When the verses of the Qur’an concerning the role of water in man’s existence are read in succession today. they all appear to us to express ideas that are quite obvious. The reason for this is simple: in our day and age, we all, to a lesser or greater extent, know about the water cycle in nature.
If however, we consider the various concepts the ancients had on this subject, it becomes clear that the data in the Qur’an do not embody the mythical concepts current at the time of the Revelation which had been developed more according to philosophical speculation than observed phenomena. Although it was empirically possible to acquire on a modest scale, the useful practical knowledge necessary for the improvement of the irrigation, the concepts held on the water cycle in general would hardly be acceptable today.
Thus it would have been easy to imagine that underground water could have come from the infiltration of precipitations in the soil. In ancient times however, this idea, held by Vitruvius Polio Marcus in Rome, 1st century B.C., was cited as an exception. For many centuries therefore (and the Qur’anic Revelation is situated during this period) man held totally inaccurate views on the water cycle. Two specialists on this subject, G. Gastany and B. Blavoux, in their entry in the Universalis Encyclopedia (Encyclopedia Universalis) under the heading Hydrogeology (Hydrogéologie), give an edifying history of this problem.
“In the Seventh century B.C., Thales of Miletus held the theory whereby the waters of the oceans, under the effect of winds, were thrust towards the interior of the continents; so the water fell upon the earth and penetrated into the soil. Plato shared these views and thought that the return of the waters to the oceans was via a great abyss, the ‘Tartarus’. This theory had many supporters until the Eighteenth century, one of whom was Descartes. Aristotle imagined that the water vapour from the soil condensed in cool mountain caverns and formed underground lakes that fed springs.
He was followed by Seneca (1st Century A.D.) and many others, until 1877, among them O. Volger . . . The first clear formulation of the water cycle must be attributed to Bernard Palissy in 1580. he claimed that underground water came from rainwater infiltrating into the soil. This theory was confirmed by E. Mariotte and P. Perrault in the Seventeenth century.
In the following passages from the Qur’an, there is no trace of the mistaken ideas that were current at the time of Muhammad:
–sura 50, verses 9 to 11:
“We sent down from the sky blessed water wherebyWe caused to grow gardens, grains for harvest, tall palm-trees with their spathes, piled one above the othersustenance for (Our) servants.
Therewith We gave (new) life to a dead land. So will be the emergence (from the tombs).”
–sura 23, verses 18 and 19:
“We sent down water from the sky in measure and lodged it in the ground. And We certainly are able to withdraw it. Therewith for you We gave rise to gardens of palmtrees and vineyards where for
you are abundant fruits and of them you eat.”
–sura 15, verse 22:
“We sent forth the winds that fecundate. We cause the water to descend from the sky. We provide you with the water-you (could) not be the guardians of its reserves.”
There are two possible interpretations of this last verse. The fecundating winds may be taken to be the fertilizers of plants because they carry pollen. This may, however, be a figurative expression referring by analogy to the role the wind plays in the process whereby a non-raincarrying cloud is turned into one that produces a shower of rain. This role is often referred to, as in the following verses:
–sura 35, verse 9:
“God is the One Who sends forth the winds which raised up the clouds. We drive them to a dead land. Therewith We revive the ground after its death. So will be the Resurrection.”
It should be noted how the style is descriptive in the first part of the verse, then passes without transition to a declaration from God. Such sudden changes in the form of the narration are very frequent in the Qur’an.
–sura 30, verse 48:
“God is the One Who sends forth the winds which raised up the clouds. He spreads them in the sky as He wills and breaks them into fragments. Then thou seest raindrops issuing from within them.
He makes them reach such of His servants as He wills. And they are rejoicing.”
–sura 7, verse 57:
“(God) is the One Who sends forth the winds like heralds of His Mercy. When they have carried the heavy-laden clouds, We drive them to a dead land. Then We cause water to descend and thereby
bring forth fruits of every kind. Thus We will bring forth the dead. Maybe you will remember.”
–sura 25, verses 48 and 49:
“(God) is the One Who sends forth the winds like heralds of His Mercy. We cause pure water to descend in order to revive a dead land with it and to supply with drink the multitude of cattle and
human beings We have created.”
–sura 45, verse 5:
“. . . In the provision that God sends down from the sky and thereby He revives the ground after its death and in the change (of direction) of winds, there are Signs for
people who are wise.”
The provision made in this last verse is in the form of the water sent down from the sky, as the context shows. The accent is on the change of the winds that modify the rain cycle.
–sure 13, verse 17:
“(God) sends water down from the sky so that the rivers flow according to their measure. The torrent bears away an increasing foam.”
-sura 67, verse 30, God commands the Prophet:
“Say. Do you see if your water were to be lost in the ground, who then can supply you with gushing water?”
-sura 39, verse 21:
“Hast thou not seen that God sent water down from the sky and led it through sources into the ground? Then He caused sown fields of different colors to grow.”
–sura 36, verse 34:
“Therein We placed gardens of palm-trees and vineyards and We caused water springs to gush forth.”
The importance of springs and the way they are fed by rainwater conducted into them is stressed in the last three verses. It is worth pausing to examine this fact and call to mind the predominance in
the Middle Ages of views such as those held by Aristotle, according to whom springs were fed by underground lakes. In his entry on Hydrology in the Universalis Encyclopedia M.R. Remenieras, a teacher at the French National School of Agronomy, describes the main stages of hydrology and refers to the magnificent irrigation works of the ancients, particularly in the Middle East. He notes however that an empirical outlook ruled over everything, since the ideas of the time proceeded from mistaken concepts. He continues as follows:
“It was not until the Renaissance (between circa 1400 and 1600) that purely philosophical concepts gave way to research based on the objective observation of hydrologic phenomena. Leonardo da
Vinci (1452-1519) rebelled against Aristotle’s statements. Bernard Palissy, in his Wonderful discourse on the nature of waters and fountains both natural and artificial (Paris, 1570) gives a correct interpretation of the water cycle and especially of the way springs are fed by rainwater.”
This last statement is surely exactly what is mentioned in verse 21, sura 39 describing the way rainwater is conducted into sources in the ground.
The subject of verse 43, sura 24 is rain and hail:
“Hast thou not seen that God makes the clouds move gently, then joins them together, then makes them a heap. And thou seest raindrops issuing from within it. He sends down from the sky
mountains of hail, He strikes therewith whom He wills and He turns it away from whom He wills. The flashing of its lightning almost snatches away the sight.”
The following passage requires some comment:
–sura 56, verses 68-70:
“Have you observed the water you drink? Do you bring it down from the rainclouds? Or do We? If it were Our will, We could make it salty. Then why are you not thankful?”
This reference to the fact that God could have made fresh water salty is a way of expressing divine Omnipotence. Another means of reminding us of the same Omnipotence is the challenge to man to make rain fall from the clouds. In modern times however, technology has surely made it possible to create rain artificially. Can one therefore oppose the statement in the Qur’an to man’s ability to produce precipitations?
The answer is no, because it seems clear that one must take account of man’s limitations in this field. M.A. Facy, an expert at the French Meteorological Office, wrote the following in the Universalis Encyclopedia under the heading Precipitations: “It will never be possible to make rain fall from a cloud that does not have the suitable characteristics of a raincloud or one that has not yet reached the appropriate stage of evolution (maturity)”. Man can never therefore hasten the precipitation process by technical means when the natural conditions for it are not present. If this were not the case, droughts would never occur in practice-which they obviously do. To have control over rain and fine weather still
remains a dream therefore. Man cannot willfully break the established cycle that maintains the circulation of water in nature. This cycle may be outlined as follows, according to modern ideas on hydrology.
The calories obtained from the Sun’s rays cause the sea and those parts of the Earth’s surface that are covered or soaked in water to evaporate. The water vapour that is given off rises into the atmosphere and, by condensation, forms into clouds. The winds then intervene and move the clouds thus formed over varying distances. The clouds can then either disperse without producing rain, or
combine their mass with others to create even greater condensation, or they can fragment and produce rain at some stages in their evolution. When rain reaches the sea (70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by seas), the cycle is soon repeated. When rain falls on the land, it may be absorbed by vegetation and thus aid the latter’s growth; the vegetation in its turn gives off water and thus returns some water to the atmosphere. The rest, to a lesser or greater extent, infiltrates into the soil, whence it is either conducted through channels
into the sea, or comes back to the Earth’s surface. network through springs or resurgences.
When one compares the modern data of hydrology to what is contained in the numerous verses of the Qur’an quoted in this paragraph, one has to admit that there is a remarkable degree of agreement between them.
Whereas the above verses from the Qur’an have provided material for comparison between modern knowledge about the water cycle in nature, this is not the case for the seas. There is not a single statement in the Qur’an dealing with the seas which could be used for comparison with scientific data per se. This does not diminish the necessity of pointing out however that none of the statements in the Qur’an on the seas refers to the beliefs, myths or superstitions prevalent at the time of its Revelation.
A certain number of verses deal with the seas and navigation. As subjects for reflection, they provide indications of divine Omnipotence that arise from the facts of common observation. The following verses are examples of this:
–sura 14, verse 32:
“(God) has made the ship subject to you, so that it runs upon the sea at His Command.”
–sura 16, verse 14:
“(God) is the One Who subjected the sea, so that you eat fresh meat from it and you extract from it ornaments which you wear. Thou seest the ships plowing the waves, so that you seek of His Bounty. Maybe, you will be thankful.”
–sura 31, verse 31:
“Hast thou seen that the ship runs upon the sea by the Grace of God, in order to show you His signs. Verily in this are Signs for all who are persevering and grateful.”
–sura 55, verse 24:
“His are the ships erected upon the sea like tokens.”
–sura 36, verse 41-44:
“A sign for them is that We bore their offspring in the loaded Ark. We have created for them similar (vessels) on which they ride. If We will, We drown them and there is no help and they will not be saved unless by Mercy from Us and as a gratification for a time.”
The reference here is quite clearly to the vessel bearing man upon the sea, just as, long ago, Noah and the other occupants of the vessel were carried in the Ark that enabled them to reach dry land.
Another observed fact concerning the sea stands out, because of its unusual nature, from the verses of the Qur’an devoted to it: three verses refer to certain characteristics shared by great rivers when they flow out into the ocean. The phenomenon is well known and often seen whereby the immediate mixing of salty seawater and fresh riverwater does not occur. The Qur’an refers to this in the case of what is thought to be the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates where they unite to form what one might call a ‘sea’ over 100 miles long, the Shatt Al Arab. At the inner parts of the gulf, the effect of the tides is to produce the welcome phenomenon of the reflux of fresh water to the interior of the dry land, thus ensuring adequate irrigation.
To understand the text correctly, one has to know that the English word ‘sea’ conveys the general meaning of the Arabic word bahr which designates a large mass of waterand is equally used for both the sea and the great rivers: the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates for example.
The following are the three verses that describe this phenomenon:
–sura 25, verse 53:
“(God) is the One Who has let free the two seas, one is agreeable and sweet, the other salty and bitter. He placed a barrier between them, a partition that it is forbidden to pass.”
–sura 35, verse 12:
“The two seas are not alike. The water of one is agreeable, sweet, pleasant to drink. The other salty and bitter. You eat fresh meat from it and you extract from it ornaments which you wear.”
–sura 55, verses 19, 20 and 22:
“He has loosed the two seas. They meet together. Between them there is a barrier which they do not transgress. Out of them come pearls and coral.”
In addition to the description of the main fact, these verses refer to what may be obtained from fresh water and seawater: fish, personal adornment, i.e. coral and pearls. With regard to the phenomenon whereby the river water does not mix with seawater at the estuary, one must understand that this is not peculiar to the Tigris and Euphrates; they are not mentioned by name in the text, but it is thought to refer to them. Rivers with a very large outflow, such as the Mississippi and the Yangtze, have the same peculiarity. the mixing of their fresh water with the salty water of the sea does not often occur until very far out at sea.