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Myth and history

Sacred history in the Qur ) an is grounded

in events that have happened in the past

and in which the sacred is manifested. In

this sense history is mythicized as it

involves aspects of redemptive and sal-

vational history. In the story of Moses,

with the miraculous escape of his people

and the doom of Pharaoh and his forces

(chapter 28, al-Qasas /History), for

instance, the Qur ) anic narrative (like the

biblical one before it) transforms the

migration of Hebrews from Egypt into a

divinely guided exodus. The exodus story

is told with reference not only to histor-

ical occurrences, but also to super-

natural ones that are meant to bring out

a particular lesson in ethics. Furthermore,

the story of Moses and his quest for

knowledge (18.60-82) serves as a para-

ble: during his meeting with the myster-

ious sage (al-Khidr), he gains insights

into events whose meaning/understanding

goes beyond surface appearance. The

Qur ) anic purpose here is to commu-

nicate by means of metaphor and alle-

gory what pertains to supernatural

reality beyond human perception. Simi-

larly, in the Qur ) anic story of Dhul-

Qarnayn (the Two-Horned One) (18.83-

98), the emphasis of which is on faith

and ethics, there is a particular focus on

the problem of worldly power. Dhul-

Qarnayn, who was endowed with both

wordly power and spiritual strength, has

been identified by some Muslim scholars

with Alexander the Great (a rather pro-

blematic identification, given that Alex-

ander was not known for adhering to

monotheism). The Qur ) anic reference to

Ya ) juj and Ma

) juj (Gog and Magog) is

considered to be a reference to the Mon-

gols and Tartars, although purely alle-

gorical meaning cannot be ruled out

altogether. In the latter case, the terms

apply to social catastrophies that would

create a lot of destruction before the com-

ing of the Last Hour. The whole creation drama (in which

Adam and Eve figure as part of an

exploration of human destiny) refers in the

Qur ) anic narrative to a primordial past

beyond historical time. The story has

symbolic meaning intended to express cer-

tain truths about human nature or the

human condition. For instance, after the

fall from grace Adam and Eve became ‘conscious of their nakedness’ (20.118-

119; 7.22), implying that this is an allegory

of the state of innocence in which man

lived before the fall. In that state of inno-

cence man lived, like all other animals,

in the light of his instincts alone; how-

ever, with moral and intellectual devel-

opment and the growth of consciousness – symbolized by the wilful act of dis-

obedience toGod’s command – he became

endowed with the moral free will that dis-

tinguishes him from other sentient beings. The struggle between truth and untruth

(crucial, as we have seen, to Islamic

symbolism) is played out in the human

exercise of free will, which makes humans morally aware of their actions.