Suez and Panama canals: A Quranic prophecy fulfilled

Usama Awan, Radiologist, USA
Image: Rodrigue, J-P (ed) (2020), The Geography of Transport Systems, Fifth Edition,
New York: Routledge

In the contemporary maritime landscape, the Red Sea remains a testament to the enduring strategic significance of key waterways in global trade and politics. Recently, this vital maritime route has garnered heightened attention due to escalating tensions involving the Houthis of Yemen. This situation underscores the continuing geopolitical importance of major waterways like the Suez Canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and serves as a poignant backdrop to our exploration of a prophecy of the Holy Quran.

The Holy Quran contains many prophecies, some of which have only relatively recently been fulfilled. One of these prophecies foretells the construction of the Suez and Panama Canals. These are two canals that have revolutionised global trade, politics, and societies. They have shortened the distance between far-off lands and helped to create a global village. Before we delve into the prophecy and the verses that describe the construction of these monumental canals, it is important to briefly glance at how they were built along with their geographical locations.

Let us first discuss the Suez Canal, which was built in Egypt. The developer of this project was a French man named Ferdinand de Lesseps. Construction began in 1859 and finished a decade later, in 1869. (“Suez Canal”, The canal serves to connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, thereby allowing ships to travel from the Indian Ocean to Europe and vice versa without having to traverse around the southern tip of Africa. This canal saves ships approximately a month’s journey leaving from India headed towards the United Kingdom – the 19th-century version of Amazon Prime. As one can imagine, this was no simple task and took sophisticated equipment and modern engineering to accomplish. Thousands of labourers died in building the canal, mainly due to cholera and other diseases. (“The Suez Canal: A waterway to die for”, Eventually, however, the Suez Canal Company built a 120-mile-long, sea-level waterway connecting the two seas.

The Suez Canal also had tremendous political implications. Initially, the canal was owned jointly by the UK and France. In 1956, the President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalised the canal. This move led to the Suez Crisis and the UK, France and Israel invaded Egypt. Ultimately, the United States intervened to prevent an escalation to war. (“Suez Canal” and “Suez Crisis”,

The Panama Canal, on the other hand, was built in the Western Hemisphere. In comparison to the Suez Canal, this was an even more arduous task, although it is less than half the length. Noting success in the Suez Canal, the same developer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, tried to replicate the process for the Panama Canal and build a sea-level waterway. Construction began in 1881. However, after 8 years of laborious work, nearly 20,000 deaths due to various tropical diseases, and $287 million US dollars spent, the French abandoned the construction of the canal. Realising its immense potential, the US intervened in 1904 and re-initiated the project. (“Why the Construction of the Panama Canal Was So Difficult—and Deadly”,;  “Panama Canal”,

In contrast to the Suez Canal, a system of locks was used when the US intervened due to the topography, as a sea-level waterway was not possible. This is because the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean are not at the same height at the site of the Panama Canal. One can think of traversing through the Panama Canal as similar to climbing a hill, but in water. These locks determine the maximum size of a ship that can traverse through the canal. Therefore, ships are made to this standard even today and are known as Panamax vessels. The construction of the Panama Canal was such a monumental feat, that the American Society of Civil Engineers has ranked it as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. (“Civil engineers create wonders of the world”,

Similar to the Suez Canal, the economic and political ramifications were high. Initially, agreements were underway between Columbia and the United States. However, the Senate of Columbia did not ratify the proposed agreement. After this failure, President Theodore Roosevelt pursued another option – that of Panamanian independence from Columbia. He sent military aid to thwart any possible Columbian retaliation and Panama declared independence on 3 November 1903. The United States recognised Panama as an independent nation and three days later signed a treaty with them, initiating the work on the Panama Canal. The project was finally completed in 1914, thereby allowing ships to travel from the Pacific to the Atlantic without having to circumnavigate the southern tip of South America. (“Panama Canal”,

As is evident from this brief background, both of these canals had and continue to have a tremendous economic, political, and societal impact. Both involved Western powers, modern technology and massive feats of engineering to accomplish. It is therefore even more astonishing that the Holy Quran predicted their construction 1300 years prior to their formation. This is undoubtedly a sign of the truthfulness of Islam.

Let us discuss the verses of the Quran that describe the creation of these canals. Firstly, the Quran records the phrase مرج البحرين meaning “He merged the two seas” only twice – once in Surah al-Furqan and again in Surah ar-Rahman. In Surah al-Furqan the details of the Panama Canal are discussed and in Surah ar-Rahman details of the Suez Canal are discussed. It is evident from the history of these canals that their formation was revolutionary for the entire world’s affairs and so there is wisdom in recording these events as a sign for believers and non-believers alike.

Firstly, we turn to Surah ar-Rahman and the discussion of the Suez Canal. Verses 20-23 are as follows: 

مَرَجَ الۡبَحۡرَيۡنِ يَلۡتَقِيٰنِ

بَيۡنَہُمَا بَرۡزَخٌ لَّا يَبۡغِيٰنِ

فَبِاَيِّ اٰلَآءِ رَبِّکُمَا تُکَذِّبٰنِ

يَخۡرُجُ مِنۡہُمَا اللُّؤۡلُؤُ وَ الۡمَرۡجَانُ

The first verse mentions that He has merged the two seas, but the second verse explains that presently, there is a barrier between them, preventing them from encroaching upon each other. As we know, that barrier was removed with the construction of the Suez Canal, and now the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea are able to flow into one another. Notably, the word يلتقيان [yaltaqiyaan] is used here to denote their meeting and mixing into one another. This is possible through the sea-level waterway that has been created. They have started to mix to such a degree that marine life from the Red Sea has begun migrating into the Mediterranean Sea – a phenomenon known as Lessepsian migration or Erythrean invasion. But how can we know for sure that these are the two seas that are mentioned and not some other seas? The subsequent verse gives us the answer, which records that pearls and corals come out of them. 

The Red Sea is well known for its corals and coral reefs. Coral reefs are mostly found near the equator, where water temperatures typically stay greater than 68 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The reefs in the Red Sea run along the entire coastline – nearly 1200 miles. The Red Sea houses one of the most biodiverse coral reef systems in the world. This narrow strip of sea contains more than 300 species of coral – much more than those found in all of the Greater Caribbean. The Red Sea also contains the Pinctada Radiata, also known as the Gulf Pearl Oyster. This oyster is generally found throughout the Indo-Pacific oceans. Recently, however, it has found a new home in the Mediterranean as well due to the Lessepsian migration via the Suez Canal, as described previously. 

Image: Typical sailing circumnavigation of the world via the Panama Canal and Suez Canal, using the trade winds | Wikimedia

Let us turn from the Suez Canal to now discuss the other use of the phrase مرج البحرين in Surah al-Furqan where the specifics of the Panama canal are mentioned: 

وَ ہُوَ الَّذِيۡ مَرَجَ الۡبَحۡرَيۡنِ ہٰذَا عَذۡبٌ فُرَاتٌ وَّ ہٰذَا مِلۡحٌ اُجَاجٌ ۚ وَ جَعَلَ بَيۡنَہُمَا بَرۡزَخًا وَّ حِجۡرًا مَّحۡجُوۡرًا

“And He it is Who has caused the two seas to flow, this palatable [and] sweet, and that saltish [and]bitter; and between them He has placed a barrier and a great partition.” (Surah al-Furqan, Ch.25: V.54) 

In this verse, we see that the two seas that are being described are described as possessing different qualities than those mentioned in Surah ar-Rahman. Instead of mentioning corals and pearls coming from them it records that one is sweet and palatable and the other is salty and bitter. 

The salinity of oceans is a complicated science that oceanographers and other scientists have only recently started to better comprehend. Measuring the salinity – or the grams of salt dissolved in 1 kg of water – is quite a difficult task. The salinity of oceans depends on various factors, such as the weathering of rocks, evaporation, precipitation, and the melting of ice. NASA sent a specific satellite named Aquaris in 2011 to measure the salinity of the oceans so that it can help scientists better understand the ocean currents and the water cycle, which are heavily dependent on ocean salinity. Using special sensors, it was able to gather more data in the first few months than all of the data that had been gathered in the past 125 years. Below is a picture from NASA’s mission:

What is immediately evident from this satellite image is the large orange-red area within the northern Atlantic, where the salinity is almost 40 parts per million. According to NASA, this part of the Atlantic is “analogous to deserts on land” where salinity levels are extremely high compared to other parts of the world. This is mainly due to the high levels of evaporation and little rainfall. NASA even sent a special vessel to the saltiest locations to corroborate the data reported by the Aquarius satellite. In contrast, the Pacific Ocean is mainly green and even purple/blue in areas west of the Panama Canal, indicating extremely low salinity. 

It is also important to note that the difference in salinity between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea is nowhere as stark and both are on the saltier end of the scale. Whereas, there is an enormous difference in salinity between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, especially near the Panama Canal. 

Returning to the verses of the Quran, one sea is described as عذب فرات [sweet and palatable] and the other as ملح أجاج [salty and bitter], which clearly describes the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It is an absolutely astonishing prophecy that science has only recently affirmed. It is impossible that the Prophet Muhammadsa or any Arab, or anyone else for that matter, could have known of the differences in salinities of the world’s oceans in the 7th century. “And in the Earth are signs for those who have certainty of faith.” (Surah Adh-Dhariyat, Ch.51: V.20)

Furthermore, we find that the verse in Surah al-Furqan which describes the Panama Canal records another phrase that is not used in describing the Suez Canal. The phrase is حجرًا محجورًا or a great partition. Additionally, the word يلتقيان is not used, meaning that the “meet” as is used in Surah ar-Rahman to describe the Suez Canal. This is another beautiful prophecy elucidating that the Panama Canal is fundamentally different from the Suez Canal. The difference is that the Panama Canal uses a system of locks to transport vessels from one side to the other. If the reader recalls, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had much success in building a sea-level waterway in the Suez, tried to replicate the process for the Panama Canal, but failed miserably. This is due to the fact that there is still a partition between them, not allowing the two waters to flow freely into each other, as is the case with the Suez Canal.  Therefore, even though the two seas have been caused to join, they cannot be said to have “met” one another.  

Below is a schematic explaining how the system works. Essentially, as a vessel enters one of the locks, the lock in front is dropped down so that water can fill up, raising the vessel to a certain height so that it can travel above the lock. The vessel can then travel for some time until reaching the next lock, whereby the next lock is dropped, once again filling the water up and raising the vessel. In this manner, vessels can cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and vice versa.

To summarize the two verses, below is a table comparing and contrasting the two:

The Holy Quran has described both of these canals to tremendous detail in just a few words. These were no ordinary canals either – they revolutionised the world economically, politically, and socially. Undoubtedly, this is a faith-inspiring prophecy for the believers. Notably, both were also built in the same period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Just as the world set off on a course of increasing globalization, Allah sent His Messiah, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas to join humanity under one banner. “Surely, in that is a sign for a people who reflect.” (Surah an-Nahl, Surah Ch.16: V.12)

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh mentioned in one of his Quran classes that this prophecy should be at the tip of every Ahmadi’s tongue so that they can use it to ask non-Muslims as to how it was possible for the Prophet Muhammadsa to have come up with this on his own. No doubt it was Allah, عالم الغيب the Knower of the unseen, who informed the Prophet Muhammadsa. These verses serve to prove the truthfulness of Islam and the existence of Allah. 

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