Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Muhammad and the Sun’s Setting Place

Sam Shamoun

According to the Quran, Alexander the Great (called Dhul-Qarnayn) traveled so far east that he ended up finding the actual place where the sun physically sets!

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. 18:83-90 Arberry

Here are a few more English versions of Q. 18:86 for good measure:

Till, when he reached the setting-place of the sun, he found IT SETTING IN a muddy spring… (Pickthall)

Until, when he reached the setting of the sun, he found IT SET IN a spring of murky water. (Y. Ali)

Until, when he reached the setting place of the sun, he found IT SETTING IN a spring of black muddy (or hot) water. (Hilali-Khan)

The noted Muslim translator, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, stated in his Quran translation that,

2430. This is the first of the three episodes here mentioned, his expedition to the west. "Reaching the setting of the sun" does not mean the extreme west, for there is no such thing. West and East are relative terms.

It means a western expedition terminated by a “spring of murky water.” This has puzzled Commentators, and they have understood this to mean the dark, tempestuous sea.

If Dhul al Qarnayn is Alexander the Great, the reference is easily understood to be to Lychnitis (now Ochrida), west of Macedonia. It is fed entirely by underground springs in a limestone region, where the water is never very clear. (Bold emphasis ours)

Saying that this passage has puzzled Muslim commentators is to put it mildly.

This, perhaps, is one of the clearest evidences that the Quran could not have been revealed by the one true God of all since God would know better than to say that the sun literally sets in a spring of water.

Realizing how damaging this story is to the so-called divine origin of the Quran, Muslims have come up with various explanations in order to explain away this gross scientific blunder. However, these feeble and misguided attempts of salvaging the Quran from its major errors and contradictions overlook one important fact: It conveniently ignores Muhammad’s exposition of his own scripture, and fails to consult his interpretation and understanding of this specific passage.

Here is what Muhammad believed concerning the setting place of the sun:

One of the major signs of the Hour

91. Abu Dharr narrated, “Once I was with the Prophet (riding) a donkey on which there was a saddle or a (piece of) velvet. That was at sunset. He said to me, ‘O Abu Dharr, do you know where this (sun) sets?’ I said, ‘Allah and His Messenger know better.’ He said, ‘It sets in a spring of murky water, (then) it goes and prostrates before its Lord, the Exalted in Might and the Ever-Majestic, under the Throne. And when it is time to go out, Allah allows it to go out and thus it rises. But, when He wants to make it rise where it sets, He locks it up. The sun will then say, “O my Lord, I have a long distance to run.” Allah will say, “Rise where you have set.” That (will take place) when no (disbelieving) soul will get any good by believing then.’” (Ahmad) (The Translation of: The Meaning of the Fifty Hadith of Jame Al-uloom Wal-Hakim (“A Compilation of Knowledge and Wisdom”), compilation by Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (736 H-795 H), translated and spotlights by Yaseen Ibrahim al-Sheikh (Vol. 1), A Selection of Authentic Qudsi (Sacred) Hadiths, translated by Muhammad M. ‘Abdul-Fattah, edited by Reima Youssif Shakeir (Vol. 2) [Dar Al-Manarrah for Translation, Publishing & Distribution], pp. 319-320)

Here is the link to the Arabic version of Musnad Ahmad for those who want to read it for themselves. It is hadith number 20948.1


(3991) Abu Dharr said: I was sitting behind the Apostle of Allah who was riding a donkey while the sun was setting. He asked: Do you know where this sets? I replied: Allah and his Apostle know best. He said: IT SETS IN A SPRING OF WARM WATER (hamiyah).3408 (Prof. Ahmad Hasan, Sunan Abu Dawud – English Translation With Explanatory Notes [Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, Publishers, Lahore, 1984], Volume III. Chapters 1338-1890, XXV. Kitab Al-Ahruf Wa Al-Qira’at [Book of Dialects and Readings Of The Qur’an], Chapter 1498, p. 1120; bold and capital emphasis ours)

3408. Qur’an, xviii. 86. The word hami’ah in this verse has two readings. Abu Ja‘far, Abu ‘Amir, Hamzah, al-Kisa’i and Abu Bakr read it hamiyah with long vowel a. Hamiyah means warm water. The others read it hami’ah meaning musky water. (Ibid.)

Not only do we have a gross scientific error, we also have a variant reading. This shows that, contrary to Muslim propaganda, the Quran hasn’t been perfectly preserved since the extant manuscripts and the Islamic traditions show that it contains variant and conflicting readings.

And now for a different translation of Abu Dawud’s report:

4002. It was narrated that Abu Dharr said: “I was riding behind the Messenger of Allah while he was on a donkey, and the sun was setting. He said: ‘Do you know where this (sun) sets?’ I said: ‘Allah and his Messenger know best.’ He said: ‘IT SETS IN A SPRING OF WATER (fa innaha taghrubu fi ‘ainin hamiyah).’” (SAHIH) (English Translation of Sunan Abu Dawud, Compiled by Imam Hafiz Abu Dawud Sulaiman bin Ash‘ath – From Hadith no. 3242 to 4350, ahadith edited and referenced by Hafiz Abu Tahir Zubair ‘Ali Za’i, translated by Nasiruddin al-Khattab (Canada), final review by Abu Khaliyl (USA) [Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, First Edition: July, 2008], Volume 4, 29. The Book Of The Recitations And Readings Of The Qur’an, p. 375; capital emphasis ours)

Here, also, is the link to the Arabic version of this hadith.

Since this particular hadith is classified as sahih or sound, meaning that the Muslims who passed on this tradition were all deemed trustworthy and reliable, it therefore cannot simply be dismissed as a weak or fabricated narration.2

Hence, what this means for Muslims is that, according to the so-called reliable traditions, their prophet erroneously thought that the sun physically descends into a spring of water every time it sets!

It also shows that Q. 18:86 cannot be interpreted allegorically or metaphorically, but must be taken at face value. Muhammad’s interpretation establishes the fact that the Quran isn’t simply narrating what Alexander the Great saw or perceived to be the case, but is reflecting the actual belief and view of the author. And since Muslims claim that Allah is the author of the Quran, this means that Allah truly thought that the sun literally sets in a muddy spring!

It is obvious why Muslim apologists do not wish to mention and make known Muhammad’s explanation of the Quran’s claim that the sun sets in a muddy spring. They obviously don’t want people to know that Muhammad actually believed that the sun literally sets in a spring of water!

So much for the repeated Muslim assertion that the Quran is free from all scientific mistakes.

Further Reading

The Sun in the Muddy Pool and the Prophethood of Muhammad
Islam and the Setting of the Sun
Dhu’l Qarnayn and the sun controversy in the Qur’an: New evidence
Summary of the article: Dhu’l Qarnayn and the sun controversy in the Qur’an: New evidence


1 There is another hadith in Musnad Ahmad where Muhammad is reported to have said that the sun actually descends into hell!

Yazeed bin Harun narrated to us, from al-Awam, from a slave of Abdullah ibn Amru, from Abdullah bin al-Aas who said: “The messenger of Allah saw the sun when it went down and said (it went) into Allah’s hell fire. If it was not for the order intended for it (the sun) by Allah, it would have destroyed all that is on the earth.” (Musnad Ahmad, Hadith No. 6895)

The above is a literal translation. Here is a dynamic equivalent translation:

“When the messenger of Allah saw the sun setting down he said: It went into Allah’s hell fire. If it was not for Allah’s purpose for the sun it would have destroyed what is on the earth.”

2 These particular narratives still pose a major problem for the Muslims who reject the hadiths altogether. It is evident that whoever composed these reports clearly understood that the plain reading of Q. 18:86 meant that the sun literally sets in a muddy spring. The compiler(s) was/were obviously well versed in the Arabic language and could see that the grammar and the syntax of this particular verse ruled out the possibility of this being interpreted metaphorically or allegorically.

In other words, the very existence of such reports proves that the obvious and unambiguous meaning of the manifestly clear Arabic of Q. 18:86 is that the sun physically descends into a spring of water.

To, therefore, argue that this is not what the verse is saying basically means that the author(s) of the Quran failed to express his/her/their intended point clearly. Yet such a position would contradict and be in direct opposition to the Quran which repeatedly claims to be written in clear Arabic so that others can understand its message:

Thus doth God MAKE CLEAR His Signs to you: In order that ye may understand. S. 2:242 Y. Ali

Alif Lam Ra. A Book whose verses ARE SET CLEAR (ohkimat), and then distinguished, from One All-wise, All-aware: S. 11:1 Arberry

A. L. R. These are the Ayats of Revelation, - of a Qur'an that makes things clear. S. 15:1 Y. Ali

And indeed We know that they (polytheists and pagans) say: "It is only a human being who teaches him (Muhammad)." The tongue of the man they refer to is foreign, while this (the Qur'an) is a clear Arabic tongue. S. 16:103 Hilali-Khan

We verily, have made it a Qur'an in Arabic, that you may be able to understand (its meanings and its admonitions). S. 43:3 Hilali-Khan Mecca

By the manifest Book (this Qur'an) THAT MAKES THINGS CLEAR, S. 44:2 Hilali-Khan – cf. Q. 2:187, 219, 242, 266; 3:103, 118; 4:26, 176; 5:89; 24:18, 58-59, 61; 57:17

Hence, no matter what view a Muslim opts for in trying to explain away this serious blunder in the Quran, s/he is still left with major problems.

The only reason why Muslims deny the plain and obvious meaning of this verse is because they refuse to believe that the Quran is not the word of God and that Muhammad is not a true prophet. As a result, they need to come up with some explanation which will justify their belief in a scripture that they have been erroneously duped into thinking is the divinely dictated speech of the Creator of the heavens and earth.