It is doubtful whether the narration that the earth rests on the ox and fish is attributed with certainty to the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings. For this reason, we are not religiously obliged to accept it as a Prophetic Tradition. Even if it is a Prophetic Tradition, it is not clear that the ox and the fish mentioned in it were used literally. You can consult the Fifth and Eleventh Premises. You will see how fancies distract literalists from the truth.
This Tradition has three significant interpretations, all of which are correct:
The first: The bearers of the Divine Throne are sometimes called the Ox, the Vulture, the Man, or some other title. These are in fact angels. Therefore the ox and fish mentioned in the Tradition in question could be referring to these angels. Otherwise, the placing of the Divine Throne and the earth on the back of an ox, an animal which is not self-sufficient, is opposed to the order of the universe. In addition, we learn from the Shari‘a: There is an angel appointed for every species of existence; this angel manages the affairs of that species. The angel is called by the name of the species for which it is responsible and appears with its form in the world of the angels. There is a Prophetic Tradition: “The sun goes up before the Divine Throne every evening, prostrates itself, and is given permission to return.”38
The angel responsible for the sun is called “the Sun,” and is in the shape of the sun. So, the sun that the Prophetic Tradition mentions as going up before the Divine Throne is in fact this angel. The philosophers who study theology mention a different living and speaking spiritual entity that comes to the aid of every species of creation and asks God for help in the name of that species. In the Shari‘a these entities are called the Angel of the Mountains, the Angel of the Seas, the Angel of the Rain, and so on. But they have no creative effect on anything or on any event. The One Who creates everything and every event without any interference, help, or contribution from anything else, is God alone.
No one but God has a part in creation. However, in order that people should not see the Divine Hand of Power involved in some “low” or apparently distressing things and events, God employs apparent means and causes as a veil before His Dignity and Grandeur. But in the realm of pure truths and spirituality, which is what the creed is essentially concerned with or aims at, everything exists in its transcendental beauty and purity. The Divine Power works here without employing any veils. This is what the All-Glorious, the All-Knowing destines and decrees.
The Tradition in question has another meaning. The ox is the most important animal for agriculture. Fish are the basic livelihood for many people, particularly those living in coastal regions. If one asks us what keeps a state standing, we might answer, “The state depends on the pen and sword.” If we are asked what makes a civilization endure, we might answer, “It endures by science, skills, and economy.” Or if they ask what humanity subsists by, we might answer, “It subsists by knowledge and labor.” The Prophet, who is the pride of creation, upon him be peace and blessings, could well have meant this when he said, “The earth stands on the ox and fish.” If the one who asked him what the earth stood on was unable to understand a scientific answer, he would have been given the answer most appropriate to his level of understanding. That is, our Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, may have been answering this person figuratively—meaning that the majority of people lived either by farming and agriculture, for which oxen were indispensable, or by fishing. Since a considerable portion of the population lived by the seashore and their basic livelihood was fish, their world “stands on” fish. It is like the saying of the Arabs, “The whole of game is in the belly of the wild ass.” Since wild asses were the primary target of some Arab hunters, they would say that to mean that one who hunted a wild ass did not need to pursue other game.
The answer of the Pride of Creation, upon him be peace and blessings, who always spoke the truth even when joking, is highly significant. He gave the answer that was necessary and appropriate so that the person who asked the question could understand. It is a rule of rhetoric that one who asks sometimes receives an answer that they do not expect. The answer should be couched in such a way that it will be useful to and understandable by the person asking. It must also meet a need and must not give rise to misunderstandings or further doubts or confusion. When some people asked the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, about the new moons, God Almighty answered in the Qur’an, They ask you about the new moons. Say: “They are appointed times (markers) for the people (to determine time periods) and for the Pilgrimage.” (2: 189)
The Tradition under discussion has a third important meaning. Taurus (the ox) and Pisces (the fish) are two astrological signs of the zodiac. Even though these signs are imaginary, the Divine laws that operate in the universe, including the law of gravity, are focused on them. Thus, saying that the earth stands on these signs of the zodiac indicates a scientific reality. Such an expression, used at a time when the science of the time thought that these signs actually existed in the sky, gains greater importance in the present, because astronomy now considers that they are related to the annual orbit of the earth.
It is reported that the Prophet was twice asked about the location of the earth. In one of his answers, he said that it was on a fish. When asked the second time, he said that it was on an ox. When he said that the earth was on a fish, the rays or threads of the law of gravitation, which prevails throughout the heavens, were focused and intersected on the sign of Pisces, and the earth, which was leaving the sign of Aquarius, held fast to this law and, for the appointed duration, hung on a branch of the Tree of Creation like a fruit, or alighted like a bird. Continuing to orbit, the earth progressed to the sign of Taurus, and thus, the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, said that the earth was on an ox.
With that reality in mind, we can say that taking the Tradition literally, as some dreamers do, only means attributing absurdity to the eternal Divine Wisdom, and destroying the miraculous order of the universe, which bears witness to the existence and Oneness of the Creator.
38 Al-Bukhari, al-Jami‘ al-Sahih, “Tafsir Sura Ya-Sin” 1; ” 39; Muslim, al-Jami‘ al-Sahih, “Iman” 250.