By Dr Abdul Rashid Agwan
It looks rather strange that the Quran has one chapter called Pollution. Its Sura 44 is named as Al-Dukhan, which means pollution. Not only this, some of its verses are predictive in the sense that they foresee a time when the atmosphere will be marked with ‘visible pollution’. In Sura Rum (30:41), the Quran warns about pollution in the land and water as a first stage of climate change and here, in Sura 44, it foretells regarding the perilous impact of atmospheric pollution.
The word ‘Dukhan’ is generally understood by commentators and exegists as ‘Smoke’. However, a deeper reflection on the concerning verses makes it evident that they presage pollution that blights ambient air of many cities of the present world and thus leads to anthropogenic climate change.
Verses 10 and 11 of the chapter go like this: “So watch for the day when the sky will come down with a pall of smoke, enveloping people. That will be a grievous scourge.”
Here it is clear that the first verse speaks of future and perhaps of long after its revelation, as it cautions to ‘wait’. Moreover, it is not an ordinary smoke which goes up and disappears in the air but the one which comes down from the above and seriously affect life. Besides the notorious London smog of 1952, East China smog of 2013 and Delhi smog since 2016 are some of the recent incidences which make us realise the phenomenon, particularly when the verse informs that the smoke will envelop ‘people’.
Interestingly, the Quran (41:11) also uses the word Dukhan, denoting the gaseous condition of atmosphere during its early formation. It is a geological fact that the first atmosphere was formed due to eruption of volcanoes in different parts of the globe which aggregated to form a cover of gases around the earth. These gases mainly included hydrogen sulphide, sulphur dioxide, methane and 10-200 times the carbon dioxide from the present count. Thus, the very mention of the word ‘Dukhan’ in this verse in the context of early atmosphere makes it comprehensible that it denotes a sum of different gases which are generally considered hazardous for life if they exist beyond a certain limit of concentration in atmosphere. They enveloped the earth before the origin of life on it, around 4.3 billion years back. In any case, allusion of the word ‘Dukhan’ in two different chapters of the Quran points out one thing, the presence of some harmful gases in the atmosphere in consequence to volcanic activities and that too in excess.
Coincidentally, Dukhan is also the name of a city west of Doha in Qatar where substantial oil reserves in the peninsula was discovered in 1937. Its prospecting led to accumulation of ‘smoke’ around the nearest hill due to gaseous flare ups which was accordingly named as Mount Smoke, i.e. Jebel Dukhan, from which the city derived its name. From then onwards, more and more cities have turned to be polluted ones. Today, 97% cities in the low and middle income countries and 49% cities in the high income countries do not meet the WHO standards of air quality and are thus facing the atmospheric ‘smoke’. The appalling impact of the deteriorating air quality has been on the global climate which is getting warmer since the industrial revolution.
In this context, another verse (37) of the Sura Dukhan sheds further light on the predicament. It reads: “Are they better or the people of Tubba’ and those before them? We destroyed them, [for] indeed, they were criminals.”
So far the commentators have understood the word ‘Tubba’ as a reference to certain kings of Yemen, where it was a title of the rulers like Pharaoh in the ancient Egypt or Raja in the medieval India. However, history of the Himyarite kings of Yemen and the context of the Sura do not match with historical facts except the coincidental phonetic similarity of their royal title with a Quranic word. The last of these rulers embraced Judaism and there is no event known in the history of Tuba kings that could be inferred as any divine wrath, abruptly annihilating their race. One of the first Jewish king Tub’a Kariba As’ad ruled Yemen and a large part of Arab during 390-420 CE, whose race continued to exist in Madinah during the time of the Prophet Muhammad as two local Jewish tribes, Aus and Khazaraj.
Around the same time a king Tuoba founded the governance system called Northern Wei (386–535 CE) in the Yellow River delta in China. But the local history also does not record any apocalyptic event associated with him or his people. There is also a large population of people called as Toba or Qoam in Argentina, which has emerged during the 17th century, i.e. post revelation of the Quran. Hence, the Quranic word ‘Tubba’ does not denote any historical event associated with these sections.
A better understanding of the word “Tubba’ in the context of the given verse may be had by taking it to be mention of a past geological event, called Toba Supereruption.
Toba is a mountain in Sumatra. A catastrophic volcano erupted 75000 years before present. It is one of the earth’s largest volcanic eruptions ever. Its impact has been noted in most parts of South Asia where a thick blanket of ash was deposited and it spawned on the earth what is called as a millennium long “volcanic winter”. The volcanic ash spread as far as Red Sea in the west and East China Sea in the east and even up to Iceland across Europe. The quantum of sulphurous gases emitted from Toba volcano has been estimated to be 3 billion tons, which rendered the atmosphere highly precarious for life. The event almost annihilated, besides many animal and plant kinds, the existing human populations (Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon men) on the earth and barely a few hundred individuals are estimated to have survived in some parts of South Africa and that too by adapting to life in caves, as the theory of genetic bottleneck goes. All present-day human beings are their genetic posteriority.
By referring the people of Tuba in the context of Dukhan, as is evident here, the Quran is most likely reminding about that grievous catastrophe of the Palaeolithic geological period, which came to be known only recently. The allusion in the verse that the people of Tuba were better than the contemporary humans, actually indicates the fact that the size and physical power of human beings before that event were greater than that of the existing populations. They also had larger brain size than Homo sapiens sapiens, the modern man.
The incident of Toba Supereruption had destroyed human populations in a large part of the globe and any history of people of Toba got buried under 1000 feet high layer of the deposited magma or burnt in the molten metal of the earth when it fell deeper. However, traces of some fleeing populations of Toba were presumably found at village Jwalapur in Kannur District of Andhra Pradesh in India, where stone tools of contemporary humans were found in hoards in 2007, both under and above a 3-meter-thick ash blanket, called Young Toba Tuff. As no human skeletons of that antiquity have been traced in the area rich with stone age tools, it may be interpreted that they were left over there by two successive groups of people who might be running away from the catastrophic impact of the eruption and stayed there under rock shelters for a while and hurriedly moved from there, leaving their treasurer of tools as a burden in the arising emergency.
The mention of the word Dukhan at two places in the Quran and also that of the people of Tubba in the given verse point out the past and future climate changes and evidently warns the present human society to take heed of the air pollution, which has emerged as a grievous wrath due to certain wrongs of mankind. In fact, the ongoing climate change has the potential to annihilate human populations to the extent the Toba supereruption had done 75000 years before present or even worse. It has been estimated that the Toba catastrophe had brought down average earth temperature by 3-5 degree celcious or so. The ongoing climate change is leading to the opposite, i.e. increasing the average global temperature by one or more degrees, which might cause many irreparable damages to life in near future.
Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration (BNCCR), Australia has recently suggested that the rise of sea level will displace people from their demographic centers and it will ultimately lead to human extinction. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC sees this extinction of humankind due to collapse of the ecosystem. Professor Bradshaw and Dr Strona came out with the scenario of extinction domino effect which will cause co-extinction of both animals and plants, besides human beings. These and other predictions of climate change make us believe that it will be a steady process of climatic change that will render survival of humans on the earth impossible.
However, the Quran hints about an apocalyptic end of the human kind due to global warming. This is possible only through a supereruption like of Toba or any other catastrophe of the kind. The question arises, can climate change lead to a supereruption? Here below is discussed a possible scenario.
The ongoing warming of the earth due to air pollution and the entailing greenhouse effect is melting polar ice and glaciers, which may ultimately lead to gravitational imbalance of the tectonic plates and may cause another supereruption any time. It may be noted that Toba Lake in the northern Sumatra is the world’s largest active volcanic caldera, and may turn to be a global threat any time in future. It has been argued that the climate change is leading to rapid ice melting in volcanically active regions as warned by Graeme Swindles, a professor at the University of Leeds, UK on 2017. Thus, a direct relation of climate change with the possible volcanic eruption has been recently understood. Moreover, it has been recorded that the ice sheet of Greenland, which is the second largest in the world, is melting. Ayesha Tandon writes in carbonbrief.org about a recent study published in Nature and mentions about its conclusion thus, “As global temperature rises, the Greenland ice sheet is melting more quickly – 60% of the recent contribution in Greenland’s sea-level contribution is due to enhanced surface runoff.” Evidently, the melting of huge ice-sheets in different parts of the word has a potential of triggering tectonic imbalance, leading to a supereruption any time. Thus, the ongoing climate change may cause an abrupt and catastrophic end of the world or at least around those parts where this volcanic super blast takes place. This scenario is not that of a gradual environmental deterioration, as presently considered.
Evidently, the Quran warns mankind of a future apocalypse, once pollution turns as smog -Dukhan, and uses the allegory of people of Tubba in this context while making it evident that Toba like supereruption is nearing human fate in the wake of denial of the reversal from the ongoing climate change. It may be from Mount Toba again or from Yellowstone National Park in USA under which a supervolcano is said to be “waking up” or from any other predictable or unpredictable site. However, USA, the leader in polluting the earth, can be seen to have more probability of bearing the brunt of the unfortunate event than any other part of the world. Greenland is part of the North American tectonic plate and the melting ice sheet at its one end may spawn imbalance on the other end, which may annihilate most part of North America under a devastating geological doom.
The Verse 8 of Sura Dukhan remarks that mankind may face a catastrophic severity in future because people are not serious about air pollution though they see it gradually surrounding them but they are preferring material enjoyment over sustainability of life. It reads: “But they are in doubt, amusing themselves.” The doubt that the Climate Change will be suicidal is very much evident in the attitude of those nations which are the major offenders in this regard such as USA, China and India. For them, the national economy is more important than to take steps for bringing down emissions of greenhouse gases to a safer level. On the Climate Change Performance Index 2019, among upper income countries USA (59) and Saudi Arabia (60) have been placed at the bottom. One represents highly materialistic countries and the other one the nations that believe in the Quran.
The verse (38) next to the Tubba-verse informs that the sustainability of atmosphere is a serious matter and not a lax thing which could be ignored. If man does not take heed and amends his outlook towards climate change, it is he who would be at the risk of extinction, may be along with other life forms, and that too abruptly.