Drowning, gharaq, is death by submersion in water. The Qurʾān mentions drowning as Divine punishment which befell the disbelieving nation of Prophet Nūḥ, upon him peace, and Firʿawn and his army. Prophetic teachings convey that a believer who drowns is a martyr (shahīd; Bukhārī, faḍl al-tahjīr ilā-l-ẓuhr; Muslim, bayan al-shuhadāʾ).
Definitions and Usage
The Qurʾānic term for drowning—gharaq—is derived from the triliteral root gh-r-q which carries the meaning of submersion in water (rasab fī-māʾ); the one who is submerged in debt or afflicted by tribulations is metaphorically called “rajulun ghariq or gharīq" (al-Farāhīdī,ʿAyn; Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān). Four forms of this root occur 23 times in the Qurʾān (ʿAbd al-Bāqī, al-Muʿjam al-Mufahras, sub gh-r-q).
- The Form IV verb “aghraqa" occurs sixteen times; its passive form (ughriqū) is used once (Q 71:25). In all but one usage of this form the action of drowning is ascribed to Allah Most High, either explicitly, using the majestic first person plural pronoun as suffix—aghraqnā (We drowned, 13 times)—or implicitly; the exception being Q18:71, where Prophet Mūsā asks al-Khaḍir (upon them both peace), did you make the hole [in the boat] to drown its people? Of the sixteen veses, eight describe the drowning of the nation of Prophet Nūḥ, upon him peace (Q 7:64; 10:73; 21:77; 25:37; 26:120; 36:43; 37:82; 71:25) and six mention the perdition of Firʿawn and his people (Q 2:50; 7:136; 8:54; 26:66; 29:40; 43:55). Q 29:40 refers to both of them (Baghawī, Samʿānī, Ṭabarī, Tafsīrs; Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād) and Q 36:43 reminds the disbelievers travelling on ships that their safety is due to Divine mercy, for He has the power to drown them (Ṭabarī);
- The nominal form “gharaq” is occurs once (Q 10:90), referring to the realization of Firʿawn that he is about to drown;
- The passive participle of the fourth verbal form (“mughraqūn/mughraqīn”) appears four times (11:37, 43; 23:27; 44:24). The first three refer to the drowning of the nation of Nūḥ, upon him peace and Q 44:24 to that of Firʿawn and his army; and
- the adverbial accusative form “gharqan” (Q 79:1) is used once, "it is like the expression aghraqa fī-l-qaws, describing the drawing of the bow to its full extent (yablughu bihi ghāyat al-madd), with the greatest possible force; so gharqan in this verse means ‘with a vehement pulling’" (Farrāʾ, Maʿānī); it refers to the violent pulling out of the soul by the angels.
Drowning of the Nation of Nūḥ
The Prophet Nūḥ, upon him peace, lived among his people for 950 years, calling them to Allah, day and night, openly and secretly, but most of them disbelieved in him (see Sura Nūḥ, Q 70). When the respite given them reached its limit, it was revealed unto Nūḥ, “None of your people will believe, save those who have already believed. So be not distressed by that which they used to do. Build the Ark before Our Eyes and by Our Revelation and address Me not concerning those who did wrong; surely they shall be drowned. (Q 11:36-37). The believers from among his nation were saved in the Ark, which was built following Divine instructions, together with pairs of the species Allah intended to save from a great flood (Q 11:37-40). Truly when the waters rose We carried you upon the ship that We might make it a reminder for you, and that attentive ears might take heed (Q 69:11-12). Thus, “the rescuing of the believers and the drowning of the unbelievers is a lesson and an indication of the Power of the Creator, His wisdom, His absolute domination, and His mercy” (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr).
In Q 7:64, the disbelievers from among the nation of Nūḥ, upon him peace, are called blind people (kānū qawman ʿamīna), because “their hearts had become blind to the Truth” (Mujāhid, Tafsīr; Zajjāj, Maʿānī). When they denied the Messengers, We drowned them, and We made them a sign for humankind” (Q 25:37). The use of the plural form (rasula) for the Messenger sent to them (that is, Nūḥ, upon him peace) is explained by Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Qurṭubī (600-671/1204-1273): “[In this verse] the genus (jins) is used although the intended meaning is Nūḥ alone, for at that time, Nūḥ was the only Messenger who had been sent to them and there existed no other Messenger. Nūḥ was sent with the glad tidings of Allah, [asking] them to believe in that what Allah had revealed. When they denied him, their denial amounted to denial of all [Messengers] who were to come after him. Thus, the one who denies one single Messenger, denies all the Messengers; no one can make a distinction between them regarding [the requisite for] faith in [all of] them and each Messenger approved and accepted as true (yuṣaddiq) all other Messengers of Allah; so he who denies one single Prophet from among them, [in fact] denies all those who accept him [the one denied] as true from among the Prophets. This is why Allah drowned them by the deluge” (Tafsīr, sub Q 25:37).
Drowning of Firʿawn and his army
Firʿawn “is the title for the king of the Amalekites, just like Kisrā (Chosroes) and Qayṣar (Caesar) are titles for the kings of Persia and Rome respectively” (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:50). The Firʿawn of Egypt who was drowned is not named in the Qurʾān, but according to Ibn Isḥāq (d. 150/767) and most of the exegetes his name was Walīd b. Muṣʿab b. al-Rayyān (Ṭabarī, Thaʿlabī, Zamakhsharī, Qurṭubī, Baghawī, Bayḍāwī, Khāzin, Ibn Kathīr, sub Q 2:50; his father Muṣʿab b. Rayyān according to Bayḍāwī).
Firʿawn had exalted himself in the land (Q 28:4). In his pursuit of the Children of Isrāʾīl, he led his army to perdition. When he recognized his imminent drowning, he said, “I believe that there is no god but the One in whom the Children of Israel believe, and I am among those who submit.” This admission of belief was rejected: “Now! While previously you disobeyed and were among those who work corruption?” (Q 10:90-91) “This is according to the custom of Allah,” writes Ibn Abī Zamanīn (d. 399/1008), “admission of faith is not acceptable after the punishment has already started” (Tafsīr).
Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī (d. 333/ca.945) offers three explanations for the rejection of Firʿawn’s proclamation of faith at the time of his drowning: it was not acceptable because it was due to the dread and fear of perishing, rather than true admission of faith, like the “belief” of the disbelievers who would say on the Day when the Punishment shall come upon them, “Our Lord! Grant us reprieve for a term nigh, that we might respond to Your Call and follow the Messengers” (Q 14:44). Also, like: “Till, when death comes to one of them, he says, ‘My Lord! Return me, that haply I may work righteousness with regard to that which I left. Nay, indeed these are words that he speaks’” (Q 23:99-100). And as the saying of the People of Hell, who would say, “Our Lord! Remove us, that we may work righteousness other than that which we used to do” (Q 35:37). The Divine response to such is: “And even if they were sent back, they would return to the very thing they had been forbidden” (Q 6:28). Because belief and Islam are surrendering of one’s self (nafs) to Allah, and declaration of belief at a time when one’s self is no more in one’s possession, amounts to not really submitting one’s self or being to Allah, as it is no more in one’s possession. Furthermore, belief in Allah can only be obtained through the attestation of the Unseen (al-ghāʾib) via deliberate pondering and reflection, which is not possible when one is drowning, hence Firʿawn’s proclamation of faith was not true (Taʾwīlāt sub Q 10:90-91).
Ibn ʿAbbās narrates that the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said, “When Allah drowned the Firʿawn and he said, ‘I believe that there is no god except the One in Whom the Children of Israel believe,’ Jibrīl said, ‘O Muhammad, only if you had seen me then!, I was taking clay from the bottom of the sea and shoving it in his mouth, fearing lest the Mercy should reach him’” (Tirmidhī, Sunan, abwāb tafsīr al-Qurʾān, bāb wa min sūrat Yūnus, hadith classed ḥasan).
Ibn ʿĀshūr. Tafsīr.
Ibn ʿAṭiyya. Muḥarrar.
Ibn Fāris. Maqāyīs.
Ibn Manẓūr. Lisān.