Some cosmological notions from late antiquity in Q 18:60-65: the Quran in light of its cultural context.

AuthorTesei, Tommaso
PositionCritical essay

The present article addresses a narrative at vv. 60-82 of sura al-Kahf (18) concerning the encounter between Moses and an anonymous servant of God. The principal focus will be on three elements occurring in the first five verses: the term sarab(an), found at v. 61; the notion of majma' al-bahrayn, referred to at v. 60 and alluded to again at v. 61 as majma' baynihima; and the rock (sakhra) mentioned at v. 63. My objective is to demonstrate that the concepts these elements designate can be better understood if read in light of the cultural context of late antiquity. In fact, as I will argue, the scenario described in this Quranic passage is permeated by references and allusions to cosmological notions largely widespread throughout the Near East during that historical period. From a theoretical perspective, this research is largely inspired by a series of studies published in the last few years by Gabriel Said Reynolds. (1) Another important source of inspiration is an article by Kevin van Bladel dealing with the Quranic word sabab (occurring, among other verses, in the pericope immediately following Q 18:60-82) and the cosmological notion it designates. (2)


The narrative found in Q 18:60-82 includes two main stages. In the first (vv. 60-65), Moses travels with his servant to "the junction of the two seas" (majma' al-bahrayn), where he meets the Servant of God. In the second (vv. 65-82), Moses follows the Servant of God on a new journey, during which he experiences the unpredictability of divine will.

The pericope opens with Moses declaring his intention to travel to the junction of the two seas (Q 18:60). The Quranic text states that he is able to reach it after hearing from his young attendant about the fish that they were carrying with them escaping. This is twice referred to, in vv. 61 and 63. In both cases the dynamic is described by exactly the same phrase, fa-ttakhadha sabilahu fi l-bahr ("and it [the fish] took its way in the sea"), except for the word that follows. In v. 61 the phrase ends with saraban, while v. 63 has 'ajaban, which is commonly translated as "wondrously" or "in a marvellous way," and does not offer particular difficulties of interpretation. By contrast, saraban in v. 61 presents some complications.

While the root s-r-b is found in three other Quranic passages--sarab ("mirage") in 24:39 and 78:20, and sarib ("to go forth or away") in 13:10--sarab is a Quranic hapax legomenon, that is, it appears only once. One way to understand saraban is to read it as the accusative of sarab, which means "tunnel" or "subterranean excavation." Then the phrase in v. 61 can be translated as either "and it took its way in the sea by way of a subterranean excavation" or "and it took its way: a subterranean excavation in the sea," depending on whether saraban is considered an accusative of circumstance (hal) or a second direct object (the first being sabilahu) of the verb ittakhadha. (3)

Such an understanding of the phrase is complicated by the cryptic idea of a tunnel into the sea. The early exegetical commentary ascribed to Muqatil b. Sulayman (d. 150/767) tries to solve this conceptual problem by explaining that once it reached the sea, the fish split (4) it when passing through, and the shape of the wake the fish left in the sea was similar to a tunnel in the ground (ka-hay'at al-sarab fi l-'ard). (5) Compared to Muqatil, al-Tabari (d. 310/923) is more concerned with the meaning of saraban and lists several explanations. The first is attributed to Ibn 'Abbas, who explained that saraban meant that the wake of the fish was rocklike. A second explanation is attributed to the Prophet himself through a hadith reported by Ibn 'Abbas on the authority of 'Ubayy b. Ka'b. According to this report, the water split itself in front of the fish and when Moses saw that path (maslakahu) he said: "This is what we were seeking!" (Q 18:64). Another report, attributed to Qatada, one of the companions of the Prophet, claims that where the fish passed it left a wake of frozen water. According to a fourth understanding, attributed to Ibn 'Abbas, each part of the sea the fish touched became dry and turned to rock. A final explanation, reported on the authority of Ibn Wahb, on the authority of Ibn Zayd, is that God made the fish come back to life but that it made its way to the water in a valley and not in the sea. Al-Tabari accepts all the explanations as plausible, while expressing his preference for the second one, as it was reported on the authority of the Prophet. (6) Analogous interpretations occur in the work by later commentators (e.g., al-Zamakhsharl, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Ibn Kathir), who report about miraculous events or divine interventions that brought about the solidification of the sea or the blocking of its running. Such attempts to relate the path the fish takes in the sea to passage on land are direct consequences of the apparent discordance between the meaning of the word sarab, "subterranean passage," and the place where it is said to be found: the sea. (7)

Despite the fact that saraban is read most often as an accusative form by the exegetes, some offer another reading--saraban as the verbal noun of sariba "to flow" appearing in adverbial position (hal). (8) For instance, the Shi'i commentator al-Tabrisi (d. 548/1153) suggests that the phrase could be taken as meaning fa-sariba l-hut saraban (lit. and the fish flowed flowing). (9) 10 Al-Razi (d. 606/1210) also observes that it could mean sariba fi l-bahr saraban (lit. and it flowed in the sea flowing), but, he emphasizes, "God said fa-ttakhadha" instead of sariba. (10) This second reading of saraban also presents some difficulties, since sariba, "to flow," would more likely be expected to refer to the sea or to how the fish makes its way in it--perhaps as a wake left after its passage--rather than to the fish itself. It is probably because of this conceptual difficulty that both al-Tabrisi and al-Razi try to make a connection with sarib, active participle of the related root saraba ("to go forth or away"), which occurs in Q 13:10. This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that the interpretation of saraban as "going forth" would seem appropriate in the context of Q 18:61. (11) However, this explanation is grammatically problematic, as the verbal noun of saraba is surub and thus not consistent with the actual term in 18:61.

As noted, modern-day translators of the Quran mostly follow these two understandings of saraban. However, a third explanation has recently been suggested by Christoph Luxenberg, who attempts a philological solution on the basis of the method he propounds to decode the Quran. According to Luxenberg, a spelling mistake is at the base of the reading saraban, which should instead be read sharya, a Syriac participle adjective meaning "freely." At the end of his analysis, Luxenberg argues (perhaps too confidently) that this Syro-Aramaic reading is the only correct one for the phrase, meaning thus "And it made its way freely into the ocean." (12) As will appear evident below, Luxenberg's interpretation of saraban is unlikely and somewhat forced. (13) It also fails to relate the term to cosmological notions typical of the late antique cultural context, which offer the key to a correct understanding of the concept that saraban is meant to denote. In the following pages I propose my own interpretation of saraban on the basis of the study of the text of Q 18:60-65.

Taken by itself the curious episode about the fish's escape is difficult to interpret. All we know is that the fish breaks loose near a rock at the junction of the two seas and that this event indicates to Moses that he has reached the goal of his journey. When examined in light of a legend concerning Alexander's journey to the Land of the Blessed, during which he fails to bathe in the water of life, the episode acquires more sense, however. Specifically, the fish's escape represents an allusion to the resurrection of a salt fish after Alexander's cook washes it in the water of life. The most ancient versions of this story are found in three sources preceding or contemporaneous to the rise of Islam: the Rec. [beta] of the Alexander Romance (fourth/fifth century), the Babylonian Talmud (Tamid, 32a-32b), and the so-called Syriac Alexander Song (ca. 630-635). Muslim exegetes introduced some elements of this legend in their explanation of the narrative told in the Quran. In fact, the fish's escape episode is usually related to the motif of the water of life. (14) Western scholars, too, almost unanimously consider this story of Alexander to be behind the Quranic account. (15)

The motif of the source of life reported in the legend concerning Alexander should certainly be understood in relation to the life-giving characteristics that Near Easterners attributed to the sweet waters of the rivers. This concept is clearly manifested in the expression my' hy' "living water," that the author of the Syriac Alexander Song uses to designate the water of the miraculous source sought by Alexander. In fact, it is with these same words that the Peshitta translates the common biblical expression mayyim hayyim ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), which designates the flowing water of the rivers. The same terms occur in a legend concerning the baptism of Constantine, where the "living water" of the source of life (m'yn' d-hy') is credited with the power of curing the emperor of leprosy. (16) Such healing properties should in turn be related to Lev 14:51-53 and 15:12-14, which prescribe the use of "living water" in the rituals of purification from leprosy. 2 Kgs 5:10-14 similarly attributes the ability of curing leprosy to the waters of the Jordan. During late antiquity, the theme of Alexander's quest for the water of life came to be associated with Christian symbolism. This is particularly evident in the Syriac Alexander Song, whose author designates the miraculous source as...

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