ALN logo; link to Arid Lands Newsletter home page No. 50, November/December 2001
The Deserts in Literature, II

Metaphorical and literal depictions of the desert in the Qur'an

by Christine Jo Dykgraaf

"For many people in central Arabia in the 600s C.E. (when Islam emerged), the world they personally experienced was a flat expanse of sand interrupted by an occasional outcropping of rock and rolling, shifting dunes. But lest we begin to think that a dismal and univigorating fact, the Qur'an lauds all of Allah's creations, including the desert."

The Qur'an is the holy book of Islam in the same way that the Torah is the holy book to Jews and the Bible is the holy book to Christians. In fact, the Qur'an is a continuation of these Abrahamic traditions. According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad received the Qur'an through a series of revelations by the divine will of God, or Allah, in the years 610-632 C.E.: a message, he was told, that was intended for all humankind. However, since the Qur'an did descend among the peoples of the Arabian Pennisula, one would expect that this major religious revelation would contain an impressive number of allusions to that hot, dry, and contemplative space, the desert or sahra'. The Qur'an, however, does not allude to the desert an inordinate number of times. Moreover, the representations of the desert that are present reflect diverse and sometimes diametrically opposed ideas, ranging from metaphorical uses of the desert as symbol of other things to literal descriptions of the desert as an environment in which humans, through the mercy of Allah, are able to live. Metaphorically, the desert is sometimes a symbol of the obstinacy of persons whom the early Muslims hoped to convert, sometimes a symbol of outright ignorance; most often the desert can be interpreted in the Qur'an to be nearly the opposite of paradise, that is, as a symbol for Hell. When referred to as a literal place, the desert is depicted forthrightly as a harsh, unrelenting presence that is nonetheless sacred because it is part of Allah's creation. It is fit for human habitation thanks to the mercy of Allah, who alone has the power to transform it into oases or respite-giving cities. The result is the presentation of a symbolic and a real desert that, falling short of being able to control, each individual human can and must both respect and revere so one's final destiny may be to reside eternally in some place far more comfortable.

Symbol of Obstinacy

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Desert-dwelling Arab tribes in the early revelations of the Qur'an and in the hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that bear legal significance) do not always fare well. Muhammad had a more difficult time than he thought he would converting Arab Bedouin tribes that inhabited the rural desert expanses and were less under his immediate counsel and supervision than the Arabs of Mecca and Medina. The nomadic tribes of Arabia were fiercely traditional people and were slow to change their polytheistic ways. Though they eventually pledged devotion to Islam and Muhammad's leadership, they initially saw this devotion more as a pact between men, than as an eternal relationship with an indivisible and omnipotent god, Allah. This pact by traditional understanding ceased with Muhammad's death. Many of the desert tribes reverted to their polytheistic practices. A telling revelation in the Qur'an reads,

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Some of the Arabs of the desert around you are hypocrites, and some of the people of Medina are stubborn in hypocrisy. You are not aware of them; We know them, and will punish them twice, and they will be sent to a harrowing doom. (Ali 1988, 9:101) (1)


The desert Arabs' backsliding behavior resulted in the Riddah Wars of 624-632 CE. "Riddah" means apostasy, a very serious offense in Islam, so these tribes were either to be returned to the faith or to be severely punished for this sin. Muhammad's successor, Abu Bakr, spent nearly his entire tenure of rule fighting the desert tribes, to bring them back into the Islamic fold. Abu Bakr succeeded in this endeavor; however, the faith of Islam was never again to be as unified as under Muhammad's leadership because the prophet had departed without a clear successor to the religious and political role he occupied within the Muslim community.

Symbol of Ignorance

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Those who resist all attempts to be saved and join the ranks of the Muslims, then as well as now, are depicted as infidels or kafirun. As George Moore said in his History of Religions, "Nor is God's dealing usually represented in the Koran as arbitrary: God leaves to wander to their own ruin, like wayfarers lost in the desert, those who have shown themselves unwilling to be guided by him" (Moore 1932, 396). These ignorant souls will get their due on the Day of Judgement. The Qur'an clearly states:

Leave those to Me who deny,—the lovers of ease and comfort;—and bear with them for a while. Verily We shall have fetters with Us, and a roaring furnace, and food that will stick in the throat, and painful torment on the day the earth and mountains will rock violently, and the mountains turn to a heap of poured-out sand. (Ali 1998, 73: 11-14)

The terror of the Day of Judgement is to have the world become a desert. It is the sinners' punishment to witness this in horror and it is the reward of the righteous to instead be whisked away to the sumptuous sanctuary of heaven.

Desert/Hell Correlation

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And herein lies, in fact, the desert's most important metaphorical role in the Qur'an: as an unstated opposite to the descriptions of heaven. Heaven--for those inhabiting the Arabian Peninsula, which is 85% desert--is quite the opposite of the hot, dry, featureless desert. Dozens of times in the Qur'an heaven is described as a splendid garden of lush vegetation interrupted by soft, flowing streams. For example,

God has provision for them of gardens with streams of running water, where they will abide for ever. There will be the supreme triumph. (Ali 1998, 9: 89)

God will surely admit those who believe and do the right to gardens with rivers running by, where they will be decked in bracelets of gold and of pearls; and of silk will be their garments. They will be guided with gentle words, and guided to the commended path. (Ali 1998, 22: 23-24)

And again those

who persevere in seeking the way of their Lord...who repel evil with good: For them is the recompense of paradise: perpetual gardens. (Ali 1998, 13: 22)

It is, of course, not surprising that a people struggling to live and produce a livelihood in the deserts of Arabia perceive paradise as a fantastically comfortable, perpetually shaded and verdant oasis.

Hell, on the other hand, is all fire and torture. While not directly associated with the desert—surely hell will make the desert seem quite comfortable—the physical desert more closely resembles the unattractiveness of hell than do the frequent garden images used to depict heaven. Hell is at one point likened to the desert in its vastness:

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For those who fail to obey, the reckoning will be hard, and hell will be their abode: How wretched is its wide expanse! (Ali 1998, 13: 18b)


Further following on desert imagery, sinners' deeds are likened to a mirage: temporarily pleasing and exciting, but inevitably empty, concluding with a very painful and enduring penalty:

As for those who disbelieve, their deeds are like a mirage in the desert which the thirsty takes for water till he reaches it to find that there was nothing, and finds God with him who settles his account, for God is swift at the reckoning. (Ali 1998, 24: 39)

Some tortures in hell can be likened to terrors of the literal desert, for instance excruciating thirst:

Say: 'Indeed, the earlier and the later generations will be gathered together on a certain day which is predetermined. Then you, the erring and the deniers, will eat of the tree of Zaqqum, fill your bellies with it, and drink over it boiling water. Lapping it up like female camels raging of thirst with disease.' (Ali 1998, 56: 49-56)

But the heat and the terror of hell will be far worse than anything even the Rub-al-Khali region of Saudi Arabia in mid-summer can conjure up. For those in hell, "Above them will be a covering of fire, below them a cloud (of flames)" (Ali 1998, 39: 16a). Hell is also "a blazing fire" (Ali 1998, 92: 14) called "Hutama", which is "the fire kindled by God which penetrates the hearts (and) vaults them over in extending columns" (Ali 1998, 104: 6-9). The Qur'an seems to challenge the reader to picture the hottest, driest desert and then imagine the rising and hovering heat waves as intensely burning, consuming flames.

Symbol of Devotion

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Yet, despite its metaphorical use as a very negative symbol, the literal desert is still a celebrated creation of Allah and it, like all things in the earth and universe, honors Him (Ali 1998, 17: 44). The entire world is described in the Qur'an, in fact, as one would describe the desert: as a "vast expanse" (Ali 1998, 88: 20) or as an "even expanse" (Ali 1998, 78: 6). For many people in central Arabia in the 600s C.E. (when Islam emerged), the world they personally experienced was a flat expanse of sand interrupted by an occasional outcropping of rock and rolling, shifting dunes. But lest we begin to think that a dismal and univigorating fact, the Qur'an lauds all of Allah's creations, including the desert.

There is nothing in the world that Allah does not intend to be just the way it is for His purposes. All is as He sees fit whether it does or does not happen to suit the purposes of mankind. "The seven skies, the earth, and all that lies within them, sing hallelujahs to Him. There is nothing that does not chant His praises, but you do not understand their hymns of praise" (Ali 1998, 17: 44). The desert is as blessed as everything else in creation and if humanity fails at times to see its value and hear how it resonates with Allah's praises, it is our loss.

Allah also provides for those in need in the desert. He did so for Haggar as she wandered in the desert with Ishmael, sending water to sustain them. He does likewise for the pregnant Mary, mother of Jesus.

When Mary conceived him she went away to a distant place. The birth pangs led her to the trunk of a date-palm tree: 'Would that I had died before this,' she said, 'and become a thing forgotten, unremembered.' Then (a voice) called to her from below: 'Grieve not; our Lord has made a rivulet to gush forth right below you. Shake the trunk of the date-palm tree, and it will drop ripe dates to you. Eat and drink, and be at peace.' (Ali 1998, 19: 22-26a)

Allah continues to care for his people in this same way by sending the rains that transform the desert. It is explicitly clear that anyone survives in the desert or even on its fringes only because Allah shows mercy and nourishes the soil with life-giving water. Nor is the opportunity missed in such passages to demonstrate that man has much to learn from the workings of the life cycles of the earth.

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Do you not see that God sends down water from the sky, then makes it flow in rills on the earth, and brings forth corn from it which, having passed through changes of shade and colour, comes to ripen, and you see it autumnal yellow; then he reduces it to chaff. There are indeed lessons in this for those who are wise. (Ali 1998, 39: 21)


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Who sent down water in due measure from the sky, then quickened a region that was dead--so shall We bring you forth. (Ali 1998, 43: 11)



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Though the desert occupies a relatively insignificant position in the Qur'an, it does constitute the milieu in which Islam was born and nurtured and thus its images in this, the holy book of Islam, bear examination. Images of the desert serve the text variously. They demonstrate the weaknesses and the strengths of the Arab peoples, the fallibility of the human spirit, the will and power of Allah, and the range of pain and punishment or beauty and bounty Allah can level onto mankind for its disobedience or its obedience respectively. The desert is both a metaphor for the tortures and discomfort that await sinners in hell and a revered creation of God. The desert is at once a hellish and a splendid sphere. The mental and the spiritual attitude of the individual makes all the difference in how he or she deals with the images of the desert in the Qur'an and the intensity that its depiction lends both to reality and to the prospects of hell or of heaven.


  1. The parenthetical information in all in-text citations of the Qur'an connotes sura and iyat (chapter and verse) in the translation used. (back to text)

References cited

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Ali, Ahmed, trans. 1988. Al-Qur'an. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.

Moore, George F. 1932. History of Religions. Vol. 2, 396. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

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Author information

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Christine Dykgraaf is a Ph.D.(ABD) at The University of Michigan where she is studying Modern Arabic Literature. She holds a M.A. in Near Eastern Studies from the same institution and a B.A. in English Literature and Comparative Religious Studies from Albion College. She currently resides in Tucson, Arizona. She intends to complete a second masters in Library Science with a concentration in Middle Eastern Collections within the year.

Additional web resources:

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The Qur'an
This site provides verse-by-verse translations of the Qur'an in several languages as well as in the original Arabic.

Middle East Network Information Center
A virtual library of information on the Middle East in addition to links with other sites in the Middle East and other Middle East studies centers. Created and maintained by the Center for Middle East Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

The Middle East and Jewish Studies site at Columbia University
An on-going compilation of electronic bibliographic resources and research materials on the Middle East and North Africa (in the broadest sense) available on the global Internet, created under the purview of the Middle East Studies Department of Columbia University Libraries.

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