Like Water For Dawa
by Dr. Abu Agua Delos-Sietemares

Among the various topics brought up by proponents of the scientific-hermeneutic approach to the Islamic corpora, water features in a number of the polemics. There are claims that the Qur'an discusses the pycnocline, the diffraction of light in water, the origin of ground water, and that a certain hadith speaks of subterranean seas that exist below collections of volcanic magma. In every single instance, the person putting forth this claim then argues that there is no way a mere mortal from the seventh century could have known such things, hence the text in question was divinely inspired. A number of these claims will be considered here.

The Pycnocline and the Qur'an

There are two verses in the Qur'an that make vague reference to a separation between waters. Some Muslims have attempted to correlate these verses with the phenomenon of the pycnocline, which is a separation of waters of different densities due to temperature or salinity. In the article
The Quran on Seas and Rivers, these verses are treated as referring to separate phenomena, but the two phenomena that are correlated with the Qur'anic passages both fall within the scope of the pycnocline. The first verse appears at Soorat al-Furqaan 25:53, and goes as follows:

wa huwa allazee maraja al-baHrayni hazaa 'azbun furaatun wa hazaa milHun ujaajun wa ja'ala baynahumaa barzakhan waHijran maHhjooran

And he has set free the two seas; one is fresh and palatable and the other is salty and bitter; and he has built between them a formidable, inviolable barrier.

The question that immediately comes to mind is, how do we know this is a reference to the pycnocline? It is apparent that the proponents of this approach first assume it is a reference to the pycnocline, and then stand back amazed. It seems to us the verse would make perfect sense even if this was a physical barrier, like a land mass, or something made of stone. More will be said on this issue below, but for now let us consider the other passage, which appears at Soorat ar-Rahman 55:19-20:

maraja al-baHrayni yaltaqiyaanee, baynahumaa barzakhun, laa yabghiyaanee

He let free the two seas, they meet together; he has built a barrier between them, they do not transgress.

First, as was already noted above, there is no real indication that this is actually a reference to the pycnocline. What we see is the circular reasoning of the Muslim who champions this polemic, presupposing the author intended it as a reference to the pycnocline, and then concluding that no mere mortal could have knowledge of the pycnocline in the seventh century. The first of these two verses mentioning the two seas (al-baHrayn) describes the barrier (barzakh) as waHijran maHhjooran, which means it is simply inviolable. The relevant HJR root is also for stone, which is why a physical stone barrier continues to be a very real possibility.

Second, even if we were to assume for a moment that this is a loose reference to the pycnocline, is this necessarily something that no mere mortal could be aware of? Note that Nadir Ahmed, webmaster of the Examine The Truth web site and a proponent of this approach, offered the following description in January of 2003:
[S]cience tells us that the[re] is a barrier between salt and fresh water[. F]or example, if you were on a boat and you were to put your hand on one side, you will taste fresh water, if you were to put it on the other side, then you will taste salt water....[1]
If this is true, then this is a perfectly observable phenomenon, and thus there is nothing amazing about a man making reference to this phenomenon (assuming the Qur'an is actually making reference to it). Once this was explained to Nadir, he quickly retracted his statement, and in his recent debate with Dr. Ali Sina of the Faith Freedom International site, Nadir has asserted that "it is a known fact that there is NO VISIBLE BARRIER between salt and fresh water." While Nadir never bothers to back up this assertion, it should be noted that other Muslims have claimed to have seen a pycnocline barrier with their own eyes. Consider what Moataz Emam, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, wrote less than two weeks before Nadir originally depicted the phenomenon as observable:
I lately saw that barrier with my own eyes and got it on tape. You can actually see a curvy white line of salty bubbles. I went back several times to look at it and it really doesn't change much over time. I remembered the Quranic verse and got shivers down my spine. I understand that the barrier is rarely so visible with the naked eye. I saw it in a small town called Valdivia in Chile.[2]
Now, whether or not Mr. Emam really has this on video is unknown to us. Could he have simply written this to give support for this approach to the Qur'an? Is it possible that this was a pious fib? Yes, we admit that it is possible, and we further admit that we cannot prove otherwise. Furthermore, we also concede to the possibility that maybe Mr. Emam mistook some other phenomenon for the pycnocline. So while this contradicts Nadir's claim that there is no visible barrier, it is at least possible that Mr. Emam's statement was (either knowingly or unknowingly) false.

With that in mind, we would note that Gaius Plinius Secundus (1st century CE, usually called Pliny the Elder) wrote about observations of the pycnocline centuries before the Qur'an was written. Pliny, whose observation begins with wording that is mildly similar to that of Mr. Emam, wrote the following:
This is rendered more remarkable by springs of fresh water bubbling out as if from pipes on the sea shore. In fact the nature of water also is not deficient in marvels. Patches of fresh water float on the surface of the sea, being doubtless lighter. Consequently also sea-water being of a heavier nature gives more support to objects floating upon it. But some fresh waters too float on the surface of others; cases are the river carried on the surface of Lake Fucino, the Adde on the Lake of Como, the Ticino on Maggiore, the Mincio on Garda, the Ollio on Lago d'Iseo, the Rhone on the Lake of Geneva (the last north of the Alps, but all the rest in Italy), after a passing visit that covers many miles carrying out their own waters only and no larger quantity than they introduced. This has also been stated in the case of the river Orontes in Syria and many others.[3]
So we see that the pycnocline has been observed in many locations long before the Qur'an was written. To understand the phenomenon, one could perform an experiment that would create a very temporary pycnocline. Get a bowl of cold fresh water. Then get a cup of warm or hot water that has a large amount salt in it. Die the warm salt water with food coloring, and then pour it into the bowl of water from a single point (i.e. pour all the water in the same spot rather than just dumping it in a big splash). You'll see the salt water move some distance through the fesh water without mixing (of course they eventually will start to mix, due to entropy). This same phenomenon happens (to a much greater degree) when two bodies of water, of differing temperatures or salinities, meet. The most commonly cited example by proponents of this polemic is the Gibralter sill, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea:

What happens is the water with the lower salinity rises above the water with the higher salinity (as their differences in salinity translate into being differences in density as well). Once you understand this, you can begin to understand why a fresh water body can meet a larger body of salt water, yet the larger body remains salty. Consider now the example of a fresh water stream or river flowing into a body of salt water:

It is not the case that there is a solid inviolable separation, where no transgression takes place. On the contrary, there is mixing. Where the waters meet, the fresh water increases in salinity as it mixes with the salt water. However, if fresh water is constantly flowing in, why does it not eventually overrun the salt water, and significantly lower the salinity of the body as a whole? This is due to the fact that the water of the lower salinity rises to the top, and is the first to evaporate. Interestingly, centuries before Pliny (and therefore centuries before the Qur'an as well), Aristotle described precisely this phenomenon:
[W]e find it maintained that rivers not only flow into the sea but originate from it, the salt water becoming sweet by filtration. But this view involves another difficulty. If this body is the source of all water, why is it salt and not sweet? [...] Now the sun, moving as it does, sets up processes of change and becoming and decay, and by its agency the finest and sweetest water is every day carried up and is dissolved into vapour and rises to the upper region, where it is condensed again by the cold and so returns to the earth. [...] The drinkable, sweet water, then, is light and all of it drawn up: the salt water is heavy and remains behind, but not in its proper place. [...] The place which we see the sea filling is not its place but that of water. It seems to belong to the sea because the weight of the salt water makes it remain there, while the sweet, drinkable water which is light is carried up.[4]
Now, before any Muslims raise a straw man argument, keep in mind that we are not positively asserting that the author of the Qur'an plagiarized from Pliny or Aristotle. The cited passages from the writings of these pre-Islamic thinkers simply shows that it is possible for mere mortals to observe and describe the phenomenon of the pycnocline. Thus if the Qur'an is making reference to the pycnocline, there is nothing miraculous about that. Further note that if the Qur'an is making reference to the pycnocline, it was no where near as clear and descriptive as Pliny or Aristotle.

Finally regarding the pycnocline, note that if the Qur'an is making reference to this phenomenon in the relevant verses, it would be in error. The Qur'an describes this barrier as being inviolable (as if like stone, hence the relevant root), and states that there is no transgression. This is not the case with the phenomenon of the pycnocline, which produces "leaky" barriers, and indeed allows mixing from time to time. Of course we're not convinced that this barrier between the two bodies of water (baHrayn) actually was intended to be a reference to this phenomenon (nor has any Muslim proponent of this approach demonstrated such). As was stated twice above, it could just as sensibly be a reference to a physical barrier or land mass (under the right interpretation, one might think the island of Bahrain was intended, which though surrounded by salt water, has fresh water wells within its land mass).

The Origin of Ground Water

Another polemic regarding water pushed by proponents of the scientific-hermeneutic approach to the Qur'an is the claim that the Qur'an correctly states the origin of ground water. The relevant verse is found at Soorat al-Muminoon 23:18, the relevant portion of which reads as follows:

wa anzalna mina as-Samaa-i maan biqadarin faaskannaahu fee al-ardi

And we sent down from the heavens water in due measure, then we caused it to settle in the earth.

Humorously, the aforementioned Nadir Ahmed called this very verse to witness and then asked rhetorically, "how could a man living 1400 years ago know this information?"[
5] One wonders when it is that Nadir, or any other champion of this polemic, thinks man became aware of the relationship between rain and ground water. This question is asked because right away one could note that the verse conveys information that is merely common sense, especially for an Arab (because our oldest existing manuscripts of the Qur'an date to late 7th or early 8th century Arabia, it is fair to treat it as an Arabic text). In the Arabian peninsula, wells used to be (and in some places still are) of immense importance. Note that even to this day in certain parts of the Arab peninsula (in areas inhabited by Bedouin), and certainly for many centuries prior, drinking from another man's well without his permission could potentially lead to violence or bloodshed.

Surely the men who guarded and survived off of these ultra-important wells knew that if it does not rain, the well will eventually run dry (or, if Allaah does not send down water, it will not lodge in the earth). So the question has to be asked, what part of this verse in the Qur'an do proponents of this polemic think no man could have known? It seems obvious already that a mere mortal could have uttered this statement. Of course, if supporters of this form of apologia are not convinced, let it be known that more than a thousand years before the time traditionally given for the writing of the Qur'an, people knew that rain supplied ground water sources. Consider the following statement from the writings of Aristotle regarding rivers with underground sources:
It is thought that the water is raised by the sun and descends in rain and gathers below the earth and so flows from a great hollow, all the rivers from one, or each from a different one. No water is generated[.][6]
Aristotle was noting what people before him thought, thus we see how far back knowledge of the relationship between rain and ground water goes. Of course, no one should be surprised, as this is simply common sense. It seems perfectly sensible that man's understanding of the relationship between rain and ground water dates as far back as his first conscious encounters with wells (be they natural or man made), and thus predates written history.

The Qur'an on Water and the Diffraction of Light

The Qur'an offers several allegories for the state of the disbeliever. One such allegory, found in Soorat an-Noor 24:40, describes disbelief as being analogous to being in a dark sea. The verse reads as follows:

aw kathulumaatin fee baHrin lujjiyyin yaghshaahu mawjun min fawqihi mawjun min fawqihi saHaabun thulumaatun ba'duhaa fawqa ba'din iza akhraja yadahu lam yakad yaraahaa waman lam yaj'ali Allaahu lahu nooran famaa lahu min noorin

Or it is like the darkness of being in a vast deep sea, with waves topping waves and clouds on top of that; total darkness one above another - when he stretches out his hand he is alsmost unable to see it, and those whom Allaah does not give light, has no light.

Proponents of this approach claim that this verse is conveying the scientific fact that at 1000 meters under water, there is no light. The aforementioned Nadir Ahmed offered the following correlation:
So the Qur'an is saying at the very deep, dark levels of the ocean it is complete darkness, and that is like the analogy of a disbeliever - he lives in complete darkness. Again, this is exactly what scientists today have told us - that the ocean, after one thousand meters, is complete death darkness. I would raise a question: how did the author of the Qur'an know this type of scientific information?[7]
We can see that the leap in logic made by Nadir is huge. First note that the Qur'an does not give any measurements, much less 1,000 meters. In fact, it is not even clear that this is taking place under water at all. The text could just as sensibly be understood as describing the terror of being lost while sailing in the ocean (in fact most would draw that understanding). So proponents of this approach first presuppose that the author of the Qur'an intended this as a vague reference to the diffraction of light, and then wonder aloud how he could have known such. As has been the case over and over again, the logic is circular, and none of the hidden premises are backed up.

While there is no reason to believe that the Qur'an is describing the diffraction of light in water, one could presuppose for a second that it is. The question that we need to ask those who make this presupposition is when do they believe man became aware that water distorts light, and that seas are darker the deeper you go? This is important, as those who champion this polemic assume that no man at the time knew such, and anyone who assumes such should at least base this assumption on knowledge of when man became aware of this.

We could chalk even this up as an issue of common sense. Personally, when I was four years old I already knew that the deeper the water was at Coney Island Brighton Beach, the less visible my feet were. Water is translucent, it distorts images, and the deeper the water, the less visibility you have. This is common sense. Homer in the Iliad made passing reference to a dark sea near Samos, and I believe other ancient sources have as well.

For instance, one should take into account Aristotle's Sense and Sensibilia. Though he's talking about the senses, he takes it for granted that water is translucent ("the visual organ proper is composed of water, yet vision appertains to it not because it is so composed, but because it is translucent - a property common alike to water and to air"). It is precisely because water is translucent (i.e. it transmits light but causes some diffusion and thus can prevent perception) that the deeper you go, the less light and visibility there is in large bodies of water. He even compared the appearance of objects under water to objects in a haze ("an effect like that sometimes produced by painters overlaying a less vivid upon a more vivid colour, as when they desire to represent an object appearing under water or enveloped in a haze"). Of course, it is not amazing that Aristotle knew this, nor would it be amazing if we assumed that the Qur'an speaks of it being dark under large amounts of water. That's common sense.

Fire Under the Sea & Sea Under the Fire

While we have pretty much exhausted the various versions of the scientific-hermeneutic approach to the Qur'an regarding water, there is a certain hadith which is also called to witness by some. The relevant part of this tradition reads as follows:

fa inna taHta l-baHr naaran wa taHta l-naar baHran

Certainly, under the sea is fire and under the fire is sea.

Shibli Zaman has written a very interesting
article regarding the scientific implication of this hadith. Geoff Austin wrote a response to Shibli's piece for the Answering Islam site, and Shibli has written his own counter response. We feel we can trim the fat, so to speak, and offer a much shorter objection to Shibli's argument.

Shibli interprets the "fire" as being a reference to lava or molten rock. While some might find such an interpretation dubious (as it presupposes rather than demonstrates that the author of this tradition had lava in mind when they employed the word naar - "fire"), we will not be attacking this point. We will simply note that the statement is a conjunctive proposition, and in order for it to be true, both conjuncts must be true.

The second conjunct (the claim that there is a sea under the "fire") is the one we wish to take issue with. Shibli tries to support this claim by citing an article that discusses living organisms under the ocean floor. However, if one reads through the cited article carefully they will see that nowhere does it speak of water being under any magma/lava/fire. It talks only of water flowing through fractured basalt. So, in no way does this site demonstrate that under any magma is a sea; it only speaks of water flowing through cracks in rock, and there is huge difference between the two.

While it is true that basalt is a form of volcanic rock, it is not the same as actual lava. It is not fire, rather it is rock. Shibli has made a logical leap from reading about water being found in fractured volcanic rock to assuming that this means the water is now or once was under any magma. The image on the left is a reproduction of one that appeared in the science section of The New York Times[8], which helps illustrate the difference. As the caption to the image noted, these are "rocks saturated with seawater". Fractured basalt can have water flowing through it if the water flows in from above. Some may argue that this is taking place more than a thousand feet below the ocean floor. That is not a problem, as the relevant Times article described it as being more than a mile below the ocean floor. Nonetheless, the Times still presented this water as flowing in through fractures in the rock.

So in the end we see that Shibli has failed to demonstrate the veracity of the conjunctive proposition expressed in the relevant hadith, for the simple fact that, contrary to the impression his article gives, Mr. Zaman has failed to give support for the second conjunct. In no way does the article he cited give us any reason to believe that there is a sea under the "fire"; it only speaks of water flowing through fractured rock. Thus in the end, at best, we can only take a position of agnosticism regarding the verisimilitude of the hadith cited in Shibli's article.


It seems that all the forms of apologia considered above suffer from the same problems. Rather large assumptions are made to bridge the logical gaps, but these presuppositions are never explicitly pointed out by the authors of the arguments, thus readers are forced to unearth these hidden premises upon closer analysis. These problems serve as a common thread through out almost every single instance of the scientific-hermeneutic approach to the Qur'an. In light of this, we see the problem is with the approach as a whole, and it hints at the fact that proponents of the approach have not thought out the reasoning very carefully.

  1. Nadir Ahmed, Does the Quran contain statements which agree with Modern Science which would lead to the conlusion that a greater power is the source of the Quran?, article posted to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam, January 23, 2003.

  2. Moataz H. Emam, St. Paul vs. St. Peter: Moslems' view?, article posted to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam, January 12, 2003.

  3. Pliny, Naturalis Historia, Book II, CVI, 224, as per, H. Rackham (trans.), Pliny: Natural History, (Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1967), Vol. I, p. 353.

  4. Aristotle, Meteorologika, Book II, 354b15-30 & 355a30-355b1, as per Jonathan Barnes (trans. & ed.), The Complete Works of Aristotle, (Princeton, 1985), Vol. 1, pp 577 & 578.

  5. Nadir Ahmed, More scientific proofs for the Quran, article posted to the usenet newsgroup soc.religion.islam, September 2, 2003.

  6. Aristotle, Meteorologika, Book I, 349b3-5, as per Barnes opere citato, Vol. 1, p. 570.

  7. This was taken from the opening statement by Nadir in a debate he took part in on September 9th, 2003, on the subject of the Qur'an and science. The debate can be found here:

  8. William J. Broad, "Deep Under the Sea, Boiling Founts of Life Itself," The New York Times, Tuesday, Septemer 9, 2003, Science Section, p. F1. The image was reproduced in a more simple form for the sake of bandwidth (as a scanned image would have taken up too much bandwidth). Photocopies of the actual image can be mailed upon request.

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