In the city of my childhood, in Ahvaz in southern Iran, we used to experience scary sandstorms followed by even more frightful thunderstorms. It would happen at just about this time of year, early in the spring, as people prepared for their spring cleaning during Nowruz, the Persian new year. The fearsome storms were followed by a merciful rain, and life’s joyousness hurriedly resumed.
I vividly recall a prayer that my parents recited out loud when these sandstorms descended upon us. Half of the prayer was in Arabic, informed by our Shia faith: “La fata illa Ali, la saif illa Zulfiqar / There is no valiant man like Ali, and no sword swifter than his Zulfiqar.”
Then a second, Persian half followed: “Nuh-e Peyghambar bar keshti neshast, in Do’a ra khand tufan bar neshast / Prophet Noah sat upon his ship, recited this prayer and the storm subsided.”
My father stood at the doorstep to our little room, facing the frightful sky reciting this prayer, with my mother and we, the children, behind him repeating it. And the storm calmed down, and we were happy.
We never asked, and to this day I still never ask, the curious chronological question: How could the Biblical and Quranic prophet Noah know about Ali, the first Shia imam, who lived more than a millennium later – let alone recite an Arabic prayer in his honour? The prayer’s elegance and efficacy overcame this naughty chronological doubt.
The figure of Noah is central to the Quran, and a whole chapter is devoted to him. But he also figures prominently in Persian poetry.
“Noah’s son sat with evildoers / And so he lost his prophetic lineage!” wrote Sa’di – demonstrating the importance of keeping good company, lest one lose even the grace of being a prophet’s son.
Who gets to tell our Biblical or Quranic stories? Ordinary people, poets with their superior wisdom, or the self-appointed custodians of the sacred – priests, rabbis, mullahs, professors of religious studies?
What about filmmakers – do they have the right to put their own spin on our received narratives? Darren Aronofsky’s new Biblical epic Noah (2014) stormed onto the wide screen already marred by some unwanted, unnecessary, distracting controversy. Some self-appointed custodians of the sacred are outraged, and several countries have banned the film for depicting a prophet.
I stayed away from these controversies until I actually saw the film. It is a piercing humanist gloss on the epic Biblical story – with special effects (now a mixed blessing) used judiciously and proportionately. What carried the film, I thought, was the towering moral dilemma of Noah – who navigates not just a punishing deluge, but also his obedience to his God through the rocky passages of his mortal soul and fragile humanity.
I saw the film with awe and in admiration, not least because it breaks the monopoly of the institutional claim on a magnificent Biblical story that at first belonged to the Jewish people, but which then entered the Bible and the Quran. Thus, it belongs to billions of human beings – and no particular rabbi, priest, imam or cleric has any exclusive claim on it. We are the people – Jews, Christians, Muslims and (bless them all) atheists and agnostics. This is our story, and we can tell it any way we please!
Aronofsky’s Noah is a man – a husband, father and soon-to-be grandfather. It is a good time in the history of humanity when we have choice to make between the Noah of Glenn Beck – who criticised the cinematic portrayal of Noah and referred to the film as a “Babylonian chainsaw massacre” – and the Noah of Aronofsky.
As a Muslim, as a man, and as a father, I have made my choice, and I am on Aronofsky’s side. I revel in his judicious moral imagination. Without compromising the Biblical prophet’s absolutist convictions in the commandment of his God, Aronofsky has Noah finally succumb to the fragile humanity of his soul. From the moral conundrum that torments his soul, he arrives at a superior conception of his God. His God does not speak to him except through that fragility He had enabled in the first place. And we, as creatures of that very same dialectic, are far richer in our moral imagination through this superior filmmaker than we would be through divisive Christian or Muslim televangelists.
I watched Aronofsky’s Noah with my elder son Kaveh in a movie theatre in New York. For the duration of the screening, I thought that mundane cinema was more graced with Noah’s godly humanity than any church, any synagogue, any mosque and any classroom I have ever known.
Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York. He is the author of, among other books, Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest (Harvard, 2011).