In previous verses, warning was given to those who denied prophethood and the Day of Judgment and failed to realize that the power of Allah Ta’ ala was most perfect. Reference was then made to miracles shown at the hands of past prophets and mention was made of the events relating to Sayyidna Dawud and Sayyidna Sulayman (علیہما السلام) .
Now the text mentions the limitless blessings bestowed on the people of Saba' who were later punished because of their ungratefulness.
The people of Saba' and the particular blessings of Allah upon them
Ibn Kathir has said that Saba' is the title of the kings and citizens of Yemen. Tababi'ah (plural of tubba' ) who ruled this country were these very people of Saba', and Queen Bilquis who has been mentioned along with Sayyidna Sulayman (علیہ السلام) in Surah An-Naml was also from among these people. Allah Ta’ ala had opened the doors of His blessing on them providing their state with all conceivable comforts. Against these blessings they were asked to believe in one God and obey His commandments and thus be grateful for blessings bestowed on them. For a certain period of time, these people stayed straight with their mandate and kept enjoying ease and comforts. Then came the time when they became so engrossed in the good things of life they were blessed with that they started touching the limits of negligence, even denial. Then Allah Ta’ ala sent thirteen of His prophets to warn them. They did their best to admonish them and bring them round to the straight path. But, these people kept persisting with their attitude of negligence. Then came the consequence. A flood was sent over them, a punishment that devastated their once flourishing city of gardens. (Reported by Muhammad Ibn Ishaq - Ibn Kathir)
Imam Ahmad (رح) reports from Sayyidna Ibn ` Abbas ؓ that someone asked the Holy Prophet ﷺ if Saba' mentioned in the Qur'an was the name of a man, woman or some country. The Holy Prophet ﷺ said: This is the name of a man who had ten sons among his progeny. Out of these, six remained settled in Yemen and four migrated to Syria. The names of those who lived in Yemen were: Mudhhij, Kindah, Azd, Ash'ari, Anmar, Himyar (from the progeny of these six sons, there came to be six tribes known by those very names).
And the names of those who settled in Syria are: Lakham, Judham, ` Amilah, Ghassan (tribes coming in their lines were known by the same names). This narration has also been reported by Hafiz Imam Ibn ` Abd-ul-Barr in his book, al-Qasd wa al-Amam bi Ma'arifati Ansab-il 'Arab wa-l-'Ajam.
According to Ibn Kathir's research with reference to scholars of genealogy, these ten sons were not directly from the loins of Saba’; rather, they were born in the third or fourth generation of Saba'. After that, their tribes spread out in Syria and Yemen and got to be known by their very names. And the real name of Saba' was ` Abd-ush-Shams. His genealogical tree becomes established by the name Saba' ` Abd Shams son of Yashhab son of Ya'rub son of Qahtan. Historians write that Saba’ Abd Shams had, during this time, given the glad tidings of the coming of the Last Prophet, Sayyidna Muhammad al-Mustafa ﷺ . It is possible that he came to know about it from early books of the Torah and Injil, or from astrologers or soothsayers. He has also composed some lines of poetry in Arabic in which he has mentioned his coming and wished to have been during his time and been of some help to him. Then, he has also exhorted his people to believe in him and support him.
As for the statement of the Hadith quoted above in which it is said that out of the ten sons of Saba', six settled in Yemen and four went towards Syria, this event relates to the time after the coming of the punishment of flood against them which means that these people had scattered towards different directions and cities at the time the flood came. (Ibn Kathir) Quoting Qushairi, al-Qurtubi has reported that the period of the people of Saba' is after Sayyidna ` Isa (علیہ السلام) and before the coming of the Holy Prophet ﷺ ، and thus it falls in the period known as: فترۃ (fatrah or gap).