Of Fire and Oceans

A rebuttal to Shibli Zaman’s latest attempt to find modern science in the Qur’an and Islamic traditions

Geoff Austin


Among the many arguments put forward by Muslims in an attempt to prove the divine origin of the Qur’an is the claim that it contains scientific statements far ahead of its time. Many of these attempts are well known and responses to them have long existed on Answering Islam. However, a recent attempt has seen some Muslim apologists take a step further, seeking to find such miraculous scientific statements not simply in the Qur’an but also in the Hadith. One such example is the short argument by Shibli Zaman in which he attempts to show that a hadith from the collection of Sunan Abu Dawud contains a description of a discovery that scientists made as recently as 2003. Here is the hadith in question:

... under the sea there is a fire, and under the fire there is a sea ...
(Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 14, Number 2483)

The argument

Mr. Zaman’s argument can be found on his website and consists of references to two scientific phenomena, namely submarine volcanoes and fluids circulating within the deep basaltic ocean crust. The latter is a particularly recent discovery [1]. Concerning submarine volcanoes, he writes the following:

The most productive volcanic systems on Earth are hidden under an average of 8.500 feet (2.600 m) of water. Beneath the oceans a global system of mid-ocean ridges produces an estimated 75% of the annual output of magma. An estimated 0.7 cubic miles (3 cubic kilometres) of lava is erupted. The magma and lava create the edges of new oceanic plates and supply heat and chemicals to some of the Earth's most unusual and rare ecosystems.

(Cited by Zaman from http://volcano.und.nodak.edu/vwdocs/Submarine/intro/)

And concerning fluids circulating within the deep basaltic ocean crust he writes this:

A new study has discovered an abundance of microbial life deep beneath the ocean floor in ancient basalt that forms part of the Earth's crust... …in 3.5 million-year-old crust almost 1,000 feet beneath the bottom of the ocean, researchers found moderately hot water moving through the heavily fractured basalt ... The water was depleted in sulfate and greatly enriched with ammonium, suggesting biological activity in a high-pressure, undersea location far from the types of carbon or energy sources upon which most life on Earth is based.

It was one of the most precise biological samplings ever taken from deep under the ocean floor, scientists say.

"This is one of the best views we've ever had of this difficult-to-reach location in the Earth's crust and the life forms that live in it," said Michael Rappe, a research associate at OSU. "Until now we knew practically nothing about the biology of areas such as this, but we found about the same amount of bacteria in that water as you might find in surrounding seawater in the ocean. It was abundant."

(Cited by Zaman from http://www.spacedaily.com/news/life-03a.html)

Zaman then attempts to claim that the ‘fire’ in the hadith above denotes submarine volcanic activity and that the ‘sea under the fire’ denotes the fluid in the basaltic ocean crust. If this is correct, then it would be a miraculous thing indeed, given the date of this hadith [2]. As Zaman himself, never one for understatement, puts it:

Now, praytell, who knew this in the 7th century AD and how did a desert Arab in that century who claimed to be sent by God mysteriously know that? This is a question that behooves the skeptics to answer.

However, there are many problems with the interpretation that Zaman has attempted to place upon this hadith. Lexicographical and scientific inexactitude, contextual difficulties and, from an Islamic point of view, a somewhat casual attitude to hadith science; all of these riddle Zaman’s interpretation with holes and demonstrate, as is usually the case with this kind of ‘science proves Islam’ interpretation, that what we have here is a case of eisegesis. It is an ironic coincidence that fire and water usually produce nothing but steam and hot air.

Lexicographical and scientific inexactitudes

If this particular hadith is attempting to talk about science, as Zaman claims, then it would seem that the hadith is guilty of, at best, lexicographical inexactitude and, at worst, a downright ignorance of the science in question. As we explore the issue further, two choices will increasingly open up: either Muhammad was attempting to be scientific yet was entirely ignorant of the subject, or else the hadith here is talking about something else entirely. However, Zaman's argument has opened up Pandora's box and so the question of scientific ignorance must be tackled head on.

Fire under the ocean floor?

Firstly, we have the issue of the fire in the hadith.

... under the sea there is a fire, and under the fire there is a sea ...

Does this denote a submarine volcano? It hardly seems likely, not least because submarine volcanoes do not consist of fire and flames. Here is what the US Geological Survey has to say in its description of them:

Submarine volcanoes and volcanic vents are common features on certain zones of the ocean floor. Some are active at the present time and, in shallow water, disclose their presence by blasting steam and rock-debris high above the surface of the sea. Many others lie at such great depths that the tremendous weight of the water above them results in high, confining pressure and prevents the formation and explosive release of steam and gases. Even very large, deepwater eruptions may not disturb the ocean surface.

The unlimited supply of water surrounding submarine volcanoes can cause them to behave differently from volcanoes on land. Violent, steam-blast eruptions take place when sea water pours into active shallow submarine vents. Lava, erupting onto a shallow sea floor or flowing into the sea from land, may cool so rapidly that it shatters into sand and rubble. The result is the production of huge amounts of fragmental volcanic debris. The famous "black sand" beaches of Hawaii were created virtually instantaneously by the violent interaction between hot lava and sea water. On the other hand, recent observations made from deep-diving submersibles have shown that some submarine eruptions produce flows and other volcanic structures remarkable similar to those formed on land. [3]

So, to summarise, submarine volcanoes are characterised by steam and rock debris, not by fire and flames. This is due not least to the presence of sea water and the lack of oxygen necessary for combustion to happen. Thus it seems that either this hadith is committing a gross scientific error, or alternatively it is talking about something else entirely.

The fact is that had this hadith wanted to denote submarine volcanoes, the language was available to do so. It could have read ‘under the sea is steam and very hot rock.’ All words existing in the Arabic of the day. That it does not raises serious questions. Thus Zaman must decide: does he wish to say that Muhammad regularly spoke scientific nonsense, or would he rather admit that on this occasion, Muhammad was talking about something other than submarine volcanoes?

An ocean under the lava?

A similar problem to that above arises when we look at the second aspect of the hadith which Zaman wishes to draw attention to.

... under the sea there is a fire, and under the fire there is a sea ...

A major plank of Zaman’s argument rests on an attempt to show that this second use of the lexeme ‘sea’ denotes fluid in the basaltic ocean crust. However, had he read the internet article he had cited more carefully and had he actually read the work of the scientists it talks about in the journal Science, he would have discovered the form of this deep basaltic layer. It certainly does not look like any normal ‘ocean’, which is perhaps why that is the last thing any serious geologist would call it. The internet article, written at a popular level, reports that:

In 3.5 million-year-old crust almost 1,000 feet beneath the bottom of the ocean, researchers found moderately hot water moving through the heavily-fractured basalt ... [4]

Whereas Science, a peer-reviewed journal written for academics, puts things in more technical detail. The authors begin by describing why their research project was particularly challenging:

Because most MOR [mid-ocean ridge] flank and ocean basin crust is buried under thick, impermeable layers of sediment, the fluids circulating within the underlying ocean crust are usually inaccessible for direct studies. [5]

The scientists dug a bore hole in order to get to the fluid in these rocks. As they report:

Borehole 1026B (ODP leg 186) was drilled through 247 m of sediments and penetrates 48 m into the underlying basaltic ocean crust. [6]

Why is this significant? It is significant because we are not talking here about a large expanse of water, an ‘ocean’ as Zaman would have it, sitting hundreds of metres beneath the sea bed. Rather what these scientists were working with was fractured basaltic rock with fluid circulating within the cracks. As a layman might put it: wet rock. Here is a photograph of an example of a fractured basalt formation on the sea floor (hence the water above it).

Lying deep beneath the ocean floor is a layer of this fractured balsat, ancient ocean crust (submarine volcanic activity means that new ocean crust is continually being laid down). And in its cracks exists this water, but it is by no means an ocean. Thus we have the same problem for the hadith that we saw with the fire and the submarine volcanoes — either the hadith is committing a gross scientific error, or it is denoting something else entirely in this statement and it is Zaman who is mistaken. By now, most readers will have deduced that the latter is a considerably more likely hypothesis.

There is a further problem for Zaman’s interpretation, namely that the important scientific discovery reported in 2003 was not the existence of old ocean crust, of fractured basalt. The existence of that part of the ocean geology had long been known as had the fact that there was fluid in it. Rather, what was exciting the scientists was the discovery of microbial life within that fluid. It was this that the five page article in Science was reporting:

Results demonstrate that the 65°C fluids from 3.5-million-year-old ocean crust support microbial growth. Ribosomal RNA gene sequence data indicate the presence of diverse Bacteria and Archaea, including gene clones of varying degrees of relatedness to known nitrate reducers (with ammonia production), thermophilic sulfate reducers, and thermophilic fermentative heterotrophs, all consistent with fluid chemistry. [7]

Why, then, if this hadith is to be linked to this particular piece of science — as Zaman attempts — is the crucial fact not mentioned, namely the existence of microbial life. Again, there would be no problem with expressing this in ancient Arabic. Something like ‘under the hot rock is wet rock and very small living things therein’. Not scientifically precise, admittedly, but enough to convince the sceptics with whom Zaman is so concerned. As it is, not only does the hadith lack the crucial scientific fact, but if it is read scientifically, as Zaman would have us do, then it is guilty both of gross scientific error and severe lexicographical inexactitude. If, of course, the hadith has nothing to do with ocean geology, then perhaps it can be saved. Again, Zaman must decide: does he wish to say that Muhammad regularly spoke scientific nonsense, or would he rather admit that on this occasion, Muhammad was talking about something other than fluid in the basaltic ocean crust?

Contextual difficulties

Further problems arise for Zaman’s pseudo-scientific hermeneutic concerning this hadith when one reads the whole of the text. On his web site, Zaman reproduces just a few words, lifting them out of the context of the sentence. Read the whole thing, and further questions arise.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘No one should sail on the sea except the one who is going to perform hajj or umrah, or the one who is fighting in Allah's path for under the sea there is a fire, and under the fire there is a sea.’

Here, then, things get very mysterious indeed. If the ‘fire’ and the ‘water under the fire’ denote the kind of ocean geology suggested by Zaman, why should they pose any danger to shipping? For that is clearly the authorial intention of this hadith:

Here the ‘fire’ and the ‘water under the fire’ are invoked as warnings against sea travel. (And, presumably, any Muslim who sails for any reason other than Hajj, Umrah, or for purposes of Jihad is being disobedient). Yet if these terms denote the referents that Zaman suggests, what possible danger do they pose? The majority of undersea seismic activity offers no real threat to shipping, as it is simply laying down new ocean floor. Indeed, volcanoes on land are far more dangerous — why do we not find the hadith warning pilgrims coming by land against mountains that spew lava? And as for the dangers posed by fluids in the basaltic ocean crust, I think one can safely say that never in the whole of human history has anyone been killed by it, nor have any ships been brought down by it. Of course, some of the science is new, and perhaps the bacteria will turn out to be man-eating. Until then, it would seem safer to say that this hadith is not talking about the things that Zaman wants to argue it is. The very fact that he did not feel free to quote the hadith in its entirety suggests he may have seen this problem as well.


To summarise then, this hadith from Sunan Abu Dawud has nothing whatsoever to do with submarine volcanoes or fluids in the basaltic ocean crust. A basic understanding of the science concerned shows this to be the case, and the context of the hadith reveals that it must clearly be talking about something else. Exactly what, we may never know, given the lack of a broader context for this saying of Muhammad.

Sidestepping Hadith science

In his opening remarks in his paper, Zaman makes an interesting comment:

First of all, this Hadith in Sunan Abi Dawud has been graded substandard in veracity by the scholars of Hadith. It has a classification of "da'if" or "weak" due to two of the narrators not being properly documented. However, a similar narration has been mentioned by al-Hakim in his Mustadrak and Malik in his Muwata' from different and more reliable chains of transmission. You should have quoted the authentic source and not the weak one. However, you have a people who know absolutely nothing about Islam blindly quoting from its literature in a bid to malign it. Amusingly, they only end up substantiating it.

As Muslims are fond of pointing out when non-Muslims bring up awkward or embarrassing Hadith, the science of Hadith is a technical and complex one. Not only do we know that compilers like al-Bukhari and al-Sijistani rejected by far the majority of the traditions they found, but even among collections traditionally termed ‘Sahih’ (= authentic) many Muslims want to reject material as being suspect or inauthentic. As one Muslim writer puts it:

The methodology of the expert scholars of Hadith in assessing such narrations and sorting out the genuine from the mistaken/fabricated etc., forms the subject-matter of a wealth of material left to us by the muhaddithun (scholars of Hadith, "traditionists"). [8]

Muslims have evolved a whole set of criteria for assessing the authenticity of hadith. Among the well recognised criteria are [9]:

Yet Zaman would sidestep this methodology upon which his fellow Muslims place so much weight and replace it with one that says: ‘if the hadith looks faintly scientific then we should accept it’. This opens up a whole can of worms and questions. For example:


We have seen, then, how the scientific reading that Zaman has tried to construct for this hadith is deeply flawed scientifically. In no way can the ‘fire’ and ‘water beneath the fire’ it speaks of be taken as denoting ocean geology. Furthermore, the interpretation that Zaman offers falls flat when one reads the statement in its wider context. And, more worryingly for most Muslims, Zaman’s gung-ho approach to the hadith, rejecting the traditional approaches of hadith science for an entirely new method, means not only would Muslims have to rethink their entire corpus of tradition, but would also have to ask deep questions both about the Qur’an and about the possible divine origin of a plethora of non-Islamic texts. That, or of course, accept the alternative, that Zaman is wrong in offering this interpretation. From a philosophical point of view, Occam’s Razor says that the simpler hypothesis is usually the correct one and on this occasion that would seem to be true. We may never know what this hadith refers to, but we can be sure that it does not refer to submarine volcanoes or fluids circulating within the deep basaltic ocean crust.


1. Zaman’s paper encourages the reader to think that fluids within the deep basaltic ocean crust were discovered as recently as 2003. However, they have been known about for longer. The research that he links to on his website was actually concerned with the discovery of microbial life in this fluid. This is what was announced by scientists with great excitement in 2003. See the original article in Science, 3 Jan 2003, 120-123.

2. The compiler of this collection of hadiths is Sulaiman Ibn al-Ash'as al-Sijistani. He was born at al-Basrah A.H. 202 and died A.H. 275. His compilation of hadiths is collected in the Sunan Abi Da'ud, one of the six Sunni canonical collections of hadiths, the Sunan ranking just below the two Sahihs. His collection contains 4,008 traditions, supposedly collated from 500,000. Hence this particular hadith could be as late as two hundred years after the death of Muhammad.

3. See http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/Glossary/SubmarineVolcano/description_submarine_volcano.html

4. See http://www.spacedaily.com/news/life-03a.html

5. J. P. Cowen et al., ‘Fluids from Aging Ocean Crust That Support Microbial Life’, Science (3 Jan 2003) 120.

6. Ibid., 121.

7. Ibid., 120.

8. See http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/fundamentals/hadithsunnah/scienceofhadith/afor.html

9. See http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/fundamentals/hadithsunnah/scienceofhadith/atit.html

10. The Great Hymn to the Aten, circa fourteenth century BC, contains several lines that could be construed as denoting modern science (or, at least, science that its author could not have known). For example: ‘the chick in the egg … you [Aten] give him breath to sustain him’ would seem to infer that the author knew that an egg-shell is porous, allowing oxygen to seep through. Compare with, a few verses earlier, the reference to the birth of a human being: ‘on the day of his birth you open wide his mouth’. Hence the author seems to know a chick gets oxygen through the egg-shell, but a human baby in the womb is sustained in a different way (through the umbilical cord). Does this mean that the writer of this hymn to Aten, the sun god, was divinely inspired? Or is this rather a case of the same sort of eisegesis we see Muslims engaging in when they claim to find scientific predications in the Qur’an?

11. See the suggestion that Nostradamus predicted the Intel Pentium bug. As another writer puts it, either Nostradamus had some kind of divine insight (so making him a prophet), or else his writings are ‘obscure enough that they can be interpreted to predict any occurrence’. The latter could equally be said to be true of many hadith and Qur'anic verses as well.

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