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The ant as the redoubtable ‘teacher’

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In the name of the Allah, the Beneficent the Merciful

And your Lord inspired to the bee, “Take for yourself among the mountains, houses [i.e., hives], and among the trees and [in] that which they construct (Quran 16: 68).

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Yes. In their stories (Quran 12: 111) are profound lessons for humanity. In the stories told by the Almighty to us in the Quran about animals, birds and fish in the ocean, there are guidelines to us on how we might successfully live our lives here on this earth preparatory to eternity. The story I want to share with us today is that of the ant. It was sent to me by one of the readers of this column. It is the story of the ant in pursuit of the unattainable.

Recall that the ant, like other creatures of the Almighty, has enjoyed such uncanny patronage in Quranic discourses. Remember their physiology – the physiology of the ants – that all-male ants have wings; that all worker ants are females; and that all ants that do not have wings are definitely females. Recall the story of the ant and the prophet of the Almighty, Sulayman (a.s) as is told to us in the Quran (27: 17-20).

Prophet Sulayman was blessed exceptionally. He was endowed with, among others, the ability to understand the speeches of almost all the creatures of the Almighty. Then it happened that one day, he was on his itinerary around the kingdom given to him by the Almighty. “Until when they came upon the Valley of Ants, then an ant said, “O ants! Go into your nests, lest Sulayman and his troops crush you without noticing. He (Prophet Sulayman) smiled and laughed at her words. He then supplicated to the Almighty saying: “My Lord, direct me to be thankful for the blessings you have bestowed upon me and upon my parents, and to do good works that please You. And admit me, by Your grace, into the company of Your virtuous servants.”

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The encounter between Prophet Sulayman and the ant that day has been subjecting of uncountable and prodigious exegetical engagements. Its inner lessons included the necessity for humans to show gratitude to the Almighty for His mercies. It included the fact that when your brother prides himself over some favours from the Almighty, keep in mind that there are greater favours that could still be yours. But this story of Prophet Sulayman and the ant serves only prefatory value for the story below.

One Sunday morning, a wealthy man sat in his balconyto enjoy the sunshine and savour nature in its most beautiful and sublime texture. Suddenly, he saw an ant that was busy moving from one part of the balcony to the other, carrying a big leaf several times more than its size. The man watched it for more than one hour. He saw that the ant faced many impediments during its journey, paused, took a diversion and then continued towards its destination. At one point, the tiny creature came across a crack in the floor. It paused for a little while, did as if it were doing a ‘forensic’ assessment of the situation and then laid the huge leaf over the crack, walked over the leaf, picked the leaf on the other side then continued its journey.

The man was captivated by the cleverness of the ant, one of God’s tiniest creatures. The incident left the man in awe and forced him to contemplate the miracle of creation. It showed the greatness of the Creator. Before his very eyes was this tiny creature of God, lacking in size, yet equipped with a brain to analyse, contemplate, reason, explore, discover and overcome challenges of life. Despite all these capabilities, the man also noticed that the tiny creature shared some human shortcomings. Hardly is there a creature of the Almighty that does not have its imperfections.

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In other words, about an hour after the creature had reached its destination, a tiny hole in the floor which was the entrance to its underground dwelling, the ant’s shortcomings became pertinent. The man wondered – how would the ant succeed in taking the large leaf through the tiny hole and then inside its dwelling? Simply an impossibility!

Thus, the tiny creature, after all the hard work after it has borne all the difficulties along its way, eventually left the large leaf behind and entered its dwelling empty-handed! Yes. The ant had not thought about the end before it began its challenging journey. It could not envision the reality that all material acquisitions shall be useless on the day of departure to the otherworldly.

The ant is, therefore, a metaphor for what we burden our lives with here on earth – our family, family and our job. We worry about what to eat, where to live, and what to wear. How to walk, etc. But all of these would not matter on the day when, like the ants, we shall have to enter our own ‘hole’ inside the earth.

*Afis Ayinde Oladosu is a professor of Middle Eastern, North African and Cultural Studies, Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

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