“The Islamic Whale” - debunked

Dec 21, 2017 · Unlisted


Among one of the ex-Muslims’ favourite arguments is the so-called “Islamic Whale” argument. The argument attempts to prove that the Qur’an implies the Earth is carried on the back of a whale. The prominent ex-Muslim YouTuber “TheMaskedArab” created a video on the subject, which as of December 2017 has over 70,000 views. However, the argument is only convincing as it extensively commits the fallacy of suppressed evidence (also known as cherry picking).


The argument stems from the first verse of Surah Qalam, which is:

ن وَالْقَلَمِ وَمَا يَسْطُرُونَ

Nun. By the pen and what they inscribe,

An anti-Islamic website, WikiIslam, states:

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

There is also a verse where Jonah is called “man of the Nun”, because he was eaten by a whale. (Qu’ran 21:87).

TheMaskedArab’s argument

TheMaskedArab’s argument is poorly structured, often drifting onto irrelevant tangents and red herrings. Here is a summary:

He begins by showing videos of a scholar and Dr. Zakir Naik discussing the greatness of the various tafsirs, including Tafisr Ibn Kathir and Tafsir al-Tabari. However, this is irrelevant, because the matter at hand is a narration from Ibn Abbas rather than a direct claim made by a mufassir.

At 6:42 in the video, he quotes the tafsir of Ibn Kathir on Qur’an 68:1, which quotes at-Tabari, who quotes Ibn Abbas (رضي الله عنه), who said:

The first thing God created was the pen, he ordered it to write. It said: what shall I write? He said: write the fate of everything. So it wrote what will happen from that day until the Day of Judgement. Then he created the Nun (whale), then he raised the water and created the heavens with it.

He then goes onto a tangent about how the Qur’an supposedly states the Earth is flat.

Then at 11:44, he shows that the above narration is sahih (authentic) by quoting IslamQA.info’s article on the issue.

All of them narrated it via al-A‘mash, from Abu Zabyaan Husayn ibn Jundub, from Ibn ‘Abbas. This is a saheeh isnaad. Al-Haakim said: This hadith is saheeh according to the conditions of the two shaykhs (al-Bukhaari and Muslim)…Adh-Dhahabi said in at-Talkhees [It is saheeh] according to the conditions of al-Bukhaari and Muslim, as was narrated from Mujaahid, Muqaatil, as-Suddi and al-Kalbi.

At 12:38, he shows a video of Mufti Ismail ibn Menk saying:

[Ibn Abbas] was known as the one with the deepest knowledge of tafsir and revelation and why verses were revealed and what they meant.

At 13:36, he shows the following sahih hadith to support that claim:

It was narrated that Ibn ‘Abbas said:

The Messenger of Allah embraced me and said: ‘O Allah, teach him wisdom and the (correct) interpretation of the Book.’

Source: Sunan Ibn Majah, Vol. 1, Book 1, Hadith 166

Finally, at 15:46, he quotes Qur’an 21:87, as the Arabic word “Dhun-Nun” (meaning man of the fish) refers to Prophet Jonah (عليه السلام), who was swallowed by a whale. According to him, this supports the hypothesis that the Nun in Surah Qalam refers to a whale.


The narration of Ibn Abbas (رضي الله عنه)

Let’s take a look at the narration of Ibn Abbas (رضي الله عنه) in more detail:

al-A‘mash narrated from Abu Zabyaan Husayn ibn Jundub, who narrated from Ibn Abbas:

The first thing God created was the pen, he ordered it to write. It said: what shall I write? He said: write the fate of everything. So it wrote what will happen from that day until the Day of Judgement. Then he created the Nun (whale), then he raised the water and created the heavens with it.

The isnad (chain of narration) is indeed sahih (authentic).

However, what is apparent is that this hadith is not from the Prophet (ﷺ) — he is not in the isnad. In fact, there is no sahih isnad that can link the origin of this story to a saying of the Prophet (ﷺ).

This means that this hadith is classified as mawqoof. A mawqoof hadith is a narration that is from one of the companions and not from the Prophet.(ﷺ)

A popular anti-Islamic website, WikiIslam, claims that this does not matter, citing a portion of a fatwa which says that a mawqoof hadith is acceptable as Islamic evidence.

The site deliberately left out the part of the fatwa which refutes them:

This means that the section of the fatwa that WikiIslam cited only applies to opinions where ijtihad is applicable. Ijtihad means independent reasoning. Matters of the unseen, such as the supposed whale, cannot be derived by independent reasoning because it is not possible to reach such knowledge except via revelation — i.e. hearing it from Prophet (ﷺ) or from the Qur’an.

Therefore, if a mawqoof hadith contains details concerning the unseen, there are two possibilities:

  1. The hadith is marfoo’ hukman (marfoo’ by implication). A marfoo’ hadith is the opposite of a mawqoof hadith: it is a hadith that can be directly attributed to the Prophet (ﷺ). The reason why it would be marfoo’ by implication is because it would be assumed that the companion learned this knowledge from the Prophet (ﷺ).
  2. That the companion took this knowledge from the People of the Book (i.e. the Jews and Christians). Thus the narration would be one of the Isra’iliyat.

The Isra’iliyat

Let’s expound upon (2). In the sciences of hadith, there is a certain and well-known body of narratives which are known as the Isra’iliyat. These originate from various Judeo-Christian sources, not the Prophet (ﷺ). The reason for why this body of narrations exists will be expanded on later. The contents of the Isra’iliyat are usually strange in nature and contradict reason — much like the narration of Ibn Abbas. The two most famous transmitters of Isra’iliyat were Wahb bin Munabbih and Ka’b al-Ahbar.

Is it possible that this story originates from them too? Interestingly, we see this narration from Ka’b:

Iblis managed to reach the whale on whose back the earth is carried and he whispered to it: Do you know what is on your back, O Leviathan — the name of the whale — of nations, animals, trees and mountains? If you shake them off, you will throw them off from your back. Leviathan thought of doing that, but Allah sent a beast that entered his nostrils and reached his brain, so the whale beseeched Allah because of it, and Allah gave it permission to leave.

By the One in Whose hand is my soul, the whale is looking at the beast and the beast is looking at the whale, in case the whale wants to do that, in which case the beast is ready to jump back into its nostrils.

Source: narrated via Abu Nu‘aym in Hilyat al-Awliya’ (8/6)

Ibn Kathir pointed out that a very similar report is one of the Isra’iliyat (reports from Jewish sources) and said:

In this report with this isnad, as-Suddi mentions many weird things; it is as if many of them came from the Isra’iliyat.

Source: al-Bidaayah wa’n-Nihaayah (1/15)

Look at how the myth of the whale can ultimately be traced back to Ka’b al-Ahbar. What’s more, it’s also well-known that both Abu Hurayrah and Ibn Abbas — prominent companions — narrated Isra’iliyat from Ka’b. This confirms that it is one of the Isra’iliyat. Therefore, there is no Islamic basis for this tale. No doubt, this information was suppressed by TheMaskedArab in an action of great deceit.

Why did Ibn Abbas narrate Isra’iliyat? Did he believe them?

The permissibility of narrating traditions from the People of the Book is made clear in a 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 People of 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.”

Source: Sahih al-Bukhari, Hadith 3202

The Muslims were told to neither believe nor disbelieve in them:

Narrated Abu Hurairah:

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.’

Source: Sahih al-Bukhari, Hadith 7362

Here’s an example where Ibn Abbas narrates contradicting Isra’iliyat reports regarding the dimensions of Noah’s Ark. In one narration, it is described as follows:

Ishaq bin Bishr and Ibn Asakir narrated through Ibn Abbas:

“[The dimensions of the ark were] 600 cubits [in] length, 60 cubits [in] depth and 333 cubits width.”

Source: Dur al-Manthur under Qur’an 11:37

And in another narration, the dimensions are much more different.

“[The dimensions of the ark were] 1200 cubits [in] length, 600 cubits [in] width and it had 3 stories.”

Source: Tafsir al-Tabari under Qur’an 11:37, Narration 18136

Of course, none of these contradictory narrations were narrated from the Prophet (ﷺ); it is one of the Isra’iliyat. This indicates that Ibn Abbas simply narrated Isra’iliyat when they reached him and did not give them any value, as the Prophet (ﷺ) commanded.

TheMaskedArab’s counter-argument

During his dialogues with the imaginary Muslim, TheMaskedArab pre-emptively responds from 12:06. He says:

If he [Ibn Abbas] got the story of the whale from the Jews, then please cite the verse of the Torah or the passage in the Talmud where this is found.

We have already established that Ka’b al-Ahbar, the ex-Jewish tabi’i, was the person from whom Ibn Abbas learned the story. The Isra’iliyat are narratives from the People of the Book (i.e. the Jews and Christians). The Jews and Christians of Arabia had many strange tales. They do not have to have a textual basis in their scriptures — the vast majority do not.

WikiIslam’s counter-argument

WikiIslam takes a different approach, quoting Ibn Hajar al-Asaqalani (رحمه الله) saying that Ka’b al-Ahbar is thiqah (trustworthy).

A thiqah narrator is one who can transmit hadith from the Prophet (ﷺ) reliably. Ibn Hajar says later in the same paragraph:

He [Ka’b] has one narration in [Sahih] Muslim from Abu Huraira from him on the authority of al-A’mash from Abu Salih.

Whether he can transmit hadith accurately from the Prophet (ﷺ) is completely irrelevant.

As for their saying, “It’s probably from al-Ahbar is just an unsuccessful ad-hominem”, Dr. Muhammad Husayn al-Dhahabi explains:

As for his saying [i.e. the critic]: “In general they [Ka’b and others] introduced to the Muslim’s creed and knowledge a lot of what had left bad effects.” If [the critic] wanted to put the blame of the bad affects upon Ka’b and the others then we don’t agree on this, because whatever Ka’b and the others narrated from the People of the Book, they didn’t say it is from the Prophet, peace be upon him, and [thus] they didn’t lie to Muslims about it, but they were only reporting it as the Isra’iliyat... We are not obliged to believe anything of it nor we are requested to trust it.

Nobody is criticising Ka’b al-Ahbar - or Ibn Abbas for that matter - for narrating Isra’iliyat. Rather, we are castigating those present the Isra’iliyat as narrations from the Prophet (ﷺ) or opinions of the companions, and so say that they must be believed by Muslims. This has nothing to do with ad-hominem attacks on either of them as some ex-Muslims have responded to this article. Had they studied the sciences of hadith, then they would have known the fact that narrating Isra’iliyat is done by a great number of narrators, not just Ibn Abbas.

The correct meaning of Nun in Surah Qalam

Let’s look at the verse from which this argument is derived from again:

ن وَالْقَلَمِ وَمَا يَسْطُرُونَ

Nun. By the pen and what they inscribe,

The first letter of the verse, Nun (ن), is known in Arabic as one of the muqatta’at, translated as the disjoined letters, or the disconnected letters. These appear at the beginning of 29 surahs, and the consensus of the scholars is that their meaning is only known to Allah.

Dhun-Nun and Nun

TheMaskedArab states that Dhun-Nun (man of the fish) in the Qur’an refers to Jonah (عليه السلام). Jonah (عليه السلام) was swallowed by a whale. Therefore, he says, the Qur’an itself proves that Nun means whale.

But if we look at the Arabic spelling of Dhun-Nun, we see the following:

The spelling is نون.

Now let’s look at the Nun in Surah Qalam:

It is a single Arabic letter: ن.

The spelling of the two Nuns are different; they are only similar in pronounciation. It does not logically follow that نون means ن, thus TheMaskedArab’s argument is a non sequitur. A comparison can be made with the English words hear and here. Although they sound identical, they have different meanings. It is not logical to claim that they have the same meaning because they have the same pronounciation.

See also



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Forthcoming articles: the Ottoman Empire, contemporary application of kalām, the fall of the Western Roman Empire and more.

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