Zul-Qarnain and the Setting Sun in Sura 18:85-86
(July 2010 version)
"They will ask thee of Dhu'l-Qarneyn [Zul-Qarnain]. Say: I shall recite unto you a remembrance of him. Lo! We made him strong in the land and gave him unto every thing a road. And he followed a road Till, when he reached the setting-place of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring, and found a people thereabout. We said: O Dhu'l-Qarneyn! Either punish or show them kindness." Sura 18:83-86 (Pickthall's translation)
Does the sun really set in the waters of a muddy/murky spring, or is the Qur'an in error, or is there another explanation? First we will look at the plain meaning of Sura 18:83-86, and then we will look at some Muslim explanations and responses.
A Little Astronomy
It might not be widely known that under the 'Abbasid Muslim rulers, Arabs and Persians made many advances in astronomy, naming many stars, as well as copying and correcting some of Ptolemy's tables. However, the sun is many times larger than the entire earth, and the earth travels around the sun. The sun does not set in the waters of a muddy spring.
Who Was Zul-Qarnain?
We have no evidence that Mohammed told anyone who this man was. Muslims have four views.
Alexander the Great (of Macedon) is the most common view. Zul-Qarnain means "man of two horns". There was a myth that Alexander the Great was a god and had two ram horns growing out of the side of his head. Despite the fact that this was not true (and problematic to get a helmet to fit!), that legend was known, and many Muslims think Allah in Sura 18 referred to Alexander by this name.
Cyrus I the Persian is another view. His Empire was actually the empire of two related groups: Medes and Persians, but other than that there is no indication that two horns should apply to him.
A Yemeni king who wore a helmet with two ram's horns on it is a third view some Muslims have.
An otherwise unknown person is a fourth view. However, it does not seem too coherent to tell details about people the speakers never heard of.
Conclusion: It does not matter who Zul-Qarnain was. If he found that the sun set in a muddy spring, and the sun does not set in a muddy spring, then this is a falsehood, regardless of who Mohammed spoke about.
Sura 18 Theories and Responses
Theory 1: The sun really does set in a muddy spring!
To early Muslims, the Qur'an taught them that this literally occurs. The early Muslim historian al-Tabari vol.1 p.234 shows this. As a second example, "[Dhu al-Qarnaiyn] witnessed the setting of the sun in its resting place into a pool of black and foetid slime." according to al-Tabari vol.5 p.173-174. Dul Qarnain [Zul Qarnain] is Alexander the Great in al-Tabari vol.1 p.371.
Compatible with this, the earth actually sits on a big fish according to al-Tabari vol.1 p.220 (839-923 A.D.).
Theory 2: The sun appeared to Alexander to set in a lake in Ithaca in Macedonia
This theory assumes Zul-Qarnain was Alexander, and thus that Alexander was a good Muslim (Sura 18:95). This does not square with the fact that Alexander had a temple made to him. Also, Alexander went north and west of the shore of Ithaca to conquer in modern-day Albania.
In Yusuf 'Ali's translation footnote 2430 says, "...This has puzzled Commentators, and they have understood this to mean the dark, tempestuous sea. If Zul-qarnain is Alexander the Great, the reference is easily understood to be to Lychnitis (now Ochrida), west of Macedonia. It is fed entirely by underground springs in a limestone region, where the water is never very clear."
However, against Yusuf 'Ali's footnote, Sura 18:86 says 1) "Zul-qarnain travelled" 2) the sun actually set there, and 3) in Sura 18:90 he went another way and found the land where the sun rose. This is consistent with how al-Tabari and other commentators read the Qur'an, not modern astronomy.
Even worse for this theory, Greeks settled hundreds of miles west of Ithaca in modern-day Spain, Sicily, etc. five hundred years prior to Alexander. Why would the Greek-speaking military genius think the sun set in a lake in Macedonia when Greek ships would regularly go far, far west of Alexander's country? As a side detail, Tertullian in A Treatise on the Soul ch.49 p.227 says that Aristotle, who lived around the same time, mentions a hero from the Island of Sardinia far west of Macedon but about the same latitude.
Theory 3: The "muddy spring" is really the Atlantic Ocean
The Atlantic is not muddy or murky at all, it is deept and blue-green. It is not a spring, but an ocean. The sun does not go down into an ocean, and people in ancient times knew that. Most importantly, Alexander, Cyrus I of Persia, and Yemeni kings never went to the Atlantic Ocean, and Sura 18:83-86 says that Zul Qarnain saw or observed this.
Any one of these four reasons is sufficient to eliminate this theory, so why would Muslims propose this? This is the extent they will try to go to in order to show that Sura 18:83-86 is not a falsehood. If the Allah of Islam really had this in the Qur'an, and Allah knew this was false, then this would be a lie. If the Allah of Islam did not know this fact, then he would not be very knowledgeable, and certainly not all-knowing. If these verses were not from the Allah of Islam, then the Qur'an has significant corruption, because it asserts this falsehood is from Allah when it would not be. Of course, if there were not really an Allah of Islam, and the true God did not author the Qur'an, then the Allah of Islam did not tell a lie since he does not exist.
Theory 4: The "muddy spring" is really Cyrus I seeing the Black Sea
However, not only does the sun not set in the Black Sea, the sun would only appear to set over the Black Sea if Cyrus I was directly north and east of it. He was never in this area, containing modern-day Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Furthermore, the Black Sea, with an area of 464,400 square km, is not even close to looking like a spring, and everyone, from the Egyptians and farther north, knew the sun did not set in the Black Sea.
As an aside, Shakir's English translation of the Qur'an has "black sea" (lower case). However, the Arabic word "eiyn" can mean spring or even the pool around a spring, but it cannot mean sea. Of eight English translations I am aware of for the Qur'an, Shakir is unique in representing to people that the Qur'an said "black sea", when actually the Arabic specifically says "muddy/murky spring".
Theory 5: The "muddy spring" is really Cyrus I seeing the Aegean Sea
However, the Persians were well aware of the Athenians, Spartans, and other Greeks. The Persians would know that the Greeks were not on the other side of the sun.
Theory 6: The "muddy spring" is really a Yemeni king seeing the Red Sea
The Yemenis (Sabeans/Sabaeans) were always aware of the Abyssinians (Ethiopians) across the strait. If they really thought the sun set in the Red Sea, then the Abyssinians would be people on the other side of the setting sun.
Theory 7: The "muddy spring" is just a metaphor for something
If this was not physically true, but just a metaphor for something or other, then the Qur'an failed to communicate that it was not true, and this was misleading. Furthermore, nobody can say for sure what this would be a metaphor for.
There is nothing in the Qur'an to indicate this is not literal, and early Muslims took this as a literal, factual truth. Given that they would know from Mohammed's companions what this really meant, so they were mislead by Sura 18.
Theory 8: Mohammed was telling about his dream
This theory is agnostic about the identity of Zul-Qarnain. If Mohammed was just telling about his dream, the sun could set anywhere he wanted it to set. However, it is unclear what a fictional character seeing a factually false thing, and people believing it as fact, is supposed to teach us about believing the truth, or that the Qur'an leads to truth.
As an example, suppose a person said they saw someone named 'Ali doing a strange thing, and millions of people for centuries after that believed the person. Would the person be a liar if he forgot to tell people, "it was just my dream, and I never really saw 'Ali do that with my eyes."?
If this theory were correct, either Mohammed was misled into thinking Zul Qarnain really saw the sun set in a muddy spring, or else Mohammed misled others into thinking a Zul Qarnain really saw this.
Regardless of whether Zul Qarnain was Alexander the Great of someone else, the Qur'an states as fact that the sun sets in a muddy spring. Even ancient people 1,000 years before Mohammed knew the sun did not set this side of Spain. This was not just a metaphor, because no early Muslim has been found who did not take this literally, or gave it just a metaphoric meaning, and early Muslims all would believe that the Qur'an was not given to deceive.
Bibliography of Translations of the Qur'an
1. Arberry, Arthur J. The Koran Interpreted. Macmillian Publishing Co., Inc. 1955.
2. Dawood, N.J. The Koran. Penguin Books. 1956-1999.
3. Malik, Farooq-i-Azam. English Translation of the Meaning of AL-QUR'AN : The Guidance for Mankind. The Institute of Islamic Knowledge. 1997
4. Pickthall, Mohammed Marmaduke. The Meaning of the Glorious Koran. Dar al-Islamiyya (Kuwait) (no date given)
5. Rodwell, J.M. The Koran. First Edition. Ivy Books, Published by Ballantine Books. 1993.
6. Shakir, M.H. The Qur'an. Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, Inc. 12th U.S. Edition 2001.
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Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 1958.
The History of al-Tabari : An Annotated Translation. Ehsan Yar-Shater, General Editor. State University of New York Press 1989-.
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