My current institution, Cambridge Muslim College, recently asked me to contribute a short and lightly edited extract from my forthcoming book. I have reblogged it from here.
Q. 38:34, ‘Indeed We tested Sulaymān and threw upon his throne a body, then he turned in repentance (thumma anāba)’, has been explained within the exegetical literature through a number of stories, often involving an impostor jinn stealing his signet ring and taking his position as ruler for a period of time. Another opinion is that the phrase ‘threw upon his throne a body’ refers to Sulaymān as gravely ill, such that he became, according to classical Arabic usage, as if ‘a body without a spirit’, or ‘a mere skeleton’.
Interestingly, both of these explanations are based on the idea of role reversal: Sulaymān, born to great wealth and power, is tested by being reduced to a state of powerlessness, a reminder for him that real authority is in the hands of God, and that he is only a delegated representative. The verb anāba is used in this verse for the meaning of turning back to God in repentance, yet the word can also connote the delegation of authority. The root meaning of nawb is that of returning to something again and again. In the context of the Qur’anic concept of khilāfa, it is the responsibility of stewardship that God entrusts time after time, as nations rise and fall, and people live and die.