Surah 7 (Al-Araf/The Heights): 59 & 64

59. Of old, sent We Noah to his people, and he said ‘O my people! worship God. Ye have no God but Him. Indeed. I fear for you the chastisement of the Great Day’…

64. Marvel ye that a Warning should come to you from your Lord through one of yourselves, that he may warn you, and that ye may fear for yourselves, and that haply ye may find mercy?

[‘The Koran translated from the Arabic’, John Meadows Rodwell, 1861 (British clergyman)]


In the Book of Genesis, Noah is the great-grandson of Enoch 〈14.〉, the ninth generation after Adam. Chapters 6-9 recount that  God looked upon man’s wickedness and saw that the earth had become corrupt and full of lawlessness and that He ‘regretted that he had made man on the earth .He decided to wipe mankind and all living things from the earth, save for Noah and his family who alone found favour with him. So He warned Noah to build an ark of gopherwood, large enough to carry his family and two of each living creatures, a male and a female. When the ark was complete, God ordered Noah to enter the ark with his family and the animals, two by two, after which ‘all the fountains of the great abyss burst forth and the floodgates of the sky were opened .The flood waters covered the earth for forty days, after which they receded, the existence of land having been made known to Noah when a dove that he had released returned to the ark with an olive leaf in its beak. The ark finally came to rest on Mount Ararat and Noah’s family re-established humanity, making a covenant with God in which God promised that He would not destroy humanity again.


A Mesopotamian clay tablet, first deciphered in 1873, revealed that the biblical account of the flood was, like the story of Adam and Eve, a Jewish adaptation of an episode forming part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, see 〈16.〉 We now know that even this ancient tale was not the origin of the story of the great flood, which was in turn adopted by the Assyrians from the even more older Akkadian legend of Atra-Hasis. As with Noah, Atra-Hasis received divine warning of an imminent flood, with precise instructions how to build a boat, and a command to use it to rescue only his family and animals. The Gilgamesh version added this the element of the release of birds as a means of testing for the presence of land: Genesis incorporated it into the sacred history of the people of Israel.


In the Qur’an, the story of Noah is summarised seven times, at {7.59-64}, {10.71-74}, {11.25-49}, {23.23-31}, {26.105-122}, {54.9-17} and {71.1-28}. In its retelling of the story, the flood seems to be localised with each one of the flood passages basing the story firmly upon the destruction having been earned by Noah’s people. The ark’s famous animal passengers are mentioned – and then only very briefly – in just two of the seven accounts, {11.40} and {23.29}.


In Surah 71 the sin of Noah’s neighbours is their clinging to the ways of paganism, in particular their veneration of five named pagan gods: Wadd, Suwa’, Yaguth, Ya’uq and Nasr, {71.23}; and for having ignored their prophet’s warnings and mocked him.  Noah is even presented as having called down the flood out of frustration with his people’s stubbornness: ‘My Lord, they disobeyed me … My Lord, leave not a single disbeliever to dwell upon the earth … and do not increase the wrongdoers in aught but ruin,’ {71.21 & 26-28}.


TGhe fulfilment of Noah’s prayer, though has a tragic consequence for him, with the Qur’an’s introduction of an element into the story that does not appear in any of the previous versions: an unnamed son of Noah who attempts to save himself by his own efforts by climbing a mountain, only to be swept away by the rising waters {11.42-47}. When this occurs, Noah pleads with God to save his son, imploring ‘Truly my son is from my family’, but God refuses, throwing Noah’s words back at him: ‘Truly he is not from thy family. Surely such conduct was not righteous,’ in response to which Noah asks to be forgiven for his prayer.


Both the biblical and Quranic and stories of Noah are about God smiting sinners and saving only the righteous, but in the former  the nature of Noah’s righteousness is not stated and he is not asked to warn anyone of the impending flood at all. In the Qur’an the need to heed the words of God’s prophet is central. The figure of Noah’s doomed son, as a close relative of a prophet struck down for his lack of obedience, fulfils the same role as that played in the story of Lot by his wife 〈68.〉 and hinted at in the story of Abraham in relation to his father, and possibly, it will be argued, one of his sons too 〈21.〉 Most closely, God’s drowning of Noah’s son resembles part of the story of al-Khidr, who is described killing a boy to prevent his rebellious spirit grieving his parents (with an  implicit endorsement of ‘honour killing〈28.〉 The Qur’an ‘borrows’ elements of the biblical story of Noah, but just as the Torah  incorporates the story into its overarching theme of God’s faithfulness to his people (seen from the perspective of the descendants of the survivors) and the New Testament reinterprets the ark again as a metaphor for God’s promise of salvation, in the Qur’an Noah’s son derives no privilege from his relationship to Noah and the story is more about the drowning of the disobedient than it is about the salvation of Noah. Favour is earned individually, and only through absolute and unswerving obedience.