In the Name of Allah; the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful
Continuing our theme of the esoteric meanings found in the Suhuf-i-Mutahhara (the Qur’an), we come to the passage referring to the Valley of Ants:
حَتَّىٰ إِذَا أَتَوْا عَلَىٰ وَادِ النَّمْلِ قَالَتْ نَمْلَةٌ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّمْلُ ادْخُلُوا مَسَاكِنَكُمْ لَا يَحْطِمَنَّكُمْ سُلَيْمَانُ وَجُنُودُهُ وَهُمْ لَا يَشْعُرُونَ
Until, when they came upon the Valley of the Ants, an ant said, “O ants, enter your dwellings that you not be crushed by Solomon and his soldiers while they perceive not.” (Sura 27:18)
The phrase “Valley of the Ants” is interesting, because ants are not ordinarily associated with valleys. Ants, as in the insect, live in colonies and build unique nests for themselves. Ants are fascinating creatures, according to the article on them in Wikipedia: “Ant societies have division of labour, communication between individuals, and an ability to solve complex problems. These parallels with human societies have long been an inspiration and subject of study.”
In addition to the fact that ants are already recognized as creatures that have “parallels with human societies”, the Holy Qur’an elsewhere gives similitudes of animals with human beings. For example:
أَمْ تَحْسَبُ أَنَّ أَكْثَرَهُمْ يَسْمَعُونَ أَوْ يَعْقِلُونَ إِنْ هُمْ إِلَّا كَالْأَنْعَامِ بَلْ هُمْ أَضَلُّ سَبِيلًا
Or do you think that most of them hear or reason? They are not except like livestock. Rather, they are [even] more astray in [their] way. (25:44)
Allah Most High compares the astray human beings who lack reason to livestock or cattle.
مَثَلُ الَّذِينَ حُمِّلُوا التَّوْرَاةَ ثُمَّ لَمْ يَحْمِلُوهَا كَمَثَلِ الْحِمَارِ يَحْمِلُ أَسْفَارًا
The example of those who were entrusted with the Torah and then did not take it on is like that of a donkey who carries volumes of books (62:5)
Allah Most High compares the Jewish rabbis, scribes and teachers of the law who were entrusted with the Holy Torah but subsequently failed to follow its precepts to a donkey which is overloaded with books. For the donkey, which is unable to gain any benefit from the books, the heavy load it is forced to carry is only a burden. Elsewhere, the Holy Qur’an compares the polytheists who flee from the preaching of the Prophet (Sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) to “alarmed donkeys” (74:50).
فَمَثَلُهُ كَمَثَلِ الْكَلْبِ إِن تَحْمِلْ عَلَيْهِ يَلْهَثْ أَوْ تَتْرُكْهُ يَلْهَث
So his example is like that of the dog: if you chase him, he pants, or if you leave him, he [still] pants. (7:176)
Allah Most High compares one who was given knowledge of Allah’s Signs but subsequently detaches himself from them to a dog.
And there are many other such similitudes to be found from the authentic Ahadith of the Prophet (Sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam).
Returning to the ants, it is not at all too far fetched to understand the meaning of “ants” along these lines of descriptive or expressive allegory.
Another strong indication of this is the meaning of the roots from which the names of certain animals are derived. For example, according to the Arabic-English Dictionary of Qur’anic Usage, the meaning of ح-م-ر (H-M-R) from which the word donkey is derived is, among other things: “to be difficult; donkey” (p.234) Similarly, the meaning of خ-ن-ز-ر (KH-N-Z-R) the root from which the name for pig is derived, is, among other things: “to be rough and crude; pig” (p.287). The meaning ofك-ل-ب (K-L-B) from which the name for dog is derived, is: “dog, any wild animal, to train animals and birds for hunting; to become fierce; rabies; to fight over; hanging hook; gluttony” (p.815) And likewise, the meaning of ق-ر-د (Q-R-D) from which the name for monkey is derived, is, among other things: “to deceive; to subdue, to humiliate; monkey” (p.749). Taking into consideration these linguistic meanings associated with the root from which the names of all these animals, we can definitely say that Himaar, apart from meaning an actual donkey, can also mean a person who is stubborn or “difficult”. Khinzeer means pig but also a person who is “rough” and “crude”. Kalb means dog but also a person who is “fierce” and combative. Qird means an ape or monkey but also a person who has been “subdued” or “humiliated”.
Likewise, let us consider the linguistic meaning of the root ن-م-ل (N-M-L) from which the name for ant is derived: “ants; tips of the fingers; to invisibly mend a garment; to tell lies; to be restless, active person.” (p.966) In summary, the word Namlah (a singular ant) can mean a “restless, active person”, apart from the actual insect. Again, this is taking it from a purely linguistic point of view. Our interpretation is reinforced and strengthened by the fact that the Holy Qur’an is a religious text that naturally employs allegory, parables, and symbolism. Finally, the anthropomorphic description of the “ant” in Sura 27, for example, the term “Valley of the Ants”, the speaking of the ant and commanding the other ants to enter into their “dwellings” lends further credence to the view that in this passage the “ants” can mean an active or laborious people who were quartered in a particular valley. Allah Most High has referred to them as “ants” to expressively describe the fact that they were hard-working laborers, perhaps already in the employment of Prophet Solomon (and Allah knows best). It is noteworthy that “ants” are mentioned in the Book of Proverbs attributed to Prophet Solomon (Proverbs 6:6, 30:24).
The order to the “ants” that they should enter into their dwellings lest they be crushed by Solomon and his forces is understood to mean that when a mighty king and his cavalry march through some inhabited valley civilians are usually trampled under foot and it is expected that they should remove themselves from harm and seek safety inside their dwellings, (and Allah knows best).