The vessel built by the Prophet Nūḥ—upon him peace—as Divinely instructed and on which he and believing members of his family and community embarked, together with pairs (Q 11:40) of the species Allah intended to save from a great flood that destroyed everything else. The Qurʾān uses three words to refer to the Ark, all of which mean “ship”: fulk (seven times, in Q 7:64; 10:73; 11:37-38; 23:27-28; 26:119), safīna (once, in Q 29:15), and jāriya (once, in Q 69:11, pl. jawārī, cf. Q 42:32 and 55:24), respectively from the stems f-l-k which denotes circularity (dawarān), “whence a ship is called fulk, because it circles in the water with the greatest ease” (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:164); s-f-n “which denotes peeling, because it is as if a ship (safīna) peels the water (tasfinu al-māʾ)” (Ibn Durayd, Jamhara, sub s-f-n); and j-r-y, which denotes “rapid flow” (Rāghib, Mufradāt, sub j-r-y). A fourth expression alludes to the ark as a thing of planks and nails (dhāti alwāḥin wa-dusur) (Q 54:13) (see Ships, Boats, and Sailing).
Building of the Ark
“The vast majority concur that the ark resembled today’s ships, similar to a bird’s thorax (juʾjuʾ al-ṭāʾir). According to some books it was square-shaped, tall toward the sky, large-bottomed, narrow-topped, with an open roof for ventilation and breathing, as its purpose was only to keep [the occupants] safe until all the water had come down, not to sail toward any specific destination; yet it had a course and a mooring, and Allah knows best how, and everything is possible” (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar, sub Q 54:13).
As for the design of the ark, the commentaries convey from Ibn ʿAbbās (3BH-68/619-688), al-Kalbī (d. 146/763), Qatāda (d. 117/735), and ʿIkrima (d. 107/725), as did the Israelite sources before them, the dimensions of a three-storeyed teak structure 300 cubits in length, 50 in width, and 30 in height—“corresponding approximately to 440×73×44 feet and yielding a displacement of about 43,000 tons” (Encyclopaedia Judaica 2:469)—which Nūḥ took two years to build. The first floor housed wild and domesticated animals; the second human beings, namely Nūḥ, his wife, their three sons Sām, Ḥām, and Yāfith, and other men and women, totalling between eight and seventy-eight; and the third birds (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Zamakhsharī, Qurṭubī, Bayḍāwī, Ibn Kathīr, sub Q 11:40)—all of which details al-Ālūsī (1217-1270/1802-1854) mentions only to denounce them as superfluous, unreliable, and unsupported by the science of exegesis, which must be based upon the Qurʾān and the authentic Sunna (Rūḥ, sub Q 11:38).
The story is told in the following verses of Sūrat Hūd:
And he was building the ship (fulk), and every time the chieftains of his people passed him they mocked him. He said: “You may mock us, yet we shall indeed mock you just as you mock us now, and you shall know to whom a confounding punishment will come, and upon whom a lasting doom will fall.” Until, when Our command came, and the earth’s surface (tannūr) was flooded, We said, “Embark in it two of every kind, and your family—except for him against whom the word has already been spoken—and whosoever believes.” And there were but few besides him who believed. And he said: “Embark therein! In the name of Allah be its course and its mooring. Truly my Lord is Forgiving, Merciful.” So it ran, carrying them amid waves like mountains; and Nūḥ called to his son, who was standing apart, “Embark with us, my son, and be not with the unbelievers!” He said, “I will take refuge in a mountain, that shall save me from the water.” He replied, “Today there is no savior from Allah’s command but for him on whom He has mercy!” And the waves came between them, and he was among those drowned. And it was said, “Earth, swallow your waters! Heaven, abate!” And the waters subsided, the affair was accomplished, and the ark settled on [Mount] Jūdiyy, and it was said, “Away with the evildoing folk!” (Q 11:38-44)
The last verse is a particularly striking instance of the inimitable Qurʾānic diction as Ibn Abī al-Iṣbaʿ al-Qayrawānī (d. 654/1256) found “no less than twenty tropes of rhetoric in a verse of only seventeen words” in his Badīʿ al-Qurʾān (cf. Suyūṭī, Itqān, Type 58, Fī badāʾiʿ al-Qurʾān; Ālūsī, Rūḥ, sub Q 11:44), and is therefore highlighted in books of exegesis and stylistics.
The Ark as a Universal Sign
The Qurʾān thrice states that the Ark of the Flood was a universal Divine sign:
Then We saved him and those on the ship, and We made it a great sign for the worlds (Q 29:15), “‘it’ meaning the ship of Nūḥ” (Tafsīrs of Baghawī, Samarqandī, Ālūsī, Ibn ʿĀshūr, and Shinqīṭī; others gloss it as “the ark, or the cataclysm, or the account”: cf. Tafsīrs of Zamakhsharī, Qurṭubī, Ibn ʿAjība);
And verily We left it as a token; but is there any that takes heed? (Q 54:15);
Truly when the waters rose We carried you upon the ship that We might make it a memorial for you, and that remembering ears [that heard the story] might remember (Q 69:11-12): “To make the rescuing of the believers and the drowning of the unbelievers a memorial: that is, a lesson and an indication of the power of the Creator, His wisdom, His absolute domination, and His mercy” (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr).
Abū Ḥayyān (d. 745/1344) said: “The great sign is the fact that Allah Most High saved those aboard the ark in their time of need, and that it remained preserved for years; people would pass and witness it, so that they reached certitude about it, hence His saying for the worlds” (Baḥr, sub Q 29:15). The first-century ce Jewish historian Josephus mentioned it as a visitation site in Armenia in the third chapter of his Antiquities of the Jews, and Abū al-Layth al-Samarqandī (d. 373/983) asserts that the ark was preserved through to the advent of Islam (Baḥr; cf. Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Tafsīr). Al-Masʿūdī (d. 346/957) asserted that the ark’s landing-place was still visible in his time at the summit of the Jūdiyy, “a mountain in the lands of Bāsūrā and Jazīrat Ibn ʿUmar in the lands of Mosul, eight parasangs away from the Tigris” (Murūj al-dhahab 1:40) (see section below). The Persian traveller Nāṣir-i Khusraw (394-481/1003-1088) reported that when he visited Makka from Rajab until after Ḥajj in the year 442/1050, all but the Black Stone corner of the inside corners of the Kaʿba were “each adorned with two planks of the Ark of Nūḥ affixed with nails of silver, each plank five cubits long and one cubit wide” (Safarnāma p. 147).
Al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) explained the great sign as follows:
There are two possible explanations for the pronoun it (hā) in We made it (jaʿalnāhā) [in the verse We made it a great sign for the worlds (Q 29:15)]. The first is that it refers to the ship that was mentioned, since there are several aspects in which it constitutes a sign: (i) it was made before the appearance of water, and had Allah Most High not instructed Nūḥ and his sons to make it, they would not have turned to it and would not subsequently have been saved; (ii) Nūḥ was ordered to take certain people on board and stock a certain amount of provisions, although no one would have expected a huge sea to subside; but the water receded before the provisions ended, otherwise there would have been no salvation—so the latter is due to Allah and not to the ship; (iii) Allah Most High decreed that the ship should be safe from earth-shaking winds and harmful animals, for otherwise there would have been no salvation. The second explanation is that the pronoun refers to the event or the salvation, in the sense that “We made the event—or the salvation—a great sign for the worlds.”
Tafsīr, sub Q 29:15
The destruction of the unbelievers by water also occurs in historical times with the drowning of Pharaoh (see Firʿawn) and his armies, who were also surrounded by mountain-like waves (Q 26:63; Shinqīṭī, Aḍwāʾ, sub Q 11:42).
The Ark as Archetype
The Ark signifies the Divinely-inspired, man-made divide between safety and destruction as well as the Divine conduct of human history, whereby Allah Most High controls events in the course of the world from its most momentous episodes to details such as the design and construction of the ship, the choice of those to be on board, and the precise moment of embarkation. The verses repeat that We carried him/them (Q 17:3; 19:58; 54:13; cf. Q 36:41 and 69:12) to stress that it is Allah Most High that did the carrying and not the ship. The Ark is further referred to as a thing of planks and nails (dhāti alwāḥin wa-dusur) (Q 54:13), a figure of concision and synecdoche reducing the whole to a subset of its vital parts (Tafsīrs of Nasafī, Abū Ḥayyān, and Ibn ʿAjība, sub Q 54:13) to suggest the frailest of assemblages and the impossibility of surviving a cataclysm were it not for Divine power, “as its disintegration would have been the easiest thing, but by the grace of Allah it did not befall” (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 54:13).
The quadruple mention of mockery (s-kh-r) in the verse quoted above (Q 11:38) echoes the frequent Qurʾānic mention of the unbelievers’ scoffing demeanor (cf. Q 2:212; 6:10; 9:79; 21:41). This theme serves to contrast those who view time and history superficially and fail to grasp deeper moral meanings from life and history, with those who take a long-range and profound view of existence beyond the confines of historical time. It is a contrast that brings into focus the two constantly opposing attitudes of men through history: one denying all transcendental dimensions (ghaybiyyāt, see Manifest and Hidden), the other affirming their reality beyond the material world and the fact that they are ultimately destined to unfold for all to see.
The Prophet Nūḥ—upon him peace—prayed for those who boarded his ship, and he called the latter his home: “My Lord! Forgive me and my parents and him who enters my house believing, and believing men and believing women; and increase not the wrongdoers in anything but ruin” (Q 71:28); thus my house (baytī) here means “my ship” (Tafsīrs of Samʿānī and Samarqandī, sub Q 71:28; Zabīdī, Tāj, sub b-y-t), one of the fifteen meanings of the polysemic bayt in the Qurʾān (Fayrūzābādī, Baṣāʾir 2:196-197) (see Abode). It is in this respect that Nūḥ’s son was prevented from boarding it, and Allah Most High said to His supplicating Prophet: He is not from your family: he is an unrighteous deed (innahu ʿamalun ghayru ṣāliḥin) (Q 11:46), in the sense that his record was that of an unbeliever who cannot be admitted to the fold of Divine safety, “willful unbelief being a corrupt act of the heart whence issues no good work that Allah will consider: he whose heart and belief become corrupt, his entire being becomes corrupt” (Ḥabannaka, Maʿārij al-tafakkur, sub Q 11:46). The minority canonical reading (q.v.) has He is not your son: he has wrought unrighteousness (innahu ʿamila ghayra ṣāliḥin) (al-Khaṭīb, Muʿjam al-qirāʾāt 4:67-68). The incident also illustrates, like the perdition of the wives of Nūḥ and Lūṭ(Q 66:10; cf. 7:83; 15:60; 26:171; 27:57; 29:32-33; 37:135), that the guarantee of safety here and hereafter rests not with family ties—even with the most righteous servants of Allah—but with obedience, surrender, and following.
The Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—also used the imagery of the ark in his hadiths (i) when he praised his freedman who was heaving the belongings of the fatigued Companions on a trip, and dubbed him Safīna (“Today you are none other than a ship,” Aḥmad 36:250-254 §§21921, 21924, 21925), by which name the latter was known ever after; and (ii) as a symbol of next-worldly safety:
Truly the People of my House among you resemble the Ark of Nūḥ: whoever boards it is safe and whoever stays away from it drowns; and truly the People of my House among you resemble the Gate of Forgiveness (bāb ḥiṭṭa, cf. Q 2:58 and 7:161).
al-Bazzār, Musnad; cf. al-Haythamī, Kashf al-astār 3:222 §2614; one of eight weak chains that strengthen one another and so convey authenticity according to al-Sakhāwī, Istijlāb 2:479-484 §213-220
The Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—himself was described as figuratively boarding the ark within Nūḥ’s loins after having rested in Ādam’s in the famous verses of his paternal uncle al-ʿAbbās b. ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib (Ibn al-Jawzī declares its attribution unquestionable in al-Mawḍūʿāt 2:8):
Before [your birth] you were blessed in the shades [of Paradise]
and the repository (Eden) where leaves were used for garments.
Then you alighted upon earth, neither a human being
nor a piece of flesh nor clot,
but as a drop that boarded the Ark
when the flood destroyed Nasr and the rest of the idols,
transported from loins to wombs
in the succession of worlds and centuries.
Ḥākim, Mustadrak 3:327; Abu Nuʿaym, Ḥilya 1:364; Ibn Kathīr, Sīra 4:51
The Qurʾān more than once confirms this antediluvian genealogy in universal terms: Truly when the waters rose We carried you upon the ship, “during the Flood, that is, your ancestors as you were in their loins, on board the ark of Nūḥ—upon him peace” (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr, sub Q 69:11), and a token unto them is that We bore their offspring in the laden ship, “that is, their ancestors on Nūḥ’s ship, as the term ‘offspring’ (dhurriyya) is used for forefathers just as it is used for descendants” (al-Wāḥidī, al-Wasīṭ, sub Q 36:41); as does the interpretation of the verse your translation among the worshippers (wa-taqallubaka fī-l-sājidīn) (Q 26:218-219) as “your descent from the loins of a Prophet to those of another Prophet,” authentically related from Ibn ʿAbbās (al-Bazzār, al-Ṭabarānī, and al-Ḥākim with a sound chain according to Haythamī, Majmaʿ 7:86 and 8:214).
Imam Mālik (93-179/712-795) translated the above archetype into contemporary terms for all times to come in his famous statement: “The Prophetic Sunna is the Ark of Nūḥ—upon him peace. Whoever boards it is saved, and whoever stands aloof perishes” (Khaṭīb, Tārīkh 8:308-309 §3803, sub al-Ḥasan b. Abī Ṭayba).
Mount Jūdiyy’s Location
Al-Jūdiyy was said to be “a mountain in Mosul, or Syria, or Āmul,” the latter being on the shores of the Caspian Sea (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr, sub Q 11:44), “no doubt one of the peaks of Ararat as in Genesis 8:4” according to Muḥammad Ḥamīdullāh (1326-1423/1908-2002) (Saint Coran: Traduction, sub Q 11:44). Muhammad Asad (1318-1412/1900-1992) cites an Orientalist source identifying al-Jūdiyy as a “mountain known in ancient Syriac as Qardu, situated in the region of Lake Van, almost twenty-five miles north-east of the town of Jazīrat Ibn ʿUmar, capital of the modern Syrian district of al-Jazīra. It owes its fame to the Mesopotamian tradition which identifies it, and not Mount Ararat, as the mountain on which Nūḥ’s ark rested.” The translator adds:
We should, however, remember that the designation Ararat (the Assyrian Urartu) at one time included the whole area to the south of Lake Van, in which Jabal Jūdī is situated: this might explain the Biblical statement that “the ark rested... upon the mountains of Ararat” (Genesis viii, 4).
Asad, Message p. 360 n. 66, sub Q 11:64
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