Secular historians do not believe that Noah existed, upon him peace. There is no evidence for his existence other than the scriptures of the Abrahamic religions. As such, Hindus and Buddhists also have little reason to believe in him. But the Qur’an narrates his story on many occasions.
I used to think that historiography was about proof – hard, tangible proof. But I realize now that, as a Muslim, it is more about faith. I believe in Noah, upon him peace, and I hope to meet him in the next life, by the Mercy of God. That distinguishes me from many billions of human beings living now on the face of the Earth.
Of course, there are also Jews and Christians who still believe in Noah, due to his critical role in the Bible. But due to the quasi-historical format of the Bible, many from these communities have lost faith in Noah once they have come to believe that the Bible is a flawed document. If the Bible is the only basis to know Noah, then if the Bible cannot be trusted, then the story of Noah cannot be believed.
But faith in Noah based on the Qur’an is different. It is not a faith based on historical proofs, but simply trust that Muhammad was the Messenger of God, blessings and peace be upon him and his family. So if a man who lived in the 7th century preached that Noah was one of the Messengers who came before him, even if it was tens of thousands of years before, that is enough.
That fundamentally changes our understanding of how history works.
And what it is the story of Noah, upon him peace? At its base, is the story of the interplay of God’s Mercy and Justice. Unlike anyone else in the Qur’an, we hear of Noah’s unnaturally long life:
وَلَقَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا نُوحًا إِلَىٰ قَوْمِهِ فَلَبِثَ فِيهِمْ أَلْفَ سَنَةٍ إِلَّا خَمْسِينَ عَامًا فَأَخَذَهُمُ الطُّوفَانُ وَهُمْ ظَالِمُونَ
“We sent Noah to his people and he lived among them for fifty short of a thousand years; then the deluge overtook them, for they were wrongdoers.” (29.14, Wahiddudin Khan translation)
For so long, God put up with disbelief and disobedience. All they had to do was attach themselves to God’s Messenger:
قَالَ يَا قَوْمِ إِنِّي لَكُمْ نَذِيرٌ مُّبِينٌ أَنِ اعْبُدُوا اللَّهَ وَاتَّقُوهُ وَأَطِيعُونِ
And yet they did not. So then God’s justice came, and only those who had stuck with Noah were saved. Even his own son was drowned for his unwillingness to heed his father’s advice.
This is a paradigmatic moment in human history that can only be perceived with faith. It was so central that the Qur’an made it a point to attach Abraham to it, peace be upon him, even though he was not directly connected to it historically.
وَإِنَّ مِن شِيعَتِهِ لَإِبْرَاهِيمَ
“and surely Abraham was one of [Noah’s] shi’a.” (37.83, my translation)
The word shi’a can justifiably be translated as “partisan,” “adherent,” or “follower.” It brings to mind the idea that Abraham was on the same path of guidance as Noah, upon them both peace. Although Abraham did not face the Flood, had he been there, he would have succeeded. In short, the spirit of “submission to God (al-Islam)” was the same, although the context differed.
And just as Abraham’s time was different from Noah’s, our time is different. But the spirit of al-Islam is the same. We have to be willing to attach ourselves wholeheartedly to guidance. For if we had faced the Flood, would we have succeeded had we been tested in that way? Would our hearts have been full of enough faith to board the Ark? Or would we have wanted to do things our own way, like the son of Noah?
But there was only one way – to be from the shi’a of Noah. When he said to board the Ark, one must board the ark. When he said to get off, one must get off.
When I reflect on that spiritual legacy today, I marvel at the Mercy of God that holds back the proverbial floodwaters that surround us, and I fear the inevitable manifestation of Divine Justice in this world and the next.
May God prepare us, despite our weaknesses and doubts, to board the Ark when we are commanded to do so.
To be from the shi’a of Noah, like Abraham before us, peace upon them both.