Comparisons between Prophet Noah and Prophet Abraham can teach Christians, Jews and Muslims very valuable lessons; as long as we do not make snide distinctions between them. As the Qur’an wisely guides us: “We believe in Allah, and in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in (the Books) given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets, from their Lord: We make no distinction between one and another among them, and to Allah do we bend our will.” (3:84).
There are three ways to compare different religions and Prophets. One way is the Medieval polemical style: my way is true, and any differences between my way and other ways is due to the other ways being wrong/false, deviant (sectarian heresies) or due to the other’s distortions and misunderstandings.
Al-Biruni (973-1048) is a remarkable exception. In Biruni’s book on the Hindu religion (with its multiple Gods and idols) he states, “This book is not a polemical one. I shall not produce the arguments of our antagonists (just) in order to refute them… I shall place before the reader the theories of the Hindus exactly as they are.”
The second way is the modern academic way that treats all religions as equally the result of solely human perceptions, ideas and experiences. No religion can be true, except to its believers, because all of them are solely the creation of human beings.
The third way, is the least practiced way, because it requires that religious scholars have both a commitment to their own religion; and use their own religious commitment and experiences to help them understand the religious truths in other religions. This requires the ability to harmonize distinction into differences that teach us lessons by seeing them in the larger context of Allah’s statement in the Qur’an:
“To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah you all return together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.” (5:48)
All monotheistic religions should be able to harmonize their philosophical differences of principle with each other because they all come from the same one source of religious inspiration. As stated in a Hadith narrated by Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, “The prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one.” (Bukhari)
So all prophets of monotheism have one father-Allah: but they have different mothers; mother tongues, motherlands, etc. Note that the Arabic word umm for mother, derives from the same root as the word ummah, i.e. a mother nation/tribe, a mother tongue, a motherland.
There is no need then for the prophets to try to harmonize the ritual or legal practices they teach their own communities, because these are what makes each religious community an unique religious community: “Ritual prayer differs in every religion, but belief never changes.” (Rumi Fihi Mafih 49)
Thus, Jewish and Christian Prophets can be called Muslim Prophets because they, and their loyal followers, all submit to the same basic muslim (monotheistic) beliefs; but members of the Muslim community can be Muslims only if they both believe and practice the Muslim way, because that is what makes their own religious community unique. This is also true for Jews and Christians.
Now let us compare Noah and Abraham. At first we could say that Abraham was much more successful than Noah. Noah’s sons and grandsons were not prophets, however of Abraham the Qur’an states: “And We gave him Isaac and Jacob, and We ordained among his descendants prophethood and the Book, and We gave him his reward in the world, and in the Hereafter he will indeed be among the Righteous.” (29:27)
Noah was a Prophet while Abraham was a Prophet and a Messenger: “Indeed, this is in the former scriptures: the scriptures of Abraham and Moses.” (Qur’an 87:18-19)
“And who is better in religion than one who submits himself to Allah while being a doer of good and follows the religion of Abraham, inclining toward truth. And Allah took Abraham as an intimate friend.” (Qur’an 4:125)
But to be fair, Noah had a much larger task. Abraham’s descendants (“We ordained among his descendants prophethood and the (Torah) Book”), had many centuries to guide the Banu Israel, a small population; Noah was trying to warn, transform and rescue everyone in the surrounding world from the flood.
On being informed of the flood, Noah exhorted his contemporaries to repentance, foretelling them that a flood would destroy the earth on account of the wickedness of its people. According to a Midrash (Oral Torah spiritual lessons through explanations and expansions of the written Torah text), Noah planted cedar-trees and felled them, continuing to do so for the space of 120 years.
When the people asked him for what purpose he prepared so many trees, he told them that he was going to make an ark to save himself from the Flood which was about to come upon the earth. But the people heeded not his words, they mocked at him, and used vile language; and Noah suffered violent persecution at their hands (Sanhedrin 108a, b; Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 22; Genesis Rabba 30.7; Leviticus Rabba 27.5)
And according to Midrash Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer: “The construction of the ark lasted fifty-two years; Noah purposely working slowly, in the hope that the people would take warning (from his preparations) and would repent.”
But most of tafsir commentaries say Noah tried for 950 years (Qur’an 29:14); and only succeeded in rescuing 80 people (Jurhum, an ancestor of Muhammad, was one of them) according to Ibn Abbas, although Qatadah, Hakim and Ibn Jurayj say only 8.
The 950 years of Noah’s prophecy; were filled with calumny (Qur’an 54:9, 23.25). and life threatening events (26:113); and Noah may have felt very discouraged, and even depressed, by the lack of greater results for all his efforts.
Those of us who are discouraged by, and despair of, the occasional times of weakness in modern Democracy should learn from Noah’s 950 year effort.
But for the rabbis the major difference between Prophet Noah and Prophet Abraham was not in Noah’s lack of numerical success; or in the eventual historical significance of Abraham’s descendants, but in Noah’’s personal decline in the aftermath of completing his task.
The Torah reveals: “The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. These were the sons of Noah, and from them the whole earth was repopulated. Noah, a man of the soil, began to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of the wine, he got drunk and (loosing self-respect) uncovered himself inside his tent.” (Torah Genesis 9:18-21)
At the beginning of Noah’s mission the Torah states: “These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a righteous, whole-hearted man in his generations.” (Genesis 5:9) When Noah’s mission is over he becomes a shameful drunk (9:21). The degree of his righteousness is thus much discussed by the ancient rabbis.
Some of the rabbis think Noah was a just man only in comparison with his generation, which was very, very, wicked; but that he could not be compared with any of the other righteous men mentioned in the Torah who lived in average bad times.
Some rabbis go still further and assert that Noah himself should have been included in the divine decree of destruction because Noah was in the habit of scapegoating his youngest son Ham (Genesis 9: 22-25); but received God’s grace for his future descendants; Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac. (Qur’an 2:127)).
Other rabbis, extol Noah’s righteousness, saying that his generation had no influence on him, and that had he lived in another generation, his righteousness would have been still more strongly marked (Talmud Sanhedrin 108a; Genesis Rabba 30.10).
It was generally acknowledged that before the Flood, Noah was, by comparison with his contemporaries, a really upright man and a prophet. He was considered as God’s shepherd (Leviticus Rabba 1.9) But Noah’s planting of a vineyard and his subsequent drunkenness (Genesis 9.20-21) caused him to be regarded by the ancient rabbis in a new light, much to his disparagement.
Thus many thought that the most valuable lesson to be learned from Noah is what Rabbi Hillel (first century BCE) taught: “Do not be sure of your own virtues until the day you die.” (Avot 2:4)
In other words: Do not rely on your righteousness and think that you cannot stumble, for Yochanan the High Priest served (in the Jerusalem Temple for eighty years, yet in the end he became a Sadducee (heretic) who denied the Oral Torah. (Talmud Berakhot 29a).
The major lessons of Noah’s life are religious humility; not evaluating success numerically and not being depressed, or cursing the darkness, when our efforts seem ineffective. As Rabbi Tarfon taught: “It is not your duty to complete the work; nor are you free to desist from it altogether.” Mishnah Avot 2.16
As the Qur’an teaches all of us: “Surely Abraham was an example, obedient to Allah, by nature upright, and he was not of the polytheists. He was grateful for Our bounties. We chose him and guided him unto a right path. We gave him good in this world, and in the next, he will most surely be among the righteous (Qurʾan 16:120-21).