From the Old Blog: Myth and Religion

Even while entertaining the most conservative versions of Islam and Islamic theology, I was never a big proponent of reading religious texts, including the Quran, literally.  I believe some truths about human kind and our place within the universe are so profound, so bewildering, and perhaps even ungraspable that metaphor and myth are the only feasible way that they might be expressed in language.

In our modern times, the word “myth” has become a somewhat perjorative term. Many see something described as myth as being false, or untrue. I’d disagree. Just as poetry seeks to capture the deepest of human feeling and emotion, to capture something that is nameless but felt and understood by all of humanity, so is the case with myth and metaphor. Essentially, wrangling the darkness and chaos of the universe and forming it into something tangible, something distinct and formed, a manifestation of the Mystery, is perhaps the very purpose of religion.

As an example, the story of Adam and Eve.  I can understand why a literal interpretaion of this narration has perhaps led many away from religion as humanity’s worldview has changed profoundly in the light of science. For instance, in our understanding of the origin of life and evolution, the story can in no way ring true in the literal sense. It is a simple creation myth and these types of myths are found in virtually every religion large and small.

Indeed, it is the most basic human question, our origins. While science tries to answer the how, religion serves to bring a human element into the seemingly unknown. Adam and Eve were mere humans, like us, sinners, like us. God both loved them and punished them for their disobedience. The myth is powerful and hold truths about the nature of the universe and our place therein. Furthermore, it is a paradise myth, a way to look at our lot and imagine that it must not have been so difficult, this act of surviving. God must have made us with more mercy, free of disease, famine and pain. It was only by our own insolence, our insatiable curiosity and natural rebellion, that we “fell” from Eden.

Even more unlikely to be based in reality, is the story of Noah and the arc. It doesn’t take a thouroughly rational mind to reason that the story is impossible as it is written. Firstly, a global flood did not happen, at least as much as is know about the geographical record. Secondly, it’s ludicrous to think that a human could collect a pair of every known species and put them in a boat for 40 days and 40 nights. This is not to mention the number of species that isn’t known to man. And what about microbes?
However, there is greater meaning to the story. It’s a story of a man standing up for monotheism and moral values in the face of dissent and corruption. It is also a story of God destroying His creation, because of our disobedience. It’s also a metaphor for rebirth and salvation in God alone. Do you see a theme here?

While you do certainly find Christians and Jews who read the texts literally, you also are just as likely to find those who accept the myth and the truths found within. Unfortunately, Islam, has not entertained as high of a stature of scholarship than the aforementioned faiths.  In fact, I don’t know of one mainstream Islamic thinker who has dared to suggest that the truths held in the Quran might be metaphorical, mythic, yet still within in the realm of truth.

So what do you guys think? Do you take it all, every last word of the Quran and hadith literally? If so, how do you reconcile the most exhorbitant and fanciful stories juxtaposed with what is known as physical reality. Do you accept some stories as metaphorical and not others. Or do you, essentially think all of the antedotes found within the texts are the stuff of myth?

Or, is it just easier not to think about it?

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41 Comments

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41 responses to “From the Old Blog: Myth and Religion

  1. Who counts as mainstream? Muhammad Asad interprets many stories in the Qur'an as myths in his translation. I agree with you and him.

  2. I haven't read his translation or tafsir, but it's on my list. Good to know.

  3. I belive that God created the universe, I belive that God is unique and nothing like him that anything is possible if he says be.So why not belive in these stories such as Adam and Eve and The Arc of Prophet Nooh. As mythical as they may seem, it only proves that God is capable of anything. I am a Muslim and yes I belive in the literal meaning, only because I belive anything is possible in this world, and this is tied to my belife in God and his power. Maybe to you it is hard to imagine that Noah was on a big boat with all these animals, two of every kind. But isnt the exsistance of this world just as weird? When you think about it if a human being can come out of your uterous and breath and have a living soul, which is just as weird when you thing about it, then surely these stories are not any different.God is capable of anything.

  4. I don't take much in religion literally, I think the point of many of the stories is to understand the messages behind them. The "moral of the story," as a form of social control, which is what organized religion boils down to.

  5. @ Sarah– You can "believe" in something and not consider it factual. The story of Nuh is logistically impossible, while we know that birth actually happens. Yes, it is miraculous. The very existence of the universe and my ability to think about it, the fact that an infinite number of events had to happen exactly as they did for me to sit her and type on this screen, expressing the thoughts that form as a result of synapses firing in my brain–well, these are the reasons why I believe in God. It still doesn't make the myths any more believable to me though. Meaningful, yes; factual, no.

  6. @ unsettledsoul– and is social control always a bad thing? Is it necessary for society. Is it only dangerous when it has become institutionalized? Do the morals in the Quranic myths leave room for personal choice?

  7. For what it's worth, there are interpretations that say that the flood of Noah (as) was local, not universal, and that he wasn't commanded to gather up every single species on earth, but only the ones in his area. The thing about the Qur'an, Alhamdulillah, is that the Arabic words used are arranged and selected in such a way so that numerous meanings can be derived from them, even meanings we might not have considered before. Some things may be literal, some figurative, some both, ALLAHu Alim, but I really like knowing that there are always many interpretations of the verses and there isn't always one "right" definition.

  8. I think of these stories about Noah, Adam and Eve ect more like how Bananna Anne said. I do believe that there was a massive flood during the time of Noah, but I also believe the world was a much smaller place then than it is now. I believe people hadn't spread out into the rest of the world like we have today so it may have seemed like the entire world was flooding when in actuality it was a smaller piece of land that flooded. As for the animals maybe those were the only known animals at the time and in that place..hehehe maybe the microbes could swim and didn't need saving :P. I do believe these stories took place but maybe not exactly in the literal sense. I believe Allah SWT wants us to use our brains, I don't believe we know everything and don't believe we are meant to know the how and why of everything until the day of judgement. Just my 2 cents

  9. Although, I still believe that miracles can happen. Maybe the instances surrounding the flood were in accordance to the laws of nature, maybe they were miraculous. Either way is possible, I think. ALLAHu Alim, though.

  10. @ Banana Anne- I absolutely don't believe that science and religion contradict each other. I wonder, is there any geographical evidence that a large, catastophic, massively devestating flood occured in the middle east at the time Noah was alive? I don't know the evidence, but let's say, hypothetically there was no evidence,or evidence to the contrary, would you then reject the science for a literal interpretation? That question is posed at eveyone commenting not just you. 🙂 And this post doesn't just apply to the story of the flood but others in the Quran, and hadith, and maybe even elevating the prophet himself to mythical standards.

  11. DD

    I just think that anything's possible. I can't close my mind, i can't. As to the question the ayah comes to mind: “Some of its verses are precise in meaning-they are the foundation of the Book-and others ambiguous. Those whose hearts are infected with disbelief observe the ambiguous part, so as to create dissension by seeking to explain it. But no one knows its meaning except God.” (Quran 3:8)I just think that adding a bit of mystery to the mix makes things more exciting. Talking about science it's my favourtite next to religion and im one of those people who reckons the two aren't incompatible. But the thing with science is that theories are so fluid, there is so much we still don't know and there are hardly any facts as we know tham. I keep thinking about the time everyone believed in the geocentric model. everyone took it as fact that the earth was the center of the universe for about 1800 years. i mean that's just scary. that's a friggin long time man. What today do we simply take as fact that is totally wrong? its a scary thought but an exciting one at the same time. I like science because i can continually change me mind and i like religion because it at least gives me some absolute truths to ground me. but that's not to say that i don't question aspects of the deen.can you do a post on your view on aliens one day lolz? come on i think you want to 😀 hehe

  12. @ DD: That was the ayah I was talking about. I really love it because it confirms that some things are clear and some things aren't, but believers will accept all of it. Just a clarification: it's actually surah 3 ayah 7 (you wrote it was 3:8).

  13. @ Muslim Convert– I don't know that my problem is necessarily with religion, but with narrow mindedness among religious thinking. And yes anon's are annoying. And cowardly, since I'm sure most of them have a blog and a google ID, at least if my tracker is to be believed.

  14. I believe that there are some things we will never know and some things we will never understand. But that is my belief and I reached it after questioning and doing my own reasearch.I know what you mean Stephanie, and I hope that your search brings you answers that soothe your soul.I believe that miracles happen on a daily basis. Some things occur in life that have no premise nor an explanation. There are times that I just have to believe. I have to believe, for example, in life after death although there is no explanation nor evidence. It is not tangible and it is part of the unseen. But I have to believe otherwise I believe nothing.And I agree a lot with what Sarah is saying. It doesn't matter what could or could not happen in this day, God is capable of things we can never fathom. But that is not to say that there is no moral story behind Noah and his Ark for example. But there is no reason for me to think that it didn't happen. For as Sarah said, birth is just as unbelieveable, yet it happens every single day.The creation of the earth is incomprehensible to me. But maybe God created the Big Bang for example. God is incomprehensible. When i sit here and think about God, I find myself wandering to places I don't want to go. I have to believe because it is what drives me in my life. it is the centre of my being. I remember as a child wondering who God was. Where he was. And sometimes I still do. It is something I will never truly get, but I can feel God, and that is all that I need. I love your posts because they make me think! thank you!

  15. @ Houda– I'm definitely not questioning the existence of God. I'm only exploring the idea that there are other ways to read the texts and I feel they are also worthy. If people feel it's more feasible to believe in the story of Nuh or Adam and Eve or Muhammad (saws) riding a magical flying horse through the sky to Jerusalem, than so be it. I would like to present another way of looking at it and I don't believe it lessens the meaning or the truths held within. I'm not sure what the resistance is about. Perhaps people think that they don't truly "believe" unless they take the Quran (and other texts) literally, which is a great disservice to Islam in my opinion.

  16. And to clarify, is there anywhere in the Torah or Quran that states that Noah's building of the arc and collection of pairs was "an act of God". As far as I understand it he was given the command and then he did it. It doesn't say God helped him or interceded in some type of supernatural way? As far as I can tell, there's nothing to suggest that it was supposed to be some type of miracle performed by Allah swt.

  17. "I don't know that my problem is necessarily with religion, but with narrow mindedness among religious thinking."The fact that you limit your reasoning to what appears 'logical' and naturally 'possible' is a narrowness in religious thinking as well. We have to remember that the human intellect cannot grasp many things in the universe, including God. If we cannot logically understand God does that make Him a Myth too? I don't think so. As some commentators have already stated, the Qur'an is both a literal and transcending text. It contains both literal and metaphoric principles. It cannot be only literal or only metaphorical because our finite human reason would be sufficient to understanding God, but since God is transcendent to the human intellect there is far more contained within the Qur'an than what we can understand and comprehend. This is why we have a prophet – to explain what was meant by those stories, and not make up our own interpretations – whether we perceive them as mythical or real.

  18. Steph your blog has a diversity of readers, hence a diversity of opinions. This is really great! I do not think social control is a bad thing, in fact, it gives people purpose and meaning in their lives. I think social control is necessary, and I see God's way of speaking to us as beautiful and poetic, in fact the most poetic, but not literal. I think myths and poetic language was and is our way of understanding God through language.When I read passages in the Quran and sit back and think about what God is trying to tell me through these stories, I think it is wonderful. It is a beautiful way to learn about what it means to be a good person and to strive towards God.I think the morals in Quranic myths definitely leave room for personal choice, because ultimately the Quran was meant to be for our personal relationship with God, not our collective relationship. That was the beauty of Islam, no intermediaries needed. I think some of us have forgotten that over time.I do think social control becomes dangerous when institutionalized, when people begin acting on literalist ideas of what God supposedly says or wants. That always seems to bring about the opposite of holiness, like murder, torture, war, hate, prejudice, ostracizing, and at the very least; judgment and superiority complexes.

  19. I agree with Nida to a certain extent, but I think we have raised the prophet and hadith to the same level as God and the Quran, and I disagree with Muslims who think the prophet and hadith are just as important as God and Quran.I think literally following and believing all things the prophet did and said raises him to a level he was never meant to be raised to, and I think it is a mistake on the same level that the Christians made with Jesus.

  20. That is absolutely not true Sarah. No one is raising the prophet (peace be upon him) to the status of God by declaring the fact that the prophet transmitted and taught God's Wisdom. The Prophet only knows that what he has been taught by Allah – and Allah is the Most Wise. That doesn't make him God, any more then believing that Jesus raised people from the dead By the will of Allah .

  21. Thank you for giving me a peek into such a rich, deep tradition of inquiry and belief which reminds me very much of my own. (Christian) One reason I read this blog is because I am not satisfied with what the news says (so 2-dimensional!) about Muslims and want to know for myself. I take heart that we are far more alike than different.For what it's worth, Stephanie: from the outside looking in I see your searching as strengthening your faith in Allah. He gave you your intellect for a reason. He's not afraid of scrutiny. He knows your heart — He gave that to you too. I hope you know me well enough to understand that I mean this with the greatest respect for you and Islam. Bless you — you are as always in my heart and prayers.

  22. @ Woodturtle–I like the way you defined myth and the function they serve. You said what I was trying to relay, only more eloquently. I think I pick and choose amongst them as well. I'm not sure about the virgin birth. As a Christian, I didn't believe it as literal, actually. As for the hadith, I've often wondered how much of the supposed sayings of the Prophet saw were him just being facitious, and now we've taken it literally.Thanks for the tip on the Asad. I did find a copy online, although I'm still going to order one from amazon. It's expensive!

  23. Salaam sister,I agree with what Nida said… saying that part of Quran are myths is saying that part of KallamuLLah (God's words : Quran) are myths.I agree that there are different ways of interpreting texts such as poetries, stories…etc. But Quran in beyond all of those texts and the fact that it's in Arabic (the only language that every words has its own spesific meaning not meanings) makes it clear that some part of the Quran really need one's knowledge of the language. Nevertheless, the stories of prophets are quite simple… full of unbelievable miracles… you don't believe them then you don't believe in their prophecies.One of the things that diferenciate Islam with other religions (what makes it perfect) is that the Quran didnt come for a certain part of people in the world or timing but for all humankind and from the begining and the end of time.Ther are many more prophets than what we know by names from the Quran, they were send in every part of the world but the last one was Mohammad SAW, so there might be other prophets in China or India or else where came with their miracles, knowledges, teachings etc before him Allahuallim, but Islam and Qur'an is perfected by Allah.So, my points are… Myths and religions = maybe, but Myth and Islam = NO, otherwise the whole essence of Islam so contradictive and we might just call it the beautiful myth instead of Islam…Allah maaki,Umm Ibrahim

  24. Point taken and beautifully written. Thank you sister.

  25. Wow, what a great dialog. I always wonder how to reconcile that people talk about the prophets living over 100 years when science says that life expectancy was shorter and shorter as we go back in time?

  26. Angelle: you said that beautifully! (and I think it is what I actually wanted to say myself!)

  27. With God, the unimaginable can happen, all it takes is "BE" and it is.

  28. "I believe none of us can try to interpret the Holy Quran as we don't have any knowledge at all, proper interpretations of Quranic verses have already been done by reliable scholars.Yes they lived in another time, but as you said they had far more knowledge than we do, so we should trust their work, trust our Prophet (SAWW) who was the best man on Earth, rather than trusting and following our 21st century people Nafs or desires."So you believe we need intermediaries in our religion? What you are saying means we might as well consider scholars as priests, because only they have the connection to God. I disagree. This is the problem I have with Sunnis who think scholars are the be all end all, why not just appoint them as priests then?! Because that is exactly how some Muslims have begun to view them. Islam is beautiful because there are no intermediaries, but when we start saying scholars are the only ones who hold the truth about the Quran and God, then we are appointing them roles much higher than they are meant to be in.

  29. UnsettledsoulDon't get me wrong, I don't take scholars as priests, I don't believe they have a special connection with ALLAH SWT.I just think that they have so much more knowledge that I and everyone else does, so if I want to know anything (about Fiqh or if I want to read a Tafsir) I will follow my Madhab as those scholars know what I don't know.If you want to do medical studies then you will learn from people who are doctors themselves, not from bakers, and you will not do surgery before getting your diploma.It's the same about Deen, if I want to learn, I ask those whow know,they are the scholars unanymously recognised by all the sunni muslims, through their books.I don't follow my own desires or my own wishes, as this is contrary to Islam.We're supposed to fight those desires, not let them lead us.

  30. But indeed there are no intermediaries in my acts of worship.I pray to ALLAH SWT alone, I ask from ALLAH SWT alone.I don't "confess" my sins to any "imam" or "sheikh".I just seek for knowledge from the ones who know.I don't have any knowledge of arabic language, I don't have enough islamic knowledge to be aware of everything which is mentionned in the Holy Quran, and I'm not able to make the difference between an authentic hadith and one which is not.SO I do "Taqleed", I follow and trust the reliable scholars.

  31. Love of Allah by Imâm Ibn Qayyim al-JawziyyahThe love of the Belovedmust be unconditionally returned. If you claim loveyet oppose the Beloved,then your love is but a pretence.You love the enemies of your Beloved and still seek love in return.You fight the beloved of your Beloved.Is this Love or the following of shaytaan?True devotion is nothingbut total submissionof body and soulto One Love.We have seen humans claim to submit,yet their loyalties are many.

  32. Awesome points from both Unsettled Soul (I'm always wary how to address you Sarah – whether by name or IDname – lol, forgive me), and Um Zakarya.I have to agree Sarah, there are Muslims who have become lazy in their quest for Truth, and do rely on their respective 'shaikhs' too much. I have even known some Sufi Muslims who have 'pledged' their allegiance to a particular scholar and only follow what he has to say. Audhubillah, there are many crazy things going on out there.I agree Um Zakarya, we should consult them, but I don't believe we have to follow any particular madhab. Scholars of al 'ilm can tell us only so much, but we have to make an effort to get to that higher place in knowledge ourselves. Each and every Muslim is commanded to do so, but unfortunately many find it sufficient to consult their local imams on their issues and that's it. Just like there are people following other 'men' in our communities and placing them on the plinth of 'priesthood' – there are those Muslims who place their 'self' in that high position too. We should avoid either extreme, in my humble opinion! Wa salaam 🙂

  33. @ Nida– Again, nicely said. Even though you and I don't and probably never will agree on a lot of things, nevertheless, you really do inspire me to read and learn more about Islam and the classical scholars.

  34. Sister Nida,As I said I do believe that doing "Taqleed" of one Madhab is the best to avoid following your Nafs, as if you take a bit from every Madhab the risk is that you will choose whatever your immediate desires find easier to do.As a deobandi Hanafi this is what I've chosen to follow.I do believe that the great scholars (such As Imam ABu Hanifa, or Shafi…) have great knowledge and we could never have as much as them.But I do agree that we should seek knowledge, and how do I do it?Again by doing Taqleed and getting knowledge from reliable scholars as I can't understand Hadiths and the Holy Quran by myself.I just expressed my own view and sure I'm not trying to impose it on anyone else :)And sure I don't seek knowledge from any "local imam" as I live in France and here "Imams" are all apointed by the government lol.

  35. Um Zakarya, consider that each scholar was not void of his/her own nafs. Even the main schools of thought (the four madhabs) advised Muslims not to choose the one that agrees with their desires. And what happens is that most Muslims choose the one that corresponds their beliefs. Hence why I stay wary of ascribing to any labels. I find labels limit my scope of reality and the vast amount of knowledge that is out there. So I think it is safe to say, I admire all of the classic scholars (but some more then others) 🙂 @ Stephanie – thanks sweet sister, means a lot 🙂

  36. I take close to nothing in religion literally, but I started this only recently so I can imagine why I have so many questions and find it hard to know even where to seek my answers. However, I must say, Stephanie, you make an extremely interesting point. If we're gonna read the Adam and Eve story literally, we contradict certain elements of science. But, as you point out, why does it have to be read literally? Is it not possible that Adam and Eve *represent* something rather than being what we've made them to be? Although I had considered the possibility of reading Adam and Eve's story more metaphorically, I hadn't considered the possibility of their representing something. And I must thank you for helping me realize this. Regarding the Noah and the Flood story . . . the Quranic version makes so much more sense to me than the Biblical version. Why? Because the Quran doesn't make the flood seem like a universal phenomenon or that Noah literally took a pair of EVERY SINGLE animal there was. Obviously, it was only the animals that were available to Noah in that particular setting, right? So it can't possibly have been a universal… and fortunately, the Quran doesn't narrate it as such. And, heck, if you read the Adam and Eve story carefully enough in the Quran, you can't find a contradiction between evolution and what the story presented in the Quran is. So I find it quite sickening for many Muslims to say, "Dear Scholar of Islam, are we allowed to believe in evolution?" Like, yo, what the hell does THAT mean?!

  37. @ Qrratugi–yes, I've occasionally entertained the idea, that even within evolutionary theory and the concept of speciation, there must have at some point in time existed the first human pair, aka Adam and Eve. I'm not sure what the science says about this. I still don't believe in the literal account though.

  38. Qrratugai – a very simple answer to your question – We stop taking precedence to logic when it starts to against God's revelation. And God is very specific in some cases in the Qur'an. Just because we cannot understand the story of Adam and Eve based on the current scientific knowledge we have, doesn't mean it's not factual and true. You admitted to the limits in reasoning, so part of realizing those limits is to understand that we still only know a fraction of God's Wisdom behind His creation. Best,

  39. @ Nida, many Muslims believe that evolution goes against the Quran. Does evolution really contradict the Quran? And I wish it was that easy to determine where to stop with logic 🙂 Unfortunately, it's not. Could you please share with me those instances in which God is specific (and perhaps where logic would be useless because God is specific enough with Her guidelines)? I look forward to them.Thanks!

  40. Perhaps this can help you understand the Arc of Noah.(Quran 42.29) And from His signs He created the heavens and the Earth; and the land animals that He scattered in BOTH of them (heavens and Earth); And He is capable of gathering them (in one place) if He wishes.

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