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The Great Flood of Questions

Seth Mette

2011-03-01 00:00:00

Nowadays, we are alerted by scientists about possible future floods due to extreme weather events or melting of the polar ice because of global warming. Even producers have come up with several movies based on such themes. These depictions of the future are taken as signs of the end of times by certain groups. As a matter of fact, interpreting natural events as divine signs is not something new; it is deeply rooted in the humanity’s past. The Great Flood is, perhaps, the most striking of such interpretations.

There is explicit information in the divine scriptures that the Great Flood did take place, and that it was a divine message to humanity. About these two points, most of the members of the three Abrahamic religions, and even members of many other faiths, do not have a problem at all. But if we want to draw detailed information about the flood, then we see many topics of discussion: was it a local or global flood? What were the number and kinds of animals in the ark? What was the size of the ark? What was the date of the event? And so on.

In the Qur’an, we are not given all of the details of the flood event. In fact, we should not expect to find all of the details in the revelation, because its primary goal is to inculcate love and respect of God in people, not to teach them science or history. So, from a religious perspective, details such as whether the flood was local or global, whether the ark was powered or not, etc., are irrelevant. What matters is that human beings are not left to their own in this life, and that they have a responsibility towards their Creator. What is more, if dealing with such undisclosed details is diverting us from the main point, this means we are being blinded by what we think we know; not illuminated. Maybe, this is why we are not given in the Qur’an those details. So, one needs to be careful in this regard.

However, keeping the mentioned warnings in mind, for a person eager to discover other signs of God that are invisible at first glance, the doors of study are wide open. Accordingly, when scholars set out to make a complete picture of the Great Flood based on the information from the revelation, at times they rationally fill in the missing details, or interpret already existing ones. And this is exactly where the discussions start.

In this article, it is our intention to make a brief analysis of the Islamic sources on this issue. In doing this, Qur’anic verses [1] and the exegesis of these verses by three prominent Muslim scholars from the classical and modern era (Hamdi Yazir, Fahr al-Din al-Razi, and Ibn Kathir) are going to be our main references. Then, with the knowledge and comprehension of a contemporary mind, the suggestions of these scholars are going to be scrutinized, again based on the information from the Qur’an [2]. Our aim is to show that there is still room for discovery in the story of the Great Flood, that there probably are other signs of God not revealed so far.

Before we begin, we also would like to underline what is not our intention. Just as in the case of a miraculous feeding of hundreds of people from a bowl of food, it is nonsense to discuss what quantum mechanical processes might have led to such a result, it is similarly futile to try to entirely explain the Great Flood in a cause-effect chain. If something is a miracle, it means that God performs it out of the confines of His practice [3] (what we call as “God’s customs” are referred to as “cause-effect chain” by some scientists). But if it is not a miracle, such as the presence of the little amount of food initially in the miracle of abundance, then it can be scrutinized in terms of God’s customs. Therefore, while discussing the Great Flood, we need to keep in mind this criterion to distinguish between its miraculous and customary parts.

Another point that is not intended is to shake the reliability of scholars in religious matters. Those scholars had not only the best and sincerest of intentions to understand the revelation, but also the fear of God lest they misrepresent the content of the revelation. So, the discussion in this article should not invalidate the reliability of the scholars in essential matters of faith, since our discussion is focused on secondary issues rather than primary ones.

Having outlined what is intended and what is not, let’s start.

Persisting questions

Based on different combinations of interpretations of the existing information from the Qur’an, you could derive several variances of the Great Flood. In this article, we are going to briefly question the prevailing flood scenario suggested by scholars.

Was it a local or a global flood?

There is still debate about whether the flood was local or global. Let’s analyze the two cases, starting with the global scenario. When we say global, it is not necessarily a flood that is covering the entire surface of the earth, but rather the majority of it, and also it affected the entirety of humanity. Conversely, a local flood is one that affects a minor part of the earth and only a part of humanity. In this regard, the prayer of the Prophet Noah calling for the destruction of the unbelievers is taken by some scholars as a sign for a global flood.

Noah also said: “My Lord! Do not leave on the earth any from among the unbelievers dwelling therein.” (Noah 71:26)

One can say that his prayer does not necessarily point to its fulfillment, and this is a fair objection. But, when Noah prayed for the salvation of his unbelieving son, a relatively minor issue, he was corrected at once, and we are informed about it in the Qur’an:

Noah called out to his Lord, saying: “O my Lord, my son was of my family, and Your promise is surely true, and You are the Most Just of Judges.” (God) said: “O Noah he is not of your family. He is one of unrighteous conduct. So do not ask of Me what you have no knowledge of. I admonish you so that you do not behave as one among the ignorant.” (Noah) said: “O my Lord! I seek refuge in You, lest I should ask of You what I have no knowledge of. And unless You forgive me and have mercy on me, I will indeed be among the losers.” (Hud 11:45–47)

One would think that if God is telling us a correction to a minor issue, He would certainly let us know about a correction to a major issue. The fact that such a correction is missing can be understood as the fulfillment of the prayer. So, in this regard, the Qur’an contains information that can lead to a global flood scenario [4].

If we consider the local flood scenario, first of all, we see that it, too, has support from revelation. According to a verse in the Qur’an, Noah was not a global prophet, but was only sent to his people (Noah 71:1). If the flood came due to his situation among his people, only those who are in his community should be affected. Thus, it was a local flood.

Another detail supporting the local flood idea is the way Noah was consoled by God before they went out of the ark after the flood.

He was told: “O Noah! Get you down in peace and safety from Us, and with blessings upon you and upon the communities who are with you. Communities – We will provide for them to enjoy themselves for a term and then there will visit them from Us a painful punishment.” (Hud 11:48)

Looking at this verse, Razi concludes that Noah was worried about how they are going to survive after all that happened. And so, God consoled Noah telling him to go out in peace and abundance. Such peace and abundance would not be possible in a place that was totally devastated by the flood. Aside from this, the same verse has a reference that can be interpreted as the sign of other communities on the earth after the flood. These clues altogether support a local flood scenario.

How about the animals in the ark?

Information from the Qur’an about the gathering of the animals is as follows:

Until the time when Our command came and the boiler started boiling over, We said: “Embark in it a pair of each kind, and your family, except those against whom Our sentence has already been passed, and those who believe.” And those who believed with him were few. Noah said, “Board it! In God’s Name be its course and its mooring. Surely my Lord is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate.” (Hud 11:40-41)

There are several questions, however, about the involvement of the animals in this story. These questions are mainly due to the assumption that there were thousands of animals on board.

If we assume that there were thousands of species on board, the first question is “how did thousands of species get together?” Is it just an obvious miracle that Noah calls the animals, and suddenly all of the animals start rushing to the ark? If we assume that they were somehow collected, how is it possible that animals which live in totally opposite climate conditions could survive in the ship? What kind of an ark can contain hundreds of thousands of different animals on board? How about their food, was the ark big enough to contain sufficient food to feed thousands of animals for a long time? Considering the small number of believers on the ark, how were the animals cared for? Were the animals free to wander around in the ark? How come they did not create terror in there or devastate it? How were hygiene conditions met while all those creatures coexisted in the same place with humans?

Contrary to the number of questions listed above, there is no information in the Qur’an about the state of the travelers while on board. Can the absence of such information point to something else that we are missing, for example another miraculous event while in the ark that can answer our questions?

Was the ark a sail-type or was it powered?

Some contemporary Islamic scholars claim that it was powered by a kind of steam engine. This conclusion is arrived through the Qur’anic phrase “farat-tannur” (Hud 11:40–41), which means “a boiler that is boiling over.” But this conclusion of the Muslim scholars also entails several questions.

A ship does not need an engine if it is only meant to float. As long as it has hydrodynamic stability and structural strength, it can do the job. Let’s say the engine is needed to maneuver the ship according to a predetermined route. However, there is no clue in the divine descriptions for the presence of such a route. Furthermore, one verse in the Qur’an clearly reports that the route of the ark is up to God (Hud 11, 41). Then, why is the engine needed in the first place, even if it did really exist?

As a result, we are left with this mind-intriguing phrase “farat-tannur,” which needs a meaningful explanation. Whether Noah’s ark was powered or not is still uncertain.

What is the clear sign for all worlds?

In the Qur’an, we are told that “it is a sign for all worlds – ayatan lil alemin” (Ankabut 29:14–15) [5]. Scholars tell us that the pronoun it could either refer to the ark or to the flood. However, the things that are attributed to a “sign” in the Qur’an are obvious things. If we assume that the clear sign for all is the ark, then it must be available to us for it to become a sign. So, it is unlikely that the sign mentioned in the verse is the ark.

On the other hand, the pronoun it could refer to the flood story as the clear sign for all, which is currently more plausible than the ark being the sign. But, there are several other destruction stories in the Qur’an which could potentially be a clear sign for all. What makes Noah’s story so special aside from the others so that only it is mentioned as “a sign for all,” and a separate chapter in the Qur’an is reserved for it? This question becomes even more pronounced if the flood was only a local one. How come a local flood involving limited number of people is so distinct from the other destruction stories, and can become a clear sign for all until the end of time?

What is the water of the sky, and where is it coming from?

The start of the flood-related events is explained in the Qur’an as follows:

So We opened the gates of the sky, with water outpouring; and We caused the earth to gush forth with springs, so the waters combined for a matter already ordained. (Qamar 54:11–12).

There are several curiosity-arousing points in this explanation, some of which are mentioned below.

The distinctive explanations for the two waters given in the verse bring the question whether this rain water could be an unusual one [6, 7]. Curious enough, the literal translation of the quoted verse says “the water met,” not “waters combined.” Some scholars say that such singular mentioning is due to the fact that water is a single entity whether its origin is a spring or rain. However, if we consider the water of the sky as something other than regular water, then the verse becomes literally explicit, because it is actually only the water of the earth that is meeting something from the sky. According to the rules of interpreting the Qur’an, such literally explicit and rational meaning is preferable over an interpreted one.

Second, the gates of the sky are told to be opened by the coming of the water, not “the water is let go by the gates.” Along the same lines, in the Qur’an, the explanation of the events of the end of times involves an opening of the sky. Could gates of the sky have anything to do with events other than just rain?

An interim solution

A scenario suggested by Islamic scholars that can resolve several of the questions stated so far assumes that the humanity at the time of Noah was not much populated, and was a single tribe [8]. Thus, a local flood that threatens the small human population does not necessitate the gathering of all of the animals on the earth. Instead, only animals sufficient to sustain the life in the immediate aftermath of the flood are gathered in the ark. The people around Noah would step on land and make their living from these animals, and as time goes by, the rest of the animals elsewhere on the earth would re-populate the once-flooded regions.

However, this local flood story brings with it some problems. If it was a local flood, and if the ark was only large enough to contain a few believers and a few animals, where is the greatness of the Great Flood, where is the clear sign for all worlds? What is the big deal with the water of the sky and earth, if it suffices to have a local flood, which can even be achieved with regular rains? Why did God explicitly give the instructions for the construction of the ark to Noah, if it is a local flood that people could survive by a regular ark?


The discussion presented in this article shows the gist of the debates surrounding the idea of the Great Flood. Yet, despite hundreds of years of study, there is no satisfactory scenario that can answer all these, and possible other, questions. In any case, what we know for sure is that whether it is a global flood or a global warming, we should not wait for clear signs to appear in order for us to obey the Lord of the worlds; because when they appear, it may be too late.

Sermed Ogretim has a PhD in Aerospace Engineering and is currently working as a postdoctoral fellow at West Virginia University. He has a special interest in psychological fiction.


1 The translations of the Qur’anic verses are taken from Ali Unal’s The Qur’an with Annotated Interpretation in Modern English, The Light Inc., NJ, USA, 2006.

2 For certain points in the discussion, we are going to provide supplementary information from the Old Testament that is in agreement with the Qur’an.

3 Erdin, M., “Are Religion and Science Compatible,” The Fountain, Issue 49, Jan.-Mar. 2005.

4 According to the Old Testament, the flood was global and was large enough to cover the entire surface of the earth, including the high mountains (Genesis 7, 11-20).

5 “Ayeten lil alemin” is only mentioned twice in the Qur’an. The first one is about Mary and Jesus’s miraculous birth from her (Anbiya 21:91), and the second is this one about the Great Flood. The phrase ayeten lil alemin is usually translated as “sign for all people”; but all people can only be a subset of what alemin really means. A similar phrase, rahmatan lil-alemin, is used for Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in the Qur’an (Anbiya 21:107). Hamdi Yazir interprets this phrase as “mercy for all existence.” Ali Unal interprets the same phrase as “unequalled mercy for all the worlds.” So, it is fair in the context of the Great Flood to scrutinize the meaning of “sign for all people/worlds.”

6 It is curious that both in the Old Testament and in the Qur’an, water of the sky is distinctly mentioned aside the water of the earth. In the Old Testament, we are first told about the creation of the water of the sky (Genesis 1:6-8). When the time of the flood comes, the windows of the sky open (Genesis 7:11), and the flood is realized by the cooperation of the water of the skies and earth.

7 Two independent references to this end are a verse from the Qur’an and a hadith, given here respectively: “His (God’s) throne on water” Hud (11:7), “heaven is a sea whose waves have calmed” (Tirmidhi, Tafsir al-Surah 57/1; Musnad, 2/370). In both of these instances, the implicit or explicit use of the concept of water cannot be the water we drink.

8 Yazir, H., Exegesis of the chapter Hud, Hak Dini Kur’an Dili, Vol. 4.

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