One does not need to know Arabic to understand why the Qur’an was revealed in that language. With words that are related by their roots and the fact that a sentence can be structured in thousands of different ways, no other language is able to convey the depth and nuances of meaning demanded of Allah’s speech. A pertinent example of the beauty of the Arabic language concerns the two verbs ‘nazzala’ and ‘anzala’. ‘Nazzala’ refers to revelation in a piece-meal fashion, whereas ‘anzala’ means that the revelation occurred all at once. In Surah Al-Qadr, for example, ‘anzala’ is used because the majority of scholars believe that the entire Qur’an was sent down to the lower heavens on Laylat al-Qadr (Al-Qadr:1, Ad-Dukhan:3). But in other verses such as when referring to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), the verb ‘nazzala’ is used because the Qur’an was revealed to him r over a period of twenty-three years (e.g. Al-Furqan:32).
But why the desert? More specifically: What is so special about a hot desert environment that the Qur’an was revealed to the Arabs living there?
One only needs to read the Seerah and later stories of pilgrims travelling for the Hajj to understand how harsh a desert environment can be: intense heat and cold, starvation, drought, flash floods, violent winds, and treacherous terrains. Some historians have suggested that the pre-Islamic practice of raiding other tribes was an efficient way to redistribute necessities and other goods in an environment where daily existence was often precarious. Yet Allah (SWT) revealed His final Revelation to a Prophet (SAW) from Arabia, a land with immense desert regions. Perhaps expectedly, the wisdom behind this can be found in the Revelation itself.
Allah (SWT) instructs us in the Qur’an to contemplate His signs in order to know Him and our eschatological destiny (Fussilat:53, Al-Jathiyah:3, Adh-Dhariyat:20-21). Many of the signs and associated symbolism mentioned in the Qur’an are particularly suited for desert people, allowing their meaning – or the messages that Allah (SWT) is trying to convey to us – to be more easily understood. This is not only true for those living in Arabia at the time of Revelation, but for later generations as well, and even those who do not live in a desert environment.
Water is precious
Saudi Arabia has three major deserts (Rub’ al Khali, also known as The Empty Quarter, An Nafud and Ad Dahna’) that cover more than half of its area. Deserts are regions that have very little rainfall, less than 250 mm (10 inches) annually. Deserts may be hot or cold; they may be vast areas of sand or mountainous areas, rocks and gravel. But deserts are always dry. Saudi Arabia receives on average only 100 mm (4 inches) of rainfall a year and in some regions much less.
In a dry environment, water is precious. Multiple times in the Qur’an water is referred to as a blessing from Allah (SWT), for example:
And it is He who sends the winds as heralds of glad tidings, going before His mercy, and We send down pure water from the sky,
That We may give life thereby to a dead land, and We give to drink there of many of the cattle and men that We had created.
And indeed We have distributed it amongst them in order that they may remember the Grace of Allah, but most men refuse and accept nothing but disbelief, or ingratitude. (Al-Furqan:48-50)
People who experience a chronic shortage of water and whose lives revolve around wells and oases immediately understand the connection between rain and Allah’s mercy, because their survival depends upon it. Desert people also witness that after a rain, the desert may bloom with life, turning a barren landscape of neutral colours into vibrant greens (Al-‘An`am:63). Green and water here represent life, and it is no coincidence that the word for ‘Paradise’ in Arabic is ‘Jannah’ or “Garden” and that throughout the Qur’an, Paradise is described as ‘Gardens under which rivers flow’ (e.g. Al-Ma’idah:119). The connection between the earth being revived after a rain and the Resurrection is abundantly clear as well (Al-‘A`raf:57). The power of this description would not have the same impact, for example, for people living in a rainforest where it rains every day and green vegetation dominates.
Heat of the Hellfire
Oppressive heat is also a characteristic of Arabian deserts, a factor that kept some from participating in the Expedition to Tabuk as mentioned in the Qur’an:
Those who stayed away rejoiced in their staying behind the Messenger of Allah; they hated to strive and fight with their properties and their lives in the cause of Allah, and they said: “March not forth in the heat.” Say: “The fire of Hell is more intense in heat”, if only they could understand! (At-Tawbah:81)
Notice that in the above ayah the heat of the Hellfire is described as more intense than the heat of the desert (see also At-Tur:16, “Taste you therein its (the Hellfire’s) heat… “). Allah (SWT) also tells us that the inhabitants of Jannah will “suffer not from thirst therein nor from the sun’s heat” (Taha:119). Not surprisingly, heat’s opposite, ‘coolness’, is used in the Arabic expression, , ‘coolness of the eyes’, which refers to contentment or relief from suffering (Maryam:26, Taha:40, Al-‘Ahzab:51).
In an environment where heat predominates and threatens survival, shade takes on increased importance. It states in a translation of the Qur’an, “Nor are (alike) the shade and the sun’s heat” (Fatir:21). Shade is given as another example of Allah’s (SWT) mercy in the Qur’an (e.g. Al-‘A`raf:160, An-Nahl:81), and Jannah is described as having eternal shade (Ar-Ra`d:35; see also Al-Mursalat:41). If the Qur’an were revealed to people living in a cold environment in the northern latitudes where the sun’s heat is much weaker, Hellfire’s burning heat and the blessing of Allah’s (SWT) shade would not be as clear.
Signs across the natural world
The open space in the desert and the expanse of the sky lends itself to contemplating the moon, sun, stars, clouds and other celestial phenomenon, as well as turning one’s attention to the heavens, in both a practical and spiritual sense. For example, desert peoples look for the arrival of rain or storms by the clouds gathering (An-Nur:43) and winds (Al-Jathiyah:5); they travel using the stars to guide them (Al-‘An`am:97); they know what month it is by the moon (Al-Baqarah:189), and they monitor the time of the day by the sun’s shadows (Al-Furqan:45). All of these are identified as signs of Allah (SWT) in the Qur’an with deep spiritual meanings for us to contemplate. Indeed, we are warned not to ignore them:
“And We have made the heaven a roof, safe and well guarded. Yet they turn away from its signs (i.e. sun, moon, stars, etc.)” (Al-‘Anbya’:32).
If the Qur’an had been revealed to people living in a dense forest environment where reliance on the heavenly bodies and phenomenon is less, the description is not as evident.
One final point: although beautiful, the desert withholds the comforts and often the necessities of life. But it is exactly in this deprivation of the dunya where Allah (SWT) sent down His (SWT) final and universal Revelation – a message in itself.
To summarise, much of the description used in the Qur’an finds its most expressive manifestation in the desert and among those who speak the language of Paradise. The miracle of this is that those of us who are not desert dwellers can still understand the signs because we can all relate to being too thirsty or too hot, finding contentment in a green meadow and gazing up at the night sky, alone, calling on our Lord.
Ta-Sin. These are the verses of the Qur’an, and a Book (that makes things) clear. (An-Naml:1)
J. Samia Mair is the author of five children’s books, the most recent Zak and His Good Intentions (2014) and The Great Race to Sycamore Street (2013). She is a Staff Writer for SISTERS Magazine and Discover, The magazine for curious Muslim kids and has published in magazines, books, anthologies, scientific journals and elsewhere.