Clouds
(ghamām, saḥāb, muzn, Ṣayyib, muʿṣirāt, ʿāriḍ)

Hasan Spiker

Clouds appear in the Qurʾān through six terms which variously emphasize their different aspects: four times as ghamām(Q 2:57, 210; 7:160; 25:25), highlighting their veiling of sunlight; nine times as saḥāb(Q 2:164; 7:57; 13:12; 24:40, 43; 27:88; 30:48; 35:9; 52:44), highlighting their being subjected to the Divine will; once each as muzn(Q 56:69), ṣayyib(Q 2:19), and muʿṣirāt(Q 78:14), specifically referring to rain-bearing clouds; once as ʿāriḍ (Q 46:24, x2), a dark cloud, specifically when seen on the horizon, but signifying punishment and destruction. Clouds have the distinction of being among the natural phenomena explicitly marked out as “Signs of Allah”: Verily there are, in the creation of heavens and earth… and the control of winds, and the saḥāb subservient between heaven and earth, great signs for a people that reflect (Q 2:164). Clouds are thus presented as instruments of Divine mercy (Muqātil, Tafsīr) (e.g. Q 2:57: And We outspread the cloud to overshadow you) and of Divine punishment; and as instruments subjugated and employed by Allah (e.g. Q 24:43: Do you not see that Allah propels the clouds, then makes them to coalesce, then piles them up? Then you see the rain issuing from their midst) (see Apportionment; Creation).

Definitions and Usage

Clouds appear in the Qurʾān through six terms which variously emphasize their different aspects: four times as ghamām (Q 2:57, 210; 7:160; 25:25), highlighting their veiling of sunlight; nine times as saḥāb (Q 2:164; 7:57; 13:12; 24:40, 43; 27:88; 30:48; 35:9; 52:44), highlighting their being subjected to the Divine will; once each as muzn (Q 56:69), ṣayyib (Q 2:19), and muʿṣirāt (Q 78:14), specifically referring to rain-bearing clouds; once as ʿāriḍ (Q 46:24, x2), a dark cloud, specifically when seen on the horizon, but signifying punishment and destruction. Clouds have the distinction of being among the natural phenomena explicitly marked out as “Signs of Allah” (q.v.): Verily there are, in the creation of heavens and earth… and the control of winds, and the saḥāb subservient between heaven and earth, great signs for a people that reflect (Q 2:164). Clouds are thus presented as instruments of Divine mercy (Muqātil, Tafsīr) (e.g. Q 2:57: And We outspread the cloud to overshadow you) and of Divine punishment; and as instruments subjugated and employed by Allah (e.g. Q 24:43: Do you not see that Allah propels the clouds, then makes them to coalesce, then piles them up? Then you see the rain issuing from their midst) (see Apportionment; Creation).

In his authoritative lexicon of the Qurʾān, Abū al-Qāsim al-Ḥusayn b. Muḥammadal-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. ca.502/1108) says “ghamm is the veiling of a thing (satr al-shayʾ), whence is derived al-ghamām (clouds), because of their being a veil over the light of the sun. The Most High said [What do they look for] but that Allah shall come to them in the cloud-shadows (fī ẓulalin min al-ghamām)(Q 2:210)” (Mufradāt, sub gh-m-m).

Saḥāb, from the root s-ḥ-b (saḥbmeans“draw or pull” and “drag along”), means clouds “either because of their being dragged along by the wind, or because they draw up the water, or because their floating motion is one of being swept along… clouds (al-ghaym), whether or not they carry water, which is why the term ‘dry cloud’ (saḥāb jahām) is used. … Clouds may be mentioned where shade and darkness are intended, because of a simile being drawn, as in the words of the Most Highor like layers of darkness in a deep ocean, covered by wave upon wave, topped by clouds, darkness upon darkness” (Q 24:40)(Rāghib, Mufradāt).

The noun muzn (from the root m-z-n), the only word to appear in the Qurʾān from this root, refers generically to clouds, and it is also said that it refers [specifically] to rain clouds … Another opinion holds that a muzn is a white cloud” (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, bāb al-nūn, faṣl al-mīm). Rāghib says “al-muzn are luminous clouds (al-saḥāb al-muḍīʾ)…The Most High said, Is it you who sends it down from luminous clouds, or do We send it? (Q 56:69). The crescent moon that appears between the clouds is called ‘bornof a luminous cloud’ (ibn muzna)” (Mufradāt, sub m-z-n). “White clouds” in Lisānperhaps originate in Rāghib’s “luminous” clouds.The Indo-Yemeni lexicography al-Sayyid Muḥammad Murtaḍā al-Zabīdī (1145-1205/1732-1790)considers the gloss of “luminous” to be a weaker position (Tāj, sub m-z-n), however,that of “white” is confirmed by the philologist Abū Manṣūr ʿAbd al-Malik b. Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Thaʿālabī (350-429/962-1039) (Fiqh al-lugha p. 302).

Three other words for clouds appear in one verse each: ṣayyib (Q 2:19) (for its use in this highly evocative verse, see Hypocrisy and Hypocrites), muʿṣirāt (Q 78:14), and ʿāriḍ (twice in Q 46:24). Ṣayyib denotes “a cloud that specifically pours forth [rain]” (al-saḥāb al-mukhṭaṣṣ bil-ṣawb), that is, a raincloud, and it is derived from ṣ-w-b, a triliteral root variously denoting “to strike,” “to befall,” and “to pour down [torrentially]” (Rāghib, Mufradāt, sub ṣ-w-b). Abū Manṣūr al-Thaʿālabī says a ṣayyib is accompanied by “intensely loud noise” (Fiqh al-lugha p. 303) in which case “cloudburst” could be a more appropriate translation:

as a cloudburst from the skyfilled with darknesses, thun­der and lightning (Q 2:19):Ṣayyib is a fayʿal form of ṣawb which means “descent.” It applies to rain and also to clouds; al-Shammākh said:and a low-lying black cloud (asḥam) true to its thunder, pouring (sayyib).In the verse both meanings are possible. … It was also said that what is meant by al-samāʾ is the cloud (al-saḥāb). … if, by ṣayyib, rain is meant, then its “darknesses” are the darkness of its opacity through uninterrupted rainfall and the darkness of its clouds together with the dark­ness of night. It was made the locus of thunder and lightning be­cause they are in its top and bottom parts, coalescing with it. (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr)

A ʿāriḍ is “a towering cloud that appears on the horizons” (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, sub ʿ-r-ḍ), a cloud that “appears (yaʿriḍ) [first] in one particular part of the sky, and then goes on to cover the sky [entirely] (thumma yuṭabbiqu al-samāʾ)” (Baghawī, Tafsīr, sub Q 46:24). Muʿṣir comes from the root ʿ-ṣ-r, “to squeeze out, to wring, to press” and denotes clouds that are “pressing out rain” (Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ). Q 78:14 states, and We have sent down from the rain-clouds (al-muʿṣirāt) abundant water.


Clouds as Instruments of Divine Mercy

In Q 2:57, clouds are mentioned as instruments of Divine mercy and favor to the Children of Isrāʾīl: And We shaded you with clouds, and sent down manna and quails upon you, “Eat of the good things We have provided you.” They wronged Us not, but themselves did they wrong.“Allah, Mighty and Majestic is He, reminds [the Children of Isrāʾīl] of His immense favor to them…in His reviving them after death, sending them clouds to shade them, and sending down mann and salwāto them. They were singled out for these [favors], to the exclusion of others” (Māturīdī, Tafsīr). Clouds also appear in Q 7:160 along with other blessings and favors conferred upon them: And We split them into twelve tribes, as [distinct] nations. And We revealed to Mūsā, when his people asked him for water, to “Strike the rock with your staff!” Thereupon twelve springs gushed forth from it; all of the people knew their drinking-place. And We outspread the cloud to overshadow them, and We sent down manna and quails upon them: “Eat of the good things that We have provided for you.” They did not wrong Us, but they only wronged themselves. The majority of early exegetes (Ibn ʿAbbās, Mujāhid, Ibn Jurayj) say these were no ordinary, everyday clouds. Ibn ʿAbbās (3bh-68/619-688) held that they were “clouds cooler and more pleasant than [ordinary clouds], and they are those in which [the presence of] Allah will come on the Day of Resurrection, as in His words in the shadows of the clouds (Q 2:210), and in which the angels came on the day of Badr” (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:57; cf. Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Tafsīr).Abū al-Layth Naṣr b. Muḥammad al-Samarqandī (d. 373/983) offers context for the appearance of clouds:and We outspread the cloud to overshadow you: He addresses them [that is, from Q 2:47’s O Children of Isrāʾīl, remember the special favor which I bestowed upon you] but is referring to their ancestors, the people of Mūsā, upon him peace, about their having been commanded to enter the land of the people of exceeding strength, but they refused to do so, telling Mūsā go you and your Lord and fight. We are staying here! [a reference to Q 5:24]. Allah punished them by making them wonder in the desert for forty years… they were suffering from the heat of the sun, and so Allah shaded them with theclouds (Baḥr, sub Q 2:57)

Other verses illustrate Allah Most High’s providential ordering of the wind, the clouds, and the rain in a manner that emphasizes His direct power over them, and also their teleological benefit for humanity; they are subjugated by Allah Most High and are a manifestation of His mercy: He it is Who lets loose the winds, bringing glad tidings of His coming mercy, until when they have gathered up heavy clouds We drive them to a dead land and send water down upon it, bringing forth therewith all manner of fruit. In the same way shall We bring forth the dead; perhaps you will take heed (Q 7:57); It is Allah Who lets loose the winds that stir the clouds. He spreads them over the sky as He wills, and breaks them up, and you see the rain issuing from their midst. And when He makes it to fall upon whomsoever of His servants He wishes, behold, they rejoice! (Q 30:48);and It is Allah Who lets loose the winds that stir the clouds, which We do drive to a land that is dead, and give life to the land therewith after its death. That is how the Resurrection shall be (Q 35:9). The latter verse displays one of the frequent cases of “rhetorical redirection” (iltifāt) in the Qurʾān, whereby the same subject shifts from the grammatical third person (it is Allah) to the first person (which We do drive), “as if from absence to presence… as a refinement of speech, switch­ing from one style to another in order to refresh it and stim­ulate the listener” (Bayḍāwī, sub Q 1:5).

The association between rain and clouds with the revival of the earth, the resurrection of the dead, and Divine mercy is also evoked in Q 30:50 (Look then to the effects of Allah’s Mercy, how He brings the earth to life after its death. That certainly is the Raiser of the dead, and He is capable of doing all things), and is particularly significant in that clouds are also associated with the actual events of Resurrection (see “Clouds as an Eschatological Portent” below and Day of Judgment).


Clouds as Instruments of Divine Punishment

Fundamentally an instrument of the manifestation of Divine mercy as distributors of life-giving water, clouds, asʿāriḍ, may also serve as instruments of punishment. A striking example of this is the exposition of how the people of ʿĀd were punished:

Then, when they saw it as a sudden blanketing cloud (ʿāriḍan) on the horizon, coming straight for their valleys, they said, “this is a sudden blanketing cloud to give us rain.” Not so; it is that whose speedy coming you have challenged—a wind bearing a painful punishment. It will destroy all things by the command of its Lord. And in the morning there was naught to be seen but their dwelling places. Thus do We recompense a wicked people.

Q 46:24-25

Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (224-310/839-923) explains (Tafsīr) that, according to the early exegete Qatāda b. Diʿāma(61-117/681-735) and others, the people of ʿĀd did indeed link the cloud they saw approaching to the warnings of the Prophet Hūd, peace upon him, but they used this as an opportunity to exultantly and mockingly proclaim him a liar, for it seemed clear to them that this was a rain-bearing cloud coming to relieve them of the dry spell they had been suffering from. The disbelievers’ behavior here parallels their portrayal as attempting to minimize and explain away ostensibly supernatural phenomena (as in Q 52:44).

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, used to be deeply affected by the coming of clouds and blowing of the wind. When his wife ʿĀʾisha (d. 57/678)—Allah be well-pleased with her—said to him, “O Messenger of Allah, people are usually pleased when they see clouds, in the hope that they will bring rain. But I observe that when you see them, a dislike is visible on your face.” He said, “ʿĀʾisha, what guarantees me that it will not involve a punishment? A people were punished by means of the wind; people saw the punishment and said, This is a sudden blanketing cloud to give us rain [Q 46:24]” (Bukhārī, Tafsīr, fa-lammā raʾawhu ʿāriḍan; see also ʿĀd). “The wind never blew but the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, fell to his knees (jathā ʿalā rukbatayh) and supplicated,” (Shāfiʿī, Musnad, 2:69 §537).

In the account of the warning and punishment that befell the people of Prophet Shuʿayb, peace upon him(Q 26:176-190), the “shadow” in Q 26:189 (the punishment of the Day of the Shadow,ʿadhāb yawm al-ẓulla) is according to one opinion a “cloud that rained fire upon them” (see Ṭabarī andQurṭubī, Tafsīrs; Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr).Prior to their destruction, the “People of the Thicket” (aṣḥāb al-ayka) also demanded that “pieces of the sky” (kisafan min al-samāʾ) be dropped upon them to prove the truthfulness of Prophet Shuʿayb, peace be upon him. Yet if they actually saw this falling upon them, they would say it is merely “a heap of clouds” (Q 52:44), “because of the hardness of their heart” (Samarqandī, Baḥr, sub Q 52:44).


Clouds as a Sign

Surely in the creation of the earth, and the alternation of the night and the day, and the ship that sails in the sea with that which is of benefit to man, and the water that Allah sends down from the sky, and with which He gives life to the earth when it was dead, dispersing over it all manner of crawling thing, and the turning about of the winds, and the clouds subservient between the sky and the earth—there are surely signs, for those who use their intellects.

Q 2:164

The “subservient clouds” (al-saḥāb al-musakhkhar) of this verse are a sign of the unique Oneness of Allah Most High (tawḥīd), in that they form a part of the harmoniously ordered cosmic framework that as a whole guarantees human provision and sustenance: “He is the One Who sets in motion the clouds, [which carry] the rain upon which your lives and the lives of your grazing livestock depend” (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr). Fakhr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209), whose commentary on this verse in his Mafātīḥ al-ghayb extends over more than thirty pages, explains that the clouds are called “subservient” in this verse for several reasons:

one of which is that water is by nature heavy, which entails that it must fall; its remaining in the air is thus against its nature; there must then be a force that compels it to do this, and this is [one reason] that [in the verse clouds are] called ‘subservient’. The second reason is that were these clouds to remain indefinitely, they would cause immense harm, because they cover the sun’s light, and would bring excessive rain and moisture, whereas there would also be immense harm in their ceasing to appear, because that would entail drought leading to there being no pasture and no farming. It is the normal distribution [of the clouds], then, that is in the interests [of humanity], and it is [in this sense that they are said to be] subservient... The third reason is that the clouds do not stay [at all times] in any particular place; rather, Allah Most High drives them forth, by means of [His] setting the winds in motion, to wherever He so wills, and this is [what is meant by] being made subservient. (Tafsīr)


Clouds as an Eschatological Portent and the Interpretation of Q 2:210

Clouds also appear in the Qurʾān in the midst of eschatological events along with other unprecedented phenomena. One striking instance of this type is Q 2:210: What do they look for, but that Allah should come to them in the shadows of the clouds (fī ẓulalin min al-ghamām), together with the angels? But then the matter would already have been determined. And unto Allah all matters are returned. Before addressing certain evident theological questions that arise from this verse, al-Rāzī (Tafsīr) explains the meaning of in the shadows of the clouds: “Know that clouds do not [provide shade] except if they gather into a mass. Shadows [rather than a single “shadow”] of clouds are made up of distinct segments, each of which is of surpassing density and immensity; and each segment has a shadow (ẓulla), the plural of which is “shadows” (ẓulal).

But what of the notion that Allah Most High should “come to them” in the shadows of the clouds?

There is consensus among the scholars of the rational sciences that He—transcendently glorified is He—is far removed from [physical] coming and going. The demonstration of this comprises several aspects, the first of which is the principle established in the science of principles (fī ʿilm al-uṣūl) that anything that can come and go cannot be separated from movement and rest, which are both temporally originated (muḥdath)—and anything that cannot be separated from something which is temporally originated is itself temporally originated. It follows logically that everything that can come and go must necessarily be temporally originated and created (makhlūqan), and it is impossible for the Beginninglessly Eternal God (al-Ilāh al-qadīm) to be so…[Hence], scholars have put forth several possible interpretations for What do they look for, but that Allah should come to them. The first is the school of doctrine of the Righteous Forefathers (al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ), which is that since conclusive proofs have established that coming and going with respect to Allah are impossible, we know for certain that what Allah Most High means in this verse is not coming and going, and that it must be something else; yet if we specify that intent, we cannot be sure that we have not made a mistake. The best thing, then, is not to interpret it, but to leave the detailed meaning of the verse to Allah.

Al-Rāzī adds that, of the dialectical theologians who hold that the verse requiresan explicitly-stated interpretation, some have averred that the verse intends, by “Allah”, “the signs of Allah”; others, that it means “the command of Allah”; and yet others, that the verse means “what do they look for, but that Allah should bring about the punishment and judgment that He has promised?” Another possible meaning is that the particle fī (“in”) in the verse here means bi- (“with” or “by means of”, in conjunction with the verb yaʾti here meaning “to bring”), such that the verse means What do they look for, but that Allah should bring them the shadows of the clouds, and the angels?—meaning that Allah will bring about the punishment that will come to them from within the clouds, by means of the angels. Yet another possibility is that the verse simply constitutes a symbolic depiction (taṣwīr) of the awe-inspiring, dismaying, and intense nature of the Resurrection (Rāzī, Tafsīr).

Q 25:25 also alludes to the portentous function of clouds, as foretokens of the onset of the Resurrection: On the Day that heaven is split asunder with the clouds, and the angels are sent down in majesty.The ghamām here are “delicate, white clouds that no man has yet seen, except those which came to shade the Children of Israel (cf. Q 2:57)” (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar). Abū al-Suʿūd Muḥammad al-ʿImādī (896-982/1490-1574) follows an early exegetical tradition in establishing this verse’s connection to Q 2:210: “The clouds mentioned here are those referred to in What do they look for, but that Allah should come to them in the shadows of the clouds, together with the angels? … the angels will descend through those clouds, bearing the scrolls of the deeds of the servants of Allah” (Abū al-Suʿūd, Irshād, sub Q 25:25; cf. Tabarī and Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīrs). Another verse that links clouds to eschatological portents is the previously cited Q 52:44: And if they were to see a piece of the heaven falling, they would say: A heap of clouds; but here this has been inverted by the unbelievers. Thus they explain away the true harbingers of the Hour as “mere” massed clouds in an attempt to reduce these phenomena to the concrete and “natural”—and thereby to explain them away—all of which is symptomatic of the belief of the Arabs of the Age of Ignorance, that all things possess natures of a fixity that cannot possibly admit of such unaccustomed changes (see Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 52:44).

Q 27:88 describes the extraordinary circumstances after the first sounding of the trumpet by the angel Isrāfīl (see Angels). At the moment of the trumpet blast, humankind will see the mountains and think they are firmly fixed, but they will be passing by like clouds: “[The mountains] will drift along as rain does when battered by the wind, until [the mountains] fall onto the ground, and thereby become flattened, as a prelude to the mountains becoming like carded wool (Q 101:5, also Q 70:9) and then a dust, scattered (Q 56:6)” (Jalālayn, Tafsīr).

Most exegetes says mountains appearing as moving clouds in Q 27:88 (And you will see the mountains and think they are firmly fixed, but they will be passing by like clouds; Allah’s handiwork Who perfects all things. He is aware of the things you do) refers to circumstances of the End of the world. The description appears along with other signs of the Hour—the coming out of the Beast of the Earth (Q 27:82), the blowing of the Trumpet (Q 27:87), and the uprooting of the mountains which will be passing by like clouds. “Know that this is the third sign of the imminent coming of the Resurrection: the mountains being set in motion (Rāzī,Tafsīr, sub Q 27:88).


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See also

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