In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Some people have claimed Islam obligates a belief that the great flood of Noah, peace be upon him, must have been global in nature. Since the idea of a global flood contradicts many current scientific models of geology, archaeology, and history, some have claimed that one must choose between scientific evidence and Islam.
In reality, Islam does not necessitate the belief that the great flood was ever physically global, nor is it appropriate to infer scientific models from Quranic verses that were never intended to provide scientific facts.
The idea that Muslims must believe in a global flood is based upon two pieces of scriptural evidence: references in the sources and classical heritage that the flood covered “the earth,” and that all of the people living contemporary to Noah (s) had died except for a few.
فَفَتَحْنَا أَبْوَابَ السَّمَاءِ بِمَاءٍ مُّنْهَمِرٍ وَفَجَّرْنَا الْأَرْضَ عُيُونًا فَالْتَقَى الْمَاءُ عَلَىٰ أَمْرٍ قَدْ قُدِرَ
Then We opened the gates of the heaven with rain pouring down and caused the earth to burst with springs, and the waters met for a matter already determined.
Surat al-Qamar 54:11-12
The Arabic word al-ard (usually translated as “the earth”) was not understood to mean “the globe” at the time the Quran was revealed. It meant the earth in the sense of “land” or “soil.” References in the classical literature that the flood covered “the earth” do not necessarily mean the flood covered “the globe,” since the Arabic word could mean land in a regional sense.
The phrase “the waters met” means that rainwater and land-based water combined to cause the great flood, but in what mode or measurement they did so cannot be known for sure.
The second piece of evidence used to support the idea of a global flood is the fact that all the people of the time died in the flood, except for Noah’s (s) descendants.
وَجَعَلْنَا ذُرِّيَّتَهُ هُمُ الْبَاقِينَ
And We made the descendants of Noah remain.
Surat al-Saffat 37:77
Ibn Abbas commented on this verse, saying:
لـم يبق إلا ذريةُ نوح
None remained except the descendants of Noah
And Qatadah said:
فـالناس كلهم من ذرية نوح
Thus, all people are from the descendants of Noah.
Source: Tafsir Tabari 37:77
Like Adam and Eve (as), all people can be traced back to the descendants of Noah (s) because the flood completely wiped out civilization at the time. But the destruction of this very early civilization, which would have resided in a small region of the globe, does not mean that the flood was physically global.
Adam and Eve (as), the first human beings, were only within a few generations of Noah and the flood. Human civilization had been in its infancy, comparatively, and a catastrophic regional flood would have sufficed to wipe it out.
Some scholars have even suggested that the flood could not have been global because Noah (s) was not sent to all humankind, unlike Prophet Muhammad (s).
Ibn ‘Atiyyah writes:
فَلَوْ كَانُوا جَمِيعَ أَهْلِ الْأَرْضِ كَمَا قَالَ بَعْضُ النَّاسِ لَاسْتَوَى نُوحٌ وَمُحَمَّدٌ عَلَيْهِمَا الصَّلَاةُ وَالسَّلَامُ فِي الْبَعْثِ إِلَى أَهْلِ الْأَرْضِ … وَيَتَرَجَّحُ بِهَذَا النَّظَرِ أَنَّ بَعْثَةَ نُوحٍ عَلَيْهِ السَّلَامُ وَالْغَرَقَ إِنَّمَا كَانَ فِي أَهْلِ صُقْعٍ لَا فِي أَهْلِ جَمِيعِ الْأَرْضِ
If it had been everyone on the earth, as some people say, then Noah and Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon them, would be the same in regards to their being sent to the people of earth… It is made weightier by the view that the sending of Noah and the flood were only for the people of one region and not everyone on earth.
Source: al-Muḥarrar al-Wajīz 10:72-73
Moreover, there is no significant archaeological evidence remaining from this event, as the civilization before Noah was completely destroyed. There is also not enough information in the Quran to form any kind of accurate historical timeline or scientific geological model from the fact that the flood occurred. To infer this type of information from the Quran is to guess at matters in the Unseen, just as people used to do about the story of the companions of the Cave.
سَيَقُولُونَ ثَلَاثَةٌ رَّابِعُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ وَيَقُولُونَ خَمْسَةٌ سَادِسُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ رَجْمًا بِالْغَيْبِ ۖ وَيَقُولُونَ سَبْعَةٌ وَثَامِنُهُمْ كَلْبُهُمْ ۚ قُل رَّبِّي أَعْلَمُ بِعِدَّتِهِم مَّا يَعْلَمُهُمْ إِلَّا قَلِيلٌ ۗ فَلَا تُمَارِ فِيهِمْ إِلَّا مِرَاءً ظَاهِرًا وَلَا تَسْتَفْتِ فِيهِم مِّنْهُمْ أَحَدًا
They will say there were three, the fourth of them being their dog. They will say there were five, the sixth of them being their dog, guessing at the Unseen. They will say there were seven, and the eighth of them was their dog. Say: My Lord knows best their number. None knows them except a few, so do not argue about them but with a demonstrable argument and do not inquire about them from anyone.
Surat al-Kahf 18:22
The people of the Book used to argue about the details in the story of the Cave, such as how many persons there were in addition to their dog. Allah blames them for “guessing at the Unseen” by claiming details about them without hard evidence, since any kind of argument must be supported by “demonstrable” (thahir) proof. If we have no direct and explicit proof, we should always say: Allah knows best.
In a similar manner, some Muslims have unwarrantedly interpreted the story of Noah as a physically global flood and then on this basis proposed a conflict between the Quran and scientific understandings, although the scriptural evidence does not require this interpretation. They have tried to challenge scientific models or derive alternatives based upon how they imagine the flood should have happened. All the extraneous details of this story, such as the mode in which the flood manifested, are part of the Unseen and cannot be known by scripture with any degree of certainty.
That being the case, arguments about how the flood occurred detract from one’s appreciation for the essential moral implications of the story, such as the fact that Noah (s) patiently preached to his people for 950 years.
وَلَقَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا نُوحًا إِلَىٰ قَوْمِهِ فَلَبِثَ فِيهِمْ أَلْفَ سَنَةٍ إِلَّا خَمْسِينَ عَامًا فَأَخَذَهُمُ الطُّوفَانُ وَهُمْ ظَالِمُونَ
We had sent Noah to his people and he lived among them a thousand minus fifty years, and the flood seized them while they were wrongdoers.
Surat al-‘Ankabut 29:14
The story of Noah (s) is an incredible example of faith, goodwill, patience, and perseverance. This important lesson is lost when people argue about its alleged details in relation to modern science. The purpose of the verse is not to derive or challenge scientific models; the purpose of the verse is to provide an exemplary religious and moral role model.
Finally, this speaks to a larger point that Allah has deliberately not informed us of some things exactly because they are not our concern. His silence on matters is part of His mercy, so His silence on the physical mode of the flood is an indication that we are not held responsible for knowing it.
Abu Tha’laba reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
وَسَكَتَ عَنْ أَشْيَاءَ رَحْمَةً لَكُمْ غَيْرَ نِسْيَانٍ فَلَا تَبْحَثُوا عَنْهَا
Allah has remained silent upon matters as mercy for you, not out of forgetfulness, so do not search them out.
Source: Sunan al-Dāraquṭnī 4316, Grade: Sahih
Muslims will not be asked on the Day of Judgment “how” the flood occurred, but rather how they responded to the lessons of Noah’s story.
In sum, the dispute over the great flood of Noah (s) is an example of the need for proficiency in religious disciplines, scientific methods, and the correct relationship between them. Religion is based upon the evidence of revelation and science is based upon demonstrable natural evidence, both of which can be interpreted in different ways. Religion and science properly practiced both reveal aspects of the same unified Truth, so any conflict between them is only apparent and not actual. Rather, such conflicts are only due to the potential weakness in one’s understanding of either religion or science.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.