By Dr. Maurice Bucaille
When the verses of the Qur’an concerning the role of water in man’s existence are read in succession today. they all appear to us to express ideas that are quite obvious. The reason for this is simple: in our day and age, we all, to a lesser or greater extent, know about the water cycle in nature.
If however, we consider the various concepts the ancients had on this subject, it becomes clear that the data in the Qur’an do not embody the mythical concepts current at the time of the Revelation which had been developed more according to philosophical speculation than observed phenomena. Although it was empirically possible to acquire on a modest scale, the useful practical knowledge necessary for the improvement of the irrigation, the concepts held on the water cycle in general would hardly be acceptable today.
Thus it would have been easy to imagine that underground water could have come from the infiltration of precipitations in the soil. In ancient times however, this idea, held by Vitruvius Polio Marcus in Rome, 1st century B.C., was cited as an exception. For many centuries therefore (and the Qur’anic Revelation is situated during this period) man held totally inaccurate views on the water cycle. Two specialists on this subject, G. Gastany and B. Blavoux, in their entry in the Universalis Encyclopedia (Encyclopedia Universalis) under the heading Hydrogeology (Hydrogéologie), give an edifying history of this problem.
“In the Seventh century B.C., Thales of Miletus held the theory whereby the waters of the oceans, under the effect of winds, were thrust towards the interior of the continents; so the water fell upon the earth and penetrated into the soil. Plato shared these views and thought that the return of the waters to the oceans was via a great abyss, the ‘Tartarus’. This theory had many supporters until the Eighteenth century, one of whom was Descartes. Aristotle imagined that the water vapour from the soil condensed in cool mountain caverns and formed underground lakes that fed springs. He was followed by Seneca (1st Century A.D.) and many others, until 1877, among them O. Volger . . . The first clear formulation of the water cycle must be attributed to Bernard Palissy in 1580. he claimed that underground water came from rainwater infiltrating into the soil. This theory was confirmed by E. Mariotte and P. Perrault in the Seventeenth century.
In the following passages from the Qur’an, there is no trace of the mistaken ideas that were current at the time of Muhammad:
–sura 50, verses 9 to 11:
“We sent down from the sky blessed water whereby We caused to grow gardens, grains for harvest, tall palm-trees with their spathes, piled one above the other sustenance for (Our) servants. Therewith We gave (new) life to a dead land. So will be the emergence (from the tombs).”
–sura 23, verses 18 and 19:
“We sent down water from the sky in measure and lodged it in the ground. And We certainly are able to withdraw it. Therewith for you We gave rise to gardens of palm trees and vineyards where for you are abundant fruits and of them you eat.”
–sura 15, verse 22:
“We sent forth the winds that fecundate. We cause the water to descend from the sky. We provide you with the water-you (could) not be the guardians of its reserves.” There are two possible interpretations of this last verse. The fecundating winds may be taken to be the fertilizers of plants because they carry pollen. This may, however, be a figurative expression referring by analogy to the role the wind plays in the process whereby a non-rain carrying cloud is turned into one that produces a shower of rain. This role is often referred to, as in the following verses:
–sura 35, verse 9:
“God is the One Who sends forth the winds which raised up the clouds. We drive them to a dead land. Therewith We revive the ground after its death. So will be the Resurrection.”
It should be noted how the style is descriptive in the first part of the verse, then passes without transition to a declaration from God. Such sudden changes in the form of the narration are very frequent in the Qur’an.
–sura 30, verse 48:
“God is the One Who sends forth the winds which raised up the clouds. He spreads them in the sky as He wills and breaks them into fragments. Then thou seest raindrops issuing from within them. He makes them reach such of His servants as He wills. And they are rejoicing.”
–sura 7, verse 57:
“(God) is the One Who sends forth the winds like heralds of His Mercy. When they have carried the heavy-laden clouds, We drive them to a dead land. Then We cause water to descend and thereby bring forth fruits of every kind. Thus We will bring forth the dead. Maybe you will remember.”
–sura 25, verses 48 and 49:
“(God) is the One Who sends forth the winds like heralds of His Mercy. We cause pure water to descend in order to revive a dead land with it and to supply with drink the multitude of cattle and human beings We have created.”
–sura 45, verse 5:
“. . . In the provision that God sends down from the sky and thereby He revives the ground after its death and in the change (of direction) of winds, there are Signs for people who are wise.”
The provision made in this last verse is in the form of the water sent down from the sky, as the context shows. The accent is on the change of the winds that modify the rain cycle.
–sure 13, verse 17:
“(God) sends water down from the sky so that the rivers flow according to their measure. The torrent bears away an increasing foam.”
Read further in the book in the chapter on Earth: The Bible the Quran and Science