Q. In a question about the length of time that Noah preached to his people (950 years), you seem to indicate that given that this time span was also mentioned in the Bible, this was a well established story among the generations, and the Qur'an pretty much left it as is. As such, it was a parable that was used as an example to build morality and spirituality. Some rationalists (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) could point to several such examples in the Qur'an (and Bible) that qualify as well established myths, and using the same logic, argue that these fables were not necessarily accurate but repeated, given that they were already prevalent among the people (e.g., Solomon communicating with birds, Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesusí miraculous birth, and a host of others). How do you respond to that argument?

A. It is one thing to say that something is in the past, and comes from sources that we are supposed to accept. It is quite another to disbelieve outright and claim that stories are false. In the case of Jesus for example, the Qur'an is unequivocal about the birth episodes, referring to Jesus speaking in the cradle, etc. indeed going into more detail than the Christian canon on the matter. This is NOT something for which the Qur'an tells us to get the version from the people of zakhor (16:43, 21:7), and so it must be taken as a narrative that is part of our belief system. The same goes for Solomon, the parting of the Red Sea, etc. In the last case, some Jewish scholars have stated that there has been hyperbole in the vast figures narrated, while others have tried to reduce the phenomenon to a natural occurrence. Note that the Qur'an does NOT go into too much detail on this. In the case of Jesus, Muslim exegetes have long questioned the story, but have NEVER doubted it, and have sought rather to show, in some cases, that Mary was a hermaphrodite, etc. This is the problem with rational thought -- it seeks to reduce everything to that which we can explain. In some ways, this is the height of arrogance, for if we feel that God is the All-Knowing, then certainly we must admit that this limits our knowledge, as we are NOT like God in terms of completeness.

The end result is this: regarding Mary, the Qur'an leaves NO doubt about the virgin birth, and we therefore cannot question it. In the case of Moses, the Qur'an does NOT report the details, so we can accept the story and say that certain mythical dimensions have been added. In Solomon's case, we are noting that our communication with the other species is on such a level now that chimpanzees can communicate with us. Despite Ahmed Ali's view (The Qur'an: A Contemporary Translation) that Solomon was communicating with people whose tribal names were reflective of birds, and that therefore the communication with the lapwing was actually his discourse with a tribesman (the same way we may speak of communicating with some Native people as having spoken to the Crows -- that being the name of a particular tribe), I personally find it unappealing because of the Qur'anic detail. Imam Malik (and later Imam Hanbal) made famous the concept of "bi laa kayf" -- without asking how. They were trying, I think, to let us know that the MIRACULOUS is one of the hallmarks of the Abrahamic religion. We may question the full extent of a happening in terms of details that come from extra canonical sources, but we may not disbelieve outright. May Allah give us the knowledge to accept that which is sometimes beyond us.

Posted November 27, 2005