The Qur'an and Mountains
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The Quran has a particular conception of the nature of mountains, their formation, and the geological role they play that is is referenced in multiple verses and several hadiths. In recent times, many Islamic scholars have argued that this conception is both scientifically sound and and instance of miraculous scientific foreknowledge on the part of the Quran which, they argue, could not have arrived at the conception it holds without divine insight. Individuals key to the popularization of this idea include the apologists I. A. Ibrahim and Zakir Naik, Professor Zaghloul Raghib El Naggar (a geologist specializing in biostratification), and the Saudi-financed surgeon Dr. Maurice Bucaille.
Parties advocating the description of mountains found in the Quran as a scientific miracle identify two key claims made in the scripture: (1) that Mountains can be described as 'pegs' and (2) that mountains play some role in 'stabilizing the Earth' - these two ideas, advocates hold, are evidence of a miraculous scientific insight. Critics problematize the miracle claim by arguing that its advocates: (1) rely on arbitrarily specific definitions of ambiguous words, (2) rely on arbitrarily specific interpretations of ambiguous phrases, (3) rely on readings that are arbitrarily literal or metaphorical, and (4) reference their own authority as the basis of their correctness while failing to provide adequate argumentation. These tactics, critics suggest, are commonly employed in the presentation of any number of scientific miracles claimed on the part of the Qur'an or other Islamic scripture.
Key verses and terms
Key Arabic terms in the discussion surrounding the proposed miracle include awtad, meaning 'pegs/bulwarks/stabilizers/projections', rawasiya, meaning 'mountains', and tameeda, meaning 'tumble/shake/quake/convulse/sway'.
The word rawasiya comes from the root arsa, the same root used for the Arabic 'anchor'. To 'throw out' or 'cast' 'the anchor' is alqa al-mirsah. Using these terms, similar to the phrase "cast the anchor to keep the ship from moving", one can say "cast the mountains to keep the earth from shaking." Dr. Zakir Naik translates awtad as 'stakes' or 'pegs' (like those used to anchor a tent).
Pickthal: And the earth have We spread out, and placed therein firm hills, and caused each seemly thing to grow therein.
Shakir: And the earth -- We have spread it forth and made in it firm mountains and caused to grow in it of every suitable thing.Transliteration: Waal-arda madadnaha waalqayna feeha rawasiya waanbatna feeha min kulli shay-in mawzoonin
Pickthal: And He hath cast into the earth firm hills that it quake not with you, and streams and roads that ye may find a way.
Shakir: And He has cast great mountains in the earth lest it might be convulsed with you, and rivers and roads that you may go aright,Transliteration: Waalqa fee al-ardi rawasiya an tameeda bikum waanharan wasubulan laAAallakum tahtadoona
Quran 16:15 uses the word ard which can be used to describe the Earth, its surface, or the ground in general. Critics argue that the ambiguity of this word is critical to the advocates' argument, as it can be and is adapted to variously refer to anything from the Earth, the crust, the lithosphere, the mantle or any combination of the above, as needed.
Advocates sometimes argue that the Quran deliberately uses in these contexts the word tameeda, which means 'shaking' or 'disturbance', instead of the word zalzala, which is used elsewhere in the Quran and means ‘earthquake’, to make it clear that the phenomenon the mountains are said to prevent is not, in fact, earthquakes. Instead, they suggest, it must refer to an unobserved geological phenomenon which takes place on geological timescales (rather than earthquakes, which occur in a much shorter and human timescale). This argument is generally presented in response to the correlation of mountain ranges with earthquakes across the globe (due to the regular and related occurrence of both at tectonic fault-lines). Critics suggest in response that critics are arbitrarily obscuring the meaning of a word and verse whose general meaning, especially when considered in context, is quite clear.
21:31 & 20:105
Pickthal: And We have placed in the earth firm hills lest it quake with them, and We have placed therein ravines as roads that haply they may find their way.
Shakir: And We have made great mountains in the earth lest it might be convulsed with them, and We have made in it wide ways that they may follow a right direction.Transliteration: WajaAAalna fee al-ardi rawasiya an tameeda bihim wajaAAalna feeha fijajan subulan laAAallahum yahtadoona
Other interpretations of Quran 21:31 are as follows:
Daryabadi: And We have placed in the Earth firm mountains lest it should move away with them...
Hilali & Khan: And We have placed in the Earth firm mountains lest it should shake with them...Al-Muntakhab: And We furnished the Earth with firm stays, mountains placed in a certain setting, fixed as with an anchor, to stabilize it lest it should sway you from side to side or in all directions..
Another verse used to evidence the idea that mountains have roots is Quran 20:105. Although the verse makes no reference to the word 'root', a number of translators include this interpretation in their translations. Advocates use such translations, including those of Yusuf Ali and al-Muntakhab, to buttress their argument. Critics argue that such evidence is vacuous, as the word 'root' no where appears in the verse, and the advocates of the miracle are simply referencing those specific translators who both already concur with them and have taken the liberty to insert that interpretation into their respective translations.
Pickthal: They will ask thee of the mountains (on that day). Say: My Lord will break them into scattered dust.
Shakir: And they ask you about the mountains. Say: My Lord will carry them away from the roots.Transliteration: Wayas-aloonaka AAani aljibali faqul yansifuha rabbee nasfan
Pickthal: He hath created the heavens without supports that ye can see, and hath cast into the earth firm hills, so that it quake not with you; and He hath dispersed therein all kinds of beasts. And We send down water from the sky and We cause (plants) of every goodly kind to grow therein.
Shakir: He created the heavens without pillars as you see them, and put mountains upon the earth lest it might convulse with you, and He spread in it animals of every kind; and We sent down water from the cloud, then caused to grow therein (vegetation) of every noble kind.Transliteration: Khalaqa alssamawati bighayri AAamadin tarawnaha waalqa fee al-ardi rawasiya an tameeda bikum wabaththa feeha min kulli dabbatin waanzalna mina alssama-i maan faanbatna feeha min kulli zawjin kareemin
Pickthal: Have We not made the earth an expanse, And the high hills bulwarks?
Shakir: Have We not made the earth an even expanse? And the mountains as projections (thereon)?Transliteration: Alam najAAali al-arda mihadan Waaljibala awtadan
Discussions regarding the proposed miracle
Isostasy and mountains as peg-like structures
Schematic from Cailleux's Anatomy of the Earth
The schematic diagram taken from page 220 of Anatomy of the Earth by the French geologist Cailleux is cited by various sources advocating the reality of the proposed miracle. The basic underground protrusion of the crust beneath the mountainous region of the Alps, for instance, appears as a sort of peg embedded in the lower layer of the Earth. This, the advocates suggest, coheres nearly with Quran 78:6-7 which reads, “Have We not made the earth as a wide expanse, And the mountains as pegs?”
The geological phenomenon observed is known as isostasy. This term describes the nature of the Earth's crust such that the height of the crust above the layer of the Earth immediately beneath the crust tends to be proportionate to the depth of the crust into the lower layer in the same area.
Thus, elevation above sea-level tends to correlate positively with the thickness of the Earth's crust at any given place. The reason why the crust tends to exist in this manner is compared to the same physics of floatation whereby the majority of an iceberg suspended in water extends below sea level and, at the same time, it is the case that the taller the portion of ice above sea level, the deeper the iceberg dips down below.
Advocates of the scientific miracle argue that isostasy affirms the peg-like nature of mountains and that Muhammad could not, in the 7th century, have come to realize this without divine aid. Critics respond to this by arguing that the caption associated with the diagram found in Cailleux's book explicitly points out that the visual representation has had its 'vertical scale greatly exaggerated'. As a result, critics argue, the peg-like nature of mountains is not so plainly evident as the exaggerated representation found in the diagram would make it seem.
Accurate representations of isostasy and exceptions
Other visual representations with less exaggerated and more accurate vertical scales, some of which are cited by the advocates themselves, do not depict mountains as so plainly resembling pegs. Advocates respond by suggesting that when viewed in this more accurate representation, the mountains resemble 'blunt pegs'; critics disagree.
Critics hold that the 'roots' of the mountains described by isostasy do not resemble pegs in either form or function. For instance, isostasy, while often observed, is by no means universal and there are several outstanding examples of mountains and other elevated geological structures which have no such roots.
Examples include structures formed by the geological processes of extension and faulting, such as the Nevada Basin and Range, as well as those formed thrust and fold belts, such as the Appalachians, Eastern Bolivian Andes, Zagros Mountains, and the Calcareous Alps. Indeed, even the Himalayas are underlaid by a crust structure shaped like a broad wedge and which does not resemble a peg. The same is true for the Pyrenees.
Another important example is the Andes mountain range, whose 'roots', as observed in a true-scale cross-section of the range, do not resemble a peg and which do not serve any 'peg-like' purpose.
Critical and historical perspectives
Critics conclude that what may at most be said regarding the roots of those mountains that possess them is that they resemble pigs in some minimal metaphorical sense and that it is not the case that all mountains are literal pegs, as described in the Quran, which have been 'cast down' into the earth in order to stabilize this.
If the advocates opt to transition to a metaphorical interpretation here, the critics continue, they have made an arbitrary decision, as the relevant scripture appears to take its own description quite literally (as is generally the case with verses in the Quran describing the step-wise creation of the Earth and heavens).
Historians circumvent the debate and simply hold that since there is no reason to believe that Muhammad was receiving revelation from some deity, or even that such a deity exists, Muhammad likely either inferred the existence of some subsurface structure beneath mountains on the basis of basic visual comparisons between the side of a mountain and the bottom of a tree or adapted the beliefs of predecessors who had made such observations before his time.
Historians point out, for instance, that the ancient Hebrews held similar ideas regarding the 'roots of mountains'. It is not at all inconceivable and to some extent certain that such ideas had been passed down to and adapted by Muhammad.
The function of pegs vs. that of mountains
Some advocates of the miracle argue that where mountains result from the collision of tectonic plates, they also cause the stability of the Earth. One advocates of the miracle writes as follows:
Critics, in response, point out the difference between cause and effect, suggesting that the advocates conflate the two, and describe how the formation of mountains is an incidental result of the collision of the tectonic plates, an event which in fact causes rather than prevents earthquakes. The mountains generated at these fault lines are a product of the tectonic collision and cannot be said to in any sense prevent it from taking place.
Other advocates of the miracle, aware that these mountains result from and do not prevent tectonic collision, proceed differently. These advocates argue that the mountains slow the collision down and dampen the impact.
To these advocates, critics respond that there is no scientific evidence which suggests that mountains slow down tectonic collisions in any meaningful way. And, while it is inevitably the case that the crumpling of the crust which forms the mountains throughout the collision somehow 'dampens' the impact, there is no evidence that the resultant mountains stabilize either plate (it is also difficult to interpret what this could possible mean, as the mountains do not exist prior to the collision in any case, and so could not, again, meaningfully 'prevent' it). What stops the collision are simply the opposing forces of either plate.
Moreover, the critics add, considering the above, these mountains are not acting in any capacity that can be described as peg-like (a better analogy might be the bumper of a car, which crumples upon collision to save the driver, for instance, from being crumpled - but this has nothing to do with pegs and does not serve the purpose of 'stabilization').
Arguments presented by Professor El Naggar
Professor El Naggar presents the above arguments in fewer words and with a less detailed explanation.
Critics have responded to El Naggar's argument by equating it with the common argument made by advocates of the miracle which conflates the causality and effects involved in the collision of tectonic plates. The mountains, the critics repeat, are the product of the collision and play no known role in stopping it. The collision of the plates stops, instead, gradually slows down as a result of the opposing forces of the two colliding plates.
Critics also point out that El Naggar provides no reference for the causal connection he presents, and that the unevidenced claim presented here by El Naggar is itself only cited by un-refereed conferences on so-called 'Islamic science'. El Naggar's own body of research contains nothing that would support the claim, which is perhaps unsurprising, as El Naggar's own specialization is in biostratifaction and not in the supposed 'stabilizing role of mountains'.
Interestingly, the respected and much more widely-published geologist Dr. David A. Young reportedly concluded precisely the opposite of what El Naggar suggests, differentiating between the mountains existence as a product of the collision and any supposed role they might be assumed to play in rendering the crust stable. It is perhaps important to note that, by stark contrast, none of El Naggar's scientific publications have been peer-reviewed.
El Nagger also suggests that mountains stabilize the lithospheric plates by sinking into the asthenosphere.
As above, there is no scientific evidence which demonstrates that mountains stabilize the lithospheric plates, and El Naggar provides no references. By contrast, there is scientific evidence that suggests that continental plates are stabilized by craton keels. Craton keels are deep extensions of cratons into the mantle which extend any where from 60-300km below the surface. These keels extend far deeper than mountain roots. The formation of these craton roots, or keels, is, however, unrelated to mountains or their formation.
Critics also point out that cratons are stable regions of the earth's crust that are no longer subject to mountain building processes. These craton roots or keels form through the depletion of basaltic elements into the asthenosphere, leading to less dense material that sinks deeper into the mantle due to the lower buoyancy (i.e. the isostasy of the crust, that is, rather than of the mountains).
The relationship between mountains and earthquakes
Critics also point out that, as early as the 1920s, scientists noted that earthquakes are concentrated in very specific and narrow zones arounds the planet (known as Wadati-Benioff zones). In 1954, French seismologist J.P. Rothé published a map showing the concentration of earthquakes along the zones indicated by dots and cross-hatched areas.
Critics note how the earthquakes originate mainly from the edges of tectonic plates, including collisional mountain ranges and ocean trenches and ridges, which demonstrates that mountains do not stabilize the crust or the earth. The presence of mountains on any part of the Earth's surface thus often suggests the presence of precisely those underground geographical circumstances which generate earthquakes.
Critics cite the Himalayan mountain range as a specific example of a mountain range which, rather than preventing earthquakes, is in fact closely associated with them. The collision of tectonic plates causes mountains to form and this same collision also causes earthquakes, which explains the correlation of the two phenomena.
Indeed, a mountainous region is often indicative of a high-earthquake frequency in the same area. Other examples of mountainous regions that are high-frequency earthquake zones include the Andes and the African mountains.
Amateur Seismic Centre
Many of the the largest earthquakes, including the two largest earthquakes ever recorded, are associated with mountainous regions. The largest earthquake was the great Chilean earthquake, which occurred 140km south-south-west of Concepción (Biobio), Chile, registered at 9.5Mw – the Andes mountain range, evidently, did not prevent the earthquake or cause the region to be particularly stable.
The second largest earthquake was the Prince William Sound earthquake, which occurred 33.2km SE of Mt. Goode (Alaska), U.S.A., registered at 9.2Mw – Mt Goode, nearby, was of no assistance. The sixth largest earthquake was the Ecuador earthquake, which occurred 138km west of Tortuga (Esmeraldas Province), Ecuador, registered at 8.8Mw – the nearby Andes mountain range was likewise of no assistance. The eighth largest earthquake was the Arunachal Pradesh, which occurred 20.7 kilometers NW of Tajobum (Arunachal Pradesh), India, registered at 6Mw – this earthquake took place in the Assam hills and caused landslides in the mountains which, again, did not prevent or stabilize the earthquake. Such examples where formidable mountains and mountain ranges co-exist with earthquakes of immense magnitudes, critics point out, are abundant and thus undermine the idea that mountains stabilize the Earth or play any role in mitigating earthquakes.
Critics point out the largest earthquake ever recorded - the Chilean earthquake in 1960 - in particular. The U.S. Geological Survey had the following to say regarding this earthquake:
1960 May 22 19:11:14 UTC
The Largest Earthquake in the World
More than 2,000 killed, 3,000 injured, 2,000,000 homeless, and $550 million damage in southern Chile; tsunami caused 61 deaths, $75 million damage in Hawaii; 138 deaths and $50 million damage in Japan; 32 dead and missing in the Philippines; and $500,000 damage to the west coast of the United States.
U.S. Geological Survey, March 29, 2010
The Andes Mountains did not prevent or stabilize this earthquake. On the contrary, later research revealed that the collision of tectonic plates that caused the earthquake also caused the Andes mountains to be raised. Similar earthquakes in the past are responsible for the existence of Andes in the first place. This collision even serves as a textbook example of the general phenomena, as can be seen below.
Earth Science From Moorland School
Mountains and isostatic stabilization
Advocates of the miracle point to George Airy's model of isostasy, which supports the idea that isostasy occurring below mountains causes mountains themselves to be more stable than if isostasy were not occurring below. This, they argue, is another point of evidence that mountains stabilize the Earth as described in the Quran. Critics respond to this argument by stating that George Airy's model says nothing special of mountains, per se, and simply demonstrates that isostasy - that is the extension of the earth's crust below the surface to a degree correlated to the height of the surface at any given point - generally causes the crust of the earth to be stable, whether or not a a given area is mountainous. Moreover, they point out, the fact that a mountain's isostasy causes the mountain to stabilize 'itself' - that is, just as the isostasy of any region causes that same region to be stable - does not mean that the mountain is in any way stabilizing the Earth in general or even the surrounding region in any meaningful way. They summarize this counterargument by suggesting that, on the basis of Airy's model, it can be said that if there were a region possessing a mountain and subject to isostasy, there is no reason to believe that region would be more stable than another, similar region that did not have a mountain but was also subject to isostasy to the same, natural extent.
David Smith, Director of Professional Development, MadSci Network, Earth Sciences, March 14, 2004
Another way the critics put it is that the phenomenon of isostasy is itself responsible for the stability of the crust - whether or not the crust is host to mountains in any given region. Isostasy stabilizes mountains, even terrain, and even indented regions on the Earth's surface. The Mountains do not cause this isostasy any more than isostasy causes mountains, as isostasy is co-occurrent with any variety of terrain - mountainous or otherwise. The co-occurrent isostasy is, however, responsible for the stability of the mountains as well as the crust, and not the other way around - that is, a region excepted from the norms of isostasy (as many are) will not be as stable, whether this region is mountainous or not. Isostasy is best understood as a phenomenon separate from the mountains altogether, as it is no more bound in the simple fact of its existence to the presence of mountains than it is to region of simple, flat crust (even if the specific form it takes in either of these cases is).
Earthquakes and the meaning of tameeda and zalzala
In response to the regular co-occurrence of earthquakes and mountains due to their related presence at tectonic fault-lines, advocates of the miracle sometimes argue that the word (tameeda) used in the Quran to describe the phenomenon which mountains, as pegs, prevent describes something altogether different from earthquakes. What this phenomenon is, they suggest, is not known, as it has not been observed, which may be due to the fact that it does not take place on a human timescale but rather, perhaps, a geological timescale (that is, over hundreds of thousands or millions of years). The argument is based upon the alternative meanings that the word tameeda can have, including 'stagger', 'roll', 'sway', and 'tilt', along with the idea that any geological phenomenon described by these alternative meanings of the word tameeda would be distinct from the short, sharp shock of an earthquake. This, the advocates hold, is important because the Quran deliberately opts not to use the word zalzala in these contexts, which is used elsewhere in the Quran to describe earthquakes.
Lane's lexicon defines this usage as 'Lest it (the earth) should be convulsed with you, and go round with you, and move you about violently. (El-Basáïr, TA.)'. The other usages given by Lane which involves the bi- prefix are for mada bihil bahr (مَادَ بِهِ البَحْرُ), which means 'The sea affected him with a heaving of the stomach, &c. (L.)' and madat bihil ard (مَادَتْ بِهِ الأَرْضُ), which means 'The ground went round with him. (A.)'.
Critics point out that all usages of the word tameeda that subsequently involve the bi- prefix (which means 'with') denote an effect upon humans. While other, not-human-related usages of words deriving from the root mada exist, the word tameeda followed by the prefix bi- always involves human beings. This, alongside the fact that two of the three verses using the phrase affix the bi- prefix with the -kum pronoun (which means 'you all'), makes it clear that whatever the Quran is describing here is somehow immediately relevant to humans and that humans are subject to it. Critics thus conclude that it makes no sense to assume that the Quran is here alluding to some phenomenon unknown to humans, as this interpretation is permitted neither by rational discussion, which requires the possibility of falsification, nor the constraints of the Arabic language. A useful analogy for the comparison between the words tameeda and zalzala, critics suggest, is the difference between the English phrases 'seismic activity' and 'earth tremors'.
Some critics add that, perhaps even more importantly, that where the Quran uses the word zalzala to describe a geological phenomenon, it does so only in the context of the divine acts of destruction that will precede the Day of Judgement. This is different from the verses using the word tameeda, which describe what would presently be taking place on Earth is God had not set the mountains down as stakes (that is, supposedly, common earthquakes).
In addition to the arguments presented by the critics themselves, critics point out that key authorities in the Islamic interpretive tradition have explicitly identified the word tameeda and the verses it is used in as describing earthquakes of the sort that are experienced by human beings. One such key classical authority, a specialist in the interpretation of the Quran, was Ibn Kathir.
Tafsir Ibn Kathir
A final point critics have made in this vein is that if it is the case that the phenomenon described as tameeda occurs on geological timescales imperceptible to humans, then it is difficult to see how mountains, which repeatedly form and disappear on geological timescales, could be responsible for the sustained stabilization of the planet's surface (the Earth having existed for some 4.5 billion years). Moreover, they close, if some such phenomenon was taking place on a geological timescale unbeknownst to humans, why would the Quran mention this? Surely, God would not intentionally speak of things that are incomprehensible to humans, as that would be absurd. At the very least, if the phenomenon described exists but is unknowable, and the Quran is not here making a simple scientific error in its assertions, then what these verses contain cannot be verified as a scientific miracle, for humans, in this case, have no way of verifying what the verses speak of.
Mountains and stabilization of the Earth about its axis
Some advocates of the miracles argue that while mountains do not directly stabilize the Earth's surface by functioning as pegs, their presence and the concomitant fact of the crust being thicker at certain locations due to isostasy results in an increased moment of inertia for the earth, thus reducing its rotational speed and axial tilt. Critics respond to this argument by pointing out that the relative impact of the denser crust at the locations of some mountains is infinitesimally small simply because the crust, even where it is thicker, weighs astronomically less than the Earth as a whole, which weighs 5.97*1024 kgs, such that it has no significant impact on the Earth's rotational speed or axial tilt. While scientists have acknowledged the extremely minimal impact of the mountainous crust in these respects, they have also pointed out that the Earth's rotational speed and axial tilt are more impacted by small factors such as the Earth's distance from the moon and even by the ancient effect of the post-glacial rebound since the ice ages than they are by the mountains.
Critics also argue here that it is nearly impossible to correlate this stabilization effect, how minimally real it may be, with any remotely plausible interpretation of the relevant verses.
Mountains and the absorption of seismic earthquake waves
The above and similar studies are referenced by advocates as specific evidence of mountains stabilizing the Earth's crust and undermining seismic activity. Critics respond that although the phenomenon described has a limited stabilizing effect on certain regions favorably positioned vis-à-vis the mountain range, the mountains do not prevent the earthquake outright and, more importantly, that the limited stabilizing effect observed is only relevant if the inhabited area happens to be favorably positioned vis-à-vis the mountain range - this means that if, for instance, the city were located between the mountain and the fault line where the quake originated, even if the city was located near the foot of the mountain, then the destruction experienced by the city would not be reduced in any significant way. Critics have also stated that the dampening effect described above although real in some cases, is, yet again, not a phenomenon that can be described in any plausible way as being peg-like.
Biblical precedents to the idea of mountains' role in stabilizing the Earth
There is some evidence to suggest that the Quranic idea of mountains playing a peg-like role in stabilizing the Earth was preceded by Christian/Biblical sources which are some 400 years older and had widespread influence in the region Muhammad lived in. Critics suggest that this also tends to undermine the idea that the Quran is unique or novel in its description of mountains. Advocates respond that it may be the case that the miracle was revealed to Abrahamic prophets prior to Muhammad.
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