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Copyright © 2009 Joseph A Islam: Article last modified 20th September 2011


It is commonly understood that the reference to ‘saba’ denotes ‘seven’ as in the case of ‘seven heavens’. This indeed is the general case, for example:


012:043                 In the story of Prophet Joseph (pbuh) and in a dream, a king sees 7 fat cows being eaten by 7 lean ones and 7 green ears of corns and 7 dried ones

012:047-48           Prophet Joseph (pbuh) interprets the dream as 7 hard years following 7 normal years

018:022                 Story of the cave, guessing at the number of the sleepers

002:196                 Fasting of seven days on returning home (out of 10)

069:007                 Aad's punishment - 7 long nights and 8 long days


However, in classical Arabic, the word ‘Saba’ (Arabic) was never restricted to denote 7. This word was often used to imply an ‘exaggeration’ or an expression of ‘multitude’, ‘several’ or ‘many’. It was also used to indicate a vagueness of number but signifying a multiplicity or a large number. This was also the case with the number 70.


Here is an extract from the classical lexicons to confirm this point.





Source: Edward Lanes Lexicon   [1]




Source: Edward Lanes Lexicon   [2]




Source: Edward Lanes Lexicon   [3]



The Kuran [ix.81] reference above is given below:



“Whether you ask for their forgiveness, or not, (their sin is unforgivable): if you ask seventy times for their forgiveness, God will not forgive them: because they have rejected God and His Messenger: and God guides not those who are perversely rebellious” 


As can be clearly noted, the word ‘Saba’ has also been understood and used by the classical Arabs to signify 'several' or 'many'.







Source: Edward Lanes Lexicon   [4]



"And if all the trees in the earth were pens, and the sea, with seven / [several] more seas to help it, (were ink), the words of God could not be exhausted. Lo! God is Mighty, Wise"


If we note the theme of the above verse, specifically with regards the 'sea', it becomes clear that the 'seven' denotes a multiplicity if compared with the similar verse below (18:109) which carries the same theme.



"Say: If the sea were ink for the words of my Lord, the sea would surely be consumed before the words of my Lord are exhausted, though We were to bring the like of that (sea) to supplement""


Other examples where 'multiplicity' is implied are:



"And surely Hell is the promised place of them all. It has seven / [several] gates; for every gate there shall be a separate party of them"



"The parable of those who spend their substance in the way of God is that of a grain of corn: it grows seven / [several] ears, and each ear has a hundred grains. God gives manifold increase to whom He pleases: And God cares for all and He knows all things"





'Saba' is also used to denote the number of heavens in numerous verses and as in the example below.



"He it is Who created for you all that is in the earth. Then turned He to the heaven, and fashioned it as seven (Arabic: Saba) heavens. And He is knower of all things"




Illustration - Joseph Islam


However, one notes in the verse below, which deals with the heavens, the number of Earths are also mentioned with a similar likeness as that of the heavens.



"God is He Who created seven heavens, and of the Earth the like of them; the decree continues to descend among them, that you may know that God has power over all things and that God indeed encompasses all things in (His) knowledge"



What is being compared?


·               Here a literal rendering as seven becomes difficult to sustain from a Quranic and scientific perspective. The seven heavens in this case would imply that there are seven earths which is an unwarranted restriction both linguistically in terms of expression and scientifically.


However, in line with the classical understanding of ‘seven’ to also denote ‘multiplicity’, several heavens would imply several earths. This would therefore be an indication of the billions of galactic systems which contain billions of stellar objects many (if not all of which) have their own planetary objects.







We do the Quran a great disservice by restricting the rendering of particular words even though they have always been understood to carry a wider meaning. However, good commentators do actually make known the wider remits of the words as understood by the classical Arabs (often in their footnotes), which is a credit to their honesty, hard work and analysis.





[1] LANE. E.W, Edward Lanes Lexicon, Williams and Norgate 1863; Librairie du Liban Beirut-Lebanon 1968, Volume 4, Page 1296

Highlights marked in red on the lexicon excerpt are my own insertions. They have no bearing on the original text other than they emphasise relevance to the topic at hand. These are merely illustrations and have solely been utilised for educational and explanatory purposes.

[2] Ibid., Page 1297

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.




Joseph Islam

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