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QURANIC CAMPHOR – A SCIENTIFIC STUDY

In almost all the commentaries and translations of the Qur'an, Kafur has been described as the Camphor of plant origin. In Tafhim-ul-Qur'an, it has been stated that the wine of Heaven would have the brightness and coolness of the Camphor and this will not actually be its mixture.

by: Dr. M. I. H. Farooqi, M.Sc., Ph.D.

Quranic Reference on Camphor:

1.    SURAH LXXVI (Ad-Dahr – Time). V : 5

As to the Righteous they shall drink of a cup (of Wine) mixed with Kafur-

Ibn Kathir, in his Tafsir (Commentary) of SURAH Ad-Dahr , Verse 5, states that “They (in Jannah) will be given a drink (a cup of wine) that is mixed with camphor Kafur (کافور), and it is cool.”  He then adds “Then on another occasion they will be given a drink mixed with ginger (Verse 17), and it is hot. This is so that their affair will be balanced. However, those who are nearest to Allah, they will drink from all of it however they wish, as Qatadah and others have said”.

In almost all the commentaries and translations of the Qur’an, Kafur has been described as the Camphor of plant origin. In Tafseer-e-Majidi (Note on of the relevant SURAH), characteristics and qualities of Camphor are given, and  stated that the camphor of Heaven would be without the harmful effects, and would be different from the camphor of the Earth. In Tafhim-ul-Qur’an, it has been stated that the wine of Heaven would have the brightness and coolness of the Camphor and this will not actually be its mixture. Similar views have been expressed in Tafseer-e-Haqqani . Tafseer-e-Usmani , Bayan-ul-Qur’an  and Tafseer-e-Mazhari . Some Commentators have also stated that Kafur is the name of a spring full of wine. In the opinion of Abdullah Yusuf Ali (Note No. 5835), Camphor in small amount is agreeable in any drink and, therefore, the Heaven’s wine may be a mixture of Camphor . Pickethall  has retained the word Kafur in his English translation, but Arther Arberry has translated it as Camphor . These commentaries are generally based on Tabari,Qartabi andAsqalani. According to Parvez Khan and some other Islamic Scholars express the opinion that the quaffing of camphor-drink will have the effect of cooling down passions in Jannahdwellers. (https://www.academia.edu/5836327/SURAH_Al_Insaan_Tafseer).

Since the science of naming of plants (Nomenclature) by family, genus and species of plants developed as late as early late 18th or early 19th century, earlier Tafasir (Commentaries) of Quran do not through much light on Quranic and Prophetic plants.

In Arabic Dictionaries like Al-Munjid and Lissan al-Arab, several meanings of Kafur have been given. For instance, apart from camphor, it is said to be the covering of the unripe bunches of grape and dates. It is also described as the perfume obtained from certain types of deer. Some Dictionaries claim that the root of kafur is kufr meaning to cover and Kafur is obtained from inside of the trunk (covered by the bark of the tree).

In many standard translations of the Quran, the word Kafur is retained as such. For instance Pickethall has not translated Kafur to Camphor but preferred to retain it.

All these commentaries, translations and Dictionary meanings create some confusion about the real identification of Quranic Camphor.

Before attempting to identify the actual plant source of  Kafur of the Quran and of course the Kafur mentioned is several Traditions, it would be worthwhile if the history of the present day Camphor is traced out first.

Since the early times, two types of plants have been the commercial sources of Camphor. One is the Malaysian/Indonesian plant Dryobalanops aromatica and the other is the Chinese/Japanese plant Cinnamomun camphora (syn Camphora officinarum; syn Laurus camphora).

The camphor from the Malaysian/Indonesian (Java/Sumatra) plant is known in India as Qaisuri Kapur () because it was imported from the areas called Qaisur or Funsuri (فنسوری۔۔قیسوری) of the Java Island. This Kafur (Camphor) was very costly as compared to the Chinese Kafur (Camphor), which was introduced in India much after the Java Camphor. During the thirteenth century A.D., the price of Java Camphor was equal to that of gold. Even during late nineteenth century, the price of Qaisuri Kafur (India-Bhimsaini Kapur) in India was much higher than  Chinese Camphor. There is everylikelihood that the Arabs who had very old trade relations with India, knew about this Java Camphor through their trade. But the main question is the period and the time when Arabs became familiar with it. It is very definite and obvious that there is absolutely no reference to Camphor in the ancient civilization of Egypt or Rome or in the old Greek medicine. None of the famous naturalist of the pre-Christian era, like Aristotle, Plato, Pliny, Dioscorides, Theophrastus etc. have mentioned Camphor in their works. It also does not find a reference in the famous books of medicine by Galen. In short it can be safely stated that during the period before Christ and even thereafter during the next few centuries after Christ, there is no indication that the old cultures of Southern Europe, Egypt and Arabia knew this important plant product. Hitti has given a very vital proof of the ignorance of Camphor by early Arab Muslims. According to him when Muslim Army headed by Sa’ad bin abi Waqqas defeated the Iraqis and Persians in 637 A.D., the Arab soldiers came across a white substance somewhere in Madain (Persia), which they mistook as salt but which was actually the Camphor about which they had no previous knowledge. The same instance has been reported in greater detail by Al-Fakhri and Al-Tabari. It is said that several Arab soldiers during their expedition of Iraq and Iran in 637 A.D. found a leather bag containing a white substance. They mistook it as salt but before they could use it, someone told them that it was a medicinal substance called Kafur in Persian. They purchased this Kafur for two Dirhams and reported this episode to the Caliph Umar at Al-Madina.(Encyclopedia Iranica)

Jabir Bin Hayyan (Born 722 AD) was the first Arab Scholar who described harmful properties of Camphor in his famous treatise “Book of Poison”. (Pl see references). Afterwards well-known Persian Geographer Ibn Khordadbeh   (c. 820 – 912 CE) mentioned Camphor (Indian/Indonesia Kapur) in his classic work.(Kitab al Masalik w’al Mamalik (The Book of Roads and Kingdoms).

Subsequently, there have been detailed descriptions of Kafur by the Arab writers; all of them referring to it as the product of Malaysian / Indonesian plant. It is important to note that by this time the Chinese Camphor was not known. It was only in the thirteenth century A.D. that Marco Polo (1254 -1324) gave a detailed account of Camphor producing trees of both from Malaysia and China. This was definitely the first authentic reference of Chinese Camphor, which later on became an important item for the European trade. Thus it can be clearly inferred that the Camphor (Kafur) referred to by the Arab Physicians in the late ninth century A.D. and afterwards was actually the Java / Borneo (Malaysia/Indonesia) Camphor and in all likelihood they procured it through India and Persia. In India it was called Kapur (کپور) or Karpura (کرپور) and in Persia it was known as Kafur. Thus, Kafur seems to be the Persian derivation of the Indian (Sanskrit) word Kapur or Karpura and not the Arabic derivation. Steingass (Dictionary) has also mentioned Kafur as a Persian word.

This history of Camphor clearly demonstrates that the Arabs, in all probability, did not know much about Camphor before the advent of Islam, neither through the Indian trade nor through the Greek medicine. In fact, there are no definite proofs of its knowledge and wide use in India during fifth or sixth century A.D. This important product, however, became very familiar to the Arabs after ninth century A.D. Now the question is that if the Arabs were not familiar with the present day Kafur (Camphor) at the time of Quranic revelation, then what was the substance called ‘Kafur’ in the Quran and many Traditions. But before going deep into this question, let us consider the chemical and medicinal properties of both the Malaysian / Indonesian) and Chinese / Japanese) Camphor.

The Camphor is a white solid mass with a pungent smell and taste. It is highly toxic and readily absorbed from the skin. The Java Camphor from Dryobalanops aromatica contains d-Borneol as the main constituent and is obtained by scratching the white exudates from the trunk and branches of the tree. However, extracting the wood with boiling water and then purifying the extract through sublimation produce the Chinese Camphor from Cinnamomum camphora. It consists of 2-camphanone. Both types of Camphor are similar in properties and action. Since the pungency of Camphor is disagreeable, it is not used in food preparations. Moreover, its importance in medicine, whether for internal or external use, is always with a caution. It is advised that Camphor containing medicines should be kept away from children because not only its consumption but also its smell could result in giddiness, vomiting, nausea, and stomachache. Camphor is an important constituent of many ointments for external use as an analgesic and also helps in fibrositis neuralgia. In other words, one can say that Camphor is highly efficacious as medicine, both internally and externally but it is not suitable for any food preparation or as flavour additive in drinks. As a matter of fact one cannot drink water if it contains even traces of camphor. It is quite unlikely that wine or other drinks containing camphor could have been used at any time in Arabia or elsewhere in the world.

Now, in view of the historical and well known and established chemical facts about Camphor, one must seriously consider whether the Kafur of Quran is in reality the present day Camphor or is it something else?  If the word Mizajuha (مزیجھا) (SURAH LXXVI-Verse 5) means the mixture with the taste of Camphor, then the Quranic Kafur may be something different. This problem may be solved if we refer to the Book of Songs of Solomon (Verse 1: 4) of the Bible wherein a word Kopher  (Copher ) has been mentioned. In the said Verse it is stated:

“My beloved (Solomon) is unto me as a cluster of Copher (Henna) in the Vineyards of Engedi”. Similarly, Verse 4: 3 of the same Book says, “The plants are on orchards of pomegranates with pleasant fruits, Henna (Kopher), with spikenard.”

In the early translations of the Bible, Kopher (Copher) was interpreted as Camphor. However, after a great deal of study and research,  it was concluded that Camphor was not known during the period of Moses or Christ and the  word Kopher was actually the name of Hinna blossom (Flowers-Lawsonia inermis) in the Aramaic language. This plant (Egyptian Privet) was well known and commonly found in Arabia and Egypt. Thus, in the subsequent versions of Bible, viz., Moffat Version, Godspeeds Version and Jastov  Version we find the mention of Hinna instead of Camphor as the synonym of Kopher. Moreover, in old Greek literature Hinna was called Kufros. Now the next pertinent question is, whether the Quranic word Kafur was actually derived from the Aramaic word Kopher and Greek word Kufros or from the Indian (Sanskrit) word Kapur (or Karpura) as suggested by some recent Mufassarin e Quran (Commentaters of Quran). In my own humble opinion the origin of Quranic Kafur is Araimac/Hebrew Kopher or Kufros signifying Hinna Blossom, source of the oldest perfume known, and not Indian Kapur, meaning Camphor. Henna Blossoms are so fragrant, they’ve been used in perfumes since 1500 BCE.

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_languages). Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: Best of all perfume in this world and hereafter henna blossom (al fagiaالفاغیہ ). (Pl. see reference).

It may be pointed out that many Quranic names of plants, fruits and seeds have their origin from the Aramaic as well as Greek languages and, therefore, there are several Quranic names of plants which are similar to those given in Bible. Some such similarities are cited as below:

1.      For Lentil, the Quranic name is ‘Adas whereas Biblical word (Hebrew) is Adasha.

2.      For Pomegranate, the Quranic name is Rumman and the Biblical (Hebrew) word is Rimmon.

3.      For Olive, the Quranic name is Zaitun whereas the Biblical (Hebrew) word is Zaith.

4.      For Grapes, the Quranic name is ‘Inab’ and the Biblical word is Enave.

5.      For Cucumber, the Quranic name is ‘Qiththa ‘and the Biblical name is Kishium.

6.      For Manna, the Quranic word is ‘Mann’ and Biblical is Man.

7.      For Onion, the Quranic name is Basal whereas Biblical is Belsal.

8.      For Fig, the name given in Quran is Teen and the name in Bible is Teenah.

Now, if all the above words, as also many others, are similar or very near to each other in the Quran and the Bible, there is every likelihood that the Quranic Kafur is similar to Biblical Kopher. It is very likely that during pre-Islamic period Hinnaحنا or Itre-e-Hinna (Perfume of Henna) was called Kafur in Arabic but when the present day  Camphor became known and familiar to the Arabs during 7th to 9th century A.D., the Persian derivations was adopted in Arabic for Camphor and only Hinna was retained for Lawsonia inermis. Such influence of Persian language on Arabic or vice versa is logical and understandable,  particularly in view of the fact that Arabs and Persians came into very close contact just after the advent of Islam. During the 8th and 9th century A.D. many useful commentaries on the Quran were written in Persia and all of them referred to Quranic Kafur, probably erroneously, as Persian Kafur. It is very important to note that Dioscorides, a well-known naturalist before Islam has used the word Kufros for Hinna (Lawsonia inermis) in his Treatise on Natural Science. Thus, it is very obvious that like many other words of the Quran, Kafur has its origin either in Aramaic/Hebrew or Greek language and not in any Indian language as generally believed.

Hinna (Lawsonia inermis) is a commonly occurring plant of Arabia and since time immemorial, the perfume of Hinna (‘Itre-e-Hinna) obtained from the flower/ blossom has been used as an important article of cosmetics. The flowers of Henna have a cooling effect and are also a very good stimulant. When someone says that particular wine will have the flavor of Hinna, it is a scientific statement and one can appreciate it. Prophet (SAW) is reported to have said that the best fragrance is the fragrance of Fagiaفاغیہ(  Hinna blossom)

Gearge Watt (A Dictionary of the Economic Products of India) has written that Arabic Poet al-Qais (sixth century A.D.) was the first person to have referred to the word Kafur in his poetry. But any mention of the word Kafur in the poetry does not necessarily mean that it refers to Camphor. It is more likely that by Kafur, Imru’ al-Qais al-Kindi might have meant Hinna blossom and not Camphor. However, the references to Kafur in the poems of Al Hajjaj (762 A.D.) and Al-Rayee (738 A.D.), as mentioned in the Lisan al-Arab, might be to the present day Camphor, because during the period of these two poets, a great revolution in medicine and other branches of Science had already been initiated by the Arab Muslims and, therefore, there is every likelihood that the Camphor was introduced to the Arab society as a medicine of great value and people became familiar with it. As already stated above Jabir ibn Hayyan (721 -815AD), also mentioned Persian Kafur (Camphor)  in his famous treaties Book of Poison.

It was after this Science revolution of Islam that commentaries on Quran, mostly by Persians, were written wherein Kafur was translated as Camphor. It is also very significant to note that all the important Dictionaries of English language like the Oxford Dictionary and the Cambridge Dictionary, published during late nineteenth and early twentieth century, have given three meanings of the word Camphor or its equivalent Camphire. The first is the pungent smelling product of the Malaysian/Indonesian plant, the second is the white medicinal substance extracted from the Chinese plant and the third meaning given is the Henna plant. Apart from these Dictionaries, other  English and French Books on the Bible including the famous Book ‘La Botanique de La Bible’ also describe Hinna (French, Henni) as the Camphor (Copher) of Bible. It seems that scholars and commentators of the Quran have missed this aspect of the history of Camphor.

There are several references to Kafur in many sayings of Prophet Mohammad (SAW) but according to an important article on Tibb al- Nabvi (Medicine of Prophet), none of the Hadith gives any medicinal description or use of Kafur. Thus, these Ahadith (plural of Hadith) do not prove the identity of Kafur as Camphor. It may be noted that in many Traditions, Prophet advised to mix Kafur in water for Gusl el Mayyet (غسل میت).  In one of the Hadith of SahihMuslim, Um Atiya is reported to have said that Prophet advised her (When Zainab, the daughter of the Messenger of Allah  died) to wash her odd number of times and put/mix Kafur or something-like Kafur in final washing (fifth).”(Pl. see the Hadithbelow). What is something like Kafur: difficult to know.

It is important to note that Camphor of either from Java or China, is insoluble in Water. Prophet advised to mix the Kafur in water for Ghusl and not to spread/sprinkle it on the dead body after final wash.

As reported by Encyclopedia Iranica, Camphor (Persian Kafur) was a rare, precious exotic substance and during early seventh century AD Indian Kings used to send Kafur (Indian Kapur) to Kosrow of Persia as gifts.

 It is very obvious that the highly costly Persian Camphor was definitely not such a common commodity in Hijaz and Najd so as to be available for Gusl el Mayyet. Hinna blossom  could have been definitely a common source of perfume, under the name of Kafur or Qafurقافور۔ (Al-Bukhari ), of that area and could have been utilized during the last rites. Another fact may be repeated here that upto  thirteenth century the price of Camphor was equal to that Gold and, therefore, Camphor (Kafur) was used only in small amount as a constituent of important ointments. Present day obligatory practice of rubbing/putting or sprinkling camphor on several parts of the dead body like the forehead, nose etc after the ablutions was never reported during the time of Prophet. As a matter of fact, even if available in Madina, such a costly product could not be the part Gusl el Maiyyet. This was the Sasanian funerary practices which would have been adopted by Muslims when Camphor was easily and cheaply available.

 It was only during the fifteenth to seventeenth century that Camphor became a comparatively cheap article after the introduction of Chinese Camphor in the world market. It became still cheaper when it was synthesized from turpentine. Another fact should be kept in mind that even today Camphor is not mixed in water (It is nor soluble in water) for the final bath.

To conclude and in my humble opinion, the Quranic Kafur must be taken as Henna Blossom / Flower Fragrance (Lawsonia inermis) and not Camphor (Dryobalanops aromatica). Nevertheless, it is for the Arabic Scholars and authorities on the Quranic interpretation (Commentaries) to give final verdict on this aspect of the meaning of Quranic Kafur. I appeal to all the scholars of Muslim countries as well as those belonging to the Islamic Centers around the world to give a serious thought to this matter. One must bear in mind that any change in the meaning or a different interpretation of some words, does not affect the message  of the Holy Quran.

Some Important References on Camphor:

When the Arabs entered Madaen 637, they found a lot of camphor, which they took for salt until they used it in bread and discovered its bitterness (Tabari, I, p. 2445, Al Fakhri  by Ibn Tiqtaqa. ). The medicinal virtues of camphor were discovered later in the Islamic period. Camphor was a rare, precious exotic substance and was therefore valued as a gift worthy of sovereigns; as such it figures among the gifts sent by the emperor of China to Alexander, the gifts given by the king of India to Kosrow (Biruni’s historical account). It is probable that the use of camphor in the Islamic ablution of the dead (Gusl el Mayyet ) was influenced by Sasanian funerary practices. The camphor was not produced in India proper, though this misconception persisted throughout the first centuries of the Islamic period. (Encyclopedia Iranica)

The first Arab Author to refer to the use of Camphor was Jabir Bin Hayyan (Born 722 AD) in his “Book of Poison”, where he catalogued it potential harmful properties.(Dragon’s Brain Perfume: An Historical Geography of Camphor By R. A. Donkin – 1996)

The word  faghiya (فاغیہ) ‘to blossom,’ refers to the henna flower and the perfume made from it (Lane, 1863, pg. 2423).

By the end of the 19th century “a cluster of camphire/Camphor” had been replaced in Bible translations with “a cluster of henna blossoms” (John Philips)

The most perplexing occurrence, found only once: the passage of SURAH The resurrection (76:5) which says that the Kafur heavenly drink. This word is rendered by camphor – the English term derived from it – yet camphor has an awful taste. Where does the error lie? Koranic text must be read in the light of the Aramean traditions, a fact also established by the German philologist Christ of Luxenberg. The word kufra remained to designate hennah to be the most sublime perfume to ever have existed on earth, a celestial perfume so to speak. The Koranic text corroborates this. ( Edward- M. Gallez, Symposium of Toulouse, October 22, 2007).

Camphor is highly toxic and therefore 1 gram can be Lethal dose for  a child and 20 grams can be fatal for adult.  Camphor can be absorbed through the skin  and therefore should not be  applied to open Wounds or Burns. Camphor from Dryobalonops aromatica is in the form of exudates (Borneol) whereas crystalline camphor is made from the wood and leaves by steam distillation.  Dryobalanops aromatica, commonly known as Kapur (Malaysian/Indonesian Language), was one of the main sources of camphor and attracted early Arab traders to Borneo, at that time worth more than gold. (https://www.forestry.gov.my/index.php/en/9-explore/1002-Dryobalanops-aromatica)

Important Traditions (Hadith) on Kafur:

1.    Narrated Um Atiyya One of the daughters of the Prophet died and he came out and said wash her three or five times or more, if you think it necessary, with water and Sidr and last of all sprinkle Kafur – (Book of Funeral – SahihAl-Bukhari)

2.    Umm ‘Atiyya reported: When Zainab the daughter of the Messenger of Allah  died, he said to us: Wash her odd number of times, i. e. three or five times, and put camphor or something-like camphor at the fifth time, and after you have washed her inform me. So we informed him and he gave us his under-garment, saying:” Put it next her body.” (SahihMuslim)

3.    Best of all perfume in this world and hereafter henna blossom/al fagia (Anas bin Malik, Shuabul Iman, Behaqi)

4.    Abu Abdullah said: Qustقسط and Kust کستsame as Kafur۔ کافورand Qafurقافور۔. (SahihAl-Bukhari)

Author:

Dr. Mohammed Iqtedar Husain Farooqi
Deputy Director (Retired) & Incharge, Plant Chemistry Division,
National Botanical Research Institute (Govt. of India), Lucknow, UP, India
Mobile: +919839901066; Email: mihfarooqi@gmail.com


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