the variety of languages of even the birds. Mentioning this, the Qur’aan Majeed records the statement of Nabi Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam) who said: “O people, we have been taught the speech of the birds and have been granted from everything. Verily, this is a clear bounty (of Allah).” – Aayat 16, Surah Namal
On his expedition from Baitul Maqdis (Jerusalem) to Yemen, at one stage his army requested water. There was no water in sight and the soldiers were extremely thirsty. Nabi Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam) ordered the variety of birds to form their rows for an inspection. The purpose of the inspection was to issue a command to the bird Hud-Hud. What bird is the Hud-Hud? Some say that it is the woodpecker whilst others say it is the hoopoe. Allah knows best. The reason for the search for the Hud-Hud was the bird’s inherent ability to locate water. Irrespective of how deep the water may be underground, the Hud-Hud would fly into the air, and from a height detect the presence of water. It would descend to the ground and indicate the location with its beak. Nabi Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam) would then order the Jinns who had been made subservient to him by Allah Ta’ala, to dig for the water. In this manner fountains and streams would form.
At that time, the bird known as Kulang (heron) was appointed the king of the birds. When he did not find the Hud-Hud in the ranks, Nabi Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam) was extremely annoyed. He demanded an answer from the Kulang who expressed unawareness of the Hud-Hud. He said that the Hud-Hud had in fact departed without even informing him. Thus, Nabi Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam) threatened to slay the Hud-Hud or punish him severely if he did not present a viable excuse for his absence. The severe punishment mentioned in the aayat refers to Nabi Sulaimaan’s cutting the wing feathers of birds to prevent them flying for a year. When he discerned the need to punish a bird, this would be his ‘severe’ punishment.
However, the Hud-Hud after a brief absence made his appearance. His companions among the birds informed him of the anger of Nabi Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam) and the threatened severe punishment. Then the Hud-Hud hastened into the presence of Nabi Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam), prostrated and offered a supplication (dua) for Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam). It pecked at the ground with its beak in submission and obedience. Simultaneously, it looked at Nabi Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam) and explained that it has come with such reliable news of which Nabi Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam) was unaware.
The Hud-Hud continuing with its story said that it discovered in the City of Saba’ a queen ruling over her people. It was a prosperous land. She had a massive, magnificent throne. She and her people were sun worshippers. According to some narrations her throne which was beautifully adorned with precious stones, diamonds and pearls was about 40 metres wide and 40 metres high. On hearing this news, Nabi Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam) instructed the Hud-Hud to locate water while he reflected on what he had just heard. After the army had quenched their thirst, Nabi Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam) handed the Hud-Hud a letter which he had written for Queen Bilqees.
The Hud-Hud flew with the letter and reached the City of Saba’ at midday when it was the time of qailoolah (the midday nap). All the doors of the magnificent palace were closed while Bilqees was taking her nap. Nothing and nobody could reach her in the securely closed palace. Guards were stationed all around the palace. Her huge army had 12,000 officers. It was her practice to emerge from the innermost recess of the palace every Friday to attend to the affairs of her people. Her massive and magnificent throne rested on four huge pillars of solid gold. She sat on this huge throne in such a position which enabled her to see all the people gathered while no one could see her from where they happened to be. Whoever had any petition, request or problem was granted permission to step forward. He/she would advance and prostrate at the foot of the throne and remain in prostration until the Queen made her announcement.
At the end of the day after having attended to the affairs of the state, she would return inside her palace, and no one would see her again until the next Friday.
The Hud-Hud could find no way of entry. After prolonged search around the palace, it finally found an opening through which it entered. After passing through seven huge chambers, the Hud-Hud reached Bilqees who was deep in slumber. The bird dropped the letter close to her. When Bilqees finally rose from her slumber, to her surprise and astonishment she saw the letter. After opening the letter, she read: “In the Name of Allah, The Most Kind, The Most Merciful. This letter is from Sulaimaan. Don’t rebel against me and come to me in submission.” She went out and questioned the guards to ascertain if anyone had entered the palace while she was taking her nap. The guards assured her that no one had entered and all the doors were still securely closed and locked.
She assembled her army generals, courtiers, and advisors. She read the letter to them and sought their advice. They assured her of their allegiance and their power. They were prepared for war and only awaited her command. Bilqees was not in favour of war. She explained that when kings invade a land, they lay it to utter waste. They pillage, plunder, kill and humiliate the honourable citizens. She decided to send expensive gifts to Nabi Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam) to see his reaction. This course was decided on.
A large procession left Saba’ with valuable gifts and a letter from Bilqees. In the letter, Bilqees had posed many intricate questions to ascertain the integrity of Nabi Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam). When the impressive delegation with its entourage arrived, Sulaimaan (alayhis salaam) paid no heed to the valuable gifts. On the contrary, he instructed them to return with the gifts and convey to Bilqees that he would come with such armies which they will not be able to confront, and he will expel them from their land with humiliation. When the delegation returned with the gifts and described to her the pomp and splendour of Nabi Sulaimaan’s palace and kingdom, she decided to answer his summons. She then commenced her journey to Nabi Sulaimaan.