Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

The Sun in the Muddy Pool and the Prophethood of Muhammad

By Cornelius

“They will ask thee of Dhu'l-Qarneyn. Say: I shall recite unto you a remembrance of him. Lo! We made him strong in the land and gave him unto every thing a road. And he followed a road Till, when he reached the setting-place of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring, and found a people thereabout. We said: O Dhu'l-Qarneyn! Either punish or show them kindness. He said: As for him who doeth wrong, we shall punish him, and then he will be brought back unto his Lord, Who will punish him with awful punishment! But as for him who believeth and doeth right, good will be his reward, and We shall speak unto him a mild command. Then he followed a road Till, when he reached the rising-place of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had appointed no shelter therefrom. So (it was). And We knew all concerning him.” S. 18:83-91 (Pickthall)

1)     This is a historical narrative, and Allah is doing the narration. 

  • The account is not the words of Dhu’l-Qarneyn, this is made clear by the fact that Dhu’l-Qarneyn is referred to in the 3rd person – “he followed a road Till, when he reached the setting-place of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring.”
  • The fact that the narrator is Allah is made clear by phrases such as “We made him strong in the land and gave him unto every thing a road” and “We knew all concerning him.”

2)     The story is therefore told from the perspective of Allah not Dhu’l-Qarneyn.

  • Any explanation which says this is merely what Dhu’l-Qarneyn thought he saw or found is not being true to the text of the Quran.

3)     The text of the Quran clearly states the following things:

  • Dhu’l-Qarneyn reached the setting place of the sun and found the sun setting in a muddy spring.
  • Dhu’l-Qarneyn reached the rising place of the sun and found it rising on a people for whom Allah appointed no shelter from the sun.

4)     The story has the following errors:

  • One cannot reach the setting place of the sun or the rising place of the sun.  If you are at a place where you see the sunrise you are not at the place where it is rising.  Likewise if you are at a place where you see the sunset you are not at the place where it is setting.
  • The Sun does not set in a muddy pool.

5)     There is a hadith by Abu Dharr which has Muhammad making similar claims concerning the sunset:

  • “Abu Dharr (one of Muhammad’s close companions) was with Muhammad during the sunset.  Muhammad asked him: ‘Do you know, O Abu Dharr where this sun sets?’  He answered; ‘God and His apostle know better.’  Muhammad said:  ‘It sets in a spring of slimy water’” – al-Zamakhshari, The Kahshaf (3rd Edition, Vol. 2, p. 743, 1987) [1]

6)     Al-Tabari and al-Baydawi both understood this passage in a literal sense.

  • “The sun sets in a slimy spring: that is, a well which contains mud.  Some of the readers of the Quran read it, ‘…a hot spring’, thus the spring combines the two descriptions.   It was said that Ibn ‘Abbas found Mu’awiya reading it (as) hot.  He told him, ‘It is muddy,’ Mu’awiya sent to Ka’b al-Ahbar and asked him.  ‘Where does the sun set?’  He said in water and mud and there were some people.  So he agreed with the statement of ibn al-‘Abbas.  And there was a man who composed a few verses of poetry about the setting of the sun in the slimy spring.”– al-Baydawi, The Lights of Revelation (p. 399)
  • Al-Tabari went so far as to say the pool where the sun sets contains lime (see the Concise Interpretation of Tabari, p. 19 of part 2)[1]

Analysis of Modern Muslim Reponses

1)     This passage describes only what Dhu’l-Qarneyn thought he saw. 

  • This story was told by Allah from Allah’s perspective not Dhu’l-Qarneyn.

2)     The raising of the sun is an idiom for going east and the setting of the sun is an idiom for going west.

  • West and East are directions; the text said Dhu’l-Qarneyn reached the place of the rising of the sun and the place of the setting of the sun.  One does not reach a direction, but a destination!  Those who claim reaching the setting-place or rising-place of the sun are idioms, must show that they were idioms at the time of Muhammad.  If one is allowed to make up idioms after the fact and apply them to a document, one can make that document mean anything they want.  When a document can mean anything, it means nothing in particular and ceases to be a revelation.  The existence of the hadith by Abu Dharr indicates Muhammad was not aware that these phrases were idioms.  When asked to choose between the understanding of Muhammad and that of a 20th century Muslim, a good Muslim must echo the words of Abu Dharr who said “God and His apostle know better.”  Some Muslims will challenge the authority of this hadith, if so, one has to ask on what basis is it challenged.  They should be asked to produce a more authentic hadith that supports their position.  They should also be asked to provide an Islamic Scholar whose writings predate al-Tabari that was aware of this alleged idiom.  If they cannot provide that then they have no historical basis for their position.

3)     This is clearly figurative language

  • Historical narratives typically don’t contain a lot of figurative language.  Why was it not clear to Muhammad, al-Tabari, al-Baydawi etc., that this was figurative language?

4)     Dhu’l-Qarneyn merely reached a beach arriving at the time of the sunset, and traveled to another place, and arrived at the time of the sunrise.

  • The context is Allah giving Dhu’l-Qarneyn a road to various destinations.  It does not necessitate Allah making a special road for someone to see a sunset at a beach.  This explanation does not explain the statement that the sun sets in a muddy spring.  Again this interpretation is at odds with Muhammad’s statements in the hadith narrated by Abu Dharr, and the word translated spring is Aynin which means spring or well not ocean or sea.

5)     Clearly you cannot reach the place where the sun rises or sets therefore this is not what the Quran means. 

  • This is a classic case of circular reasoning.  One assumes the Quran has no demonstrably false statements then when they encounter one, they say that statement does not mean what it says because the Quran has no demonstrably false statements.  Since the argument does not start with the text, its alleged meaning is not derived from the text, the meaning cannot be said to have been revealed by the one who gave the text.

6)     Allah is merely quoting an old fable to teach a moral point

  • The first problem is identifying the alleged moral?  This explanation has Allah giving credibility to a false fable by not only quoting it without giving any disclaimers in regard to it’s truthfulness, but buttressing the story by claiming to have empowered Dhul-Qarnayn!  This casts doubt on all teachings of the Quran and particularly the historical narratives in the Quran. 
  • Ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad (Guillaume’s translation, pp. 136-139)  states rabbis from Medina prescribed the test, “‘Ask him about three things of which we will instruct you; if he gives you the right answer then he is an authentic prophet, but if he does not, then the man is a rogue, so form your own opinion about him.  Ask him what happened to the young men who disappeared in ancient days, for they have a marvelous story.  Ask him about the mighty traveler who reached the confines of both East and West.  Ask him what the spirit is.’”  (p. 136) Muhammad waited 15 days for Gabriel to answer. “This delay caused the apostle great sorrow, until Gabriel brought him the Chapter of the Cave, in which he reproaches him for his sadness, and told him the answers of their questions, the youths, the mighty traveler, and the spirit.”  (p. 137)  On p. 139 we read, “And He said about what they asked him in regard to the mighty traveler,  ‘And they will ask you about Dhul-Qarnayn; say I will recite to you a remembrance of him, …’” 
  • Referring to portions of the Quran as pre-existent fables places one in the category of an unbeliever according to Surah 6:25-27 of the Quran:

“Of them are some who listen unto thee, but We have placed upon their hearts veils, lest they should understand, and in their ears a deafness. If they saw every token they would not believe therein; to the point that, when they come unto thee to argue with thee, the disbelievers say: This is naught else than fables of the men of old. And they forbid (men) from it and avoid it, and they ruin none save themselves, though they perceive not. If thou couldst see when they are set before the Fire and say: Oh, would that we might return! Then would we not deny the revelations of our Lord but we would be of the believers!” (Pickthall)



[1] See Behind the Veil – Unmasking Islam by Abd El Schafi, pp. 171-173