The Islamic Whale

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The Islamic whale (in Arabic الحوت الإسلامي, al-hoot al-islami), is a big whale described in prominent Islamic texts, that supposedly carries the Earth on its back. It is also called Nun (نون), which is also the name of the Arabic letter ن. Two alternative names of the whale are Liwash and Lutiaya.[1] This article analyzes the sources of this Islamic whale hypothesis.

Nun in the Qur'an

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:

نٓ وَٱلْقَلَمِ وَمَا يَسْطُرُونَ
Nun. By the pen and what they inscribe,

Word-by-word translation:

  • نٓ - noon - the name of the whale
  • وَٱلْقَلَمِ - wal-qalam - by the pen (wa- prefix means "and" or "by")
  • وَمَا - wa-ma - and what
  • يَسْطُرُونَ - yasturoona - they write

There is not much information in the Qur'an, but as we'll see, it is necessary to understand the existence of the Islamic whale for understanding other verses of the Qur'an. For example, about mountains being like pegs:

78:6 Have We not made the earth an even expanse?
78:7 And the mountains as pegs?

There is also a verse where Jonah is called "man of the Nun", because he was eaten by a whale[2]:

And [mention] the man of the fish (ٱلنُّونِ, al-noon), when he went off in anger and thought that We would not decree [anything] upon him. And he called out within the darknesses, "There is no deity except You; exalted are You. Indeed, I have been of the wrongdoers."

Nun refers to a whale (الحوت, al-hoot), according to Al-Jalalayn.[3]

Tafsir Ibn Kathir

First, we will quote the whole commentary on the verse 68:1 from the English abridged version of the tafsir Ibn Kathir:

Ibn Kathir, English abridged version, on the verse 68:1

There is nothing, because the translator decided not to translate what he wrote about this verse, although in the Arabic original, Ibn Kathir writes a lot about it.

This is the definition of ن (Nun) in the Arabic tafsir:

نۤ حوت عظيم
  • نۤ - noon - Nun
  • حوت - hoot - whale
  • عظيم - 'azeem - big

Nun is a big whale.

Ibn Kathir tafsir on 68:1 [4]

Hadith from Ibn Abbas, the turjuman ul-Qur'an

The Tafsir Ibn Kathir quotes At-Tabari, who quotes Ibn Abbas, who gave us some details about how the whale was created:

ابن عباس قال: أول ما خلق الله القلم قال: اكتب، قال: وماذا أكتب؟ قال: اكتب القدر، فجرى بما يكون من ذلك اليوم إلى قيام الساعة، ثم خلق النون، ورفع بخار الماء، ففتقت منه السماء، وبسطت الأرض على ظهر النون، فاضطرب النون، فمادت الأرض، فأثبتت بالجبال؛

Ibn Abbas (ابن عباس) said: The first thing Allah created (خلق) was the pen (القلم). He ordered it to write. It said: What shall I write? He said: Write the fate (القدر). So it wrote what will happen from that day (اليوم) until the Day of judgement, then he created the Nun (النون, al-noon), then he raised the water and created the heavens with it and laid the earth (الأرض) on (على) the back (ظهر) of the Nun, the Nun moved and so did the earth, so it was fixed down with mountains (بالجبال).

Ibn Kathir tafsir on 68:1 [5]

Another variation of this hadith:

عن ابنِ عباسٍ قال أولُ شيءٍ خلق اللهُ تعالى القلمُ فقال له اكتب فكتب ما هو كائنٌ إلى أن تقومَ الساعةُ ثم خلق النون فوق الماءِ ثم كبس الأرضَ عليه

From Ibn Abbas (ابنِ عباسٍ), who said: The first thing Allah (اللهُ) created was the pen (القلمُ), so he told it: "Write!" (اكتب) And it wrote what will happen until the Hour (Day of Judgement), then he created the Nun (النون) above (فوق) water (الماءِ), then He pressed (كبس) the Earth (الأرضَ) on it (عليه).

تاريخ الطبري (Tarikh At-Tabari) [6]

The hadith (narration) by Ibn Abbas (collected by At-Tabari) is considered صحيح (sahih)[6], which means authentic narration. All Muslims should believe in sahih hadiths. And they should especially believe in hadiths where Ibn Abbas explains Qur'anic verses, because Muhammad made du'a for Ibn Abbas, so that Allah teaches him the interpretation of the Qur'an. Ibn Abbas was also called turjuman ul-Qur'an (ترجمان القرآن), because he had deep knowledge about the interpretation (tarjama) of the revelations.

Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas (raa): The Prophet (saws) embraced me and said, “O Allah! Teach him (the knowledge of) the Book (Quran).”

His narration also explains why mountains are described as pegs in the Qur'an. It is because the earth would move on the back of the whale without the pegs that hold it[7]:

78:6 Have We not made the earth an even expanse?
78:7 And the mountains as pegs?

It also explains why Allah's throne is "on water" (because Allah created the heavens out of water):

And it is He who created the heavens and the earth in six days - and His Throne had been upon water

Tafsir At-Tabari

The most respected Sunni tafsir is probably that of At-Tabari. Unfortunately, it is not translated into English yet. Here is just his interpretation of the Nun in the verse 68:1.

هو الحوت الذي عليه الأرَضُون

It is (هو) a whale (الحوت), which (الذي) on it (عليه) the Earths (الأرَضُون).

At-Tabari tafsir on 68:1 [8]

In Islam there are seven flat Earths, just like there are seven heavens:

Allah is He Who created seven heavens, and of the earth the like of them

They are placed on the whale like pancakes.

ِTafsir Al-Qurtubi

Another very respected tafsir of Al-Qurtubi is of the same opinion. The whale is under the 7th (lowest) Earth:

نۤ> الحوت الذي تحت الأرض السابعة>
<Nun> - the whale (الحوت), which is (الذي) under (تحت) the Earth (الأرض) the seventh (السابعة).

Tafsir Al-Qurtubi on 68:1 [9]

If Qurtubi knew that Earth is round and considered Earths to be layers of Earth and the whale is inside the globe, he would use the word "inside", not "under". And a whale inside the Earth doesn't really make sense anyway, so Al-Qurtubi obviously considered the Earth to be flat.

ِTafsir Al-Kabir (by Ar-Razi)

بالحوت الذي على ظهره الأرض وهو في بحر تحت الأرض السفلى

..with the whale (بالحوت) which over its back (ظهره) is the Earth (الأرض) and it is in the sea (بحر) under (تحت) the Earth (الأرض) the lowest (السفلى).

Tafsir Al-Kabir on 68:1[10]

Again, we see that there are multiple flat Earths, under them is the whale and under the whale is the sea (ocean). The whale swims in the sea with the Earths attached to its back.

ِTafsir Fath Al-Qadir (by Shawkani)

This tafsir is from the 18th century:

هو الحوت الذي يحمل الأرض

It is a whale which carries the Earth.

Fath Al-Qadir on 68:1[11]

Hadith Al-Kafi (shia)

We can also read about the Islamic whale from the Shia hadiths. This narration explains the connection between the whale and earthquakes:

H 14813 – From him, from Salih, from one of his companions, from Abdul Samad Bin Basheer, who has reported the following: Abu Abdullah (asws) has said that: ‘The whale which is carrying the earth secretly said to itself that it is carrying the earth by its own strength. So Allah (azwj) the High Sent to it a fish smaller than a palm’s length, and larger than a finger. So it entered in its gills and shocked it. It remained like that for forty days. Then Allah (azwj) Raised it and was Merciful to it, and Took it out. So whenever Allah (azwj) Intends the earth to be in a quake, He (azwj) Sends that (small) fish to that (big) fish. So when it sees it, it becomes restless, so the earth gets engulfed by the earthquake’.
Al-Kafi, vol. 8, part 6, [12]

Tafsir Al-Tusi (shia)

The first comprehensive Shia tafsir[13] says this about the Nun:

وقال ابن عباس - فى رواية عنه - إن النون الحوت الذى عليه الارضون

And said Ibn Abbas (ابن عباس) - in his narration - that Nun (النون) is a whale (الحوت) which on it are the Earths (الارضون).
Al-Tibbyan by Al-Tusi on 68:1 [14]

As we see, Ibn Abbas and his narration is deeply respected by both sunni and shia Muslims.


There is no scientific evidence suggesting that there is a big whale carrying the Earth on its back. We know today because of overwhelming evidence that the earth is round, or specifically oblate spheroid (there are no seven flat earths stacked one below the other). We also know that the earth is floating in space and is held in its orbit because of the gravitational force of the sun. There are no gigantic animals holding the earth as the tafsirs and hadith claim.

Also, mountains are not like pegs. For example volcanic mountains could be considered the opposite of pegs, because they have a flowing lava in the middle. The flowing lava with its high temperature cannot attach the Earth to a big whale.

Other interpretations of Nun

Although the turjuman ul-Qur'an Ibn Abbas explained that Nun is the whale which carries the Earth(s) on its back, there are also non-whale interpretations of Nun.

"ن is a letter of the alphabet"

ن ("n") is a letter of the Arabic alphabet called نون (Nun).

  • This doesn't explain the verse at all. If anything, it would mean that Allah puts random letters into his revelation for mankind, for no reason.
  • Muhammad was illiterate and he did not write the revelations. He recited them. "Qur'an" means recitation. Maybe it was not just the letter ن ("n"), but the whole name نون ("nun"). It's just a matter of writing it. So maybe it was not meant to be a letter of the alphabet at all. Maybe it was the three-letter word N-u-n.
  • The verse 68:1 "نٓ وَٱلْقَلَمِ وَمَا يَسْطُرُونَ" could be translated as "Nun and the pen and what they write", since و usually means "and". It seems that Allah is enumerating 3 things (and enumeration usually donesn't mix things and letters):
    • Nun (ن or نون)
    • and (و) the pen (ٱلْقَلَمِ)
    • and (و) what (مَا)
    • they write (يَسْطُرُونَ)

"N" in "Ar-Rahmaan"

The word الرحمن, Ar-Rahman, "the gracious" is one of the names of Allah. The 13th sura starts with three letters الر, a few suras start with the letters حم. It we put together الر + حم + ن, we get الرحمن.

  • The word Ar-Rahman is nowadays actually written as الرحمان, but in the old Uthmani script it was written without the ا (alif) before the ن. It was added later, to indicate the "aa" vowel.
  • A lot of verses start on other letters and putting them together doesn't produce any interesting word. So choosing just three of them and getting an interesting word could be considered a cherry-picking.

Nun means "ink"

The verse 68:1 would mean "The ink and the pen and that which they write".

  • The Qur'an used the word مِدَادًا (midaadan) for "ink" in the verse 18:109, while it used the word نون (nun) to mean "whale" in the verse 21:87. So it is more probable, that the meaning of nun here is "whale".
  • According to this interpretation, this refers to the ink with which the Qur'an was written. Which is not very fitting, since the primary form of the Qu'ran is recitation. The word "Qur'an" itself means "recitation".

"Allah knows best"

"Allah knows best", in other words "the author knows what he meant", is not an interpretation at all. "Allah knows best" could be said about all Qur'anic verses. In fact, there could be a whole tafsir saying only "Allah knows best" to every verse. But it would be useless, because "Allah knows best" doesn't explain the meaning at all.


Some Muslims, who consider the whale hypothesis to be false [15] are embarrassed that this is a part of their religion and try to put forward arguments to prove that it is in fact not a part of their religion.

It's not in the Qur'an

This is questionable. Nun is mentioned in the Qur'an 68:1 and it was used in another verse 21:87 to mean "whale". It is not clearly stated in the Qur'an that Nun is the whale which carries the Earth on its back, but the Qur'an speaks about mountains being like pegs, which supports the "whale cosmology". If there is no whale under the Earth, then there is no reason for mountains to function as pegs.

Also when something is not in the Qur'an, then it doesn't mean it's not a part of Islam. The "5 pillars of Islam" are also not described in the Qur'an and they are considered to be a part of Islam. Islam (or at least the mainstream Islam) is derived from the Qur'an, hadith and sira.

The hadith is mawqoof

When a hadith (narration) is called mawqoof, it means that it is not a quote originally from Muhammad himself, but it is from someone from the Sahaba (his companions). In this case Ibn Abbas.

There is a fatwa which says that a mawqoof hadith can be used as evidence if nobody protested against it:

As for taking it as evidence, it means that we have to act according to it and consider it a source of evidence of the Islamic religion. Scholars have ten different opinions regarding that issue. The nearest of them to correctness is that if the opinion of the companion spread widely and no one went against it, then it is a source of evidence and a consensus by silence. However, if it did not spread or some other companions went against it, then it is not a source of evidence, but can be used as secondary evidence.
Fatwa 217021 [16]

The whale interpretation spread widely among the scholars and none of them discredited this story in any way.

Only the early scholars believed it

As we've seen, the scholar Shawkani, who was born more than a thousand years after Muhammad's death, still wrote about the whale. So it's not just a matter of the early scholars.

  • About a century later after Shawkani wrote about the flat Earth on the back of a giant whale, non-Muslims from Russia managed to escape the round Earth and land on the Moon.

It's from the Jews

Neither the Torah nor the Talmud talk about a whale, which carries the earth on its back. So this idea is not derived from Judaism. It was also said that Ibn Abbas probably learned it from Ka‘b al-Ahbar, who was an ex-Jew Muslim. A respected sunni scholar Ibn Hajar said this about Ka‘b al-Ahbar:

Ka`b Ibn Mati` al-Himyari, Abu Ishaq, known as Ka`b al-Ahbar, is trustworthy.
Ibn Hajar Asqalani, Taqrib al-Tahdhib, Op Cit., p. 135.

So "It's probably from al-Ahbar" is just an unsuccessful ad-hominem.

Ibn Abbas narrated it from Jews, but didn't believe it

There is a hadith telling Muslims to tell the stories of the people of Israel:

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 Bani 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."

This hadith doesn't clearly say that Muslims should take the stories from the Jews. In the phrase "of Bani Israel" (عَنْ بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ), the word عن could mean both "from" and "about". And the beginning of the hadith says literally "convey from me" (بلغوا عني), so it looks more likely that it should be stories about Jews, but from Islamic sources.

We can read in a commentary on this hadith in Fath ul-Bari:

وقيل المعنى حدثوا عنهم بمثل ما ورد في القرآن والحديث الصحيح

And it is said that it means relating traditions about them found in the Qur'an and authentic hadith.

Ibn Hajar Al Asqalani, Fathul Bari, Kitab: Ahaadeeth Al 'Anbiyaa', Bab: Ma Thakr 'an Bani Israel [17]

So the claim that Muslims should spread narrations from Jews is not supported by the hadith.

The hadith is often combined by apologists with another hadith from Sahih Al-Bukhari, from the chapter “Do not ask the people of the Scripture about anything.” (The name of the chapter says it clearly, but apologists still think that the hadiths in this chapter support telling false stories from Jews):

Narrated Abu Huraira:

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.' "

Sahih Bukhari 9:92:460, book 96, chapter "Do not ask the people of the Scripture about anything"

This hadith doesn't say that Muslims should spread the Jewish stories. The most likely interpretation is that Muslims should ignore the Jews, because some of the Jewish stories is right, some is wrong, but the only truth is from Muhammad.

Telling lies from Jews is forbidden, according to Imam Shafii:

من المعلوم أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم لا يجيز التحدث بالكذب ، فالمعنى حدثوا عن بني إسرائيل بما لا تعلمون كذبه ، وأما ما تجوزونه فلا حرج عليكم في التحدث به عنهم [ ص: 576 ] وهو نظير قوله : إذا حدثكم أهل الكتاب فلا تصدقوهم ولا تكذبوهم ولم يرد الإذن ولا المنع من التحدث بما يقطع بصدقه 

It is known that the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not permit speaking lies when he said "relate traditions from the children of Israel", thus it is meant that you relate traditions that you know not to be lies and whatever you find to be compliant with your beliefs then there is no harm narrating those traditions from them. This is in obedience to the Prophet's statement "Do not believe the people of the Scripture or disbelieve them." He did not recommend nor prohibit relating those traditions that are known to not be lies.

Ibn Hajar Al Asqalani, Fathul Bari, Kitab: Ahaadeeth Al 'Anbiyaa', Bab: Ma Thakr 'an Bani Israel [18]

And finally a quote from Ibn Abbas himself, also from the chapter “Do not ask the people of the Scripture about anything.”. Did he support taking interpretations of the Quran from the Jews? Let's see:

Narrated Ubaidullah:

Ibn `Abbas said, "Why do you ask the people of the scripture about anything while your Book (Qur'an) which has been revealed to Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) is newer and the latest? You read it pure, undistorted and unchanged, and Allah has told you that the people of the scripture (Jews and Christians) changed their scripture and distorted it, and wrote the scripture with their own hands and said, 'It is from Allah,' to sell it for a little gain. Does not the knowledge which has come to you prevent you from asking them about anything? No, by Allah, we have never seen any man from them asking you regarding what has been revealed to you!"

Sahih Bukhari 9:92:460, book 96, chapter "Do not ask the people of the Scripture about anything"

Scholars can be wrong

Everyone can be wrong. For example Muhammad could have been wrong when he assumed he is a prophet and Muslims can be wrong by believing in Islam. Since everyone can be wrong and this argument could be used against both sides, it is not a valid argument for any side.

This is also an act of shooting the messenger, an ad hominem fallacy. Muslims have traditionally regarded Islamic scholars as expert authorities on all religious matters. In fact, Islam split into many schools of law (madhhabs) over the centuries because each school considered specific scholars as the sole authorities. If Muslims now want to discredit their own scholars because of such embarrassing claims, they are putting the entire Islamic argument—that Islam is the only true religion, it is perfect and it is from God—on shaky ground. One may wonder, "What is the real history of Islam and what are the correct Islamic laws if the scholars are dismissed by their own followers? Were they all liars or fabricators? And why?"

Allah is never wrong

This doesn't mean that he didn't mean the whale which carries the Earth on its back. Maybe the Earth actually is attached to a big whale's back with mountains and all evidence against it is the work of Shaytan who tries to lead people to disbelief?

Also if the only one to be trusted is Allah, then we cannot trust the Qur'an, because it wasn't passed to us directly from him, but through many generations of fallible humans.

Belief in Islam has the prerequisite of belief in the people who passed its doctrine.


  • Nun definitely means "whale", because Jonah (who was eaten by a whale) was called "man of the Nun".
  • The turjuman ul-Qur'an Ibn Abbas, along with the most respected Islamic scholars, both sunni and shia, agree that Nun in the verse 68:1 refers to the whale which carries the Earth on its back.
  • The Earth is supossedly attached to the whale with mountains. The mountains function as pegs.
    • So the Islamic whale also helps to explain the verse 78:7 about mountains being "pegs".
  • The scholars who based their knowledge on reading the Arabic Qur'an and hadiths believed that the Earth is flat and it is attached with mountains (as pegs) to a big whale.

See Also

Apologetics and responses:

  • Zaify's article “The Islamic Whale” - debunked
    • "The argument attempts to prove that the Qur’an implies the Earth is carried on the back of a whale."
      • No, the main point is that Muslims understood it that way.
    • "...the matter at hand is a narration from Ibn Abbas rather than a direct claim made by a mufassir."
      • Ibn Abbas IS a mufassir.
    • "Ijtihad means independent reasoning."
      • The Quran and the hadiths are the basis for reasoning of a Muslim. In Islam the Earth is flat. So within this ideology, it IS reasonable to expect something to hold the Earth.
    • " example where Ibn Abbas narrates contradicting Isra’iliyat reports regarding the dimensions of Noah’s Ark..."
      • Why he didn't say both versions in both narrations? It seems more likely that he narrated one version, but one of the hadith was corrupted.
    • "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."
      • But this is about the interpretation of the Quran and Muhammad made dua for Ibn Abbas, so that he can know the correct interpretation. Did the dua not work? And if it worked, why Ibn Abbas didn't oppose The Islamic Whale hypothesis if it was a wrong interpretation?
    • "Nun (ن), is known in Arabic as one of the muqatta’at... their meaning is only known to Allah."
      • So how can you be sure that it doesn't mean whale?
    • "The spelling of the two Nuns are different; they are only similar in pronounciation."
      • No. They are exactly the same in pronunciation. The letter ن ("n") standing by itself is read as نون ("nun").
    • "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."
      • But we do NOT have ن and نون written differently by Muhammad or Ibn Abbas and then claiming that these differently spelled words have the same meaning. It was transmitted orally and it was pronounced "nun" in both cases. And how some people, dozens of years later, chose to write these orally transmitted traditions, is irrelevant.


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  1. Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs: "And from his narration on the authority of Ibn 'Abbas that he said regarding the interpretation of Allah's saying (Nun): '(Nun) He says: Allah swears by the Nun, which is the whale that carries the earths on its back while in Water, and beneath which is the Bull and under the Bull is the Rock and under the Rock is the Dust and none knows what is under the Dust save Allah. The name of the whale is Liwash, and it is said its name is Lutiaya'; the name of the bull is Bahamut, and some say its name is Talhut or Liyona. The whale is in a sea called 'Adwad, and it is like a small bull in a huge sea. The sea is in a hollowed rock whereby there is 4,000 cracks, and from each crack water springs out to the earth. It is also said that Nun is one of the names of the Lord; it stands for the letter Nun in Allah's name al-Rahman (the Beneficent); and it is also said that a Nun is an inkwell. (By the pen) Allah swore by the pen. This pen is made of light and its height is equal to the distance between Heaven and earth. It is with this pen that the Wise Remembrance, i.e. the Guarded Tablet, was written. It is also said that the pen is one of the angels by whom Allah has sworn, (and that which they write (therewith)) and Allah also swore by what the angels write down of the works of the children of Adam"
  3. Al-Jalalayn on 21:87
    • ذَا ٱلنُّونِ } صاحب الحوت}
    • {Man of the fish} companion of the whale (الحوت, al-hoot)
  6. 6.0 6.1
  7. That is also supported by the tafsir Al-Jalalayn on the verse 78:7 "and the mountains pegs? with which the earth is tied down like tents are tied down with pegs the interrogative is meant as an affirmative."
  12. Page 45. Kitab al-Kafi. Archived at [1].