LEGENDS, MYTHS AND FABLES IN THE QUR’AN AND ISLAMIC TRADITION PART 1

Introduction: The Qur’anic Data

The Quran quotes the unbelievers as accusing Muhammad of incorporating into his alleged revelation myths, legends and fables that were well known to the people of that time:

And among them are some who give ear to thee; but WE have put veils on their hearts, that they should not understand, and deafness in their ears. And even if they see every Sign, they would not believe therein, so much so that when they come to thee, disputing with thee, those who disbelieve say, `This is nothing but fables of the ancients.’ S. 6:25 Sher Ali

And when OUR verses are recited to them, they say, `We have heard. If we wished we could certainly say the like of it. This is nothing but mere tales of the ancients‘. S. 8:31 Sher Ali

And when it is said unto them: What hath your Lord revealed? they say: (Mere) fables of the men of old, S. 16:24 Pickthall

But (there is one) who says to his parents, “Fie on you! Do ye hold out the promise to me that I shall be raised up, even though generations have passed before me (without rising again)?” And they two seek God’s aid, (and rebuke the son): “Woe to thee! Have faith! for the promise of God is true.” But he says, “This is nothing but tales of the ancients!” S. 46:17 Y. Ali

That, when Our revelations are recited unto him, he saith: Mere fables of the men of old. S. 68:15 Pickthall

Who, when thou readest unto him Our revelations, saith: (Mere) fables of the men of old. S. 83:13 Pickthall

This next one is particularly interesting:

Those who disbelieved said, “This is a fabrication that he produced, with the help of some other people.” They have uttered a blasphemy and a falsehood. They also said, “Tales from the past that he wrote down; they were dictated to him day and night.” Say, “This was revealed by the One who knows the Secret in the heavens and the earth. He is Forgiving, Most Merciful.” S. 25:4-6 Rashad Khalifa

It is rather amazing that instead of denying the charge that the Quran contains ancient myths, the author simply says that Allah was the one who sent down these tales!

Furthermore, the unbelievers weren’t the only ones making this accusation. There are even some Muslims who readily admit that the Quran narrates myths and fables. For instance, the late renowned Muslim scholar and translator Muhammad Asad states throughout his Quranic translation and commentary that the Quran includes legends and stories of mythical characters.

Regarding the Quranic story of Solomon and the talking ants and birds (S. 27:18-19) Asad stated:

In this instance, Solomon evidently refers to his own understanding and admiration of nature (cf. 38:31-33 and the corresponding notes) as well as to his loving compassion for the humblest of God’s creatures, as a great divine blessing: and this is the Qur’anic moral of the LEGENDARY story of the ant. (Asad, The Message of the Qur’an [Dar Al-Andalus Limited 3 Library Ramp, Gibraltar rpt. 1993], p. 578, fn. 17; online source; bold emphasis ours)

Muhammad Asad also stated in reference to some of the other Quranic legends regarding Solomon:

In this as well as in several other passages relating to Solomon, the Qur’an alludes to many POETIC LEGENDS which were associated with his name since early antiquity and had become part and parcel of Judeo-Christian and Arabian lore long before the advent of Islam. Although it is undoubtedly possible to interpret such passages in a “rationalistic” manner, I do not think that this is really necessary. Because they were so deeply ingrained in the imagination of the people to whom the Qur’an addressed itself in the first instance, these legendary accounts of Solomon’s wisdom and magic powers had acquired a cultural reality of their own and were, therefore, eminently suited to serve as a medium for the parabolic exposition of certain ethical truths with which this book is concerned: and so, without denying or confirming their MYTHICAL character, the Qur’an uses them as a foil for the idea that God is the ultimate source of all human power and glory, and that all achievements of human ingenuity, even though they may sometimes border on the miraculous, are but an expression of His transcendental creativity. (Asad, p. 498, fn. 77; bold emphasis ours)

Another Quranic legend is the Story of the Sleepers in the Cave found in S. 18:9-23,25-26. According to this tale, several youths and their dog fled to a cave where according to one version of the story they slept for 309 years. Asad says regarding this story:

We may, therefore, safely assume that the LEGEND of the Men of the Cave- stripped of its Christian garb and the superimposed Christian background- is, substantially, of Jewish origin… But whatever the source of this LEGEND, and irrespective of whether it is of Jewish or Christian origin, the fact remains that it is used in the Qur’an IN A PURELY PARABOLIC SENSE: namely, as an illustration of God’s power to bring about death (or “sleep”) and resurrection (or “awakening”); and, secondly, as an ALLEGORY of the piety that induces men to abandon a wicked or frivolous world in order to keep their faith unsullied, and of God’s recognition of that faith by His bestowal of a spiritual awakening which transcends time and death. (Ibid., p. 439, fn. 7; online source; bold and capital emphasis ours)

And:

The future tense in sayaqulun points once again to the LEGENDARY character of the story as such, and implies that all speculation about its details is irrelevant to its parabolic, ethical purport. (Ibid., p. 442, fn. 31; bold and capital emphasis ours)

In fact, Asad points out many other the Quranic tales, legends, myths etc., some of which include the following:

Asad on Sura 2:102

… At any rate, it is certain that from very ancient times Babylon was reputed to be the home of magic arts, symbolized un the LEGENDARY persons – perhaps kings- Harut and Marut; and it is to this LEGEND that the Qur’an refers with a view to condemning every attempt at magic and sorcery, as well as all preoccupation with occult sciences in general. (Ibid., p. 22, fn. 83; online source; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Asad on Sura 2:259

… The story told in this verse is obviously a PARABLE meant to illustrate God’s power to bring the dead back to life… The speculation of some of the earlier commentators as to the “identity” of the man and the town mentioned in this story are without any substance, and may have been influenced by TALMUDIC LEGENDS. (Ibid., p. 58, fn. 253; online source; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Asad on Sura 18:50

… This short reference to the oft-repeated ALLEGORY of God’s commands to the angels to “prostrate themselves before Adam” is meant, in the above context, to stress man’s inborn faculty of conceptual thinking… (Ibid., p. 446, fn. 52; bold and capital emphasis ours)

And:

As regards Satan’s SYMBOLIC “rebellion” against God, see notes 26 on 2:34 and note 31 on 15:41. (Ibid., p. 447, fn. 55; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Asad’s notes on Sura 2:34-35 regarding the story of Adam, Eve and the Garden are also amusing:

… Lit., “the garden”. There is a considerable difference of opinion among the commentators as to what is meant here by “garden”; a garden in the earthly sense, or the paradise that awaits the righteous in the life to come, or some special garden in the heavenly region? According to some of the earliest commentators (see Manar I, 277), an earthly abode is here alluded to – namely, an environment of perfect ease, happiness and innocence. In any case, this story of Adam is OBVIOUSLY one of the ALLEGORIES referred to in 3:7.” (Ibid., p. 9, fn. 27; online source; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Again:

… As in the parallel account of this parable of the Fall in 2:35-36, the dual form of the address changes at this stage into the plural, thus connecting once again with verse 10 and the beginning of verse 11 of this surah, and making it clear that the story of Adam and Eve is, in reality, an ALLEGORY of human destiny… In this deeper sense, the ALLEGORY of the Fall does not describe a retrogressive happening but, rather, a new stage of human development…” (Ibid., p. 205, fn. 16)

Asad on Sura 18:60

… In this instance, it evidently marks a connection, with verse 54 above (‘many facets have We given in this Qur’an to every kind of lesson [designed] for [the benefit of] mankind’), and introduces an ALLEGORY meant to illustrate the fact that knowledge, and particularly spiritual knowledge, is inexhaustible… The subsequent PARABLE of Moses and his quest for knowledge (verses 60-82) has become, in the course of time, the nucleus of INNUMERABLE LEGENDS with which we are not concerned here… There is no doubt that this Tradition is a kind of ALLEGORICAL introduction to our Qur’anic PARABLE… As for the ‘junction of the two seas’, which many of the early commentators endeavored to ‘identify’ in geographical terms (ranging from the meeting of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean at the Bab al-Mandab to that of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean at the Straits of Gibraltar), Baydawi offers, in his commentary on verse 60, a purely ALLEGORICAL explanation… (Ibid., pp. 448-449, fn. 67; bold and capital emphasis ours)

And:

… In the Tradition on the authority of Ubayy ibn Ka’b (referred to in note 67) this mysterious sage is spoken of as Al-Khadir or Al-Khidr, meaning “the Green One”. Apparently this is an epithet rather than a name, implying (according to popular LEGEND) that his wisdom was ever-fresh (“green”) and imperishable: a notion which bears out the assumption that we have here an ALLEGORIC FIGURE symbolizing the utmost depth of mystic insight accessible to man. (Ibid., p. 449, fn. 73; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Asad wasn’t the only one to admit that the Quran contains legends and stories about fictitious persons:

Some Legendary Figures

In the course of developing its teachings, the Qur’an frequently cites the example not of prophets and sages of ancient times, but also of some LEGENDARY, MYTHICAL or even FICTITIOUS persons. Chief among these is Khidr, the Evergreen who, though not mentioned by name, is recognised as the mysterious person (the possessor of divinely-inspired knowledge of the secret sources of life) whom Moses met on his ALLEGORICAL journey… Another LEGEND prominently described in the Qur’an is that of the “seven sleepers” or the “Companions of the Cave” also mentioned in another section of this book. In this connection mention is made of the angels Harut and Marut who taught magic at Babylon, but warned the people that the teaching was imparted to them only to try them. In the commentaries of the Qur’an Harut and Marut have been identified with the two fallen angels of Jewish tradition who, having sinned on earth, were hung by their feet over a well for punishment.

A summary is given below of the contents of the Qur’an relating to three LEGENDARY figures: Dhulqarnain, Luqman, Qarun. A section is also included on Pharaoh who, although a historical person, often appears in the Qur’an as an archetype for autocracy. The experiences or characteristics of these MYTHICAL or SEMI-MYTHICAL figures are included to serve a salutary example or a dissuasive lesson to believers. (Faruq Sherif, A Guide to the Contents of the Qur’an [Garnet Publishing, 8 South Court South Street, Reading, RG1 4QS UK, 1995], pp. 94-95; bold and capital emphasis ours)

 

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