Islamic mythology

Islamic mythology

Islamic mythology is the body of traditional narratives associated with Islam from a mythographical perspective. Many Muslims believe that these narratives are historical and sacred and contain profound truths. These traditional narratives include, but are not limited to, the stories contained in the Qur'an.

Followers of Islam (Muslims) believe that Islam, in its current form, was established by God, through the prophet Muhammed, who lived in the 6th and 7th centuries C.E.[1] The sacred book of Islam is the Qur'an. Muslims believe that all true prophets (including Moses and Jesus) preached Islamic principles that were applicable in their time but when the times changed and people needed new guidance for new situations, God appointed a new prophet with a new code of life that could guide them. Muhammad is the most recent prophet, who restored and completed the principles of Islam.[2]


Issues surrounding the term "mythology"

In its broadest academic sense, the word simply means a traditional story. However, many scholars restrict the term "myth" to sacred stories.[3] Folklorists often go further, defining myths as "tales believed as true, usually sacred, set in the distant past or other worlds or parts of the world, and with extra-human, inhuman, or heroic characters".[4]

If "myth", defined by folklorists, are stories both sacred and "believed as true", then the most clear-cut examples of Islamic mythology come from Islamic scripture. However, note that the term "mythology" does not encompass all scriptures. Because a myth is a traditional story, non-narrative scriptures (e.g., proverbs, theological writings) are not themselves "myths".

Note also that the term "myth" may not encompass all stories in Islamic scripture, depending on how strictly one defines the word "myth". One's use of the word "myth" is largely a matter of one's academic discipline. For scholars in religious studies, myths are stories whose main characters are gods or demigods: this definition would actually exclude sacred stories that don't feature God as the centre of attention.[5] Some folklorists restrict the word "myth" to stories that describe the creation of the world and of natural phenomena.[5][6] By this definition, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic creation story[7] would form a part of Islamic mythology, while the Islamic story of Marium (Mary) giving birth to Isa (Jesus)[8] would not.

In the culture of the ancient Mediterranean world in the context of which early Islam and its legend arose, there often did not exist the separation that exists for many societies in the modern period between fields of history and mythology, or the attempt to discern between objective truth and spiritual truths.[9]


The mythology of Islam can be grouped into academic categories:

  • Cosmogonic myths are myths that describe the creation of the world. The Judeo-Christo-Islamic six-part creation account is a cosmogonic myth.
  • Creation myths (also called etiological myths) explain the origins of natural phenomena and human institutions. While cosmogonic myths describe how the universe itself was created, creation myths build on cosmogonic myths, describing the creation of phenomena within the universe.[10] The Qur'an's isolated creation story of God creating iron[11] is an example of a creation myth.
  • Legends are stories that take place recently (relative to the mythological age of origins) and generally focus on human characters rather than divine ones; some scholars (for instance, professional folklorists) strictly distinguish them from "true" myths.[5][12][13] The story of Abraham almost sacrificing Ishmael is an example of legend.
  • Eschatological myths describe the afterlife and the end of the world. The Islamic story of Qiyamat is an example of eschatological mythology: it describes the Day of Judgment, when God will reward the good and punish the evil.

Central Islam stories

Life of Muhammad

Muhammad was born into late 6th-century Arabia. At that time, the inhabitants practised a polytheistic religion and lived in tribal groups that frequently feuded. Although married, Muhammad retreated into a cave in Mount Hira, in search of enlightenment. While in the cave, he experienced a revelation and received the words of the Qur'an (dictated to him by the angel Gabriel). He returned to Mecca, a cultural centre of Arabia, to spread his message.

Threatened by the possibility of a religious revolution, the Meccan leaders persecuted Muhammad and his followers who eventually migrated to Medina, from which they continued to feud with the Meccans. Eventually Muhammad conquered Mecca, converting its religious centre, the Kaaba stone, into the new centre of Islamic spirituality. By the time he died, he had brought nearly all of Arabia into the religion of Islam.[14]

By some academic definitions, a traditional story about a historical human character like Muhammad would be a "legend", not a "myth".[15]

The Ka'bah

According to Islamic tradition, God told Adam to construct a building to be the earthly counterpart of the House of Heaven. This was the giant black stone cube that Muslims call the Kaaba, the sacred mosque of Mecca. Later, Ibraham and Ishmail had to rebuild the Kaaba on the old foundations.[16][17]

The Kaaba was originally intended as a symbolic house for the one monotheistic God. However, after Ibraham's death, people started to fill the Kaaba with pagan idols. When Muhammad conquered Mecca, he cleaned out the idols from the Kaaba.[18] It now stands as an important pilgrimage site, which all Muslims are supposed to visit at least once if they are able. Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day while facing in the Kaaba's direction.[19]

Connection with Jewish and Christian mythologies

Biblical stories in the Qur'an

Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is a monotheistic religion. It has much in common with the stories and teachings of Judaism and Christianity, but Muslims believe that Muhammad was the final and ultimate prophet in the Judeo-Christo-Islamic revelation.[20] They also believe that the religious texts of the Jews and Christians have been corrupted by the hands of man over the passage of time.[21] Islam incorporates many Biblical events and heroes into its own mythology. Stories about Musa (Moses)[22] and Ibrahim (Abraham)[23] form parts of Islam's scriptures. The Qur'an retells in detail the Jewish tale of Joseph, who was sold to an Egyptian,[24] and the Christian tale of Mary, the mother of Jesus.[8] In both cases, it adds original details and an Islamic interpretation: for instance, in the Islamic version, Jesus speaks while he is still an infant,[25] and he is merely a miraculously-conceived human prophet, not the incarnation of God.[26]

Linear time

Unlike many other religions, whose sense of time was basically cyclic, Judaism and Christianity worked to preserve a written linear history and mythic timeline, running from the creation to the end of the world. For example, in Aztec mythology the universe is created and destroyed repeatedly,[27] but in Judaism and Christianity, the universe has been created only once and will be destroyed only once, and after its destruction it will be restored to perfection once and for all.[28] Likewise, Islamic mythology has a linear time perspective, running from the creation to the end of the world and the establishment of paradise on heaven. Qur'an 56 describes the end times, the judgment of the dead, and the eternal reward and punishment of saints and sinners—an eschatological mythology similar to the storyline of the Christian Book of Revelation and to some elements in the Jewish Book of Isaiah and Book of Daniel.

Islamic creation belief

Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity the story of a world-creating divine act, spaced out over six periods.[29] The Islamic creation account, like the Hebrew one, involves Adam and Eve as the first parents, living in paradise. As in the Hebrew story, God warns Adam and Eve not to eat fruit from a certain tree, but they do anyway, earning expulsion from Paradise.[30]

The creation narrative of Islam is further developed in many verses in the Qur'an. According to the Qur'an, the skies and the earth were joined together as one "unit of creation", after which they were "cloved asunder".[31] After the parting of both, they simultaneously came into their present shape after going through a phase when they were smoke-like.[32]

Some parts of the Qur'an state that the process of creation took 6 days.[33] While other parts claim that the process took 8 days: 2 days to create the Earth,[34] 4 days to create the mountains, to bless the Earth and to measure its sustenance,[35] and then 2 more days to create the heavens and the stars.[36]

However, the consensus among Muslim scholars is that the process of creation took 6 days, not 8; They claim that the 4 days for creating the mountains, blessing the Earth and measuring its sustenance implicitly include the 2 days for creating the Earth. In light of modern scientific knowledge about the origins of the earth and the universe, many modern interpretations particularly by apologists, prefer to view the word "day" (Arabic: يوم) as used in the Qur'an to mean an arbitrary period of time or epoch; They justify this view by explaining that the usage of the word "day" to mean an arbitrary period of time is not uncommon.[citation needed]

The Qur'an states that God created the world and the cosmos, made all the creatures that walk, swim, crawl, and fly on the face of the earth from water.[31] He made the angels, and the sun, moon and the stars to dwell in the universe. He poured down the rain in torrents, and broke up the soil to bring forth the corn, the grapes and other vegetation; the olive and the palm, the fruit trees and the grass.

God molded clay, earth, sand and water into a model of a man. He breathed life and power into it, and it immediately sprang to life. And this first man was called Adam. God took Adam to live in Paradise. God taught Adam the names of all the creatures, and then commanded all the angels to bow down before Adam. All of them bowed but Iblis (Lucifer) refused to obey.

God placed the couple in a beautiful garden in Paradise, telling them that they could eat whatever they wanted except the fruit of a forbidden tree. But Iblis (the Serpent) tempted them to disobey God, and eat the fruit. When God knew that Adam and Eve had disobeyed him, he cast them out of Paradise and sent them to the earth.

Islam breaks somewhat with Judaism and Christianity in explaining why Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. In the actual Hebrew account in Genesis, a snake tempts them to eat the fruit. Extra-biblical Christian mythology identifies the snake with Satan, but the actual text of the Biblical story does not explicitly make this identification. In contrast, the Quran states explicitly that Shaitan (Satan) tempted Adam and Eve to eat the fruit.[37] In contrast with Judeo-Christian traditions, which sees Satan as a rebelling angel, Islamic tradition identifies Shaitan with a being called Iblis, who is a jinni, a spirit of fire. In Islamic tradition, angels consist of light and never disobey God since they do not have free will.[38] Thus, it is said that angels are incapable of sin. In contrast, God created jinn with free will and they may choose to obey Him or not, similar to the case of the human being. He told them to bow before Adam, but Iblis refused, claiming that his fiery nature was superior to Adam's flesh, which consisted of clay.[39] God cast Iblis out of his paradise, and Iblis vowed to tempt Adam and Eve's generations to corruption and to disobey God.

Contrasts with Jewish and Christian beliefs

Isaac and Ishmael

Like Jewish Hebrews, Muslim Arabs trace their ancestry back to Abraham. Like Jews, Muslims believe that Abraham had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. While Jews see Isaac as the Hebrews' progenitor, the Muslims trace the Arabs back to Ishmael. However, although agreeing with Jews in terms of ancestry, Muslims shift the emphasis from Isaac to Ishmael. According to Muslim tradition, Ishmael helped Abraham build the Kaaba, and Ishmael's descendants (the Arabs) became the Kaaba's guardians. In addition, while the Bible describes Abraham offering his only son, Isaac, as a sacrifice to God (before God stops him), the Qur'an describes the same story, but with Ishmael as the nearly-sacrificed son.[40]

Beings, places and events

The following are unique to Islam:

  • Muhammad - the prophet of Islam.
  • Jinn - creatures of fire; along with angels and humans, one of the three intelligent species created by God
  • Kaaba - the sacred mosque that Muslims visit while on the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). In Islamic mythology, Ibrahim (Abraham) and Ishmael built the Kaaba at God's request, to serve as the earthly counterpart of Jannah (Heaven). Adam built the original earthly Kaaba, but Ibraham and his son had to rebuild it.

The following Islamic subjects have some elements in common with Jewish and Christian traditions:

  • Beings
    • Angels - beings of light that serve as God's messengers; in Islam, these lack free will.
    • Jibril - the archangel Gabriel and Jibril is an archangel who serves as a messenger from God.
    • Azrael - the angel of death.
    • Michael - the angel of nature.
    • Israfel - The angel of doom trumpet
  • Places
    • Garden of Eden - the heavenly Paradise where Adam and Eve lived before their Fall.
    • Barzakh - the state of the souls of the deceased before the Day of Judgment, when they will be assigned to Heaven or to Hell.
    • Jannah - Heaven; the abode of the righteous after the Day of Judgment; contains the Garden of Paradise.
    • Jahannam - Hell; the abode of the wicked after the Day of Judgment.
  • Events
    • Creation - a six-stages creative act by God.
    • Fall of man - the loss of Paradise that resulted from eating the forbidden fruit; like Judaism,[41] and unlike Christianity,[42] Islam does not hold that the Fall made man inherently sinful.[43]
    • Deluge and Noah's (Nuh's) Ark- worldwide flood event with water vessel containing remains of humanity and set of all animals.
    • Qiyamat - the Day of Resurrection (and the reward and punishment of the good and the wicked); a fundamental element of Islamic eschatology that incorporates much from the Jewish and Christian traditions.

See also


  1. ^ Smith, p. 218
  2. ^ See Qur'an 3:78, 4:46, 5:13; "Islam," Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007, Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 15 Dec. 2007. For an Islamic perspective, see Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, "The True Religion", Islam Page.
  3. ^ What is a Myth?
  4. ^ Defining myth
  5. ^ a b c Segal, p. 5
  6. ^ Zong In-Sob
  7. ^ Qur'an 11:7
  8. ^ a b Qur'an 19:16-33
  9. ^ Eliade, Myth and Reality.
  10. ^ Eliade, Myth and Reality, p. 21
  11. ^ Qur'an 57:25
  12. ^ Native American mythology - definitions explained
  13. ^ Zong In-Sob, p. xxi
  14. ^ Smith, pp. 218-27
  15. ^ For some examples of this distinction between "legend" and "myth", see <> and (for the classic distinction drawn by professional folklorists) <>.
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ Smith, p. 218, 230-31
  21. ^ Qur'an 3:78, 4:46, 5:13
  22. ^ Qur'an 17:2
  23. ^ Qur'an 14:35-52
  24. ^ Qur'an 12:7-100
  25. ^ Qur'an 19:30-33
  26. ^ Qur'an 19:35
  27. ^ [1]
  28. ^ Eliade, p. 64-66
  29. ^ Quran 11:7
  30. ^ Qur'an 7:11-25
  31. ^ a b Quran 21:30
  32. ^ Quran 41:11
  33. ^ Quran 11:7
  34. ^ Quran 41:9
  35. ^ Quran 41:10
  36. ^ Quran 41:12
  37. ^ Qur'an 7:20
  38. ^ Muslim belief in Angels
  39. ^ Qur'an 7:11-12
  40. ^ Qur'an 37:99-112. Notice that Isaac (the second son, born after Ishmael) is here described as being born after the attempted sacrifice.
  41. ^ The Jewish view of Jesus
  42. ^ Original Sin - Catholic Encyclopedia
  43. ^ For a discussion of the Islamic opinion about original sin, see here. See also Quran 6:164.


  • Huston Smith. The Religions of Man. NY: Harper & Row (Perennial Library), 1965.
  • Robert A. Segal. Myth: A Very Short Introduction. NY: Oxford UP, 2004.
  • Zong In-Sob. Folk Tales From Korea, Third Edition. Elizabeth: Hollym International, 1982.
  • Mircea Eliade. Myth and Reality. Trans. Willard R. Trask. NY: Harper & Row (Harper Torchbooks), 1968.
  • The Holy Qur'an. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. Available online.

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