The 'flood of the dam' (sayl al-'arim) and the Dam of Ma'arib (the sadd of Ma` arib)
The word: عرم (` arim) in: فَأَرْسَلْنَا عَلَيْهِمْ سَيْلَ الْعَرِمِ (So We sent to them the flood of the dam - 16) carries several recognized meanings in terms of Arabic lexical usage and the scholars of tafsir have explained this verse in terms of every such meaning. But, the meaning more in consonance with the context of the Qur'an is the one that appears in the Arabic lexicons like Qamus, Sihah of Jawhari and others, that is, 'arim' means a dam that is made to block water. Sayyidna Ibn ` Abbas ؓ has also given the meaning of 'arim as dam. (Qurtubi)
The episode regarding the 'flood of the dam' referred: to in this verse, according to the statement of Ibn Kathir, is that in the country of Yemen, three miles away from its capital, San'a', there was a city by the name of Ma'arib settled in which the people of Saba' used to live. The city was located in between two mountains. Water from rains used to come from the two mountains, leaving the city inundated. The city had the reputation of being a target of such deluges. Rulers of the city (of those, Queen Bilquis has been mentioned particularly) built a strong and fortified dam between these two mountains, a dam that would remain unaffected by the flow of water. This dam stopped the serial surges of flooded water that entered from the two mountains and turned the place into a great big storage of water. Even the water from rains falling on the mountains started flowing in there. Provided inside this dam, there were three gates at appropriate levels, so that this storage of water could be released systematically for people of the city to irrigate their farms and gardens. To accomplish this objective, they would first open the topmost gate and use water as needed. When no water remained at that level, they would open the gate in the middle and after that came the turn of the third and last gate until came the time of rains next year, and the whole dam would stand filled to the brim all over again. Then, engineered and built under the dam, there was a huge big tank in which twelve outlets of water were provided to supply water to twelve canals serving different parts of the city with water flowing in all canals uniformly and was used to take care of various needs of the city. (Mazhari)
The slopes of the two mountains to the right and left of the city were landscaped with rows of gardens fed by canals of water. These gardens stood adjacent to each other in two continuous rows by the slopes of the mountains. Though many in number, but the Qur'an identified them as: جَنَّتَان (jannatan: Two gardens) because it has taken all the gardens in one row to be one due to their proximity, and then all the gardens on the other side as the other garden.
Trees and fruits of all sorts used to grow in these gardens so abundantly that, according to the statement of the leading early authority, Qatadah, and others, a woman would walk with an empty basket perched on her head, and it would automatically get filled with fruits falling off from the trees without the least need to make use of her hands. (Ibn Kathir)
The second sentence of verse 15: كُلُوا مِن رِّزْقِ رَبِّكُمْ وَاشْكُرُوا لَهُ بَلْدَةٌ طَيِّبَةٌ وَرَبٌّ غَفُورٌ(Eat of the provision from your Lord, and be grateful to Him-- (You have) a good city, and a Most-Forgiving Lord - 34:15) means that Allah Ta’ ala had ordered them through His prophets that they should make use of their extended means of livelihood provided by Allah Ta’ ala and continue to be grateful to Him through their good deeds and unfailing obedience to Divine injunctions, for He had made that city of theirs a really good city. It had a moderate climate without any extremes of heat or chill, so healthy, clean and bracing - to the extent that there was no trace of any hurting life forms like mosquitoes, flies, fleas, snakes and scorpions anywhere throughout the city. In fact, when travelers from outside would reach the city - having lice or other harmful parasites in their clothes - these would die off naturally as soon as they arrived there (Ibn Kathir)
At the end of the verse (15), by adding: بَلْدَةٌ طَيِّبَةٌ وَرَبٌّ غَفُورٌ(a good city) along with (a Most Forgiving Lord), reference to divine blessings has been made all the more perfect by suggesting that 'this good life is not restricted to the life of the present world, in fact, should you remain consistent with your gratefulness, the promise of greater and more everlasting blessings of the Hereafter also holds good. The reason is simple. He is the creator and master-dispenser of all blessings and the one who sustains you - and should you, at one or the other time, inadvertently fail to be grateful or betray by negligence or shortcoming, Allah Ta’ ala is a great forgiver too and will forgive your shortcomings.'
In verse 16, it was said: فَأَعْرَضُوا فَأَرْسَلْنَا عَلَيْهِمْ سَيْلَ الْعَرِمِ (Then they turned away. So We released over them the flood of the dam). In other words, 'when the people of Saba' flouted the commandments of Allah through their contumacy and rebellion, despite having such blessings and despite having been warned by the noble prophets, We released a flood from the dam over them.' We already know that 'arim means a dam. This flood was attributed to 'arim for the reason that this very 'arim, a source of security and prosperity, was transformed by Allah Ta’ ala into a source of calamity for them. According to an account of the event given by Sayyidna Ibn ` Abbas ؓ ، Wahb Ibn Munnabih, Qatadah, Dahhak and other early Tafsir authorities, when Allah Ta’ ala decided to undo the dam of Ma'rib ('arim) and punish and destroy these people through a flood, blind rats were set upon this great dam, who weakened its foundation and made it hollow. When came the time of rains and the flooding of water, the pressure of water broke through the already weakened foundation creating gaps and crevices in the dam. Ultimately, the water collected behind the dam ran over the entire valley in which this city of Ma'rib was located. Houses collapsed. Trees were uprooted. The water feeding the twin rows of gardens by the mountain slopes was dried up.
It appears in the report of Wahb Ibn Munabbih that it was already predicted in the books of these people that rats will destroy this dam. When people saw rats near the dam, they were alerted by the danger. As a defensive measure, a large number of cats were released under the dam in the hope that they would stop the rats from coming close to the dam.
But, when came the divine decree, the rats overcame the cats and entered into the foundation of the dam. Then there are historical narratives that also say that as soon as some smart and far-sighted people saw the rats, they decided to leave the place and move to somewhere else. In fact, they made the necessary arrangements and got out of there one by one. Others stayed. But, once came the flood, they too shifted. However, there were many who were swallowed by the flood. In short, the whole city was destroyed. Some details about residents of the city who had migrated to towns in other countries have been given in the Hadith of the Musnad of Ahmad appearing earlier. Six of their tribes were scattered in Yemen, four in Syria and some of these very tribes came to be the forerunners of the larger population of Madinah-at-Taiyyibah. Related details appear in books of history.
What happened to the twin rows of gardens after the coming of flood and the destruction of the city? This has been stated in the second sentence of verse 16 as: وَبَدَّلْنَاهُم بِجَنَّتَيْهِمْ جَنَّتَيْنِ ذَوَاتَيْ أُكُلٍ خَمْطٍ وَأَثْلٍ وَشَيْءٍ مِّن سِدْرٍ قَلِيلٍ (and replaced their two gardens with two gardens having fruits of bitter taste, and Tamarisk and some of the lot-trees), that is, their trees that yielded fruit having good taste were replaced by trees that bore fruit having an evil taste. As for the word: خَمْطٍ (Khamt), most commentators take it to mean the arak (a pungent, thorny desert tree). The lexicographer, Jawhari says that there is a kind of arak which bears some fruit and which is eaten. But, the fruit that grew on this tree was bad in taste. And ` Abu ` Ubaidah ؓ said that every tree that is thorny and of bitter taste is called: خَمْطٍ (khamt). The next word: اثل (athl) means a kind of tree that is also known in Arabic as طرفاء (turfa) according to the majority of commentators and both are generally equated with tamarisk in English. No fruit it bears is worth eating. Some commentators said that اثل 'athl' in the sense of samr (Mimosa, Egyptian thorn) or babul or کِیکَر kikar, (Acacia Arabica found in the subcontinent) is a thorny tree the fruit of which is fed to goats.
The word: سِدر (sidr) means بیری beri or بَیر ber in Urdu and is translated in English as the lote-fruit or lotus tree in English. Sidr is of two kinds. The one planted on farms bears fruits of pleasant taste (something close to crunchy pears) and carries more of fruits and less of thorns. The other kind is wild and grows in the form of thorny shrubs and trees with more thorns and less fruits that are bitter as well. At this place, the use of the word:' قَلِیل (qalil: little, some) along with (sidr: bair or lote) perhaps indicates that this too was wild which bears less fruit and is bitter. Allah knows best.