Islam and the Setting of the Sun:

Examining the traditional Muslim View of the Sun’s Orbit

Sam Shamoun & Jochen Katz

In one of our papers (here), we mentioned that the Quran teaches that the sun sets in a muddy spring. In this article, we would like to expand upon our original point by including the commentaries of various Muslim scholars and also address certain Muslim responses which seek to deny that this is, in fact, what the Quran teaches.

Before we begin discussing this issue, we do need to make it clear that statements about the sun rising or setting do not, in and of themselves, prove that a person or author held to erroneous scientific views, or made a scientific error. One can legitimately argue that the person or author in question is using everyday speech, ordinary language, or what is called phenomenological language. From the vantage point of the person who is viewing the sun from the earth, the sun does indeed appear to be rising and setting. In fact, even today with all our advanced scientific knowledge we still refer to sunrise and sunset.

Hence, an ancient book or writer may have not intended to convey actual scientific phenomena when describing the sun as rising or setting any more than today’s meteorologists, or newscasters, are speaking scientifically when referring to the rising and setting of the sun.

With that said, we do feel that the author of the Quran wasn’t using phenomenological language when describing the sun. There are hints in the Quran that show that the author wasn’t simply speaking from the vantage point of one looking up at the sun from the earth, but did actually believe that the sun rises and sets. These hints are found in surah 18:86 and 90. It is to these passages which we now turn in order to demonstrate our case.

To begin with, not all translations say that the sun sets in a muddy spring. Certain translations of surah 18:86 speak of the sun setting in a black sea. Compare the following two translations:

Until when he reached THE PLACE WHERE THE SUN SET, he found IT GOING DOWN INTO a black sea, and found by it a people. We said: O Zulqarnain! either give them a chastisement or do them a benefit… Until when he reached the land of the rising of the sun, he found IT RISING on a people to whom We had given no shelter from It; Surah 18:86, 90 Shakir

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"… 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. Yusuf Ali

Furthermore, according to Muslim sources there existed a variant reading where some recensions of the Quran spoke of the sun setting in a warm spring; more on this below.

Returning to the issue at hand, notice that the text does not say that the sun appeared to be setting in a black sea or what have you. The text clearly says the Zul-Qarnain found THE PLACE where the sun actually sets and rises.

Since the earth is a globe, and the sun millions of miles away from the earth (150 million kilometers on average over the year), the setting of the sun always appears to take place far away, somewhere on or behind the horizon. In phenomenological language it may still be acceptable to speak of "the place where the sun sets" when it is done from the view point of someone who is far away from this place. For example, a traveler could say that he was moving in direction of "where the sun is setting." However, the Quran goes beyond what is possible in phenomenological language when it states that Zul-Qarnain reached the place where the sun sets, i.e. the Quran is speaking of a human being who traveled to the place of the setting of the sun. Such a statement is wrong in any kind of language, since such a place does not exist on this earth. This is a serious error that was introduced into the Quran because the author mistook a legend to be literal and historical truth.

Interestingly, Ibn Ishaq, in his Sirat Rasulullah, recorded a poem composed by Tubba which said:

Dhu’l-Qarnayn before me was a Muslim
Conquered kings thronged his court,
East and west he ruled, yet he sought
Knowledge true from a learned sage.
HE SAW WHERE THE SUN SINKS FROM VIEW
IN A POOL OF MUD AND FETID SLIME.
Before him Bilqis my father’s sister
Rule them until the hoopoe came to her.)
(Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad [Oxford University Press, Karachi, tenth impression 1995], p. 12; capital emphasis ours)

Taken at face value, this poem is part of the evidence that Muhammad took over a legendary story known to the Arabs before the revelation of the Quran.

[Side remark: Note, however, that in what is classified as a pre-Islamic poem, the word Muslim is used. This either suggests that the poem was manufactured (made up by Muslims after Muhammad claimed prophethood), or that the term was already in use prior to Muhammad's time. If the latter, then this provides further evidence of Muhammad taking over ideas from the diverse religious groups of his time, erroneously assuming that these terms were divinely appointed or revealed. He then proceeded to use this term in relation to the biblical prophets, thinking that this is what they used or how they viewed themselves as well. See also: Zaid ibn Amr ibn Nufail's Cosmological Views and Their Influence on the Quran.]

This is not the only time where the Quran mentions the setting and rising of the sun:

And thus did We show Ibrahim the kingdom of the heavens and the earth and that he might be of those who are sure. So when the night over-shadowed him, he SAW a star; said he: Is this my Lord? So when it set, he said: I do not love the setting ones. Then when he SAW the moon rising, he said: Is this my Lord? So when it set, he said: If my Lord had not guided me I should certainly be of the erring people. Then when he SAW the sun RISING, he said: Is this my Lord? Is this the greatest? SO WHEN IT SET, he said: O my people! surely I am clear of what you set up (with Allah). Surely I have turned myself, being upright, wholly to Him Who originated the heavens and the earth, and I am not of the polytheists. S. 6:75-79 Shakir

Now one can legitimately argue that this text is referring to what Abraham saw, i.e. that from Abraham’s vantage point the sun, moon and stars appeared to him as if they were rising and setting. But this introduces two problems. First, if surah 18:86 is speaking of what Zul-Qarnain saw, that from his vantage point it appeared as if the sun was setting into a muddy spring, then why didn’t the passage say so? Why didn’t the passage say that Zul-Qarnain saw the sun setting into a spring and then saw it rising, much like the Quranic author stated in connection to Abraham? Doesn’t this prove that in the case of Zul-Qarnain, the author of the Quran intended to convey that the sun literally sets in a spring or sea of some kind, and then from there rises again?

Second, the Quran in many places states that the sun, moon and stars are traveling on set courses:

Have you not considered him (Namrud) who disputed with Ibrahim about his Lord, because Allah had given him the kingdom? When Ibrahim said: My Lord is He who gives life and causes to die, he said: I give life and cause death. Ibrahim said: So surely Allah causes the sun TO RISE FROM THE EAST, then make it rise from the west; thus he who disbelieved was confounded; and Allah does not guide aright the unjust people. S. 2:258 Shakir

ALLAH is HE Who raised up the heavens without any pillars that you can see. Then HE settled HIMSELF on the Throne. And HE pressed the sun and the moon into your service; each planet pursues its course until an appointed term. HE regulates all affairs and HE clearly explains the Signs that you may have firm belief in the meeting with your Lord. S. 13:2 Sher Ali

And He has made subservient to you the sun and the moon pursuing their courses, and He has made subservient to you the night and the day. S. 14:33 Shakir

And thou couldst see the sun, AS IT ROSE, move away from their Cave on the right, AND WHEN IT SET, turn away from them on the left; and they were in a spacious hollow thereof. This is among the Signs of ALLAH. He whom ALLAH guides is alone rightly guided; but he whom HE leaves to go astray, for him thou wilt find no helper or guide. S. 18:17

Bear patiently then what they say, and glorify thy Lord with HIS praise before the rising of the sun and before its setting; and glorify HIM in the hours of the night and all parts of the day, that thou mayest find true happiness. S. 20:130 Sher Ali

And He it is Who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. They float, each in an orbit. S. 21:33 Pickthall

And the sun runneth on unto a resting-place for him. That is the measuring of the Mighty, the Wise. And for the moon We have appointed mansions till she return like an old shrivelled palm-leaf. It is not for the sun to overtake the moon, nor doth the night outstrip the day. They float each in an orbit. S. 36:38-40 Pickthall

He created the heavens and the earth in true (proportions): He makes the Night overlap the Day, and the Day overlap the Night: He has subjected the sun and the moon (to His law): Each one follows a course for a time appointed. Is not He the Exalted in Power - He Who forgives again and again? S. 39:5 Y. Ali

When we look at all these verses collectively, it becomes quite evident that the author of the Quran literally believed that the sun and the moon rose and set as they traveled on their ordained courses. Thus, it seems quite likely that the author of the Quran believed that Abraham wasn’t simply seeing something that wasn’t actually happening. The author seemed to believe that Abraham was literally seeing the actual traversing of the sun, moon and stars.

Therefore, the obvious understanding of surah 18:86 and 90 is that Zul-Qarnain discovered the actual setting and rising place of the sun, the very place where the sun literally sets and rises. Those who wish to argue that the text says otherwise do so because of an a priori assumption that the Quran is compatible with science.

The Commentators

The commentators were divided over the actual meaning of Surah 18:86 due to variations in the readings of certain Muslim transcribers. Some versions of the Quran state that the sun goes down into murky waters, while other versions read warm in place of murky. The variant readings provide further evidence that the Quran was not transmitted perfectly, without any variants or corruptions, dispelling the Muslim claims to the contrary.

Apart from the issue of variant readings, it is somewhat amusing to see how Muslims busied themselves over the question whether the sun set in a muddy spring or a warm one.

This discussion is, in fact, further evidence that the author of the Quran (or at least Muhammad and his companions) literally believed that the sun actually set in either a warm or muddy spring. After all, why would they have been concerned whether the text read muddy or warm if the verse was only conveying the thought that the sun seemed to be setting to Zul-Qarnain? In other words, it is completely irrelevant whether the spring which Zul-Qarnain saw the sun descending into was either muddy or warm, since this was supposed to be merely an appearance and not a reality since the sun doesn’t set anywhere.

Furthermore, as one reads the commentaries, one will find the commentators going out of their way to deny that the Quran literally teaches that the sun sets in a spring. We will have something to say about that in the next section when we address some of the modern Muslim responses to this issue.


Tafsir Ibn Abbas

(Till, when he reached the setting place of the sun) where the sun sets, (he found it setting in a muddy spring) a blackened, muddy and stinking spring; it is also said that this means: a hot spring, (and found a people thereabout) these people were disbelievers: (We said: O Dhu'l-Qarnayn!) We inspired him (Either punish) either kill them until they accept to believe that there is no deity except Allah (or show them kindness) or you pardon them and let them be. (Tanwr al-Miqbs min Tafsr Ibn 'Abbs, commentary on Sura 18:86; online source; bold emphasis ours)

Ibn Kathir

Allah’s saying, "Until, when he reached the setting of the sun," means that Zul-Qarnain traveled on a path until he reached the furthest point West that a person can reach on earth, which is the western part of earth. As for reaching the place of the setting of the sun from the sky it is doubtful what the storytellers say that he (Zul-Qarnain) traveled the earth for a time while the sun was setting behind him. There is no truth in this and most of these myths are the invention of the People of the Book and their differing heretics who lie.

Allah’s saying, "He found it set in a spring of murky water," means that Zul-Qarnain saw the sun from his point of view descend into the ocean, which is the case of anyone who comes to the seashore and sees the sun as though it is descending in it, when in fact it does not actually leave the fourth orbit that it is fixed to.

The word "Hamiya" is derived from one of two pronunciations coming from the word "Hama’a" which is clay as Allah says, "I am creating people out of dirt and compact clay"   إِنِّي خَالِق بَشَرًا مِنْ صَلْصَال مِنْ حَمَإٍ مَسْنُون   which is smooth clay as has previously been shown. Ibn Jarir stated that it was narrated by Yunus, narrated by Ibn Wahb, narrated by Nafi’ Ibn Abu Na’im who heard Abdel Rahim Al’Araj say that Ibn Abbas used to speak about the muddy well and would pronounce the word as "Hama’a."

Nafi’ stated that Kab Al Ahbar was asked about it and he replied saying, "You are more learned in the Quran than I am, but I find it (the sun) in the Book (Torah) descending in black mud." It was similarly narrated by Ibn Abbas and Mujahid from others. Abu Dawud Al Tayalisi stated that it was narrated by Muhammad Ibn Dinar, narrated by Sa’ad Ibn Aws, Narrated by Misda’, narrated by Ibn Abbas, narrated by Abu Ibn Kab that the prophet –peace be upon him- made him read it as "Hami’a." Also, Ali Ibn Abu Talha narrated from Ibn Abbas that the sun DESCENDS in a "Hamiya" well, meaning warm water well. The same was also narrated by Al-Hassan Al Basri.

Ibn Jarir stated that the truth is that both pronunciations are correct and no matter which way a person may read it then, he is correct. I said that there is no contradiction between the two meanings, for it may be that the water in the well is warm because it faces the heat of the setting sun with no protection from its rays. The word "Hami’a" meaning water mixed with black clay is also possible as was narrated by Kab Al Ahbar and others. It was narrated by Jarir, narrated by Muhammad Ibn Al Mathny, narrated by Yazid Ibn Harun, narrated by Al-Awam, narrated by a servant of Abdullah Ibn Umar, narrated by Abdullah who stated that the prophet – peace be upon him – watched the sun while it was setting and said, "In Allah’s hot fire. If it wasn’t for Allah’s command, the sun would burn all those who are on earth." I said this was also narrated by imam Ahmad from Yazid Ibn Harun who elevated this hadith. It may be that this is the saying of Abdullah Ibn Umar and his companions whom he found during the battle of Yarmuk, and Allah knows best.

Ibn Abu Hatim stated that it was narrated by Hajjaj Ibn Hamza, narrated by Muhammad Ya’ny Ibn Bashir, narrated by Umar Ibn Maymun, narrated by Hadir Ibn Abbas who related that Mu’awiya Ibn Abu Sufyan read the verse in Surah of the Cave (Surah 18:86), "He found it set in a spring of murky water," and was told by Ibn Abbas that it was read and pronounced as "Hami’a." Mu’awiya then asked Abdullah Ibn Umar how he read it and was told, "We read it as you read it." Ibn Abbas told Mu’awiya, "That the Quranic verse was revealed in my house, so send for Kab Al-Ahbar." Ibn Abbas then asked Kab, "Where do you find the sun setting in the Torah?" He responded, "Ask the Arabian people for they are more learned about it. As for me, I find the sun setting in the Torah in water and mud," he then pointed towards the west.

Ibn Hadir stated to Ibn Abbas, "Had I been present earlier with you I would have informed you of something to enlighten you regarding the issue of what the warm well is." Ibn Abbas replied, "And what would that be?" He said, "Regarding what was mentioned of Zul-Qarnain following a path with knowledge, he traveled the earth both east and west seeking the reasons, being a command given by a wise guide. He then saw the sun at dusk DESCENDING IN A WELL that was ‘Khulb’ and ‘Thatin’ and ‘Harmad.’" Ibn Abbas asked, "What is Khulb?" He replied, "It is mud in their language." Ibn Abbas asked, "And what is Thatin?" He replied, "It is warmth." He was asked, "And what about Harmad?" He replied, "It means black." Ibn Abbas then asked for a male or a youth to be brought to him and said, "Write down what this man says."

Sa’id Ibn Jubair narrated that Ibn Abbas was reading Surah of the Cave (Surah 18:86) and read the verse, "He found it set in a spring of murky water (Hama’a)." Then Kab said, "I swear by Him who holds Kab’s soul in His hand, I have not heard anyone recite it the way it is revealed in the Torah other than Ibn Abbas. For we find it in the Torah descending in a black clod of mud." (Source; translation by Dimitrius)


Al-Jalalayn

"Until he reached the place of the setting of the sun,"- meaning WHERE THE SUN GOES DOWN.

"He found it set in a spring of murky water (Hama’a)"- Hama’a means a black mud and the sun’s setting in the spring is from the eye’s point of view, for the sun is larger than the earth. Zul-Qarnain found a tribe living around this spring, who were unbelievers. (Source; translation by Dimitrius)


Al-Tabari

The meaning of the Almighty’s saying, "Until he reached the place of the setting of the sun he found it set in a spring of murky water," is as follows:

When the Almighty says, "Until he reached," He is addressing Zul-Qarnain. Concerning the verse, "the place of the setting of the sun he found it set in a spring of murky water," the people differed on how to pronounce that verse. Some of the people of Madina and Basra read it as "Hami’a spring," meaning that the sun SETS IN A SPRING that contains mud. While a group of the people of Medina and the majority of the people of Kufa read it as, "Hamiya spring" meaning that the sun SETS IN A SPRING of warm water. The people of commentary have differed on the meaning of this depending on the way they read the verse. (Source; translation by Dimitrius)


Some Objections Considered

Certain Muslim propagandists, MENJ of the Bismiikaalahuma website and Hesham Azmy, have written a paper trying to refute the claim that the Quran teaches that the sun literally sets in a muddy spring (here).

The claims of Hesham Azmy and MENJ have already been soundly refuted. Christian Authors M. Rafiqul-Haqq and P. Newton have done a fine job of showing why the typical Muslim explanations fail to address the problems and issues raised by surah 18:86,90. The authors do a splendid job of also showing how the details provided in the Quran and the Muslim commentators about Zul-Qarnain and the sun setting in a muddy spring are taken from preexisting myths and legends about Alexander the Great. The readers can access their response here.

Here, we want to use the Muslim authors’ own sources against them. Since they appeal to exegetes like Ibn Kathir to support their premise that the Quran doesn’t speak of the sun literally setting in a muddy spring, we would like to show how these same scholars pose serious challenges to the Muslim authors’ beliefs that the Quran is compatible with scientific facts.

In order for the readers to follow along with our rebuttal we cite from Azmy’s and MENJ’s article where they quote certain Muslim scholars who uphold their interpretation. One scholar they cite, al-Qurtubi, wrote:

It is not meant by reaching the rising or setting of the sun that he reached its body and touched it because it runs in the sky around the earth without touching it and it is too great to enter any spring on earth. It is so much larger than earth. But it is meant that he reached the end of populated land east and west, so he found it - according to his vision - setting in a spring of a murky water like we watch it in smooth land as if it enters inside the land. That is why He said, "he found it rising on a people for whom we had provided no covering protection against the sun." (Holy Qur'n 18:90) and did not mean that it touches or adheres to them; but they are the first to rise on. Probably this spring is a part of the sea and the sun sets behind, with or at it, so the proposition takes the place of an adjective and God knows best. (Translation by Azmy and MENJ; Arabic source)

The authors also cite ar-Razi and Ibn Kathir (the latter was already cited above). For the sake of brevity we won’t quote Ibn Kathir’s comments again but ask that the readers scroll up and look over his comments above, as well as the comments of al-Jalalyn, and see where these gentlemen denied that the Quran, taken at face value, literally teaches that the sun sets in a spring.

As far as the denials of Ibn Kathir, al-Qurtubi, and ar-Razi, as well as al-Jalalayn, are concerned, i.e. they claim that the Quran should not be taken literally here, these are based not on what the text actually says. They are based, rather, on their awareness that the sun is much larger than the earth and is therefore incapable of setting within the earth. Thus, much like Muslims do today, these Muslim commentators, because of their belief in the Quran’s alleged infallibility, were reading back into the text their more advanced understanding of science in order to avoid the conclusion that the Quran is in obvious error.

Furthermore, there is a problem with appealing to the opinions of these men. Ibn Kathir and al-Qurtubi held to erroneous scientific views which they claim were based on the Quran and the traditions that allegedly originated from Muhammad and his companions. For instance, both Ibn Kathir and al-Qurtubi claimed that the earth was placed on the back of a huge whale, with mountains being used to keep the earth stable upon the whale’s back! See this article for more details: http://answering-islam.org/Shamoun/whale_nun.htm.

In fact, Ibn Kathir, on the authority of Muhammad, also believed that the sun literally travels through the seven heavens until it reaches the throne of Allah. Once there, the sun prostrates itself and then returns back on its course. Commenting on surah 36:38, Ibn Kathir says:

There are two views over the meaning of the phrase ...

<on its fixed course for a term (appointed).> (The first view) is that it refers to its fixed course of location, which is beneath the Throne, BEYOND the earth in that direction. Wherever it goes, it is beneath the Throne, it and all of creation, because the Throne is the ROOF of creation and it is not a sphere as many astronomers claim. Rather it is A DOME SUPPORTED BY LEGS OR PILLARS, CARRIED BY THE ANGELS, and it is ABOVE the universe, ABOVE the heads of people. When the sun is at its zenith at noon, it is in its closest position to the Throne, and when it runs in its fourth orbit at the opposite point to its zenith, at midnight, it is in its furthest position from the Throne. At that point it prostrates and asks permission to rise, as mentioned in the Hadiths.

Al-Bukhari recorded that Abu Dharr, may Allah be pleased with him, said, "I was with the Prophet in the Masjid at sunset, and he said: ...

((O Abu Dharr! Do you know where the sun sets?)) I said, ‘Allah and His Messenger know best.’ He said: ...

((It goes and prostrates itself beneath the Throne, and that is what Allah says: <And the sun runs on its fixed course for a term. That is the decree of the Almighty, the All-Knowing.>))

It was also reported that Abu Dharr, may Allah be pleased with him, said, "I asked the Messenger of Allah about the Ayah: ...

<And the sun runs on its fixed course for a term.>

He said: ...

((Its fixed course is beneath the Throne.))"

(The second view) is that this refers to when the sun's appointed time comes to an end, which will be on the Day of Resurrection, when its fixed course will be abolished, it will come to a halt and it will be rolled up. This world will come to an end, and that will be the end of its appointed time. This is the fixed course of its time ... (Tafsir Ibn Kathir Abridged, Volume 8 Surat Al-Ahzab, Verse 51 to the end of Surat Ad-Dukhan, abridged by a group of scholars under the supervision of Shaykh Safiur-Rahman Al-Mubarakpuri [Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, Riyadh, Houston, New York, London, Lahore; September 2000, first edition], pp. 196-197; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Thus, if we combine the statements of the Quran along with the narrations of Muhammad reported by Ibn Kathir regarding the course of the sun, we are left with the conclusion that the sun travels on a course which includes setting in a muddy spring as well as going before Allah above the seven heavens. Allah has clearly ordained for the sun to come before him and to set in a muddy spring. For more details see the traditions of Al-Tabari below.

The preceding comments from Ibn Kathir should make it evident that when the Muslim authors realized that a statement of the Quran contradicted certain scientific views that were held to be true at that time, they were only too quick to explain it away. Yet, when the Quran spoke of things unknown to them from a scientific perspective, they were only too quick to affirm that those particular passages were speaking of actual scientific phenomena.

On the other hand, there are instances when these Muslim commentators will go against the scientific beliefs of the people of their era, obviously because those beliefs clearly contradicted the Quran. Yet, as modern science has advanced, further research has finally proven that the scientists of that time were closer to the truth than the Quran commentators, and it is now obvious that the Quran is in error.

This means that MENJ and Azmy are left in a very difficult situation. If the understanding and exegesis of commentators like Ibn Kathir are valid enough to show what the Quran means in passages such as surah 18:86, then they are also reliable enough to explain what it means when the Quran says that the sun travels and mountains act like pegs to keep the earth stable.

To appeal to these commentators selectively, only in some things that they deny, but not in what they affirm, can hardly be called intellectual integrity. The appendix will further examine these texts and the conclusions one has to draw from them.


The ‘space travel’ version

There is at least one classical commentator who explicitly introduces a different idea regarding the location of the spring into which the sun sets. It "solves" the problem that on this earth there does not exist any location where the sun sets – whether in a muddy spring or any other kind of place.

Muslim commentators may in fact be correct that the Quran does not teach that the sun literally sets in the earth. After all, the text of the Quran does not actually say that the sun sets in a spring or ocean that is located within the earth. Here, again, is the passage in question:

They will question thee concerning Dhool Karnain. Say: 'I will recite to you a mention of him. We established him in the land, and We gave him a way to everything; and he followed a way until, when he REACHED THE SETTING OF THE SUN, he found IT SETTING IN a muddy spring, and he found NEARBY a people. We said, 'O Dhool Karnain, either thou shalt chastise them, or thou shalt take towards them a way of kindness.' He said, 'As for the evildoer, him we shall chastise, then he shall be returned to his Lord and He shall chastise him with a horrible chastisement. But as for him who believes, and does righteousness, he shall receive as recompense the reward most fair, and we shall speak to him, of our command, easiness.' Then he followed a way until, when he reached the rising of the sun, he found it rising upon a people for whom We had not appointed ANY VEIL TO SHADE THEM FROM IT. S. 18:83-89 A.J. Arberry

Now please don’t misunderstand us, we are not denying that the text says that the sun literally sets in a spring or ocean. It clearly does. The real question is whether this ocean or spring is located within the earth. In order to better appreciate the point we are raising here, we quote from al-Tabari who cites traditions from Muhammad and his companions:

The other report, referring to a different concept, is what I was told by Muhammad b. Abi Mansur- Khalaf b. Wasil- Abu Nu'aym- Muqatil b. Hayyan- Ikrimah: One day when Ibn `Abbas was sitting (at home or in the mosque), a man came to him and said: Ibn `Abbas, I heard Ka'b, the Rabbi, tell a marvelous story about the sun and the moon. He continued. Ibn `Abbas who had been reclining sat up and asked what it was. The man said: He suggested that on the Day of Resurrection, the sun and the moon will be brought as if they were two hamstrung oxen, and flung into Hell. `Ikrimah continued. Ibn `Abbas became contorted with anger and exclaimed three times: Ka'b is lying! Ka'b is lying! Ka'b is lying! This is something Jewish he wants to inject into Islam. God is too majestic and noble to mete out punishment where there is obedience to Him. Have you not heard God's word: "And He subjected to you the sun and the moon, being constant" — referring to their constant obedience. How would He punish two servants that are praised for constant obedience? May God curse that rabbi and his rabbinate! How insolent is he toward God and what a tremendous fabrication has he told about those two servants that are obedient to God! He continued. Then he said several times: We return to God. He took a little piece of wood from the ground and started to hit the ground with it. He did that for some time, then lifting his head he threw away the little piece of wood and said: You want me to tell you what I heard the Messenger of God say about the sun and the moon and the beginning of their creation and how things went with them? We said: We would, indeed, May God show mercy unto you. He said: When the Messenger of God was asked about that, he replied: When God was done with His creation and only Adam remained to be created, He created two suns from the light of His Throne. His foreknowledge told Him that He would leave here one sun, so He created it as (large as) this world is from east to west. His foreknowledge also told Him that He would efface it and change it to a moon; so the moon is smaller in size than the sun. But both are seen as small because of the sun's altitude and remoteness from the earth.

He continued: If God had left the two suns as He created them in the beginning, night would not have been distinguishable from day. A hired man then would not know until when he should labor and when he should receive his wages. A person fasting would not know until when he must fast. A woman would not know how to reckon the period of her impurity. The Muslims would not know the time of the pilgrimage. Debtors would not know when their debts become due. People in general would not know when to work for a livelihood and when to stop for resting their bodies. The Lord was too concerned with His servants and too merciful to them (to do such a thing). He thus sent Gabriel to drag his wing three times over the face of the moon, which at the time was a sun. He effaced its luminosity and left the light in it. This is (meant by) God's word: "And We have made the night and the day two signs. We have blotted out the sign of the night, and We have made the sign of the day something to see by." He continued. The blackness you can see as lines on the moon is a trace of the blotting. God then created for the sun a chariot with 360 handholds from the luminosity of the light of the Throne and entrusted 360 of the angels inhabiting the lower heaven with the sun and its chariot, each of them gripping one of those handholds. He entrusted 360 of the angels inhabiting (the lower?) heaven with the moon and its chariot, each of them gripping one of those handholds.

Then he said: For the sun and the moon, He created easts and wests (positions to rise and set) on the two sides of the earth and the two rims of heaven, 180 SPRINGS IN THE WEST OF BLACK CLAY – THIS IS (MEANT BY) GOD'S WORD: "He found it setting in a muddy spring," meaning by "muddy (hami'ah)" black clay - and 180 springs IN THE EAST LIKEWISE OF BLACK CLAY, bubbling and boiling like a pot when it boiled furiously. He continued. Every day and night, the sun has a new place where it rises and a new place where it sets. The interval between them from beginning to end is longest for the day in summer and shortest in winter. This is (meant by) God's word: "The Lord of the two easts and the Lord of the two wests," meaning the last (position) of the sun here and the last there. He omitted the positions in the east and the west (for the rising and setting of the sun) in between them. Then He referred to east and west in the plural, saying; "(By) the Lord of the easts and wests." He mentioned the number of all those springs (as above).

He continued. God created an ocean three farsakhs (18 kilometers) removed from heaven. Waves contained, it stands in the air by the command of God. No drop of it is spilled. All the oceans are motionless, but that ocean flows at the rate of the speed of an arrow. It is set free to move in the air evenly, as if it were a rope stretched out in the area between east and west. The sun, the moon, and the retrograde stars RUN IN ITS DEEP SWELL. THIS IS (MEANT BY) GOD'S WORD: "Each swims in a sphere." "The sphere" is the circulation of the chariot IN THE DEEP SWELL OF THAT OCEAN. By Him Who holds the soul of Muhammad in His hand! If the sun WERE TO EMERGE FROM THAT OCEAN, it would burn everything on earth, including even rocks and stones, and if the moon were to emerge from it, it would afflict (by its heat) the inhabitants of the earth to such and extent that they would worship gods other than God. The exception would be those of God's friends whom He would want to keep free from sin.

Ibn `Abbas said that `Ali b. Abi Talib said to the Messenger of God: You are like my father and my mother! You have mentioned the course of the retrograde stars (al-khunnas) by which God swears in the Qur'an, together with the sun and the moon, and the rest. Now, what are al-khunnas? The Prophet replied: `Ali, they are five stars: Jupiter (al-birjis), Saturn (zuhal), Mercury (`utarid), Mars (bahram), and Venus (al-zuhrah). These five stars rise and run like the sun and the moon and race with them together. All the other stars are suspended from heaven as lamps are from mosques, and circulate together with heaven praising and sanctifying God with prayer. The Prophet then said: If you wish to have this made clear, look to the circulation of the sphere alternately here and there. It is the circulation of heaven and the circulation of all the stars together with it except those five. Their circulation today is what you see, and that is their prayer. Their circulation to the Day of Resurrection is as quick as the circulation of a mill because of the dangers and tremors of the Day of resurrection. This is (meant by) God's word: "On a day when the heaven sways to and fro and the mountains move. Woe on that day unto those who declare false (the Prophet's divine message)."

He continued. When the sun rises, it rises upon its chariot FROM ONE OF THOSE SPRINGS accompanied by 360 angels with outspread wings. They draw it along the sphere, praising and sanctifying God with prayer, according to the extent of the hours of night and the hours of day, be it night or day. When God wishes to test the sun and the moon, showing His servants a sign and thereby asking them to stop disobeying Him and to start to obey, the sun tumbles from the chariot AND FALLS INTO THE DEEP OF THAT OCEAN, which is the sphere. When God wants to increase the significance of the sign and frighten His servants severely, all of the sun falls, and nothing of it remains upon the chariot. That is a total eclipse of the sun, when the day darkens and the stars come out. When God wants to make a partial sign, half or a third or two-thirds of it fall into the water, while the rest remains upon the chariot, this being a partial eclipse. It is a misfortune for the sun or for the moon. It frightens His servants and constitutes a request from the Lord (for them to repent). However this may be, the angels entrusted with the chariot of the sun divide into two groups, one that goes to the sun and pulls it toward the chariot, and another that goes to the chariot and pulls it toward the sun, while at the same time they keep it steady in the sphere, praising and sanctifying God with prayer, according to the extent of the hours of day or the hours of night, be it night or day, summer or winter, autumn or spring between summer and winter, lest the length of night and day be increased in any way. God has given them knowledge of that by inspiration and also the power for it. The gradual emergence of the sun or the moon FROM THE DEEP OF THAT OCEAN covering them which you observe after an eclipse (is accomplished by) all the angels together who, after having brought out all of it, carry it (back) and put it upon the chariot. They praise God that He gave them the power to do that. They grip the handholds of the chariot and draw it in the sphere, praising and sanctifying God with prayer. Finally, they bring the sun to the west. Having done so; THEY PUT IT INTO THE SPRING, and the sun falls from the horizon of the sphere INTO THE SPRING.

Then the Prophet said, expressing wonder at God’s creation: How wonderful is the divine power with respect to something than which nothing more wonderful has ever been created!… By Him Who holds the soul of Muhammad in His hand! Were those people not so many and so noisy, all the inhabitants of this world would hear the loud crash made by the sun falling when it rises and when it sets… Whenever the sun sets, it is raised from heaven to heaven by the angels’ fast flight, until it is brought to the highest, seventh heaven, and eventually is underneath the Throne. It falls down in prostration, and the angels entrusted with it prostrate themselves together with it. Then it is brought down to heaven. When it reaches this heaven, dawn breaks. When it comes down FROM ONE OF THOSE SPRINGS, morning becomes luminous. And when it reaches this face of heaven, the day becomes luminous. (The History of Al-Tabari: General Introduction and From the Creation to the Flood, translated by Franz Rosenthal [State University of New York Press (SUNY), Albany, 1989], volume 1, pp. 232-238; bold and capital emphasis ours)

According to these traditions reported by al-Tabari, the ocean in which the sun sets is located outside of the earth, seemingly implying that Zul-Qarnain was taken out of the earth’s atmosphere to an area where the sun sets. And once there, he found a group of people, presumably some sort of extra-terrestrial beings. Now lest one think that my interpretation is far-fetched, note the following traditions:

According to Muhammad b. Sahl b. 'Askar-Isma'il b. 'Abd al-Karim-Wahb, mentioning some of his majesty (as being described as follows): The heavens and the earth and the oceans are in the haykal, and the haykal is in the Footstool. God's feet are upon the Footstool. He carries the Footstool. It became like a sandal on His feet. When Wahb was asked: What is the haykal? He replied: Something on the heavens' extremities that surrounds the earth and the oceans like ropes that are used to fasten a tent. And when Wahb was asked how earths are (constituted), he replied: They are seven earths that are FLAT and islands. Between each two earths, there is an ocean. All that is surrounded by the (surrounding) ocean, and the haykal is behind the ocean. (Ibid., pp. 207-208; bold emphasis ours)

And:

Then God created the seven seas. The first is called Baytush and surrounds the earth from behind Mount Qaf. Behind it is a sea called Asamm, behind which is a sea called Qaynas, behind which is a sea called Sakin, behind which is a sea called Mughallib, behind which is a sea called Muannis, behind which is a sea called Baki, which is the last. These are the seven seas, and each of them surrounds the sea before it. The rest of the seas in which are creatures whose number only God knows, are like gulfs to these seven. God created sustenance for all these creatures on the fourth day, as He hath said: And he provided therein the food of the creatures designed to be the inhabitants thereof, in four days; equally, for those who ask (41:10).

There are seven earths. The first is called Ramaka, beneath which is the Barren Wind, which can be bridled by no fewer than seventy thousand angels. With this wind God destroyed the people of Ad. The inhabitants of Ramaka are a nation called Muwashshim, upon whom is everlasting torment and divine retribution. The second earth is called Khalada, wherein are the implements of torture for the inhabitants of Hell. There dwells a nation called Tamis, whose food is their own flesh and whose drink is their own blood. The third earth is called Arqa, wherein dwell mulelike eagles with spearlike tails. On each tail are three hundred and sixty poisonous quills. Were even one quill placed on the face of the earth, the entire universe would pass away. The inhabitants thereof are a nation called Qays, who eat dirt and drink mothers' milk. The fourth earth is called Haraba, wherein dwell the snakes of Hell, which are as large as mountains. Each snake has fangs like tall palm trees, and if they were to strike the hugest mountain with their fangs it would be leveled to the ground. The inhabitants of this earth are a nation called Jilla, and they have no eyes, hands or feet but have wings like bats and die only of old age. The fifth earth is called Maltham, wherein stones of sulphur hang around the necks of infidels. When the fire is kindled the fuel is placed on their breasts, and the flames leap up onto their faces, as He hath said: The fire whose fuel is men and stones (2:24), and Fire shall cover their faces (14:50). The inhabitants are a nation called Hajla, who are numerous and who eat each other. The sixth earth is called Sijjin. Here are the registers of the people of Hell, and their works are vile, as He hath said: Verily the register of the actions of the wicked is surely Sijjin (83:7). Herein dwells a nation called Qatat, who are shaped like birds and worship God truly. The seventh earth is called Ajiba and is the habitation of Iblis. There dwells a nation called Khasum, who are black and short, with claws like lions. It is they who will be given dominion over Gog and Magog, who will be destroyed by them. (Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Kisa’i, Qisas al-Anbiya (Tales of the Prophets), translated by Wheeler M. Thackston Jr. [Great Books of the Islamic World, Inc., Distributed by Kazi Publications; Chicago, IL 1997], pp. 8-9)

Furthermore, Islamic traditions state that Allah transported Muhammad by night from the Kabah to Jerusalem, and then through the seven heavens: http://answering-islam.org/Index/N/night_journey.html

Thus, from an Islamic point of view, it is possible to assume that Zul-Qarnain was supernaturally transported to an outer-worldly realm to the very place where the sun sets in order to subjugate the people living there.

Now this doesn’t mean that these things are true, that Muhammad traveled through the seven heavens or that Zul-Qarnain was actually transported to an extra-terrestrial domain. What this simply shows is that the author(s) of the Quran and the hadith literature reported fables and myths as facts. This simply reflects the legendary and mythical nature of the Quran, i.e. that the Quran records fables as facts. These stories also reflect the gross scientific errors and the erroneous cosmological views held by both the author of the Quran and the first Muslims, as reported by Muslim scholars and hadith experts such as al-Tabari.

After all, everyone knows today that the sun does not "set in a muddy spring" either here on earth or anywhere else. It does not disappear during the night and then reappear in the morning but it is always shining and visible from half of the surface of the revolving globe that is our earth.


A contradiction?

Taking together the statements of al-Tabari and those of Ibn Kathir above, they seem to contradict each other. As we have seen, Al-Tabari is speaking of those springs as being located outside the earth.

However, Ibn Kathir is stating clearly: "... until he reached the furthest point West that a person can reach ON EARTH, which is the western PART OF EARTH. ... He said, "Regarding what was mentioned of Zul-Qarnain following a path with knowledge, he traveled THE EARTH both east and west seeking the reasons, ..." (see above).

Clearly, Ibn Kathir speaks of Zul-Qarnain traveling on this earth only, not about leaving it on space travels. This contradiction may be resolved by observing this part of Al-Tabari’s traditions:

God created an ocean three farsakhs (18 kilometers) removed from heaven. Waves contained, it stands in the air by the command of God. No drop of it is spilled. All the oceans are motionless, but that ocean flows at the rate of the speed of an arrow. It is set free to move in the air evenly, as if it were a rope stretched out in the area between east and west. The sun, the moon, and the retrograde stars RUN IN ITS DEEP SWELL. THIS IS (MEANT BY) GOD'S WORD: "Each swims in a sphere." "The sphere" is the circulation of the chariot IN THE DEEP SWELL OF THAT OCEAN. … Finally, they [the angels] bring the sun to the west. Having done so; THEY PUT IT INTO THE SPRING, and the sun falls from the horizon of the sphere INTO THE SPRING. …

The first heaven, the visible heaven, is the place where the birds fly, and al-Tabari speaks of it being "in the air", i.e. inside our atmosphere, and even the ocean that contains the course of the sun is still within the atmosphere (air!) even though it is a certain distance above that heaven. Al-Tabari gives a specific number here, 18 kilometers, i.e. a rather small distance. Ibn Kathir and Al-Tabari could be harmonized when we understand that the dome of heaven comes down at the edge of the flat earth at a distance that is merely a couple of kilometers, which is also the location of the muddy spring into which the sun sinks. If it is only a couple of kilometers from the edge of the earth, then one could see the spring standing close to the edge of the earth. That way one could say that Zul-Qarnain "reached the spring" (he saw it), but did not have to leave the earth itself, even though the spring is not on the earth, merely very close to it.

The possibility of this harmonization shows that the Muslim traditions are actually in agreement on this issue, but it also shows that the Quranic cosmology, and with it the later Islamic world view of the most respected Muslim scholars, is completely wrong in regard to scientific reality.


Appendix: Implications for the shape of the earth

There are some more observations that can be made from the Muslim commentators that have been quoted in this paper.

Ibn Kathir stated:

Allah’s saying, "Until, when he reached the setting of the sun," means that Zul-Qarnain traveled on a path until he reached the furthest point West that a person can reach on earth, which is the western part of earth.

But is there such a thing as an extreme east and extreme west? In fact, one can keep on going east or west until one is back at the point where one started. A flat earth would have an extreme point in all four primary directions (east, south, west, north). Our spherical earth, however, only has an extreme north and south (the poles), but not an extreme east or west (neither east pole nor west pole). This shows that not only Muhammad, but even the Islamic commentators several hundred years later still had a wrong understanding of this earth. On this earth, east and west are only directions but not locations.

If the expression (extreme east and west) should not be understood in absolute terms, but are supposed to be taken relative to a specific geographical location, i.e. they would designate the point furthest away from a fixed location (e.g. Mecca) when going east or west, then these two points would actually be the SAME point on the opposite side of the earth, i.e. the point having the same latitude but adding 180 degrees of longitude to the coordinates of the starting point.

The Quran, however, speaks of these two locations in east and west as being DIFFERENT points reached by Zul-Quarnain, which shows again that the author of the Quran could not have known that the earth is a globe.

Conclusion: The story of Zul-Qarnain’s travel reveals two errors which are also taught by Ibn Kathir: First, the assumption of the existence of an absolute east and absolute west (based on the understanding that the earth is flat). Second, even if we give the benefit of the doubt and allow this to be spoken in relation to a fixed point, then these two points (extreme east and extreme west) would have to be identical on a spherical earth, but in the Quran they are clearly not.

The quotation of al-Qurtubi provided by MENJ gives further evidence that the earth is assumed to be flat:

But it is meant that he reached the end of populated land east and west, so he found it - according to his vision - setting in a spring of a murky water like we watch it in smooth land as if it enters inside the land. That is why He said, "he found it rising on a people for whom we had provided no covering protection against the sun." (Holy Qur'n 18:90) and did not mean that it touches or adheres to them; but they are the first to rise on.

This quotation indicates that al-Qurtubi also believed that the earth is flat, and there are even two reasons for this conclusion. On a spherical earth there is no place where the sun rises on people FIRST, but it goes around the earth continuously (actually the earth rotates).

Then, what is the end of populated land in eastern or western direction? Certainly these Muslim scholars were aware of the existence of ships since the Quran mentions the use of ships for travel and trade in dozens of verses, e.g. 2:164, 10:22, 14:32, 16:14, 17:66, 22:65, 29:65, 30:46, 31:31, 35:12, 40:80, 45:12. Therefore the end of the populated land cannot refer to places that can be reached by foot alone. By the time of these commentators the Muslim armies had military ships and had sailed from Africa to Spain etc. Moreover, the earliest Muslims had fled from Mecca to Ethiopia, crossing the Red Sea by ship (source). Thus, they knew that reaching the sea shore does not mean the populated land is at an end, but behind the sea, there is more populated land. To say that there is at some point an actual end to populated land in direction east and west, again presupposes a flat earth.

Again, Ibn Kathir states in the second of the above quoted commentaries:

There are two views over the meaning of the phrase ...

<on its fixed course for a term (appointed).> (The first view) is that it refers to its fixed course of location, which is beneath the Throne, BEYOND the earth in that direction. Wherever it goes, it is beneath the Throne, it and all of creation, because the Throne is the ROOF of creation and it is not a sphere as many astronomers claim. Rather it is A DOME SUPPORTED BY LEGS OR PILLARS, CARRIED BY THE ANGELS, and it is ABOVE the universe, ABOVE the heads of people. When the sun is at its zenith at noon, it is in its closest position to the Throne, and when it runs in its fourth orbit at the opposite point to its zenith, at midnight, it is in its furthest position from the Throne. At that point it prostrates and asks permission to rise, as mentioned in the Hadiths.

To say that the throne of Allah is a dome over the earth, and is not a sphere, and is above the heads of the people, assumes that the earth is flat, and people exist only on one side of the earth. Ibn Kathir even explicitly contradicts the astronomers who dare to say that the throne is a sphere enclosing the earth. Why? He feels constrained to do so by the Quran and hadith. He tries to accommodate the scientists where possible, but to say that the entity containing the path in which the sun and other celestial bodies run is a full sphere would go too far. He denies this on the authority of the Islamic traditions! Every night the sun needs to ask permission to rise again because currently it does NOT shine; it needs permission to come back to the surface of the earth because during the night it is not there. This understanding is only possible when viewing the earth as flat and stationary and the sun actually disappearing (by dropping over the edge). In Islam it does not even simply go around a flat earth (i.e. a circle going around a flat earth, traveling "below the earth" while invisible), but it is more complicated in that it first travels up the seven heavens, prostrates, comes back and only then rises... (Al-Tabari gives the details on that.)

In any case, the above are several clear statements that make it obvious that the Muslim scholars and commentators on the Quran have a very wrong understanding of the earth – perhaps improved slightly over the Quran, more informed through the already somewhat advanced science, but still very wrong.

A note regarding the history of science

More than 800 years before Islam, the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BC), based on simple observation and elementary knowledge about triangles ("trigonometry") — without any divine revelation —, calculated that (a) that the distance from the earth to the moon is about 60 times the radius of the earth , i.e. about 380,000 kilometers away (that the earth is a sphere was already the commonly accepted theory 900 years before Islam, though it seems not to have reached the Arabs of Muhammad's time), (b) the Sun was about 20 times larger in diameter than the moon (10 times larger than the earth), and 20 times further away from the earth than the moon (actually, the sun is much larger and even further away), and concluded that (c) the earth goes around the sun and not the sun around the earth. (Source)

Interestingly, the discovery that the sun is larger than the earth was accepted by (some of) the classical Muslim commentators (see the quotations from al-Jalalayn and al-Qurtubi above) and used in their interpretation of the Quran, i.e. their rejection that the sun literally sets in a spring on earth. However, all the above quoted commentators held on to the view that the earth is flat (see also this article), and that the sun travels on an orbit around the earth since the Quran and the Islamic traditions did not allow them to believe otherwise.


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