To understand this criticism we must understand the verses under contention. In the Quran in Chapter 27 an incident is recounted in which the Prophet Solomon marches his army through The Valley of Naml and as he does so, a Namlite – a person from the tribe of Naml – tells the other Namlites to enter their homes lest Solomon’s army tramples them under their feet unknowingly. The words used for “enter” and “your homes” are used only for rational beings in the Quran. 

Sohail argues that the Quranic account of Solomon’s army marching through the people of Naml – a word that literally means “ants” – should be understood literally as many Muslims in the Middle Ages understood it – that Solomon’s army nearly crushed a colony of ants and that the ants were speaking to each other, and that Solomon heard their speech and understood it. 

Instead, the Ahmadiyya position is that the tribe referred to was known as the Tribe of Ants, in the same way that many other tribes in the region called themselves “Tribe of the Lion” or “Tribe of the Goat” and in the same way that a common Arabic name was Mazin, meaning literally “ant eggs”. 

He writes: 

The Qur’an contains a passage in the chapter entitled Ants that has traditionally been read as a retelling of how the speech of real ants was both heard and understood by Prophet Solomon. To this day, a sizable majority of the mainstream Muslim world continues to believe in this phenomenon as a literal miracle. Since Ahmadi Muslims believe Allah is consistent, anything in past scripture that sounds like magical powers, must be re-interpreted so as to sound more pedestrian. Ahmadi Muslims have no other choice but to re-interpret these verses of the Qur’an so as to not have them sound like a scene from Pixar’s A Bug’s Life…

Reason On Faith

He goes on to make the following points: 

  1. That the use of “homes” as a term for only rational beings is founded on a fairytale premise of the Quran – that ants and humans can communicate: What this exegesis conveniently overlooks is that if you start with a fairytale premise—that ants and humans can communicate with one another—then it is completely reasonable to use a word for ant dwellings that is also used for rational beings like us humans. He argues that the Ahmadi position is an overworked attempt at presenting the verses as metaphorical when in fact they were intended to be literal: It is my conclusion that Ahmadiyya Islam has toiled hard to rework Qur’anic verses which contain fairytales into lost idioms of language and manufactured metaphor.
  2. That without documented proof of a tribe called “The Ants” the explanation of the term “Ants” as referring to a tribe is incoherent: If we have no documented evidence of a tribe called “Ants” or Solomon’s interaction with them, then all of this geographical conjecture is really a meaningless filler and diversion.
  3. That the explanation given at length by the 2nd Khalifa (ra) in his commentary, through referencing multiple Arab tribes in various geographical locations on the peninsula was deliberately designed to bore the reader into submitting to the notion that it is metaphorical and not literally to be read as ants: I would posit that the strategy here was to purposely make this commentary passage confusing; to divert passive believers (via descent into irrelevant geography and non-English expressions) from the more obvious reading of the Qur’an. A plain reading of these verses has embarrassing implications… “Hmmm…lots of bits of Arabic here that even when translated doesn’t seem connected to any coherent argument. Now they’re talking about some obscure geography, but it’s well…conjecture. Hmmm…it’s too confusing to follow. Alright, here we go…the conclusion seems to be from all of this that it’s not literal ants referred to in the Qur’an. There’s no conflict with reality now, because the ants aren’t really ants. I don’t quite follow everything, but I’m glad someone else understands it. I may as well just skip along to the next verse.”
  4. That the first of three arguments given by a fascist Abul Ala Maududi in favour of a literal meaning is correct: Even if we took wad-in-naml to be the name of a valley and supposed that it was inhabited by the tribe of Bani an-Naml, it would be against the Arabic idiom and usage to speak of a member of the tribe as namlah. Although there are many Arab tribes which have been named after the animals, e.g. Kalb (dog), Asad (lion), etc”., yet no Arab would ever say in respect of a member of the Kalb or the Asad tribe: “A dog said, or a lion said, etc. Therefore, it would be against the Arabic idiom to say in respect of a member of the Naml tribe: “A namlah (ant) said this.”
  5. That the second of three arguments given by a fascist Abul Ala Maududi in favour of a literal meaning is also correct: Then a member of the Naml tribe’s warning the people of his tribe, saying, “O Namilites, get into your houses lest Solomon’s hosts should trample you down without even knowing it,” becomes meaningless, It has never happened that an army of men should have trampled down a group of men without knowing it.
  6. That the third of three arguments given by Abul Ala Maududi in favour of a literal meaning is also correct: Those who hold that wad-in -naml was the name of a valley have themselves pointed out that it had been so named because of the abundance of ants in it. Qatadah and Muqatil say, “It is a valley in the land of Syria where ants are found in abundance. But in no book of history and geography and in no archaeological research it is mentioned that it was inhabited by a tribe called Bani an-Naml. Thus, it is merely a concoction that has been invented to support one’s own interpretation.

The summary of Sohail’s displeasure is that he is persuaded by the Islamo-Fascist Maududi that the rational and reasonable interpretation offered by the Ahmadiyya community to the passage is incorrect, being persuaded that a literal interpretation fits the passage better.

Refutation

In a previous refutation, we covered the question of why the Quran recounts the incident of Solomon’s army and the people of the Tribe of Ants in the first place, and why particularly it uses certain phrases similar to those of the Bible. We explained that the Quran does this with numerous similar incidents in the Bible since the Quran is a correction of the errors and misunderstandings that have arisen from the Bible. Thus the Quran takes those stories and the language they utilise and places them in the explanatory framework of other verses of the Quran. We refer the reader to Refutation 11 for the full explanation.

With that out of the way, let’s take Sohail’s points one-by-one to make sure we don’t miss anything:

Firstly, Sohail dismisses the argument of the 2nd Khalifa (ra) unjustifiably because, put simply, he doesn’t understand Arabic grammar.

In Classical Arabic, reference to any group of animals is done in the feminine singular. This verse however refers to the ants in the masculine plural. The 2nd Khalifa (ra) explains that this indicates that they are humans – rational beings – known by the term ‘The Tribe of Ants’ and that they are not animals, being referred to. Had they been so, the feminine singular would have been used. Sohail however looks at the same facts and infers that these verses are based on the premise that ants are rational beings that can understand speech, which is why the feminine singular is not used.

The problem with his reasoning is that it is factually false, and the Quran itself proves it.

In Chapter 16 of the Quran, God addresses the bees. The verse states:

And thy Lord has inspired the bee, saying, ‘Make thou houses in the hills and in the trees and in the trellises which they build.

Quran 16:69

The term ‘the bee’ is an idiomatic manner of the plural in English as applied to animals. Thus, other translations such as that of Arberry and Muhammad Sarwar explicitly give the plural form of ‘bees’:

Your Lord inspired the bees, “Make hives in the mountains, in the trees and in the trellises,

(Muhammad Sarwar)

And thy Lord revealed unto the bees, saying: ‘Take unto yourselves, of the mountains, houses, and of the trees, and of what they are building.

(Arberry)

The point here is that the Arabic verb used to address a plurality of bees (an-Nahl; singular form being an-Nahlah) is in the feminine singular. This is despite the fact that the bee is being addressed by speech. Would God address an animal that could not understand His speech? Of course not. Yet the Quran still uses the feminine singular, and not the masculine plural form to denote the plurality of an animal.

This positively and comprehensively demonstrates Sohail’s (and Maududi’s) argument as wholly false. It shows that if the Quran was really referring to talking ants, it would have referred to them in the feminine singular, and not the masculine plural.

Secondly, Sohail argues that unless we have “documented proof” of a tribe called the “tribe of the Ants” then we cannot assume that the verse is speaking of a tribe of humans and then all of this geographical conjecture is really meaningless filler and diversion. This too is a strange position to take. He himself has quoted Maududi as stating that the valley of Naml in question is so called because there are a large number of ant colonies in the valley:

Qatadah and Muqatil say, “It is a valley in the land of Syria where ants are found in abundance.

Does Sohail not recognise the plain and obvious fact that throughout history, locations have been so named on account of their peculiar and unique features? Bradford in the UK for example, hails from the etymological root of “broad ford” referring to a ford that existed there. Warwick, also in the UK derives from the etymological root “wering” meaning “river dam” and “wic” referring to a “dairy farm”. Examples in every country of such etymologies abound in their thousands. Indigenous tribes across the world, moreover, have a long and well-established practice of naming themselves after the names of animals. Such a practice is most famous among the Native Americans and also among the aboriginal Australians. It was not any different for the Arab tribes who referred to themselves as “Tribe of the Lion” and “Tribe of the Camel” etc.

Certainly, Maududi goes on to argue that there is no reference of a tribe that lived there by that name. But so what? Was he well-versed in the archaeological history of Syriac tribes? Even if he was, what assurance is there that a tribe of the description given by the Quran did not live there in 1000 BCE, during the era of Solomon’s reign? These are matters buried in history. Maududi – like Sohail – finds it more implausible that a tribe of humans lived in a valley known for its ant colonies and thus were known as the tribe of ants, than that the Quran is referring to ants as rational human beings. 

All this does is highlight Maududi’s profound ignorance, and Sohail’s bias. 

Thirdly, Sohail argues that the explanation given by the 2nd Khalifa (ra) is deliberately detailed and involved so as to throw the reader off. It is a strange thing that a reader of a five-volume commentary of the Holy Quran should be thrown off by a passage that takes all of one minute to read. The commentary referred to is an academic text. Sohail seems annoyed that the 2nd Khalifa (ra) provided such detail as enabled a full refutation of his objection. 

Fourthly, Sohail cites the argument of Maududi that: …It would be against the Arabic idiom and usage to speak of a member of the tribe as namlah. Maududi argues that though a tribe might be called after a dog or a lion, the individual members of the tribe would never be referred to as dogs or lions, as this would be “against the Arabic idiom”. In stating this, Maududi – and again Sohail – evidence their superficial analyses. 

Once names are attributed to a people or person then they come to be used as proper nouns, not as attributive terms. Maududi and Sohail cannot imagine why a member of the Tribe of Ants (Tribe of “Naml”) would be referred to as a “Namlah” because that would literally translate to “Ant”. . Similarly, “Hindu” referred originally to someone living on the banks of the river Indus, yet the term itself became a proper noun, possessing significance independent of its original meaning. Examples abound through every language of the world. So it is absolutely not inconceivable that individual members of the Tribe of Ants would have referred to one another as “Ants”, since the word takes on a meaning independent of its original. Indeed, in many indigenous cultures, individuals are indeed named after animals and elemental forces of nature. The Native American culture was most famous for them, with names such as “Hula” (Eagle) and “Tala” (Wolf). Indeed, this is a practice that continues to this day, and the names of animals are used in common parlance as nicknames in all languages. Indeed, in Islamic history, one particular companion by the name of Abd al-Rahman ibn Sakhr Ad-Dausi came to be known as Abu Huraira, meaning “Father of a Kitten”, named as such by the Prophet Muhammad (sa) himself. 

Fifthly, Maududi argues that the statement of the individual indicates that he was addressing real ants, rather than a human tribe. For he says to his people, on observing the approaching army of Solomon that they should enter their houses “lest Solomon and his army crush you without realising”. 

Maududi asks the question as to how it could be possible that an army should crush a village without knowing. Maududi seems to misunderstand the entire import of the verse. The next verse tells of how Solomon, on hearing this statement of the Namlite smiled and laughed, before offering up a prayer to God full of gratitude. The Quran states: 

Thereupon he smiled, laughing at her words, and said, ‘My Lord, grant me the will and power to be grateful for Thy favour which Thou hast bestowed upon me and upon my parents, and to do such good works as would please Thee, and admit me, by Thy mercy, among Thy righteous servants.’

Quran 27:20

Why did he smile and laugh on hearing her warn her people to “enter your houses lest Solomon and his army crush you without realising”?

We should remember what Solomon’s army was doing. It was travelling through Arabia to Yemen, to confront the queen of Saba (Sheba). As they passed through the land, they came across various tribes, among whom Solomon’s army was well known for both their prowess and their virtue. Thus, the female Namlite, likely a leader of her people, warned them not to stand in the way of Solomon’s army, otherwise they would be destroyed by them. She warns them not to offer any resistance to their passing through their valley. She is moved by her concern for them to tell them to stay in their homes while Solomon’s army pass by. 

Yet not wanting to speak ill of Solomon or his forces, who were famed for their just behaviour and piety, she finished her warning with the words “…lest Solomon and his army crush you without realising”. She was offering a warning about the strength of Solomon’s army, but did not want to depict him as unlawfully aggressive or as a tyrannical leader. 

In both warning her people of his might and yet seeking to avoid speaking ill of him, she combined two sentiments that resulted in a strange statement that made Solomon smile and laugh. How indeed is it possible to crush a people without realising? It isn’t! That was precisely why Solomon smiled and laughed on hearing her words! And that was why he offered a prayer to God of gratitude that he and his parents had been bestowed such honour in the land, that people even in far-flung reaches of Arabia knew of his family’s piety and godliness, knowing that he would not knowingly act oppressively. Despite feeling compelled to warn her people to not offer any resistance to Solomon’s passage through their valley, the Namlite worded her warning in a manner that amused and pleased Solomon, reminding him of God’s favour upon himself and his parents. 

Indeed, if one reads the series of verses preceding the verse under contention, from 27:16 onwards, it becomes abundantly clear that the entire passage is narrated in order to highlight how Solomon inherited his father David’s good qualities and good reputation:

And We gave knowledge to David and Solomon, and they said, ‘All praise belongs to Allah, Who has exalted us above many of His believing servants.’ And Solomon was heir to David.

Quran 27:16-17

The verses go on to speak of how when Solomon and his armies came to the Valley known as Al-Naml, the following exchange took place:

…Until when they came to the Valley of Al-Naml, one woman of the tribe of the Naml said, ‘O ye Naml, enter your habitations, lest Solomon and his hosts crush you, while they know not.’

Quran 27:18

What a strange thing – the Quran explicitly tells the reader that Solomon found the woman’s words amusing and laughed at them, yet Maududi and Sohail still don’t get the hint! One may ask why the Quran narrates this incident and it is for a simple reason: To clear the prophets David and Solomon, peace be on them both, from the charge made in the Bible and in Jewish history that they were oppressors in the land. From the Islamic perspective, in Jewish literature, Prophets David and Solomon were so maligned that they are no longer even considered as Prophets anymore. The Quran also recounts how the Jewish nation – their clergy in particular –  were “cursed through the tongue of David” for the slander he faced from them. So the Quran recounts this incident so as to demonstrate how widespread love and respect was for them even in the far-flung reaches of indigenous tribes, cut off from the cities. 

Sixthly, Maududi argues that the Valley of the Ants is a known valley in which many ant colonies can be found. He argues that no tribe was ever known to live there. We have already addressed this point earlier in this reply.