This surah is a condensed overview of the themes found in more extended narration elsewhere in the Qur’an, of the story of Nuh `alayhi s-salam, notably Surah Hud. As always in the Qur’an, the focus on certain elements does not mean that other elements of the whole story are not remembered and not relevant. Rather they are remembered and relevant in a particular light derived from the focus of the particular surah.
The major, central themes of the Qur’an are found in this surah closely juxtaposed to each other so that the message of the Book is conveyed most forcefully and in a densely concentrated way.
Like every part of the Qur’an, Surah Nuh holds its meaning in relation to the context of the revelation of the Book to the Prophet, salla-llahu `alayhi wa sallam. This is an early surah connected to the condition of the Prophet’s mission before the command to do Hijrah to Yathrib. It is implicitly addressing the expressions, postures, and attitudes of the mushrikun in Makkah in their refusal of God’s message. For the Prophet there is consolation and strength from the precedent of Nuh, `alayhi s-salam, just as, for the mushrikun, there are warning and threat from the precedent of what befell the ones who rejected Nuh.
The central themes are:
(1) The relationship between the Messenger and his people, and, alongside but separate from that, his relationship with God. In Surah Nuh, the Messenger’s address to his people alternates with his address to God. Except for the beginning and end, the verses of this surah appear as the reported discourse of Nuh, `alayhi s-salam, pleading with his people or with God. (Complaint and lament are directed against the people’s recalcitrance, not against God.)
(2) The message, even if it is addressed to “a” people, is the one-same message.The negative reaction to it is likewise the one-same, even if the local manner of it varies a little. It would not be possible to believe in the oneness of God if the message varied substantially. The message is universal and opens the whole world to believers. The mushrikun are distinguished from the believers in that they are psychologically and culturally trapped by their adherence to their local deities and their stories about them. These deities and their stories have meaning only for the people who share the ancestral, cultural identity. It is this identity which, from fear, insolence and arrogant clinging to habit, they refuse to give up. Their clinging to habit, like any clinging to anything of this world for the sake of this world, constrains the potential of human life to imagine and strive for its own greater good, and it makes the world a smaller, narrower place. Essentially and finally, every human individual belongs to God and returns to Him; they do not belong to each other, neither nationally nor tribally, not even as parents and children – there will be a final separation, even of parents and children, on the Last Day, when believers are distinguished from unbelievers, and there is ranking according to intentions and deeds, nothing else.
(3) The creation is a wonder, made and administered in its entirety and continuously by God for the well-being of mankind. The earth has been made habitable, hospitable and useful for mankind so that they benefit by it, in terms of property, power, and progeny. The earth is a very small part of the whole, and it is a given, a gift: the image used about it is of a carpet rolled out in welcome. In the mountain ranges, which steady the earth, there are gaps so that they are passable. Rivers and seas also can be traversed and measured. The earth is thus open to us, literally and figuratively. Its ground is firm to walk and build upon, yields cover, shelter, refuge of all kinds and provision, and in addition, it is soft enough to be amenable to cultivation. In it also there are materials that can be worked into things beneficial to human life and the production of wealth. Like space, time is measurable; it has both direction and recurrent phases or cycles, so there is an assurance about it. The scale of man is small compared to the world so widely and prolifically fitted for his use. Yet, though man only ever makes something by shifting what is given from one place to another or by altering the state of something to a different state, he has a tendency to aggrandise himself, to be pleased with his powers, possessions, and accomplishments. Few indeed are the wealthy people in the world who do not openly or secretly believe that they have deserved their wealth. Sometimes they may feel sorry for those who are in need, but more often they look down on them as wretched, as people who are slow and backward either individually or as societies. They are typically proud of their own energy or education or skill or power and demand a big share in the goods of the world as their right. However, in the sight of God, the ownership of property, power and progeny in the world are not a proof or vindication of the owners’ worth. Only those are seen as worthy in the sight of God who are wary of Him, conscious of their indebtedness to Him, fearful of losing His favour, eager to know Him and obey Him, and anxious for His forgiveness for their sins and shortcomings. The favour of God that is embodied in the habitability and hospitability of the earth can be withdrawn. It can become dark and unintelligible, or arid and uncultivable. Its weather can turn against mankind, permanently. The earth can become a place in which there is no refuge or shelter, no place to go, no time to do anything. The life-enhancing rains and rivers can become life-threatening; time to repent and reform can run out. The heavens and the earth, time and space, are gifts conditional on the munificence and forbearance of God. The heavens are layered and several, seven. Visible only is the lowest heaven; a reminder that human seeing, however mechanically enhanced, cannot encompass the whole of what is, either in time or space. It is a reminder to walk humbly; to act humbly; to reason humbly; to build humbly, and to speak humbly.
(4) For the Messengers, God and the Last Day are not a proposition (a useful or interesting idea that it is good to think about or bear in mind from time to time). Rather, for the Messengers, God and the Last Day are a lived reality. Therefore, when they see their people reject belief in God and the Last Day it is for them as it would be for us as if we saw our loved ones standing in a fire or on the edge of a fire, wilfully refusing to acknowledge the danger they are in. Accordingly, the anguish of the Messengers is intense and deep in the extreme. It is then all the more impressive that they do their duty to convey the message entrusted to them with such long-enduring, steadfast patience, and with near-perfect civility or good manners in speech and deed. Whether understood literally or figuratively, the thousand years less fifty that Nuh, `alayhi s-salam, preached to his people, is an indicator of the forbearance that characterizes God’s dealing with His slaves and the forbearance of the Messengers in urging them to seek forgiveness, repent and reform. It is an indicator also of the boundary between God and Messenger. God has not willed that the unbelievers believe against their will and judgment; the Messengers have no power over them; they carry only the authority of the message. It is also an indicator of the weight and value of the burden that man in his foolish haste undertook, and which heavens and earth refused– the burden of free will. Human beings must will to believe and be wary of God and act righteously; this freedom of will cannot be taken from them, not even by the authority of God’s Messengers, still less by the power of Pharaonic human rulers and the elites who surround them.
(5) From the twenty or so ordinary lifetimes that Nuh, `alayhi s-salam, preached to his people, we learn that God has faith in man. Whatever some people do or whatever the distribution of pleasure, wealth and power in this world, God’s purpose for man will certainly prevail. The issue is for how many or how few of mankind is the gracious and abiding welcome in the Garden, and for how many or few the abiding terrors of the Fire. The urgent matter is that this question is decided here in this life in this world. Sometimes indeed in this world, the years of life seem long, especially years of great hardship or years of excessive ease. But God and His Messenger, salla-llahu `alayhi wa sallam, have informed us that, when the dead look back over their lives, it is as if they had awoken from a short sleep. This is so even for the thousand and more years of the life of Nuh, `alayhi s-salam. All of the time in the world is a mere speck, just as the earth and the lower or visible heavens are but a mere speck or particle in the immeasurable vastness of all that God has created and made in some measure accessible to mankind so that they reflect and understand.
(6) Man is created in stages. It is of no importance for the religious life what these stages refer to precisely, whether it is slow to change over long eons of time, or abrupt shifts in some evolutionary process, as those who believe in evolution claim. For the religious life what is of importance is that the coming-to-be of a human being is a process through time, through experience, history, engagement with the natural and human world into which the individual is born and where he matures and, eventually, dies. The coming-to-be of a person is through time, through the effort of living and learning, of being nurtured and nurturing; it is a process of coming to know and experience, of awakening to the importance of being human, and the realisation that death is a stage, as birth was, as maturing was, as adulthood was and senility. The being created in stages means being created in a movement that is directed from one moment on to the next, from here to hereafter. Because this being created in stages is by God, it is a sign also of the minute, subtle and particular care that He has invested in His creation. Creation is not a careless thing, a matter of no importance, a meaningless repetition like mass-produced goods. Life is not to be wasted. For every life, its time is irreplaceable. No stage is permanent; that is the meaning of “stage”. We are always moved on within this world. (Death is a break, marked by “thumma”. What comes after death follows directly, as marked by “wa”.)
(7) The message that the Messenger brings is not like a “good cause” for which people ordinarily get together and campaign. For such a cause people form groups or parties and take up positions that include and exclude. Often, they make promises of some particular, concrete advantage in the world so as to win followers for the cause. The message of the Prophets is different. Each of them says: I do not seek any reward or advantage from you or for you in this life; I do not hold the keys to the treasuries of this world or of the unseen; I cannot cause to happen to you now what is surely promised to you at the end of the time allotted to you by your Creator; I am not accompanied by angels or endowed with special powers, except by leave of God. Also, the message is “mubin”–clear, open, public. Neither in its language nor in its purposes does it have secrets and mysteries that only the select few can be initiated into. Nor is the message of benefit only to some classes of people and not to others. It is open to all equally. In this way, the Messengers are true to their duty in two respects. Firstly, the Messengers hide nothing of the Reality, and they convey it to all alike, equally, in a form and language that all the people of that language can understand readily. Secondly, because they are the bearers of the message but not its originators since they convey it by command of God, they do not themselves become the message, and they do not get in the way of the message. In a certain sense the message is already there in the heart of every human being, and so the Messenger is called one who reminds, and the message is called the reminder.
(8) The Messenger may find from among his people only a handful of men and women who believe and obey, often on the periphery of a human settlement. In some surahs, a believer comes running from the further part of the city to voice support for the Messenger. In others, as with Nuh `alayhi s-salam, it is the poor and weak whose hearts open first to the message. It is often the rich and privileged, those of them who look down on the poor, who also look down on the message. Such people are convinced that only what they have is worth having, that only what they consider sensible or worthwhile is sensible and worthwhile. They are pleased with themselves. Centred upon themselves, their lifestyle necessarily becomes selfish and impatient with whoever or whatever challenges their self-righteous self-satisfaction. In this state, the evil seems good to them, the foul seems fair, the worthless seems priceless, the false seems true. Because they have shut their hearts to their indebtedness to God, they parade in the world like masters, they pull their robes around them and put their fingers in their ears to block out the truth. They also mock the message of God and try to make it seem foolish, irrelevant, marginal, a sort of unrealistic fabrication or fantasy or madness. If that does not work, they fight against the message and strive to be rid of the believers by persecuting and killing them. However, in the perspective of God and eternity, it does not matter if the whole world is against God’s Messengers. Whoever makes a stand on the side of Reality and God’s Messengers, does so believing that Reality prevails. The whole world can perish, yet the one or the few be saved. By “world” here we mean the whole horizon of human existence – the physical settlements and monuments, and the non-physical theories, arguments, stories, memories– all of it is perishable except insofar as it is oriented to Reality. Ultimately the whole of creation will give way to another after the Last Day. But here in this surah, the “world” that perishes is the whole world of the people who reject Nuh, `alayhi s-salam.
(9) Unfortunately, people cannot always see through this world to the Reality, so over time their belief in God becomes enfeebled, lukewarm, then diluted, mixed with something else and so perverted. They come to fear and reverence only what they can see –the forces of nature, or the powers of some men over others, and both these have psychological effects as inhibitions, superstitions, taboos. Their world becomes narrower, their vision likewise. Their feeling of anxiety and fearfulness in the world makes them look with special reverence to great individuals of their community’s past, who were powerful or wise or who helped them to accomplish things that now they fear they cannot accomplish. History quickly degenerates into myth, and myth evolves as fetishism and superstitious religion. Eventually these mis-remembered great individuals or misunderstood and feared forces of nature come to be worshipped as lesser powers, separate from even if beneath God (bi-duni-llah). The people, trapped in this degeneracy, come to elevate the historical achievements of their ancestors, to turn them into pseudo-religious myths, and then they cling to these myths. In principle and practice, they behave as if these great ancestors had become gods beneath God with the power to shape their present and future, to influence the coming of rain or safe travelling over the sea, or the outcome of other human efforts, like marriage or war. In Surah Nuh, the proper names are listed of some of these false ancestor-deities whose stories had travelled to, and so were known in, the world of the Arabs of the Jahiliyya. In our time, likewise, though never formally deified, the achievements and great figures of a people are turned into mythical entities, and they cling to them and want to “follow their ways”, to “live up to them”, no matter what they did really. In this way, the Reality is veiled from them, and they do not experience it and cannot make themselves open to it. They mouth adherence to the great people or great ways (ideas, values) of their past (like, for example, rationalism, enlightenment, freedom, democracy, equality), and so they are blind to the realities of what they are doing in the present, as well as being blind to the historical realities of what was done in the name of these mythologised values in the past.
(10) The world is finite. The chain of moments that make up the flows or waves of time must of necessity break. Were it otherwise, there would be no hope of relief from this world. We are created in stages; this world is one of those stages, no more. So it is, that Nuh, `alayhi s-salam, after the equivalent of twenty ordinary lifetimes, concludes that he can no longer preach with hope. Rather, he fears that the unbelievers will make it impossibly hard for the few who believe, and strive to turn them back to unbelief. He prays for what the unbelievers want for themselves, to be increased in their this-worldliness which increases their unbelief. This means, necessarily, that Nuh, ‘alayhi s-salam, prays for the destruction of the unbelievers among his people. This destruction is what God has promised and so it is not contradictory of God’s message that Nuh utters this prayer. Rather, at a certain stage of his preaching, a thousand years less fifty, it is integral to it. For the unbelieving people of the time of the Prophet Muhammad, salla-llahu `alayhi wa sallam, this prayer of Nuh, `alayhi s-salam, is a threat and a warning. The command has not come to abandon his city and its people. But it will come.
(11) What carries the people of Nuh, `alayhi s-salam, to safety is the ship he built by God’s command. The building of the ship took time: time enough for the unbelievers to pass by day after day and laugh mockingly; time enough for those whose hearts could be softened to wonder at the dedication of this man and his few helpers in preparing for a disaster nowhere on the visible horizon, which there was no reason to expect as imminent, impending. This can be an image for us of the building through all the stages of life, through all the prolific multiplicity and variety of circumstances that we experience, of that which will save us in the hereafter that awaits beyond the visible horizon. For each individual being the chain of moments will break; with death, this world will perish from us. In the world we see it the other way around– the one who has died is the one who has perished or “left”. But for the dead one, it is the world that has “left” him. What stays with him is all that he, individually, has forwarded, of intentions and deeds, to present at the judgment of the Last Day: this is the ship we have built in preparation for the doom to come. Is it not wise to build it well?
(12) In the beautiful prayer with which the Surah ends, Nuh `alayhi s-salam prays for his family to be saved, and for those who cross over his threshold as believers. It is a mark of his humanity and the great gentleness of his heart that he prays thus for his family. But as we know and remember, one of his sons will not be among the saved. The flood takes him in his defiance of God and His Messenger, a scene dramatically recounted in the Qur’an. Who can be more worthy in the sight of God than one who has for a thousand years less fifty carried the burden of His message, and preached it in loud and soft voice, in public and private, to high and low, and who has for all this time endured rejection and mockery, insults and arrogant disdain? Even so, the loved ones of this great Messenger of God cannot be saved just because he loves them. They can be saved only if they will to be saved if they will to seek their Creator’s forgiveness before their time has run out. Only God is God. La ilaha illa-llah. La ilaha illa-llah. The separation of unbelievers and believers is inevitable, absolute, final. In this surah, we learn that the believers are few, marginalised, peripheral in the world; yet it is they who, after the great destruction, are the inheritors of a cleansed and refreshed world. La ilaha illa-llah. La ilaha illa-llah.