By Tahir Nasser & Umar Nasser, with essential contributions from Maulana Abdul Ghany Jahangeer Khan |
“He has created the heavens without any pillars that you can see, and He has placed in the earth firm mountains that it may not quake with you, and He has scattered therein all kinds of creatures; and We have sent down water from the clouds, and caused to grow therein every noble species.” (Qur’an 31:11)
For many years now, ‘New Atheists’ have ridiculed, mocked and derided the Qur’anic claim that mountains prevent earthquakes. They have laughed and jeered, saying that not only do mountains not prevent earthquakes, but they are, more often than not, located at the meeting points of tectonic plates, and are thus more likely to be situated at a place of greater earthquake frequency. Their answers have left many Muslims bemused as to how to understand these verses.
In this article we’re going to showcase how new geological research has proved the Qur’anic statement absolutely true.
What the Qur’an Really Says
The reason that the Qur’anic claim about mountains is so often derided is partly because New Atheists don’t carefully read what the Arabic is actually stating. Nowhere does the Qur’an state that mountains prevent earthquakes. The Qur’an actually states:
“He has placed in the earth firm mountains that it may not quake WITH YOU…” (Qur’an 31:11)
“And We have made in the earth firm mountains lest it should quake WITH THEM…” (Qur’an 21:32)
“And He has placed in the earth firm mountains lest it quake WITH YOU…” (Qur’an 16:16).
The Qur’an does not say that mountains prevent earthquakes per se, but simply that they decrease their intensity to such an extent, that humans do not feel them. The earth still quakes – sure – but it doesn’t “quake with you”, meaning that you don’t feel its effects as much as you otherwise might.
It’s also important to recognise how the Arabic language works when understanding this claim of the Qur’an. Arabic is a language organised according to a root system. This means that each word is derived from a root “stem” (usually tri-literal but sometimes quadri-literal) and all words that share a commonality of meaning, derive from the same stem, even though they may be completely different words.
For example, the word for compassion or rahmah comes from the tri-literal root r-h-m. Another word derived from this root is the word for the womb – rihm. The words compassion and womb are completely different, but their relationship to the same root word tells you something about the womb and about one of the key manifestations of compassion in human relationships – the bond between a mother and her child.
This is how Arabic words work. The interrelationship of a word with its associated root derivations tells you the nature of that object.
In the Qur’an, there are two words used for mountains: jibaal and rawaasiya. Only the latter word rawaasiya is ever described as preventing humans from experiencing the shocks of earthquakes. Jibaal is never used in the Qur’an in this way. 
The reason may surprise you.
There’s More to Mountains than Meets the Eye
You know mountains, right – those massive things poking out from the ground, rudely slapping the clouds? Giant structures that humans have an innate, irresistible desire to get to the top of, come rain or shine, risking life and limb to do so?
Well there’s more to mountains than you may think. Mountains don’t just exist on the land surface; they also exist under the sea. In fact, since some 70% of the earth’s surface is covered in water, the vast majority of mountains are actually out of sight, on the sea floor. The Qur’anic use of two separate terms for mountains correlates beautifully to this categorisation of two types of mountains – jibaal for land mountains and rawaasiya for mountains under the sea, also known as “seamounts” in Geology.
How do we know this? The Arabic tells us clearly.
The word rawaasiya is from the trilateral root r-s-w. Other derivations of this root word, as found in Lane’s Arabic dictionary – a renowned compilation of root derivations – tell us the nature of rawaasiya as opposed to Jibaal. Some relate to the sea, while others have more illuminating meanings, as will be elaborated when we come to the latest scientific research:
- Something stationary or fixed like a ship anchored to sea-floor
- To make the lowest part of a ship reach the bottom of the water, and therefore make the ship remain stationary
- To effect harmony, accommodation or adjustments between things
- To mention a part of a tradition or a story
- Beads on a string or a bracelet made from tortoise shells
- A port for anchoring ships
- To swim with someone
We can see therefore that the meanings seem to correlate to three core ideas: a) something firm and fixed; b) something situated on the bottom of the sea floor and c) something in a beaded fashion effecting harmony or adjustment between things, related in some fashion to the breaking up of a story or tradition and mentioning only a part of it.
The term Jibaal on the other hand, has no such connotations related to it. Its root word is related to terms such as “rough, coarse, big,” concepts of “numerous, large” and is used to describe people who are harsh and hardy by nature, as well as being related to the shape of a “camel’s hump”. This relates to the visible shape of mountains we see above land. Only in one verse does the Qur’an utilise the word rawaasiya for visible mountains, but only does so with clear qualification to indicate their under-sea origin:
“He has placed in the earth firm mountains (rawaasiya) rising above its surface, and blessed it with abundance…” (Qur’an 41:11).
Since the verse is speaking of mountains in the geological sense here, and of a time when the earth was still at its early stages of formation, it will be appropriate to take a look at the root meanings of baarak (bless) that appears in it. The relevant meanings are: “clouds raining down vehemently” and “the creation of permanent water reservoirs” (Lane). Once again, we find that rawaasiya are linked to the oceans. In this case therefore, the reference is to such seamounts as break through the ocean surface as volcanic islands do, creating as they do so, new ecosystems for sustaining life.
“We can see therefore that the meanings seem to correlate to three core ideas: a) something firm and fixed; b) something situated on the bottom of the sea floor and c) something in a beaded fashion effecting harmony or adjustment between things, related in some fashion to the breaking up of a story or tradition and mentioning only a part of it.”
When we read the Qur’anic verses in light of these two essential pieces of information, we get to the truth of what the verse is saying. These are: firstly, that mountains decrease the shock of earthquakes such that humans do not experience them as powerfully or as frequently as they might otherwise do, and secondly, that the type of mountain being spoken of is an undersea mountain (‘seamount’), with the qualities outlined above.
When we turn to the latest geological research on the effect of seamounts, we find that the Qur’anic pronouncements on the matter, given to the world 1400 years ago, shine more brightly now than ever before.
Seamounts: Providing Stability in an Unstable World
Before we can truly understand how correct the Qur’anic claim is, we have to understand the nature and origin of seamounts. Seamounts are undersea mountains, arising from the sea floor, which do not reach the water’s surface. They are usually extinct volcanoes. This explains why they’re often found at the centre or the border of tectonic plates. At the centre of tectonic plates you have mid-ocean ridges, the site of seafloor spreading. Here, new oceanic crust is formed where the lava erupts through the seafloor and then cools. The process of the lava erupting forms volcanoes, which become extinct and inactive as they spread, thus forming seamounts. Where tectonic plates meet is another area where seamounts are found in concentration, because the subduction (going under) of one tectonic plate when it meets another tectonic plate causes the higher crust to melt more easily into magma, then work its way up and erupt, again creating seamounts in the process. Seamounts are also formed at ‘hotspots’, random areas of the seafloor which see volcanic activity. They are numerous and spread all over the tectonic plates, constantly moving and shifting as the Earth’s crust is created and destroyed.
It has been known for many years that seamounts are hubs of marine life, with their heat and mineral composition being a beacon for biological life to find food. But in recent years, evidence is increasing that seamounts have a role that directly affects all of us. Numerous researchers have come to the conclusion that seamounts play an important role in reducing earthquake activity. They posit that seamounts diffuse huge ‘megathrust’ earthquakes into much smaller earthquakes. How so?
An excellent review paper in 2011 summarised the science behind the action of seamounts in preventing megathrust earthquakes as follows:
“It has long been noticed that convergent margins where seamounts, aseismic ridges, and other large topographic reliefs subduct tend not to produce large interplate earthquakes (Kelleher and McCann, 1976). The vast majority of subducting seamounts, such as those reported for Mariana (Fryer and Smoot, 1985), Middle America (Ranero and von Huene, 2000), and Hikurangi (Bell et al., 2010), cause numerous small earthquakes, but not large (M>7) ones.”
Explaining the mechanism behind such observations, Wang and Bilek explain:
“To overcome geometrical incompatibility, a subducting seamount must severely modify its surrounding and itself by generating a complex network of fractures (Fig. 2). The fracture system evolves with time as the seamount forces its way through. Stresses in the fracture system are extremely heterogeneous, such that there are always some fractures that are locally at a state of failure while others are far from failure. The slip of the failed fractures causes stress transfer to other parts of the system and loads other fractures to failure. The crosscutting of the fractures in various orientations serves to maintain stress heterogeneity, and local failure of parts of the system continues to happen in a seemingly random fashion. The collective effect of the numerous local failure events is that the volume of damaged rock around the seamount appears to be a creep zone. The seamount thus can move ahead fairly steadily, in contrast with a frictionally unstable smooth fault that displays distinct phases of locking and slip (Fig. 3, right). The steady motion is similar to a stable-sliding smooth fault (Fig. 3, left), but the creeping mechanism is totally different. The network of fractures around a seamount is not a single frictional contact”…”Overall, it is expected that seamount subduction generally has a large aseismic component but produces numerous small earthquakes.”
In layman terms, seamounts provide a texture to the subducting tectonic plate so that one tectonic plate doesn’t slide rapidly, in fits and starts, under another. By providing multiple points of contact, seamounts stop plates from jolting from one site of resistance to another, and they thereby arrest the generation of massive “megathrust” earthquakes. What would have been one massive earthquake from the smooth ‘slip’ of one plate over another is diffused into much smaller seismic activity spread over a much larger area. This is called ‘aseismic creep’, alluding to the fact that the seamounts sticking out from the plates slow down the speed of subduction and make it more continuous. To us, this means that rather than having massive earthquakes and tsunamis generated from plate subduction, we are left in relative peace. The effect of this on human life, and the history of biological evolution, cannot be underestimated.
“By providing multiple points of contact, seamounts stop plates from jolting from one site of resistance to another, and they thereby arrest the generation of massive “megathrust” earthquakes.”
These findings have not been easy to detect, at depths of 20-40km below the Earth’s crust, but new technology has facilitated their investigation and confirmation. These results have now been replicated in different seamount locations, from Sumatra  to Chile . We exhibit some of the relevant abstracts below, though these papers should be reviewed in full for a deeper understanding of the matter.
God is in the Detail
The beauty of these verses of the Qur’an can be seen not from a cursory glance, but when we probe the verses deeply, keeping in mind the meanings of rawaasiya, and the mechanisms of “aseismic creep” outlined above.
The word rawaasiya gives the connotation of a mountain that is fixed firmly on the sea-floor “like an anchor of a ship”. But there is more than that. The trilateral association of the word in Arabic further gives the meaning of “effecting adjustment” between things and “relating only a part of a story”. This is strangely enough, precisely what the seamounts achieve: they effect adjustment between the subducting and the overriding plates, by dispersing a single massive force into much smaller ones, across hundreds of resistance points along the fault line. The seamount thus quite literally breaks up something larger into smaller chunks, which, in the words of Wang and Bilek, result in “…stresses in the fracture system (being) extremely heterogeneous, such that there are always some fractures that are locally at a state of failure while others (that) are far from failure. The slip of the failed fractures causes stress transfer to other parts of the system and loads other fractures to failure.”
The word rawaasiya further carries the connotation of pieces of tortoise-shell, beaded on a string. This is very significant, because this seamounts are notorious for being found in chains, one after the other. The Pacific Ocean for instance is home to the Seamount Chain known as the ‘Emperor Seamounts,’ which bears a striking resemblance to tortoise shells being beaded along a string. This phenomenon of seamounts appearing in chains, often upon mid-ocean ridges, is universal and commonly observed.
The final point we must return to in our elucidation of these profound verses is that an exceptionally subtle point is being made by the Qur’an. The verses have not stated that rawaasiya prevent earthquakes from occurring. They could quite easily have said so. The language would have been much simpler. Instead, each verse consistently refers to the mechanism of action as: “lest it quake with you,” implying that rawaasiya do not prevent earthquakes per se, but simply prevent humans from experiencing them. This is exactly in line with what Geologists are now finding.
Seamounts, hidden under the surface of the sea, have only really come to be recognised in recent decades. Only in the last few years, have the techniques developed that have enabled us to research them in depth, and recognise the benefit they have rendered us and all living creatures on the surface of the Earth. Yet a book, claimed by an illiterate Arab man in the 7th century to have been revealed to him by the All-Knowing, contains secrets we are only now uncovering. What light of genius possessed him to write such things, if he had forged it? By what instrument, and by what device did he probe the depths of the forbidding oceans, to understand the meanings of what was being written?
These verses of the Qur’an are a testimony to the truth of that great prophet, to the truth of the book he brought to mankind, to the truth of a Living, Speaking, All-Knowing God, and to the ignorance of those New Atheists who for so long, out of sheer ignorance, chose to deride, mock and jeer, instead of pause, reflect and ponder.
Based on original research by the authors, who are members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Research Association. Please note Qur’an references are used counting the ‘basmala’ as the 1st verse. Many Qur’ans will discount this, so in your Qur’an the verse number may need to have 1 subtracted.
 Singh, Satish C., Nugroho Hananto, Maruf Mukti, David P. Robinson, Shamita Das, Ajay Chauhan, Helene Carton et al. “Aseismic zone and earthquake segmentation associated with a deep subducted seamount in Sumatra.” Nature Geoscience 4, no. 5 (2011): 308-311.
 Geersen, Jacob, César R. Ranero, Udo Barckhausen, and Christian Reichert. “Subducting seamounts control interplate coupling and seismic rupture in the 2014 Iquique earthquake area.” Nature communications 6 (2015).
Syed Muhammad Tahir Nasser (@TahirNasser) is a writer, moonlighting as a medical doctor. He also serves as the science editor for the Review of Religions (one of the oldest English-language magazines on comparative religions), writes for national and online media, and is a speaker on University lecture circuits on issues relating to Muslim youth and Islam in the modern world. He has written for the Huffington Post, Patheos and the Guardian.
Umar Nasser (@UmarN91) is a junior doctor who frequently writes on religion, science and atheism. He is a public speaker on religion in the contemporary world, and has coordinated anti-radicalisation event campaigns across UK universities. He was once a street magician, but has since decided that there are more than enough tricksters in the world.