A number of Muslim authorities - in places such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar - have imposed bans on the Noah film. Their reasons lie in aniconism, that is, a religious proscription against icons or creating images of the Sacred. The strong environmenal theme in Noah has generated much backlash among Christians in the U.S. possibly contributing to their own bans of the film. This led me to ask, how might Muslims engage with the environmental theme in the film?
Islam is a tradition that understands itself as the last in a series of revelations that began with Abraham and ended with Muhammad – considered by Islam to be the last and final “Seal” of God’s prophets. According to the Islamic tradition, each of these revelations - embodied in the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - were sent by God to humanity to instruct the faithful in matters of faith, salvation, and virtuous living. Therefore, the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, considered by Islam to be emissaries of the Sacred, are extolled and venerated within the Qur’an – the sacred scripture of Muslims. In fact, an entire Surah (loosely translated as “chapter”) of the Qur’an is devoted to the story of Noah – or “Nuh” as he is known in Arabic.
Part and parcel of Islam’s reverence for God’s prophets and messengers is a prohibition against their depiction in art or other visual forms. In order to grant them the respect that is their due as God’s chosen, and to discourage the worship of any other entity outside of God, Islamic authorities have displayed a long and staunch discomfort with any depictions of Muhammad as well as other Biblical and Qur’anic prophets and messengers. This helps explain the bans that were imposed on the Noah film. And it is important to note that such bans are not exclusive to Russell Crowe’s non-traditional depiction of Noah – but to a series of other films that have been made depicting biblical and Qur’anic prophets and messengers.
However, I wish to suggest that outside of this issue, there are strong reasons for a variety of Muslims to feel an affinity with the environmental themes of the Noah film. These, I believe, are critical connections that are being drowned out by the loud, boisterous voices of bans; not only because the film’s environmental themes resonate deeply with Qur’anic verses about the sacred and unified nature of God’s creation, but also because an emphasis on this message in the Qur’an can perhaps shed important insight to the environmental problems that plague a number of Muslim majority countries.
Aronofsky and Handel’s depiction of this ancient story presents Noah as a gladiator-esque environmentalist, willing to go to unthinkable ends to obey the will of the Creator. Noah narrates a world in which human beings have wasted and abused all that God had given to them. Created by God to worship God, human beings turned away from their obligation – and God, in turn, abandoned the earth and punished creation by leaving it to its own devices. Alone, abandoned, and receiving nothing but silence from their Creator, humanity is depicted as a fallen lot – turning on one another in order to consume the earth’s dwindling resources. Plagued and burdened by the sinfulness of humanity, Noah sets out to fulfill God’s plan to destroy all of creation.
Despite human recalcitrance, however, the Noah film depicts the world as hallowed and sacred. The Creator formed the earth and human beings with intention and purpose. The earth is described as good, holy, consecrated – all presented as evidence for the goodness of God. Because of this, creation is to be respected and treated with the reverence to which it is due.
The Qur’an provides a wealth of material detailing a similar understanding of the earth and its inhabitants. It describes the goodness and majesty of creation as a sign of God’s mercy and love for human beings. The Qur’an extols the miracle of creation as a sign of God’s omnipotence and perfection.
“Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day there are indeed Signs for men of understanding. Men who celebrate the praises of God standing and lying down on their sides and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth (with the thought): “Our Lord! You have created (all) this not for nothing.” (3:190-191)
As God’s highest creation, human beings have been granted domain over the earth – created, at least in part, for their use and pleasure.
Then let man look at his food, (and how we provide it): For that We pour forth water in abundance. And We split the earth into fragments. And We produce therein corn. And grapes and nutritious plants. And olives and dates, And enclosed gardens, dense with lofty trees, And fruits and fodder, For use and convenience to you and your cattle (80:24-32)
“It is from God Who has created the heavens and the earth and sends down rain from the skies and with it brings out fruits wherewith to feed you; It is He Who has made the ships subject to you that they may sail through the sea by His command; and the rivers (also ) has He made subject to you. And He has made subject to you the sun and the moon both diligently pursuing their courses: and the Night and the Day has He (also) made subject to you. And He gives you of all that you ask for. But if you count the favors of God never will you be able to number them: verily man is given up to injustice and ingratitude.” (Q 14: 32-34)
Men and women of the earth – the faithful – have been granted the great pleasure and great responsibility of participating in God’s creation. Furthermore, as recipients of the gift of reason and moral consciousness (Taqwa), human beings were given the exclusive privilege of tending to creation in a manner that is in alignment with the striving or effort of believers in their desire to properly walk in the path of God.
While the Qur’an’s environmental message rings loud and clear, so does its call to justice. In a similar way, this film depicts God as seeking justice for human disobedience. God wants to destroy creation as recompense for their sin of disobedience and has chosen Noah to warn and to extol God’s plan.
In much the same way, the Qur’anic story of Nuh emphasizes his role as a warner for a fallen world – instructed by God to call humanity to align itself with God’s plan for reorder. He, too, must bear the disobedience of human beings. Describing himself as “clear warner,” Nuh laments the defiance of humanity – their blatant disregard for the dictates and commandments of God. He describes their rebellion and emphasizes their recalcitrance, as the Qur’an informs that despite Nuh’s continued attempts to warn his people, they “put their fingers in their ears, covered themselves with their garments, persisted, and were arrogant with (great) arrogance.” (Q 71: 7)
These themes – of the unified and sacred nature of God’s creation, and of human disobedience in the face of God’s warnings – have much to advise in terms of the environmental problems in a number of Muslim majority countries. Water shortages in Iran, pollution in Egypt, as well as the effects of climate change seen across the Middle East and a number of Muslim majority countries that have born the effects of flooding, displacement, and starvation – indicate the importance of creating models of environmental behavior that are rooted in societal and cultural norms and values.
We can see the effect of these ideas in a number of places – the desire to align Islamic commitments with environmental stewardship. Activist movements have started in places like Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan as well as the United States with the “Green Muslim” movement. Perhaps most telling is the Fifth Islamic Conference of Environmental Ministers, where the 56 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference adopted the Draft Islamic Declaration of Sustainable Development.
Russel Crowe’s Noah is a deeply troubled and dark character. He was, after all, chosen by God to witness an inconceivable act of destruction. Yet, ultimately, the story remains one of redemption. Water, through the flood, cleanses and renews a fallen world - where the forces of good are allowed to “try again.” In this way, the film’s insistence on human responsibility can transform the viewer, helping her to reflect on how it is that she can join the force of good. This film shares a deep connection with Qur’anic themes on the importance and specialness of Creation – and of human stewardship over the earth. It is a call to renew a dedication to the environment that, I believe, Muslims can feel not only moved by, but also connected to.