Stories have the power to grip the imagination. Uniquely mankind has been gifted in this regard. The truly enduring stories or tales are those that are unhindered by the onset of time, often becoming readily familiar as part of popular culture.
Perhaps it is an essential feature of the human psyche that tales of long ago can often deeply resonate within us, especially when they deal with elements of the human condition, moving us to focus upon a different time, reaching far beyond our own temporal present.
Ever since the narrative was presented by the Greek philosopher Plato (429/347 BCE), the story of the lost civilisation of Atlantis is one such story that continues to enchant and intrigue all those who encounter it. To this day, Plato’s account in the dialogues of the Timaeus and Critias is the only surviving literary reference to Atlantis. That has led many to argue that the tale recounted by Plato is set out either an allegorical tale, or in extremis, a complete fiction borne of his imagination.
Caution though should always be exercised before completely dismissing this narrative altogether. Similar was previously said regarding the city of Troy, famous because of the story of the Trojan horse in Homer’s Iliad. Rather than simply being a figment of Homer’s grand literary prowess, the ancient city of Troy was discovered in the mid-nineteenth century and excavation work continued upon it for over a hundred years.
Other similar discoveries should always caution a dismissive reaction, particularly where they may challenge pre-existing thoughts regarding the development of humanity. The discovery of Göbekli Tepe, the site in southern Turkey that has been dated at being over 11,000 years and that of the largely unknown city of Ebla southwest of Aleppo in Syria are notable examples.
Ebla acquired some significance amongst Muslim activists after the discovery in the 1970s of the Ebla Archives by an Italian archaeological expedition. Work quickly began upon the voluminous collection of cuneiform tablets and it was assumed that the name Irum found in one such tablet was the same city of Iram as mentioned in the Qur’ān. A review of the existing evidence by the Foundation is due to be posted soon.
Fundamentally the approach to knowledge must always be done impartially with a critical but open mind. Arrogance always has the propensity to blind. Clinging stubbornly to prejudice rather than diligently pursuing evidence while always maintaining the willingness to admit error and stand to be corrected is a far more reasonable, but admittedly difficult approach.
Although Plato’s channel of transmission wouldn’t meet the stringent criteria established by the sciences of ḥadith, that should not be cause to dismiss the matter in totality, since this isn’t a matter that anyone is seeking to derive or establish matters of Deen upon.
In the dialogue of the Timaeus, Critias is asked by Socrates to attest to whether this is factually based, rather than merely legend. Plato has Critias recount that the story had been passed down through his family, ultimately originating from Solon (640/560 BCE), the famed lawmaker of Athens who in turn was informed of the story by priests during his visit to Egypt. They dated Atlantis to a period deep in pre-history, 9,000 years earlier.
Yet many of the broad themes that are raised in the story of Atlantis a reader of the Qur’ān would broadly be familiar with.
أولم يسيروا في الأرض فينظروا كيف كان عاقبة الذين من قبلهم كانوا أشد منهم قوة وأثاروا الأرض وعمروها أكثر مما عمروها وجاءتهم رسلهم بالبينات فما كان الله ليظلمهم ولكن كانوا أنفسهم يظلمون
Have they not travelled in the earth and seen how was the end of those before them? They were stronger than these in prowess, and dug up the earth, and built on it in greater abundance than these have built on it, and there came to them their messengers with clear arguments; so it was not beseeming for Allah that He should deal with them unjustly, but they dealt unjustly with their own souls. [Qur’ān, 30: 9]
Taking Plato’s dialogues of the Timaeus and Critias together, at its core, they describe a civilisation that was plentiful in wealth, power and high culture. However, it grew arrogant, becoming avaricious, debased and seeking to impose its will by force upon others. With temples dedicated to Poseidon, the mythical Greek god of the sea, Atlantis believed they descended from a divine nature. But their eventual destruction came upon them suddenly, by floods, earthquakes and subsidence; the entire city being lost to the sea, its memory only preserved by the priests in Egypt and passed on to the Greeks by Solon.
وكم أهلكنا قبلهم من قرن هل تحس منهم من أحد أو تسمع لهم ركزا
How many generations We have destroyed before them? Do you perceive a single one of them now, or hear as much as a whisper? [Qur’ān, 19: 98]
قل أرأيتكم إن أتاكم عذاب الله بغتة أو جهرة هل يهلك إلا القوم الظالمون
Say: ‘Think: if the punishment of Allah should come to you, by surprise or openly, would anyone but the evildoers be destroyed?’ [Qur’ān, 6: 47]
The Qur’ānic text is replete with the stories of Prophets that were sent to previous nations. Notably a common theme running through these narratives is the way the message was conveyed and the reaction towards it.
ألم يأتكم نبأ الذين من قبلكم قوم نوح وعاد وثمود والذين من بعدهم لا يعلمهم إلا الله جاءتهم رسلهم بالبينات فردوا أيديهم في أفواههم وقالوا إنا كفرنا بما أرسلتم به وإنا لفي شك مما تدعوننا إليه مريب
Has there not come to you the tidings of those who were before you — the people of Noah, ‘Aād, Thamud, and of those after them whom none knows but Allah? Their Messengers came to them with the clear signs; but they thrust their hands into their mouths, saying, ‘We certainly disbelieve in the Message you have been sent with, and we are in doubt, concerning that you call us unto. [Qur’ān, 14: 9]
ألم يروا كم أهلكنا من قبلهم من قرن مكناهم في الأرض ما لم نمكن لكم وأرسلنا السماء عليهم مدرارا وجعلنا الأنهار تجري من تحتهم فأهلكناهم بذنوبهم وأنشأنا من بعدهم قرنا آخرين
Do they not realise how many generations We destroyed before them? We established them in the earth more firmly than you, sent down abundant rain on them from the sky and made running rivers flow at their feet, yet We destroyed them for their misdeeds and raised other generations after them. [Qur’ān, 6: 6]
If Atlantis was to ever be discovered or proven beyond reasonable doubt by other independent evidences, looking at the core elements that are detailed in the story, it is not inconceivable to assume that the final fate of this civilisation deep in pre-history is not in fact all that different to the known narratives that the Qur’ān explains to us.
There is also perhaps a further lesson that could be gleaned from this episode. Whether it be from the story of Atlantis or indeed any of the other more established civilisations throughout human history, mankind has indeed been bestowed with great blessings. These blessings are innumerable.
Despite rapid technological or material progress, caution must always be had against any form of arrogance. Life hasn’t simply been constituted for an incessant drive towards production and consumption. Neither can it be lived in isolation by retreating from the wider world into monasticism.
As a nation that is said to be justly balanced [Qur’ān, 2: 143], neither extreme can be accepted. The justly balanced nation is also required to be a witness unto mankind. Not just in calling to mind the lessons from history that have reached us, but resolutely standing firm against all forms of tyranny or injustice which have cast a long dark shadow upon this world; inviting mankind to the message that has reached us and working tirelessly to make this world a better place.