Qur’an Verse and Hadith Explained: Does the Sun Set in a Muddy or Hot Spring?

Allah describes Dhul-Qarnayn’s travels in one of the verses of the Qur’an by stating:

حَتَّىٰ إِذَا بَلَغَ مَغْرِبَ الشَّمْسِ وَجَدَهَا تَغْرُبُ فِي عَيْنٍ حَمِئَةٍ وَوَجَدَ عِندَهَا قَوْمًا

Then, when he came to the setting of the sun, he found it setting into a muddy spring. And he found near it a people.

(Qur’an 18:86)

There is also a Hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is reported to have said to one of his companions:

فَقَالَ ‏”‏هَلْ تَدْرِي أَيْنَ تَغْرُبُ هَذِهِ.”‏‏ قُلْتُ اللهُ وَرَسُولُهُ أَعْلَمُ ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏”‏فَإِنَّهَا تَغْرُبُ فِي عَيْنِ حَامِيَةٍ.” ‏”

“Do you know where it [sun] sets?” The companion [Abu Dharr] replied, “Allah and His Messenger know best.” He ﷺ responded, “Indeed, it sets in a hot spring.”

(Abu Dawud 4002)

Does this mean the enormous sun sets and sinks into a muddy or hot spring like a heavy ball in water? Let’s see how Muslim scholars of Qur’anic and Hadith commentaries explained these texts.

Explanation of Qur’an’s Verse

Simply explained, Dhul-Qarnayn reached the earth’s western end. When he saw the sun setting, the last thing it disappeared behind—visibly—was a muddy spring. It didn’t vanish behind a mountain or plain, but behind a muddy spring. The verse does not imply the sun literally “sank” into such a spring!

Ibn Jawzi (d. 1201 CE) said, “Someone might mistakenly think that this enormous sun itself sinks into a spring of water, but that is not the case. The sun is much larger than the earth, so how could a spring contain it?…What Dhul-Qarnayn saw was the sun [appearing to be] setting in the spring, just as a sailor at sea sees the sun disappear into the water because Dhul-Qarnayn had reached the edge of the inhabited world and found a muddy spring beyond which there was no one [i.e. no people lived beyond that point].

Al-Qurtubi (d. 1273 CE) stated: “It doesn’t mean he reached the sun’s body, for it orbits in the sky around the earth without touching it and is far too large to enter any earthly spring, being much larger than the earth itself. Rather, he reached the westernmost inhabited part and saw it as if setting in a muddy spring, just as we see it seemingly setting into the ground on a flat plain.”

Ibn Kathir (d. 1373 CE) said, “He saw the sun as if it were setting in the ocean. This is the case for anyone who reaches its shore; they see it as if it is setting in it, while in reality, it never leaves the celestial path in which it is fixed and never departs from it.”

Fakhr-ud-Deen Raazi (d. 1210 CE) said, “It has been established by evidence that the earth is spherical, the sky surrounds it, and there is no doubt that the sun is in its orbit. Also, the verse states [afterwards]: ‘And he found near it a people,’ and it is known that it is impossible for people to live close to the sun. Additionally, the sun is many times larger than the earth, so how could it logically enter into a spring on earth? If this is established, then we say that the interpretation of the phrase ‘setting in a muddy spring’ is as follows: First: When Dhul-Qarnayn reached its location in the west and found no more lands after it, he perceived the sun as if it were setting in a dark spring, even though this was not the reality. Just as a person at sea sees the sun as if it is setting into the sea when they do not see the shore, while in reality, it is setting beyond the sea.”

Alusi (d. 1854 CE) said, “Since the sun’s size is many times larger than that of the earth, how could it possibly enter into a water spring on the earth?…This is similar to how a sailor sees the sun as if it rises from the sea and sets into it, when he does not see the shore. Similarly, someone in a vast, smooth land would also see it as if it rises from the land and sets into it…The intended meaning of the “muddy spring” could either be a spring within the sea or the sea itself, and calling the latter a “spring” is acceptable, especially considering that it is like a drop in comparison to the greatness of Allah even if it appears great to us.”

Abdur Rahman Sa’di (d. 1957 CE) said, “Until he saw the sun in his line of sight, as if it were setting in a muddy spring, meaning a dark one. This is the usual perception for anyone who has water between them and the western horizon of the sun; they see it setting in that very water even though it is at a great height.”

Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328 CE) tried to even claim consensus on this point when he said, “[It means] In the view of the observers [via perception] by the consensus of the scholars of Qur’anic interpretation, the intended meaning is not that it [literally] falls from the sky and sets in that spring.

Thus, the verse describes the sun’s visual disappearance at sunset. This is a common linguistic expression for sunset used even in non-Arabic languages. We can imagine that Dhul-Qarnayn saw the sun setting in a sea or ocean from the shore, just as someone standing on the Mediterranean coast might see. Even the American space agency NASA uses such language, the foremost authority in astronomy. Refer to this link on NASA’s website. Caption under the image says the following:

On May 19, 2005, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit captured this stunning view as the Sun sank below the rim of Gusev crater on Mars.”

Does anyone understand this to mean that the sun actually sank into the rim of the crater, claiming NASA made a scientific error? Of course not! It’s just a common linguistic expression of perception from the view of the observer on earth.

Explanation of the Hadith

As for the Hadith that was mentioned above, then it can be responded to in two ways:

First Response

The Hadith has different versions and this is the only one which contains the words “in a hot spring.” The other version, which is more established and widely known, does not contain these words but speaks only about the sun prostrating before rising, an issue which was discussed in detail here. Even the popular Saudi based website Islam-QA, which many consider ultra conservative, criticizes this version and argues that this additional wording is likely a mistake. You can read their full article criticizing this version of the hadith here.

Many people do not understand the methodology of Hadith scholars. They have a very meticulous system to grade Hadiths and place them in their appropriate levels of strength based on well-established rules. Even if there are some cases where two Hadiths are reliable, one of them may be given precedence over the other in terms of likelihood to be the more correct one due to either inconsistencies in one or more established reliability in the other and other internal and/or external factors which may impact the acceptance/rejection of a given Hadith.

Second Response

There are some who have accepted this hadith to be reliable and not a mistake but even they do not understand it to be literal. For example, the popular Arabic fatwa site Islamweb.net has this to say:

So, if it is confirmed that the hadith is authentic, the discussion moves to its implication, which does not contradict anything established by astronomers and scientists regarding the relationship between the earth and the sun. Rather, it simply describes what an observer sees at the horizon when the land ends at sunset, with the sun seemingly setting into the ocean. This is a scene that Abu Dharr (may Allah be pleased with him) did not witness, so the Messenger of Allah ﷺ informed him of the same scene that Dhul-Qarnayn saw.”

Another popular source for Hadith commentary, particularly on the well established books of Hadiths, Dorar.net says the following in commentary of this Hadith:

When one looks at the sun at sunset, it appears to the eye as if it is sinking into the sea. All of this happens while it is revolving in its orbit. Its setting is an act of prostration to Allah, seeking His permission to set. Its position in the eye’s view as it goes down is rightly called prostration, because the sun is obedient to the command of Allah the Exalted.”

Hadith scholar Abdul Muhsin Al-‘Abbad, who is still alive, said about the meaning of this Hadith, “When a person is at the edge of land, they see the sun with their own eyes as if it is sinking into the sea. It is known that the sun revolves in its orbit, setting for some people while rising for others. It does not disappear and leave the whole world in complete darkness; rather, it remains present. It sets for some people and rises for others as observed in reality and as is known.”

So given the above, we can see that even those who accept this Hadith to be reliable do not understand it to be literal but just a common linguistic expression from the eye of the observer of sunset from earth.

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