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05 November 2012

Zaqqum in the light of Quran -- A Scientific Study

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By Dr. M.I.H. Farooqi

Quranic Name: Az-Zaqqum

Quranic References

Surah XVII (Bani-Israel-Children of Israel).V:60

Behold ! We told thee that thy Lord doth encompass mankind round about; We granted the vision which We showed thee, but as a trial for men,-as also the Cursed Tree (mentioned) in the Qur’an: We put terror (and warning) into them, but it only increases their inordinate transgression !

Surah XXXVII (As-Saffat-Those Ranged in Ranks) V : 62-68

Is that the better entertainment or the Tree of Zaqqum? (62) For We have truly made
it (as) a trial for the wrong-doers. (63) For it is a tree that springs out of the bottom of
Hell-fire: (64) The shoots of its fruitstalks are like the heads of devils: (65) Truly they
will eat thereof and fill their bellies therewith. (66) Then on top of that they will be
given a mixture made of boiling water. (67) Then shall their return be to the (Blazing)
Fire. (68)

Surah XLIV (Ad-Dukhan-Smoke) V : 43-48

Verily the tree of Zaqqum (43) will be the food of the Sinful,-(44) like molten brass!
it will boil in their insides, (45) like the boiling of scalding water. (46) (A voice will
cry): ‘‘Seize ye him and drag him into the midst of the Blazing Fire ! (47) Then pour
over his head the Penalty of Boiling Water. (48)

Surah LVI (Al-Waqi’a-The inevitable event). V:52-55

‘‘Ye will surely taste of the Tree of Zaqqum. (52) ‘‘Then will ye fill your insides
therewith, (53) ‘‘And drink Boiling Water on top of it : (54)‘‘Indeed ye shall drink like diseased camels raging with thirst’’! (55) Such will be their entertainment on the Day of Requital! (56)

According to Almunjid (Arabic Dictionary), Zaqqum is the Tree of Hell and a poisonous food for the sinners. In some other Dictionaries it has been described as a thorny plant with a bitter taste. In the Holy Qur’an, this plant has been mentioned thrice under the name of Zaqqum and at one place it has been referred to as Shajr al-Maluna i.e. the ‘Cursed Tree’. Botanical Name Euphorbia resinifera Berg. ( Euphorbiaceae)

Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad , while explaining the meaning of Surah Bani Israil in his
Tarjuman al-Qur’an, has identified Zaqqum as Thohar, a plant widely occurring in India. .
Maulana Maudoodi in his Tafhim-ul-Qur’an has stated ‘‘The plant of Zaqqum occurs in
Tehama. It is bitter in taste with bad smell and the latex from it’s stem causes blisters on human body. Probably it is the same plant which is called Thohar in our country.’’ Mr. Abdullah Yusuf Ali in his ‘Meaning of Glorious Qur’an’, has not given any English, Vernacular or Botanical name of Zaqqum but has reported (Note No. 2250) that the plant occurring at Jericho (near Jerusalem) in the name of Zaqqum is a plant of Myrohalan type and does not qualify to be the true Zaqqum. Yusuf Ali thinks that the name of Zaqqum was given to this plant much after the Quranic revelations. Quranic description of Zaqqum is so clear that with the present botanical and chemical knowledge, it may not be difficult to locate the true Zaqqum. Before identifying the plant, one must bear in mind the three characteristics attributed to it in the Qur’an. Firstly, when eaten, the Zaqqum would cause burning in the stomach or inside the body. Secondly, its stems (clusters) looked like the head of a Satan i.e. a big round thing. Thirdly, the food for the sinful has been referred to in all the four Verses as the Shajar of Zaqqum i.e. ‘tree of Zaqqum or Shajarat al-Maluna (Cursed Tree). Thus, the whole plant was meant as the food for sinners and not the fruit of the plant alone. Most of the Urdu authors of the commentaries on the Qur’an have described Indian Thohar plant as a possible Zaqqum which ofcourse seems to be nearest to the Quranic description. Thohars or Sehnds are the plants belonging to the genus Euphorbia which has more than a thousand species distributed in warmer parts of Africa and Asia, as well as in America and Australia. All of them are highly bitter in taste and produce a poisonous latex. In India, more than sixty species of Euphorbia occur in varying abundance and several of them are thorny dendroids and cactus like. Similar cactus like Euphorbias are also found in Arabia where these are called Lebbein, Rummid and by various other names. More than a hundred species of Euphorbia occur in Africa and some of them have medicinal properties. Before identifying the Euphorbia species likely to be the Zaqqum of the Quranic Sayings and description, it is worthwhile to trace the historical development of the genus Euphorbia first.

King Juba II (25) B.C.-18 A.D.) was the famous Ruler of Mauritiana and was a great lover of nature. He was very interested in the flora and fauna of his domain. He found a plant in the rocky and hilly areas of his country, which produced a highly poisonous latex from the stem. He named the plant as Euphorbia after the name of his learned personal physician Euphorbus. He wrote a book on this plant giving all possible details. For instance, he wrote that to get the latex, a long iron stick was used to make a cut on the stems of the plant. It was done to avoid any possible contact of the poisonous latex with the human body because this would cause blisters or boils on the skin. This latex was collected on the skins of goats which hardened after sometime and took the shape of gum. After the discovery of the plant by Juba II, this latex (gum) gained importance in Greek Medicine and Galen (130-200 A.D.) described its medicinal value for several ailments. It was named as Euphorbium. When the Arabs acquired the knowledge of Greek medicine and developed the system to great heights, they called Euphorbium with several Arabic names such as Afarbiyun, Farfiyun or Farfiyum. Avicenna (980-1037 A.D.) gave a detailed description on this drug and ailments for which it was effective and advised caution before using it as medicine.

The plant of Juba II was botanically named as Euphorbia resinifera Berg. (Family:
Euphorbiaceae) during early nineteenth century and later on its chemistry was investigated by several scientists. The latex Euphorbium (Arabic-Farfiyum) was found to contain an oily resinous substance called Euphorbon, besides starch, mucilage, rubber, mineral salts and maleates of sodium and calcium. Euphorbon was found to be the poisonous part of the latex, the main constituents of which were diterpenes and their esters, such as Ingenol, 12-dioxyphorbol and resiniferatoxin. The last named is the most irritant compound of the plant. On account of the presence of large amount of carbohydrate, Euphorbia resinifera may be considered a food plant but the presence of toxic resin makes it a dangerous food and of course one which would cause burning sensation in the body.

Euphorbium from E. resinifera became an important medicine right from the time of Galen. In Africa and Asia, particularly in India it was used for different diseases. It was found to be useful in sciatica, and as a skin irritant, especially in injuries to tendon. It was found useful for the diseases of head, stomach and bladder. Mixed with rose oil, gum-arabic and Tragacanth gum it was given as a purgative for bile and phelgm. If given without care it caused ulceration. It was found to cause abortion in pregnant women. The importance of Euphorbium was at its peak during 16th and 17th century but after the advent of allopathic medicines , its use became restricted to external application but in veterinary practice it continued to be important as a counter irritant and vesicant. All these years the main source of the supply of Euphorbium was Morocco where the plant still occurs in hilly areas.

Euphorbium is highly toxic. It causes the eyes to weep and grow red, the nose to run with
watery and even bloody mucus and saliva to flow abundantly from the mouth. Persons who are exposed to this medicine for sometime suffer from severe headache, giddiness and ultimately delirious. Some become even insane. Exposure to Euphorbian latex, its contact with eyes, causes serious inflammation of cornea, resulting in the loss of sight.

Although E. resinifera of Morocco gained importance from early times, yet several other
species of Euphorbia in India, Arabia and some African countries gained importance in local medicine. However, all of these were considered dangerous. In India, there are several cactus-like species occurring in hotter parts of the country which are generally called Thohar or Sehnd. Some of them are E. caducifolia Haines, E. antiquorum Linn., E. nivulia Buch. Ham., E. nerifolia Linn., E. royleana Boiss., E. tirucalli Linn. and E. trigona Linn. Mohideen Shariff (96) in his book on Indian Medicinal Plants (1869) has described E. antiquorum as Zaqqum-Hindi or Zaqqunia-e-Hindi whereas George Watt, in his famous book ‘Economic Products of India’ Vol. III described both E. antiquorum and E. tirucalli as Zaqqum-Hindi (Indian Zaqqum). Thus, these scientists considered the Indian species of Euphorbia as very similar to Zaqqum but not the actual Zaqqum.

In Arabia there are many species of Euphorbia occurring not only in Tehama area of Hijaz but in the whole Peninsula. Most of them are cactus like, resembling Indian species. None of them is known as Zaqqum. The common names, however, are Lebbein, Rummid or Rijlat lblis (Meaning the vegetable for Satan). Some of the Arabian Euphorbias are the following:- E. arabica Hoscht. & Steud. ex Boiss., E. cactus Ehrenb. ex Boiss., E. cornuta Pers. and E. articulata Forsk., E. aegyptiaca Linn.

All these Euphorbias of India and Arabia as well as those occurring in Africa and America are poisonous and full of thorns. Their fruits are small and of no use. All of them contain resin, mucilage, starch, rubber (polyisoprene) and mineral salts. It taken as food, all of them would cause great inconvenience and burning inside the body which may be relieved by taking excess of water. Thus all the Euphorbias in general, and cactus type (dendroids) in particular, have characteristics similar to those of the description of Zaqqum in the Qur’an but the main question is that which one of the several hundred Euphorbias is the true Zaqqum. In 1986, during the month of June, I had the occasion of visiting the Exotic Garden of Monaco (Monte Carlo) and was surprised to see the plant and photograph of the Moroccan Euphorbia resinifera. Its stems, clubbed together in a round shape, looked like the head of a devil. I was told that this head like round appearance is about four to six feet in diameter in the natural habitat. A photograph given in this book would prove the statement. Now if one compares this Moroccan Euphorbia with that of India and Arabia then the natural conclusion would be that although all these dendroid Euphorbias are ugly and sinister looking plants, the Moroccan plant has the closest resemblance to a devil’s head. It is very likely that the Arab physicians during the period of the Quranic revelation, must have been familiar with Moroccan or Mauritanian Euphorbia and the drug Euphorbium. It is a well known fact that Arab physicians and intellectuals had acquired very good knowledge of plants and Greek medicine based on plants even before the advent of Islam. When the Quranic sayings about Zaqqum were revealed, most of the people of Arabia, particularly the learned ones, must have realized the dangers of the dreaded plant Euphorbia resinifera. However, Abu Jehal on hearing about Zaqqum said ‘‘It is the Date and we will eat it in Hell and enjoy’’. This clearly shows that Zaqqum was not a common plant of the area of the Quranic revelation and heretics like Abu Jehal did not know much of it. Thus, taking all these factors into account, E. resinifera seems to be the real Zaqqum of Qur’an.

(The above Article is one of the Chapters of PLANTS OF THE QURAN by Dr.
M.I.H. Farooqi, 9th edition, 2011, Sidrah Publisher, Lucknow, India)

[Dr. Mohammed Iqtedar Husain Farooqi is Scientist (Deputy Director, National Botanical Research Institute Lucknow). He can be contacted at mihfarooqi@gmail.com or on his Mobile # +91 9839901066]

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