This surah takes its title from a story told about the people of Sheba, another name for the ancient Kingdom of Saba in southern Arabia, in modern-day Yemen. The Sabean Kingdom lasted from about 1200 B.C.E. to about 275 C.E., which means that, by the time the Qur'an was written in the 600s B.C.E., the Sabeans were an important, but distant, memory.
"Sheba" gives a religious explanation for why that ancient kingdom fell. Basically, God blessed them with two bountiful gardens, and asked only that they showed him gratitude. But, like the ancient Israelites complaining about God's provision in the wilderness of Sinai, the Sabeans were ungrateful. So God sent a flood, which destroyed the two bountiful gardens. In their place, there rose up "others that yielded bitter fruit, tamarisk bushes, and a few lote trees." Lote trees are notoriously thorny. Probably because of the unproductivity of the land, the Sabeans were scattered, and their kingdom fell.
The "moral" of the story is quite clear--give proper gratitude to God for what you have. Of course, the real reasons for the fall of the Sabean Kingdom were more complex, involving many sporadic civil wars between rival dynasties. But where's the moral in that?
|Here is a bust of a Sabean priestess, who intercedes with the sun goddess on behalf of the donor. (1st century C.E.)|