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Sura 25 verse 53Two mysterious waters

"And it is he who has given free rein to the two waters - one tasty, sweet, and the other salty, bitter; and between them he has made a partition and a safe barrier."

The existence of two bodies of water is mentioned in five places in the Koran (Sura 18, verses 60-65; 27:61; 35:12; 55: 19-20), we have just heard one. Here and in two other places they are also described as cosmic bodies sometimes made of sweet and sometimes salty water (27:61, 35:12).

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An area is also mentioned where the two bodies of water meet. According to sura 18 (verses 60-65) this is the place that Moses reached at the end of a journey.

Dr. Tommaso Tesei works at The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute in Israel. (priv.) If one reads these Koran passages against the background of late antique cultural ideas or the biblical and post-biblical cosmology, it seems to become clear: The two waters coincide with the waters below and above the firmament, of which the Bible in Genesis, the Genesis, speaks (verses 6-8).

Syrian texts contain precise parallels to the Koranic cosmology. An example is provided by Ephrem the Syrian in his "Commentary on Genesis". Accordingly, the waters below became salty when God gathered them into the seas on the third day of creation. The upper waters, on the other hand, remained sweet because God did not allow them to come together as waters on the land.

A sermon by the doctor of the church Narsai of Nisibis is also relevant for understanding the verse. Speaking of the creation of the firmament, he says, "Oh, you balance that divided the great water cistern and gathered it into two seas, one in the sky and one in the deep."

Although the Quran does not go into the firmament between the two waters, it does mention several things that separate them from one another. In the verse quoted at the beginning, the Arabic speaks of "barzakh" - here translated as "partition" - and of "hijr mahdschûr" - here translated as "safe barrier".

The term "barzakh" is also mentioned elsewhere in the Koran as a separation for the cosmic oceans (55:20). "Barzakh" is also used to denote an obstacle that prevents the dead from returning to the world of the living (23: 99-100). Thus the term in the Koran seems to have both a cosmological and an eschatological meaning. It is similar with the term "hijr mahdjûr". A few verses earlier in Sura 25, a scene is described in which angels call out these very words as they block sinners on the way to Paradise.

The congruence of both terms is striking: They mark a kind of separation that is set between two bodies of water, and serve as a word for an eschatological barrier that on the one hand prevents the dead from returning to this world and on the other hand sinners from entering paradise hinders.

Possibly this situation reflects ideas about the sacred description of the earth, which belonged to the late antique cosmological imagery. At that time, people usually imagined that the entrance to paradise and the realm of the dead was on the edge of the world - precisely where the firmament and ocean cross, where the two cosmic seas meet.

Further details about the nature of the two waters and the adjacent areas can be derived from the description of Moses' journey, where the confluence of the two is mentioned (18: 60-65). From the literary background of these stories - especially from the legends of Alexander the Great in late antiquity - we learn that this place has in turn been associated with paradise.