~ Cyrus Zargar ~
A CALL TO LUCID THINKING:
NOAH IN THE QUR'AN
The more Noah calls to them with his beautiful message, the more they flee from him
in the Qur’an is somewhat different from that found in the Bible. God created the first human—Adam—to be His representative on earth. God then imparted some special knowledge on Adam and commanded the angels to prostrate before His creation. They all did, except for one, one who was only angelic in rank. In substance he was made of smokeless fire and not, like actual angels, of light. That one was Iblis, whose name becomes “al-Shaytan” or Satan.
Iblis’s refusal had a reason behind it: He thought himself superior to Adam and hence deemed God’s command to prostrate before Adam as unworthy of obedience. Iblis, now Satan, decided that he would spend the rest of created time—all the way up to the Day of Resurrection—to prove himself right and God, in His elevation of Adam, wrong. Satan even clarified how he would go about this: By waiting for Adam’s descendants on all sides, to trick them out of gratitude (Q 7:16-7); by whispering to them, creating a desire for meaningless things (Q 4:117-20); and by making false promises, so that death seems perpetually distant, resurrection seems imaginary, and the wares of this world seem more beneficial than the fruits of piety (Q 17:62-4).
The narrative of Noah picks up in a world where Satan's wager has largely proven right: Humans fail to recognize God properly. For the first time in human history, according to the commentators, the humans of Noah's day worship idols. How did Satan succeed? Mere suggestion: The power of a worldview that is both superficial and arrogant.
Satan in the Qur’an is the epitome of faulty but seductive thinking. Back in the beginning of things, Satan (then Iblis) had used such thinking, in the form of an analogy, to argue for his superiority to Adam: “You created me of fire, while you created him [Adam] of clay” (Q 38:76). Fire is better than clay, ergo, “I am better than he.” This analogy assumes that an intelligent being’s worth lies entirely in substance; that there is nothing more to a human being than the material, than the “clay” from which he or she has been formed. Indeed, what Satan has missed is immeasurable and immaterial: God has breathed into Adam “of My spirit” (Q 38:72).
Satan proves that the faultiest and yet most seductive thoughts which intelligent beings have are those that are prideful. He raises externals high above internals, and he judges and deems worth using the standard of physical origins. In that regard, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s son-in-law and one of his successors, when faced with the splintering of the Muslim community after the prophet of Islam’s death, referred to Satan’s arrogance. He described Satan as the first bigot, the first to use relatively meaningless divisions to claim superiority. And Satan and his forces have helped stimulate such faulty thinking by whispering suggestions “into the chests of humans” (Q 114:5).
Because of such faulty thinking, when Noah tries to reason with his people, they cannot hear him. “Oh my people!” he proclaims, “I am a manifest warner to you, that you should worship God, be heedful of Him, and obey me” (Q 71:3).
In Noah’s words one finds the three essential themes conveyed by all Qur’anic prophets. First, that there is one god, one object of worship, devotion, awe, and love, God alone, as seen in Noah’s call to “worship God.” Second, that one should be conscious—even worried—about one’s beliefs, qualities, and actions, because there will be a day of reckoning and reward for all, as seen in Noah’s saying, “be heedful of Him.” And third and last, that God communicates warnings and glad tidings through human guides—prophets and messengers—who must be obeyed, as seen in Noah’s words, “obey me.” He exerts himself tirelessly, but ultimately fails to convince most, finally crying out, “My lord! They defy me and follow instead one whose wealth and offspring only augment his loss” (Q 71:21), that is, the people prefer those who have wealth to their prophet, Noah. He continues, “They [these false leaders] say do not relinquish your gods, and relinquish not Wadd, Suwa‘,Yaghuth, Ya‘uq, or Nasr” (Q 71:23). Some commentators here mention that the names mentioned refer to great and pious individuals who died. The people could not bear their absence, thus building effigies to them. When people attributed power and divinity to those effigies, they became the first idols.
Why can’t Noah’s rejecters understand his message? As shallow and materialistic people, they assume that Noah’s objectives are worldly and that he tries to do what they try to do, namely, assert superiority and control over others (Q 23:24). They cannot fathom that he asks nothing of them, no wealth or rank, nothing other than obedience to the one true God, which is actually in their own interests (Q 11:29).
The people of Noah’s day have fallen prey to the analogy of humanity’s enemy, Satan, which tells them to see no further than the immediate. Their refusal to look beyond externals is compounded by the appealing, but ultimately baseless, logic of arrogance. They do not “see” Noah to be any different from themselves, nothing that would merit him a prophet worthy of obedience, nor do they “see” his followers as anything other than the poor and downtrodden (Q 11:27). Noah’s followers are those who are “most contemptible,” because, say many commentators, of their lower economic and social status (Q 26:111). Thus, judging by what Noah’s recalcitrant audience can see, since affluence is a clear and visible yardstick for a human being’s worth, they and their leaders in all their idolatry are superior. Moreover, their objects of worship—idols—can be seen, grasped, and hence loved, unlike the intangible, distant deity for whom Noah advocates. Adherence to one god, to them, appears to be a trait exclusive to the poor and foolish, since Noah’s monotheistic followers are riffraff and since a transcendent, immaterial god is equally accessible (or, from the idolaters’ perspective, inaccessible) to all.
Noah’s argument against them—as discussed by ‘Allama Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i (d. 1981) in one of the most important Qur’an commentaries of the twentieth century—is fascinating in its combination of depth and simplicity. “What’s wrong with you?” Noah asks them. “Why do you not have awe for God in all His majesty?” (Q 71:13) The idolaters have taken their gods to be proxies for God, because they see God as too distant and too exalted to carry out all the affairs of creation and attend to every minor created thing. God’s central purpose—for them—was to originate their gods, these “lords,” allowing these gods to manage things. In the end, they hope that the divine deputies would intercede on behalf of their worshippers to the Originator. Noah’s question really illustrates to them that the very reason for their denying his lordship is the bewilderment, humility, and desperation they sense toward His greatness. In its very nature, their worship is self-defeating and recognizes the overwhelming greatness of God. If God is indeed as great as they acknowledge, then why can’t he be both distant and near, involved both in the creation of the universe and in its seemingly minor details?
Noah asks them to do more than merely look and instead to think about that which is seen. He asks them to look at the seven heavens, one atop the other, in which one can see the moon well-lit and the sun radiating light. Yes, the moon has light, but its light has a source, the sun. Look (Noah’s words imply) for the source of things. The levels of the heavens point to stages of creation, creation as a process of dependence:
[I, Noah, told them,] “He has created you through various grades. Do you not see how God has created the seven heavens as successive layers? And has made the moon a light in it and the sun a radiant lamp? And God has made you grow from out of the earth? Then He returns you into it and will bring you out of it?” (Q 71:14-8)
Everything depends on or has been caused by something else, which points to some cause beyond all these causes that does not depend on them. Creation is also constant; the levels of things point to constant maintenance. The cosmos is not self-maintaining; rather, every part of it is a miracle and exists despite the odds against it. The idolaters know that God created them and the world in which they live, so there is no reason for Him to be separated from its constant upkeep and ordering. In fact, that there are stages of development for creation shows the segmented and thus continuing nature of His creative act; He is continually the creator, owner, and manager of creation and must be worshipped as such.
Even when it comes to humans, Noah says that God has “created you through various grades” (Q 71:14). Noah refers to the various grades of human development, from dirt, to sperm, to embryo, to child, to young person, and to old person. These are all proofs of God as a constant creator and manager. The idolaters should conclude that He in fact manages all affairs and is their Lord.
Since the idolaters worship other-than-God as means of approach to Him, Noah’s statement illustrates that the true means of approach are God’s attributes, as He is known through His creation, sustenance, mercy, and His other active attributes. One can know and hence love God through His names.
Noah’s exerts himself in trying to convince his people, showing both compassion and sympathy. He preaches to them by night and by day, in public and in private:
He said, “My lord, I have called to my people, by night and by day, but my call has only increased them in their urge to retreat. And every time I called them so that You might forgive them, they put their fingers in their ears and covered their heads with their garments, remained obstinate, and grew incredibly proud. Then I called to them loudly, in open; then I announced to them publically and spoke to them privately in confidence, and I said, ‘Seek forgiveness from your lord; indeed He is all-forgiving.’” (Q 71:5-10)
The years become decades and even centuries. Indeed, the Qur’an describes Noah as having prolonged his stay among his people “for one-thousand-minus-fifty years” (Q 29:14). But his message, one of utter truth, cannot be received by a corrupt heart. Water fills a cracked glass with difficulty, but if the glass is filled with mud, then nothing can be done. It is for this reason that the more Noah calls them with this beautiful message, the more they flee from him. All that is left is for Noah to pray that God protects those who have not been corrupted by wiping out the unsalvageable and allowing the human race to start anew.
About the flood, the Qur’an does not give too much in terms of detail, so that commentators have argued over its scope (whether it was local or worldwide) and about its other specifics, which one can find in Islam’s other scriptural source, the sayings of Muhammad. The focus here in the Qur’an and in the chapter named for Noah is on the message of monotheism and the theme of human self-perfection. Failure to care for the soul, the Qur'an declares, has serious consequences: “Because of their own iniquities, they were drowned, so they [who rejected Noah] entered a fire and found for themselves—other than God—no helpers” (Q 71:25). This fire, argues Tabataba’i, cannot be that of post-resurrection Hell. That punishment is not so immediate. Rather, it is the temporary, personalized afterlife that each soul creates for itself and endures until resurrection, which these wrongdoers experience as fire—a fire before their final judgment. The juxtaposition of drowning in water and being engulfed by fire indicates the literary beauty of the text, according to Tabataba’i. The flood was a minor manifestation of God’s justice to be immediately followed by a more major manifestation—the fire. In this image, one can imagine the process of corruption, starting within the soul, spilling over into society, drowning a large part of humanity, and becoming actualized as its essential form, as a forced and indeed painful realization of the eternal, divine presence.
This essay is largely based on discussions found in al-Mizan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an by ‘Allama Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i (d. 1981), here focusing on the discussion of Chapter 71. The sermon of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib referenced above is known as the “al-Qasi‘a” sermon (“the sermon that humbles the proud as effectively as water quenches thirst”), from a collection of his sayings and sermons titled Nahj al-Balagha.
“Noah’s Ark” - Miniature from Hafiz-i Abru’s Majma al-tawarikh.
The flood of Noah and the deliverance of a select group of his people is the second major formative event in human existence, according to the Qur’an. The first, of course, is the creation and fall of Adam. The two narratives—that of Noah and that of Adam—are related. Both narratives rest on the idea that God has created human beings for greatness and for an exalted status, but also has given them the ability to choose ignominy.
Since the story of Adam serves as background material for the story of Noah, it should be said that the account of the creation and fall of Adam
The narrative of Noah picks up in a world where Satan's wager has largely proven right: Humans fail to recognize God properly
Satan is the first bigot, the first to use relatively meaningless divisions to claim superiority
Noah asks them to do more than merely look and instead to think about that which is seen