Monday, May 26, 2008

Mount Qaf

Muslims orient themselves toward the Kaaba in Mecca during prayer and some ancient writings consider that location, or rarely Jerusalem, as the center of the world.

However, general Islamic cosmology is largely borrowed from Persian and Indian beliefs, and views Mount Qaf as the earthly axis mundi.

Mount Qaf appears related to mountains known as Hukairya, Hara (Hara Berezaita), and Alburz in Zoroastrian texts. Like the Biblical Eden, this mountain is imprecisely located in ancient texts, stated to rest somewhere to the East in the Varkash Sea.

Muslim texts place Qaf near the mythical city of Jabalqa in the extreme east of the world.

In the Muslim versions of the Alexandrian romances, Zu'l Qarnain (Alexander the Great) travels to Qaf on his eastern quest for the water of life and he meets on its peak the angel Israfil waiting to blow the trumpet on Judgment Day.

Zu'l Qarnain journeyed to Mount Qaf;
He saw it was formed of a bright emerald,
Forming as it were a ring round the world,
Whereat all people are filled with wonder.
He said, "Thou mighty hill, what are other hills?
Before thee they are mere playthings."
The Mount replied, "Those hills are my veins,
But they are not like me in beauty and importance.
A hidden vein from me runs to every city,
The quarters of the world are bound to my veins.
When God desires an earthquake under any city,
He bids me shake one of my veins.
Then in anger I shake that vein
Which is connected with that particular city.
When He says, 'Enough,' my vein remains still,
I remain still, and then haste to perform my work.
Now still like a plaster, and now operating;
Now still like thought, and then speaking my thought.
But they who are void of reason imagine
That these earthquakes proceed from earth's vapors.

Jalaluddin Rumi (13th century CE), Masnavi I Ma'navi IV:9

The mountains said to be made of green emerald or chrysolite, or to have a square green emerald/chrysolite at its peak. This jewel reflected the blue color of the sky, and also the greenish tint in the sky was said to be caused by this jewel.

Blue-Green Connections

We find some resemblance here between the mixtures of blue and green colors with the "Blue-Green Florescence," one of the names of the millenarian isle of Qingtong, the Eastern Lad in Daoist myth, which is likened to a square speculum. Among the Shi'a, the Hidden Imam waits for the end-times on the "Green Isle."

We can also note some similarity here between the idea of all the mountains in the world having connection with Mount Qaf through subterranean "veins" with the Chinese concept of mountains linked by underground grotto worlds. Qaf mountain is said to encircle the world and this may refer specifically to the "roots" that connect one mountain range to another. According to one tradition: "There is no one country amongst all countries, nor a city amongst all cities, nor a town amongst all towns but has a root of its roots," and another states, "nor is there any mountain of all mountains but has a root in Qaf."

The Muslim writer Yaqut mentions that some scholars believed that the Sun both rose and set into Mount Qaf, an explanation that matches our theme of the double mountain. Mount Alburz, one of the Zoroastrian equivalents of Qaf is decribed in a similar fashion: "Alburz is around this earth and is connected with the sky. The Terak of Alburz is that through which the stars, moon, and sun pass in, and through it they come back," (Bundahisn 12:4). From the same work, we hear of the portals in Terak of Mount Alburz through which the Sun and stars pass.

Of Mount Alburz it is declared, that around the world and Mount Terak, which is the middle of the world, the revolution of the sun is like a moat around the world; it turns back in a circuit owing to the enclosure (var) of Mount Alburz around Terak.

As it is said that it is the Terak of Alburz from behind which my sun and moon and stars return again.

For there are a hundred and eighty apertures (rojin) in the east, and a hundred and eighty in the west, through Alburz; and the sun, every day, comes in through an aperture, and goes out through an aperture; and the whole connection and motion of the moon and constellations and planets is with it: every day it always illumines (or warms) three regions (karshwar) and a half, as is evident to the eyesight.

And twice in every year the day and night are equal, for on the original attack, when it (the sun) went forth from its first degree (khurdak), the day and night were equal, it was the season of spring; when it arrives at the first degree of Kalachang (Cancer) the time of day is greatest, it is the beginning of summer; when it arrives at the sign (khurdak) Tarachuk (Libra) the day and night are equal, it is the beginning of autumn; when it arrives at the sign Vahik (Capricorn) the night is a maximum, it is the beginning of winter; and when it arrives at Varak (Aries) the night and day have again become equal, as when it went forth from Varak.

So that when it comes back to Varak, in three hundred and sixty days and the five Gatha days, it goes in and comes out through one and the same aperture; the aperture is not mentioned, for if it had been mentioned the demons would have known the secret, and been able to introduce disaster.

-- Bundahisn 5:3

Some scholars have suggested that these verses describe the Sun and stars as revolving around Terak, but instead it seems as if the celestials bodies enter into the equatorial "apertures" of Terak and then proceed through the subterranean "moat" of Alburz before rising again at the same peak of Terak. The underground arteries or veins of Alburz are also described in the Bundahisn.

First, Mount Alburz arose; afterwards, the other ranges of mountains (kofaniha) of the middle of the earth; for as Alburz grew forth all the mountains remained in motion, for they have all grown forth from the root of Alburz.

At that time they came up from the earth, like a tree which has grown up to the clouds and its root to the bottom; and their root passed on that way from one to the other, and they are arranged in mutual connection.

Afterwards, about that wonderful shaking out from the earth, they say that a great mountain is the knot of lands; and the passage for the waters within the mountains is the root which is below the mountains; they forsake the upper parts so that they may flow into it, just as the roots of trees pass into the earth; a counterpart (anguni-aitak) of the blood in the arteries of men, which gives strength to the whole body.

In numbers, apart from Alburz, all the mountains grew up out of the earth in eighteen years, from which arises the perfection of men's advantage.

Qaf is said to rest on the back of a great fish or whale known as Nun, that is described as shaped like the Arabic letter for "n". Some authorities claimed Qaf rested upon the horns of a great ox, which in turn stood on the back of Nun. The whale was also called Bahmout or Bahamut (Behemoth). Earthquakes arise from the movement of the whale, something we find also in the myths of Southeast Asia. The Nun fish/whale is probably related to the Kar fish of Persian literature described as an 'ass-like fish' or a 'three-legged ass,' the latter description probably referring to the two flippers and tail of a whale. Although the Kar is not related to earthquakes, like the whale/dragon of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, it is linked with the ebb and flow of the tide. While the latter is said to be the cause of the tides, the Kar "knows to the scratch of a needle's point by how much the water in the Ocean shall increase, by how much it is diminishing" (Bundahisn 18:6).

While Qingtong, the Blue-Green Lad is associated with the Blue-Green Florescence in the Eastern Sea, the emerald Mount Qaf is linked with al-Khidr "The Green One," in Islamic lore. Al-Khidr is often equated with the Biblical Elijah, but like Qingtong he is described as an eternal youth sometimes as a boy clad in green garments.

Khidr leads pilgrims to the fountain of youth that exists near Qaf's summit. And like Qingtong, the Green One has eschatological associations. In the end-times, Khidr, along with the Seven Sleepers, seven boys and their dog who have slept in a deep cave since ancient times, accompany the messianic al-Mahdi on his earth-redeeming mission. The cave of the Seven Sleepers is located in Mount Qaf, and it reminds us of Peshotan and the sleeping Zoroastrian heroes of Kangdez, southeast of China, who arise for the final battle at the end of the millennium.

Simurgh Bird and Jinn

Among the inhabitants of Mount Qaf is the Simurgh Bird, which in Persian myth guards the mythical White Haoma Tree in the eastern Varkash Sea.

The Simurgh has its nest at the peak of Qaf and this was the grand destination in the great Sufi poem "Conference of the Birds." In most Arabic literature, this bird is known as 'Anka, but in the Arabian Nights it appears to be called Roc (Rukh).

For the soul of every bird that reaches Mount Qaf,
Confers glory on the whole family of birds.

-- Rumi

Mount Qaf is also said to be the main abode of the Jinn (Djinn) or Genies of Muslim literature, and the great Jinn king resided in this mountain. Both the Jinn and the Simurgh Bird are linked in Islamic tradition with King Solomon.

The Simurgh Bird is said to possess supreme wisdom and the reign of Solomon is known as the "Golden Age of Simurgh." Of all the animals and birds that Solomon was said to have spoken with, the Simurgh was the most important.

Solomon was also said to have special power over the Jinn, which he used to compel them to help build his great temple.

We may see in these connections of Solomon with the Simurgh Bird and the Jinn, some link to Solomon's biblical journeys to the eastern lands of Ophir and Tarshish that may have been connected by Muslim writers with Mount Qaf.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Akkach, Samer. Cosmology and architecture in premodern Islam, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.

Corbin, Henry. Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi. Princeton University Press, 1998.

West, E. W. Sacred Books of the East, vol. 5, Oxford University Press, 1897.

Wheeler, Brannon. Moses In The Quran And Islamic Exegesis, Routledge Curzon: London, 2002, 95-6.