Verily, We sent Noah to his people to warn them of an approaching, painful punishment. He said: O my people! Surely, I deliver a straightforward warning to you. Worship God! Be dutiful to God and obey me so that He will forgive your past sins. (Qur’an, 71:1-4)
Noah said: O my Lord! They have rejected me. (Qur’an, 71:21)
The story of Prophet Noah building the massive ark, boarding animal passengers two-by-two, and sailing through a flood meant to drown corruption and preserve a noble truth is so familiar to Western culture it might easily be called an icon. We see cartoon reenactments and play with plastic elephants and an elderly, white bearded man on a wide, roofed boat as children. I had a Noah’s Ark set as a child, even though my family was never Christian. But then, I also went to Church with my grandmother, attended preschool at the local Church, read the Bible every Sunday and generally lived a lot more Christian-like than most Muslims I later met (actually, most Christians too). Crucifixes aside, however, I found many similarities in my (almost) Christian upbringing and my mature Islamic identity. One of the key similarities I discovered—which I believe many Christians will be surprised to read—is that we share most of the same prophets, including the Prophet Noah.
Noah is one of the earliest prophets whose story is recounted in the Qur’an. Before him was Adam. After him came Abraham, Lot, Jacob, Ishmael, Job, Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Zachariah, Jonah, John and Jesus. Lastly came a prophet whose message confirmed that of previous prophets. Through Muhammad, God completed the revelation and sealed it for all time. Christians, of course, do not agree with this last statement; however, we can easily agree on all the other names mentioned here (So why not Muhammad? Well, that is not my present topic).
Let us put differences aside for a moment and contemplate the story of Noah together—a man and a messenger of God in whom all the three great monotheistic faiths of the world today can find a single universal lesson. We all love and cherish the story of Noah. We all believe in him. So what can we learn, in a realistic and practical sense, from this often rehearsed but little contemplated story? Here are three main lessons.
In many ways, the Prophet Noah serves as an ideal of patience. He preached for hundreds of years without losing heart or hope. He was non-violent, using only rhetorical argument, spiritual entreaty, logic and other verbal appeals. But Noah’s path as a preacher was not free of conflict or intensity. In fact, his people threatened to stone him, as the Qur’an recounts, “They said: If thou cease not, O Noah, thou wilt surly be among those stoned.” (Qur’an, 26:116) His response, narrated in another chapter, exhibits his fortitude as well as his persistence: “Then have at me, give me no respite.” (Qur’an, 10:71)
The length of his preaching, 950 years according to Islamic tradition, was not because he outlived many generations. Rather, the average lifespan of people so many thousands of years ago was not like that of our present day situation. With current scientific projections of lengthening lifespan expectations (if you’re twenty today, you are expected to live another hundred and ten years), we can easily interpret lifespan differences as literal. If we can live longer, they might have lived longer still.
The bottom line that Noah’s immense endurance offers us is this: When you are struggling to maintain patience with someone who annoys you, ask yourself, “Did I have patience with this person as long as Noah had patience with his people?” If the answer is no, keep striving in your patience.
Individuality in Religion
And Noah cried to his son, who was standing aloof, “O my son! Come ride with us, and be not with the disbelievers.” (Qur’an, 11:42)
And the wave came in between them, so he was among the drowned. (Qur’an, 11:44)
Like the story of Abraham and his pagan father, the story of Noah and his idolatrous son shows us the individuality of our spiritual identities. Religion is not a blood inheritance. Rather, we choose our faith, live it, and face the consequences of our individual decision alone. For those of us with social personalities, the prospect of standing alone to account for all our actions might loom like an intimidating college exam, perhaps reminiscent of the SATs. Your friends, family and associates cannot team up with you to raise your average, do your part or alleviate your failure. And in this life, you must choose accordingly.
With this consideration in mind, it’s peculiar that many people attribute their religion to their national identity, their family tradition or their culture. This implies a group response. While group effect is a strong part of our social psychology, we cannot claim that our authentic, internalized beliefs (those we have contemplated and found personally appealing) are a part of group homogeny.
And yet people often do live and act in a style dictated by the group. Does that lessen their individual responsibility? Considering the holocaust, gang violence, fraternity/sorority crime and other immoral activities that occur in the context of group effect quickly convinces us that individual responsibility is an important reality despite group effect, peer pressure or cultural influences.
What are the implications of this crucial balance between group effect and individual accountability? We can read the answer in the pages of Noah’s life: Sometimes you have to build an ark. After reaching out to others, you need also to save yourself from the effects of bad company.
We sent Noah (of old) unto his people, and he said, “O my people! Serve God. Ye have no other God save Him. Lo! I fear for you the retribution of an Awful Day… (Qur’an, 7:59)
I convey unto you the messages of my Lord and give good counsel unto you, and know from God that which ye know not. (Qur’an, 7:59, 62)
Caught up in the drama of the family relationships, the wife and son left behind to drown, and the childhood images of boats and animal play figurines, we might miss the most obvious lesson Noah’s story offers us today: the importance of monotheism. According to Islamic tradition, Noah was the first prophet in the history of mankind who encountered the problem of polytheism. From Adam until just before the time of Noah, idols were unheard of.
The Prophet Muhammad told his followers how the phenomenon of idolatry began among humankind. In his description, the problem of polytheism began innocently with the veneration of saintly individuals. Their pictures were drawn representationally and hung in places of worship for the sake of inspiration. Over generations, however, this original intention was forgotten, and a new intercessory meaning was attributed to the pictures. Sculptures followed, and soon the saintly statues were believed to possess powers properly attributed to God alone, such as fate, provision and so forth.
People thereafter required a refreshed message, a prophet who could remind them of God’s original purpose for them. Therefore God inspired Noah. Every messenger after him reiterated the same message: One God. Monotheism is the primary lesson Noah offered his people, and still offers us today.
Such is the guidance of God wherewith He guides whom He wills of His bondmen. But if they had set up (for worship) aught beside Him, all that they did would have been vain. (Qur’an, 6:88)