Perhaps what takes the biscuit for the most absurd interpretation of the Quran in regards to the geocentrism debate, surrounds the person of Dhul Qarnain. This allegation focuses on verses 84-92 of chapter 18 of the Quran. In these verses, an individual by the title of Dhul Qarnain travels in the direction of the setting sun – towards the West – and there he finds the sun setting in a muddy spring of water, with a people sitting nearby. He is granted authority by God to either treat them with kindness or punish them, and he replies, saying that he will punish those who do wrong, but treat kindly those who believe in God and do good deeds. He then proceeds to travel to the East, and finds the sun rising on a people who have no shelter against the harsh sun. Here are the relevant verses of the Quran:

“And they ask thee about Dhu’l Qarnain. Say, ‘I will certainly recite to you something of his story.’ We established him in the earth and gave him the means to accomplish everything. Then he followed a certain way Until, when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring and near it he found a people. We said, ‘O Dhu’l Qarnain, either punish them, or treat them with kindness.’ He said, ‘As for him who does wrong, we shall certainly punish him; then shall he be brought back to his Lord, Who will punish him with a dreadful punishment.’ But as for him who believes and acts righteously, he will have a good reward, and We shall speak to him easy words of Our command. Then indeed he followed another way. Until, when he reached the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had made no shelter against it. Thus indeed it was. Verily, We encompassed with Our knowledge all that was with him.” (18:84-92)

But who is Dhul Qarnain, and why does the Quran talk about him seeing the sun set in a muddy spring and rising out of the Earth? Is this what the Quran taught Muslims to believe about the processes of sunrise and sunset?

The Allegation

According to WikiIslam, who have devoted two enormous pages of drivel to the subject, yes. According to their understanding, the Quran would literally have you believe that the sun rises out of the earth (physically) and that Dhul Qarnain (whoever that may be), went there to the very spot, as well as going to the farthest point in the West, to see the sun set in a spring of muddy water.

Their particular fascination revolves around two words:

مَطۡلِعَ الشَّمۡسِ MatliAa, meaning “to rise” or “get up”. This word is used in the phrase above: “…when he reached the rising of the sun…”

تَغۡرُبُ Tagrubu, meaning “to set”. This is used in the phrase “found it setting in a spring of murky water”.

The authors argue that the Quran is speaking absolutely literally here, and that the Quran should be understood as literally asking readers to believe that Dhul Qarnain travelled to a place where the sun was rising out of the earth, and travelled also to a place where it was literally setting into a muddy spring. Most classical Muslim commentators have argued that these phrase simply refer to the Easternmost and Westernmost journeys of Dhul Qarnain, and that these terms are used merely as figures of speech, as a parable to signify an important lesson, (explained later).

The counter-argument of the WikiIslam authors is that the word “MatliAa” meaning to “rise up” cannot simply mean “the East” because that phrase has not been used in that way elsewhere in the Quran or in Arabic literature. They argue that because it literally means “to rise up” and because the Quran would usually use the word “Mashriq” for “East” as it has done in other places, then what the Quran is actually getting at here, is the literal meaning of the sun rising out of the Earth.

Are they right?

How Arabs Used the word MatliAa

As you may imagine, no. The authors of the article are simply wrong. The Arabs regularly used such words as “MatliAa” to refer to the East, in the same way people do in every language. If I said, “Go find my friend in the direction of sunrise,” would anybody doubt that I was referring to the East?

A great example, pointed out by Maulana Jahangeer Khan sahib – missionary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community – can be found when the prophet of Islam migrated from Mecca to Medina, the Medinites stood outside their city, beat a drum, and sang a song to welcome him. The lyrics of that beautiful melody have been preserved down through the ages. In fact, here’s the Canadian children’s choir welcoming Syrian refugees with the very same song:

The lyrics of this ancient song, preserved in the memories of devoted Muslims, and sung by generations of Muslims children for 1400 years, run as follows:

ArabicPronunciationTranslation
ﻃﻠﻊ ﺍﻟﺒﺪﺭ ﻋﻠﻴﻨﺎ ṭala‘a ‘l-badru ‘alaynā The full moon rose over us
ﻣﻦ ﺛﻨﻴﺎﺕ ﺍﻟﻮﺩﺍﻉ min thaniyyāti ‘l-wadā‘ From the valley of Wada‘
وجب الشكر علينا wajaba ‘l-shukru ‘alaynāAnd it is incumbent upon us to show gratitude
ﻣﺎ ﺩﻋﺎ ﻟﻠﻪ ﺩﺍﻉ mā da‘ā li-l-lāhi dā‘a For as long as anyone in existence calls out to Allah
ﺃﻳﻬﺎ ﺍﻟﻤﺒﻌﻮﺙ ﻓﻴﻨﺎ ’ayyuha ‘l-mab‘ūthu fīnā Oh our Messenger amongst us
ﺟﺌﺖ ﺑﺎﻟﺄﻣﺮ ﺍﻟﻤﻄﺎﻉji’ta bi-l-’amri ‘l-muṭā‘Who comes with the exhortations to be heeded
ﺟﺌﺖ ﺷﺮﻓﺖ ﺍﻟﻤﺪﻳﻨﺔji’ta sharrafta ‘l-madīnah You have brought to this city nobility
ﻣﺮﺣﺒﺎ ﻳﺎ ﺧﻴﺮ ﺩﺍﻉ marḥaban yā khayra dā‘Welcome you who call us to a good way

Source: Arabic Nasheed Lyrics

Note the first two lines of the song: “The full moon rose over us, from the valley of Wada”. Now the full moon they’re referring to there, is the Prophet of Islam, when he migrated to their city. And the valley of Wada was a valley in which the people of Medina would walk to say goodbye to their loved ones as they left the city. Did any Meccans believe that the moon literally rose from the valley of Wada? No. The valley of Wada was a stone’s throw away North of Medina, and people frequented it regularly. Nobody imagined that the moon literally rose from Wada.

‘But that’s what the words say!’ cry the authors of WikiIslam. ‘It says the moon rose from the valley of Wada!’ is the reply you can expect from them. ‘The word طلع literally means to rise up!’ they will point out. And they would be right. It does literally means to “rise up”. In fact, it’s the same word as “MatliAa” used in the Quran. But the word is used metaphorically both in this famous song, and its also used that way in the Quran!

But perhaps the authors of WikiIslam understand 7th century classical arabic better than… 7th century classical Arabs? Who knows. They put “Wiki” in front of “Islam” to make people think they don’t have an agenda. They must be smart!

houses on a green hill with a lake and large moon in the background
A song sung by early Muslims describes the moon metaphorically rising from a valley

The Double Standards of WikiIslam Authors

In English, the word “East” is derived from the Greek word auōs which literally means “Dawn”. We refer to sunrise as “sun-rise”. That goes even for Stanford Scientists at the Solar Centre. Now you’d think they would be the first ones to know that the sun doesn’t literally rise or literally set into the Earth, but those pesky Californians just haven’t got the message yet! In fact, not only do they talk about sunrise and sunset, but they also talk about the stars “rising”. Pure heresy!

In fact, it doesn’t even end there. Journalists at the New York Times are even in on the conspiracy. How else can one explain the following line: “The Sun rose out of the ocean this morning with Venus clinging to it like a barnacle.” Outrageous!

WikiIslam authors, no doubt, have no trouble accepting the language of “sunrise” or “sunset” when it comes to English, without imagining that it literally means that the sun rises out of the Earth or sets into it, but their bias against Islam is so strong that when the Quran uses similar language, they allege that the Quran is scientifically inaccurate.

The Muddy Spring — A Quranic Insight

In fact, far from being inaccurate, the Quran has given an extraordinary insight into something the Prophet of Islam couldn’t possibly have known about.

The “muddy spring” described is actually the Black Sea at the time of Cyrus the Great, which lay on the Westernmost border of his empire, hence why the Quran speaks of Dhul Qarnain (Cyrus) seeing the sun set into the body of water. He is the figure of Dhul Qarnain, and not Alexander the Great, for whom the Black Sea was actually East of Macedonia (discussed at length in this brilliant commentary). The prophet of Islam had never been to the Black Sea and had no concept of its constituency or its nature. Yet the Quran describes it perfectly.

The word used in the Quran for “muddy” is حَمِئَۃٍ and the word used for “spring” is عَیۡنٍ meaning “water which perforates the ground and emerges up” according to Lane’s Arabic lexicon, or in common parlance, a volcanic spring. Only the Quran qualifies it with the term “muddy”; making it a volcanic, muddy spring.

And that, funnily enough, is exactly what the Black Sea contains. Indeed, that’s one reason given for the naming of the Black Sea, according to Marine Insight who write that: “Another theory suggested that the objects that drown in the water get black sludge covering after a period of time.” According to the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, “Because of its climate, sandy beaches, picturesque scenery, and curative muds the Black Sea coast is the principal health resort and tourist area of Ukraine and the whole former USSR. Ten to twelve million people visit this area each year.”

But where does this black mud come from? The black sea actually contains numerous “mud springs” – exactly as the Quran describes. They are volcanic geothermal vents from which blackish mud emerges. These springs release mud as well as hydrocarbons, and as of 1974 when they were first noticed by two scientists named Efremov and Zhizhchenko, they are an area of active study for the Ukrainian government, as a means to tap natural gas.

The Meaning of the Dhul Qarnain Parable

The parable of Dhul Qarnain has classically been understood by Muslims to refer to Alexander the Great but this is incorrect. The best evidence can be read here that, in fact, it refers to Cyrus the Great, the great Persian king and Zoroastrian Prophet. A simple indication of this is that the Quran in this passage refers to Dhul Qarnain’s conquests first to the West (encountering the muddy pool) and then to the East. This was exactly how Cyrus’ empire expanded. Alexander’s empire however, never expanded Westwards. From Macedonia, where he started his expansion, he moved Eastwards continuously. Indeed, there is no “muddy pool” to the West of Macedonia anyway; the Black Sea lies to its East.

A map showing the location of the Black sea in Europe

The Quran uses this historical discussion of Dhul Qarnain, but gives the narrative in such a way that it also serves as a prophecy of the future of Islam, especially as this chapter – Al Kahf – is entirely about the beginnings of Christianity and its prophesied expansion in the latter days (the age we are going through now). This is best understood when we consider that the “sun” in the Quran does not only refer to the physical solar body. It also refers metaphorically, to the Prophet of Islam, who is described in the Quran as “the radiant sun”. On this spiritual meaning, and the reason why the Quran specifically describes the movement of the sun rising from the Earth and setting in a muddy spring, read the relevant chapter titled “Dhul Qarnain”, here. The Quran could quite easily have described the East and West as “Mashriq” and “Maghrib”. But God chose not to, so as to convey a profound prophecy about the latter day condition of Islam in both the East and the West.

Conclusion

The authors of WikiIslam (and others who raise this allegation) have a facade of academia and objectivity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their bias has blinded them to a fair, impartial assessment of the Quran, to such an extent that they have begun to take objection to the normal use of language, used by scientists and laypeople alike.

Further, the prophecy contained in this magnificent parable is desperately lost on those who deliberately seek error in the Quran. The saying of Jesus, peace be on him, comes to mind:

“And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)