The Islamic Whale

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ٍSurat Al-Qalam

The Islamic whale (in Arabic الحوت الإسلامي, al-hoot al-islami), is a mythological creature described in Islamic texts that carries the Earth on its back. It is also called Nun (نون), which is also the name of the Arabic letter "n" ن. Two alternative names of the whale are Liwash and Lutiaya.[1] The details behind the mentioning of this creature is a unclear topic. There is little mention of Nun in the Quran, however there is further mention of it in other Islamic scriptures such has Hadith and Tafsir along with context verses.

From all of the earliest Sunni and Shi'a sources today available to us, it does appear that the earliest Muslims believed the letter "nun" in the Qur'an surah 68:1 refers to a giant whale upon whose back the entire earth rests. This belief is attributed by all of the trusted sources of Islamic jurisprudence to "tarjumaan al-qur'an" ibn Abbas and was reaffirmed thereafter by many trusted Islamic scholars all the way up until the 19th century. According to this cosmogony, the earth (actually the 7 earths are) is attached to the back of the whale by means of the mountains, which are pegs to balance the earth upon the Nun's back. This cosmogony fits in with a widespread ancient belief that the world was balanced upon the back of giant animals, and the even more primordial belief that the world is surrounded by a giant, unending body of water.

Nun in the Qur'an

Nun is mentioned in the verse 68:1.[2] Most respected scholars of Islam (Ibn Kathir, At-Tabari, Al-Qurtubi and others including Al-Jalalayn) agree that Nun refers to a whale that carries the Earth on its back:[3]

Word-by-word translation of the Qur'anic verse:

  • نٓ - noon - the name of the whale
  • وَٱلْقَلَمِ - wal-qalam - by the pen (wa- prefix means "and" or "by")
  • وَمَا - wa-ma - and what
  • يَسْطُرُونَ - yasturoona - they write

There is not much information in the Qur'an ipso facto, but it is necessary to have an understanding of this idea in order to understand much of the traditional interpretation of the Qur'an. For example, in verse 21:87 Jonah is called "man of the Nun", which has been interpreted as meaning that he was eaten by a whale[4][5]:

Relevant Quotations

نٓ وَٱلْقَلَمِ وَمَا يَسْطُرُونَ
Nun. By the pen and what they inscribe.
And [mention] the man of the fish (ٱلنُّونِ, al-noon), when he went off in anger and thought that We would not decree [anything] upon him. And he called out within the darknesses, "There is no deity except You; exalted are You. Indeed, I have been of the wrongdoers."

A Fish/Whale is mentioned in the same chapter as the letter nun:

Then be patient for the decision of your Lord, [O Muhammad], and be not like the companion of the fish (الحوت) when he called out while he was distressed.

Tafsir Ibn Kathir

ibn Kathir spends a good bit of text on this short verse, and attributes different explanations to the verse, all of them more or less agreeing with the following summary: In the beginning, Allah created the pen before all else. The pen asked "what do I write" and Allah told it to write the letter ن "nun" or "N" which is actually a whale upon whose back he balanced the entire world:

كَمَا قَالَ الْإِمَام أَبُو جَعْفَر بْن جَرِير حَدَّثَنَا اِبْن بَشَّار حَدَّثَنَا يَحْيَى حَدَّثَنَا سُفْيَان هُوَ الثَّوْرِيّ حَدَّثَنَا سُلَيْمَان هُوَ الْأَعْمَش عَنْ أَبِي ظَبْيَان عَنْ اِبْن عَبَّاس قَالَ : أَوَّل مَا خَلَقَ اللَّه الْقَلَم قَالَ اُكْتُبْ قَالَ وَمَاذَا أَكْتَب ؟ قَالَ اُكْتُبْ الْقَدَر فَجَرَى بِمَا يَكُون مِنْ ذَلِكَ الْيَوْم إِلَى قِيَام السَّاعَة ثُمَّ خَلَقَ النُّون وَرَفَعَ بُخَار الْمَاء فَفُتِقَتْ مِنْهُ السَّمَاء وَبُسِطَتْ الْأَرْض عَلَى ظَهْر النُّون فَاضْطَرَبَ النُّون فَمَادَتْ الْأَرْض فَأُثْبِتَتْ بِالْجِبَالِ فَإِنَّهَا لَتَفْخَر عَلَى الْأَرْض

"As The Imam Abu Ja'afar ibn Jareer told said (so) told user ibn Bashaar, so told us Yahya so told us Sufyaan ِAl-Thawri

so told use Sulimaan who is the sticky-eyed(al-a'mash) from Abi Zabyaan from ibn 'Abbaas who said "The first thing that Allah created is the pen, it said "What do I write" Allah said "write the fate of existence all that will happen from this day until the day of judgement then Allah created the "Nun" and raised the mist of the water and rent it from the sky and spread the earth on the back of the Nun. The Nun was disturbed and the earth was extended and earth was fixed in place with the mountains, verily they are the pride (of Allah) upon the earth."
Ibn Kathir, English abridged version, on the verse 68:1

This is the definition of ن (Nun) in the Arabic tafsir:

نۤ حوت عظيم
  • نۤ - noon - Nun
  • حوت - hoot - whale
  • عظيم - 'azeem - big

Nun is a big whale.

Ibn Kathir tafsir on 68:1 [6]

Hadith from Ibn Abbas, the turjuman ul-Qur'an

Another variation of this hadith from At-Tabari:

عن ابنِ عباسٍ قال أولُ شيءٍ خلق اللهُ تعالى القلمُ فقال له اكتب فكتب ما هو كائنٌ إلى أن تقومَ الساعةُ ثم خلق النون فوق الماءِ ثم كبس الأرضَ عليه

From Ibn Abbas (ابنِ عباسٍ), who said: The first thing Allah (اللهُ) created was the pen (القلمُ), so he told it: "Write!" (اكتب) And it wrote what will happen until the Hour (Day of Judgement), then he created the Nun (النون) above (فوق) water (الماءِ), then He pressed (كبس) the Earth (الأرضَ) on it (عليه).

تاريخ الطبري (Tarikh At-Tabari) [7]

The hadith (narration) by Ibn Abbas (collected by At-Tabari) is considered صحيح (sahih)[7], which means it is considered to be an authentic narration in the traditional estimation of hadith. According to the tradition Ibn Abbas holds a special place in the scheme of hadith preservers, for Muhammad made du'a(prayer) for Ibn Abbas, so that Allah would teach him the true interpretation of the Qur'an. Ibn Abbas was also called turjuman ul-Qur'an (ترجمان القرآن) id est "translator of the Qur'an", because he had such a deep knowledge about the interpretation (tarjama, literally translation) of the revelations.

Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas (raa): The Prophet (saws) embraced me and said, “O Allah! Teach him (the knowledge of) the Book (Quran).”

His narration also explains why mountains are described as pegs in the Qur'an. It is because, according the traditional Islamic cosmology, the earth would fall off of the back of the whale without the pegs that hold it[8]:

78:6 Have We not made the earth an even expanse?
78:7 And the mountains as pegs?

It also explains why Allah's throne is "on water" (because Allah created the heavens out of water):

And it is He who created the heavens and the earth in six days - and His Throne had been upon water

Tafsir At-Tabari

At-Tabari had this to say:

هو الحوت الذي عليه الأرَضُون

It is (هو) a whale (الحوت), which (الذي) on it (عليه) the Earths (الأرَضُون).

At-Tabari tafsir on 68:1 [9]

In Islamic cosmology there are seven flat Earths, just like there are seven heavens:

Allah is He Who created seven heavens, and of the earth the like of them

They are placed on the whale like flapjacks on a plate, stacked one atop the other.

ِTafsir Al-Qurtubi

Another very respected tafsir of Al-Qurtubi is of the same opinion. The whale is under the 7th (lowest) Earth:

نۤ> الحوت الذي تحت الأرض السابعة>
<Nun> - the whale (الحوت), which is (الذي) under (تحت) the Earth (الأرض) the seventh (السابعة).

Tafsir Al-Qurtubi on 68:1 [10]

From his use of the word "tahat" or "under" it can be surmised that in Al-Qurtubi's cosmology the earth is seen as flat.

ِTafsir Al-Kabir (by Ar-Razi)

بالحوت الذي على ظهره الأرض وهو في بحر تحت الأرض السفلى

..with the whale (بالحوت) which over its back (ظهره) is the Earth (الأرض) and it is in the sea (بحر) under (تحت) the Earth (الأرض) the lowest (السفلى).

Tafsir Al-Kabir on 68:1[11]

Al-Kabir here repeates the idea that there are multiple flat earths balanced on the back of the whale.

ِTafsir Fath Al-Qadir (by Shawkani)

This tafsir is from the 18th century re-affirms the idea that the world is carried on the back of a whale:

هو الحوت الذي يحمل الأرض

It is a whale which carries the Earth.

Fath Al-Qadir on 68:1[12]

Hadith Al-Kafi (shia)

Hadith Al-Kafi, one of the most prestigious Shi'ite hadith, also confirms that a whale carries the earth upon its back:

H 14813 – From him, from Salih, from one of his companions, from Abdul Samad Bin Basheer, who has reported the following: Abu Abdullah (asws) has said that: ‘The whale which is carrying the earth secretly said to itself that it is carrying the earth by its own strength. So Allah (azwj) the High Sent to it a fish smaller than a palm’s length, and larger than a finger. So it entered in its gills and shocked it. It remained like that for forty days. Then Allah (azwj) Raised it and was Merciful to it, and Took it out. So whenever Allah (azwj) Intends the earth to be in a quake, He (azwj) Sends that (small) fish to that (big) fish. So when it sees it, it becomes restless, so the earth gets engulfed by the earthquake’.
Al-Kafi, vol. 8, part 6, [13]

Tafsir Al-Tusi (shia)

The first comprehensive Shia tafsir[14] says this about the Nun:

وقال ابن عباس - فى رواية عنه - إن النون الحوت الذى عليه الارضون

And said Ibn Abbas (ابن عباس) - in his narration - that Nun (النون) is a whale (الحوت) which on it are the Earths (الارضون).
Al-Tibbyan by Al-Tusi on 68:1 [15]

There is thus attestation of Nun the whale in both the Sunni and Shi'ite tradition.

The Qur'anic Cosmology vis-à-vis Modern Science

The world view evinced in the tasfir is one fundamentally at odds with the modern, scientific understanding of cosmology, earth sciences and geology. The authors of the tafsir tradition and the Qur'an seem to have been operating on the assumption that the earth that the human race inhabits is flat, and moreover it is only one of many different earths. The belief that the world is balanced on the back of a giant cosmological animal is not peculiar to Islam--witness the Hindu tradition of Akupāra (Sanskrit: अकूपार), also know as Kurma and Chukwa, the giant tortoise who supports the 16 elephants who hold up the world, or the Chinese myth of the sea turtle Ao whose sawed off legs prop up the world. The idea of a giant animal holding up the world is a myth found in many pre-scientific cultures.

Other interpretations of Nun

Although many traditional tafsir explain that Nun is the whale which carries the Earth(s) on its back, there are also non-whale interpretations of Nun.

"ن is a letter of the alphabet"

ن ("n") is a letter of the Arabic alphabet called نون (Nun). Many suwar in the Qur'an actually start with mysterious letters that don't have any immediate meaning. This does beg the question of what these letters mean in the first place, and from the perspective of a believing Muslim why Allah would start his revelations out with random letters, but considering it does fall into an accepted Qur'anic pattern it does at least offer an explanation for its presense. Another point is the word following the Nun, "walqalami" "by the pen." The Arabic formation for oaths and swears is to add و "wa" a particle meaning generally "and" to a noun in the majruur (genetive) case, producing the swearing oath: "والله" "wallahi" "by God!" "والشمس" "washamsi" "by the sun!" etc. Since the word "qalam" or "pen" is in the genitive case, it should be understood to be a swear, and this seems likely. It should however be remembered that the original "rasm" or consonantal text for the Qur'an lacked the vowel markings which in this case marks the word as being in the genitive. The original text thus might not have had this word in the genitive case, in which case the meaning would simply be "and the pen." It is thus possible that in the original the "wa" functioned simply as an "and" and the original meaning was thus simply "(the letter) nun, and the pen, and what they write."

"N" in "Ar-Rahmaan"

The word الرحمن, Ar-Rahman, "the gracious" is one of the titles of Allah. The 13th sura starts with three letters الر, and a few suras start with the letters حم (see the comment on random letters at the beginning of suwar above). Putting these together produces الر + حم + ن= الرحمن "Ar-rahmaan."

  • The word Ar-Rahman is nowadays actually written as الرحمان, but in the old Uthmani script it was written without the ا (alif) before the ن. It was added later, to indicate the "aa" vowel.
  • A lot of verses start on other letters however and no convincing argument can be made for producing relevant words from most of them.

Nun means "ink"

A proposed solution for this is that the nun here means "ink" in the nominative case, in which case 68:1 would mean "The ink and the pen and that which they write". This solution suffers from some issues:

  • The Qur'an used the word مِدَادًا (midaadan) for "ink" in the verse 18:109, while it used the word نون (nun) to mean "whale" in the verse 21:87. So it is more probable, that the meaning of nun here is "whale".
  • According to this interpretation, this refers to the ink with which the Qur'an was written. Which is not very fitting, since the primary form of the Qu'ran is recitation according to the traditional narrative. The word "Qur'an" itself means "recitation" in the traditional understanding. It should also be noted, however, that the word Qur'an may have a Syriac antecedent in the word "Qeryaanaa", meaning a lectionary, the book of scripture readings in traditional Christian masses. With this understanding the meaning of "ink" might make more sense.

"Allah knows best"

"Allah knows best", in other words "the author knows what he meant", is an explanation offered by some Muslim commentators, indicating that even with the traditional narrative understanding this verse is difficult.

Modern Muslim Scholarly and Apologetic Views

Some Muslims, who consider the whale hypothesis to be false [16] realizing how at odds this cosmology of giant animals and oceans is with modern science, have attempted alternative explanations to these traditions in order to bring them into line with modern science.

It's not in the Qur'an

This is questionable. Nun is mentioned in the Qur'an 68:1 and it was used in another verse 21:87 to mean "whale". It is not clearly stated in the Qur'an that Nun is the whale which carries the Earth on its back, but the Qur'an speaks about mountains being like pegs, which supports the "whale cosmology". If there is no whale under the Earth, then there is no reason for mountains to function as pegs.

Also when something is not in the Qur'an, then it doesn't mean it's not a part of Islam. The "5 pillars of Islam" are also not described in the Qur'an and they are considered to be a part of Islam. Islam (or at least the mainstream Islam) is derived from the Qur'an, hadith and sira.

The strength of the hadith mawqoof

A problem often mentioned in regards to this tradition is that it relies on Hadith rated as "mawqoof" or originating with a companion of the prophet. In traditional Sunni exegisis however this has not normally been seen as an issue:

Besides that, there is a fatwa which says that a mawqoof hadith can be used as evidence if nobody protested against it:

As for taking it as evidence, it means that we have to act according to it and consider it a source of evidence of the Islamic religion. Scholars have ten different opinions regarding that issue. The nearest of them to correctness is that if the opinion of the companion spread widely and no one went against it, then it is a source of evidence and a consensus by silence. However, if it did not spread or some other companions went against it, then it is not a source of evidence, but can be used as secondary evidence.

That is the case if reason and Ijtihaad (personal diligence) can be applied in the opinion of the companion; otherwise (i.e. if his opinion is something that has nothing to do with Ijtihaad like matters of the unseen or the stories of the previous Prophets), then it is regarded as Marfoo‘ (traceable) to the Prophet, sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, unless it is known that that companion used to take his information from the books of the People of the Book.

Allaah Knows best

Fatwa 217021 [17]

Only the early scholars believed it

It's sometimes claimed that only early scholars believed this, a strange claim considering that antiquity usually validates rather than invalidates views and doctrines in Islamic theology and jurisprudence. This view is, however, not even true so far as it goes, as the idea of the earth-bearing whale was mentioned even by Shawkani writing in the year 1835 CE when he wrote about it in his commentary on this verse.

Jewish Origins

There are some modern claims that this story/doctrine comes from Judaism. Neither the Bible, Talmud, targums, Mishnah or any other Jewish text mentions the idea of the earth-bearing whale. There is, tho, a myth of a big sea monster called "Leviathan" in the Bible:

In that day, the Lord will punish with his sword— his fierce, great and powerful sword— Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea.

Isiah 27:1

It's not clear whether it is a whale or a dolphin or a crocodile (although the word is construed in modern Hebrew to mean "whale", but this has no necessary implication for the word in the time of Isaiah). It was also described as a dragon and serpent. There are many different interpretations. In Judaism Leviathan is sometimes understood metaphorically as a great enemy of Israel. In Christianity Leviathan is sometimes understood as Satan. Neither the Bible nor any extra-biblical Judaic text say that the Leviathan holds the earth on its back, but there is a rabbinic text saying that Leviathan is a flying serpent who has "middle bar of the earth" between its fins:

On the fifth day He brought forth from the water the Leviathan, the flying serpent, and its dwelling is in the the lowest waters; and between its fins rests the middle bar of the earth.

Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer (Ch. 9)

Insofar as the Leviathan is interpreted as being a whale, it is possible that this was the origin of the myth. The entirety of the myth itself though does not appear to be Jewish in origin, rather being an obvious Islam accretion.

Ibn Abbas Receiving the Story from the Jews

Some modern believers and apologists as referenced above attribute this story to Jewish sources, basing this idea on the fact that ibn Abbas often took and retold Jewish stories. This practice though is actually attested to in sahih hadith:

Narrated `Abdullah bin `Amr: The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "Convey (my teachings) to the people even if it were a single sentence, and tell others the stories of Bani Israel (which have been taught to you), for it is not sinful to do so. And whoever tells a lie on me intentionally, will surely take his place in the (Hell) Fire."

This hadith seem to allow taking stories from the Jews. In the phrase "of Bani Israel" (عَنْ بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ), the word عن could mean both "from" and "about". And the beginning of the hadith says literally "convey from me" (بلغوا عني), so it looks more likely that it should be stories about Jews, but from Islamic sources.

Fath ul-Bari says in his commentary:

وقيل المعنى حدثوا عنهم بمثل ما ورد في القرآن والحديث الصحيح

And it is said that it means relating traditions about them found in the Qur'an and authentic hadith.

Ibn Hajar Al Asqalani, Fathul Bari, Kitab: Ahaadeeth Al 'Anbiyaa', Bab: Ma Thakr 'an Bani Israel [18]

So from the traditional sources it would not appear that there is anything particularly wrong with taking Jewish stories and retelling them for Muslims. In fact, the majority of the material in the Qur'an deals with either Jewish or Christian stories when a narrative is present.

The hadith is often combined by apologists with another hadith from Sahih Al-Bukhari, from the chapter “Do not ask the people of the Scripture about anything.” (The name of the chapter says it clearly, but apologists still think that the hadiths in this chapter support telling false stories from Jews):

Narrated Abu Huraira:

The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said (to the Muslims). "Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, 'We believe in Allah and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.' "

Sahih Bukhari 9:92:460, book 96, chapter "Do not ask the people of the Scripture about anything"

This hadith doesn't say that Muslims should spread the Jewish stories. The most likely interpretation is that Muslims should ignore the Jews, because some of the Jewish stories are right, some are wrong, but the only truth is from Muhammad.

Telling lies from Jews is forbidden, according to Imam Shafii:

من المعلوم أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم لا يجيز التحدث بالكذب ، فالمعنى حدثوا عن بني إسرائيل بما لا تعلمون كذبه ، وأما ما تجوزونه فلا حرج عليكم في التحدث به عنهم [ ص: 576 ] وهو نظير قوله : إذا حدثكم أهل الكتاب فلا تصدقوهم ولا تكذبوهم ولم يرد الإذن ولا المنع من التحدث بما يقطع بصدقه 

It is known that the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not permit speaking lies when he said "relate traditions from the children of Israel", thus it is meant that you relate traditions that you know not to be lies and whatever you find to be compliant with your beliefs then there is no harm narrating those traditions from them. This is in obedience to the Prophet's statement "Do not believe the people of the Scripture or disbelieve them." He did not recommend nor prohibit relating those traditions that are known to not be lies.

Ibn Hajar Al Asqalani, Fathul Bari, Kitab: Ahaadeeth Al 'Anbiyaa', Bab: Ma Thakr 'an Bani Israel [19]

And finally a quote from Ibn Abbas himself, also from the chapter “Do not ask the people of the Scripture about anything.”. This seems to cast doubt on the idea that ibn Abbas was even in the habit of taking stories from the Jews:

Narrated Ubaidullah:

Ibn `Abbas said, "Why do you ask the people of the scripture about anything while your Book (Qur'an) which has been revealed to Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) is newer and the latest? You read it pure, undistorted and unchanged, and Allah has told you that the people of the scripture (Jews and Christians) changed their scripture and distorted it, and wrote the scripture with their own hands and said, 'It is from Allah,' to sell it for a little gain. Does not the knowledge which has come to you prevent you from asking them about anything? No, by Allah, we have never seen any man from them asking you regarding what has been revealed to you!"

Sahih Bukhari 9:92:461, book 96, chapter "Do not ask the people of the Scripture about anything"

See Also


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  1. Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs: "And from his narration on the authority of Ibn 'Abbas that he said regarding the interpretation of Allah's saying (Nun): '(Nun) He says: Allah swears by the Nun, which is the whale that carries the earths on its back while in Water, and beneath which is the Bull and under the Bull is the Rock and under the Rock is the Dust and none knows what is under the Dust save Allah. The name of the whale is Liwash, and it is said its name is Lutiaya'; the name of the bull is Bahamut, and some say its name is Talhut or Liyona. The whale is in a sea called 'Adwad, and it is like a small bull in a huge sea. The sea is in a hollowed rock whereby there is 4,000 cracks, and from each crack water springs out to the earth. It is also said that Nun is one of the names of the Lord; it stands for the letter Nun in Allah's name al-Rahman (the Beneficent); and it is also said that a Nun is an inkwell. (By the pen) Allah swore by the pen. This pen is made of light and its height is equal to the distance between Heaven and earth. It is with this pen that the Wise Remembrance, i.e. the Guarded Tablet, was written. It is also said that the pen is one of the angels by whom Allah has sworn, (and that which they write (therewith)) and Allah also swore by what the angels write down of the works of the children of Adam"
  2. نٓ وَٱلْقَلَمِ وَمَا يَسْطُرُونَ Nun. By the pen and what they inscribe, Quran 68:1
  3. Al-Jalalayn on 21:87
    • ذَا ٱلنُّونِ } صاحب الحوت}
    • {Man of the fish} companion of the whale (الحوت, al-hoot)
  4. And [mention] the man of '''the fish''' (ٱلنُّونِ, ''al-noon''), when he went off in anger and thought that We would not decree [anything] upon him. And he called out within the darknesses, "There is no deity except You; exalted are You. Indeed, I have been of the wrongdoers." Quran 21:87
  7. 7.0 7.1
  8. That is also supported by the tafsir Al-Jalalayn on the verse 78:7 "and the mountains pegs? with which the earth is tied down like tents are tied down with pegs the interrogative is meant as an affirmative."
  13. Page 45. Kitab al-Kafi. Archived at [1].