Monday, April 11, 2016

No Laughing Matter: Islamic Traditions in Our Culture...

In the current ugly and intolerant climate, in which some citizens are apparently not immediately repulsed by calls to bar Muslims from entry to our country, the familiar story of Noah and the Flood can inform us of the traditions and values we both share and draw from Islam itself.


To be clear, I am not soft on Terrorism. From 2002 until 2006, I was an Arabic linguist at the National Security Agency. I was awarded the Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal for service I performed in Iraq in 2004.

But after I had spent that time in service, I decided to move on with my life and I have been teaching Latin at a public high school since then.

As a linguist, I try to keep my languages strong through regular study.

I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian. But purely from a language learning standpoint, I was recently listening to a Fundamentalist Protestant program available in multiple languages which described the events of the Book of Genesis.

And each of the accounts in my target languages of Romanian, Spanish, and Arabic, described the often cited account of how the people at the time of Noah laughed at him and mocked him for building that ark.

As I heard these language materials describe this, I smiled at the irony of how people who claim to believe Sola Scriptura, only the Bible, in practice believe things that the “Tradition” has passed down from many and various sources.

No Laughter in the Bible

If you were taught that the people in Noah’s time laughed at him or mocked him, open up your Bible to Genesis, Chapter 6. There you will  read how God instructed Noah to build an ark to preserve his family and the animals of the earth.

And there is no mention whatsoever of the surrounding peoples making fun of Noah for building that ark.

Where Did the Story Come From?

The answer is, the story is clearly presented in the Quran, the Holy Book of Islam.

We read in the Quran 11.38:

And he was building the ship, and every time that chieftains of his people passed him, they made fun of him. He said: Although you make fun of us, yet we make fun of you even as you make fun.

Jewish Rabbinical Literature implies that the People in the time of Noah made fun of him (E.g., Sanhedrin 108a; Gen. R. 30.7), but there is no overt statement describing Noah made fun of by the people earlier than what is stated in the Islamic Quran. The Jewish Midrash Tanhuma Yelammedenu, dated generally after the Quran, does explicitly describe people laughing at Noah. I’m sure that source is not quoting the Quran, but rather some internal tradition. But my point will still be the same.

Protestant Christians in 2016, 500 or more years after they broke from the Church of Rome over the claim that they follow only the Bible, are passing down the tale of people making fun of Noah when that story is not found in the Bible itself. How are they passing down a story that is only openly stated in the Islamic Quran when they are simultaneously entertaining talk of refusing Muslims entry to the United States?

The answer is found in the simple fact that the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic Traditions are not now and never were truly isolated from one another.  From their origins, despite animosities, indeed, overt hostilities, these Traditions have recognized kinship in one another.

Islam historically recognized adherents of Judaism and Christianity as belonging to the group termed the “People of the Book” (‘ahl al-kitaab; Quran 3.199).

Somehow, the charming tale of people laughing at Noah entered into the Western World and persisted. It survived, even thrived, in communities that claimed they followed only the Bible, despite the fact that there was no mention of this charming tale in their Scripture.

The Christian, Jewish, and Islamic communities do indeed hold views internally that the others do not. But, if these traditions were displayed as a Venn Diagram, these particular views are slivers apart from the considerable overlap that all three share.

And that explains why that which can only be described as an Islamic spin on a traditional story has been pervasively passed down in the kinship traditions.

The take-away is that Christians, Jews, and Muslims should feel quite free, even obligated, to mine truths from one another’s traditions. All those things that are not overtly contrary to my tradition should be esteemed as part of “The Common Tradition.”

If you are a believer of any Tradition, you feel God is present in your life. You feel God is near you.

If you have never heard it before, absorb this profound Truth from the Holy Quran. God says:

And we are closer to him than his jugular vein (Quran 50:16)

Place your finger against that vein. You feel your very life coursing through it. God is there. God is within it. 

Blessed be the God of Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad.

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