Q. A few unorthodox Muslim intellectuals (Mohammed Arkoun comes to mind) believe that not enough research has been done into the role that mythology played in the Qur'anic revelation. Some events that may have been based on myth were Jonah being swallowed by the whale, the Sumerian flood during Noah's time, also Noah's preaching of God's message for 950 years, Solomon's ability to communicate with non-humans, Abraham not being burnt when thrown into the fire by his people, the parting of the Red Sea during the Israelitesí exodus from Egypt, the collapse of the mountain when Moses asked God to appear to him, the people of the cave who were put into a state of unconsciousness for centuries, Jesus' virgin birth, and a host of others. These few intellectuals posit that the stories are not to be taken literally but as parables, and what God really wants us to take away are the messages from the various stories. The more traditional Muslims opine that we have to take the Qur'anic revelation more or less literally, and we cannot make such bold statements that God repeated legendary tales/fictitious events (essentially lies) in the Qur'an, even if they were just to convey messages from the various "mythical" events. What is your view of this apparent dichotomy?

A. The Qur'an, we have to remember, is a book designed to spur us on to better ethics as well as consideration of the role of the Almighty and our role in the cosmos. The problem is that whereas the Qur'an has no problem in reporting the legends of the past that were perceived as legends, many Muslims considered that the concept of God being truthful somehow would be compromised if one were to accept Qur'anic narratives as anything less than actual occurrences. The goal of a fairy tale is different to that of a parable in that the latter has a moral intent. We also know that parables were a common method of instruction in Mediterranean/Middle Eastern society. The Qur'an also refers to many of these stories as "qasas" or "mathal" -- simply stories, similitudes -- meaning that they can be parables, actual events, or even myths. By the use of myth, I mean something that may have occurred, and throughout the ages, with constant retelling and embellishment, reached the level of veritable miracles.

Certainly the Qur'an could have cleared up the number of the people in the cave if it were of importance, but instead of doing so, the Qur'an deliberately puts that aside, thereby, I opine, showing that the details of the story, whether in euphemistic or hyperbolic form, are immaterial. The scholars, among them Ibn Hazm, discussed this under another idea: is there figurative language in the Qur'an? The idea was that if God is truthful, how could metaphors be used? They forgot that in every language, there are tropes that have nothing to do with literal interpretation. It would seem that all of the stories you refer to have been examined by researchers and have all been found to have achieved mythological proportions. I think most of the medievalists who examined the Qur'an and came up with these constructs of truth/fiction were somewhat tunnel-visioned, in that they only tried to perceive matters in that light, forgetting that lessons are by parables and fables. To assume, as do all Muslims and Christians -- that Jesus spoke in parables and accept him as a prophet at the very least, and then NOT accept that God could also do that is to create a theological conundrum, totally unsupported by the Qur'an.

Posted March 22, 2007