Dhul-Qarnayn and the Sun Setting in a Muddy Spring (Part Two)
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The precise meaning of the opening phrases in verses 86 and 90 in the 18th chapter of the Qur’an, Surah al-Kahf, or “The Cave”, is a matter of considerable controversy. These verses occur within the Dhu’l Qarnayn episode in Qur’an 18:83-101. This passage says that Allah empowered a person called Dhu’l Qarnayn, “the two-horned one”, and gave him means or ways to all things. It says he used these to go on three journeys to unusual places where people live, and finishes with him making a prophecy about the end-times. Verses 86 and 90 are so controversial due to Muslim sensitivity to claims that they have Allah saying that the sun sets and rises in physical locations, and in particular that the sun sets in a muddy spring.
While many people have written about these verses to promote various interpretations, there are many new, important arguments, and much more evidence that can be used to shed light on this matter. This is particularly true concerning 18:90, which is relatively neglected in such writings.
This article will present the strongest case for each of the many different interpretations of the controversial phrases, even giving new arguments that support them, before critically examining them and reaching conclusions.
Surah al-Kahf 83-101
Translation (Yusuf Ali)
84. Verily We established his power on earth, and We gave him the ways and the means to all ends.
85. One (such) way he followed,
86. Until, when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it set in a spring of murky water: Near it he found a People: We said: “O Zul-qarnain! (thou hast authority,) either to punish them, or to treat them with kindness.”
87. He said: “Whoever doth wrong, him shall we punish; then shall he be sent back to his Lord; and He will punish him with a punishment unheard-of (before).
88. “But whoever believes, and works righteousness,- he shall have a goodly reward, and easy will be his task as We order it by our Command.”
89. Then followed he (another) way,
90. Until, when he came to the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had provided no covering protection against the sun.
91. (He left them) as they were: We completely understood what was before him.
92. Then followed he (another) way,
93. Until, when he reached (a tract) between two mountains, he found, beneath them, a people who scarcely understood a word.
94. They said: “O Zul-qarnain! the Gog and Magog (People) do great mischief on earth: shall we then render thee tribute in order that thou mightest erect a barrier between us and them?
95. He said: “(The power) in which my Lord has established me is better (than tribute): Help me therefore with strength (and labour): I will erect a strong barrier between you and them:
96. “Bring me blocks of iron.” At length, when he had filled up the space between the two steep mountain-sides, He said, “Blow (with your bellows)” Then, when he had made it (red) as fire, he said: “Bring me, that I may pour over it, molten lead.”
97. Thus were they made powerless to scale it or to dig through it.
98. He said: “This is a mercy from my Lord: But when the promise of my Lord comes to pass, He will make it into dust; and the promise of my Lord is true.”
99. On that day We shall leave them to surge like waves on one another: the trumpet will be blown, and We shall collect them all together.
100. And We shall present Hell that day for Unbelievers to see, all spread out,-
101. (Unbelievers) whose eyes had been under a veil from remembrance of Me, and who had been unable even to hear.
84. Inna makkanna lahu fee al-ardi waataynahu min kulli shay-in sababan
85. FaatbaAAa sababan
86. Hatta itha balagha maghriba alshshamsi wajadaha taghrubu fee AAaynin hami-atin wawajada AAindaha qawman qulna ya tha alqarnayni imma an tuAAaththiba wa-imma an tattakhitha feehim husnan
87. Qala amma man thalama fasawfa nuAAaththibuhu thumma yuraddu ila rabbihi fayuAAaththibuhu AAathaban nukran
88. Waamma man amana waAAamila salihan falahu jazaan alhusna wasanaqoolu lahu min amrina yusran
89. Thumma atbaAAa sababan
90. Hatta itha balagha matliAAa alshshamsi wajadaha tatluAAu AAala qawmin lam najAAal lahum min dooniha sitran
91. Kathalika waqad ahatna bima ladayhi khubran
92. Thumma atbaAAa sababan
93. Hatta itha balagha bayna alssaddayni wajada min doonihima qawman la yakadoona yafqahoona qawlan
94. Qaloo ya tha alqarnayni inna ya/jooja wama/jooja mufsidoona fee al-ardi fahal najAAalu laka kharjan AAala an tajAAala baynana wabaynahum saddan
95. Qala ma makkannee feehi rabbee khayrun faaAAeenoonee biquwwatin ajAAal baynakum wabaynahum radman
96. Atoonee zubara alhadeedi hatta itha sawa bayna alsadafayni qala onfukhoo hatta itha jaAAalahu naran qala atoonee ofrigh AAalayhi qitran
97. Fama istaAAoo an yathharoohu wama istataAAoo lahu naqban
98. Qala hatha rahmatun min rabbee fa-itha jaa waAAdu rabbee jaAAalahu dakkaa wakana waAAdu rabbee haqqan
99. Watarakna baAAdahum yawma-ithin yamooju fee baAAdin wanufikha fee alssoori fajamaAAnahum jamAAan
100. WaAAaradna jahannama yawma-ithin lilkafireena Aaardan
101. Allatheena kanat aAAyunuhum fee ghita-in AAan thikree wakanoo la yastateeAAoona samAAan
Part Two: What do Qur’an 18:86 and 18:90 say happened next?
Following on from part one, this part looks at the different interpretations of the phrases:
…he found it set in a spring of murky water…
…he found it rising on a people for whom We had provided no covering protection against the sun.
The main questions are what does wajadaha mean in these phrases, are the things found being described figuratively, from whose point of view is the story told, and is the story meant to be a fictional fable or an historical account?
We saw earlier that some commentators claimed that the phrase in 18:86 is describing Dhu’l Qarnayn’s point of view that the sun appeared to set into the sea when he could see to the horizon. Before examining what wajadaha means, let us see if this fits the context and common sense.
There is no contextual support for the later commentators’ interpretation and many contextual problems. There is no reason to remark on what the sun merely appeared or was mistakenly thought to be doing in 18:86, as Cornelius argues. We should also notice that there would be no reason to describe the nature of the spring (murky / muddy / hot) unless something happened at the spring itself.
If Dhu’l Qarnayn had just traveled until the time of sunrise or to the east in 18:90, but no closer to the sun, it seems odd that the people are described only in terms of how the sun affects them (it rises on them and they have been given no covering protection from it).
The alternative to the clear and obvious interpretation is to suppose that these features being in the text next to words that literally and commonly mean the setting and rising places of the sun are a series of strange coincidences. Given these reasons, the only interpretation that makes sense in the context is that Dhu’l Qarnayn found the sun actually setting in a spring and rising close to a people.
Spring or ocean?
One could also question the claim that a powerful man, intelligent enough that people would offer him tribute for his help (18:94) could be so badly mistaken as to think he had found the sun to be setting in a muddy spring or even that he could regard it as having the misleading appearance of doing so while he knows it is not in reality.
To support this claim, a large body of water would be needed that extended to the horizon, so it is often claimed that AAaynin (which has the genitive case because it is the object of a preposition, but the case is not translated in English) means a sea rather than a spring. We shall see below that Cornelius is correct to state that this word means “spring or well not ocean or sea”.
Lane’s Lexicon explains that this word, which usually means an eye, is also used to mean a spring or source of water (because from the eye springs forth tears).
While there is no apparent limit on the size of the spring, the lexicon does not give the slightest indication that AAayn is ever used to mean a sea or an ocean, which are generally not like a source of water from the ground. The verses in the Qur’an where AAaynun is used in the water rather than eye sense are as follows:
2:60, 7:160, 15:45, 26:57, 26:134, 26:147, 34:12, 36:34, 44:25, 44:52, 51:15, 54:12, 55:50, 55:66, 76:6, 76:18, 77:41, 83:28, 88:5, 88:12.
In every case, all the major Qur’an translations translate this word as spring, waterspring, fountain, font, or fount with the following exceptions:
In 15:45 Sarwar has “streams”;
In 44:25 M. Asad has “water-runnels”;
In 55:66 Khalifa translates AAaynani naddakhatani as “wells to be pumped” (most have here “springs gushing forth”);
In 76:18 and 83:28 M. Asad has “a source”.
It is only in verse 18:86 that AAayanin is translated differently. Here some translate “AAaynin hamiatin” as “a black sea” (Shakir, M. Ali), “a vast ocean” (Khalifa), “an ocean / spring” (Malik), “the Black Sea / the dark waters” (QXP), and “a dark, turbid sea” (M. Asad).
This has obviously been done to fit the interpretation of those commentators who claimed that Dhu’l Qarnayn reached the coast and saw the sun set behind the horizon. It is not in any way justified from internal evidence nor even from any hadith. The word al bahr would have been used in the Qur’an if the meaning were a sea. It is used to mean a sea, ocean, large river or any large body of water. It is used in this way 41 times in the Qur’an.
There were at least two different readings of the word used to describe the spring. Most translations use hamiatin, meaning muddy. Only the Sarwar and Free Minds translations use the other reading, which they translate as “warm” or “boiling”. Perhaps a hot bubbling mud spring as is often found in geothermically active areas was imagined by the original source for the phrase. We saw some of the hadith relating to this controversy quoted above. There is also one from among the 6 major Sunni hadith collections.
Oceans and seas are not muddy. While an ocean might look dark at sunset, even up to the horizon, it would be clear the next day to observers that it is water rather than mud and is light or dark blue or blue-grey. It should now be very clear that “AAaynin hamiatin” does not mean any kind of sea or ocean and the next question is to examine the plausibility of an illusion.
A plausible illusion?
An important point is that no one would think they could see where the sun set or appeared to set into just because they can see to the horizon. It appears no larger, and therefore no closer, wherever on Earth you observe sunset. If you knew that you had traveled west around 90km and believed you were now within 10km of the sun, you would expect the sun to have an apparent diameter at least 10 times larger than when you started. By traveling west, even to a sea, it would look no more like you had found where the sun sets than it would from the eastern end of the Mediterranean or any other west facing shore. Furthermore, our intuitive ability to use parallax to judge distances tells us from a short walk along a beach that the sun and distant clouds are a vast distance away.
Another question is what body of water could provide such an illusion, if it cannot be a sea or ocean? The horizon is approximately 5km away when viewed at sea-level by a 2m tall man.
This gives us an idea of the minimum size of any candidate spring that reached the horizon (it would have to be even larger if viewed from a higher altitude than 2m). There would also have to be no hills or mountains taller than 2m for the 5km beyond the horizon in the direction of the sun, nor taller than 30m for the 15km beyond that to maintain the illusion. This rules out, for example, Lake Ohrid (or Ochrida, modern Lycnis/Lychnitis), which is fed by underground springs and was advocated by Yusuf Ali, but which is surrounded by mountains and never spans more than 15km east to west. The Black Sea and Caspian Sea are ruled out because they are not springs / sources of flowing water from the ground (the Black Sea exchanges water with the Mediterranean and the Caspian Sea is fed by inflowing rivers).
What does wajadaha mean?
It has been claimed by Zakir Naik, a prominent Muslim public speaker, that wajadaha means that it appeared to Dhu’l Qarnayn that the sun was setting in a spring. He says that Allah is telling us Dhu’l Qarnayn’s opinion, but Allah does not himself claim that this opinion was correct (he uses the analogy that a teacher would be wrong to say that 2 + 2 = 5, but the teacher can correctly say that a student thought that 2 + 2 = 5).
One can trivially dismiss on grammatical grounds Naik’s specific claim that in 18:86 wajada means “it appeared” because it requires that the subject of wajadaha is the sun, when it can only actually be Dhu’l Qarnayn. The fatha (the “a”) after wajad indicates the masculine gender, so Dhu’l Qarnayn is doing the action of the verb, which is in the active voice (alshshams is a feminine noun). The -ha suffix is a feminine referent to the sun as the object of the verb. It must therefore mean Dhu’l Qarnayn [verb] the sun.
However, it is still necessary to examine the essence of Naik’s claim – that wajadaha can mean “he found it having the misleading appearance” or “he mistakenly had the opinion that it”. Note that it is not enough for his argument to work if usage of wajada indicates an opinion that fits the reality.
First let us see what light Lane’s Lexicon can shed on this matter. Then we shall look at the usage of wajada in the Qur’an.
Wajada in Lane’s Lexicon
The authoritative Lane’s Lexicon (freely accessible online) gives the definition below for wajada:
Each of these meanings is then further explained. Regarding the last four, which could be relevant to Naik’s claim, the Lexicon says:
It is telling us that an attribute of a thing perceived by the senses (e.g. the taste of a thing) can be an object of the verb wajada. Thus, when wajada is used in this sense it means to perceive with the senses. The question to resolve is whether or not wajada can mean to visually perceive something which conflicts with the reality.
There are 2 ways of interpreting what the lexicon here tells us about wajada. We shall see that neither interpretation gives any reason to suppose that wajada can mean to have a perception that conflicts with objective reality (which Naik’s argument requires). Then we shall see that further down, the lexicon describes the usage of wajada that we actually have in 18:86 and 18:90.
The very likely and obvious interpretation of the above quote is that wajada can be used as a mono-transitive verb (verb acting on a direct object) to mean to sense something. For example, “I found its sound” in reference to a cat means I could hear the cat. Qur’an 12:94 is an example of this usage when Jacob says he can scent Joseph’s smell (literally, “I find the smell of Joseph”). Whether or not a person has sensed a particular direct object is a matter of objective fact. You would be saying something that isn’t true if you used wajada to say that a person had found the cat’s odour, even if the person thought he had, when in fact he had smelled a dog. In this usage, wajada means to actually sense the noun concerned. There is no evidence here that it can mean a mere opinion, which may be incorrect, of having done so.
We’ll quickly address one potential mistake some readers might make before moving on to the other interpretation. There are verses in the Qur’an where someone other than Allah is the speaker and uses the word wajada (e.g. 7:17). In such cases the quoted speaker could, in principle, be mistaken in their opinion and thus wrongly be stating that something was or will be found (as is conceivably the case in 7:17, 7:28, 18:36, 18:69), or the speaker could be deliberately misleading the listener (in 27:24-27, Solomon wonders if the hoopoe is lying when it says it found something). In those cases wajada still means to actually find even if the thing mentioned has not actually been found. It would just mean that the speakers in those verses are mistaken to use wajada or are being deliberately deceiving. We can assume that statements in the Qur’an where Allah is the speaker, as is the case in 18:86 and 18:90, are not meant to be mistakes or deceptions.
The other way to interpret the above quote from the lexicon is in a ditransitive sense (rather unlikely, as the ditransitive usage is described separately a little later in the lexicon as we shall see). In this interpretation you could, for example, use wajada to say a person found a taste to be pleasant.
The taste, smell, sound, feel, and aesthetics of an object detected by the senses are subjective attributes. A perception of a subjective attribute is neither correct nor incorrect. For example, if a woman says the phrase, “I found the painting to be beautiful”, it may be objectively true that the painting seemed beautiful to her, but the painting is not objectively beautiful – the perception is a matter of opinion. However, if an action (e.g. an object falling, seen with the eyes) or an objective attribute (e.g. an object’s name, heard with the ears) is being perceived, the perception can be correct or incorrect since these things are objective facts rather than matters of opinion. Like these latter examples, whether or not the sun set in muddy spring is a matter of objective fact. So, even if this 2nd interpretation of the above quote in Lane’s Lexicon is correct, it is not the usage of wajada that we find in 18:86 and 18:90.
Now we look a little further down the lexicon at the description of the usage of wajada which we actually have in 18:86 and 18:90. This is the two objective compliments, ditransitive usage of wajada mentioned in Lane’s Lexicon when wajada means to know something by direct experience:
In verses 18:86 and 18:90 respectively, the noun is the sun (via the referent “it”) and the predicate is “setting in a muddy spring” / “rising on a people for whom We had provided no covering protection against the sun”. It is clear from the quote that this usage means that a person actually comes to know something as it really is. We shall see some other examples in the Qur’an of this usage in the next section.
When wajada is used in this ditransitive way, it is being used as a “verb of the heart” (that is what أفْعَالُ القُلُوبِ means in the quote), and the predicate must fit the reality, as shown on LearnArabicOnline, which is quoted below (wajada is the 2nd verb from the bottom). What Lane calls the noun and predicate is here called the topic and comment.
|Verbs in which two objects were originally topic and comment are known as Verbs of the Heart. The following seven verbs have the potential to be used as Verbs of the Heart.
|Verb of the Heart
|I mistook it to be worthwhile
|I (wrongly) thought that it would be worthwhile
|I (wrongly) perceived it to be worthwhile
|I knew that it would be worthwhile
|I (rightfully) thought it would be worthwhile
|I (rightfully) found it to be worthwhile
|I (rightfully/wrongly) thought it would be worthwhile
أفعال القلوب verbs of the heart – those multi-transitive verbs, two of whose objects were originally topic and comment
As we can clearly see in this quote (2nd row from bottom in the table), when wajada is used with a noun and predicate (also called topic and comment) as in 18:86 and 18:90, it means to “rightfully” find rather than a mistaken perception.
As further confirmation that usage of wajada implies an objective truth claim rather than subjective opinions or perceptions that can be mistaken, consider that from the same root as the verb wajada we have wujud, meaning 'being' or 'existence' (see also the next page of Lane's Lexicon following the quote earlier for the passive participle, mawjud, which means “Being, or existing”). This became a technical term in Islamic philosophy to denote the quality of existence that things have. That such a meaning is related to the verb wajada is not surprising if the latter refers to things that are objectively found to exist. But to use wujud to mean the quality of existence would be very odd if wajada means to form a visual interpretation of something that is merely subjective and could be illusory.
If 18:86 and 18:90 had a few extra words, Dr. Naik’s interpretation could have worked. If a false appearance were the thing that Dhu’l Qarnayn was said to have found, there would be no problem. It could have said, “he found its appearance like it was setting in a muddy spring”. Similarly, it could have said, “he thought he found the sun setting in a spring”, and there would be no factual error in the statement. Unfortunately for Dr. Naik, this is not what the Qur’an says and we have just seen that Lane’s Lexicon gives no indication that wajada can be stretched to include the meaning of those missing words. Dr. Naik is attempting to give us a meaning invented to rescue these verses from a conflict with reality.
The evidence does not suggest that wajada can mean to incorrectly perceive an objective fact or action, or to think it appears like something while knowing the perception is false, such as that the sun set in a muddy spring. On the contrary, the evidence is that if someone made a statement that used a factually incorrect predicate in the object of the verb wajada, they would have made a factually incorrect statement. For example, you would have made a factually incorrect statement if you used wajada to say “Zayd found a flying elephant”, even if he believed that he had found such a thing or merely thought that it appeared that way. Thus, the Qur’an has Allah making a factually incorrect statement in 18:86, and similarly in 18:90.
Wajada in the Qur’an
You will see if you read them that this verb never means a mere perception that conflicts with an objective reality nor an opinion of what something appears like.
Of the 107 verses, there are four highly relevant ones that we look at now to help us learn what wajada means in 18:86 and 18:90.
Immediately after Dhu’l Qarnayn finds the sun setting in a spring, wajada is used again:
…Near it he found a People…
The “wa” prefix just means “and”. Nobody would suggest that wajada means a mistaken perception here. It is rather unlikely that the same word would have been used both in this and in the preceding phrase unless it means to say that both these things were actually found by Dhu’l Qarnayn.
The same argument applies to verse 18:93 where the same structure is used as in 18:86 and 18:90.
Until, when he reached (a tract) between two mountains, he found, beneath them, a people who scarcely understood a word.
Here again, the words following wajada are clearly meant to be a description of what happened in real history, not a mistaken perception or an opinion of what something looked like.
A third example of wajada appears in the story of Moses preceding that of Dhu’l Qarnayn.
Then they proceeded: until, when they came to the inhabitants of a town … They found there a wall on the point of falling down…
This verse has a similar structure to those in the Dhu’l Qarnayn story, beginning with “hatta itha” (although instead of balagha, the next word in this instance is “ataya”, translated “they came”, and has the sense of coming directly and quickly according to Lane’s Lexicon). As with the other examples, wajada clearly means an objective discovery rather than an illusionary perception or a matter of opinion. We can also notice that a similar grammatical structure follows wajada here as in the Dhu’l Qarnayn episode: someone finds a thing doing something. This is the two objective compliments, ditransitive usage of wajada with a noun and predicate mentioned in Lane’s Lexicon (see quote above) when wajada means to know something by direct experience.
In this verse and verses 18:86 and 18:90 respectively, the noun is the wall / sun (via the referent “it”) and the predicate is “on the point of falling down” / “setting in a muddy spring” / “rising on a people for whom We had provided no covering protection against the sun”.
A possible objection arises from the Arabic words used in 18:77. The word for word translation of the predicate is “(that) want(ed) to collapse”. Obviously, a wall cannot “want” anything. This is a figure of speech with the meaning that the wall had a structural weakness that would cause it to collapse. This does not support Naik’s claim about the word wajada because the reality described, albeit using a figure of speech, is actually found by Moses, which is what we see in 18:77 and a few other verses (4:65, 59:9, the 2nd instance in 24:39 and 73:20). The idea that the predicates describing the behavior of the sun in 18:86 and 18:90 are figures of speech rather than literal descriptions, regardless of what wajada may mean, is an alternative argument used by Dr. Naik and is examined separately later below.
The fourth important example, verse 24:39, is highly problematic for any claim that wajada can mean a false perception:
But the Unbelievers,- their deeds are like a mirage in sandy deserts, which the man parched with thirst mistakes for water; until when he comes up to it, he finds it to be nothing: But he finds Allah (ever) with him, and Allah will pay him his account…
The word for word translation has:
Here wajada is used in direct contrast to perceiving a mere visual illusion. Again, we have the hatta itha … yajidhu [a form of wajada] … wawajada structure. If Naik is correct, wajada would also have been used instead of yahsabuhu (he thinks/reckons) as the verb to describe the man’s initial mistaken perception. Similarly, yahsabaha could have been used instead of wajadaha in 18:86 if Naik is correct. The truth is that wajada was used to describe what was actually found because that is what it means. The thirsty man in reality finds nothing where he had falsely perceived water and finds Allah judging him at the end-time instead (in the latter case, this is the ditransitive usage mentioned above, meaning to gain knowledge of what something is doing by direct experience).
Other verses that have the ditransitive usage of wajada include 7:157 (“…the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own (scriptures)…”), 12:65 (“they found their stock-in-trade had been returned to them…”), 27:24 (“And I found her and her people prostrating to the sun…”), and 58:22 (“Thou wilt not find any people who believe in Allah and the Last Day…”).
There isn’t the slightest indication in any of these verses or any other verse in the Qur’an that wajada can mean a false perception. It is clear that it always means actually finding.
Only Muslim translators incorrectly translate wajadaha in 18:86 as “it appeared to him” (QXP, M. Asad), or insert the comment “[as if]” (Saheeh). This is purely for the reasons shared by some classical commentators to avoid a conflict with scientifically acquired knowledge. Notice that the same translators correctly translate wajadaha as “he found it” in 18:90.
Words that could have been used if a mere perception was meant
If verse 18:86 did not mean he actually discovered some fact about the sun, it could have instead said that Dhu’l Qarnayn saw (as in 6:78) it setting in a spring of murky water (as P. Newton points out), or quoted Dhu’l Qarnayn’s speech directly (“He said, ‘I found it setting in…’”) as in 18:87-88, 18:95-18:96 and 18:98.
Let us look at the two verses below:
When he saw the sun rising in splendour…
Thou wouldst have seen the sun, when it rose…
The verb raa meaning “he saw” is used at the start of both verses in reference to the sun (“watara” means “And you will see”). If verses 18:86 and 18:90 had used raaha (“he saw it”) instead of wajadaha, perhaps there would be a slight case for claiming that a mistaken perception or an opinion of what it looked like is meant, and certainly if it was then followed by a correction as in this verse:
…thou shalt see mankind as in a drunken riot, yet not drunk…
The Qur’an has many similes, in which the prefix ka- is added to a noun to which something is being compared to create the meaning “like”. Ka- combined with anna, which means “that” as in “I think that” is used to mean “as if”. The word kaannaha, meaning “as if it”, could have been used with raaha in 18:86 in a similar way to verses 27:10 and 28:31, which both have the phrase:
…he saw it moving (of its own accord) as if it had been a snake…
In another example we have:
…he turns away in arrogance, as if he heard them not, as if there were deafness in both his ears…
If this pattern had been used in verse 18:86 it would have meant a mere appearance. It could have had something like the phrase, “raaha kaannaha taghrubu fee AAaynin hamiatin” (“he saw it as if it set in a spring of murky water”). It is already clear that the actual words used do not have this meaning.
Are the things found described figuratively?
There is an argument that whatever wajada means, the things that Dhu’l Qarnayn found (whether actually or just in his opinion) are described in figurative language. For example, we talk about the sun rising even today, but we mean that actually, the Earth has revolved enough so that the sun becomes visible to us. If the phrases about the sun’s setting and rising are meant to be figurative in 18:86 and 18:90 we could even remove the word wajada from those phrases and they should not cause any conflict with what we know in reality. We can define figurative language as a way of expressing with words a meaning that is not necessarily true when read plainly.
If we ignore the context, the phrase about the sun rising on (AAala, “on” or “above”) a people could possibly be a meant as a figure of speech as with the hadith about the sun rising on Thabir mountain (“tashruqa alshshamsu AAala thabeerin”) (Sahih Bukhari 5:58:179).
There it clearly means that the sun starts to shine on the mountain, on which the sun shines earliest in that location because of its height, rather than the sun actually being overhead above the mountain. Another example is Sahih Muslim 20:4643: “…(anything) on which the sun rises or sets”, “…talaAAat AAalayhi alshshamsu wa gharabat”.
Ignoring the context such as the people's lack of protection from the sun, you could argue that 18:90 is meant to be a figure of speech that Dhu’l Qarnayn found the sun began to shine on the people, just as it does for everyone on Earth when their day begins.
This does not, however, mean that the phrase in which the sun “set in a spring of murky water” could be a figure of speech because 18:86 is not an exact mirror of 18:90. 18:86 is describing the place that the sun sets into using the word “fee” meaning in or into. If 18:90 had said, “wajadaha tatluAAu min”, meaning “he found it rising from” somewhere (i.e. the rising place that the sun emerges out of, as in Sahih Muslim book 1, no. 297 quoted above), it would be describing for sunrise the corresponding action of that described in 18:86 for sunset. Then there would be no case that the phrase in 18:90 could be a figure of speech either.
In fact, 18:90 says what the sun did after it emerged (perhaps because that’s when Dhu’l Qarnayn reached them, and/or because Muhammad’s purpose in that phrase was to describe the people, not the sun). If this was mirrored in 18:86 to describe the sun before it disappeared, that verse would have to say something like “he found it set on a spring of murky water” (using AAala instead of fee), which perhaps, if we again ignore the context, would be a figure of speech to convey a reality that the sun started to appear too low to shine on a muddy spring.
Instead the word “fee” is used, and there does not seem to be any evidence that “it set in a spring of murky water” could be a figurative phrase meaning something else. There is also no evidence in Lane’s lexicon suggesting that such a phrase could be used as a figure of speech. Neither can “fee” mean “behind”. The word “waraa” is used in Arabic to mean behind.
Most importantly, it would also be a highly misleading figure of speech to say that the sun set in a muddy spring when something else is meant. Abundant evidence set out in earlier sections of this article demonstrates that early Muslims understood it literally. This is unsurprising, especially considering the contextual issues discussed above, for example that a few words earlier Dhu’l Qarnayn reached maghriba alshshamsi, and the usage of wajada, and that the literal reading reflected a popular legend.
If “setting in a muddy spring” in 18:86 communicated a figurative meaning, why is there for centuries no evidence of this interpretation, and plentiful evidence that it was understood literally until educated Muslim scholars learned that the literal interpretation was astronomically problematic?
As for 18:90, even if the phrase in this verse could be regarded as a figure of speech in the sense that the sun was not exactly overhead during the period when it is described as “rising on a people”, the context of the surrounding words strongly imply that they must at least have been unusually close to it during that part of the day, as discussed above. We can also obviously rule out one literal interpretation where AAala means that the sun was in physical contact with the people as it was rising. That was set up as a straw man by al-Qurtubi (see above) who pretended that it was the only alternative to a figure of speech interpretation.
The only interpretation of 18:90 that fits with the context within the verse and with the fact that 18:86 is clearly not figurative is that Dhu’l Qarnayn found the sun to be over and/or close to a people when it was still relatively low in altitude after it emerged from its rising place. It is the clear and obvious interpretation, which was the only one found in the early commentaries.
Some might well say that there is a deeper meaning or lesson to be learnt from the account. That may be true, but even if some phrases have a deeper meaning, at the same time the plain reading must have been intended to be understood as a true account since it is obvious that Muslims without sufficient scientific knowledge would (and did, as we saw above) understand the plain reading as historical narrative rather than only being true in a figurative sense.
Is the story told from Dhu’l Qarnayn’s point of view?
Why does it not just say, “it was setting”?
Some might try to make the slightly different argument that even if the wajada phrase must mean actually finding the sun setting in a spring, the phrase is just described from Dhu’l Qarnayn’s point of view, and the author of the verse does not claim it happened as described. Al-Baydawi’s comment on 18:86 is sometimes cited in discussions of this topic in which he says:
It is argued that if Allah claims that the sun really set in a spring, wajada would be omitted.
However, this passage is an account about Dhu’l Qarnayn, so we should expect each statement to be phrased in a way that makes clear how it relates in some way to him and what he did (in this case finding the thing that was the objective of his journey). We saw above various early commentaries giving reports of people explicitly stating that it was understood to mean that the sun actually sets in a spring.
Does verse 18:83 mean it is just Dhu’l Qarnayn’s recollection of the events?
Another way of supporting the claim that the entire story is the point of view of Dhu’l Qarnayn is to use the last two Arabic words of verse 18:83 to suggest that this is meant to be merely how Dhu’l Qarnayn remembered it:
The second phrase is “qul saatloo AAalaykum minhu thikran”, and in the word-for-word translation says, “Say, ‘I will recite to you about him a remembrance”. The word minhu literally means “of him” or “from him”.
The second word here, talawa (saatloo), means “to recite”. It is used 63 times in the Qur’an, always (except for 91:2 and 2:102) in relation to the reciting of revelations from Allah, and whenever the subject doing the reciting is Muhammad, it means reciting the Qur’an. It has the sense of following, repeating, or reciting what has been done, written, or said. An example is in verse 10:16, which refers to the Qur’an (the next verse is also quoted below, which emphasises that things which Muhammad rehearses about Allah must be true).
In the next example, in a historical narrative about Jesus, we have all the words from the phrase in 18:83. Talawa (natloohu) is translated “we rehearse”, “AAalayka” is “to thee”, “mina” is “of”, and “alththikri” is “the Message” (literally, “of the rememberance”).
This is what we rehearse unto thee of the Signs and the Message of Wisdom.
Two more historical narratives are introduced with talawa (translated “rehearse” and “Recite”):
We rehearse to thee some of the story of Moses and Pharaoh in Truth, for people who believe…
Recite to them the truth of the story of the two sons of Adam…
We can already see that it is unlikely that 18:83 means that Allah is commanding Muhammad to recite from another man’s mistaken recollection. Now we look at the word thikran. Lane’s Lexicon defines this word as “A reminding”, or “causing to remember” and “An admonition”.
Two highly relevant examples of its usage in the Qur’an occur in Sura al-Kahf. Immediately preceding the passage about Dhu’l Qarnayn we have one about Moses and a servant of Allah, whom Moses follows.
The words translated as “concerning it” in this verse are the same as in 18:83, “minhu thikran”. Here minhu is literally “of it” or “from it”. The reminder cannot be a recollection coming from the mind of the things which Moses might ask about. It is the servant’s reminder about the things which Moses asks. That is what the phrase means here and in 18:83. All of the major English translations understand it this way.
We can also see that at the end of the Dhu’l Qarnayn story, Allah refers to it as his remembrance / reminder.
Those whose eyes were hoodwinked from My reminder, and who could not bear to hear.
It could, however, be argued that thikree in verse 18:101 does not refer to the preceding story of Dhu’l Qarnayn, but rather to the warnings of the Qur’an in general.
Verse 91 could not be from Dhu’l Qarnayn’s recollection
Finally, as noted by Cornelius, this is explicitly an account told from Allah’s point of view. It is clear from the numerous instances of the first person pronoun in reference to Allah (18:84, 18:86, 18:90, 18:91, 18:99, 18:100, 18:101) and the references to Dhu’l Qarnayn in the third person that this is supposed to be Allah’s account from Allah’s point of view about Dhu’l Qarnayn. Even where we have the speech of Dhu’l Qarnayn (as in 18:87-88, 18:95-18:96 and 18:98), it is preceded with qala, “he said”.
Even more importantly, in between the second and third journeys, Allah remarks:
So (it was). And We knew all concerning him.
The word-for-word translation says, “Thus. And verily we encompassed of what (was) with him (of the) information”.
The first word, Kathalika, is frequently used in the Qur’an and means literally, “like that”, and is usually translated “So it was” / “even so” / “thus” in relation to the preceding text, as in 26:59.
The verse below from the preceding story about Moses has the same ending phrase (but without “ladayhi”, “with him”), so we can use it to verify the meaning of 18:91. Note that ahatna (“we encompassed”) and tuhit (“you encompass”) have the same root.
And how canst thou have patience about things about which thy understanding is not complete?
The word-for-word translation says, “And how can you have patience for what not you encompass of it any knowledge.”
Verse 18:91 cannot be interpreted as coming from Dhu’l Qarnayn’s recollection, so it is supposed to be what Allah is saying about the story and himself.
Even if there were not the problems explained above, it would be rather ridiculous to suppose that this passage is meant to be Allah explaining in his own words how he fits into someone else’s mistaken recollection.
Given the fact that the story is actually meant to be understood as being told by Allah from Allah’s point of view, and the fact that wajadaha cannot mean he incorrectly thought or it falsely appeared as such to him, and that the things found are described literally, verse 18:86 means that according to Allah, Dhu’l Qarnayn reached the place where the sun sets and actually found the sun setting in a spring. Verse 18:86 would have had to include in the statement some words (some options were examined above) to indicate that this was just Dhu’l Qarnayn mistakenly thinking he had found it or his opinion of what it looked like if that is all it was from Allah’s point of view because this is supposed to be Allah’s account of the incident.
Is the story intended as a fable or metaphor?
Some might possibly argue that the entire account was intended to be understood as a fictional fable rather than a historical narrative from which lessons could be learnt.
There are many problems with this view. Most importantly, in 18:99–18:102 Allah confirms and elaborates on a prophecy by Dhu’l Qarnayn in 18:98 that Allah will destroy the barrier holding back Gog and Magog (mentioned again in 21:96). It must therefore be intended as a true account with future consequences.
Another problem is that 18:83 begins, “They ask thee concerning Zul-qarnain.” He was clearly a known historical figure like Moses in the previous passage. It would be deceptive to answer the question with unhistorical details, and we have seen that it was regarded as historical.
The usage of thikran in the same verse shows that it means a reminder of something that is real or that really was said or happened. For example, 18:70 has the servant promising to give to Moses a reminder about things that Moses should regard as real history.
As Cornelius points out in his article, in verse 18:84, Allah claims to have empowered Dhu’l Qarnayn (“Verily We established his power on earth…”). As this verse can only be understood as a claim about true history. It conflicts with the proposed fable intention.
There are also two related things I would like to add here. First, this verse begins with “inna”, which can be translated as “indeed” or “verily”. It indicates emphasis on the subject of the sentence that immediately follows it. In this case that subject is “We” i.e. Allah. The verse is emphasising that it is Allah who gave this famous man his power. It only makes sense as a claim of historical fact. We can also notice other places in the account where Allah is part of the unfolding story (18:86 says, “…We said: ‘O Zul-qarnain! (thou hast authority,) either to punish them, or to treat them with kindness.’”, and 18:90 says, “…a people for whom We had provided no covering protection against the sun.”).
Cornelius also points out that an intended true account fits with the recorded context for this Sura (Questions suggested by Jews to test Muhammad, though academic scholars note that the questioners were more likely Christian as with the other stories in surah al-Kahf). It was recited in response to the expectation of the questioners that Muhammad would have no knowledge of “the mighty traveller”.
He then notes that 6:25 declares that the unbelievers dismiss the historical stories of people in the Qur’an as fictional (which obviously implies that the Qur’an claims to contain no such things):
There are other similar verses including the following:
Note that talawa is also used in the above verse (“tutla AAalayhim” translated “rehearsed on them”). We saw above that it is used in 18:83. Similar examples can be found in verses 25:4-5, 34:43, 68:15 and 83:13. In contrast, the verse below refers to another story in Sura al-Kahf and emphasises that it is meant to be historical:
The verse below follows a story about Moses:
Finally, we saw above that 18:91 has Allah saying that the reminder which he is asking Muhammad to recite is how history actually happened. It seems likely that the purpose of this verse was to emphasise that the story so far had already shown that Allah could answer the testing question alluded to in verse 83. It means that like that part of the story, Allah knows everything else there is to know about Dhu’l Qarnayn.
The evidence presented above conclusively demonstrates that the story of Dhu’l Qarnayn was intended to be understood as a historical narrative rather than a fable or any other kind of fictional story.
The article on this topic by Osama Abdullah makes two logistical arguments against the interpretation that the sun was found actually setting in a spring.
First they suggest that this interpretation implies that the sun must return to the rising place after it sets by taking the reverse journey that it took during the day.
This argument essentially claims that because of the apparent presence of a logistical problem (how does the sun exit the spring in 18:86 so it can rise again?) which even 7th century CE Arabs could identify, Muhammad and his followers could not have believed that the sun literally sets in a spring, so 18:86 does not mean as such.
We have already seen the flawed premise in this argument. Commentators who were unaware of or ignored Greek astronomical discoveries did believe in this interpretation, so they cannot have been concerned about a logistical problem. We saw how Al-Tabari explained in detail that the sun is in heaven prostrating between entering the springs of sunset and sunrise. We also saw that various other commentators and hadith saw no problems with this interpretation.
There may have been other ways of answering this question. For example, people could have imagined the sun floating along an underground stream (i.e. the source of the water from the springs). We saw above the hadith in Ibn Kathir that has Ibn ‘Abbas claiming that the sun is like running water. Perhaps Muhammad accepted the belief found in other ancient writings that there is an ocean under the Earth and he imagined the springs were part of this ocean. We need not know what, if anything, Muhammad imagined about the sun between it setting in a spring and sunrise. We have seen enough to know that the setting in a spring and literally rising was not regarded as implausible.
What about the moon?
The other logistical argument is that there is no mention in the Qur’an of the moon setting in a spring, which seems to be implied by a belief that the sun does so.
However, we saw above in the hadith at the beginning of the quotation from al-Tabari’s History of the Prophets and Kings that there was a belief that springs were created for both the moon and sun to set in and rise from and, further down in the quotation, that they both floated in the same ocean across the sky. Earlier in the hadith it also says after describing the path of the sun:
Again, we do not need to know what, if anything, Muhammad imagined the moon doing since we know that this question did not prevent early Muslims interpreting 18:86 as the sun actually setting in a spring.
In any case, these are not the only plausibility difficulties in the story. The idea that a large population would be unable to ascend over, dig under nor melt a metal barrier between two mountains nor find another way around the mountains until the barrier is destroyed in the last days sounds ridiculous to modern ears. Nevertheless, people believed it (as can be checked in the commentaries and as we saw above in the Alexander Legend) and it is mentioned again in Qur’an 21:96. Ridiculously enough, several expeditions were sent to find Dhu’l Qarnayn’s wall/barrier/gate, beginning with one sent by Caliph ‘Umar in the 7th century CE, as recorded by al-Tabari and Ibn Kathir.
The analysis above shows that the various interpretations that have been proposed for verses 18:86 and 18:90 in the Qur’an to reconcile them with scientific facts do not stand up to detailed scrutiny. It is possible that someone might propose another interpretation that has not been considered above. If so, it is highly likely to be even less plausible as the intended interpretation because it would be hard to think of a new one and therefore the author of the passage could not reasonably expect that the hearers or readers of the Qur’an would interpret the passage in such a way.
In contrast, the evidence overwhelmingly supports the clear and obvious interpretation that this is intended to be understood as a historical account in which Dhu’l Qarnayn traveled until he reached the place where the sun sets and actually found that it went down into a muddy spring near to where a people were, and that he then traveled until he reached the place where the sun rises and actually found that it rose up above a people who lived close to the place where the sun rises.
- Dhul-Qarnayn and the Sun Setting in a Muddy Spring (Part One)
- Dhul-Qarnayn and the Alexander Romance
- Islamic Views on the Shape of the Earth
- Forum discussion showing Shi'ite hadith also confirm a literal meaning to the sun "setting in a muddy spring"
- Does the Quran really say the Sun sets in a muddy spring? - The Masked Arab - YouTube video
- The Physical Setting of the Sun, The Sun sets in a Murky Water - islamwhattheydonttellyou164 - YouTube video
Notes on translations, transliterations, and sources
Unless otherwise stated, the original 1934 translation of Abdullah Yusuf Ali is used for quotations from the Qur’an due to its widespread distribution. Word for word translations are those used on The Quranic Arabic Corpus. However, these are used only to explain in English the arguments in this article, which are founded on analysis of the Arabic words of the Qur’an.
For hadith (oral traditions of the words and deeds of Muhammad, collected and written down mainly in the 8th and 9th centuries CE), the translation of Muhammad Muhsin Khan is used for Sahih Bukhari. That of Abdul Hamid Siddiqui is used for Sahih Muslim. Their numbering systems are used (vol., book, no. and book, no., respectively).
All transliterations of the Arabic Qur’an into Latin characters are from the free, widely used Muslimnet transliteration used by many popular websites such as MuslimAccess, which has a transliteration table, and IslamiCity. There do not seem to be any available sources for transliterations of the commentaries and hadith, so here this has been done from the Arabic using the same transliteration rules. Hadith and tafsir (commentaries) are not used here as authoritative sources on the meaning of the Qur’an, but rather for near contemporary examples of language usage and beliefs.
For the original source for both parts of this article, see the quranspotlight website.
Useful resources for verification
The following free, online resources will be useful to anyone studying the Qur’an, and when verifying the claims in this article:
Transliteration of the Qur’an and many compared English translations
Search the hadith in English and Arabic, see them side by side
Download and search the hadith in English
See many different Arabic tafsir for any selected verse in the Qur’an, and a few in English
Search the Qur’an by verse number or in English, see English translations, Arabic text and transliteration
Search the transliterated Qur’an with phonetic search
Word-for-word Arabic-English translation with annotated grammar, syntax and morphological information for each word, view occurrences of a word
Download tool to find occurrences of root Arabic words, with links to entries for the word in scans of Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon
References and Footnotes
- Cornelius - The Sun in the Muddy Pool and the Prophethood of Muhammad - Answering Islam
- Hesham Azmy & Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi - Qur’anic Commentary on Sura’ Al-Kahf (18):86 - Bismika Allahuma, October 14, 2005
- Master Ayat (Verse) Index - IslamAwakened
- Project Root List - StudyQuran
- For any elevation, the horizon distance is √((R + E)2 – R2) where R is the Earth’s radius and E is the elevation of the observer above sea level (imagine a right angled triangle placed on a circle with the right angle corner touching the circle and one of the other corners at the circle’s centre).
- Ali, Abdullah Yusuf (text and transl.), The Holy Qur’an, Sura 18, Appendix VII, pp.763, Maryland, USA: Amana Corp., 1983 
- lnvestigatelslam - Scientific Error in Quran SUN SETTING IN MURKY WATER!!? - YouTube
- Before the examples of wajada being used in relation to the four senses of taste, smell, sound and touch, we have the example “I found, &c., Zeyd” (“&c.” means etcetera and is a placeholder for other forms of the same verb such as “I find”, “she finds” and “Zeyd” is the name of a person). This must be an example of finding using the other sense, the faculty of sight.
- Mohtanick Jamil - Verbal Sentences - LearnArabicOnline
- A relatively quick way to see all of them is to do phonetic transliteration searches (IslamiCity/ Search) for wajad, yajad and tajad (yajidu and tajidu are forms of wajada in the imperfect tense), look at those results which are listed on the root list, and finally check 6:145, 9:92, 12:94, 18:36, 20:10, 20:115, 65:6 and 72:22 separately.
Alternatively, you can use this search: The Quranic Arabic Corpus/ Search Results for pos:v (i) root:وجد. That only returns 106 results for some reason. Their dictionary lists 107 occurances.
Here is a brief list of the 107 instances of wajada in the Qur’an. The following 10 verses use wajada as an intransitive verb which means having material means or money for a particular purpose: 2:196, 4:92, 5:89, 9:79, 9:91, 18:53, 24:33, 58:4, 58:12, 65:6.
The following 9 verses use wajada as a mono-transitive verb: 2:283, 4:43, 4:89, 5:6, 9:5, 9:57, 12:94, 33:65, 48:22.
The following verses use wajada as a ditransitive or tritransitive verb: 2:96, 2:110, 3:30, 3:37, 4:52, 4:64, 4:65, 4:82, 4:88, 4:91, 4:100, 4:110, 4:121, 4:123, 4:143, 4:145, 4:173, 5:82, 5:82, 5:104, 6:145, 7:17, 7:28, 7:44,7:44, 7:102, 7:102, 7:157, 9:92, 9:92, 9:123, 10:78, 12:65, 12:75, 12:79, 17:68, 17:69, 17:75, 17:77, 17:86, 17:97, 18:17, 18:27, 18:36, 18:49, 18:58, 18:65, 18:69, 18:77, 18:86, 18:86, 18:90, 18:93, 20:10, 20:115, 21:53, 24:28, 24:39, 24:39, 26:74, 27:23, 27:24, 28:15, 28:23, 28:23, 28:27, 33:17, 31:21, 33:62, 35:43, 35:43, 37:102, 38:44, 43:22, 43:23, 43:24, 48:23, 51:36, 58:22, 59:9, 71:25, 72:8, 72:9, 72:22, 73:20, 93:6, 93:7, 93:8.
- Lane’s Lexicon - Volume 1 page 14 - StudyQuran.org
- Word-by-Word Grammar - Verse (18:77) - The Quranic Arabic Corpus
- Word-by-Word Grammar - Verse (24:39) - The Quranic Arabic Corpus
- P. Newton - The Qur'an: Is It A Miracle?/ Zul-Qarnain and the Sun - Answering Islam
- Lane’s lexicon - Volume 6 page 2240 and page 2241 - StudyQuran.org
- Lane’s lexicon - Volume 6 page 2466 and page 2467 - StudyQuran.org
- al-Baydawi, Asrar ut-tanzil wa Asrar ut-ta’wil (our translation)
- Hesham Azmy - Sun Setting in Murky Water? Refuting a repetitive missionary allegation - Call To Monotheism
- The polemics, and not Zul-Qarnain, are in murky waters! - Faithfreedom (not to be confused with the original FaithFreedom site by Dr. Ali Sina)
- Project Root List - StudyQuran
- Lane’s lexicon - Volume 1 page 313 - StudyQuran.org
- Lane’s lexicon - Volume 3 page 970 - StudyQuran.org
- Note that unlike all other major English translations, A.Y. Ali and M. Asad translate thikree, which is literally “my reminder / rememberance” as “rememberance of Me” (Master Ayat (Verse) Index). “Rememberance of me / us” is indeed what thikree / thikrina probably means in 18:28, 20:14 and 20:42. In the other examples of thikree / thikrina (38:8, 20:124, 53:29 and probably 23:110), the context suggests it instead means “my / our reminder / admonition”. The examples of thikree meaning “rememberance of me” are directed to those who already believe rather than to unbelievers who have never been mindful of Allah as in 18:101. Thus it is the majority of translations that are more likely to be correct in 18:101.
- Word-by-Word Grammar - Verse (18:91) - The Quranic Arabic Corpus
- Word-by-Word Grammar - Verse (18:68) - The Quranic Arabic Corpus
- Did the Noble Quran really say that the sun sets and rises on earth? - Answering Christianity
- Gabriel Gohau, trans. and revised by Carozzi, A.V. & Carozzi, M., A History of Geology, p.20, USA: Rutgers, 1990
- Al-Tabari History of al-Tabari, op. cit. p.232
- Al-Tabari, Vol. III, pp. 235-239; Ibn Kathir, AI-Bidayah wan-Nihayah, Vol. VII, pp. 122-125 cited in Maududi, Sayyid Abul A’la. The Meaning of the Qur’an. Note 71 on Sura al-Kahf. Lahore: Islamic Publications, 1967-79. (Available online)
- Ali, Abdullah Yusuf, The Holy Qur’an: Translation and Commentary, Lahore: 1934
- M. Muhsin Khan - Translation of Sahih Bukhari - CRCC, University of Southern Carolina
- Abdul Hamid Siddiqui - Translation of Sahih Muslim - CRCC, University of Southern Carolina
- Transliteration of the Qur'an - MuslimAccess.Com
- Transliteration Table - MuslimAccess.Com