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camels and rain clouds - sura 88:17

Camels or rain clouds? The intriguing word إبل in the Qur’an

The word Ibil – إِبِل – appears twice in the Qur’an. But what does it mean? Camels or rain clouds? An investigation.

Last updated: 3 months ago

There are some words in the Qur'an whose meaning is not entirely clear to us – for the simple reason that we cannot know for sure what the words meant at the time. But perhaps that is part of the beauty of the Qur'an, that it allows people some leeway in interpreting verses that allude to the greatness of Allah.

One of these words is a word we learned about in our series on Arabic terms for camel: إبِل.

In this article, we want to look at how this word can be understood in two Qur'an verses. This is also the last part of our series about the words for camel in Arabic.

The word إبل in verse 88:17

The translation of Quran verse 88:17 of Sura al-Ghāshiyah (الغاشية), The overwhelming event, is anything but trivial. If we look at the best-known translations, we come across two completely different approaches to the word إبل.

Let's now take a closer look at the passage in question (88:17) and check two English translations:

أَفَلَا يَنظُرُونَ إِلَى ٱلْإِبِلِ كَيْفَ خُلِقَتْ

Do the disbelievers not see how rain clouds are formed – Abdul Haleem

Do they not look at the camels, how they are made? – Yusuf Ali

So, who is right?

The noun إِبْلٌ usually means camels and is a generic term without a singular. However, according to the dictionary it also means clouds carrying rainwater. If we look at the verse and the general idea of God's message to mankind, the preferred meaning in the present context is probably rain clouds.

  • If camels were meant in the verse, the message would be mostly directed to the Prophet's Arab contemporaries. They loved camels because they were strong and could do many things like riding, carrying things, providing milk, meat, and wool. They were very important to people who lived in the desert.
  • We perhaps shouldn't talk about “camels” because then the message of the Qur'an would only apply to people who live in a certain place and time (certainly not Europe). The Qur'an says we should look at God's creation for all times and places.
  • Of course, there is always the objection that it could also be a historical allusion to earlier events. But the verse, at least in my reading, is more of a general, indirect message.
  • Therefore, it is plausible to conclude that the term إِبْلٌ used here refers to water-bearing clouds instead of camels, especially since such an allusion to the miraculous cyclical process of the evaporation of water, the ascent of the vapor into the sky, its condensation, and finally its precipitation over the earth is more consistent with the subsequent mention (in verses 18-20) of the heavens, mountains, and earth than a reference to camels.

In short: The Arabic word إبِل can mean camel as well as rain cloud. Usually, it refers to camels. Rain is often used to illustrate the concept of resurrection.

Interestingly, most translators over the years and centuries have nevertheless rendered إِبْل as camels.

  • Do they not ever reflect on camels—how they were masterfully created – Dr. Mustafa Khattab
  • Then do they not look at the camels – how they are created? – Saheeh International
  • Will they then not look at the camels, how they have been created – Dr. Ghali
  • Will they not regard the camels, how they are created? Pickthall
  • German: Schauen sie denn nicht zu den Kamelen, wie sie erschaffen sind – Abu Reda Muhammad ibn Ahmad
  • German: Schauen sie denn nicht zu den Kamelen, wie sie erschaffen worden sind – Frank Bubenheim and Nadeem

Deep-dive: The word ‘Ibil (إبل)

How can it be that one word can mean camels and rain clouds? We can't go back in time, but we have some evidence from other Semitic languages that the Arabic meaning is by no means accidental.

It is often a good idea to see if there is a similar root in other Semitic languages, especially those older than Classical Arabic. I like to look up what words (might) mean in Biblical Hebrew, as you can often get a good idea of how the meanings might have developed. The can usually be “converted” into the Hebrew alphabet quite easily. It gets tricky when we have a Hamza in Arabic, especially if it is at the beginning, because this is one example where Hebrew and Arabic differ.

Converting إبل to Hebrew

As for the Arabic letter إ, we can convert it to the Hebrew letter Yod (י). There is often a connection between the Hebrew letter Yod (י) and the Arabic letter Waw (و). For example: “yeled” (יֶלֶד) and “walad” (وَلَد‎), both meaning child/boy.

ArabicHebrew
ء-ب-لי – ב – ל
Hamza-Ba'-LamYod – Bet – Lamed
Table: Finding the equivalent letters of the Arabic word Ibil in the Hebrew alphabet

Let's check the meaning of the Hebrew root now. For Biblical Hebrew, I use the German dictionary of Gesenius which is called Hebräisches und Aramäisches Handwörterbuch über das Alte Testament (Hebrew and Aramaic Concise Dictionary of the Old Testament). There is an English version of a previous edition which can be accessed by archive.org:

Wilhelm Gesenius (1786 – 1842) was a German (Christian) theologian and one of the most famous scholars of Semitic languages, especially Hebrew. He was a pioneer in Hebrew lexicography and grammar. His most famous work is his Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic (written in German). Recently updated by German scholars, it remains an amazing (and probably the best) reference for Biblical Hebrew. The dictionary contains a comprehensive collection of words used in the Old Testament, as well as a detailed analysis of their meanings and uses.

When the letter Bet marks the beginning of a word, is doubled, and has no sign of movement (vowel) before it, it is usually pronounced as “b”. So it is not “bayt” (= “a house”) but “uvayt” (= “and a house”). Although it is not always written, if you see a dot (called: dagesh) inside the bet (= בּ), it is pronounced “b”, and without a dot (= ב), it is pronounced “v”. Usually, a native Arabic speaker can quickly identify Hebrew names or words by the “v” sound, which does not exist in Arabic.

Watch out: In Modern Hebrew, the Vav (ו) is also pronounced as a “v” sound. In Biblical Hebrew, however, the pronunciation may have been closer to a “w” (similar to Arabic و) because it can work also as the long vowel “oo/uu”.

Meaning in Hebrew: “Yaval” (Yabal) – יָבָל

There are basically two meanings, and both are quite helpful in our analysis of the Arabic word in the Qur'an.

  • The etymology is not clear, but we do have some evidence that it can convey the meaning of heavy raining.
  • Interestingly, we can find a link to Arabic in the Gesenius dictionary. Arabic وَبَلَ – يَبِلُ which means to shed heavy rain (sky). In Arabic, وابِل denotes heavy downpour, also hail. The word وَبْلٌ means downpour (German: Platzregen)
  • In the Akkadian language, biblu (bibbulu, bubbulu) means highest level of the flood (German: Hochflut)
  • In ancient Egyptian, yu-bi-l may have meant river. Also in Biblical Hebrew, Yavla (יַבְלָא) means river. Note that the letter bet (“b”) may be pronounced as “v” when there is a vowel before. It is found in the Bible in Isaiah 30:25: In the day of great slaughter, when the towers fall, streams of water (יִבְלֵי־מָ֑יִם) will flow on every high mountain and every lofty hill.
  • Again, the etymology is not clear, but we do have a connection to the word product, yield or camel shepherd.
  • We see a connection to the meaning of camel herder in the Aramaic proper name Obil (אוֹבִיל) who, in the Bible, is the overseer of David's camels. But perhaps it was just a description of his job rather than a name. In Arabic, for example, Abbal (أَبّال) is a term for camel shepherd; it is a so-called form of exaggeration (صيغ المبالغة) similar to the verb جَزَرَ (to slaughter) and جَزّار (a butcher).

    Watch out: Although the words look similar in transliteration, Abel (הֶבֶל) in the Bible pronounced “Hevel” in Hebrew) and Habil (هابيل) in the Qur'an are written with different letters. But I would not completely rule out a connection since Abel was a shepherd (see below).

What the Bible says: Abel was the younger son of Adam and Eve, the first couple in Biblical history. Abel was a shepherd (!) and was the younger brother of Cain (who was a farmer). Abel offered his firstborn flock up to God as an offering. God accepted his offering, but not that of his brother (who offered his crops to God). Cain then killed Abel out of jealousy – the first ever case of murder ever committed on earth.

What the Qur'an says: The story is basically the same. Habill (هَابِيل, Abel) and Qabil (قَابِيْل, Cain) are believed by Muslims to have been the first two sons of Adam (آدم) and Hawaʾ (حَوَّاء, Eve). The Arabic word حَوَّاء is related to the root of to live (ِحَيِيَ) which is pretty much the same idea in Biblical Hebrew (חַוָּה‎‎). Note that the name “Eve” (حَوَّاء) is never revealed or used in the Qur'an, but only in the mentioned by name.

The differences: Muslims see Adam as the first Muslim, since the Qur'an states that all the prophets preached the same faith of Islam. According to Islamic belief, Adam was created from the material of the earth and brought to life by God. God placed Adam in a Garden. After Adam sinned by eating from the forbidden tree (the Tree of Immortality), Paradise was denied to him, but he may return if Adam repents from his sin. Note that the biblical concept of “original sin” is not found in the Qur'an.

Furthermore, the Qur'an says in Sura Taha (20:121) that THEY BOTH (فَأَكَلَا – use of the dual form of the verb!) ate of the forbidden fruit:

فَأَكَلَا مِنْهَا فَبَدَتْ لَهُمَا سَوْءَٰتُهُمَا وَطَفِقَا يَخْصِفَانِ عَلَيْهِمَا مِن وَرَقِ ٱلْجَنَّةِ ۚ وَعَصَىٰٓ ءَادَمُ رَبَّهُۥ فَغَوَىٰ
and they both ate from it. They became conscious of their nakedness and began to cover themselves with leaves from the garden. Adam disobeyed his Lord and was led astray.
Sura 20:121 – about Adam and Eve in the Qur'an

However, in the Hadith, there are some texts that do mention a certain role of Eve. For example, Sahih al-Bukhari 3399:

… and were it not for Eve, no woman would ever betray her husband” (وَلَوْلاَ حَوَّاءُ لَمْ تَخُنْ أُنْثَى زَوْجَهَا الدَّهْرَ)

In short: The fact that in the Qur'an the word إبل is sometimes translated as camel and sometimes as rain clouds is not really surprising if we take a closer look at the old meanings – including those that were already available in languages even older than Arabic.

What is Sura 88 about?

Now let's look at the larger context in which verse 88:17 should be understood.

This most likely Meccan Sura serves to warn the unbelievers, to encourage the Prophet and the believers, and to absolve him of responsibility for the unbelievers. The title comes from the description of the events of the Day of Judgment in the first verse, and the downcast faces of the unbelievers on that day are contrasted with the radiant faces of the believers, as the famous scholar Abdul Haleem writes.

The Sura got its title from the first verse of Sure 88:

هَلْ أَتَىٰكَ حَدِيثُ ٱلْغَـٰشِيَةِ

Have you heard tell [Prophet] about the Overwhelming Event?

The word غاشِية is the feminine form of the active participle of the غشِيَ, which means to cover; to veil; to be dark (night). It has many meanings, including calamity, disaster, but also resurrection because it will overwhelm with its terrors or will come upon mankind as a thing that covers them to include them universally. Some also say that it may describe the fire of hell, because it will cover the faces of the unbelievers. When we read the Sura and look at the context, resurrection may be a good explanation for what many translators mean by The Overwhelming Event.

The word إبل occurs in another verse in the Qur'an, but that passage is easier to understand as we will see now.

The word إبل in verse 6:144

In Sura 6 Livestock (الأنعام), verse 144, the word إبل does indeed mean camel.

وَمِنَ ٱلْإِبِلِ ٱثْنَيْنِ وَمِنَ ٱلْبَقَرِ ٱثْنَيْنِ ۗ قُلْ ءَآلذَّكَرَيْنِ حَرَّمَ أَمِ ٱلْأُنثَيَيْنِ أَمَّا ٱشْتَمَلَتْ عَلَيْهِ أَرْحَامُ ٱلْأُنثَيَيْنِ ۖ أَمْ كُنتُمْ شُهَدَآءَ إِذْ وَصَّىٰكُمُ ٱللَّهُ بِهَـٰذَا ۚ فَمَنْ أَظْلَمُ مِمَّنِ ٱفْتَرَىٰ عَلَى ٱللَّهِ كَذِبًۭا لِّيُضِلَّ ٱلنَّاسَ بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ ۗ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَا يَهْدِى ٱلْقَوْمَ ٱلظَّـٰلِمِينَ ١٤٤

And a pair of camels and a pair of cattle; ask them [Prophet], ‘Has He forbidden the two males, the two females, or the young in the wombs of the two females? Were you present when God gave you these commands?' So who is more wicked than he who fabricates lies against God with no basis in knowledge in order to lead people astray? God does not guide the evildoers. Abdul Haleem

What is this Sura about? This Meccan sura takes its title from verses 136-9. The false claims of the polytheists about cattle are thoroughly addressed. The Sura as a whole makes it clear that it is Allah who creates, controls and sees all, and it is to Allah that believers turn in times of need. Thus, it provides a detailed refutation of the claims of the idolaters.

In short: Since this Sura talks about animals, it is pretty clear that إبل here means camels.

Camels in the Qur'an

The importance of the camel for the Arabs, especially in the time of the Islamic prophet, is also shown in the Koran, because there are really very many words for it. Here is a list – the numbers indicate the number of occurences in the Qur'an:

ARABICDESCRIPTION
بَعِيرcamel (masculine, singular)2
بَحِيرةshe-camel, the ears of which are split in honor of idols (pre-Islamic practice)1
بُدْنsacrificial camels or cows1
ضامِرlean, riding camel1
فَرْشcamel too young to carry burdens1
حامa camel liberated from riding and other uses as a result of having bred a number of off-spring (pre-Islamic practice in honor of idols)1
حَمُولةa camel capable of carrying burdens1
هِيمcamels crazed with thirst1
إِبِلcamels (collective plural)2
عِيرcaravan of camels (collective plural)2
عِشارten-month pregnant she-camels1
جَمَلcamels1
نَاقةshe-camel7
رِكابriding camel1
سَآئِبةshe-camel liberated from work or use as food (pre-Islamic pracice in honor of idols)1
وَصِيلةshe-camel, liberated from use for food as a result of being born with a twin (pre-Islamic practice in honor of idols)1
Arabic word in the Qur'an used for camels

Note: In a previous article, I wrote about the correct biological term for camels found in the Arab world. So, for the sake of simplification, I will write here only of camel.

In case you missed the other articles of our series about camels:

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