Qur'an Describes Altitude Sickness

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This article analyzes the apologetic claim that the Qur'an's description of altitude sickness is somehow miraculous, scientifically accurate, or prophetic.

Apologetic Claim

The Quran which was revealed fourteen centuries ago to Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) states: “Whomsoever Allah desires to guide, He expands his chest to Islam; whomsoever He desires to lead astray, He makes his chest narrow, tight, as if he were climbing up to the sky.” (6:125)

{فّمّن يٍرٌدٌ اللَّهٍ أّن يّهًدٌيّهٍ يّشًرّحً صّدًرّهٍ لٌلإسًلامٌ ومّن يٍرٌدً أّن يٍضٌلَّهٍ يّجًعّلً صّدًرّهٍ ضّيٌَقْا حّرّجْا كّأّّنَّمّا يّصَّعَّدٍ فٌي السَّمّاءٌ} (الأنعام:125)

Thus, this verse displays a miraculous similitude when presenting a scientific fact in a very eloquent and accurate style. Points of the miracles of this verse are:

1- When people first heard of the verse of man’s climbing to sky (space) , they considered it as a sort of imagination, and that Quran regards the ascension to space in a metaphorical manner. Actually the verse is a prophecy that came true centuries after it was first revealed.

2- The similitude is very accurate, as climbing to high distances in the air causes chest tightness and the feeling of suffocation. The more the ascension increases, the more tightness reaches so critical and difficult stage that respiration is not possible any more. That’s why oxygen cylinders are taken when ascending up the sky, as in space ships !
Man in high altitudes
Dr. Sharif Kaf Al Ghazal, Reflections on the Medical Miracles of the Holy Quran, September 2004


Figurative/Prophetic Interpretation

The claim that this is a "miraculous similitude"[1] referring to human-beings in space is not plausible, since space travel was unknown in the 7th century, and it would make no sense for Allah to describe something using a comparison of a phenomenon if that phenomenon had not been known to the people already.

Altitude sickness (aka. acute mountain sickness) commonly occurs above 2,400 meters (8,000 feet). It can progress to high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), which are potentially fatal.[2][3]

A search of the highest points in the Middle-East[4] finds the following:

  • Jabal an Nabi Shu'ayb in Yemen at 3,666 meters (12,028 feet)
  • Cheekha Dar in Iraq at 3,611 meters (11,847 feet)
  • Qurnat as Sawda' in Lebanon at 3,088 meters (10,131 feet)
  • Possibly Jabal Sawda in Saudi Arabia at 3,000 meters (9,843 feet)
  • Mount Hermon (Jabal el-Sheikh) in Syria at 2,814 meters (9,232 feet)

Pre-Islamic Arabs were nomads who wandered and perambulated around the entire Arabian peninsula, so it is almost certain that they would have already encountered the phenomenon of altitude sickness.

Thus this verse would only make sense if it was accepted as a non-prophetic and figurative simile, and the word "space" which was inserted by Dr. Al Ghazal in parenthesis to his commentary was ignored.

Literal/Scientific Interpretation

Air is compressible, so the weight of the air in higher altitudes compresses the air found in lower altitudes, making it denser. As a person travels up a mountain, the air becomes less compressed and is therefore thinner. This results in fewer molecules being present in a given volume of air.

The percentage of those molecules that are oxygen remains exactly the same, at 21%. The problem being that there are fewer molecules of everything present, including oxygen. So although the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere is the same, the thinner air means there is less oxygen to breathe.[5]

Several areas of the body also normally contain gas, these include the sinuses of the face, the stomach and bowel, the middle ear cavity, and, most relevantly to our discussion, the lungs and air-passages.

The laws of gas behavior dictate that as the pressure falls, a given amount of gas will expand (mass and temperature remaining constant). So as a person is subjected to progressively higher altitude (and therefore progressively less air pressure) the collections of gas within the body will expand.[6]

Thus explaining the difficulty in breathing and the feeling that the lungs are constricted when in high altitudes.

It may feel as if the chest is becoming "narrow and tight", but, if anything, the lower pressure found at higher altitudes would allow the lungs to expand more than at lower altitudes.

Furthermore, it has been postulated that human adaption has lead to people born and raised in high altitudes (exceeding 3000 meters) to have enlarged chests:

In the mid-1800s, Denis Jourdanet, an early researcher into high-altitude adaptation, described the high-altitude native as having a ‘vast chest [that] makes him comfortable in the midst of this thin air’ (quoted in Houston, 1987). This is one of the earliest descriptions of what may be the most commonly cited characteristic of New World high-altitude natives: the relatively large ‘barrel chest’. Alberto Hurtado (Hurtado, 1932) commented on this characteristic in Andean populations and postulated that the enlarged chest could allow for increased lung volumes and thereby increase oxygen uptake. Whether this chest morphology is a genetic characteristic has been the subject of numerous studies.
"Genetic approaches to understanding human adaptation to altitude in the Andes" (archived)
J. L. Rupert, and P. W. Hochachka, The Journal of Experimental Biology 204, 3151–3160 (2001), http://jeb.biologists.org/content/204/18/3151.full.pdf.


If the verse is taken figuratively, then it is not miraculous, since it is describing a phenomenon that would have been well-known to the wandering Arab nomads long before the revelation of the Qur'an.

If the verse is taken literally, then it is scientifically inaccurate. There is no “tightening” of the chest. The constrictive sensation experienced at high altitudes is simply a result of having less air to breathe into your lungs, in addition to the gas already there actually expanding.

In fact, when modern scientific knowledge is taken into consideration, problems with a literal interpretation are two-fold since it has been postulated that human adaption has lead to people born and raised in high altitudes to have enlarged chests which "could allow for increased lung volumes and thereby increase oxygen uptake."

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See Also


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  1. A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two different things, usually by employing the words "like", and "as". - Simile - Merriam-Webster, accessed December 5, 2011
  2. Baillie, Kenneth; Simpson, Alistair - Altitude Tutorials - Altitude Sickness - Apex (Altitude Physiology Expeditions), February 2010
  3. Roach, Robert; Stepanek, Jan; and Hackett, Peter. (2002) - Ch. 24: Acute Mountain Sickness and High-Altitude Cerebral Edema In: Medical Aspects of Harsh Environments. 2. Washington, DC.
  4. List of countries by highest point - Wikipedia, accessed December 5, 2011
  5. Baillie, Kenneth - Living in Thin Air - Apex (Altitude Physiology Expeditions), June 2007
  6. Dr. Dougal Watson - The effect of ascent and descent on gas collections within the body - Aviation Medicine, accessed December 5, 2011