The Qur’an points out scientific facts and wonders of technology in a variety of ways. Sometimes it states directly in plain terms that require little or no interpretation, sometimes it uses figures of speech and metaphors, and sometimes it is in the form of narrating the miracles of the prophets, peace and blessings be upon them all.
However, the Qur’an does not talk about science and technology as a science textbook would. The main purpose of the Qur’an is to furnish further evidence of its divine origin for people of understanding, and draw their attention to its divine guidance. The Qur’an sets the balance and speaks of the wonders of technology in proportion to their significance compared to the wonders of creation that subsist life (Gülen). Furthermore, the Qur’an presents its descriptions in ways that do not appear misleading to earlier generations, and does not force the people of modern ages to affirming faith without exercising their free will.
This article aims to present a possibly new interpretation of the first five verses of the 100th chapter of the Qur’an: Al-‘Adiyat, The Runners. I believe the first passage of this chapter which consists of eleven verses gives an amazing description of combustion engines commonly used in motor vehicles today.
Reason for revelation
There are reports from Ibn Abbas that the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, sent out scouts to patrol around Medina. No news was received regarding the horsemen after a month had passed by. This chapter was then revealed to give the glad tidings that the horsemen were safe. Similar reports support the view that the chapter was revealed in Medina. However, there are scholars who believed the chapter was revealed in Mecca instead. Indeed, the subject matter and the style of the chapter support this latter view, and indicate that it was perhaps one of the earliest chapters revealed in Mecca (Yazir).
There are four recurring themes that prevail in the Qur’an, namely the unity of God, prophethood, life after death, and worship, and this last one is considered with the theme justice. This chapter, among many others, explains in a few words the last two of these four main themes. That is probably why the Prophet said in a hadith narrated from Ibn Abbas that “The surah Al-‘Adiyat is equivalent to half of the Qur’an” (Shawqani).
This chapter is presented to readers in rapid and powerful strokes. The text moves swiftly from one scene to another. As we come to the last verse, everything from the verbal expressions, connotations, subject matter and rhythm settle down in a manner similar to that of an athlete reaching the finish line. The rhythm of the chapter is robust and thunderous, and thus fits well with the dusty and clamorous atmosphere generated by the “upturned graves” and “the secrets pulled out of people’s chest” as illustrated at the end of the chapter. The pace of the rhythm is also appropriate in painting the picture of ingratitude, thanklessness, and extreme miserliness. The framework for this picture is provided by a dusty and tumultuous stampede of horses racing and thundering. Thus the frame and the picture are in perfect harmony with each other (Qutb).
The chapter has three passages where the rhyming words at the end of each passage changes with the content of the passage, adding to the matchless beauty of the chapter. The short verses in the first passage help the reader to picture the quick moves of the runners. The intonation of each word fits perfectly with its meaning in each verse. One can almost hear the sounds of panting in the word dabhan and the sound of the stroke in the word qadhan.
1. By the chargers that run panting,
2. Striking sparks of fire,
3. Rushing to make sudden raids at morn,
4. Raising thereby clouds of dust,
5. Storming thereby into a host, cleaving it.
The verses of the Qur’an have multiple layers of meanings, all of which may be accurate as long as they are derived following the methods and principles of Qur’anic sciences. Below, are a few interpretations among many that are found in existing commentaries to present an overview of the chapter, and a new interpretation at the end.
1. One interpretation of this passage is that these verses are concerned with Muslim vanguards. This is the opinion of the scholars who thought the chapter was revealed in Medina, as explained above. The fact that God swears by the horses provides a suggestion that this passage praises those vanguards of Islam who put their lives at risk for the protection of Medina. The passage therefore deals with the zeal and enthusiasm of the Companions of the Prophet and with the great sacrifices they made against heavy odds in the way of God.
2. Imam Ali and Abdullah ibn Mas’ud interpreted chapter Al-‘Adiyat as the camels of the pilgrims. The pilgrims rush from Arafat to Muzdalifah, and then dash from Muzdalifah to Mina on camels as a part of hajj (pilgrimage) rituals. They would start campfires when they arrived at Mudalifah, and join the host of pilgrims there (Tabari).
3. The root “a-d-w” of the word Al-‘Adiyat in Arabic means to trespass boundaries. Some have interpreted this passage from a psychological standpoint, and presented the view that the description may be a reference to those who trespass limits in their hatred and enmity for others, in this context, towards the Companions and early Muslims. They grunt as their hearts are hot with enmity and hatred, the spark fires with their bitter words, gallop to the raid in the morning, kicking dust as they penetrate into the midst of a host. They are ungrateful of what they have, and are extremely selfish. The Qur’an draws attention to their negative attitudes that exist to some extend in all human beings, and warns that God is fully aware of whatever people do. In hearing such a rebuke, Muslims are instructed to avoid these character traits.
4. According to Ikrimah, a classical commentator who lived in the first century in the Islamic calendar, the second verse refers to arms of war. Following this suggestion, modern commentators, such as Hamdi Yazır, maintain that these verses also imply firearms that use gunpowder, especially modern tanks, and other armored weaponry (Yazir).
5. Inspired by this view, I would like to advance a fresh interpretation of these verses. I believe this passage may be interpreted as a millennium aged description of combustion engines commonly used in motor vehicles. The Qur’an speaks occasionally of the wonders of technology that are developed in the modern ages, albeit not in detail.
A quick review of how combustion engines work would be useful. The four-stroke internal combustion engine, for example, is the type most commonly used for automotive and industrial purposes today. On the first stroke of the power cycle, called the intake, a descending piston draws in a fuel-air mixture into the cylinder through an inlet valve. In the following stroke, called the compression, the piston rises while both the inlet and exhaust valves are closed, compressing the fuel-air mixture to an explosive level. The power stroke begins just before the piston reaches the top when the spark plug ignites the mixture. The resulting explosive force pushes the piston down and turns the crankshaft. In the final stroke, the exhaust valve opens, the piston rises pushing up and evacuating the burned gasses from the chamber until at the top of the stroke exhaust the valve closes. The intake valve then opens and the four-stroke power cycle begins again.
As a side note, I would like to point out that the first known crankshaft was constructed by Al-Jazari in 1206. A crankshaft transforms continuous rotary motion into a linear reciprocating motion or vice versa, and is central to all modern machinery such as the steam engine, internal combustion engine and automatic controls, etc. (Hassani).
A new interpretation
In light of this information, let’s read the verses again. In the first verse “By those that run with panting,” the runners may be interpreted as the pistons and the panting may be viewed as a description of the intake of air-fuel mixture and the exhaust of combustion gases at a high speed.
The numerical system called the abjad assigns a whole number to every letter in the Arabic alphabet. It has been in use long before Islam, and there are reports that God’s Messenger did not object its use in connection with Qur’anic verses (Yakit). It may be pointed out that the total abjad value of this first verse, calculated by adding up all letters except the letter of oath (“w”) in the beginning, is 1291, which corresponds to 1875 according to the solar calendar. This coincides almost to the point with the year 1876 when a four stroke combustion engine was invented by Nikolaus Otto for the first time.
The phrase “sparks of fire” in the second verse is an exact translation of the word ignition, and the strikers may therefore be interpreted as the spark plugs and the ignition system in the combustion engine.
In the third verse, “the name chargers” is derived from a verb that also means to move swiftly, and to enter into a wide terrain (Yazir). The verse therefore may be interpreted as a reference to the morning rush as motor vehicles propelled by their combustion engines enter the main roads and highways moving swiftly to reach their final destination.
The word that is translated as a “clouds of dust” in the fourth verse also means a groundwater deposit, and the water that accumulates in the well that opens to the deposit. (Qurtubi) In this context, I think this word can be interpreted as the fuel that the combustion engine needs to run. In addition, the translation of this word as dust would also apply to the context. The verb “to raise” in this verse also means to blow, to stir up, to scatter and to waste. (Yazir) Therefore, the verse may be interpreted as a reference to the blowing of fuel into the chambers of the engine which in return raises smokes of exhaust gases as a result of combustion.
Finally, the fifth verse may refer to the arrival of the motor vehicle into a host at the final destination, whether that may be the parking lot in front of the company building where one works, or a shopping center. The meaning of the verse is clearly consistent with our interpretation here.
As pointed out in the beginning, the Qur’an does not present the wonders of technology just for the sake of it. The Qur’an always pursues the main themes explained above. Then what is the guidance delivered in this chapter that will lead us to the straight path and help us prosper in both worlds? The two main lessons made explicit in the following passages are the virtue of gratefulness and the affirmation of the truth that man will be called to account for all his actions and intentions. The reader is thus urged to get ready for the afterlife.
Human beings should be grateful for their creation in the best stature, both physically and spiritually. They have been made capable of devising such tools and equipment like motor vehicles, airplanes, etc. that make life much easier on them. Moreover, fossil fuels are certainly a major favor of God for people of the modern ages, without which combustion engines would not have been developed. The formation of fossil fuels takes millions of years. It is by the infinite mercy of God that such fuels are made ready for the service of human beings. However the question remains, do people in return acknowledge and appreciate these great favors and blessings? Let’s read:
6. Surely human is ungrateful to his Lord;
7. and to this he himself bears witness,
8. and truly, he is passionate in his love of wealth.
The word “kanud” in verse 6 is usually explained to imply the one who is never content with what he or she has been given by God, and instead always feels miserable and needy of what he or she does not have. It describes the selfish, egocentric and materialistic worldview of the ungrateful. How fitting is this description to the man of the modern ages of advanced technology!
However, the uncorrupted conscience of human beings bears witness to their purposeful ingratitude and rebellion against God. Moreover, the life, attitudes, and acts of an ungrateful person attest to his or her demonstration of ingratitude to God. Finally, humans themselves, as well as their limbs and body parts, will bear witness against their ingratitude on the Day of Resurrection. As an alternative translation, some say the third person pronoun in verse 7 refers to God. That is, God is a witness to their ingratitude.
So what is the recipe, the cure for this ingratitude and selfishness, and the hatred and enmity for truth and exalted virtues? The latter verses tell us:
9. Does he think he will not come to know when all that is in the graves is raised and brought out;
10. And all that is in the breasts is laid open and made out?
11. Surely their Lord on that Day will be fully aware of them.
Human beings are a passionate self-lover. But their love is only according to what they imagine to be good for himself, like wealth, power and the other pleasures of this world. This is our nature, unless we have faith we will not be able to change such concepts, values, and concerns. Faith changes a person’s ingratitude to humble thankfulness. It changes greed and miserliness to benevolence and compassion. It makes a person aware of the proper values which are worthy of being the object of ambition and struggle. Indeed these are much more exalted than money, power and mundane pleasures (Qutb).
Hence, the final touch in the chapter provides the cure for ingratitude, greed and miserliness: a firm faith in the afterlife. It portrays the scene of resurrection in a way that makes a person shudder, and puts their love for wealth and indulgence in worldly riches out of their mind, unshackling their soul and setting it free from earthly attachments. It is a frightening scene in which we witness the scattering about of the contents of the graves and the bringing out of closely-guarded secrets.
Does he not know what happens when this will take place? Mere awareness of all this is enough to inspire man to seek an answer and explore every avenue in search of it. On that day God knows them and all their affairs and secrets. God certainly knows everything at all times and in all conditions, but knowledge of “that day” has the effect of drawing their attention. He will be knowing full and well who is who, and what punishment or reward he or she deserves. He knows all of that they used to do, and He will compensate them for it with the most deserving reward.
The use of the word “the breasts” indicates that the judgment will not be passed only on the apparent events as for what a person actually did, but the secret motives and intentions hidden in his or her heart will also be brought out to make a thorough evaluation of his or her actions. It is clear that such full and absolute justice cannot be served in any court except in the court of God.
May God help us to live a life pleasing to Him, having a strong faith in Him that will illuminate our whole beings; and a firm faith in the resurrection and afterlife that will help us lead a righteous life in this world, by adopting the highest virtues including gratefulness for His unlimited favors. May He pardon and cover our mistakes on the day when the innermost secrets of the heart will be laid open, and may He place us, out of His infinite mercy, in the company of His beloved servants in the gardens of Paradise.
Nursi, Bediuzzaman Said. 2001. Isarat-ul I’caz, Introduction, page 12, Istanbul, Yeni Asya.
Gülen, M. Fethullah. 2000. The Essentials of the Islamic Faith, Science and Religion.
Hassani, Salim T. S., Al-Jazari. 2001. The Mechanical Genius, FSTC Limited.
Qurtubi, Translation of al-Jamiu li-Ahkam al-Qur’an, Chapter 100, Buruç Yayınları.
Qutb, Translation of Fi Zilal al-Qur’an, Chapter 100.
Shawqani, Translation of Fath al-Qadir, Chapter 100.
Tabari, Translation of Tafsir-i Tabari, Hisar Yayınevi, Chapter 100.
Unal, Ali. 2006. The Qur’an with Annotated Interpretation in Modern English, Chapter 100.
Yakit, I. 2003. Abjad Calculation and Date Deduction in Turkish-Islamic Culture.
Yazir, H. 1938. Hak Dini Kuran Dili, Chapter 100. Istanbul.
"The Runners" and Motor Vehicles
- By Sefik Hikmet Toprak
- Category: Issue 94 (July - August 2013)
- © Blue Dome Press. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.