Which one’s easier to do on an iron wall, scaling or tunneling?
If you say scaling, you’re right on the money!
In surah Kahf (16:97)in the story of Zhul Karnayn, at the third place that was mentioned, he was asked to build a barrier against the Gog and Magog, who were creating havoc. So Zhul Karnayn built an iron wall. This iron wall was described by Allah as below,
فَمَا اسْطَاعُوا أَنْ يَظْهَرُوهُ وَماَ اسْتَطَاعوا لَهُ نَقْبًا
They’re not able to scale it nor are they able to tunnel through it.
In Arabic though, something interesting is happening with the spelling of the word that is translated to ‘they’re not able to’.
In the situation of scaling the wall, the word is spelled like this:
In the situation of tunneling through it, it’s spelled like this:
Notice a difference?
One word is one letter longer than the other. The latter has a ت , while the former doesn’t. The default form of this word should be the latter, with the ت present. So, this means that the former is in an abnormal state where the ت is dropped.
The rhetorical benefit of this minute detail is immensely amazing. Let’s go back to the very first question.
Is scaling an iron wall easier, or digging through it? Scaling an iron wall is relatively easier than digging through an iron wall. In this ayah, when it came to talking about scaling the wall, the ت is dropped, whereas when it came to talking about digging through the wall, the ت is present.
The dropping of ت here indicates relative ease, alluding to the fact that scaling an iron wall is easier than tunneling through it. That’s why the ت is preserved in the word اسْتَطَاعوا when it was talking about tunneling through the iron wall.
So, in translation, we only get, “They’re not able to scale it, and they’re not able to tunnel through it.”
Yet, through diving into the intricacies of the Arabic, we get more beauty and details. Not only are they not able to scale or tunnel through it, but Allah alludes to the fact that scaling is easier than tunneling through it, yet they still won’t be able to do it.
Until, of course, Allah allows it to happen, which is what Zhul Karnayn says next, which is food for thought in and of itself.