Arteries and Veins
Two Qurʾānic verses mention blood-carrying vessels, using two different words: al-warīd (Q 50:16) and al-watīn (Q 69:46). The former is generally translated as the “neck-vein” (Asad), “jugular vein” (Yusuf Ali, Pickthall, Daryabadi, Hilali), or “life-vein” (Shakir); the latter as “life artery (aorta)” (Pickthall, Hilali), “life-vein” (Asad), “artery of the heart” (Yusuf Ali), or “aorta” (Shakir).
Etymology and Identification
Warīd is derived from the root w-r-d, which bears the following meanings: to arrive or approach; to drive (a flock) to drink (at a watering place); the destination or watering place itself; to appear; to supply; the first flowers that blossom; a rose (Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs; Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, sub w-r-d). Of this root, eight forms occur eleven times in the Qurʾān; al-warīd, occurring once, has been identified as “the vein connected to the liver and the heart, through which blood and spirit (rūḥ) flow” (Rāghib, Mufradāt). It is said to be “the vein in the inner side of the neck (ʿirq fī bāṭin al-ʿunuq), of which there are two” (Zajjāj, Maʿānī, sub Q 50:16); “the neck-vein” (ʿirq al-ʿunuq) (Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Tafsīr, sub Q 50:16); “a great vein in the neck” (ʿirq kabīr fī-l-ʿunuq) (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar, sub Q 50:16); and, more expansively, “the vein through which blood flows to all parts of the body” (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 50:16); “the vein that is attached to the heart and which reaches the neck; it is the vein of spirit (ʿirq al-rūḥ)” (Samarqandī, Baḥr, sub Q 50:16); or “the vein that goes to the hollow of the heart” (Tustarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 50:16). Al-Māwardī (364-450/974-1058) cites three opinions in his al-Nukat wal-ʿuyūn: “al-Ḥasan said ‘it is the vein suspended in the heart’; Abū ʿUbayda said ‘it is a vein in the throat’; and Ibn ʿAbbās said ‘it is the neck-vein called ḥabl al-ʿātiq, of which there are two, one on the right and the other on the left [side of the neck], and it is called warīd because it is a vein (ʿirq) through which blood comes from the head’” (Nukat, sub Q 50:16).
Al-watīn is the only Qurʾānic word derived from the root w-t-n, which means “to be firmly fixed at a place” and “continuous and flowing water” (Ibn Durayd, Jamhara; Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs; Rāghib, Mufradāt; Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, sub w-t-n). Al-watīn is identified as “the artery connected to the heart” (niyāṭ al-qalb), the cutting of which causes death (cf. Ibn ʿAbbās in Bukhārī, Tafsīr, sūrat al-Ḥāqqa; Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 69:46; Farāhīdī, ʿAyn; Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs; Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān; Zabīdī, Tāj, sub w-t-n). According to al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (502/ca.1108), it is “the artery which provides [blood] to the liver; when it is cut the person dies. Al-muwātana means to be near, just as the jugular vein is near [to a person]; and the saying of the Most High alludes to the same proximity: We are nearer to him than his jugular vein [Q 50:16]” (Rāghib, Mufradāt, sub w-t-n).
In Arabic lexicons as well as in the classical exegeses, no distinction is made between a vein (which in modern medical literature is understood as the vessel which carries blood toward the heart) and an artery (which carries blood away from the heart). ʿIrq is used to describe both al-warīd and al-watīn, and both are considered life-sustaining vessels; if any one of these is cut, one dies. Al-Zabīdī (1145-1205/1732-1790) summed up various opinions as follows:
Linguists say that al-warīd is a vein below the tongue; in the arm it is called a falīq; in the forearm, al-akḥal; its branch on the back of the palm is called al-ashājiʿ and on the anterior surface of the forearm al-rawāhish. It is said there are four veins (ʿurūq) in the head: two of them come down in front of the ears and the others are the two warīds in the neck; however, Abū al-Haytham said that the two warīds are under the two wadajs, [that is,] the two thick veins on either side of the jugular notch (thughrat al-naḥr); the warīds are constantly pulsating, and every pulsating vein is of the vital veins… al-Azharī endorsed Abū al-Haytham’s definition. (Tāj, sub w-r-d)
Some exegetes similarly state that al-warīd and al-watīn are one and the same blood vessel, which has different names in different parts of the body. For instance, al-Samʿānī (d. 489/1095) says that “it is the vein in the inner side of the neck, called al-nasāʾ in the shank; al-ḥālib in the abdomen; in the back it is called al-anhur; in the hand, al-akḥal; in the neck, al-warīd; in the heart, al-watīn. It is said that there are two of these in the neck; if they are cut, one dies” (Tafsīr, sub Q 50:16), while Ibn Manẓūr (d. 711/1311) uses slightly different forms—al-nasā without the hamza and al-abhar instead of al-anhur (Lisān, sub faṣl al-bāʾ al-muwaḥḥada).
As a Symbol of Divine Proximity
Despite the difference of opinion about the exact identification of the intended blood vessels, commentators agree that it is the underlying theme of their life-sustaining function and their anatomical proximity to humans that is more relevant to the understanding of And We are nearer to him than his jugular vein (Q 50:16). Al-Samʿānī, for instance, notes: “Indeed Allah Most High is nearer to [man], nearer than everything else, even nearer than his life and death—for the life of man is dependent on this vein; when it is cut he does not survive” (Tafsīr, sub Q 50:16). Likewise, when al-Ḍaḥḥāk (d. 102/ca.721) was asked about the meaning of this verse, he observed, “there is nothing nearer to the son of Ādam than the jugular vein (ḥabl al-warīd), and Allah is even nearer to him than this” (Suyūṭī, Durr).
The exegetes explain the modalities and consequences of this proximity (qurb) of Allah Most High. Thus al-Qushayrī (d. 465/1072) comments that “Allah’s nearness means His Knowledge, Power, and Hearing” and describes the consequence of this nearness for the spiritual life of man: “This verse contains awe (hayba), fear, and fright (fazaʿ, khawf) for the folk (qawm) [as well as] life (rūḥ), tranquility (sukūn), and intimacy for the heart (uns al-qalb)” (Tafsīr). Al-Tustarī (d. 283/896) comments:
Truly Allah keeps watch over you in what you keep secret and what you make known, in your movements and in your stillness. You are never hidden from Him even for the blinking of the eye: just as He has said, Is then He who stands over every soul [knowing] what it has earned [like any other]? [Q 13:33]; and He has said, There is not a secret consultation between three, but He makes the fourth among them [Q 58:7]. He has also said: We are nearer to him than the aorta (ḥabl al-warīd) [Q 50:16]. This is the artery located deep inside the heart, and He has informed us that He is closer to the heart than that artery. If you know this you must feel modesty before Him. (Tustarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 9:122)
Al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1273) explains the verse as follows:
This is a figure for proximity (tamthīl lil-qurb). That is, We are nearer to him than the jugular vein, which is a part of him. This nearness is not spatial; rather it means “We have more control over man than his jugular vein although he possesses it.” It is [also] said to mean, “We know the whisperings of his soul more than the jugular vein, even though it is part of his being”; because ḥabl al-warīd is that vein which is attached to the heart. So the knowledge of the Sustainer about man is even greater than what his own heart knows. As regards its meaning, it has been transmitted from Muqātil that he said: al-warīd is the vein attached to the heart, and “nearness” refers to nearness of knowledge and power (qurb al-ʿilm wal-qudra). The inner organs of man are hidden from other created things, but nothing is hidden from the Knowledge of Allah.(Tafsīr, sub Q 50:16)
The proximity of Allah is also understood as meaning the nearness of His angels, as the verse which follows Q 50:16 mentions the two angels who record everything one does (cf. Tafsīrs of Muqātil, Ṭabarī, and Rāzī, sub Q 50:16-17). Ibn Kathīr (701-774/1301-1373) comments:
As He said: Indeed We have sent down the Reminder (dhikr) and indeed We are its protector (Q 15:9); the angels descend bringing the dhikr—meaning the Qurʾān—by the leave of Allah to Whom belong Might and Majesty….. The angel has a proximity to man, just as the devil (shayṭān) has a proximity in such a way that “the devil circulates in the body like blood” (Bukhārī, Iʿtikāf, hal yadraʾ al-muʿtakif ʿan nafsih; Muslim, Adab, bayān annahu yustaḥabb li-man ruʾiya khāliyan bi-imraʾa wa kānat zawjatah aw maḥraman lah an yaqūl hādhih fulāna), as the Truthful and Trustworthy [Prophet] said; and that is why He said that the two receivers receive (Q 50:17), that is, the two angels recording every deed of man, one sitting on the right and one on the left (Q 50:17), observing, watching and noting…, leaving not a word unrecorded of whatever leaves the mouth of the son of Ādam—as the Most High said, Indeed, there are watchers over you; noble scribes, who know what you do (Q 80:10-12). (Tafsīr, sub Q 50:16-17)
The proximity of Allah Most High is also mentioned elsewhere in the Qurʾān, for instance in Q 2:186 (And if My servants ask thee about Me—behold, I am near; I respond to the call of him who calls, whenever he calls unto Me; so let them respond unto Me and believe in Me, that they may follow the right way); in Q 57:4 (And He is with you wherever you may be; and Allah sees all that you do); and in Q 58:7 (Never is there a secret conversation between three without His being the fourth of them; nor between five without His being the sixth of them; and neither between less than that, or more, without His being with them wherever they may be…). In all these instances it is understood by exegetes as nearness through His Knowledge, for no locus is possible for Him; He is not confined by any space or time (al-Nuʿmānī, al-Lubāb, sub Q 2:186).
The exegetical reflections on Q 69:46 focus on its severity, on the meaning of ‘seizure by the right hand,’ and on the aspects of forgery mentioned in the verse in which al-watīn appears in the context of the disbelievers’ charge of forgery against the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace:
But nay, I swear by all that you see,
And all that you see not,
That it is indeed the speech of an honorable Messenger.
Not the speech of a poet—little is it that you believe!
Nor a soothsayer’s speech—little is it that you remember!
It is a revelation from the Lord of the Worlds.
And had he forged this Discourse and thereafter ascribed it to Us,
We would surely have seized him by the right hand
And then severed his life vein (al-watīn);
And not one of you could have held Us off from him. (Q 69:38-47)
Ibn ʿAbbās (3bh-68/619-688) said: “‘seizure by the right hand’ means ‘with force’” (cf. Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar and Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Tafsīr, sub Q 69:44-45). Abū al-Layth al-Samarqandī (d. 373/983) explains in more detail:
And had he forged this Discourse and thereafter ascribed it to Us means that had Muḥammad—upon him Allah’s blessings and peace—spoken on his own behest, We would surely have seized him by the right hand, meaning, We would have surely punished him. So Allah has informed [the disbelievers] that He would have no partiality (muḥābāt) for anyone if they disobeyed Him regarding [the conveyance of] the Qurʾān, even if that were the Prophet, upon him Allah’s blessings and peace. The meaning of His words by the right hand is “strongly”; according to al-Qurtubī, the right hand stands for strength because the strength of everything is in its right side. Linguists here have other arguments: they say that when it is desired to punish someone, it is said, “seize him by the hand and do such and such to him”: Allah the Exalted said, “Were he lying against Us We would have ordered for him to be seized by the right hand and then We would have punished him.” It is also said that attributing something to Us means: “had he added even one letter to what I revealed to him or subtracted one letter, I would have punished him, even if he is the most honored of all human beings in My sight.” In this verse there is a warning for others, lest they change anything of the Book of Allah Most High, or attribute to it anything on their own. It is also said that bil-yamīn means “with truth” or “with proof”. (Baḥr, sub Q 69:38-47)
Al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/ca.1074-1143) explains the vivid imagery as follows:
Had he claimed and attributed anything to Us which We had not said, We would have killed him in the manner of captives, as kings do with resentment and revenge against those who falsely attribute something to them.” [Allah] employed this image of execution in captivity (qatl al-ṣabr) so that it might be more terrifying: that is to say, the executed is to be grasped by the hand and his neck is to be struck [by the sword]. He specified the right hand, as opposed to the left, because when the executioner aims to strike from behind on the nape he seizes the left hand, whereas when he wants to decapitate from the side of the throat (jīd) so that he may face the sword—which is more dreadful for the person being executed because he sees the sword striking him—he grasps him by the right hand. (Kashshāf, sub Q 69:44-46)
Commenting on And not one of you could have restrained Us from him, Ibn Kathīr (701-774/1301-1373) says that it means that the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, “is truthful, righteous, and guided; for Allah, Mighty and Resplendent is He, keeps him firm and steadfast on what he conveys from Him, and helps him with overwhelming miracles and with irrefutable arguments” (Tafsīr, sub Q 69:46).
In their explanations of Q 69:46, the commentators also mention Q 53:3 (And neither does he speak out of his own desire) and Q 17:74-75 (And had We not made you firm, you might have inclined to them a little; in which case We would indeed have made you taste double [chastisement] in life and double [chastisement] after death, and you would have found none to succor you against Us). These verses refer to an offer of compromise made to the Prophet by the disbelievers (either of Makka or of Ṭāʾif). They asked the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, to recognize some of their deities as true gods, and in return offered to recognize him as their leader. The proposal was emphatically rejected by the Prophet; the infallibility (ʿiṣma) granted to the Prophet by Allah made it impossible for him to attribute anything to Allah which He Himself had not revealed (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Rāzī, Bayḍāwī, and Shawkānī, sub Q 17:74-75). Al-Ṭabarī narrates from the Successor Qatāda (d. 117/735) that when Q 17:74 was revealed, the Prophet prayed, “Do not leave me, O my Lord, to myself (nafsī), even for the blinking of an eye” (Tafsīr, sub Q 17:74-75).
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