The making of “Solomon and the Queen”
Category : Media
By Sohaib Saeed
Just as we are celebrating ten years since the launch of Quranica, it is now nine years since one of our most memorable events. On 13th August 2006, a world-renowned reciter – Sh. Hajjaj Ramadan al-Hindawi – sat down in Edinburgh’s Central Mosque to recite at the end of a whole weekend of Quranica events in Scotland.
It was quite a journey getting him over to join us, but that is perhaps another story for another time!
At this Sunday event, we did things differently, and more traditionally. We didn’t give the reciter any instructions. He began to recite from Surat al-Naml, and the story of Prophet Sulaiman and his encounters with the ants, birds and jinns, and then with the Queen of Sheba.
He recited with a mesmerising style that made us all quiver from the beauty of the Qur’an and the power of its narrative. We usually project a translation to make it easier to understand, but not today; yet there was at least one young non-Muslim man who sat and listened through the entire recital (almost an hour straight).
If you were there that afternoon, you know how magical it was. Even the movement of the sun through the hall – as it was after ‘Asr prayer and getting closer to sunset – added another dimension of beauty, and somehow chimed with the themes of the story.
I knew that this needed to be edited in a special way, but the right person – and the right idea – didn’t come along for quite some time. It was in early 2015 that I finally felt the time was right, and I began to discuss some ideas with our talented cinematographer, Azam Khan.
My initial vision was about interspersing the recitation with commentary, but the specifics of how this would look went through some phases of thinking as well as trial and error! We first shot the commentary in the Edinburgh Central Mosque, to give the impression that it had happened simultaneously with the recitation. But it just didn’t look good enough. And so the idea of using scenic locations evolved out of this.
We chose locations which could help advance the narrative and evoke the viewer’s imagination. Of course the real “valley of the ants” wouldn’t have been as green as the Scottish valley we chose in the Campsie hills, but that is not what we are claiming! Then there was Sheba’s palace, which is actually the stairway leading to the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow. Solomon’s court is the quadrangle, while the entranceway to his palace are the cloisters. For all this, we secured special permission from the University. One of our favourite shots was of the King’s “palace” in the distance, which is actually the Kelvingrove gallery.
Another stylistic feature we introduced in this film is its division into seven “scenes”: The Humble Kings of the Israelites; The Queendom of the Ants; The Hoopoe Goes AWOL; The Queen of Sheba’s Court; A Bribe Rejected; The Challenge; and En Route to the Palace. The idea of these was primarily to help the viewer to follow the progression of the story, especially those who are less used to the Qur’an’s narrative style, which may jump from one setting to another. These scene screens are accompanied by illustrations, which are not only visually engaging, but should help anyone who has no idea what a hoopoe is, for example!
We kept the recitation at the very heart of the film. To make it easier for people who might lack the stamina to watch 45 minutes of straight recitation, we divided that into roughly 5-minute sections with commentary in between, helping the viewer to understand what is going on. We trimmed the recitation itself only a little. One of the core challenges of this project was to mix the original footage – now nine years old – with new high-definition footage, and this is something we could only be successful in to a certain extent.
In presenting this film in which the Qur’an itself – through this recitation – is placed centre-stage, we have in mind three target markets in particular:
- Those who already love this kind of recitation, but do not have the habit of studying the meanings of what they hear. (At the time of writing, an unofficial recording of the event which forms the basis of our film has had over 40,000 views on YouTube.)
- Those who are fascinated by the meanings of the Qur’an, but do not have the habit of listening directly to its words, or perhaps even reading them from the page. How is it that recitation could become marginalised in the contemporary Quranic experience? Or that tilawah (recitation) and tadabbur (reflection) could have become separated?
- Seekers of truth and beauty from every background and community.
Subtitles were carefully prepared and added with precision to each phrase recited of the Qur’an. These were adapted based on the same research which went into the commentary. I elaborate on the interpretive issues of the commentary in a separate post.