Dhul-Qarnayn and the Sun Setting in a Muddy Spring (Part One)

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This is part one of a two-part article providing a comprehensive examination of the different interpretations of Qur'an 18:86 and 18:90.


The meaning of verses 18:86 and 18:90 in the Qur’an is a matter of considerable controversy. These verses occur within the Dhu’l Qarnayn episode in Surah al-Kahf, or “The Cave”, verses 18:83-101. This passage says that Allah empowered a person called Dhu’l Qarnayn, “Possessor of the two horns”, 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)

83. They ask thee concerning Zul-qarnain. Say, “I will rehearse to you something of his story.”
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.

Transliteration (muslimnet)

83. Wayas-aloonaka AAan thee alqarnayni qul saatloo AAalaykum minhu thikran
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 One: What do Qur’an 18:86 and 18:90 say that Dhu’l Qarnayn reached?

The Dhu’l Qarnayn episode can be divided into three journeys, the first two of which are described in verses 18:86 and 18:90. In the first phrase of 18:86, Dhu’l Qarnayn travels until he reaches maghriba alshshamsi (مَغْرِبَ الشَّمْسِ), and in the first phrase of 18:90, he travels until he reaches matliAAa alshshamsi (مَطْلِعَ الشَّمْسِ).

Three possible interpretations of the Arabic words maghriba alshshamsi in 18:86 and matliAAa alshshamsi in 18:90 have been claimed:

  1. The west and the east
  2. The time when the sun sets and the time when the sun rises
  3. The place where the sun sets and the place where the sun rises

The first part of this article examines each of these interpretations in context to identify the true meaning of those words. Then Part 2 will look at what these two verses say happened when Dhu’l Qarnayn arrived and at broader questions concerning how this passage of the Qur’an was meant to be understood.

Derivation of the words maghrib and matliAA

The word alshshamsi, which immediately follows the words maghriba and matliAAa in 18:86 and 18:90, means “of the sun”. Maghrib and matliAA are nouns derived from the roots of the verbs gharaba, to set, and talaAAa, to rise, respectively. They are special types of nouns meaning either the place where the action of the verb happens or the time when it happens (the place or time of the sun setting or rising). If it indicates a place, such a noun is called an ism makan. If it means a time, it is called an ism zaman. In either case, these nouns are formed by adding the ma- prefix and using a kasarh (transliterated as ‘i’) after the 2nd letter to create the words maghrib and matliAA.[1]

The fatha, or “-a” suffix is added to maghrib and matliAA in 18:86 and 18:90 for the accusative grammatical case to indicate that they are the objects of the verb balagha, "he reached" (there is also a different interpretation that these are not the things reached, which will be examined in section 5). The definite article, “al” as in al maghrib, is missing but implied in these verses. That’s because in the genitive construction called ’idāfa (indicating possession, as in the X of Y), the definite article is implied for the first word when it is used for the genitive word, which in this case is alshshamsi, meaning “of the sun”.[2]

First interpretation: He reached the west and east

The first case to be presented is that maghriba alshshamsi in 18:86 and matliAAa alshshamsi in 18:90 could be referring to the west and east such that Dhu’l Qarnayn reached the westernmost and easternmost parts of his travels in the direction of sunset and sunrise, but not literal setting and rising places of the sun.

Supporting this claim is the fact that al maghrib is a common Arabic idiom for the west, used in this way elsewhere in the Qur’an and hadith (indeed, the Arabic name for Morocco is al-Mamlakah al-Magribiyya, commonly called al-Maghrib for short). Supporters of this interpretation also point out that it was the one given in some classical commentaries of the Qur’an.[3]

Words used to mean the east and west in the Qur’an

Looking outside of 18:86 and 18:90, there are two ways in which the west and east are referred to in the Qur’an. Derived from the verb ashraqa (“to rise / shine”), we have al mashriq, which literally means the place or time of the sun’s rising / shining, and is used to mean the east in many verses in the Qur’an (this is not, however, the word used in 18:90, which is matliAAa). In the following verses in the Qur’an, al maghrib is usually translated as the west or western, and al mashriq as the east or eastern:

2:115; 2:142; 2:177; 2:258; 7:137; 26:28; 43:38; 55:17; 70:40; and 73:9.[4]

In verses 19:16; 24:35 and 28:44, gharb (from the same root as maghrib) is used in an adjectival form to mean western or of the west and sharq (from the same root as mashriq) is used in an adjectival form to mean eastern or of the east.

However, as set out in the next section below, there are at least 5 serious problems with the claim that maghriba alshshamsi in 18:86 means the west and matliAAa alshshamsi in 18:90 means the east.

Was alshshams ever used with al maghrib to mean the west?

alshshams means “the sun”, and the -i suffix (an Arabic kasarh) in 18:86 and 18:90 is for the genitive case, which indicates possession (“of the sun”). When we look at how maghrib is used elsewhere in the Qur’an to mean west (see list above), we see that it is always used as a stand-alone word without alshshams, in contrast to 18:86. Why is alshshamsi added in 18:86 when it is not in the other instances if not to emphasize a literal meaning? Indeed, alshshams is not even used with maghrib when it means the west anywhere in the hadith.[5]

Lane’s Lexicon of classical Arabic, long regarded as authoritative and drawing on many classical Arabic dictionaries and sources, says that al maghrib can signify the west, and also the time of sunset, but originally signified the place (or point) of sunset, which it says is the meaning when alshshamsi is added.[6] Indeed, this is what these words are used to mean elsewhere outside the Qur'an where it clearly means a place where the sun is physically located, as we shall see in section 6.2. As we shall also see in section 6.5, such was a common belief at that time in that region where we find other versions of the same story.

Was al matliAA ever used to mean the east?

It gets even worse when looking at 18:90. Al matliAA means “the rising place” or “the rising time” (of the sun) and is the first word in the phrase matliAAa alshshamsi in 18:90. MatliAA, with or without alshshams, is not used to mean east anywhere else in the Qur’an, nor anywhere in the hadith.[5] The verb talaAAa (“it rises”), from which it is derived, is not used in this connection either.

If verse 18:90 was about the east, then al mashriq or al sharq would likely have been used, as is always the case elsewhere when the Qur’an mentions the east. Outside 18:86, every verse in the Qur’an that uses maghrib to mean west also uses mashriq to mean east. For aesthetic reasons, the verse would then also probably replace tatluAAu with tashruqu in 18:90 (both mean “it rising” and are forms of the verbs from which matliAA and mashriq are derived, respectively).

Furthermore, Lane’s Lexicon does not give the slightest indication that matliAA, with or without alshshamsi,[7] nor related words like talaAAa[8] can be used in an idiom meaning the east. The Lexicon is freely available online and links to cited pages are in the References below.

The only place in the hadith[5] where matliAA might seem to be used in an idiom meaning the east is in Sahih Muslim:

…The belief is that of the Yemenites, the sagacity is that of the Yemenites, the tranquillity is among the owners of goats and sheep, and pride and conceitedness is among the uncivil owners of the camels, the people of the tents in the direction of sunrise.

Here, qibala means direction and matliAAi alshshamsi is translated as “of sunrise”, literally meaning the direction of the rising-place of the sun. The very next hadith is another version of the same hadith:

The belief is that of the Yemenites, the sagacity is that of the Yemenites and the summit of unbelief is towards the East.

This version of the hadith ends with “qibala almashriqi”, translated, “towards the East”. As mentioned above, al mashriq usually appears as an idiom to mean the east. It seems easy at first to argue that just as almashriq means the east in one version of this hadith, matliAAi alshshamsi just means the east rather than the rising-place of the sun in the other version. However, even if almashriq means the east in Sahih Muslim Book 1, Number 92 (rather than literally, “the rising point”, as in Qur’an 37:5 and 70:40), both the east and the imagined setting-place of the sun would be in the same direction. These hadith only show that the directions (“qibala”) of these two things (“matliAAi alshshamsi” and “almashriq”) are interchangeable.

Conclusive evidence that matliAAi alshshamsi in the above quoted hadith means literally the rising-place of the sun and not merely the east comes a little earlier in the first version of it in Book 1, Number 83, which has “where emerge the two horns of Satan”, which many other hadith tell us is where the sun rises.[9]

It is narrated on the authority of Ibn Mas’ud that the Apostle of Allah (may peace and blessings be upon him) pointed towards Yemen with his hand and said: Verily Iman is towards this side, and harshness and callousness of the hearts is found amongst the rude owners of the camels who drive them behind their tails (to the direction) where emerge the two horns of Satan, they are the tribes of Rabi’a and Mudar.

Wajadaha refers back to the sun as a literal object

The next words after maghriba alshshamsi in 18:86 are wajadaha taghrubu, meaning “he found it setting”. Right after matliAAa alshshamsi in 18:90 we have the words wajadaha tatluAAu, meaning “he found it rising”.

In both cases, wajadaha (وَجَدَهَا) means “he found it”. That “it”, the feminine “-ha” suffix to wajada, refers to the previous word, the sun, as the object of the verb.[10] Thus, the words mean “he found the sun setting” and “he found the sun rising”. However, in the west and east interpretation the sun has only been mentioned as one part of an idiom for the west or the east, yet wajadaha clearly refers back to it as a literal object. The west and east interpretation would only make sense if the sun had also been mentioned explicitly as a literal entity. It would probably omit alshshamsi in both verses, and then say, “wajada alshshamsa taghrubu…” (“he found the sun setting…”), and “wajada alshshamsa tatluAAu…” (“he found the sun rising…”).

For the same reason, neither can maghriba alshshamsi nor matliAAa alshshamsi mean nations or places that have those names in these verses (for example, the Japanese characters for Nippon (the Japanese name for Japan) means “sun origin”, and it is sometimes called The Land of the Rising Sun).

Better still, these verses would be worded completely differently. Even if one argues that there is some poetic reason to describe the west and east using the words we have in 18:86 and 18:90, it would be an extraordinarily poor choice of words since people reasonably understood them to be about the literal setting and rising places of the sun, as we shall see. How would we know what anything in the Qur’an means if it uses words that commonly (and when the context suggests) mean a particular thing when it really means a different concept, for which it uses a different word everywhere else?

An extraordinary coincidence

The simplest and perhaps greatest problem for the west-east interpretation is the striking combination of the two key elements in each of verses 18:86 and 18:90. Not only did Dhu’l Qarnayn reach “the setting place of the sun”, but there also he found the sun setting in a certain place. Not only did he reach “the rising place of the sun”, but there he found the sun rising in a certain way.

Thus, an extraordinary coincidence is required. Under this interpretation, it just so happens that straight after the verses inform us that Dhu’l Qarnayn reached places that merely mean the west and east, but are distinctively and literally worded as the setting and rising places of the sun, we are told of the sun’s behaviour.

Commentators use knowledge unknown to 7th century Arabs

Finally, there are the commentators of the Qur’an. There were certainly classical commentators who claimed that the verses just mean that Dhu’l Qarnayn reached the west and east. However, as pointed out by S. Shamoun and J. Katz at Answering Islam,[11] when we look at their reasoning, it is based not on narrated traditions or linguistic or contextual analysis, but rather on their knowledge that the obvious interpretation describes something that is impossible. We can look at the reasoning (which is highlighted in bold) of the commentators, who are frequently cited on this topic to deny the obvious interpretation and support the west / east idiom interpretation:

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’an 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.[3]
al-Qurtubi (died 671 AH/1273 CE) Al-Game’ Le Ahkam-el-Qur’an
When Zul-Qarnayn reached the furthest west and no populated land was left, he found the sun as if it sets in a dark spring, but it is not in reality. The same when sea traveler sees the sun as if it sets in the sea if he cannot see the shore while in reality it sets behind the sea.[3]
al-Razi d. 606 AH (1149-1209 CE) Tafsir al-Kabir
“Until, when he reached the setting of the sun” means he followed a certain way till he reached the furthest land he could go from the west. As for reaching the setting of the sun in the sky, it is impossible. What narrators and story tellers say that he walked for a period of time in earth while the sun was setting behind him is unreal, and most of it is from myths of People of the Book and inventions of their liars. ‘he found it set in a spring of murky water’ means he saw the sun according to his vision setting in the ocean and this is the same with everyone ending to the shore seeing as if the sun sets inside it (i.e. the ocean).[3][12]
Ibn Kathir (701-774 AH/1302-1373 CE) Tafsir Ibn Kathir

The knowledge of these commentators that the obvious interpretation is impossible would not, however, be likely to have been known to Muhammad and the earliest Muslim community. This knowledge came to the Arabs after Ptolemy’s Almagest was translated into Arabic in the 8th century CE after the Qur’an was completed. Ptolemy recorded in book five of his AlMagest in the mid-2nd century CE the discovery of Hipparchus, and of Aristarchus before him, that the sun is much larger than the earth and much more distant than the moon.[13]

In reference to the Dhu’l Qarnayn episode and other tales in the Qur’an, Professor Kevin Van Bladel says:

When the worldview of educated Muslims after the establishment of the Arab Empire came to incorporate principles of astrology including the geocentric, spherical, Aristotelian-Ptolemaic world picture – particularly after the advent of the ‘Abbāsid dynasty in 750 – the meaning of these passages came to be interpreted in later Islamic tradition not according to the biblical-quranic cosmology, which became obsolete, but according to the Ptolemaic model, according to which the Quran itself came to be interpreted.[14]

David A. King writes:

The Arabs of the Arabian peninsula before Islam possessed a simple yet developed astronomical folklore of a practical nature. This involved a knowledge of the risings and settings of stars, associated in particular with the cosmical setting of groups of stars and simultaneous heliacal risings of others, which marked the beginning of periods called naw’, plural anwā’. […] Ptolemy’s Almagest was translated at least five times in the late eighth and ninth centuries. The first was a translation into Syriac and the others into Arabic, the first two under Caliph al-Ma’mūn in the middle of the first half of the ninth century, and the other two (the second an improvement of the first) towards the end of that century […] In this way Greek planetary models, uranometry and mathematical methods came to the attention of the Muslims.[15]

We shall also see when looking at the 3rd interpretation that contemporary Muslim and non-Muslim sources demonstrate that in the early Islamic era before the translation and study of Indian and Greek astronomy under the Abbasid Caliphate, there was a widespread popular belief in the region that the world is flat and that the sun had literal rising and setting places. So, the above commentators were forced by their beliefs to say what they said since they knew certain things about the world, even though their interpretations cannot be correct (this will become even more apparent in part II when examining the wajada phrases). These are attempts to make the verses fit scientific knowledge acquired later, not evidence that the verses have those intended meanings or were originally understood in that way.

Furthermore, the commentators not only give the invented interpretation, but they also have to deny the literal setting and rising places interpretation (or for al-Qurtubi and Ibn Kathir, a caricature of it), thus confirming that the place where the sun sets on Earth was the interpretation that had been understood by Muslims before scientific knowledge was acquired later.

It is worth briefly discussing the passage relating to Dhu’l Qarnayn in Sirat Rasul Allah (Life of the Messenger of God) by Ibn Ishaq (died mid 8th century CE and was the first biographer of Muhammad), which survives in a copied and edited version by Ibn Hisham (died 833 CE). It describes the story of Dhu’l Qarnayn in a passage about the occasion Sura al kahf was revealed. We are told that Muhammad’s enemies challenged him to tell them about “the mighty traveler who reached the confines of both East and West. ” literally, “the easts of the Earth and the wests of it”[16] (…mashariqa alardi wamagharibaha…).[17]

The same Arabic phrase occurs again shortly afterwards in this passage:

Roads were stretched out before him until he traversed the whole earth, east and west. He was given power over every land he trod on until he reached [the end of the east and the west, to] the farthest confines of creation.[18]

The square brackets show a 3rd instance of almashriq and almaghrib (this time singular), which is omitted in the quoted translation.

This does not mean that Ibn Ishaq (or his source) did not believe that Dhu’l Qarnayn reached the setting and rising places of the sun. Unlike the commentators quoted above, Ibn Ishaq is not denying that Dhu’l Qarnayn did so. In the Arabic it literally says that there was nothing from creation behind these places, so it must mean the edges of a flat Earth, and the setting-place would be at the western edge and the rising place at the eastern edge. He even uses a different word order: mashriq then maghrib rather than maghrib then matliAA as in the Qur’an. This suggests he was simply quoting a common phrase to summarize Dhu’l Qarnayn’s adventure.

Incidentally, at the beginning of the same work in a section about pre-Islamic traditions[19], Ibn Ishaq quotes some lines of poetic verse which say that Dhu’l Qarnayn "witnessed the setting of the sun in its resting place into a pool of black and foetid slime". See section 6.5.1 below for a full quote by al-Tabari of these same lines.

Given all of the problems detailed above (especially the extraordinary coincidence required by the two elements in each verse; that alshshamsi is never used when the meaning is merely east or west; that matliAA is never used in a phrase that means the east; and the problem of what wajadaha refers to in the next phrases), it is clear that the west/east idiom interpretation of 18:86 and 18:90 cannot be correct.

Second interpretation: He reached [a place at] the time of sunset and sunrise or he reached those times

Dr Zakir Naik, a prominent Muslim public speaker, claims that “balagha maghriba alshshamsi” means “he reached at the time of sunset”,[20] and another interpretation appears on Osama Abdallah’s website, that it means “he reached the time of sunset”.[21] In support of the time interpretation is the fact that both maghrib and matliAA can be used as an ism zaman (a noun to indicate the time that a verb happens). Maghrib is not used as an ism zaman anywhere in the Qur’an, but outside the Qur’an, al maghrib is the name given to the prayer that takes place at the time of sunset (one of the 5 daily prayers for Muslims). The phrase maghriba alshshamsi is also used to mean the time of sunset in two hadith, each with two versions (maghrib has an “-i” suffix here as it follows a preposition):

…bayna salati alAAasri ila maghribi alshshamsi…

…between the ‘Asr prayer and sunset…

The other version of this hadith is Sahih Bukhari 6:61:539.

Sahih Muslim has the following:

…hatta maghribi alshshamsi…

…at the time of sunset…

There is one example in the Qur’an where matliAA is used as an ism zaman. Verse 97:5 has, “…hatta matlaAAi alfajri” (“…until the rise of morn”).

There is nowhere in the Qur’an where matliAAa alshshamsi is used to mean the time of sunrise. It is not used with this meaning in the hadith.[5] There are many other weaknesses with this interpretation. Discussed next are those that apply to it in general and then those specific to Dr Naik’s and Osama Abdallah’s interpretations.

Why say itha and balagha?

One can notice that in the above examples that hatta, “until”, is used without itha, “when”, and without balagha, “he/it reached”. There is no need for itha or balagha in verses 18:86 or 18:90 either if they mean that Dhu’l Qarnayn followed a way until the time of sunset/sunrise.

Contextual problems

There are also various contextual problems with this interpretation. Verse 18:84 has Allah giving Dhu’l Qarnayn “min kulli shayin sababan”, which in the word-for-word translation says, “of everything a means”. The word sababan is used again in the next verse, “FaatbaAAa sababan”, word-for-word translation, “So he followed a course”. The word fa (prefixed to atbaAAa) means “And so” or “thus”, clearly in reference to the preceding phrase.

Why say that Allah gave Dhu’l Qarnayn a course/way/road to everything without telling us what it was about the physical locations of the peoples he visited that made this a remarkable achievement?

The next problem is that verses 18:86 and 18:90 seem to be explaining the reason why Dhu’l Qarnayn followed the ways mentioned in the previous verses. It could be argued that the purpose of each journey was to find a people, but the beginnings of each verse seem to suggest that the intention related to the sun and that this unexpectedly resulted in the discovery of some people. He would be traveling distances in order to reach the times of sunset and sunrise, which seems rather pointless. Similar points are made by P. Newton[22] and Cornelius[23] at Answering Islam.

A related problem is that if he just followed a way until the time when the sun sets rather than until he reached the place where the sun sets, there is no reason to then describe what he found the sun to be doing.

Verses 92-93 use the exact same wording as 85-86 and 89-90 to mean reaching a location

A highly significant contextual problem is that verses 18:92 – 93 use exactly the same introductory phrase:

Thumma atbaAAa sababan hatta itha balagha…

Then followed he (another) way, until when he reached…

The next two words are “bayna alssaddayni” (“between two mountains”), clearly describing the location reached, and each of the three journeys of Dhu’l Qarnayn begins with the same phrase. Surely the exact same phrase would not be used to say that he reached a time or an unstated location at a time in the first two instances, but explicitly a location in the third.

Different wording is used elsewhere when the time of sunset is meant

In the Qur’an, there are three verses that mention the times when the sun rises and sets (and three more that just mention the time of sunrise – those will be looked at in a moment). The verbs gharaba, used in 18:86 in the form “taghrubu”, “it set”, and talaAAa, used in 18:90 in the form “tatluAAu”, “it rise” are used for this purpose in those three verses (in a noun form of the verbs in the latter two cases) along with a time adverb, “when”, or “before”.

Watara alshshamsa itha talaAAat … waitha gharabat…

And you (might) have seen the sun when it rose … and when it set …
…wasabbih bihamdi rabbika qabla tulooAAi alshshamsi waqabla alghuroobi

…and celebrate the praises of thy Lord, before the rising of the sun and before (its) setting.
…wasabbih bihamdi rabbika qabla tulooAAi alshshamsi waqabla ghuroobiha…

…and celebrate (constantly) the praises of thy Lord, before the rising of the sun, and before its setting;…

Verses 18:86 and 18:90 could have simply followed this pattern if they were meant to express the time of sunset and sunrise, saying that he followed a way “until when the sun set” (hatta itha gharabat alshshamsu) and “until when the sun rose” (hatta itha talaAAat alshshamsu), similar to 18:17. They could have even said that he followed a way “til the setting of the sun” (ila ghuroobi alshshamsi) and “til the rising of the sun” (ila tulooAAi alshshamsi), similar to 50:39 and 20:130.

Similar phrases are used many times in the hadith. For example:

…hatta taghruba alshshamsu … hatta tatluAAa alshshamsu.

…till the sun sets … till the sun rises.

The other way that the time of sunrise is referred to in the Qur’an uses the verb ashraqa, “to (sun)rise” in the form of an active participle or verbal noun as in the following verses:

aakhathathumu alssayhatu mushriqeena

But the (mighty) Blast overtook them before morning [Pickthall and some others have “at sunrise” instead of “before morning”]
FaatbaAAoohum mushriqeena

So they pursued them at sunrise.
…bialAAashiyyi waalishraqi

…at eventide and at break of day [Pickthall and some others have “sunrise” instead of “break of day”]

If the Qur’an in 18:90 meant the time of sunrise, it would likely have used a formulation similar to these using a derivative of ashraqa or used talaAAat / tulooAAi as in the other 3 verses.

Could it mean he reached [a place at] the setting and rising time of the sun?

As well as the problems above, there are problems specific to Dr. Naik’s claim that the relevant words mean “until when he reached at the time of sunset, he found it…”. The verb balagha is always transitive when it means to reach, and always has an explicit object elsewhere in the Qur’an, but in Dr. Naik’s interpretation, balagha is used as an intransitive verb, which even if it was technically allowed, would make no sense here. It is allowed in Arabic for the object (maf’ul bihi) of a transitive verb to be omitted (mahdhuf), but only if the object has already been mentioned, since otherwise the sentence would make no sense.[24] That is not the case here, so we wouldn’t know what Dhu’l Qarnayn reached and the sentence would make no sense.

As noted at the beginning of this article, maghriba and matliAAa have the accusative case ending, which you'd expect if they are the objects of the verb balagha. If maghriba alshshamsi and matliAAa alshshamsi are not the things reached, but instead are redundantly stating the time of day (redundant because it mentions the sun setting/rising immediately afterwards), they would interrupt the flow of the sentence before it continues with the wajadaha phrase (“he found it…”). It would be a ludicrously awkward, and misleading way to phrase such a meaning, an easily avoidable flaw.

Balagha cannot mean that a person reached the time of an external event

It would be very unusual for balagha to be used to mean someone reaching a time of day in Arabic, and it is not used in that way in the Qur’an. Various verses have been used to support the claim that balagha (بَلَغَ), translated “he reached”, means that Dhu’l Qarnayn reached the time of sunset in 18:86 and reached the time of sunrise in 18:90.[21] As well as reaching a location, balagha can mean reaching an age or milestone in one’s life. It is used in this way in the following verses (“old age”; “marriageable age”; “his full strength”; “puberty”; “work with his father”; “forty years”):

3:40; 4:6; 6:152; 12:22; 17:23; 17:34; 18:82; 19:8; 22:5; 24:58-59; 28:14; 37:102; 40:67; 46:15

It is important to notice that age is an attribute of a person, who is reaching a point on the human age scale. There is also a clear difference between saying that a man has reached 40 years (a personal duration - the sun has been orbited 40 times since his birth) and saying that he has reached a particular year or time of day, which is not a measurement of duration from a personal milestone.

The setting time of the sun is a point that the sun (or time of day at a particular location) can appear to reach on the daily cycle at that location. Dhu’l Qarnayn, who is doing the reaching in 18:86 and 18:90, does not have a personal attribute that can be described in those terms. Balagha is not used in the Qur’an to describe the time that a person is experiencing in terms of the time when an external event occurs rather than a personal milestone. Perhaps the sun can be said to “balagha” its setting time (or to be precise, “balaghat” – this interpretation is examined further below), but it would be very unusual to say that Dhu’l Qarnayn did so.

Other examples of balagha

We can also look at two other types of example that someone might attempt to use (although they do not seem to have been used by anyone) to support the time interpretation.

In verse 68:39, balagha is used in reference to a covenant “reaching till the day of judgement”, “balighatun ila yawmi alqiyamati” (ila means “till” or “to”). Clearly, you could also speak of a covenant “reaching till the time of sunset”, “balighatun ila maghribi”. However, in these cases balagha has a different meaning to the examples above. Here it refers to the valid duration of the covenant. It always had this duration from the moment it was defined. It always could be said to reach till the day of judgement. Perhaps, when the day of judgement happened it could also be said that the covenant had “reached the day of judgement”, “balagha yawma alqiyamati”. Here it would mean that the covenant had now reached that point on its duration attribute, which can be described in terms of external events. Dhu’l Qarnayn is not like a covenant, as a person has no such attribute (a person’s age is described in terms of personal events and milestones, as we saw above). He could not be described as a man reaching until the day of his death or until sunset.

There are some other verses (2:231-232; 2:234-235; 6:128; 7:135; 40:67; 65:2) where balagha is used to refer, in the word-for-word translation, to widows reaching “their term” (ajalahuna), “a prescribed term its end” (alkitabu ajalahu), we (i.e. evil doers) reaching “our term which you appointed for us” (ajalana allathee ajjalta lana), the people of Pharaoh reaching “a term” (ajalin), or the listener addressed by the Qur’an reaching “a term specified” (ajalan musamman). In these verses, ajala means a term or period of duration.[25]

They have the same meaning of balagha as in 46:15 mentioned above (“forty years”, “arbaAAeena sanatan”) where it refers to a period of duration. In these verses the attribute of the person or people or prescribed term is the quantity of time that has passed since the period began and the point that they reach is “the term” or “its end”. As with the age examples, they are not referring to the time of an external event that someone one other than those described as doing the reaching could also reach. Only the widows could be said to reach their term. No one other than Pharaoh’s people could be said to reach the term mentioned in 7:135. Most people reach marriageable age, but on the day when you reached marriageable age, it could not be said (in English or Arabic) that this is something that other people reached on that same day just because they were alive at the time when it happened to you. It was a personal event.

We have now seen how balagha may be used in reference to an event in time. In contrast, the time interpretation of 18:86 and 18:90 requires balagha to mean that Dhu’l Qarnayn reached the time of an external event, not a personal event. Furthermore, Lane’s lexicon defines balagha thus:

The reaching, attaining, arriving at, or coming to, the utmost point of that to which, or towards which, one tends or repairs or betakes himself, to which one directs his course, or which one seeks, pursues, endeavors to reach, desires, intends, or purposes; whether it be a place, or a time, or any affair or state or event that is meditated or intended or determined or appointed: and sometimes, the being at the point thereof: so says Abu-l-Kásim in the Mufradát.

It is clear here and in the usage of balagha in the Qur’an that even when it is used in reference to a time, that time is distinguished as one that is reached (unlike any other time) because something is intended for that time (e.g. widows can remarry after waiting their term, a righteous man prays for gratitude when he is 40 years old etc.). The wajada phrases suggest that Dhu’l Qarnayn’s intention for his reaching would have been to find out what the sunset and sunrise looked like. This shows why the time interpretation would suffer from one of the contextual problems mentioned above (you needn’t follow a road to reach the time of sunset).

Could balagha mean “it reached”?

An alternative version of the time interpretation appears in a Muslim article on this topic when they attempt to use the following argument from common usage:

The word ‘balagha’ when referring to any heavenly object was mainly used for determining the time of the day. For instance, when the Muslims talk about the pink or reddish line in the sky appearing so that they can start the evening daily prayer and end the fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, they say a phrase such as:

“Balagha al-khattu al-ahmar haddah”, which means “The red line has reached its limit”[21]

To apply this argument, balagha in 18:86, which has the masculine 3rd person singular perfect tense suffix, -a, meaning he/it,[26] would have to mean “it reached”(where “it” refers to the sun) rather than “he reached”, referring to Dhu’l Qarnayn mentioned earlier. This is not grammatically possible for two reasons.

Firstly, the words following balagha, “maghriba alshshamsi” (“the setting place/time of the sun”), can only be the object of the verb balagha. It is not grammatically possible that the sun is the subject of balagha since it only appears as part of a genitive construction (called ’idāfa) with maghriba, which has the accusative case ending (indicating the object of the transitive verb, balagha). If balagha meant “it reached”, where “it” meant the sun, the verse would be grammatically incomplete since there would be no referent to which “it” refers.[27] The same grammatical problem would also occur in 18:90. Note also that in Arabic, the word balagha cannot implicitly refer to the time of day as the subject. You can’t just say, “balagha almaghriba”, meaning “It reached sunset” (i.e. that the time of day had advanced to sunset), as someone might occasionally say in English.

Secondly, alshshamsu is a feminine noun, so verbs must use the feminine gender when the sun is their subject.[28] We also see this in the next parts of the verses, which use the feminine 3rd person singular imperfect tense prefix, ta-, in words referring to the sun, taghrubu (“it/her set”) in 18:86, and tatluAAu (“it/her rise”) in 18:90.[29] Balagha, as noted above, uses the masculine suffix, -a (called fatha in Arabic), rather than the feminine suffix –at,[44] so it cannot refer to the same subject (the sun) as taghrubu and tatluAAu do. Dhu’l Qarnayn must be the subject of balagha.

An interpretation invented in modern times

Finally, nowhere in the Qur’an nor in the hadith[5] is there a phrase where alshshams or maghrib or matliAA are used with balagha to describe reaching a time. Thus the time interpretation requires a very unusual, perhaps unique, and certainly misleading phrase usage. With this and the other problems (and the strong evidence supporting the next interpretation examined below) it is clear that the time interpretation is not correct.

We saw that while maghriba alshsamsi is used a few times in the hadith to mean the time of sunset, matliAAa alshshamsi is not used to mean the time of sunrise, so it would be very uncommon usage. We saw that elsewhere in the Qur’an other phrases are always used for these purposes. We also saw that there were serious contextual problems, such as the same wording being used in verses 92-93, where the thing reached is indisputably a place.

Supporters of the time interpretation cannot point to a classical commentator who took this interpretation for 18:86 or 18:90. We are asked to believe that nobody understood for centuries that these phrases, against strong evidence to the contrary, just meant that Dhu’l Qarnayn traveled until the times of sunset and sunrise or to unstated places at those times. It should come as no surprise by now that of the most popular Muslim translators of the Qur’an into English (A.Y. Ali, M. al-Hilali and M. Khan, M. Ali, M.H. Shakir, M. Asad, M. Pickthall and many others), none of them use the time interpretation.[30] At most they use the non-committal phrase, “he reached the setting of the sun”.

Third interpretation: He reached the places where the sun sets and rises

Many arguments have been or could be used to support this interpretation (objections are also examined below).

Similar word usage in the Qur’an

Firstly, as noted at the beginning, al maghrib and al matliAA can each be used as an ism makan (a noun referring to the place of the action of the verb from whose root it is derived). This indeed is how maghriba alshshamsi and matliAAa alshshamsi are translated by the Muslim translators M. Khan / M. al-Hilali (“the setting place of the sun”, “the rising place of the sun”), M. Ali (“the setting-place of the sun”, “the (land of) the rising sun”), M. Pickthall and M.S. Ali (“the setting-place of the sun”, “the rising-place of the sun”), M.H. Shakir (“the place where the sun set”, “the land of the rising of the sun”), and others.[30]

In 55:17 and 70:40 mentioned above, which are the only other verses in the Qur’an that refer to the place of sunset (depending on translation), maghrib is used (although without alshshamsi). MatliAA is not used elsewhere in the Qur’an to mean the place of sunrise (37:5, 55:17 and 70:40 are the only other possible references to the place of sunrise and mashriq is used there). On the other hand, gharaba (from which root maghrib is derived) and talaAAa (from which root matliAA is derived) are used later in 18:86 and 18:90 to mean setting and rising with a place preposition (fee, meaning “in” and AAala, meaning “on”).

These words mean the setting and rising places in the hadith

Far more significantly, we find the words used in 18:86 and 18:90 also used in hadith that concern the behaviour of the sun. We need not assume that these hadith are accurate reports about Muhammad. We can use them simply as contemporary evidence of how Arabic words and phrases were used.

The hadith below that refer to the setting or rising place of the sun use maghrib or matliAA followed by the suffix –ha (meaning “of it” or “its”) or –ki (meaning “your”) in reference to alshshamsu, “the sun”, mentioned earlier in those hadith. Therefore they effectively say maghriba alshshamsi and matliAAa alshshamsi.

There are numerous hadith relating to the end of the world and use these phrases. See for example:

…tatluAAa alshshamsu min maghribiha…

…the sun rises from the place of its setting…

Similarly, Sahih Muslim has the following:

…tulooAAu alshshamsi min maghribiha…

…the rising of the sun [from] its place of setting.

The next hadith has, even more significantly:

…Do you know where the sun goes? […] Rise up and go to the place whence you came, and it goes back and continues emerging out from its rising place […] Rise up and emerge out from the place of your setting, and it will rise from the place of its setting…

Here, “mina matliAAiha” is translated as “from its rising place”, “mina maghribiki” as “from the place of your setting” (so the sun is commanded to go somewhere – it cannot be claimed that this is an idiomatic way of commanding the Earth to rotate), and “mina maghribiha” as “from the place of its setting”, all in reference to alshshamsu, “the sun”. Maghribiha and maghribiki can only mean the sun’s setting-place. The hadith would have just used “mina almaghribi” if the meaning had just been “from the west”.

There is some inconsistency about the way the English translators of Sahih Muslim and Sahih Bukhari translate maghribiha in other versions of the same hadith. See the footnotes for a discussion of this.[31]

Finally, we have examples of matliAAa alshshamsi meaning the rising-place of the sun in Sahih Muslim Book 1, Number 91 (discussed above) and in Sunan Al-Nasa-I, which has the phrase:

…qala bilalun ana fastaqbala matliAAa alshshamsi…

…Bilal said, “I will”. He turned to face the direction where the sun woke them up…

A literal translation would be “Bilal said, 'I will'. So he faced the rising-place of the sun…”[32]

It describes how Bilal volunteered to stay up to make sure the dawn prayer was not missed. He faced the rising place of the sun, and they awoke when the sun shone on them. It is similar to Sahih Muslim 4:1448.

Another example is found in a hadith in Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal, which says that faith in Allah alone, then jihad, then hajj are as preferable to other work as the distance between the rising place of the sun to the setting place of it (“kama bayna matlaAAi alshshamsi ila maghribiha”).[33]

The evidence is that wherever matliAA and maghrib are followed by alshshamsi (or indirectly as when alshshamsu is the referent of matliAAiha and maghribiha in the hadith), then the phrases mean the rising place of the sun and the setting place (or occasionally setting time, but maybe not rising time) of the sun. Alshshamsi is probably added to maghrib to avoid the ambiguity that would arise if just al maghriba without alshshamsi is used, since that can be an idiom for the west.

Balagha is a perfect fit in this interpretation

There are numerous examples of balagha meaning to reach a location in the Qur’an and the hadith. It is worthwhile highlighting some important examples in this context.

Of most importance are verses 18:92 – 93 discussed above. We have the exact same phrase as in 18:85-86 and 18:89-90, “atbaAAa sababan hatta itha balagha”, used there to describe reaching a place, This is surely no accident.

Immediately preceding the passage about Dhu’l Qarnayn we have one about Moses. There we have:

…la abrahu hatta ablugha majmaAAa albahrayni […] Falamma balagha majmaAAa baynihima…

…I will not give up until I reach the junction of the two seas […] But when they reached the Junction…

There are at least four other examples of balagha meaning to reach a location in the Qur’an (6:19; 13:14; 16:7; 48:25;) and far more in the hadith, which contain a lot of brief historical narratives from Muhammad’s lifetime.

Finally, we saw above that balagha implies an intention. Finding the place of sunset serves as a purpose once the destination is reached after following a road / way.

It fits the context

This interpretation explains the purpose of the second phrase in verse 18:84 discussed above because reaching the setting and rising places of the sun would be an extraordinary feat and the desire to relate it to Allah is understandable.

Lane’s Lexicon indicates that a sabab (which Dhu’l Qarnayn follows to reach his destinations and is translated way / means / road in 18:84, 18:85, 18:89, and 18:92) is a means to an end:

A thing (S, M, Msb, K) of any kind (S, Msb, K) by means of which one attains, reaches or gains access to another thing

Clearly, the setting place of the sun could be such an end, but reaching the time of sunset makes no sense as an end to which this sabab is a means. It is also worth mentioning that Kevin Van Bladel has written some interesting things about what may be the real meaning of this word.[34][35]

Mentioning that Dhu’l Qarnayn found the sun setting in a spring also makes sense if he was at the place where it sets. Otherwise it could have just said that he found a people by a spring without mentioning the sun. Similarly, mentioning the people in 18:90 only in terms of how the sun affects them fits the rising place interpretation perfectly.

Compatibility with contemporary beliefs

We now look at explicit statements in the hadith about the sun (regardless of whether or not these hadith authentically reflect Muhammad utterances, they do at least show some of the contemporary beliefs of the early Muslims, which help us judge the likelihood that Muhammad could have believed and intended a literal interpretation of 18:86 and 18:90). Afterwards we shall look at some early commentaries, early-Islamic poetry and a highly significant contemporary legend.

Before we begin, it’s worth noting that in the same article just mentioned[36], Van Bladel describes how Christian theologians in the region of Syria in the sixth century CE shared the view that the Earth was flat and the sky or heaven was like a tent above the Earth, based on their reading of the Hebrew scriptures. This was a rival view to that of the churchmen of Alexandria who supported the Ptolemaic view of a spherical Earth surrounded by celestial spheres. He says, “Clearly the Ptolemaic cosmology was not taken for granted in the Aramaean part of Asia in the sixth century. It was, rather, controversial.”


We saw above some of the hadith that describe the sun having setting and rising places which it goes into and comes out from. The following hadith is graded Sahih (authentic) by Dar-us-Salam (Hafiz Zubair 'Ali Za'i) and has a chain of narration graded as Sahih by al-Albani. It is from Sunan Abu Dawud, book XXV - Kitab Al-Ahruf Wa Al-Qira’at (Book of Dialects and Readings Of The Qur’an):

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.[37] [The references section includes a link to the Arabic with sahih in chain grading[38]]

There is also another version of the hadith in Musnad Ahmad (this time the spring is muddy rather than warm - the Arabic words sound similar and the same variant readings exist for Qur’an verse 18:86). The same hadith is also recorded by al-Zamakhshari (1075-1143 CE) in his commentary on the Qur’an, al-Kashshaf.[39] Even if one doubts that this is an authentic report about Muhammad, it is certainly further evidence that early Muslims understood 18:86 to mean a literal setting place. The possibility that Muhammad ever claimed a different interpretation thus further diminishes.

There are also numerous sahih hadith that state that the sun rises and sets between the horns of Satan, for example:

Ibn ‘Umar reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: Do not intend to observe prayer at the time of the rising of the sun nor at its setting, for it rises between the horns of Satan.
…then cease prayer till the sun sets, for it sets between the horns of devil, and at that time the unbelievers prostrate themselves before it…

These imply a belief that there were locations where the sun sets and rises. There are a few versions of the hadith below, which implies a bounded, flat Earth belief:

Thauban reported that Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: Allah drew the ends of the world near one another for my sake. And I have seen its eastern and western ends….

The following hadith (also found in Sahih Muslim 19:4327) demonstrates a belief that the sun actually moves through the sky each day:

…So, the prophet carried out the expedition and when he reached that town at the time or nearly at the time of the ‘Asr prayer, he said to the sun, ‘O sun! You are under Allah’s Order and I am under Allah’s Order O Allah! Stop it (i.e. the sun) from setting.’ It was stopped till Allah made him victorious….

As S. Shamoun and J. Katz point out,[11] Al-Tabari (839-923 CE) gives a lengthy hadith in the first volume of his History of the Prophets and Kings, which claims that Ibn ’Abbas gave an account of what Muhammad said about the sun and moon and the setting and rising places. Their quote has been verified in a library copy of Franz Rozenthal’s translation of this hadith for the purposes of this article. Whether or not Muhammad said the things attributed to him here (or said anything similar), this hadith certainly demonstrates a belief in literal rising and setting places among the early Muslims.

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 an 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. […]

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. […] Finally, they bring the sun to the west. Having done so; they put it into the spring there, 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! This is (meant by) what Gabriel said to Sarah: “Do you wonder about God’s command?” It is as follows: God created two cities, one in the east, and the other in the west. […] 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. Behind them are three nations, Mansak, Tafil, and Taris, and before them are Yajuj and Majuj. […] 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.[40]

The hadith continues with a description of an angel who releases parts of a veil of darkness each night, and how the sun and moon will behave at the end of the world.

In volume 5 of the same work, al-Tabari quotes some lines of verse attributed to a Yemeni king, Tubba’ (though seem to be post-Islamic):

Dhu al-Qarnayn before me submitted himself [to God], a king to whom the other kings became humble and thronged [his court]. He reigned over the Eastern and Western lands, yet sought the means of knowledge from a wise, rightly guided scholar. He witnessed the setting of the sun in its resting place into a pool of black and foetid slime.[41]

Tafsir (Commentaries on the Quran by Islamic scholars)

The earliest surviving authentically attributed tafsir, Tafsir Muqātil ibn Sulaymān (d. 767 CE), i.e. who lived closer to the time of Muhammad than any other scholar says.

{Until when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it setting in a spring of mud}, meaning hot and black. Ibn Abbas said: When the sun rises, it is hotter than when it sets.

Shamoun and Katz quote al-Tabari’s commentary (tafsir) on the Qur’an, in which he says at the beginning of his commentary on 18:86:

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.[11][42]

The end of the 3rd and 2nd from last sentences literally say, “In other words: it sets in a spring of muddy water” and, “That is to say that it sets in a spring of hot water”. Notice he omits wajada (“he found”) in these sentences. His ensuing discussion reports the uncertainty as to which Arabic word was used to describe the spring (muddy or hot), incidentally revealing that the sun setting in some kind of spring was understood literally. These variant readings continue to be recited today, and translators take different choices between muddy, hot, or both.

Al-Tabari continues the same passage giving reports concerning the different interpretations of hamiatin. He even gives some from Ibn ‘Abbas, such as:

Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-A'la narrated and said: Marwan ibn Mu'awiya narrated from Warqa, he said: I heard Sa’id bin Jubair say Ibn ‘Abbas had read this word as “in a spring hamiatin”. And he said, “the sun sets in black mud”. And others said instead “it disappears in a hot spring”.[43]

The phrase reported of ‘Ibn Abbas is word for word, “And he said mud black, it sets in it, the sun”). Abu Salih, another companion of Ibn ‘Abbas, made a very similar report narrated through another chain recorded by al-Farra (d. 822 CE) in his Ma'ani al-Qur'an regarding this verse:

al-Farra narrated from Hibban, from al-Kalbi, from Abu Salih, from Ibn ‘Abbas "muddy". He said, "It sets in a black spring".[44]

Al-Tabari's commentary for the 18:86 includes yet further reports such that Ibn ‘Abbas and another companion disagreed on whether the spring was hot or muddy. They sent to Ka'b al-Ahbar, who according to various accounts said, "As for the sun, it becomes hidden in tha'at" (which al-Tabari defines as mud), or he said, "It becomes hidden in black mud". For another translation of al-Tabari's tafsir for 18:86 in full, see here.

We can clearly see from al-Tabari’s commentary that it was understood by early Muslim communities that 18:86 meant that the sun actually sets in a spring. We can also imply from this that they understood the verse to say that Dhul Qarnayn reached the place where the sun sets.

Shamoun quotes from al-Baydawi’s commentary on the Quran, The Secrets of Revelation and The Secrets of Interpretation (Asrar ut-tanzil wa Asrar ut-ta’wil; 13th century CE) in which he gives this among various interpretations for 36:38:38:

For it has a cycle of three hundred and sixty sunrises and sunsets; it rises every morning from its resting-place and sets in a setting place, only to return to them the following year.[45]

Tanwir al-Miqbas Tafsir Ibn ‘Abbas attributed to the prophet's cousin Ibn Abbas, though in reality is by an unknown author(s) at a later date has for 18:86:

(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…[46]

Tafsir al-Thalabi (also known as Al-Kashf wa-l-bayān; 11th century CE) reports the following view from Abu al-Aliya (d. 93 H) for verse 18:86:

Abu al-Aliya said: I was informed that the sun is in a spring; the spring casts it to the East [al mashriq][47]

This narration is recorded even earlier in one of the oldest hadith books, Sunan Sa'id ibn Mansur (d. 227 H), hadith number 1359. Each narrator in the isnad (chain of transmission) is of very high repute among hadith scholars.[48]

The views reported in these commentaries understand these verses to mean literal setting and rising places (most early commentators include no opinion). It is clear from the hadith contained in hadith collections and commentaries that there was interest in what happens to the sun when it is beyond view, so if Muhammad had given another interpretation there would surely be hadith to indicate as such, yet there are none.

A close similarity with the Syriac legend about Alexander the Great

It has been known since 1890 thanks to Theodore Nöldeke that there is a very close similarity between the account in the Qur’an of Dhu’l Qarnayn and the Alexander Legend. This was written in Syriac, probably around 630 CE, but incorporates older traditions such as that of the iron gate built by Alexander to enclose Magog dating to at least the time of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in the 1st century CE[49] and journeys to the rising and setting place of the sun from the Epic of Gilgamesh.[50]

It is part of a larger collection of legends about Alexander the Great known as the Alexander Romance. The Alexander Legend begins with Alexander expressing his desire to explore the ends of the Earth. It then has Alexander saying that God has given him horns on his head and he asks for power over other kingdoms. After collecting seven thousand iron and brass workers from Egypt, he goes to the fetid sea at the end of the Earth. He makes some evildoers go to the shore of the fetid sea, and they die. He and his men go to the window of heaven into which the sun sets between the fetid sea and a bright sea (although it does not say that the sun actually sets into this sea). The place where the sun rises is over the sea and the people who live there must flee from it and hide in the sea. The story then describes how the sun[51] prostrates before God and travels through the heavens at night to the place where the sun rises. He then visits some mountains and the sources of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Next it has Alexander coming to some people who tell him about the Huns within the Northern mountains (Gog, Magog and other kings are listed). He offers to build an iron and brass gate to close up the breach between the mountains, does so and prophesises that God will destroy the gate at the end of the world and the Huns will go forth through it. Next there is a battle with the Persians and their allies after they were told of his gate. It then ends with Alexander worshiping in Jerusalem and his death in Alexandria.[52]

Kevin Van Bladel sums up the correspondence with the Qur’an passage in his recent article:

Thus, quite strikingly, almost every element of this short Qur’anic tale finds a more explicit and detailed counterpart in the Syriac Alexander Legend. In both texts the specific events are given in precisely the same order. Already earlier several cases of specific words that are exact matches between the Syriac and the Arabic were indicated. The water at the place where the sun sets is “fetid” in both texts, a perfect coincidence of two uncommon synonyms (Syraic Saryâ and Arabic hami’a).[53]

It is often denied by modern Muslims that Dhu’l Qarnayn is meant to be Alexander because we now know that he was not a monotheist. However, it is clear from the Alexander Legend and other sources that he was widely believed in Muhammad’s time and region to have been pious and to have worshiped the God of Abraham, and the Qur’an tells his mythical legend.

Whatever the historical relationship between these texts[54] and whether or not Dhu’l Qarnayn is meant to be Alexander the Great, it is clear from the legend that the setting and rising places interpretation of 18:86 and 18:90 was entirely compatible with contemporary beliefs in the region. Indeed, verse 18:83 tells us that what follows was supposed to relate to an already known story (“They ask thee concerning Zul-qarnain”).

Early Muslim poetry

Stories influenced by the Alexander legends appear in Arabic poetry around the time of Muhammad. Richard Stoneman says, “the poet Imru’ l-Qays (Diwan 158) referred to a Yemeni hero who undertook a similar campaign against Gog and Magog. … In addition, the pre-Islamic poet al-’Asha and the contemporary of Muhammad Hassan ibn Thabit both composed verses referring to the conquest of Gog and Magog and the furthest east by Dhu ’l-Qarnayn.”[55]

Those lines attributed to Imru’ l-Qays (died c. 540 CE) are most likely post-Islamic,[56] though clearly mention the literal rising of the sun:

Have I not told you that destiny slays by guile,

A slayer most treacherous indeed, it consumes men’s sons.

It banished Dhū Riyāsh from lordly citadels,

When he had ruled the lowlands and the mountains.

He was a valiant king; by revelation he sundered the horizons.

He drove his vanguards to their eastern edges,

And, where the sun climbs, barred the hills to Gog and Magog.[57]

The lines attributed to Hāssan b. Thābit, a poet who for a time was employed by Muhammad himself, appropriate elements of the Alexander Legend to a king in the line of Himyar (called Tubba‘ by the Muslims):

Ours the realm of Dhu ’l-Qarnayn the glorious,

Realm like his was never won by mortal king.

Followed he the sun to view its setting

When it sank into the sombre ocean-spring;

Up he clomb to see it rise at morning,

From within its mansion when the East it fired;

All day long the horizons led him onward,

All night through he watched the stars and never tired.

Then of iron and of liquid metal

He prepared a rampart not to be o’erpassed,

Gog and Magog there he threw in prison

Till on Judgement Day they shall awake at last[58]

As we can see, a literal setting in a spring is mentioned (in the Arabic those lines are literally, “he followed the sun nearby its sunset to observe it in its spring while lowly”).[59] See also the poem at the end of section 6.5.1 above for another example quoted by Ibn Ishaq and al-Tabari ("He witnessed the setting of the sun in its resting place into a pool of black and foetid slime"). We only have these poems from Islamic sources, and it is likely that they were composed or edited after Muhammad’s death. Even so, they demonstrate how the story was understood in the early Islamic era.

The above hadith, tafsir (commentaries), legends and poetry, are strong circumstantial evidence that the literal setting of the sun in a spring and a literal rising of the sun are the intended meanings in the Qur’an’s version of the same story. Otherwise there would surely be some sign of an alternative interpretation among these early sources given that there was clearly great interest in the story, and Muhammad would have corrected any misunderstanding when people asked him about it.

If we suppose that even Muhammad himself misunderstood Allah’s words, then how could an all-powerful God have made such a poor choice of words if this is not the intended meaning? He would have known about the popular legend and how Arabic words and phrases were used and understood by the people, yet would have chosen wording that reinforced people’s false notions about this myth and the sun. The Alexander Legend, the poetry, and the phrase “They ask thee concerning Zul-qarnain” in 18:83 suggest this was a popular belief and need not have seemed unbelievable to Muhammad. The legend, or an earlier version of the same story, provides an obvious potential source for the Qur'anic version.

Arguments against this interpretation

Places on the horizon behind which the sun appears to set and rise

Before getting into specific arguments that people have raised against the ism makan interpretation, it is worth briefly addressing a subtly different way of interpreting the phrases maghriba alshshamsi and matliAAa alshshamsi, which might occur to some people.

The root word from which maghrib is derived is gharaba, meaning “to set” in the context of the sun. This word also means “to go away” such that something can no longer be seen.[60] Thus one might argue that maghriba alshshamsi is the area of land on the horizon, from Dhu’l Qarnayn’s perspective, behind which the sun disappears at sunset. On the other hand, matliAA is derived from talaAAa, meaning “to rise”[61] in the context of the sun. Could matliAAa alshshamsi be the place on the horizon that the sun rises from behind?

The first problem with that explanation is that there are no single places on the Earth behind which the sun seems to set and rise, but rather it depends on the observer’s location. Perhaps we can suppose that maghriba alshshamsi means the point on the horizon that the sun disappeared behind from the perspective of Dhu’l Qarnayn’s starting position, so it was not a moving target. That’s reading quite a lot into the text. Even this makes no sense given the context. Why follow a special road / way to get there, and why then mention the sun setting, now hidden by a 2nd horizon? Why describe both the 18:86 and 18:90 destinations in those terms? Another problem is that if maghriba means the disappearing place or the place where the sun goes away, can you really describe a place on the horizon as the place where a much more distant object disappears? It seems more natural that the place where something disappears would be in the same location as the thing that is disappearing. An ism makan, after all, is the place where an action occurs. Since the Earth’s rotation hides the sun from a location-specific viewpoint, a literal horizon interpretation doesn’t work as an ism makan, but a specific place that the sun literally sets into does work. A similar set of arguments applies to matliAAa.

Neither can these words be successfully interpreted as simply places which the sun sets or rises on as the Earth revolves. Anywhere outdoors is such a place. The same place would also simultaneously be a setting and rising place of the sun. Furthermore, there is no evidence in the Qur’an, hadith or Lane’s Lexicon that maghriba alshshamsi and matliAAa alshshamsi had any of these meanings.

Nor can the words here mean the apparent points in the direction of the horizon where the sun appears to set and rise when viewed from a particular location since they are not places (how could Dhu’l Qarnayn reach them?). These horizon interpretations lack supporting evidence and have serious problems.

Other verses in the Qur’an – the sun’s rounded course

It would be too lengthy to discuss here the controversy over whether or not the Qur’an says or implies that the Earth is flat / egg-shaped / some other shape, that it is stationary or rotates on its axis and that it supports a geocentric or heliocentric solar system. However, there is a phrase that occurs in the Qur’an twice and is of direct relevance here. It may at first seem to suggest that 18:86 and 18:90 cannot mean literal setting and rising places of the sun.

It is He Who created the Night and the Day, and the sun and the moon: all (the celestial bodies) swim along, each in its rounded course.
It is not permitted to the Sun to catch up the Moon, nor can the Night outstrip the Day: Each (just) swims along in (its own) orbit (according to Law).

Both verses end with “kullun fee falakin yasbahoona” (literally, “all in a rounded course floating/swimming”).

If this phrase meant to say that the sun moves in a circle around the galactic center or around the Earth, then it would apparently preclude the existence of setting and rising places. Tafsir Ibn kathir comments on 36:40:

(They all float, each in an orbit.) means, night and day, the sun and the moon, all of them are floating, i.e., revolving, in their orbits in the heaven. This was the view of Ibn ‘Abbas, `Ikrimah, Ad-Dahhak, Al-Hasan, Qatadah and `Ata’ Al-Khurasani. Ibn `Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, and others among the Salaf said, “In an orbit like the arc of a spinning wheel.”[62]

However, he comments on verse 31:29 that ibn 'Abbas also said that the sun runs in the sky / heaven (alssama) in its rounded course (falakha) during the day, and when it sets it runs at night (bi al-layli - omitted in the translation) in its falak beneath the Earth:

(It goes and prostrates beneath the Throne, then it seeks permission from its Lord, and soon it will be said: “Go back from whence you came.”) Ibn Abi Hatim recorded that Ibn ’Abbas said, “The sun is like flowing water, running in its course in the sky during the day. When it sets, it travels in its course beneath the earth until it rises in the east.” He said, “The same is true in the case of the moon.” Its chain of narration is Sahih.[63]

Moreover, we saw above in the hadith given by al-Tabari that belief in the sun circling the sky above a flat Earth and setting and rising in springs was believed to be compatible with the “falakin” phrase in the Qur’an:

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.[64]

In any case, falak does not necessarily mean a sphere. Arabs would have understood the phrase to mean a hemisphere, as Lane’s Lexicon entry for al falak defines the word:

The place of the revolving of the stars; (O, K, TA;) [the celestial sphere: but generally imagined by the Arabs to be a material concave hemisphere; so that it may be termed the vault of heaven; or the firmament:]

Thus no conflict was seen between the falakin phrase in the Qur’an and the setting and rising places interpretation for 18:86 and 18:90.

There is another argument to consider from Mahir Karaosmanovic.[65] He quotes the following hadith in Tasfir Ibn Kathir when it comments on verse 36:38 to claim that the verse conflicts with a daily setting and rising event.

This was narrated from `Abdullah bin `Amr, may Allah be pleased with him. Ibn Mas`ud and Ibn `Abbas, may Allah be pleased with them, recited this Ayah as: (وَالشَّمْسُ تَجْرِي لَامُسْتَقَرَّ لَهَا) (And the sun runs with no fixed course for a term,) meaning that it has no destination and it does not settle in one place, rather it keeps moving night and day, never slowing down or stopping…[62]

This is given by Ibn Kathir as an alternative view to the one expressed in the hadith that have the sun prostrating under Allah’s throne each night, which is the “destination” referred to in the commentary. The commentary then cites the following verse to support this view:

And He hath made subject to you the sun and the moon, both diligently pursuing their courses; and the night and the day hath he (also) made subject to you.

The Arabic word daibayni is translated as the phrase “both diligently pursuing their courses”. This is not actually a problem for the setting and rising place interpretation since the commentators and other hadith quoted above showed a belief that the sun keeps moving after passing through its setting place (springs in al-Tabari’s History) into heaven (or according to the Ibn ‘Abbas hadith quoted above, under the Earth) after it has set and continues back to its rising place. Unlike the hadith, the Qur’an does not mention the sun stopping to prostrate (but even if it did, that would simply be a stage of its daily course which happens reliably every day until judgement day). Either view is compatible with the setting and rising places interpretation of 18:86 and 18:90.

Perhaps the most likely explanation is that these verses do not have to be consistent with a single cosmology. Perhaps it seemed necessary to Muhammad to give a recitation about Dhu’l Qarnayn to confound those who had questioned him and any need for it to neatly fit the other recitations was of less importance. The already known story of the great traveler had Dhu’l Qarnayn reaching these places, so the recitation had to do so as well in order to pass the test of the questioners. However, we shall see later that it must have been intended to be believed as a true historical account.

Multiple setting and rising places

The Earth's tilt causes the apparent places of the sun's setting and rising to shift back and forth along the horizon during the course of a year. A flat Earth believer might imagine there were many places where the sun sets and rises, or places that move (see above for the set of springs or places the commentators mention), but 18:86 and 18:90 only refer to one of each. Al magharib and al mashariq in 37:5, 55:17 and 70:40 are usually translated as the easts and wests (or in 55:17, the two easts and the two wests). As noted earlier however, other translations have here the points of sunrise and sunset or explanatory notes to that effect. The commentators say that these verses are referring to the points from which the sun rises and sets from the Summer to Winter solstices. See for example Tafsir Ibn Kathir,[66] Tafsir al-Jalalayn,[67] Tafsir al-Tabari,[68] and Tafsir Ibn ‘Abbas.[69] It could mean points on the horizon (from a flat earth perspective) or actual setting and rising places (though they are not mutually exclusive).

We saw above the hadith referring to “the rising place”, “the setting place”, “its rising place” and “your setting place” in the singular. Both there and in the Qur’an it would mean the place where the sun set and the place where it rose on those particular days whether one or many were imagined to exist.

Perhaps Muhammad imagined there were many springs in the sky-ocean like al-Tabari’s hadith (in one early narration of the legend, Alexander sees the sun set in one of 360 immense, black, boiling springs like those in Tabari’s hadith [70]). It was clearly not seen as a problem in the Alexander Legend, which has the sun set and rise through windows of heaven over the sea encircling the world. The rising place also has people living there, like the Quran (perhaps people were imagined to live all along the range where it rises, or maybe just in the place Alexander went to on that day). As for the muddy spring, it is probably derived from the fetid sea of the Alexander Legend, or their common source for the story. Muhammad would have felt bound to follow its outline (insofar as he correctly remembered or was informed about it) to meet the challenge of the questioners in 18:83. Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat tells us that the question about Dhu’l Qarnayn and others in Surah al Kahf were provided by Jews to test Muhammad’s claim of prophetic knowledge.

Why does it only say the people in 18:90 lacked shelter?

Unlike 18:90, verse 86 does not say anything about the people near the spring suffering from the sun's close proximity at sunset. There are a few possible explanations compatible with the setting and rising place interpretations. Most likely, Muhammad was simply following the outline of the popular legend he was using. The Alexander Legend itself only mentions the lack of shelter for the people at the rising place. The creator of the story may also have imagined that the people in verse 86 did have shelter, unlike those in verse 90. Finally, Muhammad might not have thought about or considered it worth mentioning how the sun affected the people in 18:86, just as he doesn’t mention what Dhu’l Qarnayn said or did (if anything) to the people in verse 90.

Some of the more nonsensical objections

The article on this topic by Osama Abdallah[21] puts forth various arguments that the words discussed above are being used as metaphorical or figurative words. These arguments are nonsensical and very easily dismissed. Arguments that the passage as a whole is metaphorical or figurative will be addressed later in part two.

First, his argument supposes that the use of maghrib means that Dhu’l Qarnayn first went to the west (but not to a literal setting place), but because matliAAa rather than mashriqa is used in 18:90, he did not then go to the east. As we saw above when looking at the west-east interpretation, this is indeed a problem for those who claim that maghriba in 18:86 just means the west and then claim that matliAAa in 18:90 just means east. However, it makes no sense at all as an argument against the rising and setting place interpretation, and as we saw above, the use of matliAAa in 18:90 supports that interpretation.

He then claims that the use of the verbs from which maghrib and matliAA are derived in verses 50:39 and 20:130 cannot mean literal rising and setting on Earth because even if we assume that the Qur’an follows a flat-Earth belief, all nations experience sunrise and sunset, not just those near the rising and setting places. This argument is apparently based on the absurd and false premise that if some event occurs in a particular place (the rising or the setting of the sun), then something done before that event (celebrating the praises in 50:39 and 20:130) must occur at that same place. This is obviously complete nonsense. Furthermore, these two verses are perfectly compatible with a literal rising and setting belief since for everywhere on a flat Earth there would be a time (the same time for all nations) when the sun sets and when it rises.

They then give examples of al mashriq and al sharq being used to mean the east. As discussed above, these are just options that were not used. They are not required in order to describe the rising place of the sun, and as we saw above, their non-use is evidence that 18:90 does not merely mean that Dhu’l Qarnayn went to the east.

To support the claim that balagha is metaphorical in 18:86 and 18:90, the article uses verse 6:19, but their nonsensical argument relies on the fact that the Yusuf Ali translation does not translate the word bihi, “with it”. All other major translations do so by some means.

The transliteration of the relevant phrase in 6:19 reads:

…waoohiya ilayya hatha alQur’anu lionthirakum bihi waman balagha…

A.Y. Ali has

…This Qur’an hath been revealed to me by inspiration, that I may warn you and all whom it reaches…

M. Pickthall has

…And this Qur’an hath been inspired in me, that I may warn therewith you and whomsoever it may reach…

Even if the Qur’an did not have the word bihi here, the only metaphorical aspect of the sentence he could point to would be that Muhammad is warning people he hasn’t met (it is actually via the Qur’an, as the other translations show). Either way, the people who Muhammad’s message reaches (carried in the memory or written record of people) are indeed in actual physical locations away from where it initially was.

After quoting various verses where balagha refers to a reaching an age (this argument was addressed above), he then makes the pedantic criticism that balagha does not have to mean literally reaching a specific place (or in reference to time, to a specific time). Strictly speaking this is correct. Even in English, to say you reached the coastline does not have to mean that you came so close that you actually touched the very edge of the land. It must at least mean that you reached the vicinity, however.

He then claims that you would use yudrik / tudrik / adraaka instead of balagha to describe someone travelling to the sun, but you wouldn’t unless you wished to say that he came so close as to touch it! To claim that balagha is metaphoric after all of this is to confuse the word “metaphor” with “approximate”, a completely different concept.

Conclusion of Part One

We have seen that only the setting and rising places interpretation of 18:86 and 18:90 fits the context, grammar, and words used in these verses and nearby verses such as 18:93. It was the only interpretation until the Muslims acquired Greek and Indian astronomical knowledge and it complimented the beliefs and legends of the region, including the remarkable match with the Alexander Legend.

The arguments against this interpretation have been demonstrated to be weak or groundless. The alternative interpretations have been shown to have fatal contextual, grammatical and logical flaws and use word meanings invented purely in an attempt to support those interpretations.

See Also

External Links

Notes on translations, transliterations, and sources

Unless otherwise stated, the original 1934 translation of Abdullah Yusuf Ali[71] 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[72] is used for Sahih Bukhari. That of Abdul Hamid Siddiqui[73] 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,[74][75] 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

  1. Rev. Thatcher, G. W., Arabic Grammer of the Written Language (2nd Ed.), pp.240-241, (London: Julius Groos), 1922
  2. Mohtanick Jamil - Arabic Phrases - LearnArabicOnline
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Hesham Azmy & Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi - Qur’anic Commentary on Sura’ Al-Kahf (18):86 - Bismika Allahuma, October 14, 2005
  4. It should be noted that M. Asad and M. al-Hilali / M. Khan translate almashriqayni and almaghribayni in 55:17 to mean the two furthest apart rising and setting places or points of sunrise and sunset rather than the easts and the wests. Similarly, M. Pickthall, M. Ali and M. al-Hilali / M. Khan translate almashariqi waalmagharibi in 70:40 to mean the rising and setting places or points of sunrise and sunset rather than the easts and the wests.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Based on searches of the Sunni hadith collections in Arabic using ekabakti.com and al-Islam and sunnah.com
  6. Lane’s Lexicon - Volume 6 page 2241 - StudyQuran.org
  7. Lane’s Lexicon - Volume 5 page 1870 - StudyQuran.org
  8. Lane’s Lexicon - Volume 5 page 1867, page 1868, and page 1869 - StudyQuran.org
  9. See Sahih Muslim 4:1807 and Sahih Muslim 4:1812, for example.
  10. Arabic Pronouns - Speak7
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Sam Shamoun & Jochen Katz - Islam and the Setting of the Sun: Examining the traditional Muslim View of the Sun’s Orbit - Answering Islam
  12. Tafsir Ibn Kathir - English Only Edition - abdurrahman.org
  13. Toomer, G. J., Ptolemy and his Greek predecessors, In Astronomy Before the Telescope, Ed. Christopher Walker, p.86, London: British Museum Press, 1996

    See also what Hoskin and Gingerich have to say:

    "In 762 [Muhammad’s] successors in the Middle East founded a new capital, Baghdad, by the river Tigris at the point of nearest approach of the Euphrates, and within reach of the Christian physicians of Jundishapur. Members of the Baghdad court called on them for advice, and these encounters opened the eyes of prominent Muslims to the existence of a legacy of intellectual treasures from Antiquity - most of which were preserved in manuscripts lying in distant libraries and written in a foreign tongue. Harun al-Rashid (caliph from 786) and his successors sent agents to the Byzantine empire to buy Greek manuscripts, and early in the ninth century a translation centre, the House of Wisdom, was established in Baghdad by the Caliph al-Ma’mun. […] Long before translations began, a rich tradition of folk astronomy already existed in the Arabian peninsula. This merged with the view of the heavens in Islamic commentaries and treatises, to create a simple cosmology based on the actual appearances of the sky and unsupported by any underlying theory."

    Hoskin, Michael and Gingerich, Owen, “Islamic Astronomy” in The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy, Ed. M. Hoskin, p.50-52, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999

    It can be viewed free online at http://books.google.com/books?id=4nmjGztzfZwC&pg=PA50
  14. Van Bladel, Kevin, “Heavenly cords and prophetic authority in the Qur’an and its Late Antique context”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 70:223-246, p.241, Cambridge University Press, 2007a
  15. King, David A., “Islamic Astronomy”, In Astronomy Before the Telescope, Ed. Christopher Walker, p.86, London: British Museum Press, 1996
  16. For an English translation read: Guillaume, A., The Life of Muhammad, p. 137 & p.139 London: Oxford University Press, 1955
  17. For the Arabic, see s302: here
  18. Guillaume op. cit. p.139. For the Arabic, see s307: here
  19. Guillaume op. cit. p.12
  20. lnvestigatelslam - Scientific Error in Quran SUN SETTING IN MURKY WATER!!? - YouTube
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 Did the Noble Quran really say that the sun sets and rises on earth? - Answering Christianity
  22. P. Newton - The Qur'an: Is It A Miracle?/ Zul-Qarnain and the Sun - Answering Islam
  23. Cornelius - The Sun in the Muddy Pool and the Prophethood of Muhammad - Answering Islam
  24. See post #8 here - lqtoronto.com
  25. Lane’s Lexicon - Volume 1 page 25 - StudyQuran.org
  26. Word-by-Word Grammar - Verse (18:86) - The Quranic Arabic Corpus
  27. Mohtanick Jamil - Verbal Sentences - LearnArabicOnline
  28. Mohtanick Jamil - Gender - LearnArabicOnline
  29. Thus, those words cannot refer to sababan, “way /road / means” which is masculine (Word-by-Word Grammar - Verse (18:82)), such that Dhul Qarnayn found the way / road / means going down into a muddy spring.
  30. 30.0 30.1 Master Ayat (Verse) Index - IslamAwakened
  31. It should be noted that while A. Siddiqui translates maghribiha in Sahih Muslim as “the place of its setting”, M. Khan translates maghribiha as “the west” in exactly the same Arabic phrases for the versions in Sahih Bukhari of the above quoted hadith. MatliAAiha does not appear in Sahih Bukhari so Khan did not have to translate that word. However, when M. Khan (this time with M. al-Hilali) later translated the Qur’an, maghriba alshshamsi in 18:86 and matliAAa alshshamsi in 18:90 are translated as “the setting place of the sun” and “the rising place of the sun”.

    A. Siddiqui, whose translation of Sahih Muslim is used in the main text, also translates maghribiha as “the west” in the exact same Arabic phrases about the sun at the end of the world for seven other hadith in Sahih Muslim. These do not mention the rising place. He could not attempt to translate this as “the west” in the above quoted hadith because of the “your setting place” phrase and references nearby to the rising place using matliAAa, which as we saw earlier, never means east. The motivation for translating maghribiha as the west in the other hadith is probably to make it fit with Qur’an 2:258:

    …‘But it is Allah that causeth the sun to rise from the east: Do thou then cause him to rise from the west.’…

    …fainna Allaha yatee bialshshamsi mina almashriqi fati biha mina almaghribi… - Qur’an 2:258

    Here, almaghribi does not have the -ha suffix, so indeed it can just mean the west. The -i suffix is there because a noun following a preposition (mina means “from”) takes the genitive case.

    There is another obvious motivation for translating maghribiha as “the west” rather than “its setting place”. This way the phrase can be interpreted as a figure of speech (with a literal meaning that the Earth’s rotation will reverse), thus saving those important hadith (except when they clearly say “your setting place”) from conflict with scientific knowledge unknown to Muhammad. We saw how some commentators (and some translators) reinterpreted verse 18:86 for the same reason.

    These are the four hadith where Khan translates maghribiha (“its setting place”) as “the west”. It is clear from the use of the 3rd person (and in other versions, 2nd person) possessive endings that a more specific translation, “its setting place” would have been justified.

    Sahih Bukhari 4:54:421, Sahih Bukhari 6:60:159, Sahih Bukhari 6:60:160, Sahih Bukhari 9:93:520
  32. This is also how fastaqbala (derived from qabala) is translated in hadith such as Sahih Muslim 7:2803 (“facing qibla”, “fastaqbala alqiblata”).
  33. For the Arabic, see #18531 here
  34. Van Bladel 2007a op. cit. pp.223-246. He argues that sababan in 18:84, 18:85,18:89, and 18:92 refers to the popular belief in invisible cords, or courses leading along or up to heaven. Other examples of the word in the Qur’an have this meaning such as 38:10, which challenges unbelievers who think they have dominion over the Earth and heavens to ascend the cords / ropes (“falyartaqoo fee al-asbabi”). Soldiers there (heaven, where the cords go) are defeated and dead unbelievers from the time of Noah, Lot etc. are waiting for judgement there. Another example is 40:36-37 where Pharaoh requests a tower be built so that “I may reach the roads, The roads of the heavens, and may look upon the god of Moses” (Pickthall’s translation), or in Arabic, “ablughu al-asbaba. Asbaba alssamawati faattaliAAa ila ilahi moosa”. Van Bladel also shows that the word has this meaning in pre-Islamic poetry and early Qur’anic commentaries.
  35. Van Bladel, Kevin, “The Alexander legend in the Qur‘an 18:83-102″, In The Qur’ān in Its Historical Context, Ed. Gabriel Said Reynolds, p.182, New York: Routledge, 2007b
  36. Van Bladel 2007a op. cit.
  37. Kitab Al-Ahruf Wa Al-Qira’at [Book of Dialects and Readings Of The Qur’an], Chapter 1498, p. 1120 in Prof. Ahmad Hasan (trans.), Sunan Abu Dawud – English Translation With Explanatory Notes, Volume III. Chapters 1338-1890, XXV, hadith 3991, Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1984 quoted in Muhammad and the Sun’s Setting Place - Sam Shamoun, Answering Islam
  38. For the Arabic, English, and grading by al-Albani, see here
  39. For a translation see Al-Zamakhshari, Al-Kashshaf 3rd Edition, Volume 2, p. 743, Lebanon: Dar Al-Kotob Al-Ilmiyah, 1987 quoted in (trans.) Science in the Quran/ Chapter 11: The Sun & Moon and Their Orbits - Sam Shamoun, Answering Islam (The phrase translated “spring of slimy water” is actually, “hot spring” in the Arabic. For the Arabic, click here)
  40. Al-Tabari, History of al-Tabari, Volume 1 - General Introduction and from the Creation to the Flood, trans. Franz Rosenthal, pp. 234-238, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989
  41. Al-Tabari, History of al-Tabari, Volume 5 - The Sasanids, the Byzantines, the Lakhmids, and Yemen, trans. Clifford Edmund Bosworth, pp. 173-174, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999
  42. For the Arabic see here
  43. For the Arabic see here
  44. al-Farra, Ma'ani al-Qur'an for verse 18:86 al-makhaba.org https://al-maktaba.org/book/23634/679
  45. al-Baydawi’s comments on S. 36:38 as translated and quoted by ‘Abd al-Fadi, Is the Qur’an Infallible?, p. 29, Villach: Light of Life, 1995 quoted in Science in the Quran/ Chapter 11: The Sun & Moon and Their Orbits - Sam Shamoun, Answering Islam (for the Arabic, click here)
  46. Sura 18 Verse 86 - Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs
  47. Sura 18 Verse 86 - Tafsir al-Thalabi
  48. Sunan Sa'id ibn Mansur, hadith number 1359 p.171
  49. Van Bladel 2007b op. cit. p.181 (See Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book VII, Chapter VII, Verse 4 and the same author's Antiquities of the Jews, Book I, Chapter VI, Verse 1)
  50. See Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet IX and Tablet I (Van Bladel 2007b op. cit. p.176 & p.197, note 6)
  51. Alexander prostrates and travels, not the sun, as was incorrectly translated by A. W. Budge according to Van Bladel, though others side with Budge's rendering (Van Bladel 2007b op. cit. p. 198, note 12)
  52. A. W. Budge (trans.), “A Christian Legend Concerning Alexander” in The History Of Alexander The Great Being The Syriac Version Of The Pseudo-Callisthenes, pp. 144-158, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1889 (translation quoted in full)
  53. Van Bladel 2007b op. cit. p181
  54. Van Bladel’s thesis is that the Syriac Alexander Legend is the source for the Qur’anic account, rather than the other way around (which is indeed highly unlikely due to strongly evidenced dating of the former to 629-630 CE), or them having a common source. However, it is worth wondering if he dismisses a common source too easily. The key point of his argument appears on page 189-190:

    "If Alexander’s prophecy was composed just for this purpose at this time [i.e. as propaganda for the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius – the prophecy in the Alexander Legend evidently serves this purpose], then the correspondence between the Syriac and the Arabic, which contains the same prophecy reworded, cannot be due to an earlier, shared source. Put differently, the only way to posit a common source is to assume that everything held in common between the Qur’anic account and the Syraic Alexander Legend could have been written for and would have made sense in an earlier context."

    However, it seems Dhu’l Qarnayn’s prophecy in the Qur’an would have been meaningful before Heraclius and before Muhammad. As we saw, the story of Alexander’s gate enclosing Gog and Magog goes back at least as far as Josephus (or, at least enclosing the Scythians, who Josephus says are what the Greeks call the people of Magog in Antiquities of the Jews 1:6:1). We also know that the Christians believed that Gog and Magog would wage war across the world in the end times (see Revelation 20:7-10). Thus the simple, Qur’anic version of the prophecy about Gog and Magog would have made sense in a pre-Islamic Christian story about Alexander without needing a contempory invasion to motivate it ex eventu. Very significantly, it appears again briefly in 21:96 in a way that makes clear it has not been fulfilled yet. Van Bladel believes that the omission of the Alexander Legend’s pro Roman element in the Qur’anic account reflects some attitude of Muhammad’s community (p.196). Instead that element and others could just be adaptations to the common source to turn it into an ex eventu prophecy for the specific purposes behind the Alexander Legend. A common source also better explains the fact that in the Qur’anic version, “…not a single Syriac word is found, but rather there are true Arabic equivalents of Syriac words…” (Van Bladel 2007b, op. cit. p.194). This seems surprising if the Qur’anic account is directly related to the Syriac version, but not if there is a common source in Arabic or a 3rd language.
  55. Stoneman, R., “Alexander the Great in the Arabic Tradition”, In The Ancient Novel and Beyond, Eds. S. Panayotakis et al., pp. 7-8, Boston, USA: Brill Academic Publishers 2003
  56. S.P. Loynes (2019) Revelation of the Quran: From divine sending down (Tanzil) to divine communication (wahy), PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, pp. 59-60
  57. Imru’ l-Qays, Diwan 158 quoted in Norris, H. T. (transl.), “Fables and Legends” In The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: ‘‘Abbasid Belles-Lettres, Eds. J. Ashtiany et al., p. 138-139, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990
  58. Hāssan b. Thābit quoted in R. A. Nicholson (transl.), A Literary History of the Arabs, p. 18, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1907
  59. The Arabic text which Nicholson translates is from: Von Kremer, Alfred, Altarabische Gedichte uber die Volkssage von Jemen, als Textbelege zur Abhandlung “Ueber die sudarabische Sage.”, pp.15-16, VIII, lines 6-11, 1867
    See also here for the arabic text of the poem
  60. Lane’s Lexicon - Volume 6 page 2240 - StudyQuran.org
  61. Lane’s Lexicon - Volume 5 page 1867 - StudyQuran.org
  62. 62.0 62.1 Among the Signs of the Might and Power of Allah are the Night and Day, and the Sun and Moon - Tafsir Ibn Kathir
  63. The Might and Power of Allah Allah tells us that He - Tafsir Ibn Kathir. See [1] for the Arabic.
  64. Al-Tabari, History of al-Tabari, op. cit. p.235
  65. Mahir Karaosmanovic - Rebuttal to Answering-Islams: "Scientific Errors of the Qur’an" - Answering Christianity
  66. Allah is the Lord of the Two Easts and the Two Wests - Tafsir Ibn Kathir
  67. Sura 55 Verse 17 - Tafsir al-Jalalayn
  68. Sura 55 Aya 17 - Tafsir al-Tabari
  69. Sura 37 Verse 5 - Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs
  70. A certain ‘Omara narrates this in a manuscript studied by Friedländer (who on p.130 says it notes that he was a contemporary of Muqatil ibn Sulayman, who died 150AH). Israel Friedländer, Die Chadhirlegende and der Alexanderroma, p.139, Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1913 cited in A. J. Wensinck, The Ocean in the Literature of the Western Semites in Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen te Amsterdam. Afdeeling Letterkunde. Nieuwe reeks. dl. 19. no. 2. pp.36-37, 1918
  71. Ali, Abdullah Yusuf, The Holy Qur’an: Translation and Commentary, Lahore: 1934
  72. M. Muhsin Khan - Translation of Sahih Bukhari - CRCC, University of Southern Carolina
  73. Abdul Hamid Siddiqui - Translation of Sahih Muslim - CRCC, University of Southern Carolina
  74. Transliteration of the Qur'an - MuslimAccess.Com
  75. Transliteration Table - MuslimAccess.Com