Responses to Islamic Awareness

Theodor Nöldeke And Fertility In Ancient Egypt


In this essay, the "Islamic Awareness" team attempts to wiggle the Qur'an out of another major error found in Surah 12:49. In this passage, Joseph was explaining a portion of Pharaoh's dream, in which Egypt would receive abundant rain after a period of 7 years of hardship. The problem with this passage is that Egyptian civilization has never depended on rain for the success of its crops. Along Egypt's Mediterranean Coast, the average yearly rainfall is approximately 8 inches, while southern Egypt receives about one inch of rain fall per year. Egyptian agriculture has always depended on the flooding of the Nile for water. Clearly, Muhammad was ignorant of Egypt's geography and climatology and he demonstrates this by associating good harvests with rainfall.

The "Islamic Awareness" team will employ several arguments to address this issue. First, they will enlarge the possible range of meanings for the word yughath so that this term can mean something other than rain. If you do not buy this explanation, the "Islamic Awareness" team will turn the debate around, claiming that there was abundant rain in ancient Egypt. In case anyone is not impressed with these arguments, the third section of this paper is concerned with the pressing of wine and oil in Ancient Egypt. Although this large section contains many images and quote-mines a number of sources, the fact that ancient Egyptians pressed oil and wine is a non-issue that no one has raised, and has nothing to do with the issue at hand.

After insulting Theodor Nöldeke and Alphonse Mingana, both of whom were prominent scholars, the "Islamic Awareness" team sets out their first argument:

It is important to note that the Qur'anic verse above in no way states, indicates or implies that fertility in Egypt is dependant on rain! Had the critic been able to comprehend the straightforward classical Arabic contained in Surah Yusuf 12:49, it is conceivable that he would have avoided such a grievous error of interpretation.

First, we need to examine what the Qur'an says. The transliteration of this passage is:

Thumma ya/tee min baAAdi thalika AAamun feehi yughathu alnnasu wafeehi yaAAsiroona

The literal, word-for-word, translation is:

Then comes from after that, a year in it the people be rained upon, and in it they press/squeeze.

Here are several other translations of Surah 12:49.

Some translators interpret the word yughathu literally:

Shakir   Then there will come after that a year in which people shall have rain and in which they shall press (grapes).

Sarwar   Then there will be a year with plenty of rain and people will have sufficient milk and other produce."

Hilali/Khan   "Then thereafter will come a year in which people will have abundant rain and in which they will press (wine and oil)."

Malik   After that period will come a year of abundant rain, in which the people will squeeze the juice."

QXP   "After that, one year will come with good rains and the crops will be plenty. You will get abundant grain and fruit, and a lot of oil and juice to squeeze."

Maulana Ali   Then after that will come a year in which people will have rain in which they will press (grapes).

Other authors use an idiomatic meaning for the term yughathu in order to side-step the problem at hand:

Pickthall   Then, after that, will come a year when the people will have plenteous crops and when they will press (wine and oil).

Arberry   Then thereafter there shall come a year wherein the people will be succoured and press in season.

Khalifa   "After that, a year will come that brings relief for the people, and they will, once again, press juice."

Yusuf Ali attempts to side-step the issue with a very carefully worded equivocation:

Yusuf Ali   "Then will come after that (period) a year in which the people will have abundant water, and in which they will press (wine and oil)."

Why do these scholars translate the very same Arabic word differently? This is not an issue of translating the word yughathu from Arabic into English. We would have the same problem understanding this passage in modern Arabic. What we have, in this passage, is a problem of accepting the literal versus idiomatic meaning of one word. If we put all of these translations together, the Arabic word yughathu means "a type of rain that is good for crops", in other words – seasonal rain.

However, as noted earlier, Egypt has never depended on seasonal rains for growing crops. Water came from the flooding of the Nile.

The Polysemy of yughath, or What Does This Word Really Mean?

The "Islamic Awareness" team will attempt to enlarge the definition of yughath in order to make it appear that this passage of the Qur'an was not talking about rain, but something else that is more plausible than rainfall in Egypt. The "Islamic Awareness" team quotes from several Tafsir in their attempt to broaden the definition of yughathu.

They first turn to the Tafsir al-Tha'alibi, to whom they refer to as a renowned linguist. Ironically, al-Tha'alibi's opinion actually undermines the very point the "Islamic Awareness" team is attempting to make!

yughath un-nas: it may be derived from al-ghayth [i.e., rain], which corresponds to the opinion of Ibn 'Abbas and that of the majority. It may also be derived from aghathahum allah [Allah delivered them], from which al-ghawth [deliverance] is derived.

The "Islamic Awareness" team turns to the Tafsir al-Nasafi to broaden the definition of yughathu:

[...] fihi yughath un-nas [people are delivered / rescued]: is derived from al-ghawth (deliverance / rescue) meaning that those among them who cry out for deliverance are answered, or it may be derived from al-ghayth meaning that they receive rain. We say ghithat al-bilad when it rains over the country.

The "Islamic Awareness" team believes that this is sufficient to introduce doubt in the translation of the passage in question. It should be noted that al-Nasafi 'Abd Allah bin Ahmad died in the 14th century, long after Islam conquered Egypt. Therefore, he may have had an agenda behind his rather unorthodox exegesis of the term yughathu.

The "Islamic Awareness" team gives us an edited passage from Tafsir Ibn Kathir. However, according to Ibn Kathir:

This is when Yusuf, peace be upon him, told the interpretation of the dream, without criticizing the man for forgetting his request that he had made to him. Neither did he make a precondition that he be released before explaining the meaning. Rather, he said, (For seven consecutive years, you shall sow as usual) `you will receive the usual amount of rain and fertility for seven consecutive years.' He interpreted the cows to be years, because cows till the land that produce fruits and vegetables, which represent the green ears of corn in the dream. He next recommended what they should do during these fertile years, (and that (the harvest) which you reap you shall leave it in the ears, (all) except a little of it which you may eat.) He said, `Whatever you harvest during those seven fertile years, leave it in the ears so as to preserve it better. This will help the harvest stay healthy longer, except the amount that you need to eat, which should not be substantial. Stay away from extravagance, so that you use what remains of the harvest during the seven years of drought that will follow the seven fertile years.' This was represented by the seven lean cows that eat the seven fat cows. During the seven years of drought, they will eat from the harvest they collected during the seven fertile years, as represented by the dry ears of corn in the dream. Yusuf told them that during these years, the remaining ears will not produce anything and whatever they try to plant, will not produce any harvest, so he said, (which will devour what you have laid by in advance for them, (all) except a little of that which you have guarded (stored).) He delivered the good news to them that after the consecutive years of drought, there will come a fertile year, during which people will receive rain and the land will produce in abundance. The people will then press wine and oil as usual.

Tafsir al-Jalalayn tells us:

Then after that, in other words, after the seven barren years, there shall come a year in which the people will be granted relief, through rain, and in which they will press [fruit], grapes, and other [seeds], because of its [that year's] fertility.

Another way of studying the Qur'anic definition of yughathu is to find other passages in the Qur'an in which this term is used. The word yughathu is derived from the ghayn-ya-tha tri-literal root. Words, using this root, appear five times in the Qur'an. As discussed earlier in this essay, in the case of Surah 12:49, most translators and commentators believe that the word means rain. Let's look at the four other passages:

Surah 31:34

Inna Allaha AAindahu AAilmu alssaAAati wayunazzilu alghaytha wayaAAlamu ma fee al-arhami wama tadree nafsun matha taksibu ghadan wama tadree nafsun bi-ayyi ardin tamootu inna Allaha AAaleemun khabeerun

Yusuf Ali:
Verily the knowledge of the Hour is with Allah (alone). It is He Who sends down rain, and He Who knows what is in the wombs. Nor does any one know what it is that he will earn on the morrow: Nor does any one know in what land he is to die. Verily with Allah is full knowledge and He is acquainted (with all things).

Lo! Allah! With Him is knowledge of the Hour. He sendeth down the rain, and knoweth that which is in the wombs. No soul knoweth what it will earn to-morrow, and no soul knoweth in what land it will die. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware.

Surely Allah is He with Whom is the knowledge of the hour, and He sends down the rain and He knows what is in the wombs; and no one knows what he shall earn on the morrow; and no one knows in what land he shall die; surely Allah is Knowing, Aware.

With GOD is the knowledge about the Hour (end of the world). He is the One who sends down the rain, and He knows the contents of the womb. No soul knows what will happen to it tomorrow, and no one knows in which land he or she will die. GOD is Omniscient, Cognizant.

All translators agree that the word is rain.

Surah 42:28

Wahuwa allathee yunazzilu alghaytha min baAAdi ma qanatoo wayanshuru rahmatahu wahuwa alwaliyyu alhameedu

Yusuf Ali:
He is he One that sends down rain (even) after (men) have given up all hope, and scatters His Mercy (far and wide). And He is the Protector, Worthy of all Praise.

And He it is Who sendeth down the saving rain after they have despaired, and spreadeth out His mercy. He is the Protecting Friend, the Praiseworthy.

And He it is Who sends down the rain after they have despaired, and He unfolds His mercy; and He is the Guardian, the Praised One.

He is the One who sends down the rain after they had despaired, and spreads His mercy. He is the only Master, Most Praiseworthy.

Once again, the word is translated as rain.

Surah 57:20

IAAlamoo annama alhayatu alddunya laAAibun walahwun wazeenatun watafakhurun baynakum watakathurun fee al-amwali waal-awladi kamathali ghaythin aAAjaba alkuffara nabatuhu thumma yaheeju fatarahu musfarran thumma yakoonu hutaman wafee al-akhirati AAathabun shadeedun wamaghfiratun mina Allahi waridwanun wama alhayatu alddunya illa mataAAu alghuroori

Yusuf Ali:
Know ye (all), that the life of this world is but play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting and multiplying, (in rivalry) among yourselves, riches and children. Here is a similitude: How rain and the growth which it brings forth, delight (the hearts of) the tillers; soon it withers; thou wilt see it grow yellow; then it becomes dry and crumbles away. But in the Hereafter is a Penalty severe (for the devotees of wrong). And Forgiveness from Allah and (His) Good Pleasure (for the devotees of Allah). And what is the life of this world, but goods and chattels of deception?

Know that the life of the world is only play, and idle talk, and pageantry, and boasting among you, and rivalry in respect of wealth and children; as the likeness of vegetation after rain, whereof the growth is pleasing to the husbandman, but afterward it drieth up and thou seest it turning yellow, then it becometh straw. And in the Hereafter there is grievous punishment, and (also) forgiveness from Allah and His good pleasure, whereas the life of the world is but matter of illusion.

Know that this world's life is only sport and play and gaiety and boasting among yourselves, and a vying in the multiplication of wealth and children, like the rain, whose causing the vegetation to grow, pleases the husbandmen, then it withers away so that you will see it become yellow, then it becomes dried up and broken down; and in the hereafter is a severe chastisement and (also) forgiveness from Allah and (His) pleasure; and this world's life is naught but means of deception.

Know that this worldly life is no more than play and games, and boasting among you, and hoarding of money and children. It is like abundant rain that produces plants and pleases the disbelievers. But then the plants turn into useless hay, and are blown away by the wind. In the Hereafter there is either severe retribution, or forgiveness from GOD and approval. This worldly life is no more than a temporary illusion.

Once again, the word is translated as rain.

The only case, in the Qur'an, where this word could mean "deliver/rescue", is found in Surah 18:29, but notice that most translations associate "deliver/rescue" with water, or showers:

Waquli alhaqqu min rabbikum faman shaa falyu/min waman shaa falyakfur inna aAAtadna lilththalimeena naran ahata bihim suradiquha wa-in yastagheethoo yughathoo bima-in kaalmuhli yashwee alwujooha bi/sa alshsharabu wasaat murtafaqan

Yusuf Ali:
Say, "The truth is from your Lord": Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject (it): for the wrong-doers We have prepared a Fire whose (smoke and flames), like the walls and roof of a tent, will hem them in: if they implore relief they will be granted water like melted brass, that will scald their faces, how dreadful the drink! How uncomfortable a couch to recline on!

Say: (It is) the truth from the Lord of you (all). Then whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve. Lo! We have prepared for disbelievers Fire. Its tent encloseth them. If they ask for showers, they will be showered with water like to molten lead which burneth the faces. Calamitous the drink and ill the resting-place!

And say: The truth is from your Lord, so let him who please believe, and let him who please disbelieve; surely We have prepared for the iniquitous a fire, the curtains of which shall encompass them about; and if they cry for water, they shall be given water like molten brass which will scald their faces; evil the drink and ill the resting-place.

Proclaim: "This is the truth from your Lord," then whoever wills let him believe, and whoever wills let him disbelieve. We have prepared for the transgressors a fire that will completely surround them. When they scream for help, they will be given a liquid like concentrated acid that scalds the faces. What a miserable drink! What a miserable destiny!

The "Islamic Awareness" team triumphantly concludes:

The word yughath, meaning "to deliver" or "to rescue", is very appropriate in the case of inundation. In ancient Egypt, a satisfactory level of inundation was vital for all types of agriculture. Egyptians wanted a flood without a disaster, which was not so high that it would flood areas of habitation, and not so low that insufficient new soil and moisture would be deposited. So, only the right amount of inundation would "deliver" or "rescue" the Egyptians without causing them and their crops any harm.

The "Islamic Awareness" team now introduces the idea of the inundation of the Nile. The catchment area of the Nile is more than 3 million square kilometers in area, originating in Ethiopia and drawing water from as far south as Rwanda during the summer monsoons. The "Islamic Awareness" team faces a major problem when they raise this point: neither the Qur'an, nor centuries of Muslim scholars, said anything about the inundation of the Nile in reference to Surah 12:49!

Evidence of Rainfall in Ancient Egypt

After spending much time and effort to explain away the existence of rain in Egypt, and failing miserably at the attempt, the "Islamic Awareness" team will now try to convince us that rain – during the time of Joseph – was, in fact, plentiful in Egypt!

Nöldeke, Mingana and 'Abdallah 'Abd al-Fadi had claimed that rain in Egypt was so rare that it was almost never seen. However, scholars of Egyptology have identified several (moist) intervals of increased precipitation during which rain was comparatively plentiful. The first such period is dated c. 9200 – c. 6000 BCE where accelerated wadi activity is observed. Another wet phase began in the Neolithic Period c. 5000 BCE where there were more frequent gentle rains, and, after another period of dryness, sporadic heavy and protracted rains are observed in the Pre-Dynastic period c. 4000 BCE – c. 3000 BCE. Based on historical and archaeological documents, abundant desert wadi vegetation persisted until the 5th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom Period c. 2350 BCE. From c. 2350 BCE onward, the level of aridity closely matches that of the present Egyptian climate.

So, the question here is: did Joseph live during one of these periods? According to Kenneth Kitchen, a scholar cited by "Islamic Awareness" as an authority in another article, Joseph lived in Egypt sometime between the late Middle Kingdom or the time of the Hyksos, circa 1650-1540 B.C.. According to the "Islamic Awareness" team's pervious quote, ... From c. 2350 BCE onward, the level of aridity closely matches that of the present Egyptian climate, so this does not explain away the Qur'an's incorrect claim because rainfall alone simply cannot sustain agriculture in Egypt.

The "Islamic Awareness" team goes on, making much noise about the fact that the Egyptian language had a hieroglyph for "rain" and that some Egyptian structures had features to protect them from rain storms. No one has suggested that it never, ever, rains in Egypt. As mentioned earlier, Egypt's Mediterranean Coast has an average yearly rainfall of approximately 8 inches, while southern Egypt, receives about one inch of rain fall per year. Often, this rain comes in one or two events. Nevertheless, a region which receives less than 10 inches of rain per year is a desert, and agriculture cannot be supported in a desert by rainfall alone.


Clearly, the correct translation of Surah 12:49 exposes a very embarrassing error that, according to the Quran, Egypt depended on rainfall for it's agriculture and harvests. This is a gross error of fact. Paleoclimatology also fails to produce the evidence to save the Qur'an from this error.

After failing to explain away a very significant error in the Qur'an, the "Islamic Awareness" team gives a lengthy discussion, filled with nice graphics, concerning the pressing of wine and oils, as well as the milking of cattle – which is something that Surah 12:49 does not discuss! These are nothing more than irrelevant details, cobbled together to distract attention from the fact the rainfall is too scarce in Egypt to support agriculture.

Andrew Vargo

Responses to Islamic Awareness
Answering Islam Home Page