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Metamorphosis or Maskh (Arabic: مَسْخ) is a kind of divine punishment in which one is transformed into an animal. In metamorphosis, the human identity is not lost, while its appearance changes into an animal figure. Some cases of metamorphosis are mentioned in Islamic sources, the best-known of which is the story of People of Sabbath.

According to Qur'anic verses, People of Sabbath were people from the Children of Israel who defied God's prohibition of fishing on Saturdays, and then, were transformed into monkeys. According to Islamic hadiths, metamorphosis occurs on the day of resurrection as well, when some sinners are transformed into animals such as monkeys and pigs.

Some Quranic exegetes interpret the story as allegorical; that is, sins lead to animal temperaments. Such an interpretation is rejected by the majority of exegetes, however. They believe that appearances of the people in the story really changed.


Definition of Metamorphosis and its Difference from Metempsychosis

Metamorphosis is the transformation of something's appearances into something unpleasant. Metempsychosis is the attachment of the soul to another body after its separation from its own body. In metamorphosis, the soul is not separated from the body. Instead, the appearances of the body change and is transformed into an animal.

Preservation of the Human Identity in Metamorphosis

According to Muslim scholars, the transformation of human appearances does not amount to the change of his human nature. Thus, metamorphosis is not tantamount to the destruction of a human individual and creation of a monkey individual or the transmigration of a human soul into a monkey body. Instead, metamorphosis is the coincidence of two specific forms. That is to say, while the human specific form is still there, it has received a monkey specific form as well. Hence, the individual should be called a human monkey.

Here is how Murteza Mutahhari explains the issue: "in whatever way I am on the day of resurrection, whether I am with this body or with another body, I am one hundred percent the same person, although my appearances might have changed. Even if I undergo a metamorphosis on the day of resurrection in proportion to my psychological attitudes, and I am resurrected in an animal form, it is still me who has animal organs."

Occurrence of Metamorphosis According to the Qur'an

The Qur'an talks about the metamorphosis of some human beings. For example, the verse twenty of Qur'an 5 is about the transformation of some human beings into monkeys and pigs. Moreover, the verse sixty five of Qur'an 2 is about some people from among the Children of Israel, known as People of Sabbath, who were transformed into monkeys because they disobeyed God's prohibition of fishing on Saturdays.

Metamorphosis of Some Disciples

According to some Quranic verses, the disciples of Jesus asked God to send them a table of foods from the sky.[1] When God sent them the table, He said: "should any of you disbelieve after this, I will indeed punish him with a punishment such as I do not punish anyone in all creation."[2] Some exegetes interpret the verse as follows: some disciples betrayed Jesus (a) despite the heavenly table, and then they were transformed into animals by God. Some other exegetes like 'Allama Tabataba'i have rejected this interpretation, taking it to be in conflict with other Quranic verses.

How the Quranic Metamorphosis Occurred

There are different accounts of how metamorphosis occurs in this world. The majority of Quranic exegetes believe that metamorphosis or maskh in the Qur'an is the transformation of the human body into another animal. Some others believe, nevertheless, that metamorphosis merely occurs in one's inner self, and human face or appearance does not change.

Mujahid b. Jubayr (d. 102/720) says: "the metamorphosis mentioned in the Qur'an is an analogy just like ‘the example of an ass carrying books’."[3] 'Abd al-Razzaq al-Kashani said: the metamorphosis occurred merely in people's inner selves. In other words, the Jews who underwent metamorphosis were just like other people in their outer forms, although they were not humans in their inner selves.

The same view is held by Rashid Rida and Muhammad Abduh.

Notwithstanding this, the majority of Quranic exegetes believe that the metamorphosis in the Qur'an is used literally. That is, it really occurred in people's bodies and their appearances did change. According to al-'Allama al-Majlisi, there are mutawatir hadiths to the same effect.

As to the objection that this kind of metamorphosis is improbable, advocates of the latter view argue that if we accept miracles by prophets, then the extraordinary character of an action cannot be evidence for its impossibility. Instead, this is a condition of miracles.

Metamorphosis of Human Beings in Resurrection

According to some hadiths, some people will be resurrected in animal forms. For example, Ma'adh b. Jabal asked the Prophet (s) about the Quranic verse, "the day the Trumpet will be blown, and you will come in groups."[4] The Prophet (s) said: some of them will be resurrected in the form of monkeys, some in the form of pigs, and so on.”

According to a hadith from Imam al-Baqir (a): "those who deny the divine destination will be resurrected from their graves in the form of monkeys and pigs."

Metamorphosis of the Soul

Some Muslim scholars believe that human beings might undergo metamorphosis in their souls and thus they might spiritually turn into animals. Some Quranic exegetes maintain that the Quranic verse, "they are just like cattle; indeed, they are more astray,"[5] is a reference to this fact.

According to Murteza Mutahhari, a man's humanity depends on his moral characteristics, and if he gains the characteristics of a savage animal, then he has indeed undergone metamorphosis."

Other Examples of Metamorphosis

In some Shiite and Sunni sources, there are reports of metamorphosis of people other than those mentioned in the Qur'an. For example, there is a hadith cited in al-Khisal by al-Shaykh al-Saduq according to which thirteen animal species, including scorpions, bats, and bears, were original human beings who then underwent metamorphosis. Moreover, al-Tabarani, a Sunni scholar in third/ninth and fourth/tenth centuries, quoted the Prophet (s) as saying that some Muslims will undergo metamorphosis and turn into monkeys and pigs.

The Fate of Metamorphosed People

According to hadiths, people whose metamorphosis story is mentioned in the Qur'an survived just for three days, and they had no progenies. Sadr al-Muti'allihin says: "Muslims have consensus over the fact that today's animals are not progenies of metamorphosed human beings, since these people died after three days without producing children during their animal period."

See Also


  1. Qur'an 5:112
  2. Qur'an 5:115
  3. Qur'an 62:5
  4. Qur'an 78:18
  5. Qur'an 5:179