The Quran and the Flood
The Quran’s depictions of the great Flood of Noah’s day contain oddities that cause one who is familiar with the Bible to question the Quran’s reliability. For example, in Surah 11:36-40 the Quran describes Noah’s conflict with his contemporaries and, in the process, makes a puzzling remark pertaining to the condition of the Flood waters:
And it was inspired in Noah, (saying): No one of thy folk will believe save him who hath believed already. Be not distressed because of what they do. Build the ship under Our Eyes and by Our inspiration, and speak not unto Me on behalf of those who do wrong. Lo! they will be drowned. And he was building the ship, and every time that chieftains of his people passed him, they made mock of him. He said: Though ye make mock of us, yet we mock at you even as ye mock; And ye shall know to whom a punishment that will confound him cometh, and upon whom a lasting doom will fall. (Thus it was) till, when Our commandment came to pass and the oven gushed forth water (Surah 11:36-40, emp. added).
This peculiar allusion to the waters of the Flood coming from an oven is repeated in Surah 23:
And We verily sent Noah unto his folk, and he said: O my people! Serve Allah. Ye have no other god save Him. Will ye not ward off (evil)? But the chieftains of his folk, who disbelieved, said: This is only a mortal like you who would make himself superior to you. Had Allah willed, He surely could have sent down angels. We heard not of this in the case of our fathers of old. He is only a man in whom is a madness, so watch him for a while. He said: My Lord! Help me because they deny me. Then We inspired in him, saying: Make the ship under Our eyes and Our inspiration. Then, when Our command cometh and the oven gusheth water, introduce therein of every (kind) two spouses, and thy household save him thereof against whom the Word hath already gone forth. And plead not with Me on behalf of those who have done wrong. Lo! they will be drowned. And when thou art on board the ship, thou and who so is with thee, then say: Praise be to Allah Who hath saved us from the wrongdoing folk! (Surah 23:23-28, emp. added).
The above renderings of the Quran are taken from the celebrated translation by Muslim scholar Muhammad Pickthall. In contrast to Pickthall’s rendering, Abdullah Yusuf Ali translated the phrase “the oven gusheth water” with the words “the fountains of the earth gushed forth.” Observe that these two renderings are significantly different translations of the Arabic. Ali offers the following explanation for his rendering: “Far al tannur. Two interpretations have been given: (1) the fountains or the springs on the surface of the earth bubbled over or gushed forth; or (2) the oven (of Allah’s Wrath) boiled over. The former has the weight of the best authority behind it and I prefer it” (2001, p. 520). But this “explanation” offers no rationale for accepting his preference, and it fails to provide linguistic proof to justify the preference.
In stark contrast, consider the discussion posed by Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi, Sunni Pakistani Muslim scholar, revivalist leader, political philosopher, and prominent 20th century Islamist thinker. His ancestry on his paternal side was traced back to Muhammad. In 1974, the title of Imam-ul-Muslimeen was bestowed upon him in the annual meeting of Raabta-e-Aalam-e-Islami in Saudi Arabia (“Sayyid Abul…,” 2009). From 1942-1972, Maududi produced the Tafhim-ul-Quran (تفہيم القرآن)—a six-volume translation and explanation of the Quran. Here is a Muslim scholar, well-qualified to provide assistance in making sense of the text of the Quran. In his insightful discussion of Surah 11:40, Maududi explained:
Commentators on the Qur’an have offered different explanations of this incident. In our view, the place from which the Flood began was a particular oven. It is from beneath it that a spring of water burst forth. This was followed by both a heavy downpour and by a very large number of springs which gushed forth. Surah al-Qamar provides relevant information in some detail: So We opened the gates of the heaven, with water intermittently pouring forth, and We caused the earth to be cleaved and the springs to flow out everywhere. Then the water (from both the sources—the heaven and the earth) converged to bring about that which had been decreed (al-Qamar, 54: 11-12).
In the present verse, the word tannur has been preceded by the article al: According to Arabic grammar, this indicates that the reference is to a particular tannur (oven). Thus, it is evident that God had determined that the Flood should commence from a particular oven. As soon as the appointed moment came, and as soon as God so ordained, water burst forth from that oven. Subsequently, it became known as the Flood-Oven. The fact that God had earmarked a certain oven to serve as the starting-point of the Flood is borne out by al-Mu’minun 23:27 (n.d., endnote 42, emp. added).
In his commentary on the parallel passage in Surah 23:27, Maududi further explained:
In view of the context, we see no reason why one should take a farfetched figurative meaning of a clear word of the Qur’an. It appears that a particular oven (tannur) had been ear-marked for the deluge to start from, which was to all appearances an unexpected origin of the doom of the wretched people (n.d., endnote 29, emp. added).
Of course, the Bible makes no reference to any oven or the temperature of the Flood waters. However, Jewish legends codified in the Talmud do. Jewish rabbinical sources (Midrash Tanchuma 5; Rosh Hashanah 12a; Sanhedrin 108b; Zebahim 113b; Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10,29b; et al.) provide the basis for the Quran’s allusion:
The crowd of sinners tried to take the entrance to the ark by storm, but the wild beasts keeping watch around the ark set upon them, and many were slain, while the rest escaped, only to meet death in the waters of the flood. The water alone could not have made an end of them, for they were giants in stature and strength. When Noah threatened them with the scourge of God, they would make reply: “If the waters of the flood come from above, they will never reach up to our necks; and if they come from below, the soles of our feet are large enough to dam up the springs.” But God bade each drop pass through Gehenna before it fell to earth, and the hot rain scalded the skin of the sinners. The punishment that overtook them was befitting their crime. As their sensual desires had made them hot, and inflamed them to immoral excesses, so they were chastised by means of heated water (Ginzberg, 1909, 1:106, emp. added).
Keep in mind that these Jewish legends are just that—legends. The rabbis that formulated them recognized that their renditions were not to be confused with actual Scripture. The brand of Judaism to which the author of the Quran was exposed, like Christianity at the time, was a corrupt one. Literally centuries of legend, myth, and fanciful folklore had accumulated among the Jews, reported in the Talmud, the Midrash, and the Targumim. These three Jewish sources were replete with rabbinical commentary and speculation—admitted to be uninspired. These tales and fables would have existed in Arabia in oral form as they were told and retold at Bedouin campfires, among the traveling trade caravans that crisscrossed the desert, and in the towns, villages, and centers of social interaction from Yemen in the southern Arabian Peninsula, to Abyssinia to the west, and Palestine, Syria, and Persia to the north. The allegedly hot waters of the Flood are one example among many of the Quran’s reliance on uninspired Jewish sources. Indeed, the Quran is literally riddled with such allusions. The evidence that the Quran contains a considerable amount of borrowed material from uninspired Talmudic sources, rabbinical oral traditions, and Jewish legends—stories that abound in puerile, apocryphal, absurd, outlandish pablum—is self-evident and unmistakable. [For more discussion on this point, see Miller, 2005, pp. 73ff.]
Ali, Abdullah Yusuf (2001), The Meaning of the Holy Quran (Beltsville, MD: Amana Productions), tenth edition.
Ginzberg, Louis (1909), The Legends of the Jews (Charleston, SC: Forgotten Books, 2008 reprint).
Maududi, Sayyid Abul Ala (no date), Tafhim al-Qur’an (The Meaning of the Qur’an), englishtafsir.com.
Miller, Dave (2005), The Quran Unveiled (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
Pickthall, Mohammed M. (no date), The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (New York: Mentor).
“Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi” (2009), English Islam Times, May 16, http://www.islamtimes.org/vdca.onyk49nomgt14.html.