Abraham’s four birds

Abraham's four birds

 
This popular verse is a thought experiment of Abraham1 who is the Quranic epitome of questioning minds:

And when Abraham said, O my Sustainer, show me how you give life to the dead, He said: Have you then no faith? He said: Yes, but that my mind be reassured. He said: Then take four BIRDS, then fashion them towards you; then place them separately on every hill; then summon them: they will come flying to you; and know that God is Mighty, Wise. 2:260

It responds to the human curiosity about how life originates and regenerates from the non-living, and how God could potentially resurrect the dead.

Please look into the phrase “take four birds … then place them separately on every hill”. Here four birds remind us of the four basic elements (fire, water, air, earth) that the ancients believed the world and life to be composed of. Also, the number four reminds us of the four directions (east, west, north, south) and hence of all directions. Apparently, the phrase refers to the scattering of the moving particles/four basic elements, which constitute life2, into four/all directions after death.

Thus the four birds trained by Abraham symbolize the numerous atoms and molecules which, when rightly assembled, generate life and which – when the living matter dies and disintegrate into its original organic and inorganic constituents – go scattered in nature.

Here, like many other places, the Quran essentially portrays ‘self’ and ‘life process’ as an assembly of flying creatures/birds, i.e., an organization of moving particles arranged in a specific order (cf. 2:260, 19:93-94; 34:3, 34:7, 34:9, 34:22; 72:28).

This is in line with the Quranic position that life arises from death/dead material, while ‘living’ dialectically recycles with ‘non-living’ (3:27, 6:95-96, 10:24, 10:31, 16:65, 22:5-6, 22:73, 30:11, 30:19, 30:20, 30:24, 30:27, 43:10-12), a concept that is consistent with the current biochemical knowledge about life’s origin through a purely natural process from inorganic and organic particles.

What is more, the verse eventually argues from a metascientific perspective that is beyond the scope of science: Since all these flying creatures/birds/particles are allegedly ‘tamed’ by the divine law (note: “fashion them towards you”), they are always ready, as expected, to gather and re-assemble instantly under its ‘call’3 (“then summon them: they will come flying to you”; cf. 30:25). Evidently, an Omnipotent, Omniscient God is well able to bring the dead back to life, if He so wills (“know that God is Mighty, Wise”).

Then, because ‘BIRD’ in the Quran essentially refers to self and mind, as noted elsewhere, Abraham’s birds may also symbolize the individuals in a society, who, when reorganized by right guidance and reform, can as easily create a civilization out of ruins through their conscious, collective effort. This interpretation seems reasonable when we read 2:260 together with The Parable of the Town in Ruins in its preceding verse 2:259 (cf. 2:258) that deals with social resurrection as it illustrates how God’s infinite creative power revives the dead, while giving life to a dead town or society4.

Remarkably, through this thought experiment, the Quran encourages scientific inquisitiveness and its associates – experiencing, experimenting and reasoning – as important steps towards attaining conviction.

 

Related articles:

Hearing, sights and senses as flying birds

Meaning of ‘BIRD’ in the Quran

The Parable of the Town in Ruins

 

***********************************

Note 1

A literal reading of 2:260 has led traditional Muslims to understand the story as an instant, physical miracle where God made the birds alive, after they were cut into pieces, to demonstrate His power to Abraham. However, this understanding violates the consistent Quranic message that highlights the absurdity and futility of such instant miracles, because – not only that a temporary, physical miracle, though may serve only as a proof for those who witness it, means little to others – previous messengers were rejected by people despite those alleged miracles (17:59). Although, like any story, this story is also narrated in the past tense, it is actually a timeless parable with certain moral intent.

Note 2

When flying creatures/birds/particles are scattered (or separated from each other “on every hill”), they stay in nature as individualized dormant potential. According to the Quran, consciousness to various degrees is an intrinsic attribute of all created things (41:11, 41:21). Also, plants have life (35:9, 43:11, 7:57).

Note 3

Asad’s note on 2:260: My rendering of the above parable is based on the primary meaning of the imperative surhunna ilayka (“make them incline towards thee”, i.e., “teach them to obey thee”). The moral of this story has been pointed out convincingly by the famous commentator Abu Muslim (as quoted by Razi): “If man is able – as he undoubtedly is – to train birds in such a way as to make them obey his call, then it is obvious that God, whose will all things obey, can call life into being by simply decreeing, .Be!”‘

Note 4

This parable could have yet another meaning, if applied to individual level. By knowing and aligning the essential elements that constitute our existence, we experience life. When the same go scattered, this equals death. Then when we can call them back, after having been able to harness them, we get revived.

Advertisements

A lesson from the story of Aaron

A lesson from the story of Aaron

 

Prophet Aaron allowed ‘the worship of the golden calf’, to avoid conflicts among his people. Can we learn some insight from his example?

 

Question: I see in the Quran a contradiction. In one place it says that Aaron shared in the guilt of worshipping the golden calf (7:151, 20:92). Then elsewhere it says that Aaron did not share in the guilt (20:85-90). How do you reconcile that?

Answer: Contrary to the Pentateuchal account (Exodus 32:1-5), the Quran doesn’t accuse Aaron of having actually participated in making or worshipping the golden calf; his alleged “guilt” consisted in having remained tactfully passive in the face of his people’s idolatry, for fear of causing a split among them (7:150; cf. 20:90-94). I do not see a contradiction here.

Question: Can you check out in the Quran 20:92 and 7:151 that Aaron actually participated in worshipping the golden calf?

Answer: I do not see in the Quran that Aaron actually participated in worshipping the golden calf. Let us read the verses you mentioned:

And Aaron said to them before: “My people, you are being tested with it. Your Sustainer is the Gracious, so follow me and obey my command!” / They answered: “We will continue to worship it until Moses comes back to us!” / He said: “O Aaron, what prevented you when you saw them being astray?” 20:90-92

He said: “O my Sustainer, forgive me and my brother, and admit us in Your grace; and You are the most Merciful of the merciful!” 7:151

Question: But this was a blatant act of idolatry. As the deputy of Moses and the leader in charge of the Israelites, it was his responsibility to stop it. Don’t you think that the silent approval of a sin is a sin in itself?

Answer: The point is that the Quran here doesn’t really contradict itself. Aaron never supported idolatry. He simply tried to avoid a split and bloodshed among his people (20:94). The Quran is quite clear on this issue:

I was concerned that you would say that I have caused a split between the Children of Israel, and that I did not follow your orders (to keep them united). 20:94

Question: If Aaron did not commit a sin, then why did Moses accuse him (20:92-93) and drag him by the hair (7:150, 20:94)? Also, why did Moses pray for Aaron’s forgiveness, if it was not for his sin (7:151)?

Answer: Moses blames Aaron before understanding the bigger picture. And Aaron clarifies his position that he didn’t support idolatry but rather tried to prevent conflicts and bloodshed among his people (7:150, 20:94). Subsequently, Moses prays for his own forgiveness (apparently for his hasty judgement and inapt response) as well as for Aaron’s (in case there was any unintentional shortcoming on his part. 7:151). This is in compliance with the divine directive to always remain conscious of the fallibility of our human nature.

Please note that, besides painting Aaron in the golden calf story in a positive light, the Quran invariably holds him with high regard as a prophet (19:53) with a ‘clear authority’ (23:45), who was very eloquent (28:34) and blessed (37:120), and was ‘on the right path’ (37:118), hence presented as a great legacy to be commemorated by the generations (37:119; cf. 4:163, 10:75, 10:87, 20:29-30). In line with this, the great Sufi teacher Ibn ‘Arabi alleges the stance of Aaron in the golden calf story as rightful and that of Moses as hasty. He even asks: Shouldn’t Moses know, as a prophet, that God is everywhere, even in the golden calf?

Question: Suppose you are a grand mufti and you ask an imam to lead the worshippers of a local mosque. After a week you are back to the mosque wherein you see a large Buddha statue being worshipped by an assembly of devotees. The imam explains to you that he allowed this idolatry only because he wanted to avoid conflicts among the people. Do you think he acted rightly and that he did not violate God’s commandments?

Answer: Your analogy with a mosque is incorrect in this instance. It was not a mosque and Aaron was not leading a few worshippers but a nation.

Even if I had to take this inadequate comparison seriously, the answer is really simple and straightforward. Yes, if I was a grand mufti and if I discovered after a week that my imam of that mosque allowed some people to worship a statue of a ‘golden calf’ (say, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna and so on), for a few days, and that he allowed it with a sincere intent to avoid conflict and bloodshed, I will fully understand him.

Based on my conscience and common sense, yes, I will say that what the imam has done is not anything insensible. Please note that ‘avoid bloodshed’ is also one of the major commandments of God. Aaron showed his respect to this divine commandment. We can certainly learn a good moral from Aaron.

Question: It is true that a main divine command is not to kill. Yet, God’s Will must be established on Earth and this cannot be done without sacrifices and sufferings. The prophets should know this better than others. Didn’t the Aaron of the Quran forget the importance of this prophetic responsibility he was entrusted with?

Answer: The Pentateuchal account portrays Aaron as one who instigated idol-worship (Exodus 32:1-5). In contrast, the Aaron of the Quran reluctantly tolerated idolatry to avoid conflicts and disunity among his people. Thus, as he was instructed to keep the guidelines of God – that included preventing idol-worship and also to keep the people united – he tried to make a balance between the two (7:150; cf. 20:92).

In other words, while the Quranic Aaron tried to make a right balance between the two divine commandments, the Pentateuchal Aaron blatantly violated the first commandment. I can go with the Quranic Aaron all the way, but not with his counterpart.

Question: So, are you saying that, for the sake of peace in our societies, we should now follow the Quranic Aaron and approve ‘the worship of the golden calf’?

Answer: Well, to deal with the issue of idol worship, all modern governments are in fact following an approach similar to that of the Quranic Aaron: they are emphasizing ‘the unity in diversity’ of their citizens by ‘tolerating’ every religious group to worship its own ‘golden calf’. Thus, in a secular state, Christians, Muhammadans, Buddhists, Hindus and others are all being allowed to worship their own idols (Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Krishna and so on) without being interfered by the government.

As a prophetic figure, the Aaron of the Quran can present as an excellent role model to be followed by us in the real life situations of our today’s multicultural, multi-coloured, multi-religious world.

The Parable of the Town in Ruins

The Parable of the Town in Ruins

 
Please read this famous story, ‘The Parable of the Town in Ruins’, as narrated in the Quran:

Or the similitude of one who passed through a town which had fallen into ruin. He said: “How shall God bring it to life after its death?” So God put him to death for a hundred years, then raised him. He said: “How long have you stayed here?” He said: “I have stayed here a day or part of a day.” He said: “Nay, but you have stayed here for a hundred years! Deeply observe your food and your drink, untouched is it by the passing of years. And deeply observe your donkey! Thus We make you a symbol for the people. And deeply observe the bones, how We erect them together and then clothe them with flesh.” So when this became clear to him, he said: “I know that God is all-powerful over everything!” 2:259

In the above, there are a few points to contemplate:

Or the similitude of one who passed through a town which had fallen into ruin. Now, like any story, this story is also narrated in the Quran in the past tense, apparently giving a first impression as if it is relating an event of the past. However, because it is a parable with certain moral intent, it is not time-bound. As a ‘thought experiment’, here the events are meant to be in all tenses – past, present and future – including present continuous.

He said: How shall God bring it to life after its death? While Muslims traditionally understand this popular story as a real historical account, this is obviously a parable meant to illustrate how God’s infinite creative power can resurrect a ghost town, as it can bring the dead back to life: and thus it is meaningfully placed between Abraham’s assertion in verse 258, “My Sustainer is the One who gives life and death”, and his subsequent curiosity, in verse 260, about life’s regeneration from the non-living.

I have stayed here a day or part of a day. Similar answers, involving time sensed as relative, are also given by people after resurrection when asked “How long have you stayed on Earth?” (23:112-114, 17:52, 18:19,10:45, 30:55-56).

Deeply observe your food and your drink, untouched is it by the passing of years. This is a description of divine nourishment that is eternal and thus feeds the human soul throughout the ages. Mentioned earlier in the same sura, this is the same timeless ‘food and drink’, of spiritual awareness (2:56-61; cf. 5:112-113), which remains unchanged and untouched by the passing of years.

And deeply observe your donkey! The donkey is the crude creature, the carrier (16:8-9, 62:5, 31:19). It appears to symbolize the animal part of human existence, i.e. the physical body that carries the soul. While this corporal vehicle is transitional and mortal, it is capable of being renewed by fresh growth. In contrast to the prevalent understanding, the verse doesn’t say that the donkey is dead. Rather it asks to deeply observe the resurrected ‘donkey’ (the fleshly carrier of human soul; note ‘Thus We make you a symbol for the people’) and the process of its creation and re-creation (note ‘… the bones, how We erect them together and …’).

And deeply observe the bones, how We erect them together and then clothe them with flesh. This is in line with the similar Quranic references to the “assembling of bones and clothing them with flesh” in descriptions of man’s birth and resurrection (23:14, 36:77-82, 75:3-4; cf. 17:49, 19:4, 23:35, 37:16, 56:47, 79:11).  In all these instances, like many other places, the Quran points to the ever-recurring miracle of birth, preceded by the gradual evolution of the embryo in its mother’s womb, as a visible sign of God’s infinite creative power to regenerate life, and therefore also to resurrect the dead (36:77-82).

The above reflections elaborate our understanding of the verse into the following rendering:

Or consider this ‘thought experiment’: A person passes through a town which has fallen into ruin. He says: “How shall God bring it to life after its death (How shall God resurrect this ghost town and how shall He bring the dead back to life)?” So God puts him to death for a hundred years, then raises him. He says: “How long have you stayed here?” He says: “I have stayed here a day or part of a day.” He says: “Nay, but you have stayed here for a hundred years (Not only time is relative, man’s earthbound concept of time is illusory)! Deeply observe your food and your drink, untouched is it by the passing of years (Observe the spiritual nourishment that feeds your soul; it is eternal and therefore remains untouched by time). And deeply observe your donkey (Observe your resurrected body, the fleshly carrier of your soul, and observe the process of its creation and re-creation)! Thus We make you a symbol for the people (Succeeding generations may learn from your lesson how God’s infinite creative power can vivify a dead town or society, as it can resurrect the dead). And deeply observe the bones, how We erect them together and then clothe them with flesh (Observe how the ever-recurring miracle of the evolution of the embryo in mother’s womb presents evidence of God’s infinite power to create and resurrect).” So when this becomes clear to him, he says: “I know that God is all-powerful over everything!” 2:259

Some commentators have tried to identify this story with a number of Biblical accounts, such as ♦ Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel, 37:1-14); ♦ Nehemiah’s visit to Jerusalem which had lain in ruins for more than a century following the invasion by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon and which was subsequently restored by King Cyrus of Persia (Nehemiah, i. 12-20); and ♦ Ezra’s observation of Israel’s captivity in Babylon and their return to Jerusalem (Ezra, 1-8). Thus there are attempts to identify the person with Ezekiel, Nehemiah or Ezra; the town with Jerusalem; and the bones with the ‘dry bones’, which represented the People of Israel in exile. However, Islamic scholars commonly agree that these alleged connections are no more than speculations and have no relevance to the very general narrative of this Quranic parable, where the identity of the man and the town is unspecified and therefore unimportant.

The spirit-bearing man who gave Mary a pure son was a real, mortal man

The spirit-bearing man who gave Mary a pure son was a real, mortal man

 
Please read this interesting passage:

And relate in the Book, Mary, when she withdrew herself from her people to a place in the east. 19:16

So she took a barrier to separate her from them. Then We sent to her Our Spirit, and that appeared for her as a man full-grown.” 19:17

Here we will observe why this divine spirit (‘Our spirit’) that was ‘sent’ to Mary – that ‘appeared for her’ as ‘a full-grown man’ who ‘gave her a pure son’ (19:17-19) – refers to a real, mortal man.

To better understand a text like this, we need to keep in mind the unique literary style of the Quran as a scripture that is laced with allegories, similes and idioms.

Take the word ‘sent’ as an example. Since God is not bound in space or time, here the word ‘sent’ cannot literally mean ‘sent from a specific place or dispatched at a specific moment’. Rather it implies actualization of a potential (i.e. ‘a divine word’) for an addressee, through a natural process involving a cause and effect chain (cf. 4:171). When God ‘sends’ something to someone, He actually endows her with it through a spontaneous course, rather than directly transferring it from somewhere.

Now, it is important to observe that the divine spirit (‘Our spirit’) that was ‘sent’ to Mary through a male human form (19:17) actually parallels the divine spirit that is re-mentioned in the phrase ‘We breathed into her of Our spirit’ as a reference to Mary’s conception of Jesus (21:91). Note the same words ‘Our spirit’ in both instances. However, again, this expression ‘breathed into … of Our spirit’ in 21:91, contrary to popular belief, is not exclusive to Jesus since the Quran uses the same expression ‘breathed into … of Our spirit’ in three other places with reference to the creation of man in general (15:29, 32:9, 38:72), thus making it clear that God ‘breathes of His spirit’ into every human. One may postulate that the word ‘spirit’ in these occasions refers to a set of highly organized information, buried deep in the essence of matter.

In other words, the ‘spirit’ that was ‘sent’ to Mary through a man parallels the ‘spirit’ that was ‘breathed into her’ on her conception of Jesus. And this ‘spirit’ in turn parallels the ‘spirit’ that is ‘breathed into’ every woman on her conception of a child and is ‘sent’ to her, obviously, through a man prior to her pregnancy.

The above interactive explanation also clarifies the phrase ‘appeared for her’ (tamaththala laha), which is very different from ‘appeared to her’. Sharing common root with mith’l (resemblance) and mathal (bodily form; cf. mathal of Jesus, 3:59), the verb ‘tamaththala’ means ‘it presented itself in a different form1. Evidently, here, it implies the representation of the ‘spirit’ through a physical carrier, i.e. a mortal man, actualized via a natural, evolutionary process involving a long cause and effect chain. Thus the whole narrative is about a real life experience of Mary with a real man. Not about any illusory vision of an angelic mirage (also cf. Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:26-38).

This ‘spirit’, which one may figure as ‘a set of highly organized information’ (such as the information stored in DNA), in fact approaches every woman through ‘a full-grown man’ prior to her conception of a child.

As noted elsewhere, this understanding that Mary underwent an actual spousal relationship with a real, mortal man is confirmed by the Quran in many ways.

Final thoughts

The ‘spirit’ that was ‘sent’ to Mary through ‘a full-grown man’ (19:17) actually parallels the ‘spirit’ that was ‘breathed into her’ on her conception of Jesus (21:91). And this ‘spirit’ in turn parallels the ‘spirit’ that is ‘breathed into’ every woman on her conception of a child (15:29, 32:9, 38:72) and is ‘sent’ to her, obviously,  through ‘a full-grown man’.

In other words, this is the same ‘spirit’ – which one may figure as a set of highly organized information, buried deep in the essence of matter (such as the information stored in DNA) – which approaches every woman, and is transferred into her, through a man prior to her pregnancy. Note: Often mistranslated as ‘angel’, the actual word used in 19:17 is ‘spirit’.

Thus, the ‘spirit’-bearing man who gave Mary a pure son was NOT a mysterious angel, but a real, mortal man.

Further reading: Does the Quran really support the Virgin Birth of Jesus?

 

_________________

1 The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia

What was the actual age of Noah

what-was-the-actual-age-of-noah

 
Based on the findings from modern methods that can evaluate the age of human remains with a fair degree of precision (e.g. through radiocarbon dating of bones, mummies, fossils etc), and also considering the greater fragility of earlier man, now it is an established fact that the average life-expectancy of our human ancestors was definitely LESS, and never more, than average ours.

Thus, whether any member of human species during the last 10,000 years could have survived several hundred years, is out of the question!

Could Noah, or any of those great patriarchs, have lived several hundred years?

THE QURAN DOESN’T CONFIRM NOAH’S ACTUAL AGE

The Quran re-narrates Noah’s story as one of “the PARABLES, the meaning of which can be grasped by none except the knowledgeable. 29:43” (cf. 29:41, 11:24-25)”. See Understanding the Flood Parable of Noah

“Parable is a short story that uses familiar events to illustrate a moral or religious lesson.”

In this parabolic story, Noah’s actual age is irrelevant.

There is a general misconception among traditional Muslims that, by re-narrating various biblical stories, the Quran confirms them literally and so no deeper understanding of these accounts is allowed or necessary.

To our observation, however, this is not the case. As the Quran attaches its own moral imports and intents to these ‘stories of the ancients’, they function in the Quran purely as parables rather than factsheets of literal or historical accounts (24:34-35, 25:33, 39:27, 12:111; cf. 12:7, 12:111, 15:75, 23:30, 54:15). Thus they actually belong to the veiled corpus of the Quran, which comprises literary devices like symbols, idioms, metaphors, allegories, stories, parables, analogies etc whereby the scripture presents deeper, complex and abstract ideas.

In other words, as these Quranic re-narrations are idiosyncratic in both contents and intents, they do not confirm any literal understanding of their Biblical parallels.

We will take the AGE OF NOAH as an example.

First, why should we discuss this at all? Is the actual age of Noah really important, or even relevant to us? If not, then what purpose would it serve in a handbook of divine enlightenment?

In our opinion, it is inconceivable that the Quran, with its sole purpose to guide, would be concerned about any actual age or any historical biography of a character of the remote past.

And this should explain why the Quranic wisdom gently BYPASSES (cf. 5:15) this specific focus of this Genesis myth on Noah’s age as immaterial, while attaching to it a very different dimension:

And certainly We sent Noah to his people, and he remained among them a thousand YEARS except fifty years. 29:14

Please observe how this Quranic description significantly differs from its Biblical counterpart, “Noah LIVED a total of 950 years, and then he died. Genesis ix, 29”.

Here one may ask: If the Quran really wanted to confirm a literal understanding of the Biblical narration of Noah’s age, why doesn’t it directly repeat the exact number “nine hundred and fifty” as mentioned there, but rather uses this brainstorming expression “a thousand less fifty” instead?

Again, if the Quran doesn’t somehow intend to differ from this Biblical account of Noah’s longevity (“Noah lived a total …”), why doesn’t it simply repeat it ad verbum, but rather rephrases it in such an oblique way (“he remained with them …”) instead? Why ‘remained’, instead of ‘lived’?

Also, why does the phrase “a thousand YEARS less fifty years” use two contrasting terms, ‘YEARS’ (sana) and ‘years’ (‘aam), if not with a purpose to highlight some key differences between their connotations?

Why does the Quran need to use an expression so distinct from the Biblical, after all?

THE QURAN DOESN’T EVEN MENTION NOAH’S ACTUAL AGE

Let us read the statement once again:

And certainly We sent Noah to his people, and he remained among them a thousand YEARS except fifty years. 29:14

On a closer study of the above, and the highlighted words in particular, we get the following findings:

Here we have two different time units: ‘YEARS’ (sana) and ‘years’ (‘aam)

Though not noticeable in English translations, there are infact two different time units being used here: ‘YEARS’ (sana) and ‘years’ (‘aam).

Often translated as ‘years’, the word sana in Arabic vaguely refers to season, crop or year as a non-specific period of time. Hence it doesn’t necessarily mean a year (365 days), just as yawm does not necessarily mean a day. In contrast, translated as ‘years’, the word ‘aam often more specifically refers to a calendar year.

Moreover, while sana generally indicates a period of hard work and hardship (12:47-48; 7:130), ‘aam usually indicates a year of ease and blessing (2:259, 12:49).

While there is thus some contrariety between sana and ‘aam, the Quran uses these two analogous words in 29:14, in one sentence, obviously to highlight some key difference between their connotations.

‘Thousand YEARS’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘thousand calendar years’

Usually translated as ‘thousand’, the word ‘alf’ in Arabic doesn’t invariably or necessarily mean ‘thousand’ in the literal sense. As ‘alf’ often stands for a certain well-rounded number or a large number, it may also simply mean ‘many’ or ‘too many’ (2:96; 8:9, 22:47, 32:5, 97:3).

With this, if we consider that ‘sana’ vaguely refers to season, crop or year, often accompanied by hardship, we can understand ‘alfa sanat’ (‘thousand YEARS’) as a very long, non-specific period of time, of long waits and difficulties, which doesn’t precisely or necessarily mean ‘thousand calendar years’.

“A thousand sana except fifty ‘aam” doesn’t mean 950 years

As noted above, the Quran uses these two contrasting time units to highlight some key difference between their connotations. In order to better understand the verse, we need to appreciate the fact that the Quran does this deliberately, with some real purpose.

Thus the phrase “A thousand sana (years/ months/ periods/ time-cycles) less fifty aam (years)” contains two dialectical categories – two different types/natures/lengths of time – where one is more specific than the other.

Now, we cannot do simple arithmetic between two different dialectical categories. We cannot from thousand sana just numerically deduct fifty aam and calculate the instant result 950. If we could, then in what unit would we express our resultant number – in sana or aam?

Thus it is impossible to derive from the Quran any mention of Noah’s actual age.

THE QURAN HERE CONVEYS A MESSAGE

Then, let us read the statement in its context:

And certainly We sent Noah to his people, and he remained among them a thousand YEARS except fifty years; so/then the deluge overtook them while they were transgressing.

But We saved him and the people of the Ark, and we set it up as a sign for the worlds. …

And these are the PARABLES We propound unto man, but none grasps their meaning except the knowledgeable. 29:14-15, 43

Since this story is a parable, we need to read it figuratively through the symbols to get its deeper meaning and moral.

Here Noah is an archetype who personifies the human longing for divine illumination that guides the soul throughout this challenging journey of life (23:29). He constructs a moral system, ‘a simple craft made of planks and nails’ (54:13), which is ‘built gradually, under divine inspiration’ (11:37-38, 23:27). …

Now, as Muhammad parallels Noah (11:28-31; cf. 6:50, 46:7-9), his Quran parallels the Ark (29:15). Also, like Noah, the age of his prophetic dispensation among the people spans many centuries (‘thousand years’). Out of it, the first few decades (‘fifty years’) represent the years of spiritual progress, which are followed by many centuries (‘thousand years’) of spiritual degeneration (29:14).

Throughout the ages, however, the messenger’s true followers remain spiritually alive, preserved in the Ark of his teachings as incorporated in the Quran (11:23-25, 29:15). …

While others become spiritually dead (11:21-25), drowned by the overwhelming deluge of mental shallowness and worldly desires (11:15-25, 29:14, 71:11-12, 71:21-25).

FINAL THOUGHTS

The re-narrated ‘stories of the ancients’ function in the Quran purely as parables, rather than factsheets of literal or historical accounts. As they thus belong to the veiled corpus of the Quran, they do not confirm any literal understanding of their Biblical parallels.

The same applies to the Parable of Noah, where Noah’s actual age is irrelevant. Here we have carefully observed how the Quranic wisdom gently bypasses this specific focus of this Genesis myth on Noah’s age, and how it attaches to the narration a very different dimension (5:15, 29:14-15, 29:43).

The Quran not only doesn’t confirm Noah’s actual age, it doesn’t even mention it.

Understanding the Flood Parable of Noah

Understanding the Flood Parable of Noah

 
Similarity exists between the flood myths of many ancient cultures, suggesting the possibility that some of them have evolved from others or influenced each other. This explains, for example, Why the flood story of Noah is similar to the Hindu flood legend of Manu.

The Quran re-narrates the Biblical flood myth in its own way (11:25-48, 23:22-30, 29:14-15, 54:9-15, 71:1-28), as a parable or moral anecdote of earlier generations (‘mathal’; 24:34, 25:33, 29:43; cf. 3:3-7; 5:27) – and not as a literal, historical factsheet.

Interestingly, while Noah’s story in 11:25-48 is introduced by a reminder of its allegorical nature (parable, 11:24), the story in 29:14-15 is followed by similar reminders (parable, 29:41; parables, 29:43).

The Quran specifically describes Noah’s story as one of “the PARABLES, the meaning of which can be grasped by none except the knowledgeable. 29:43 (cf. 29:41, 11:24-25)”.

“Parable is a short story that uses familiar events to illustrate a moral or religious lesson.”

Since this story in the Quran is a parable, intended mainly to serve as a moral lesson with some deeper message (24:34-35, 25:33, 39:27, 12:111; cf. 12:7, 12:111, 15:75, 23:30, 54:15), it is not meant to be understood as a literal, historical account. That is, we need to read it figuratively through the symbols to get its deeper meaning and moral.

The Quranic Noah is an archetype who personifies the human longing for divine illumination that guides the soul throughout this challenging journey of life (23:29). He constructs a moral system, ‘a simple craft made of planks and nails’ (54:13), which is built gradually (11:38), under divine inspiration (11:37-38, 23:27), despite rejection by cynics (11:25-27) and ridicules from critics (11:38, 23:24-25). Then, as the furnace overflows, he conceptually carries in his Ark all the pairs of universal dialectics (“two from every pair”, 11:40, 23:27; cf. 15:87, 36:36, 39:21-23) along with his spiritual kinsfolk (11:40). The evildoers fail to embark, and so fail his son and his wife, regardless of the close kinship (11:42-46, 66:10). …

Note: Here the Ark symbolizes the Scripture/ Quran, while ‘all the pairs’ carried by it represent all the dialectical concepts within it. It is important to observe that most scriptural concepts are presented in paradoxical or dialectical pairs. The Quran states that it carries in itself “numerous pairs/couplets” (15:87, 39:23), since the divine rain/ revelation descends on minds to produce an endless spectrum of pairs/ dialectical concepts (20:53, 22:5, 27:59-60, 39:21, 43:11-12; cf. 15:87; cf. the analogy between rain and revelation in 2:22-23, 39:21-23, 50:7-9).

Now, as Muhammad parallels Noah (11:28-31; cf. 6:50, 46:7-9), his Quran parallels the Ark (29:15). Also, similar to the ‘age’ of Noah, the age of his prophetic dispensation among the people spans many centuries (‘thousand years’). Out of it, the first few decades (‘fifty years’) represent the years of spiritual progress, which are followed by many centuries (‘thousand years’) of spiritual degeneration (29:14).

Throughout the ages, however, the messenger’s true followers remain spiritually alive, preserved in the Ark of his teachings as incorporated in the Quran (11:23-25, 29:15), which takes them to the ‘blessed destination’ (23:29) that is situated in ‘an elevated setting’ (11:44). …

While others become spiritually dead (11:21-25), drowned by the overwhelming deluge of mental shallowness and worldly desires (11:15-25, 29:14, 71:11-12, 71:21-25).

A final note:

Noah’s Ark is made of ‘lawh’ (plank, tablet, 54:13), which parallels the ‘lawh’ (plank, tablet) where the Mosaic message is scribed (7:145, 7:150, 7:154) and where the Quranic message is preserved (85:21-22).

As a Lifeboat for the sinking humanity, the Ark is a metaphor for the divine message (29:15).

Does the Quran really support the Virgin Birth of Jesus?

does-the-quran-really-support-the-virgin-birth-of-jesus

 
The Virgin Birth is the doctrine that Jesus was miraculously begotten by God through the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary without the agency of a human father.

Traditional Muslims, while sharing this common belief with traditional Christians, derive it from Quranic texts misinterpreted by Islamic secondary sources that were impregnated with Christian influences during the earlier Islamic centuries.

But does the Quran really support the virgin birth of Jesus?

Let us go through a few observations 

The Quran makes an analogy between the nature of Jesus and the nature of Adam (Adam is a mythical name for all humans), both being ‘created out of dust’ (3:59).

However, contrary to popular belief, this analogy is not meant to make the birth of Jesus anything special, but rather the opposite, since this is part of an argument against the Christian doctrine of the divinity of Jesus. As the Quran also speaks of every human (Adam) as created in the same way, ‘out of dust’ (18:37, 22:5, 30:20, 35:11, 40:67), this stress on the Adamness (humanness) of Jesus in the common humble origin of all humans – with no reference to any special birth – simply reminds us of the fact that Jesus, like Adam, i.e., like any human, was only a mortal ‘created out of dust’.

The Quran maintains that Jesus resembled Adam, both being created through the process of “kun fayakoon” (“‘Be’, and it becomes”, 3:59).

But this too is not specific to Jesus since the Quran elsewhere, like here, also speaks of every human (Adam) as created in the same way, through the same process of “kun fayakoon” (40:67-68). Please note that, while the divine command “Be” is beyond the physical dimension of time, its effect “and it becomes”, when actualized in the domain of temporal succession, cannot be instantaneous or mutually exclusive from the concept of evolution.

The Quran uses the term ‘word’ (‘kalimah’) for Jesus (3:45, 4:171).

But this again is not unique to Jesus. The same term is used also for John (3:39) as well as for everything in the world (18:109, 31:27). In fact, ‘word’ (‘kalimah’) is often used in the Quran to denote an announcement from God, or a statement of His will, or His promise (e.g., 4:171, 6:34, 6:115, 10:64, 18:27).

The Quran describes Mary as one ‘who guarded her chastity’ (21:91, 66:12).

But once again, as opposed to the traditional misunderstanding, this doesn’t indicate ‘virgin birth’. While confirming Mary’s purity and abstinence from immorality (e.g. by marriage, which is another meaning of ‘ahsanat’, guarded, protected, married, 21:91, 66:12; cf. 4:24, 4:25, 5:5 etc), this is no more than a rejection of the calumny that the birth of Jesus was the product of an illicit union (4:156, 19:27- 28).

The Quran uses the expression ‘We breathed into her of Our spirit’ as a reference to Mary’s conception of Jesus (21:91).

However, widely misinterpreted, this too is not relating only to the birth of Jesus. The Quran uses the same expression ‘breathed into … of Our spirit’ in three other places with reference to the creation of man in general (15:29, 32:9, 38:72), thus making it clear that God ‘breathes of His spirit’ into every human. This also clarifies that the divine spirit (‘OUR SPIRIT’) that was ‘sent’ to Mary through a male human form, in fact refers to a real, mortal man (19:17; cf. 4:171).

The Quran states that Mary expressed surprise at the announcement of Jesus’ birth to her (“How can I have a son when no man has touched me, nor am I a desirer?” 19:20; cf. 3:47).

But this too, once again, is not exclusive to Jesus. This surprise expressed by Mary is exactly parallel to the surprise expressed by Zachariah at the announcement of John’s birth to him, only in a few verses earlier (“How can I have a son when my wife is infertile, and I became so old?” 19:8). Also the description around Mary’s surprise (19:16-34) is similar and parallel to the description around Zachariah’s (19:2-15).

Both these instances are meant to emphasize God’s unlimited creative power, specifically His power to create the circumstances whereby divine will can manifest itself, however unexpected or seemingly improbable at the time of the announcement. Clearly, God creates these circumstances through a causally determined sequence of events, i.e. through His ‘laws of nature’, which are made perfectly accurate and absolutely immutable to avoid any chaos in the natural order (17:77, 33:38, 33:62, 35:43, 40:85, 48:23; 6:34, 6:115, 10:64, 18:27; cf. 4:26, 3:137).

For example, in the case of Zachariah’s wife, her infertility was treated that made her fit for childbearing (21:90). And in the case of Mary, the hurdles were removed for her to go out of the convent (3:44): thus she abandoned monasticism in response to the divine direction (3:42-47, 66:12) and entered a conjugal relationship (19:16-22), like others, bowing together to the natural design that is ordained for average humans (3:43).

The Quran confirms this actual spousal relationship of Mary with a real, mortal man, in many ways, e.g.: ♦ The Quran insistently maintains that creation is invariably through the UNION OF OPPOSITES (6:101, 7:189, 36:36, 42:11, 51:49, 53:45-46, 76:2). Note: This same natural process, the immutable divine way (sunnah) that even applies to God Himself (6:101), where no one can have a child without having a sexual counterpart, also applies to Mary and so must involve the birth of Jesus: “Originator of the Heavens and the Earth, how can He have a son when He never took a mate?” 6:101. ♦ The Quran narrates events when Mary left behind her monastic life (3:42-47) and went to live in an eastern location unattended by her people (19:16-17). Note: the prelude of the pregnancy required a PRECONDITION like this. ♦ The Quran then graphically portrays, with remarkable sophistication, how Mary’s pregnancy was initiated by her meeting there with ‘a full-grown man’ (19:17), who ‘gave her a pure son’ (19:19; 19:16-28). Note: the initiation of the pregnancy required a FULL-GROWN MALE, not a child or a female. ♦ The Quran obliquely mentions JESUS’ FATHER: “And Zachariah and John, and Jesus, and Elias … and from their fathers” 6:85-87. Note: The Quran would specifically exclude Jesus from this list if it rejected his father.

Conclusion

We cannot get in the Quran any support for the Virgin Birth of Jesus unless our minds are preconditioned by the influence of secondary sources that were impregnated with conventional Christian ideas during the earlier Islamic centuries.

Further reading: The spirit-bearing man who gave Mary a pure son was a real, mortal man