One of my favorite narratives in the Qur’an describes the incredible story of two great leaders who exhibited deep wisdom and formidable power. They not only had vast affluence and dominion; they also enjoyed loyalty and allegiance from their followers, and had the potential to engage in warfare if necessary. One of these leaders was a prophet, and the son of a prophet and pious king. The other was a noblewoman and queen. It is none other than the story of Sulayman `alayhi as-salaam (peace be upon him), and Bilqees, the Queen of Sheba radi Allahu `anha (may God be pleased with her).
Oftentimes, what comes up when studying this story is the question of the permissibility of female state-leadership in Islam, or the concept of truth and monotheism eclipsing falsehood and disbelief. While these are important issues to discuss, the purpose of this series is, rather, to highlight some essential qualities of great leadership, as exemplified by Prophet Sulayman and the Queen of Sheba.
You might be thinking: Prophet Sulayman (as) was undoubtedly a great leader, but how was Bilqees? She worshiped the sun instead of its Creator, and completely misled her people! We can recall here, though, that many of the Qurashi chieftains were some of the biggest idol-worshipers (who also committed many major vices) before faith illuminated their hearts. Their transformation shows us that indulgence in evil and sinful acts – even associating partners with God – does not necessarily eliminate the inherent goodness and potential greatness in people. This is truly one of God’s greatest blessings.
Also, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) said: “The best of you in the ‘time of ignorance’ (Jahiliyyah) are the best of you in Islam, if they deeply comprehend the religion,” (Bukhari & Muslim). So, a person can definitely possess noble qualities, even before they adopt the correct religious beliefs. Umar ibn al-Khattab (ra) is a clear example. He was known in the pre-Islamic days for his intellectual fortitude, wisdom, physical strength, and unyielding commitment to truth, justice, maintaining kinship ties, and preserving unity amongst his people. When these moral values and ethical principles aligned themselves with the message of Islam, they bolstered Umar’s strength even further and allowed him to be one of Islam’s greatest supporters and advocates. Hind bint Utbah was also a bold and staunch enemy of the Muslims, and she even had the Prophet’s beloved uncle, Hamzah, killed and mutilated; but after she entered the fold of Islam, she became a fierce warrior who helped prevent Muslim soldiers from retreating off the battlefield.
So, in the case of Bilqees – although we do not have details in the Qur’an about her life after she accepted ‘Islam,’ we can still appreciate the positive qualities in her leadership before becoming a ‘Muslim.’ Also, since some of Bilqees and Sulayman’s leadership traits are complementary, we can view them as part of a comprehensive reservoir of exemplary leadership qualities that can be tapped into depending on the time, situation and environment.
As a final note, the traits to be discussed in this series are not exhaustive. If we were attempting to capture all the great qualities of a leader, we would turn to none other than our beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. This series is meant only to bring to light some characteristics that we can glean from the story as narrated in the Qur’an. Interestingly, though, there is a striking resemblance between Bilqees and Sulayman’s collective leadership traits, and those of Prophet Muhammad’s. He is (peace and blessings be upon him), after all, the quintessential leader of all time.
Throughout the series insha’Allah (God willing), some key elements of both Sulayman and Bilqees’ leadership will be discussed, as well as how we can benefit from their example in modern times.
I ask God, the Most Merciful and Generous, to bless this series and make it beneficial for all.