Q. There is a verse in the Qur'an that puzzles me: (Q29:14 – Al Ankabut) "And We sent Noah to his people, and he dwelt among them a thousand years bar fifty…

According to the above verse, one is led to believe that Noah lived for 950 years. All historical and anthropological evidence indicates that the average lifespan of generations prior to the current one was shorter. All of the Qur'an's translators I researched seem to be in agreement regarding the above interpretation. What is your perspective on this verse? Could it be translated any other way or is that the correct interpretation?

A. The concept of the Qur'an correcting inaccuracies is faith-based. Note that in sura al-Kahf, the Qur'an does not answer the question as to how many people there were. This leads religion theorists to postulate that what is important is that whatever legend is deemed as true is continued as true. Did Noah live to be that age? By whose reckoning? Did the ancients tell us that he lived to that age? Is it important to find out the accuracy of this, or to go along with a story?

Regarding the history of the ancients, i.e., before Prophet Muhammad, the Qur'an refers us to 21:7, 16:43: the people of Zakhor, the scholars of the Jews. And so we use their stories, since there is nothing with which to challenge those reports. As Jewish sages have said, "the Torah speaks the language of man," so too the Qur'an talks  in terms of that which made sense to the people of the time. The problem for modern exegetes has been to take the Qur'an as an historic and scientific document in the technical meanings of "history" and "science," and this is partly because it says of itself that it is tibyaanan li kulli shay – it is an explanation for everything. But context tells us that it is obviously only referring to the spiritual and ethical.

I would advise that the Christian term "kerygma" is one that is applicable to dealing with the Qur'an. The idea of kerygma in Christianity is the proclamation of religious truths, especially as taught in the Gospels. The notion of adjudging any scripture in terms of historicity and accuracy according to the modern scientific connotations in such terms as "reliability," etc. is a gross error. The stories are told for a reason, and we have to understand why they are being told. Now all of this obviously raises the question: so is the Qur'an a book of truth or not? To which one may answer: the same way one illustrates a story by parables, etc., so too the Qur'an uses the information from the past. Myths, which may or may not be true, or the measure of time, which may or may not concord with ours, should not be the focus as the Qur'an's job is not the specific detail in question, but to show that the person is the same spoken about elsewhere, and the aim is to create morality and spirituality.

I don't see the Qur'anic concept of 'truth' as always meaning scientific accuracy – that would deny the human comprehension factor. For example, when the Qur'an talks about he who does an "atom's" weight of good – the word used in not atom, but the smallest living thing perceptible to the human eye – a mite – but modernists insert atom to give the concept of exactness. I would not be surprised if some have argued that the Qur'an explains chemistry, or someone did not translate it as "ion". This is why scriptural messages are to be understood as based on moral lessons that may be age old, and one takes into consideration the issue that would be solved/caused if one were to talk about "accuracy."

Was the earth created in six days? Six stages? Or maybe seven? As Muslims, we believe so far in six stages, but why is this important? There are two things: the story that came down long ago, based on the things known/assumed to the communities before, was based on six. As rationalists, we make it six stages. But why is that important except for reconciliation with science, when in fact the scripture lets science function on its own, and relates rather to ethics and spirituality. It only uses science to illustrate that nothing happens without God's will, or that God is not irrational. Neither seeks to cross over into the other's territory, but that fact is lost on many researchers.

This brings us back to the question of Noah and his 950 years. Did he live to that actual age? The scholars are divided on the issue: some say that it actually happened, using OUR measurement as the standard (I assume that since we are speaking of Muslim scholars here, they are referring to lunar years, thereby meaning an approximate total of 924 solar calendar years). Others say that the yardstick of measurement was different for the time of Noah. Others say that the long life span was longer before the FLOOD and drastically dropped off after the event. All of these answers are plausible, but I personally find them unappealing. Since the Qur'anic reference is to Genesis 9:29 -- and this is because it tells us in 16:43, 21:7 to ask about the past from the people of the zakhor -- the followers of the Hebrew Bible -- you will find the same  question of authenticity  among Jews and Christians.  The Qur'an was NEVER, as was NO scripture of the Abrahamic religions, meant to be a reference for history in the academic sense of the word.

I feel that we should simply say that Noah lived a very long time, and avoid the measurement in terms of mathematical accuracy. In which case, I would seem to go against Ibn Hazm and his taking the Qur'an literally. But I will say that tropes are part of a language, and if to the ancient Hebrews, 950 was a trope for a long period (considering that ancient Hebrews did NOT have the concept of a zero). When the Qur'an accepted the Hebrew trope, Muslims, as did many of those of the older religions, read the trope as literal fact rather than a figure of speech. May God allow us to use the Scripture for ethical, spiritual, and religious guidance for which it is intended, rather than as a source of science.

Posted November 23, 2005