Solomon and Sayf ibn Dhī Yazan


Solomon Legends in Sīrat Sayf ibn Dhī Yazan

 Sīrat Sayf ibn Dhī Yazan (“The Adventures of Sayf b. Dhī Yazan”) is a late-medieval Egyptian popular epic that recounts the story of the life and adventures of King Sayf b. Dhī Yazan, son of the Yemenite king Dhū Yazan.1 Set against the background of a war with the king of Ḥabash,2 Sayf Arʿad, it tells the story of how Sayf b. Dhī Yazan (henceforth “Sayf”) leads his people into Egypt, diverts the Nile to its current course, and then goes on to conquer the realms of men and jinn in the name of Islam. Set in legendary pre-Islamic time, it rewrites history to present Egypt as born out of a “reverse exodus” led by a proto-Islamic, Yemeni king.3 As is common in Arabic popular literature, Sīrat Sayf draws much of its material from a pool of popular and folkloric story patterns, motifs, and tropes, which are pieced together in a unique way so as to tell its story. It also makes intertextual reference to stories, legends, and other narratives in ways that enrich the thematic subtext and convey meaning. From this perspective, references to the Islamic qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ (“tales of the prophets”) play a significant role in the text. Not only do they anchor the proto-Islamic world of Sīrat Sayf in Islamic legendary world history, but the associations they bring into the text also nuance the characterization of Sīrat Sayf’s main protagonists and help to create subtextual and thematic complexity.

This article investigates a number of direct references made to legends about the prophet Solomon within Sīrat Sayf in order to explore how this particular sīrah uses the “Solomon” intertext and to what end.4 It focuses primarily on two particular episodes in the sīrah, during both of which stories about Solomon and the Queen of Sheba are recounted by characters within the text. After introducing these stories in the first section of this article, the second section assesses the intertextual relevance of the Islamic Solomon legend to Sīrat Sayf. It analyses how these stories, and the episodes in which they are embedded, relate to the Solomon legends as found in premodern qiṣaṣ sources, and how Sīrat Sayf uses intertextual reference to Solomon legends to express its own thematic agenda. In a previous study, I have argued that Sayf is, at its core, a discussion of kingship, fitness to rule, and the importance to society of keeping the forces of order and chaos in balance, and that it expresses this struggle largely through the literary use of gender (according to which, broadly speaking, the female embodies the forces of chaos, and the male the forces of order).5 The use of intertextual reference to other narratives is a key element of this discussion. The final section explores the intertextual relevance of the Ethiopian story of Solomon, Bilqīs, and their son Menelik found in the Kǝbrä Nägäst to the Sayf text.

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