Sunday, February 5, 2012

Noah and Abraham: a comparative study

Cenotaph of the grave which is believed
to be Abraham's. 

I am not going to argue whether Noah and Abraham were historical figures or not (although I personally believe that they were). Here I just want to share a single observation: the portrayal of these characters in the Quran makes it possible to observe a very interesting difference in their presentation of a common message, and I presume that this difference might be meaningful.
Both prophets preached the Unity of God, and both were opposed by the elite. The Quran tells us that the elite in the society of Noah resorted to personal criticism rather than discussing his message, and from an unrelated discussion they arrived at the conclusion that the ideas presented by Noah could not be sound:

“We can see that you are nothing but a mortal like ourselves, and it is clear to see that only the lowest among us follow you unthinkingly. We cannot see how you are any better than we are. In fact, we think you are liars.

So just because he was human and people from the lowest classes subscribed to his ideas, those ideas could not be true? This is the kind of thinking which fails to make logical connections between things because it cannot rise above personal likes and dislikes.

To this type of mind, Noah responds by appealing to the appreciative self rather than the efficient self. He tries to show them that although it seems to you that your logical mind is accepting or rejecting evidence, the truth is that your heart and your will have already told your minds what should be accepted as convincing and what should be rejected: “My people, think: if I did have a clear sign from my Lord, and He had given me grace of His own, though it was hidden from you, could we force you to accept it against your will?” (all above quotations are from Chapter 11 of the Quran).

This is a remarkable dialogue: an appeal for temporarily suspending the judgemental efficient self, so that one may sink deep into the holistic appreciative self. Essentially, the message of Noah can be summed up as this: trust your deeper self to be correct about the external world. 

It is quite significant that the society whose elite rejected this call met its nemesis in a natural disaster about which an early warning had been received through intuition. The masses had paid heed and were saved; the elite denied and perished. The writers of The Epic of Gilgamesh presented the Great Flood as a vengeful act of whimsical deities but the Quranic version makes it possible for us to interpret the event as a "reminder" about the natural consequence that would probably arise whenever people make the kind of mistake which the elite made in those times.

The message of Abraham is also the Unity of God, but civilization seems to have moved on a bit and this development is reflected in the dialogue ascribed to Abraham in the Quran.

The Quran offers anecdotes from various phases of the career of Abraham. Interestingly, in almost all glimpses from his early life we find him engaged in arguments, and in every argument his opponents are denying the evidence of sense-perception: the idol-worshippers of Ninenvah ascribe divinity to idols, stars, moon and sun; and the king (possibly Nimrod) claims divinity for himself because he thinks that he has the power to “grant” life and death just like God.

Hence, the arguments presented by the opponents of Abraham can be understood as a misrepresentation of the message of Noah. It is almost as if the followers of Noah had set up a civilization based on his message that intuition could be trusted. Then, in the course of time, they forgot that sense-perception also had a role to play. This mental lethargy has made a mess of the whole point about connecting with one’s inner self. Now injustice is being perpetuated in the name of esoteric wisdom.

Quite understandably, a poetic appeal to the evidence of sense perception is the common strand in Abraham's dialogue with all these opponents: he rejects idols because they cannot hear and speak; he argues that the celestial bodies could not be gods because they go down; he denies the divinity of the king because the king cannot change the course of the Sun.

Thus in the transition from the message of Noah to the message of Abraham, civilization comes full circle. Noah had shown that the reports of our deeper self could be true about the external world. Abraham preached that the evidence of the external world could also be true about our souls.

This video from Youtube may not be
directly relevant but it is not
completely irrelevant either: enjoy!


  1. Greetings,

    This is really a great post. Thank you for it!

    I admire the way you've highlighted the The manner in which Noah and Abraham dealt with the different perceptions of the people of their time, those perceptions sometimes being locked in the efficient self, sometimes the appreciative self.

    All good wishes,


  2. (Reposting as I forgot to add my name - please delete other copy)

    What a fascinating analysis. It really highlights the human tendency (to this day) to split perception of reality into one of two, instead of approaching life holistically. Thanks Khurram Sahib!

  3. @ Connie,

    Thank you for this. The way you frame it here leads me to think about logical/rational thinking and/or science and how, if not properly in the context of the Whole (i.e., a coupling and balance of the efficient & appreciative self, to use the language of Iqbal), can run amuck (which I think it has to a large degree).

    Khalil Jibran wrote:

    "Science without the saving grace of beauty and compassion is a dead issue."

    Logic alone is simply not enough. Hitler may have been extremely logical.

    Kindest wishes,


  4. Greetings,

    @ Sally, I apologize, as I see that I wrote "Connie" when I was, in fact, thinking "Sally." So...I apologize. I got into a roll, during the last day or so, of reading so many posts on the Marghdeen blog, here, and others, that I mixed up those about whom I was thinking.

    Thank you for your comments. I just read a post by Sharaaz Khan on the Marghdeen blog. After reading it, I realized that the two selves (efficient & appreciative) that I've learned about by beginning to study Allama Iqbal's teachings seem to strongly resonate with the saying, so often cited in other teachings, "Be in the world, but not of it."

    To my limited capacity of understanding these things, the two seem to be pointing to the same truth.

    Thank you (Sally) :-)

    All good wishes,


  5. @Robert No problem Robert. It is easy to get mixed up with names when there are no faces to go with them.

    And thanks to you. Your posts have given me a lot to think about. :)

  6. This is wonderful Khurram bhai............thank you so much as ever for highlighting the varying perceptions of the self, and indeed these dichotomies continue to emerge from the beginning. Wonderful :)

  7. Brilliant! Shows how the prophetic approach changes with time, and how well a prophet is able to grasp the psychology of his own people. Thanks very much, sir, there's something new to be learnt from you every day :)

  8. Thanks for lamenting the difference of approaches. I admit that although Hazrat Abraham is one of my most fav personalities and i intended to list him among my personal interests in history i.e. ur first question which i could not and now i feel it would be useless to answer that first question. Any way i want to say that in spite of this love for Abraham i never saw this difference. This is great and i think the logical culmination of the different approaches to see the world inner and external, is Islam. can i give my list of interests now? or i should carry on?

  9. This post, Shafique Sahib, is one of the most profound and spiritually/ethically logical and as well gentle writings I've ever been privileged to read.

    You do not deny some truths and beauties in the older understandings of divinity...yet show how the historical development of what human kind are privileged to know (as a whole) concerning divinity is worth noting for it's own sake. No matter what each person decides to do with the information.

    This section from your post by itself is worth way more than many posts: "an appeal to temporarily suspend the judgemental efficient self, so that one may sink deep into the holistic appreciative self. Essentially, the message of Noah can be summed up as this: trust your deeper self"

    And then, I love that you show how the knowledge or thought which may sometimes be less "attuned" to the spiritual (the more concrete, objective, rational side)or the older limited spirituality) is not ignored but addressed by both Abraham and Noah...

    ...we are given the fuller picture.

    Also, we are given mentors in Noah and Abraham and in the commentators such as yourself...because like them we NEED often to use the "language" of the scientist, social scientist, comparative religion folk & and even poetry (finding the universal language needed) if the purpose is true communication...

    Otherwise, our attempt to speak is not only worth little if nothing but it also would be without compassion or fuller understanding...

    Just SO many implications.

    (Shafique Sahib, feel free to take any portion of this as a response to any other lessons which I may have missed -- if appropriate?)

  10. respected sir thank u so much for granting such as knowledgeful holy lesson ,two diffrent logic reality based idea and quatations from holy quran made the lesson impacting on mind for ever .the given analysis of afficient self and appreciative self both completes our knowledge about logic and reality

  11. Thanks for given the two different logics and reality based ideas and specialy cutations from Quran pak for over awarness.. the two analysis vasted our incomplete knowledge one phase of philosophy(logic) and second external world extands and complete our self
    Afficient self+Appreciative self completes our consept of knowledge.....

  12. Great teasing out of the differences!

  13. Sir I All I can Say is that this lesson was simply "Brilliant" Thanks Alot sir.