The Qur'an Qur'anic Commentary

Qur’an­ic Com­men­tary on Sura’ Al-Kahf (18):86 : Of The Sun Set­ting In A Spring Of Murky Water

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Dhul-Qar­nayn (Ara­bic : ذو القرنين‎ ḏū’l-qar­nayn), he of the two horns” (or he of the two ages”), appears in the Quran as a fig­ure empow­ered by God to erect a wall between mankind and Gog and Magog, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of chaos. Dhul-Qar­nayn is gen­er­al­ly described as a right­eous ruler who trav­elled to spread the mes­sage of God. Of inter­est is this verse from Qur’an, 18:86 which has recent­ly raised much ruckus among the ene­mies of Islam.

The fol­low­ing Eng­lish trans­la­tion was tak­en from A. Yusuf Ali :

Until, when he reached the set­ting of the sun, he found it set in a spring of murky water : Near it, he found a Peo­ple : We said : O Dhul-Qar­nayn ! (thou hast author­i­ty) either to pun­ish them, or to treat them with kind­ness.” (Qur’an, 18:86)

A com­mon Chris­t­ian mis­sion­ary objec­tion” to the verse above is by claim­ing it to be a sci­en­tif­ic contradiction”. 

    If the pres­ence of sci­en­tif­ic facts can prove the Qur’an’s divine ori­gins, the pres­ence of sci­en­tif­ic false­hood can dis­prove divine ori­gins. For exam­ple, Sura’ 18:86 :

    Until, when he reached the set­ting of the sun, he found it set in a spring of murky water : Near it he found a Peo­ple : We said : O Dhul-Qar­nayn ! (thou hast author­i­ty,) either to pun­ish them or to treat them with kindness.”

    Since we all know that the sun does not set in a spring of murky water and, there­fore, this is a big error. How­ev­er, Mus­lim apol­o­gists are quick to tell us that this is only poet­ic and not a sci­en­tif­ic mir­a­cle”! This type of apolo­getic is intel­lec­tu­al­ly dis­hon­est as well as a bit silly.

So who is the one that is actu­al­ly intel­lec­tu­al­ly dis­hon­est as well as a bit sil­ly”? Let us analyse the verse part by part.

Analy­sis Of The Verse

Until, when he reached the set­ting of the sun…”: The trans­la­tion of this part of the verse does not say that Dhul-Qar­nayn reached the place where the sun sets lit­er­al­ly, rather it means here that Dhul-Qar­nayn was fac­ing the direc­tion in which the sun is set­ting. The set­ting of the sun,” is an Ara­bic idiom mean­ing the west­ern-most point’ of his expe­di­tion. How­ev­er, in gen­er­al, idioms should not be lit­er­al­ly translated.

…he found it set in a spring of murky water”: The Qur’an is obvi­ous­ly describ­ing what Dhul-Qar­nayn saw. What Dhul-Qar­nayn saw was the image of the sun set­ting in a dark body of water. Since the Qur’an is clear­ly describ­ing this from Dhul-Qar­nain’s direct point of view (the Qur’an is quite explic­it here in doing that), there is, in fact, no prob­lem with the descrip­tion of what Dhul-Qar­nain saw. Of course, one is cor­rect in say­ing that the sun does not set in a spring of murky water”, but try stand­ing at a beach dur­ing the time when the sun is about to set and any­one would be able to see the sun enter­ing” the sea far in the hori­zon. This, there­fore, gives us the con­clu­sion that Dhul-Qar­nayn was some­where west and by a large body of water, pos­si­bly the sea.

The Qur’an, unlike descrip­tive prose, pos­sess­es a high lev­el of poet­i­cal elo­quence, a qual­i­ty not found in the Bible. This poet­ic nature is inte­gral to its beau­ty, and thus, it nat­u­ral­ly employs emphat­ic expres­sions, such as a sun­set.” Crit­ics should under­stand this con­text before eval­u­at­ing the text.

Addi­tion­al­ly, the Qur’an, with its poet­i­cal prose, was intend­ed as a chal­lenge to the pagan Arabs in Mec­ca who val­ued high-qual­i­ty poet­ry. Those new­com­ers who wield this verse as a weapon against Islam would be well-advised to study Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture and the his­tor­i­cal con­text of that era before mak­ing unin­formed conclusions.

More­over, it is impor­tant to note that the verse actu­al­ly indi­cates that Dhul-Qar­nain trav­eled west­ward, observ­ing the sun set­ting over the hori­zon. It appeared to him as if the sun was sink­ing into a murky-look­ing sea, an obser­va­tion any beach-goer observ­ing a sun­set might make. Crit­ics may not have tak­en such expe­ri­ences into account.

Last­ly, for fur­ther com­pre­hen­sion of our expla­na­tion, we present two alter­na­tive trans­la­tions of the same verse, pro­vid­ed by M. M. Pick­thall and Shakir.

    Trans­la­tion by M. M. Pickthall

    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. (Qur’an 18:86)

    Trans­la­tion by Shakir

    Until when he reached the place where the sun set, he found it going down into a black sea, and found by it a peo­ple. We said : O Zulqar­nain ! either give them a chas­tise­ment or do them a ben­e­fit.’ (Qur’an 18:86)

We can see that the gen­er­al agree­ment of the trans­la­tions of this verse is that Dhul-Qar­nain saw the sun set­ting into the hori­zon that it looks like it is set into a body of water (sea) that looks murky-look­ing. That this verse was nev­er tak­en lit­er­al­ly was not alien in the under­stand­ing of the ear­ly commentators.

How The Ear­ly Com­men­ta­tors Under­stood The Verse


In his famous com­men­tary known as al-Jami’ li-Ahkam al-Quran, al-Qur­tubi (died 671 AH/​1273 CE) wrote about this verse :

    It is not meant by reach­ing the ris­ing or set­ting of the sun that he reached its body and touched it because it runs in the sky around the earth with­out touch­ing it and it is too great to enter any spring on earth. It is so much larg­er than earth. But it is meant that he reached the end of pop­u­lat­ed land east and west, so he found it — accord­ing to his vision — set­ting in a spring of murky water as we watch it in smooth land as if it enters inside the land. That is why He said, he found it ris­ing on a peo­ple for whom we had pro­vid­ed no cov­er­ing pro­tec­tion against the sun.” (Holy Qur’an 18:90) and did not mean that it touch­es or adheres to them, but they are the first to rise on. Prob­a­bly this spring is a part of the sea and the sun sets behind, with or at it, so the propo­si­tion takes the place of an adjec­tive and God knows best.1

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209 CE) wrote in his com­men­tary on the same verse that :

    When Zul-Qar­nain reached the fur­thest west and no pop­u­lat­ed land was left, he found the sun as if it sets in a dark spring, but it is not in real­i­ty. The same when sea trav­eller sees the sun as if it sets in the sea if he can­not see the shore while in real­i­ty, it sets behind the sea.2

Ibn Kathir

Ibn Kathir (701774 AH/​1302 – 1373 CE) wrote in his com­men­tary about this verse that :

    Until, when he reached the set­ting of the sun” means he fol­lowed a cer­tain way until he reached the fur­thest land he could go from the west. As for reach­ing the set­ting of the sun in the sky, it is impos­si­ble. What nar­ra­tors and sto­ry­tellers say that he walked for a peri­od of time in earth while the sun was set­ting behind him is unre­al, and most of it is from myths of Peo­ple of the Book and inven­tions of their liars. he found it set in a spring of murky water” means he saw the sun accord­ing to his vision set in the ocean and this is the same with every­one end­ing to the shore see­ing as if the sun sets inside it (i.e. the ocean).3


Accord­ing to Al-Mawar­di (d. 450 AH) in his tafsir, the verse can be under­stood as :

    That He (Dhul Qar­nayn) wajada­ha (found it, saw it) set­ting behind the spring (ayn) as if it was set­ting in the very spring.“4

Metaphor­i­cal Inter­pre­ta­tions of a Sunset

To fur­ther rein­force our asser­tion that the cit­ed Quran­ic verse is indeed poet­ic in nature and not meant to be inter­pret­ed lit­er­al­ly or sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, let’s con­sid­er the beau­ti­ful imagery of the sun set­ting at the horizon.


In a pic­ture, the sun appears to descend and dis­solve” into the hori­zon. This imagery is often used in lit­er­a­ture and poet­ry as a metaphor or sym­bol. Sim­i­lar­ly, in the con­text of the Quran, the verse could be employ­ing metaphor­i­cal lan­guage to evoke cer­tain feel­ings or concepts.

When observ­ing a sun­set, one might per­ceive the sun to be swal­lowed by the earth, dis­ap­pear­ing beneath the hori­zon line, which could be eas­i­ly inter­pret­ed as the sun set­ting into the earth’. This is, how­ev­er, just an opti­cal illu­sion cre­at­ed by the Earth­’s rota­tion and the observer’s van­tage point. Sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, we know that the sun does not lit­er­al­ly sink into the earth or sea at sun­set. Rather, the sun con­tin­u­ous­ly moves in its own orbit, as the Earth spins on its axis.

In the image, the sun, set­ting into the hori­zon, could be seen as a metaphor for the con­clu­sion of a day, the end­ing of a phase, or the tran­sient nature of life, among oth­er things. The image’s beau­ty and emo­tion­al impact pro­vide a more pro­found under­stand­ing than a lit­er­al interpretation.

Con­sid­er­ing this, it’s plau­si­ble that the verse in the Qur’an, which could be per­ceived as sug­gest­ing a non-sci­en­tif­ic view­point, is in fact using poet­ic and metaphor­i­cal lan­guage. This inter­pre­ta­tion falls in line with the tra­di­tion of Quran­ic exe­ge­sis, where schol­ars rec­og­nize the fre­quent use of metaphors, sym­bols, and allegories.

So, when it comes to under­stand­ing ancient reli­gious texts like the Qur’an, it is often ben­e­fi­cial to con­sid­er their poet­ic, cul­tur­al, and his­tor­i­cal con­texts rather than strict­ly lit­er­al or mod­ern sci­en­tif­ic interpretations.


The alle­ga­tion put forth against the Qur’an is utter­ly base­less and is refut­ed by the Ara­bic lan­guage itself. The verse con­tains no ref­er­ence at all to the sun lit­er­al­ly set­ting, or enter­ing, or going down, into a mud­dy pool of water. It is clear to us that the above-men­tioned verse is only con­sid­ered unsci­en­tif­ic” if we would also con­sid­er that sim­i­lar emphat­i­cal­ly-used phras­es such as Japan, the land of the ris­ing sun” or Sabah, the land below the wind” to be unsci­en­tif­ic” as well.

Our advice to those neo­phytes is that before they try to find any more dis­crep­an­cies” in the Qur’an they should con­sid­er the fol­low­ing dis­crep­an­cy of the Bible to clar­i­fy which Book actu­al­ly has a severe defect :

    And the hare, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof ; he is unclean unto you. (Leviti­cus 11:6)

Now we all know that the hare (or any­thing relat­ed to rab­bits) do not chew cud. Is this a poet­i­cal” expres­sion of the Bible ? And only God knows best !Endmark

Cite Icon Cite This As : 
  1. al-Qur­tubi, al-Jami’ li-Ahkam al-Qur’an, Vol. 16 (Dar-ul-Hadith, Cairo, Egypt), p. 47[]
  2. Fakhr-ud-Deen Ar-Razi, At-Tafsir-ul-Kabeer, Vol. 21, p. 166[]
  3. Tafsir-ul-Qur’an Al-‘Azeem by Ibn Kathir, Vol. 5, p. 120[]
  4. Al-Mawar­di, Ali bin Muham­mad bin Habib, Al-Nukat wa al-‘Uyun, Vol. 3 (Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya), p. 450[]


  1. Moveonplease Reply

    Theres twit­ter thread about this that appeared with hadith sup­port­ed evi­dence say­ing our prophet(pbuh) said that the sun set in the spring of warm water and also with anoth­er one with the SAME PERSON NARRATION WITH SAME QUESTION tells dif­fer­ent answer which is to ask per­mi­sion to pros­trate (but his ver­sion is a bit weird like keep on using the word pros­tra­tion), the hadith one with ask­ing per­mis­sion to prostate got repeat­ed 6 times while the one that said it in the spring or warm water” just once only. That hadith with it in the spring water” is so sus­pi­cious. But quran says a lot about the uni­verse and it celes­tial being float­ing in an orbit to be sud­den­ly one verse that says the sun jump out of it orbit just to crash with the earth into the spring of water with the word HE FOUND in the start­ed of the verse, just shows allah s.w.t know what is dzhul qur­nain saw with his eyes and all of these the spring, the sun, the peo­ple just seems like set­ting” a sto­ry for me with time, place and peo­ple set­ting of sto­ry. And prob­a­bly that dzhul-qur­nahin, arrived there at VERY LATE EVENING WHERE THE SUN IS LIKE HALF IN THE SEA/​etc where there has spring where theres com­mu­ni­ty lived. I’ve been think­ing about this verse for three days now, its seri­ous­ly frus­trat­ed me. Theres also a verse said that allah s.w.t does­nt want to teach poet­ry to muhammad(s.a.w) though but its prob­a­bly just when allah s.w.t told our prophet what to say to those people. 

    May peace be with you, and peace be with me too cause i need it.

  2. Does any­one know of any com­men­tary that explains why the ris­ing of the sun” and set­ting of the sun” is a recur­rent theme inside Surah Kahf ?
    It is dis­cussed with the sleep­ers of the cave and also with Dhul Qar­nain. I can’t think of any­where else in the quran where this par­tic­u­lar phrase is repeat­ed like this.

    Jaza­kul­lah khair

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