The name of an ancient Mesopotamian city in present-day Iraq, where some Israelites learned sorcery, is mentioned once in the Qurʾān (Q 2:102).
Bābil is considered to be a derivative of balbala, infinitive noun of balbal, meaning confusion (Farāhīdī. ʿAyn). The city was thus named because here the tongues were confounded when the tower built by Nimrūd was destroyed (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:102). Abū ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-Barr (368-463/978-1070) held that the best account regarding the confounding of languages is the narration from Ibn ʿAbbās (3BH-68/619-688), that when Nūḥ, upon him peace, landed at the bottom of Mount Jūdiyy (see Ark; Mountains), he founded the city and gave it eighty names. One day their language was confounded into eighty languages, Arabic being one of them; some of them could no longer understand one another (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:102).
The context in which Bābil is mentioned is the attitude of the Children of Isrāʾīl toward the Qurʾān and the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, who came to them confirming what they already possessed; yet a party of those who were granted Scripture aforetime cast the Divine writ behind their backs as though unaware [of what it says] (Q 2:101). The verse is followed by a reference to some Israelites learning sorcery from Hārūt and Mārūt in Bābil:
And they followed [instead] what the devils had recited during the reign of Solomon. It was not Solomon who disbelieved, but the devils disbelieved, teaching people magic and that which was revealed to the two angels at Babylon, Harut and Marut. But the two angels do not teach anyone unless they say, "We are a trial, so do not disbelieve [by practicing magic]." And [yet] they learn from them that by which they cause separation between a man and his wife. But they do not harm anyone through it except by permission of Allah. And the people learn what harms them and does not benefit them. But the Children of Israel certainly knew that whoever purchased the magic would not have in the Hereafter any share. And wretched is that for which they sold themselves, if they only knew.
Muslim geographers have left many accounts of Bābil. At the time of Ibn Ḥawqal (d. ca.379/990), it was a small village, “the most ancient in the eponymously named region, strewn with the ruins of great edifices, being the locale of the seat of the kings of Canaan.” Ibn Ḥawqal further mentions two mounds, one of which was said to have been left behind from the fire Nimrūd kindled for Ibrāhīm, upon him peace (Ibn Ḥawqal, Masālik p. 70). Likewise, al-Bīrūnī (362-440/973-1048) and Abū al-Fidāʾ (d. 732/1331) both believed Bābil to be the site of Nimrūd’s fire (al-Bīrūnī, al-Āthār al-bāqīya p. 87-88; Abū al-Fidāʾ, Taqwīm al-buldān p. 299, 303). In his summary of the various legends and historical accounts of the city, Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī (d. 626/1228) cites the aforementioned opinion of commentators that the city was built by Nūḥ, upon him peace, after the Flood. He also recounts the Persian lore that Bābil, located between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris in the region of the same name, famous for its wine (see Intoxicants) and magic, was built by al-Ḍaḥḥāk, the legendary king famed to have lived a thousand years (Ṭabarī, Tārīkh 1:197). He adds that the city prospered until it was destroyed by Alexander the Great (Yāqūt, Buldān, sub Bābil). Excavations carried out by the German architect R. Koldewey (1855-1925) between 1899 and 1917 systematically traced mud brick architecture, distinguished between ancient buildings and later pits, and uncovered the Etemenanki, said to be the original foundation of the Tower of Babel (Koldewey, Excavations).
Most exegetes consider the Bābil mentioned in the Qurʾān to have been a town in ʿIrāq, but al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923) and, following him, Ibn Kathīr (d. 774/1373) also cite a minority opinion according to which it was a city in Persia and was also known as Bābil Dunbāwand—Damāwand in Persian—(cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī and Ibn Kathīr, sub Q 2:102). Ibn ʿAṭiyya (d. ca.542/1147) also mentions a weak opinion that it was located between Naṣībīn and Raʾs al-ʿayn, and a stronger opinion that it was in the vicinity of Kūfa. The latter theory accords with the saying of Ibn Masʿūd—may Allah be pleased with him—to the people of Kūfa: “you are between al-Ḥīra and Bābil” (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar).
Al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1273) states that it was in Bābil that Nimrūd built his Tower and adds further details: it was 5000 cubits high, 3000 cubits wide, and two farsakh (approximately nine kilometers) long (see Weights and Measures). It is this tower that was destroyed by Allah, either via an earthquake or by a wind as stated in Q 16:26: Those before them devised plans, but Allah destroyed their building from its foundations, so its roof fell down on them from above them, and the chastisement came to them from whence they did not perceive. People’s tongues were confounded into seventy-three languages due to the terror of the day. Until then there had been only one language, identified as the primordial Syriac (suryāni). There is an echo of Genesis 11:5-8 in this explanation, which al-Qurṭubī narrates on the authority of Wahb b. Munabbih (d. ca.111/730) and Muqātil b. Sulaymān (d. 149/767). The latter states that when Nimrūd built a great fire to cast into it the Prophet Ibrāhīm, upon him peace, who emerged from it unscathed, the people rushed to inform Nimrūd—but their tongues were confounded, they did not understand each other, and they spoke in seventy different tongues (Muqātil, Tafsīr, sub Q 21:69).
Abū al-Fidāʾ, al-Muʾayyad ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl b. al-Mālik al-Afḍal. Taqwīm al-buldān. Ed. MacGuckin de Slane. Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1840.
al-Bīrūnī, Abū Rayḥān. al-Āthār al-bāqiyya ʿan al-qurūn al-khāliyya. Ed. C.E. Sachau. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1878.
Ibn ʿAṭiyya. Muḥarrar.
Ibn Ḥawqal, Muḥammad Abū al-Qāsim. Kitāb al-Masālik wal-mamālik. Trans. Sir William Ouseley. London: T. Cadell, Jr. and W. Davies, Strand, 1800.
Ibn Kathīr. Tafsīr.
Koldewey, Robert. The Excavations at Babylon. Trans. Agnes S. Johns. London: MacMillan, 1941.