Prophecies in the Quran
Error creating thumbnail: Unable to save thumbnail to destination
This article or section is being renovated.
A major theme in the Quran are prophecies of an escatalogical nature, i.e. concerning the last day. In Surah al-Rum, there is also a prophecy concerning contemporary military-political events, which too may have an escatalogical context and has been of considerable interest to academic scholars.
The Romans (Byzantines) have been defeated in the nearest land - Quran 30:2-7
(3) In the nearest land. But they, after their defeat, will overcome.
(4) Within three to nine years. To Allah belongs the command before and after. And that day the believers will rejoice
(5) In the victory of Allah. He gives victory to whom He wills, and He is the Exalted in Might, the Merciful.
(6) [It is] the promise of Allah. Allah does not fail in His promise, but most of the people do not know.
This famous Quranic passage does not mention the Persians (Sasanids), though it was understood in tafsir (commentary) tradition to be a reference to the long-running war between the Byzantines (Romans) and their Sasanian (Persian) imperial rivals. In 614 CE, the Sasanids captured Jerusalem from the Byzantine empire, a moment of great dispair for the Christian world and seems to be the defeat mentioned in Q. 30:2. In 622 CE the Byzantines had a significant victory over the Sasanids in Anatolia, modern Turkey. This marked the end of the first stage of the war and is commonly claimed to be the fulfilment of the prophecy. Fighting continued, with the Romans increasingly successful. The end of the war came in 628 CE when the Byzantine emperor Heraclius accepted the surrender of the Sasanids, regained Jerusalem and returned to that holy city the relic of the "true cross" which the Sasanids had taken as spoils of war during their conquest of Jerusalem 14 years earlier (see Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628).
The Arabic word translated "three to nine" is biḍ'ʿi, which traditionally and in Arabic dictionaries indicates that specific number range (though there is some doubt about this definition, discussed below). Three to nine would fit the eight year gap between the capture of Jerusalem and the Byzantine victory under Heraclius in Anatolia, though critics sometimes point out that this was by no means the end of the war, which did not come until some years later (628 CE, fourteen years after Jerusalem was captured in 614 CE). Rather, Anatolia marked what turned out to be a turning point in Byzantine fortunes. As set out below, there is also reason to interpret this prophecy as part of a late antique escatalogical prophetic tradition, in which the final victory of the Romans (Byzantines) over the Persians was seen as an apocalyptic prelude to the end times.
Apocalyptic prophecies of a final Byzantine victory in late antiquity
In his article, 'The Romans Will Win!' Q 30:2‒7 in Light of 7th c. Political Eschatology, academic scholar Tommaso Tesei is of the view that the traditional Meccan period dating of Surah al-Rum should be ignored and that the opening verses should be regarded as an ex-eventu prophecy i.e. revealed after the event, as was a common practice in late antique literature.
Tesei demonstrates that there were a number of similar contemporary Christian prophecies about the Byzantine-Sasanid war with an ultimate victory for the Romans. These are framed in an escatological context, with the final victory commencing a glorious period in prelude to the apocalypse. He writes, "the opening verses of sūrat al-Rūm bear a striking resemblance to prophecies circulating in the Middle East at the time when the Qurʾānic passage purportedly was formulated."
For example, he writes that "In a passage of the History of Maurice, composed by Theophylact Simocatta during the reign of Heraclius (r. 610–641 CE), the author reports a prophecy attributed to the Sasanian sovereign Khosrow II." Tesei's quote from this passage includes the following lines:
A mid 7th century prophecy by Pseudo-Ephrem includes the following:
Similar prophecies occur in several 7th century Jewish works, including Sefer Elijah, which links it to a prophecy in the Biblical Book of Daniel. According to common Rabbinical interpretation, the fourth and last great imperial power in that Biblical prophecy was the Byzantine empire, destined to collapse and be followed by the coming of the messiah. For Christians, a more positive interpretation had the Roman empire as that fourth power, with the Byzantines being a Christian continuation thereof as the final world power to prepare for the coming kingdom of heaven. Imperial campaigns were cast in this context as eschatalogical events of cosmic grandeur. A famous example of such propaganda is the Syriac Alexander Legend, which alludes to Heraclius' 628 CE reconquest of Jerusalem as an ex eventu prophecy, and then wrongly predicts that its reign will last til the end of time. Thus, Jewish escatalogical prophecies were of a Byzantine defeat, whereas Christian versions end with their victory.
Adam Silverstein concurs with Tesei's assessment that the Quranic passage should be viewed in a wider, eschatalogical prophetic context, though draws on and emphasises more strongly the Jewish sources before the 7th century which allows time for them to have influenced the Quran during the Meccan period when the verses were traditionally revealed and may support an alternative reading of the Quranic passage in which the Romans are prophecised to be finally defeated (see the section on variant readings below; Silvestein himself argues we must remain agnostic as to which reading is correct. In this alternative reading, the rejoicing of the believers in verse 4 would be due to the downfall of the Romans rather than their victory.
Three to nine years?
Silverstein further notes that the phrase biḍ'ʿi sinīn (three to nine years) in Q. 30:4 also occurs in Quran 12:42, where it refers to the imprisonment of Joseph, which in Genesis 4:1 lasted two years. He adds, "However, the earliest Muslim exegetes (the earliest being Zayd b. ‘Alī, ca. 740 CE), interpret the phrase as meaning either 'three to five years' or 'three to nine years'."
Critics would probably question then whether the definition was changed over time to accomodate events in the Byzantine-Sasanian war, or even whether the verse could have changed through abrogation as events unfolded during Muhammad's lifetime. It is also commonly noted that, whatever the definition of biḍ'ʿi sinīn, it is somewhat vague, as though the author was unwilling to commit to a more specific predicted duration.
The Byzantine victory of 622 CE
Tesei explains that Q. 30:4, which states that "And that day the believers will rejoice", should be interpreted in terms of escatalogical expectations that an ultimate Roman victory over the Sasanids would herald the unfolding of the final stage of sacred history, in line with the similar 7th century prophecies about the war. This is also supported by the fact that the phrase "on that day" has escatalogical connotations when it is used elsewhere in the Quran.
Given this late antique context, in which any prophecy of this nature (assuming the standard reading is correct) would be understood to refer to a final triumph of the Byzantines as an important event in sacred history (and probably with apocalyptic connotations), it is unlikely that the Quranic prophecy in verses 3-4 was intended as anything less than the ultimate victory of the Byzantines over the Sasanids. Critics would point out that this would not in fact come until 14 years after the Byzantines lost Jerusalem to the Sasanids and not within the 3-9 years predicted in Surah al-Rum. The verb ghalaba which occurs repeatedly in Q. 30:2-3 means "to overcome", "conquer", "become superior".
The Byzantine victory in Anatolia in 622 CE is often presented as the fulfillment of the Quranic prophecy within the required timeframe. However, that Roman victory marked the end of the first stage of the war, after which point the Byzantines became increasingly successful, culminating in the Sasanid capitulation to Heraclius which did not come until 628 CE. It may be that the verses in Surah al-Rum represent an ex-eventu prophecy shortly after the events of 622 CE, but before it became apparent that the last day was not imminent and the war still had a significant way to go.
Hadith stating that it was revealed after the event
Interestingly, a hadith in Sunan al-Tirmidhi, one of the main six Sunni hadith collections, states that this passage was not in fact intended as a prophecy but was uttered after an unspecified Roman victory at the time of the battle of Badr. The timing is a little off (Badr is believed to have occured in 624 CE, two years after the Byzantine victory in the Anatolian campaign), but there is conceivably a kernal of history here. The hadith is graded sahih in the Dar-us-Salam edition, though is generally graded weak due to the narrator. Some other narrations state instead that it was a prophecy made before the event, though include a rather unlikely story about a hasty bet made by Abu Bakr which seems intended to cement the definition of the time duration specified in the verse (see for example Jami` at-Tirmidhi 5:44:3194).
Variant readings which change the meaning of the prophecy
Tommaso Tesei, in his detailed article on the topic of this Quranic propecy, notes that the consonantal skeleton of the Quran standardised by Caliph Uthman allowed a degree of ambiguity when reading the text due to the lack of diacritical marks. Variant readings mentioned by Islamic scholars and set out in Tesei's article included the opposite meaning to the standard reading. In this alternative reading, the passage would most likely by a prophecy that the Byzantine Christians would eventually be defeated by Muhammad's followers rather than being about the war with the Sasanids (the verses do not specify who the Romans are fighting).
Standard reading: ġulibat al-Rūm … sa-yaġlibūna, “the Romans have been vanquished … they will vanquish”;
Alternative reading: ġalabat al-Rūm … sa-yuġlabūna, “the Romans have vanquished … they will be vanquished”
In other words, without short vowel marks, which were not written in Quranic manuscripts until the 8th century the verb ghalaba غلب could be vocalised as victorious غَلَبَ or defeated غُلِبَ .
Nevertheless, Tesei argues that the standard reading is the most likely to be original, not least given its resemblance to other prophecies circulating in the 7th century middle east in which the Byzantines are ultimately victorious after defeat to the Persians. Similarly, Professor Sean Anthony has argued in favour of the standard reading and against the alternative readings, which are recorded by scholars from at least the 8th century CE though not attested in early manuscripts which are either ambiguous or contain the standard reading.
Nearest or lowest land?
Sometimes it is claimed that adnā l-arḍi in verse 3 should be interpreted in verse 30:3 to mean "the lowest land" rather than "the nearest land" (adnā is from the same root as the word dun'yā and is primarily defined as "nearest"). By this interpretation the Quran is claimed to have miraculously revealed that the Dead Sea in modern Israel was the lowest point on earth, a fact not known by humans until modern times. Besides the very questionable linguistic interpretation, the main problem with this miracle claim is that the Byzantines did not fight the Persians beside the Dead Sea, which is part of the Jordan rift valley, but rather they beseiged and captured Jerusalem in 614 CE, which is well above sea level.
Gog and Magog - Quran 18:93-101 and 21:96
They said, "O Dhul-Qarnayn, indeed Gog and Magog are [great] corrupters in the land. So may we assign for you an expenditure that you might make between us and them a barrier?" He said, "That in which my Lord has established me is better [than what you offer], but assist me with strength; I will make between you and them a dam. Bring me sheets of iron" - until, when he had leveled [them] between the two mountain walls, he said, "Blow [with bellows]," until when he had made it [like] fire, he said, "Bring me, that I may pour over it molten copper." So Gog and Magog were unable to pass over it, nor were they able [to effect] in it any penetration. [Dhul-Qarnayn] said, "This is a mercy from my Lord; but when the promise of my Lord comes, He will make it level, and ever is the promise of my Lord true." And We will leave them that day surging over each other, and [then] the Horn will be blown, and We will assemble them in [one] assembly. And We will present Hell that Day to the Disbelievers, on display -Those whose eyes had been within a cover [removed] from My remembrance, and they were not able to hear.
Gog and Magog are mythical barbarian tribes with an eschatalogical role described in the New Testament book of revelation. The first century CE historian Josephus recorded that Magog was shut behind an iron wall built between mountains by Alexander the Great. In late antiquity legends further developed the story in which they would break free and overun the earth in the last days, as seen in the Syriac Alexander Legend and its 7th century derivatives (see Dhul-Qarnayn and the Alexander Romance). The earth was envisioned to be flat and largely unexplored in these legends, as does the Quran, so it would be easy to imagine these tribes being walled off behind the world encircling mountains with no way around.
From a modern perspective, there is no way that any mountain range could seal off world-threatening tribes for millenia, without any trace of them or the mythical iron and brass wall being discovered.
The day of resurrection
A large portion of the prophetic character of the Quran involves eschatalogical events around the last day. It describes a loud trumpet-like blast, the earth and mountains being lifted and the mountains pulverised, the heavens being split and rolled up, and so on.
The heaven will be split and rolled up like scroll
Many verses clearly convey a cosmography in which the sky has a two dimensional structure as a layered dome or flat layers (for detailed discussion and the views of academic scholars, see Cosmology of the Quran). On the last day it says the heavens will be split, rent asunder, with angels appearing at its edges.
These heavens are like roofs (saqf Quran 21:32, Quran 52:5), a building/edifice/tent (binaan Quran 2:22, Quran 40:64), a ceiling (samk Quran 79:28), in layers (Quran 71:15 and Quran 67:3), while Quran 13:2 further emphasizes this image by pointing out that, unlike what one would expect with an Arabian tent, the roof that is the sky is without visible pillars (perhaps phrased with deliberate ambiguity). Reinforcing the 2 dimensional imagery, Quran 81:11 adds that the sky is like a covering that can be 'stripped away', while Quran 21:104 states that it will eventually be rolled or folded up like a parchment and Quran 39:67 says that the heavens will then be held in Allah's hand. This will occur after it has been slit (furijat Quran 77:9), rent asunder with clouds (Quran 25:25), split (inshaqqat Quran 55:37, Quran 84:1, Quran 69:16 with angels appearing at its edges Quran 69:17). The heaven will become as gateways (Quran 78:19, a possibility also alluded to in Quran 15:13-15).
Contradictiory prophecies regarding the last day and punishment of disbelievers
The Quran describes frequently the fate of disbelievers when it claims they will be brought to judgement before Allah on the last day. Critics have noticed that in some cases these prophecies are contradictory.
For example, a few verses claim that they will be unable to speak in their defence.
Another verse states that their body parts will bear witness of what they did.
However, various other verses state that they will be able to lie about their past conduct and describe dialogue taking place between disbelievers and believers or with Allah or angels on the day of resurrection. For example:
Another contradiction involves whether or not the disbelievers will be raised blind on the day of resurrection. The following verse clearly states that they will be blind:
Other verses, however, state that they will see and observe what is happening on that day.
Regarding the food of the disbelievers, the Quran also gives contradictory claims. They are variously described as being exclusively fed thorns (dhari), pus from wounds, or a hell fruit (zaqqum; see also in Quran 44:40-46 and Quran 56:41-52)
Regarding these verses and others, see the article Contradictions in the Quran.
- Tommaso Tesei (2018) 'The Romans Will Win!' Q 30:2‒7 in Light of 7th c. Political Eschatology., Der Islam 2018; 95 (1): 1–29
- Adam Silverstein (2020) Q 30: 2-5 in Near Eastern Context, Der Islam 97
- Ibid. p. 37
- Ghalaba - Lane's Lexicon page 2279
- Twitter.com thread by Professor Sean Anthony - 14 July 2020 (archive)
- Dal-nun-waw - Lane's Lexicon page 921 and 922