Two Easts and two Wests of sunset and sunrises or more in the Quran
There is a brainstorming statement in the Quran:
Sustainer of the two sunrise points (two Easts) and Sustainer of the two sunset points (two Wests). 55:17
Rabbu almashriqayni warabbu almaghribayni
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“Two sunrise points (two Easts) and two sunset points (two Wests)”
Derived from the roots ‘sharaqa’ (sunrise or brightening, 39:69; cf. 15:73, 38:18) and ‘gharabat’ (sunset or darkening, 18:17; cf. 5:31, 35:27), the terms ‘MASHRIQAYN’ and ‘MAGHRIBAYN’ are best rendered as ‘two sunrise points’ (cf. 37:5, 73:9) and ‘two sunset points’ (cf. 70:40, 73:9).
Commentators have often understood ‘mashriqayn’ and ‘maghribayn’ as ‘two Easts’ and ‘two Wests’, for which though the contextually better words would be ‘sharqayn’ (24:35, 19:16) and ‘gharbayn’ (24:35, 28:44) respectively.
Considering both understandings of the above expression as valid, here we will go through its following five possible meanings:
1. Two relative Easts and two relative Wests
As all directions on a sphere are relative, what appears as East and West to an observer at one end would appear as West and East to another observer at the opposite end.
For instance, if Kaba was at East from us, we would find it at West if we journeyed around the globe in the opposite direction. Since we perceive East as West and West as East depending on our direction of observation, we eventually find ourselves on a globe with two Easts and two Wests.
Now let us observe the relativity of directions on a globe in a different way. While measuring various distances on the Earth, we have two Easts – the nearest East and the farthest East – and two Wests – the nearest West and the farthest West.
However, when we look from any point on it, we find that the farthest East transforms into the farthest West, in the same way as the nearest East transforms into the nearest West, and vice versa.
Thus, in its circular path, East constantly intermingles with West, and West intermingles with East. Therefore, any ‘East’ is a ‘mirror West’ and any ‘West’ is a ‘mirror East’. Once again we find ourselves living somewhere, where ‘two extremes meet’ everywhere: a sphere with double Easts and double Wests.
2. Northern East and southern East and northern West and southern West
Within a different geographical measurement, where further directions like north and south are involved, as in the case of an Earth divided into northern and southern hemispheres, we have two Easts – northern East and southern East – and two Wests – northern West and southern West.
Also, considering that the land surface of the Earth is roughly divided into two Eastern territories (Eurasia and Africa) and two Western territories (two Americas), one may understand ‘two Easts and two Wests’ loosely as two Eastern ‘continents’ and two Western ‘continents’.
3. The two solstices
Solstices are two distant points of sunrise and two distant points of sunset in the horizon on the longest day of summer and the shortest day of winter. Some earlier commentators have understood the verse as a reference to these points.
For the Northern hemisphere, summer solstice is on 21 June (the longest day of summer) and winter solstice is on 21 December (the shortest day of winter).
Solstices are related to seasonal changes. The seasonal changes we all observe throughout the year result from the Earth’s axis of spinning being tilted (at 23.4° angle) to its orbital plane. Thus, at any given time of the year, some part of the Earth is more directly exposed to the Sun than other parts, hence experiencing summer, and vice versa.
4. ‘Twin’ sunrise points and ‘twin’ sunset points
Night and day are persistently portrayed throughout the Quran as interpenetrating each other through constant bending, while forming dynamic counterparts of a revolving cycle. This idiosyncratically but unmistakably reflects Earth’s axial rotation.
Notably, the dialectical expression ‘two sunrise points and two sunset points’ – as points of successive sunrises and sunsets in the revolving cycle of night and day – makes proper sense only when considered on a spinning globe.
Since any sunrise point at a given meridian represents the ‘mirror’ in relation to the sunset point at its counter meridian, and vice versa, we get paired sunrise points (one is active and the other is mirror) and paired sunset points (one is active and the other is mirror).
In other words, the solar planet Earth as a revolving globe has ‘twin’ sunrise points (active versus mirror) and ‘twin’ sunset points (active versus mirror) at any given meridian and its counterpart.
5. Two sunrises and two sunsets in binary solar systems
Finally, one may find the verse further alluding to all those billions of weird planets in the Universe that whirl in the neighbourhood of two ‘binary’ Suns and, therefore, experience the daily phenomenon of two sunrises and two sunsets.
Please note that at least half of all the millions of Suns in our own galaxy (the Milky Way) are twins, i.e. belong to binary star systems, and hence contain millions of planets with two sunrises and two sunsets.
A good example of such binary star systems is the brightest star Sirius (in fact a pair of stars, Sirius A and B), which is mentioned in the Quran, remarkably, within a description of dialectical pairs (53:43-49).
CLARIFICATION FROM THE QURAN
Curiously, elsewhere, the Quran itself clarifies the term ‘mashriqayn’ (‘two sunrise points’) as ‘sunrise points at two opposite meridians’, while drawing a ‘coordinate’ in relation to its ‘counter coordinate’ situated at the maximum possible distance:
Would that between me and thee there had been the distance between the two sunrise points! 43:38
Please observe that, seemingly mystic at first sight, the verse intends to express the utmost remoteness, perceived in earthly terms, and refers to a pure astronomical notion: the distance from any point to its opposite farthest point on the Earth.
This interpretation is based on the idiomatic usage in classical Arabic of referring to two opposites – or two conceptually connected entities – by giving them the designation of one of them in the dual form3: e.g., ‘the two Moons’, denoting ‘Sun and Moon’; ‘the two friends’, denoting ‘friend and foe’; and so forth.
Thus ‘the distance between the two sunrise points’ can also be understood, as understood by most of the commentators, as ‘the distance between the sunrise point and the sunset point’. This clearly implies the maximum distance from any given meridian to its counterpart: i.e. Earth’s diameter, which is 12756 km at the Equator (or, if travelled along the surface, Earth’s semi-circumference, which is 20000 km at the Equator). It is the maximum possible distance on a rotating globe. The same applies to ‘two sunset points’.
THE BEST POSSIBLE MEANING
Keeping this in mind, we can look for the best possible meaning, out of the five mentioned above, that best fits with the interrelated messages of the Quran.
Let us reflect. As the Earth is rotating around itself facing the Sun, the Sun is rising continuously on successive parts of the globe (‘the Sustainer of all the sunrise points. 37:5’), while simultaneously setting on their counterparts (‘He draws the veil of night over the day, each pursuing the other in rapid succession. 7:54’; cf. He coils the night around the day and He coils the day around the night. 39:5).
In other words, when the Sun is rising at one point of the globe, it is synchronously setting at its counterpart on the other side of the globe. And when it is setting at one point of the globe, it is simultaneously rising at its counterpart on the other side of the globe (‘the Sustainer of all the sunrise points and all the sunset points. 70:40’).
Since any sunrise point at a given meridian thus represents the ‘mirror’ in relation to the sunset point at its counter meridian, and vice versa, we get paired sunrise points (one is active and the other is mirror) and paired sunset points (one is active and the other is mirror; cf. 73:9; cf. Asad’s note on 43:38).
So ‘two sunrise points and two sunset points’ are paired points of successive sunrises and sunsets in the revolving cycle of night and day. They can be perceived as situated at two opposite meridians.
Clearly, out of the five possible meanings above, number 4 scores the most:
The solar planet Earth as a revolving globe has ‘twin’ sunrise points (active versus mirror) and ‘twin’ sunset points (active versus mirror) at any given meridian and its counterpart.