The Qur’an Revisited: Sura 76:18

The Qur’an is full of fascinating words that we want to take a closer look at. In this article, we will focus on the word Salsabil (سَلْسَبِيل).

There is probably no big city in which there is not at least one Arabic restaurant called “Salsabil“. In Berlin, for example, there are a few, like this one on Grünberger Straße in Berlin-Friedrichshain:

Salsabil Imbiss BerlinSalsabil Imbiss Berlin
Salsabil restaurant (Imbiss) in Berlin-Friedrichshain

What is the story of this mysterious word that sounds a bit like “Simsalabim” (the magic spell that sounds Arabic to some, but actually has nothing to do with Arabic)? Well, in the case of Salsabil, we can say that the word appears in the Qur’an. Reason enough to take a closer look at the word.

Sura The Human 76:17-18

The word Salsabil (سلسبيل) occurs only once in the Holy Qur’an. This happens in Sura 76:18.

وَيُسْقَوْنَ فِيهَا كَأْسًا كَانَ مِزَاجُهَا زَنجَبِيلًا

76:17 – and they will be given a drink infused with ginger

عَيْنًا فِيهَا تُسَمَّىٰ سَلْسَبِيلًا

76:18 – from a spring called Salsabil.

I use the English translation of the Qur’an by Abdel Haleem. He’s definitely one of the best modern translators out there. Something interesting about his translation is that instead of translating the word, he simply writes “Sansabil.” So, is it just a proper name?

To understand the motivation behind this choice, we need to take a closer look at the context and environment in which this word appears. So let’s dive in and explore what it’s all about. We should first look at what Sura 76 is actually about.

What is Sura 76 about?

Sura 76 is called الإِنْسان (al-Insan or “Man” in the sense of human being) and is composed of 31 verses. Sura 76 addresses various aspects of human nature and the consequences of our actions. Sura 76 is also called al-Dahr (الدَّهْرُ) after a word that appears in the first verse, which means time, but also: eternal continuity (= endless time).

The early commentators are divided whether this Sura belongs to the Meccan or Medinan period. Many second generation authorities – Mujahid (مجاهد), Qatada (قتادة), al-Hasan al-Basri (الحسن البصري), Ikrimah (عكرمة) – are of the opinion that it was revealed in Medina. That is why today you will almost always read and hear that the Surah is from the Medina period.

The word Tābiʿūn literally means followers, and is usually translated as “successors” (of the Companions of the Prophet). Note: They played an important role in the early stages of Qur’anic commentary and interpretation.

The so-called tābiʿūn (التَّابِعُونَ) – singular tābiʿ (تابِعٌ) – are the generation of Muslims who followed the Companions (الصحابة) of Prophet Muhammad or those Muslims who knew one or more of the Companions = second generation of scholars. But they did not know the Prophet himself! The word Tābiʿūn literally means followers

Here are some well-known names of the so-called second generation of Quran exegesis:

  • al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (الحسن البصري) was one of the most celebrated figures among the tābiʿūn and is revered by all Sunni schools of thought. Hasan was born nine years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and died in 728 (110 AH) at the age of 86 in Basra, Iraq.
  • Mujāhid ibn Jabr (مُجَاهِدُ بْنُ جَبْرٍ) was a prominent تابِع and early Islamic scholar. His Tafseer of the Qur’an is believed by many to be the earliest written exegetical source. He died in ca. 722 (104 AH) at around 80 years old.
  • Qatāda ibn Diʿāma (قتادة بن دعامة السدوسي) was a blind scholar from Basra known for his exceptional memory and expertise in Hadith, Tafseer, Arabic poetry, and genealogy. He was a student and companion of al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī. He died of the plague in 735 AD (117 AH).
  • ‘Ikrimah al-Barbarī (عكرمة البربري), also known as Ikrimah Mawla Ibn Abbas, became the student of Ibn Abbas when the latter became the governor of Basra, Iraq. Ikrimah is considered the first Islamic Amazigh (Berber) scholar. He died around 823 (105 AH).

Note that biographical details often differ among sources. So use them as an estimate.

Let’s take a quick look at the main points of Sura 76:

Alrighty, so we got it now that the descriptions in verses 17 and 18 are all about things happening in Paradise. Now, let’s dive into what this word can actually mean and why it’s still a bit of a mystery for the scholars. The reason? Well, there’s a little grammatical quirk going on here!

Analysis of the word Salsabil

Most scholars of the Qur’an have treated the word Salsabil as the name of a fountain in paradise. It is an intriguing word – let’s see why.

According to several classical dictionaries, despite being described as a spring in Paradise, the term mild wine was used to refer to a type of wine that had a gentle and pleasing taste. Additionally, it was also used to describe sweet milk that was pleasant to consume. Another meaning attributed to this term was something that was easy to swallow, both literally and metaphorically. Lastly, it was also used to refer to an ornamental waterspout.

  • Ibn al-Aʿrābī (ابن الأعرابيِّ) said he had never heard this word except for the Qur’an. Ibn Arabi also says that سَلْسَبيل in the Quran means “that slips or steals (يَنْسَلُّ) into the throats (as if the radical letters were only س and ل, as some claim).
  • al-Zajjaj (الزَّجّاجُ) says that it is the name of a spring which is named for its description.
  • Sibaweihi (ِسِيبَوَيْه) says it is an example of an epithet – an adjective (صِفةٌ).
  • Abu Bakr (أَبُو بَكْرٍ) said that Salsabil may be a proper name of a fountain1.
  • Most classical scholars agree that it is definite and of the feminine grammatical gender.

That is also confirmed in Lane’s Lexicon who gives the following descriptions: an easy (as a beverage) in the utmost degree. Also: signifying smooth, in which is no roughness. And sometimes applied as an epithet to water or beverage, meaning easy of entrance into the throat or fauces.

Even dictionaries of Modern Standard Arabic list the word:

  • Oxford Dictionary: a spring in Paradise; and: a deliciously cool drink (شَراب سَلْسَبيل)
  • Hans Wehr: name of a spring in Paradise; spring, well

Now, watch out: Hans Wehr also mentions that the word is a diptote (ممنوع من الصرف).

Wait! If we check the verse 76:18 again, we see that in the Qur’an, the word سَلْسَبيل does get Nunation (تنوين). In the Qur’an, we have سَلْسَبِيلًا. So what is correct? We will handle that in the next chapter (no. 4).

In Arabic grammar, a diptote is a noun that does not get nunation (tanween – تنوين التمكن), i.e., the endings “-un”, “-in” or “-an”. Instead, we only use single short vowels: “u” in the nominative case (مرفوع) and “a” in the genitive (مجرور) and accusative (منصوب) case. It is important that this only applies when the noun is indefinite (not having the definite article ال and not serving as the first part of a إضافة).

Now see the difference:

definite noun; case as expected: “i” (كسرة)فِي المَساجِدِ المُزْدَحِمَةِin the crowded mosques
indefinite diptote noun: NO nunation, but single “a” (فتحة)فِي مَساجِدَ مُزْدَحِمَةin crowded mosques
Example of nouns that are ممنوع من الصرف
  • Whenever a diptote is definite, it takes regular case endings.
  • All feminine personal names are diptotes, as are almost all place names, e.g. Egypt (مِضْرُ). Country names that are treated as masculine usually have the definite article: Jordan (الأُرْدُن), Iraq (العِراق).
  • Masculine personal names with more than three letters are often diptotes. However, if the name is based on the pattern of a regular noun or adjective, the standard rules apply (unlike the situation with feminine names). For example, Karim (كَرِيمٌ), Muhammad (مُحَمَّدٌ).
  • Many broken plural forms are diptotes, the main form here being nouns of place (اسم المكان). For example: museum (مُتْحَفٌ) – museums (مَتاحِفُ).
  • Many foreign words are diptotes.
  • Also diptotes are adjectives that resemble a verb, e.g. bigger/biggest (أكْبَرُ) and adjectives ending in ان, e.g. thirsty (عَطْشانُ).

Two explanations and approaches: grammar and meaning

Let’s remind ourselves once again where the problem lies:

  • If it is a diptote, the ending “-an” raises grammatical questions.
  • If the ending is correct, it cannot be a proper (feminine) name, but another explanation for the word would have to be found.

The term “سَلْسَبِيل” has been studied by Qur’an scholars from two perspectives: its etymology, which is related to its meaning, and its grammar.

Explanation based on the meaning

The word سَلْسَبِيل is said to have come from the roots سَلَّ (to remove gently) or سَلِسَ (to be smooth or fluent). Both are somehow related to the notions of being “easy to swallow” or “delightful in taste” or somehow connected to fluids. These characteristics are considered suitable for liquids consumed in paradise. Some scholars believe that the letter ب in the word is not significant and can be seen as non-radical (زائدة), as not being part of the root.

More imaginative was the approach that combined the imperative form of the verb سَأَلَ (to ask) with سَبيِلٌ (path). You may know the famous phrase فِي سَبيلِ اللهِ which means for God; for God’s sake.

According to Ibn َQutayba (ابن قتيبة), in his book Tafseer Gharib al-Qur’an (تفسير غريب القرآن), some have suggested that this word implies the fountain itself is calling out, saying, “Ask your Lord for a way to reach this fountain.” In other words, سَلْ سَلْسَبيلًا stands for سَلْ رَبَّكَ سَبِيلًا إلَى هذه الْعَيْنِ. However, this interpretation was not widely accepted, including by Ibn Qutayba.

Explanation based on grammar

If we look again at the two verses of Sura 76:17-18 that we introduced at the beginning of this article, we notice that the words for ginger and Salsabil do form a rhyme in Arabic: “Zanjabeel” (زَنجَبِيلًا) – “Sansabeel” (سَلْسَبِيلًا).

The grammar issue is related to the presence of the Tanween at the end of the word. Furthermore, the absence of variant readings suggests that it was always pronounced this way.

Okay, but what is actually the issue here?

  • If the word سَلْسَبِيل was understood as a feminine proper name, it would usually not be declined fully. It would be considered a diptote (ممنوع من الصرف). In other words, it would end with a single fatha ➤ سَلْسَبِيلَ.
  • If, however, سَلْسَبِيل was understood as a description (صِفة) of the flowing water from the fountain (as some of the meanings of the word indeed suggested), then a full declension with Nunation (تنوين) would be appropriate ➤ سَلْسَبِيلًا.

How can we understand the Nunation (تنوين) in سَلْسَبِيلًا ?

There are several ideas:

  1. According to the Quran, the fountain was named Salsabeel. Some believe that this means the fountain was named after its attribute, rather than being given a literal name. In this interpretation, the verb “to name” actually means “to be described as”. This view can be found in al-Tabari’s (الطَّبري) work Jamia al-Bayan (جامع البيان).
  2. Giants of Arabic grammar, like al-Farra’ (الفراء), have noticed that in poetry it was common to use diptotes as triptotes (like normal nouns). Therefore, the presence of this phenomenon in the Qur’an was not considered a problem. It was also found in other verses (see examples below). Some grammar experts, like al-Zajjaj (الزَّجاج), simply pointed out that the addition of a specific ending sound was necessary for the rhyming in the section.

Interestingly, we have more occurrences like that (diptotes get Tanween, indicated by the Aleph at the end of a noun) in the same Sura 76 – although in most editions of the Holy Qur’an, we see a Sukuun. In other words, the readings sometimes differ!

إِنَّآ أَعْتَدْنَا لِلْكَـٰفِرِينَ سَلَاسِلاْ وَأَغْلَـٰلًا وَسَعِيرً

76:4 Indeed, We have prepared for the disbelievers chains, shackles, and a blazing Fire.

وَيُطَافُ عَلَيْهِم بِـَٔانِيَةٍ مِّن فِضَّةٍۢ وَأَكْوَابٍ كَانَتْ قَوَارِيراْ

76:15 They will be waited on with silver vessels and cups of crystal

And there are more examples which are – according to our framework – violating Arabic grammar rules:

فَمَكَثَ غَيْرَ بَعِيدٍۢ فَقَالَ أَحَطتُ بِمَا لَمْ تُحِطْ بِهِۦ وَجِئْتُكَ مِن سَبَإٍۭ بِنَبَإٍۢ يَقِينٍ

27:22 It was not long before the bird came and said, “I have found out something you do not know. I have just come to you from Sheba [feminine proper/place name = diptote] with sure news.

IN SHORT: In this article, we explored the meaning and significance of the word “Salsabil” (سلسبيل) as mentioned in the Holy Qur’an. The word appears only once in Surah The Human (76:18), where it is mentioned in the context of a spring in Paradise. We examined different interpretations of the word, both from a grammatical and a semantic standpoint. Some scholars believe that “Salsabil” is the name of a fountain in Paradise, while others suggest it could be a description of the flowing water itself.

Why does a noun which is classified as a diptote – سلسبيل – can get “nunation“? It is not clear, but it might have something to do with the sound, as the two verses we took a look at can be seen as a rhyme.

In my opinion, we should not view rules too strictly because the Arabic rules we know were mainly derived from the Quranic text. We are therefore confronted with the problem of explaining or questioning a system from within itself. If we delve deeper into the Quranic text, we will find several more places where the rules of diptotes (ممنوع من الصرف) seem to be broken.

In the end, all we can do is say in amazement: الله أعلم – Allah knows best.

  1. Source: ↩︎

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