I was once teaching the story of Prophet Solomon (pbuh)* in class with my students and we reached the part where Solomon noticed that the hoopoe bird was visibly absent. As you know, Solomon was not only a prophet, but a king. Therefore, he wielded temporal and religious authority. He had the power to communicate and control other species such as animals and even jinn. But in this episode, Solomon relied on the hoopoe bird to find water for him and his army during their outings. But because the bird was absent, Solomon became upset. The Qur’an tells us of this tense situation in the following verses, “And he took attendance of the birds and said, “Why do I not see the hoopoe – or is he among the absent? I will surely punish him with a severe punishment or slaughter him unless he brings me clear authorization,” Surah al-Naml Verses 20-21.
A student in my class remarked, “Solomon is so mean!” At that moment I understood that this student’s remarks could be a valuable teaching moment. Instead of dressing her down with a barrage of “How dare you speak rudely of a Prophet!” and possibly crushing an inquisitive nature that is innocent and free from any malice, I remarked, “Okay. It may seem to you that the Prophet is in your words, ‘mean.’ But let’s remember that a fundamental theological point is that we speak of Prophets and Messengers respectfully. Therefore, there must be a better explanation for why Solomon issued such severe threats.”
At that moment Allah (swt) allowed me to understand the verses in a completely different light. Because Solomon is a Prophet King and is inspecting his troops, his position as commander in chief cannot be ignored. I realized that in military law, deserters were treated as traitor for fear of them joining the enemies. Therefore, should a soldier return, they would face a court martial. There, a soldier can plead their case, be subject to discipline or even face death. That’s why the verse says, “I will surely punish him with a severe punishment or slaughter him unless he brings me clear authorization,” Surah al-Naml Verse 20-21. Therefore, what Solomon did was not “mean,” instead, quite standard and normative.
As teachers, we have to know how to navigate a child’s inquisitive nature while inculcating core values. Too often, our students face teachers who are taken back by bold questions. As a result, in order to save face, teachers silence students under the name of respect and fail to address the question in a rational manner. Students deserve patient and enlightening teachers. Conversely, teachers deserve good students who are respectful and inquisitive. Teachers must not fear saying,”You’ve stumped me,” or, “I don’t know!” Don’t let pride get in the way! Teachers have to be aptly trained in the Islamic and western sciences to provide sound reasoning. Teachers need to know the right moment to impress on their students certain values while teaching.
A classroom is a safe-place for this intellectual exercise. While students might need some stern guidance from time to time, what they need more in this time and age is rationale and sound discussion. Otherwise, we risk alienating our students, turning them away from the love of the deen, and worse, enforcing the myth that religion leaves no room for discussion or thought.
*Applied to all instances where Prophets are mentioned.