Qur’ānic Zaqqum – A Scientific Study

Az-Zaqqum is the Qur’ānic name. Its common names are Lebbein, Rummid, Rijlat-Iblis (Arabic), Euphorbia (Englishand Latin), Euphorbe (French), Euforvion (German), Thohar, Sehnd (Hindi, Urdu), Vajra-Kantaka (Sanskrit), Ailaikkalli (Tamil), TiktaSij. PataSij (Bengali), Kalli (Malayalam), Akiyemadu (Telugu). Its botanical name is Euphorbia ResiniferaBerg. (Euphorbiaceae).

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ByDr. M. I. H. Farooqi

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Az-Zaqqum is the Qur’ānic name. Its common names are Lebbein, Rummid, Rijlat-Iblis (Arabic), Euphorbia (Englishand Latin), Euphorbe (French), Euforvion (German), Thohar, Sehnd (Hindi, Urdu), Vajra-Kantaka (Sanskrit), Ailaikkalli (Tamil), TiktaSij. PataSij (Bengali), Kalli (Malayalam), Akiyemadu (Telugu). Its botanical name is Euphorbia ResiniferaBerg. (Euphorbiaceae).

Quranic References :

In Surah Bani-Israel-Children of Israel, Verse:60, the Qur’ān says:

“And recall when We said to you, (O Muhammad), that your Lord encompasses these people; and that We have made that vision that We have shown you, and the tree accursed in the Qur’ān, but as a trial for people. We go about warning them, but each warning leads them to greater transgression.”

In Surah As-Saffat-Those Ranged in Ranks,V : 62-68, the Qur’ān further says:

“Is this a better hospitality or the Tree of al-Zaqqum? We have made this tree a trial for the wrong-doers. It is a tree that grows in the nethermost part of Hell. Itsspathes are like the heads of satans. (The people of Hell) will surely eat of it, filling their bellies with it. Then on top of it they will have a brew of boiling water. Then their return will be to the same blazing Hell.”

In Surah Ad-Dukhan-Smoke,V : 43-48, the Book of God says:

“The Tree of al-Zaqqum shall be the food of the sinful. Like dregs of oil, it will boil in their bellies like boiling water. “Seize him and drag him to the middle of the Blazing Fire, thenpour boiling water over his head as chastisement.”

Similarly, in Surah Al-Waqi’a-The inevitable event, V:52-56, the Qur’ān states:

“Then you, the erring ones and those that gave the lie to the Truth, shall all eat from the Tree of al-Zaqqum, filling your bellies with it; and thereupon you shall drink boiling water, drinking it as thirsty camels do.” Thus shall they be entertained on the Day of Recompense.”

According to AlMunjid(Arabic Dictionary), Zaqqum (زقوم) is the Tree of Hell and a poisonous food for the sinners. In some other Dictionaries it has been described as a thorny plant with a bitter taste. In the Qur’ān, this plant has been mentioned thrice under the name of Zaqqum and at one place it has been referred to as Shajr al-Malu’na (شجرملعونہ) i.e. the ‘Cursed Tree’.

Ibn Kathir says – Here Allah asks: “Is that which He has mentioned of the delights of Paradise with its food, drink, companions and other joys better entertainment, or the tree of Zaqqum which is in Hell.” The meaning here is a specific kind of tree which is called Zaqqum.  Ibn Abi Hatim recorded that Sa’id bin Jubayr said, “When the people of Hell get hungry, they will ask for food from the tree of Zaqqum. They will eat from it, then the skin of their faces will fall off. If someone were to pass by, he would recognise them from their faces.” The tree of Zaqqum is mentioned as a test for those who are misguided. However, Abu Jahl, may Allah curse him, said, “Zaqqum means dates (Tamar) and butter which I eat.”

Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, while explaining the meaning of Surah Bani Israel in his Tarjuman al-Qur’ān, has identified Zaqqum as Thohar (تھوہڑ), a plant widely occurring in India. Similarly, in Tafseer-e-Haqqani, Thohar or Sehnd of India has been termed as Zaqqum of the Qur’ān.

Maulana Maudoodi in his Tafhim-ul-Qur’ān has stated,“The plant of Zaqqum occurs in Tehama. It is bitter in taste with bad smell and the latex from its stem causes blisters on human body. Probably it is the same plant which is called Thohar in our country.”

Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi, in his Tafseer-e-Majidi, has written that the plant named Hanzal (حنظل) might be the true Zaqqum. Mr. Abdullah Yusuf Ali in his ‘Meaning of Glorious Qur’ān’, has not given any English vernacular or Botanical name of Zaqqum but has reported (Note No. 2250) that the plant occurring at Jericho (near Jerusalem) in the name of Zaqqum is a plant of Myrobalan type and does not qualify to be the true Zaqqum. Yusuf Ali thinks that the name of Zaqqum was given to this plant much after the Qur’ānic revelations. Since the science of naming of plants (Nomenclature) by family, genus and species of plants developed as late as the late 18th or early 19th century, earlier Tafasir (Commentaries) of the Qur’ān do not throw much light on Qur’ānic and Prophetic plants.

Qur’ānic description of Zaqqum is so clear that with the present botanical and chemical knowledge, it may not be difficult to locate the true Zaqqum. Before identifying the plant, one must bear in mind the three characteristics attributed to it in the Qur’ān. First, when eaten, Zaqqum would cause burning in the stomach or inside the body. Secondly, its stems (clusters) looked like the head of a Satan i.e. a big round thing. Thirdly, the food for the sinful has been referred to in all the four Verses as the Shajar of Zaqqum i.e.‘tree of Zaqqum or Shajarat al-Malu’na (Cursed Tree). Thus, the whole plant was meant as the food for sinners and not the fruit of the plant alone.

Most of the Urdu authors of the commentaries on the Qur’ān have described Indian Thohar plant as a possible Zaqqum which of course seems to be nearest to the Qur’ānic description. Thohars or Sehnds are the plants belonging to the genus Euphorbia which has more than a thousand species distributed in warmer parts of Africa and Asia, as well as in America and Australia. All of them are highly bitter in taste and produce poisonous latex.

In India, more than sixty species of Euphorbia occur in varying abundance and several of them are thorny dendroids, like cactus. Similar cactus-like Euphorbias are also found in Arabia where these are called Lebbein (لبین), Rummid (رمید) and by various other names. More than a hundred species of Euphorbia occur in Africa and some of them have medicinal properties. Before identifying the Euphorbia species likely to be the Zaqqum of the Qur’ānic description, it is worthwhile to trace the historical development of the genus Euphorbia first.

King Juba II (25 B.C.-18 C.E.) was a famous Ruler of Mauretania and was a great lover of nature. He was very interested in the flora and fauna of his domain. He found a plant in the rocky and hilly areas of his country, which produced highly poisonous latex from the stem. He named the plant as Euphorbia after the name of his learned personal physician Euphorbus. He wrote a book on this plant, giving all possible details. For instance, he wrote that to get the latex, a long iron stick was used to make a cut on the stems of the plant. It was done to avoid any possible contact of the poisonous latex with the human body because this would cause blisters or boils on the skin. This latex was collected on the skins of goats which hardened after sometime and took the shape of gum. After the discovery of the plant by Juba II, this latex (gum) gained importance in Greek Medicine and Galen (130-200 C.E.) described its medicinal value for several ailments. It was named as Euphorbium. When the Arabs acquired the knowledge of Greek medicine and developed the system to great heights, they called Euphorbium with several Arabic names such as Farbiyun (فربیون), Farfiyun (فرفیون) or Farfiyum (فرفیوم). Avicenna (980-1037 C.E.) gave a detailed description on this drug and ailments for which it was effective and advised caution before using it as medicine.

The plant of Juba II was botanically named as Euphorbia resinifera Berg. (Family:Euphorbiaceae) during the early 19th century and later on its chemistry was investigated by several scientists. The latex Euphorbium (Arabic-Farfiyum) was found to contain an oily resinous substance called Euphorbon, besides starch, mucilage, rubber, mineral salts and maleates of sodium and calcium.

Euphorbon was found to be the poisonous part of the latex, the main constituents of which were diterpenes and their esters, such as Ingenol, 12-dioxyphorbol and resiniferatoxin. The last named is the most irritant compound of the plant. On account of the presence of large amount of carbohydrate, Euphorbia resinifera may be considered a food plant but the presence of toxic resin makes it a dangerous food and of course one which would cause burning sensation in the body.

Euphorbium from E. resinifera became an important medicine right from the time of Galen. In Africa and Asia, particularly in India it was used for different diseases. It was found to be useful in sciatica, and as a skin irritant, especially in injuries to tendon. It was found useful for the diseases of head, stomach and bladder. Mixed with rose oil, gum-arabic and Tragacanth gum it was given as a purgative for bile and phlegm. If given without care it caused ulceration. It was found to cause abortion in pregnant women.

The importance of Euphorbium was at its peak during 16th and 17th centuries but after the advent of allopathic medicines (18th century), its use became restricted to external application but in veterinary practice it continued to be important as a counter irritant and vesicant. All these years the main source of the supply of Euphorbium was Morocco where the plant still occurs in hilly areas.

Euphorbium is highly toxic. It causes the eyes to weep and grow red, the nose to run with watery and even bloody mucus and saliva to flow abundantly from the mouth. Persons who are exposed to this medicine for sometime suffer from severe headache, giddiness and ultimately delirious. Some become even insane. Exposure to Euphorbian latex, its contact with eyes, causes serious inflammation of cornea, resulting in the loss of sight.

Although E. resinifera of Morocco gained importance from early times, yet several other species of Euphorbia in India, Arabia and some African countries gained importance in local medicine. However, all of these were considered dangerous. In India, there are several cactus-like species occurring in hotter parts of the country which are generally called Thohar or Sehnd. Some of them are E. caducifolia Haines, E. antiquorum Linn., E. nivulia Buch. Ham., E. nerifolia Linn., E. royleanaBoiss., E. tirucalli Linn. and E. trigona Linn.

Mohideen Shariff in his book on Indian Medicinal Plants (1869) has described E. antiquorum as Zaqqum-Hindi (زقومہندی) or Zaqqunia-e-Hindi (زقونیائےہندی) whereas George Watt, in his famous book ‘Economic Products of India’ Vol. III described both E. antiquorum and E. tirucalli as Zaqqum-Hindi (Indian Zaqqum). Thus, these scientists considered the Indian species of Euphorbia as very similar to Zaqqum but not the actual Zaqqum.

In Arabia there are many species of Euphorbia occurring not only in Tehama area of Hijaz but in the whole Peninsula. Most of them are cactus like, resembling Indian species. None of them is known as Zaqqum. The common names, however, are Lebbein, Rummid or Rijlatlblis (Meaning:  Vegetable for Satan). Some of the Arabian Euphorbias are the following:

  1. arabica Hoscht. andSteud. ex Boiss., E. cactus Ehrenb. ex Boiss., E. cornuta Pers. E. articulata Forsk., E. laricaLinn.,E.hispida, etc.

All these Euphorbias of India and Arabia as well as those occurring in Africa and America are poisonous and full of thorns.  Their fruits are small and of no use. All of them contain resin, mucilage, starch, rubber (polyisoprene) and mineral salts. If taken as food, all of them would cause great inconvenience and burning inside the body which may be relieved by taking excess of water. Thus, all the Euphorbias in general, and cactus type (dendroids) in particular, have characteristics similar to those of the description of Zaqqum in the Qur’ān but the main question is that which one of the several hundred Euphorbias is the true Zaqqum.

In 1986, during the month of June, I had the occasion of visiting the Exotic Garden of Monaco (Monte Carlo) and was surprised to see the plant and photograph of the Moroccan Euphorbia resinifera. Its stems, clubbed together in a round shape, looked like the head of a devil. I was told that this head like round appearance is about four to six feet in diameter in the natural habitat. A photograph given in this article would prove the statement.

If one compares this Moroccan Euphorbia with that of India and Arabia, the natural conclusion would be that although all these dendroid Euphorbias are ugly and sinister looking plants, the Moroccan plant has the closest resemblance to a devil’s head. It is very likely that the Arab physicians during the period of the Qur’ānic revelation, must have been familiar with Moroccan or Mauritanian Euphorbia and the drug Euphorbium. It is a well-known fact that Arab physicians and intellectuals had acquired very good knowledge of plants and Greek medicine based on plants even before the advent of Islam.

When the Quranic sayings about Zaqqum were revealed, most of the people of Arabia, particularly the learned ones, must have realised the dangers of the dreaded plant Euphorbia resinifera. This clearly shows that Zaqqum was not a common plant of the area of the Qur’ānic revelation and heretics like Abu Jehal did not know much of it. Thus, taking all these factors into account, Euphorbia resinifera seems to be the real Zaqqum of Qur’an.

It would be proper to point out that the plant named Hanzal reported by Maulana Majid in Tafseer Majidi, as the possible Zaqqum, is actually Citrullus ColocynthisSchrad (Family : Cucurbitaceae). It is known only for its bitter fruits. In India it is known as Indrayan. The Qur’ānic description does not refer to the fruit of Zaqqum, and, therefore, this fruit as the true Zaqqum does not seem to  be a correct proposition.

At a UNESCO seminar on Qur’ānic Botanical Gardens at Sharjah, Prof. Dawud of Jordan University claimed that Qur’ānic Zaqqum is Balanites aegyptiaca whereas Ishrak Khafagiet al. (IJB, 242-251-2006) writes that it is Colocynth (Citruluscolocynthis). It is of interest to note that Beja people of northeasternSudan consider Euphorbia abyssinica as the Zaqqum of the Qur’ān, (Prof. Lytton John Musselman, Plants of the Bible and the Qur’ān, 2007)

[Source: PLANTS OF QURAN by Dr. M.I.H. Farooqi, 10th Edition, 2019]