Mujahid, Sa`id bin Jubayr and others narrated from Ibn `Abbas and others that the hoopoe was an expert who used to show Sulayman where water was if he was out in open land and needed water. The hoopoe would look for water for him in the various strata of the earth, just as a man looks at things on the surface of the earth, and he would know just how far below the surface the water was. When the hoopoe showed him where the water was, Sulayman would command the Jinn to dig in that place until they brought water from the depths of the earth. One day Sulayman went to some open land and checked on the birds, but he could not see the hoopoe.
(and (Sulayman) said: "What is the matter that I see not the hoopoe Or is he among the absentees'') One day `Abdullah bin `Abbas told a similar story, and among the people was a man from the Khawarij whose name was Nafi` bin Al-Azraq, who often used to raise objections to Ibn `Abbas. He said to him, "Stop, O Ibn `Abbas; you will be defeated (in argument) today!'' Ibn `Abbas said: "Why'' Nafi` said: "You are telling us that the hoopoe can see water beneath the ground, but any boy can put seed in a trap and cover the trap with dirt, and the hoopoe will come and take the seed, so the boy can catch him in the trap.'' Ibn `Abbas said, "If it was not for the fact that this man would go and tell others that he had defeated Ibn `Abbas in argument, I would not even answer.'' Then he said to Nafi`: "Woe to you! When the decree strikes a person, his eyes become blind and he loses all caution.'' Nafi` said: "By Allah I will never dispute with you concerning anything in the Qur'an. ''
(I will surely punish him with a severe torment) Al-A`mash said, narrating from Al-Minhal bin `Amr from Sa`id that Ibn `Abbas said: "He meant, by plucking his feathers.'' `Abdullah bin Shaddad said: "By plucking his feathers and exposing him to the sun.'' This was also the view of more than one of the Salaf, that it means plucking his feathers and leaving him exposed to be eaten by ants.
(or slaughter him,) means, killing him.
(unless he brings me a clear reason.) i.e., a valid excuse. Sufyan bin `Uyaynah and `Abdullah bin Shaddad said: "When the hoopoe came back, the other birds said to him: "What kept you Sulayman has vowed to shed your blood.'' The hoopoe said: "Did he make any exception (did he say `unless')'' They said, "Yes, he said:
(I will surely punish him with a severe torment or slaughter him, unless he brings me a clear reason.) The hoopoe said, "Then I am saved.''
(22. But (the hoopoe) stayed not long, he said: "I have grasped which you have not grasped and I have come to you from Saba' with true news.'') (23. "I found a woman ruling over them, she has been given all things, and she has a great throne.'') (24. "I found her and her people worshipping the sun instead of Allah, and Shaytan has made their deeds fair seeming to them to prevent them from the way, so they have no guidance.'') (25. So they do not prostrate themselves before Allah, Who brings to light what is hidden in the heavens and the earth, and knows what you conceal and what you reveal.) (26. Allah, La ilaha illa Huwa, the Lord of the Supreme Throne!'')
(But (the hoopoe) stayed not long,) meaning, he was absent for only a short time. Then he came and said to Sulayman:
(I have grasped which you have not grasped) meaning, `I have come to know something that you and your troops do not know.'
(and I have come to you from Saba' with true news.) meaning, with true and certain news. Saba' (Sheba) refers to Himyar, they were a dynasty in Yemen. Then the hoopoe said:
(I found a woman ruling over them,) Al-Hasan Al-Basri said, "This is Bilqis bint Sharahil, the queen of Saba'.'' Allah's saying:
(she has been given all things,) means, all the conveniences of this world that a powerful monarch could need.
(and she has a great throne.) meaning, a tremendous chair adorned with gold and different kinds of jewels and pearls. The historians said, "This throne was in a great, strong palace which was high and firmly constructed. In it there were three hundred and sixty windows on the east side, and a similar number on the west, and it was constructed in such a way that each day when the sun rose it would shine through one window, and when it set it would shine through the opposite window. And the people used to prostrate to the sun morning and evening. This is why the hoopoe said:
(I found her and her people worshipping the sun instead of Allah, and Shaytan has made their deeds fair seeming to them, and has prevented them from the way,) meaning, from the way of truth,
(so they have no guidance.) Allah's saying:
(and Shaytan has made their deeds fair seeming to them, and has prevented them from the way, so they have no guidance, so they do not prostrate themselves before Allah.) They do not know the way of truth, prostrating only before Allah alone and not before anything that He has created, whether heavenly bodies or anything else. This is like the Ayah:
(And from among His signs are the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. Prostrate yourselves not to the sun nor to the moon, but prostrate yourselves to Allah Who created them, if you indeed worship Him.) (41:37)
(Who brings to light what is hidden in the heavens and the earth,) `Ali bin Abi Talhah reported that Ibn `Abbas said: "He knows everything that is hidden in the heavens and on earth.'' This was also the view of `Ikrimah, Mujahid, Sa`id bin Jubayr, Qatadah and others. His saying:
(and knows what you conceal and what you reveal.) means, He knows what His servants say and do in secret, and what they say and do openly. This is like the Ayah:
(It is the same whether any of you conceals his speech or declares it openly, whether he be hid by night or goes forth freely by day) (13:10). His saying:
(Allah, La ilaha illa Huwa, the Lord of the Supreme Throne!) means, He is the One to be called upon, Allah, He is the One other than Whom there is no god, the Lord of the Supreme Throne, and there is none greater than Him in all of creation. Since the hoopoe was calling to what is good, and for people to worship and prostrate to Allah alone, it would have been forbidden to kill him. Imam Ahmad, Abu Dawud and Ibn Majah recorded that Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) said that the Prophet forbade killing four kinds of animals: ants, bees, hoopoes and the sparrow hawks. Its chain of narration is Sahih.
(27. (Sulayman) said: "We shall see whether you speak the truth or you are (one) of the liars.'') (28. "Go you with this letter of mine and deliver it to them, then draw back from them and see what they return.'') (29. She said: "O chiefs! Verily, here is delivered to me a noble letter, '') (30. "Verily, it is from Sulayman, and it (reads): `In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful;') (31. `Be you not exalted against me, but come to me submitting (as Muslims).' '')
Allah tells us what Sulayman said to the hoopoe when he told him about the people of Saba' and their queen:
((Sulayman) said: "We shall see whether you speak the truth or you are (one) of the liars.'') meaning, `are you telling the truth'
(or you are (one) of the liars.) meaning, `or are you telling a lie in order to save yourself from the threat I made against you'
(Go you with this letter of mine and deliver it to them then draw back from them and see what they return.) Sulayman wrote a letter to Bilqis and her people and gave it to the hoopoe to deliver. It was said that he carried it on his wings, as is the way with birds, or that he carried it in his beak. He went to their land and found the palace of Bilqis, then he went to her private chambers and threw the letter through a small window, then he stepped to one side out of good manners. Bilqis was amazed and confused when she saw that, then she went and picked up the letter, opened its seal and read it. The letter said:
(it is from Sulayman, and it (reads): `In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful; Be you not exalted against me, but come to me submitting (as Muslims).') So she gathered her commanders and ministers and the leaders of her land, and said to them:
("O chiefs! Verily, here is delivered to me a noble letter.'') She described it as such because of the wondrous things she had seen, that it was delivered by a bird who threw it to her, then stood aside out of good manners. This was something that no king could do. Then she read the letter to them:
(Verily, it is from Sulayman, and it (reads): `In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful; Be you not exalted against me, but come to me submitting (as Muslims).') Thus they knew that it was from Allah's Prophet Sulayman, upon him be peace, and that they could not match him. This letter was the utmost in brevity and eloquence, coming straight to the point.
(Be you not exalted against me,) Qatadah said: "Do not be arrogant with me.
(but come to me submitting (as Muslims). )'' `Abdur-Rahman bin Zayd bin Aslam said: "Do not refuse or be too arrogant to come to me
(but come to me submitting (as Muslims).)''
(32. She said: "O chiefs! Advise me in case of mine. I decide no case till you are present with me.'') (33. They said: "We have great strength, and great ability for war, but it is for you to command; so think over what you will command.'') (34. She said: "Verily, kings, when they enter a town, they destroy it and make the most honorable among its people the lowest. And thus they do.'') (35. "But verily, I am going to send him a present, and see with what (answer) the messengers return.'')