Q. I am researching some ambiguities brought up about the Qur’an, one of them is the story of Noah (peace be upon him) and the ark. I read your answer regarding the age of Noah on your website and I have some general questions regarding your reply. During your reply, I sensed an emphasis on taking the Qur’an as a book of morals and focusing on the essence of the examples or the parables conveyed by the stories rather than the details of the story. This reasoning was supported by the same idea encountered in the Qur’an in Surah Al Kahf regarding the story of the "seven sleepers". While this approach is totally sound when taking the message as a given (i.e., as a believer I am not looking at the validity of the text but I am trying to extract "the wisdom" from the text), I don't understand how we can provide the same answer if the question is asked by a non-believer or someone skeptical. As Muslims, we believe that the Qur’an is the word of Allah (God), and hence everything that is provided in it is true (especially regarding a historical event, if it is regarding a jurisdiction, this might be prone to interpretation).

Where is the flaw in the following reasoning? The Qur’an contains the words of Allah => when narrating a historical event, it is true => definitely this is not a myth => so the story of Noah's ark is not a myth (nor his age). By the way, if the age is mentioned, then there is a reason it is mentioned. If it says 950 years, this should be relevant to us, it can't be said that it is using an unknown scale. Recent scientific findings disprove the possibility of carrying all animal species on the same "boat", and also show that the average lifespan of generations prior to the current one was shorter. I appreciate your help as it will assist me with my research.

A. You raised a very interesting question, which highlights the problem of theologians the world over. What exactly does "truth" mean in a scripture? And are we to accept, beyond logic, certain proclamations even when our proven science and rationality decree that certain things are absolutely impossible? For this I have no final answer except to state that, from a quasi anthropological and cultural approach, it would seem that by "truth", scripture often means that which has been handed down from generation to generation and is part of accepted stories that leads to betterment. This would seem to be completely at odds with our modern meaning of the word "truth". This discussion is not lost on philosophers who have coined several theories regarding truth -- these are just a few of the terms out there:  absolute, relative, and pluralist. Now in ALL of the Abrahamic scriptures, there is the idea of parables (mathal in the Qur'an). How can we then say, if God addresses us in parables, that revelation has to be taken as literal truth? A parable in and of itself is a fiction, meant only to illustrate a certain moral.

The idea of truth as applied to the divine is the influence of theologians, who were themselves influenced by later Greek philosophy -- note that before the rise of Islam, there was no such thing as "Jewish theology" -- and the only reason there was theology in Christianity was precisely because of Hellenistic influences in the development of that religion. My point is that for early Jews, the idea of truth would not have meant at all that which is always in harmony with fact. Rather it would have been that which is in harmony with the ideals that promote good living and society. For this reason, we have theories today that the Satan story is not about some external being, but is rather a reference to the good and bad within us. Obviously these are just opinions, but what they show is that the definition of truth in Abrahamic scripture only became a problem AFTER the rise of Greek influence.

Regarding the issue of 950 years and the issue of the ark, one again has to ask how did the Arabs see the meaning of the word "sana" considering that they were NOT mathematicians and chronologists in the scientific sense? And how does one take 50,000? How does one take "bid" in the opening verses of Surah 30? Working with the relative or pragmatic definitions of truth, one understands that all that is being said here -- in the understanding of the people to whom the speech is addressed – is that it was way beyond normal reasoning. Why the specific number? It was to conform to the previous scripture in the case of Noah's age, and to give the idea of immeasurable time in the case of 50,000. We know that in Jewish (and later Muslim) tradition, the number "40" has been used to signify simply "a lot" within lower limits.

As for the animals in the ark, here again we work with relative truth. One might say that it was for the region, and not meant to be universal. Our problem is that our reading of scripture has become theological rather than linguistic, an example being in the crux of Islam: when one says that Muhammad is the last Prophet, does that mean last for the universe, or last from the descendants of Abraham? Again the idea being stressed here is that truth is NOT to be defined by one stagnant definition. In the Qur'an in 21:7 and 16:43, we are asked to consult the people of remembrance (the Jews) for news of what transpired in the past. Consider what is happening here. We are simply being asked to confirm with them stories of their history as related by them; we are confirming the stories of the past, regardless of whether they are concordant with reality or not. Another proof that one might use is that if one analyzes the Bible and the Qur'an, one sees different aspects being promoted. The Qur'an is concerned totally with using the Hebrew Prophets and Kings as ethical exemplars; the Bible is concerned with revealing them as humans, with the flaws that humans have. By forgetting the variant goals of the two scriptures, we have come to claim that the Jews have committed calumny against the Prophets.

As Karen Armstrong notes in her book "The Battle for God", in Greek lore, there is the story of the argument between mythos and logos, lore and reason. Logos won, hence our focus on rational thought over folklore and handed down traditions. But in the world of the Bible and Qur'an, it is clear that mythos was the governing factor, which is so obvious from the story of the cave in the Qur'an and the stories of the Hebrew Prophets. The point here again is that truth is being subjected to a narrow interpretation, and that it would seem that truth, from the Abrahamic perspective, is to be seen more as that which promotes good ethics, and makes you respect the founders of your people and their stories when such stories promote ethics and harmony (of course within the monotheistic worldview). In Islam, we are taught that sometimes the best of knowledge is manifested in the expression of doubt on the absoluteness of any answer, so hopefully I have helped you here and not created more confusion. And Allah knows best.

Posted May 17, 2009