What does “yawm” (يوم) mean in the Qur’an?

Does yawm(plural ayyam)refer only to a 24-hour period due to the rotation of the earth?

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons.)

One would often hear criticism levelled against the Qur’an by the “scientific” skeptical community alongside Christians working together as detractors of Islam that the Qur’an is unscientific in its description of the creation of the universe. The Dawkins wannabe would say, “The Qur’an like the Bible says that the heavens and the earth were created in six days! Isn’t that laughable as we know today that it took billions of years for our universe to form?” Is that a valid understanding of what the Qur’an says? Many critics will insist that the word used in the relevant verses is ayyam which stems from the singular yaum referring to a 24-hour period that includes sunrise and sunset. Is that a correct representation of the Arabic language? Unfortunately for the detractors it is a complete and total misrepresentation of Arabic and ultimately the Qur’an as we shall prove in this article.

One of the standard lexicons of the Arabic language is Lane’s Lexicon which was put together by Edward William Lane. The following is the entry on yawm in Lane’s Lexicon [1]:

يوم  A time, whether night or day; (Msb;) time absolutely, whether night or not, little or not: this is the proper signification; (Kull, p. 390: ) and day, meaning the period from the rising of the sun to its setting; (Lth, TA;) the time when the sun is above the earth: this is the common conventional acceptation: (Kull, ubi supra: ) and the period from the second [or true] dawn to sunset: (Msb, Kull: ) this is the legal acceptation: (Kull: )and a civil day: the period of the revolution of the greatest firmament. (Kull.) – Also, An accident, or even, syn. كون and كائنة. “

From the above we see that the primary definition is not the one suggested by the detractors. Rather, as Lane writes its proper signification is “time absolutely” and this time may be long or short, that is, in Lane’s wording “little or not”. We also learn that the word may refer to a period or an event. Thus if it is in the plural ayyam it could mean periods or events.

Let us now turn to Hans Wehr’s work which is another major resource for students and scholars of the Arabic language:

“يوم yaum pl. ايام ayyam day; pl. also: age, era, time…” [2]

We see that Hans Wehr agrees with Lane’s definition in general, yet specifically identifies ayyam as referring to age, era and time. Thus ayyam could indeed refer to a long duration or several periods.

How then do we decide that the Qur’an is indeed referring to a lengthy amount of time and not just seven days with 24 hours each when it uses the term ayyam?

To answer this question let us refer to the explanation given by the erudite Islamic scholar Sheikh Prof. Tahirul Qadri. He discusses this very subject under the title “Period of Creation and Development of Universe” in his book ‘Creation and Evolution of the Universe’:

In this context the Qur’an declares.

ٱللَّهُ ٱلَّذِي خَلَقَ ٱلسَّمَٰوَٰتِ وَٱلأَرْضَ وَمَا بَيْنَهُمَا فِي سِتَّةِ أَيَّامٍ

“Allah is the One Who made skies and earth and what is in between in 6 ‘YAUM’.

    From this verse and the verses quoted before, it is very clear that the creation and development of the universe occurred in 6 ‘YAUM’. ‘YAUM’ conventionally refers to 7 days of the week subject to the rise and setting of the sun. However, the Quranic concept of ‘YAUM’ is not the same as the one which is in common use for the following reasons:-

  1. The Qur’an has used the word ‘YAUM’ for a variable length of time. For example is Surah Alsajda: V-5 immediately after the description of creation Allah says:

يُدَبِّرُ ٱلأَمْرَ مِنَ ٱلسَّمَآءِ إِلَى ٱلأَرْضِ ثُمَّ يَعْرُجُ إِلَيْهِ فِي يَوْمٍ كَانَ مِقْدَارُهُ أَلْفَ سَنَةٍ مِّمَّا تَعُدُّونَ

“He is the One Who plans everything from earth to heavens and then everything will reach Him in a day equivalent to 1000 years in your calculation.”

Similarly in AL-MAARIJ. V-4 “YAUM” is used to describe a period of 50000 years.

تَعْرُجُ ٱلْمَلاَئِكَةُ وَٱلرُّوحُ إِلَيْهِ فِي يَوْمٍ كَانَ مِقْدَارُهُ خَمْسِينَ أَلْفَ سَنَةٍ

“It will happen at a time when angels and Jibraeel will rise towards Him on a day equal to 50 thousand years.” (AL-MAARIJ, 70:1)

  1. The phrase سِتَّةِ أَيَّام (six days or periods) is used for the duration of the creation of the sun, the earth and other heavenly bodies themselves. Obviously day and night as we see them could not exist before the existence of the Sun and the Earth.

So it is quite obvious that the Quranic meaning of ‘YAUM’ is “one period of time” which is of variable length. This could be equal to our millions or billions of years. This concept of ‘YAUM’ has also been accepted and used from the earlier interpreters of the Qur’an e.g.

(i)                  IMAM ABUSAUD ALAMADI (951 A.H.) in his interpretation of the Quran says that 6 days mean 6 periods of time, not our 6 days subject to the rise of the sun because at that time the earth and other planetary bodies did not exist.

(ii)                IMAM RAGHIB ASFAHANI in his ‘AL-MUFRADAAT’ says ‘YAUM’ is used for time which has variable length.

(iii)               ALLAMA ALUSI while describing the meaning of this verse of SURAH YUNUS used the same concept.

(iv)              ABDULLAH BIN ABBAS, a companion of the Prophet (PBUH) is also quoted to have described that ‘YAUM’ is not like our days of the week.

So it is clear that the universe was created in 6 periods of time. [3]

Mufti Shafi’ Uthmani concurs with the above explanation in his own tafsir:

    “This also tells us that it is not necessary that the six days during which the earth and the heavens were created, be equal to our six days. Instead, it is possible that they may be longer than these- as the Qur’an says about the day of Akhirah which will be equal to one thousand years.

    “Abu Abdullah Razi has said that the movement of the far firmament is so fast as compared to the movements of our earth that the raised step of a man running here has still to come down to touch the ground when the far firmament moves a distance of three thousand miles. (Al-Bahr al-Muhit)” [4]

Likewise the late researcher Dr. Maurice Bucaille treats the subject excellently in his ‘The Bible, the Qur’an and Science’:

Its most common meaning is ‘day’ but it must be stressed that it tends more to mean the diurnal light than the length of time that lapses between one day’s sunset and the next. The plural ayyam can mean, not just ‘days’, but also ‘long length of time’, an indefinite period of time (but always long). The meaning ‘period of time’ that the word contains is to be found elsewhere in the Qur’an. Hence the following:

–sura 32, verse 5:

“…in a period of time (yaum) whereof the measure is a thousand years of your reckoning.”

(It is to be noted that the creation in six periods is precisely what the verse preceding verse 5 refers to).

–sura 70, verse 4:

“…in a period of time (yaum) whereof the measure is 50,000 years.”

The fact that the word ‘yaum’ could mean a period of time that was quite different from the period that we mean by the word ‘day’ struck very early commentators who, of course, did not have the knowledge we possess today concerning the length of the stages in the formation of the Universe. In the Sixteenth century A.D. for example, Abu al Su’ud, who could not have had any idea of the day as defined astronomically in terms of the Earth’s rotation, thought that for the Creation a division must be considered that was not into days as we usually understand the word, but into ‘events’ (in Arabic nauba).  [5]

Some might accuse the Muslims of arbitrarily cherry picking the most suitable interpretation which is in accordance with the findings of modern science so as to make the Qur’anic description sound. This would be completely false due to the fact that prior to the findings of modern science concerning the universe and the operation of the celestial bodies there were already Muslim scholars who  understood and interpreted yaum and ayyam in the above verses as referring to stages or development in terms of periods of time. One such example is Abu al-Su’ud cited by both Bucaille and Dr. Tahirul Qadri.

Among the best translation of the verse in our view is Muhammad Asad’s who renders it as follows:

“Verily, your Sustainer is God, who has created the heavens and the earth in six aeons, and is established on the throne of His almightiness.” (7:54)

Interpreting the above verse Muhammad Asad whose commentary is very well grounded in the Orthodox tradition writes:

“The word yawm , commonly translated as “day” – but rendered above as “aeon” – is used in Arabic to denote any period, whether extremely long (“aeon”) or extremely  short (“moment”): its application to an earthly “day” of twenty-four hours is only one of its many connotations.” [6]

In conclusion, it is clear that the concept that ‘yawm’ can and only refers to a 24-hour duration is an assumption that stems from a total miscomprehension of the Arabic language and the Quranic contextual usage. It is evident contextually, linguistically and from simple common sense that when the Qur’an says سِتَّةِ أَيَّام or six periods it is essentially referring to a very long duration which the creation of the universe certainly was.

Addendum:

The following is the text of Sheikh Abu al-Su’ud’s commentary on 7:54 that is mentioned in the above discussion:

[7] إن ربكم الله الذى خلق السموات والأرض فى ستة أيام) شروع فى بيان مبدأ الفطرة إبر بيان معاد الكفرة أى إن خالقكم وما لككم الذى خلق الأ جرام العلوية والسفلية فى ستة أوقات كقوله تعالى (و من يو لهم يومئذ دبره) أو فى مقدار ستة أيام فإن المتعارف أن اليوم زمان طلوع الشمس إلى غروبه ولم تكن هى حينئذ وفى خلق الأشياء مدرجا مع القدرة على إبداعها دفعة دليل على الاختيار واعتبار للنظار وحث على التأنى فى الأمور

Abu al-Su’ud is Abi al-Su’ud bin Muhammad al-‘Amadi who was one of the greatest exegetes of the Qur’an during the Ottoman era known as “khatib al-mufaissireen” (orator of the exegetes).

References:

[1] Lane, E. W. (1863). An Arabic-English Lexicon. London: Williams and Norgate. p. 3064

[2] Wehr, H. (1976). A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Ithaca, New York: Spoken Languages Services, Inc. p. 1110

[3] Tahirul Qadri (1999). Creation and Evolution of the Universe: A Review of Quran and Modern Science. Lahore, Pakistan: Minhaj-ul-Quran Publications. pp. 15-16

[4] Shafi’ Uthmani (n.d.).  Ma’riful Qur’an (Muhammad Hasan Askari & Muhammad Shamim, trans.), Vol. 3. p. 597

[5]Bucaille, M. (2006). The Bible, the Qur’an and Science: The Holy Scriptures Examined in the light of Modern Knowledge. Kuala Lumpur: A.S. Noordeen. pp. 134-136

[6] Muhammad Asad (1980). The Message of the Qur’an: Translated and Explained. Gibraltar: Darul Andalus. p. 263

[7] Abi al-Su’ud bin Muhammad al-‘Amadi (n.d.). Irshad al-‘Aql al-Salim, Vol. 2. Riyadh: Maktabah al-Riyadh. p. 349

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7 Responses to “What does “yawm” (يوم) mean in the Qur’an?”

  1. Jesus says:

    excellently explained thanks akhi

  2. john the baptist says:

    Your articles are always immensely beneficial. God bless you for your efforts.

  3. Tridax says:

    Assalamulaikum brother Ibn Anwar. First my congratulations on your graduation with honours and your website is looking brighter after a facial 🙂 Masha Allah.

    One quick question. Are you alluding to the fact that Ayyam represents 1000 days or 50000 days as specified in two places or it’s a vague term which could mean any number of days and the six days mentioned are not necessarily of same duration?

    Jazakallahukhair !

    • Ibn Anwar says:

      Wa’alaikum salam warahmatullah. Thank you very much for the congratulations :D. I have been wondering where you have been brother. It is good to finally hear from you once more.
      In the article we have proven that the word ‘yaum’ from which ‘ayyam’ is built can and does mean “a long or short period of time” and/or a “stage in a long process”. Since ‘yaum’ can mean either a short or a long duration its plural, ‘ayyam’ must necessarily mean a rather long period. Or if the singular refers to a particular stage in a longer process then the plural must then refer to several stages in a long process which in itself means a “long duration of time”. Thus the description used to describe the formation of the universe is indeed impeccable in that the universe took a very long time to create. The long duration itself is not specifically qualified in the case of the creation of the universe, however, in those those instances of “a thousand years” and “fifty thousand years” the qualification is obvious in each case.

  4. Jimberence says:

    Salam,

    I did observed about the word ‘yaum’ in the arabic Quran using the software called as ‘ Holy Quran version 6.31’ (something like that) and I discovered that that word in singular..(sorry..i’m not proficient or expert in arabic language) as the letter ‘Ya’, ‘wau’ and ‘mim, or ‘yaum’ (without any form of addition such as ‘al’ etc).
    And the discovery was if we sort every surah that contain such word is 66 surah.
    And… the total occurences was 217 times..
    And finally..if we sort the occurences on every surah ( i mean surah by surah)..by ascending way..we would found a unique phenomenon (we could notice a ‘ZIG-ZAG PATTERN) if we depict it in the graph..
    Thank You…

  5. Jimberence says:

    ..salam again..
    And the question is.. how much is the probability or chances in scientifics of that phenomenon to be happen..
    Salam and thank you..

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