Why Muslims should be able to see ‘Noah’

Why Muslims should be able to see ‘Noah’

I have not yet found the time see director Darren Aronofsky’s new film, “Noah,” apart from its minute-long trailer. But I do want to see the movie for two reasons. First, as a Muslim, the story of Prophet Noah and his ark is significant for me, as it is one of the important narratives in the Quran. Secondly, I want to see how modern eyes of Hollywood depicted this ancient story.

However, millions of Muslims who live in Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates or Indonesia will not have the chance to make such evaluations. Because “Noah” has been banned by the authorities in all these countries. (In Saudi Arabia, which you might be wondering about, there was no need to ban “Noah” because there is simply no movie theater in the country to begin with.)

The reason for all these bans was “Islamic sensibilities.” In Egypt, where the film was shown, the influential Al-Azhar University even issued an official opinion. “Any production that characterizes Allah’s prophets and messengers” are banned in Islam, it said, stressing that Noah is also “Allah’s messenger.”

Now, with all due respect, I disagree with Al-Azhar and the Muslim governments that banned the film. And as I think that this small controversy underlines a much bigger issue, let me explain why.

First of all, while it is true that Muslims have historically opposed “any production that characterizes “Allah’s prophets,” I must remind that this has no basis in the only undisputed source of Islam: The Quran. The Quran tells the stories of the prophets, such as Noah, Abraham or Moses, but it never says they should not be pictured. Yet this ban evolved in early Islam with a reasonable logic: Islam was in part a cry against idolatry, and Muslims feared that any “graven image” of prophets (or any human being) could lead to idol-worshipping. But in the modern world today, where idolatry (as least in its classical form) is not an issue, Muslims can well be more relaxed about images.

Admittedly, this is a reformist argument — that Muslims should revisit their historical aversion to images, including that of prophets. But even if the traditional attitude is kept, there could have been more lenience towards the film “Noah.”

To begin with, unlike the Prophet Muhammad, Noah is not a prophet exclusive to Islam. Like Moses or Jesus, he is revered by other faiths as well. And it is not a secret that the images of Jesus have been used for centuries in churches all across the Muslim world. So, if we Muslims have not been offended by the depiction of Jesus by Christians, why should we be offended by the depiction Noah by Hollywood?
One can object by saying that the problem is not the mere visual depiction of Noah — by Russell Crowe— but the way that he and his story are portrayed in the film. In fact, some fundamentalists Christians in the U.S. have also been disturbed by the film’s contradictions with “Biblical facts.” In that regard, Muslims can also criticize the film’s contradictions with “Quranic facts.” But criticizing and banning are very different things.

Which brings me to the main problem I see in the contemporary Muslim world: The tendency to ban anything (films, books, tweets, etc.) that contradicts Islam. This authoritarianism does not serve Islam, however, as its proponents think. It only keeps Muslims uninformed about the outside world and unsophisticated in their responses. To oppose something with reason, and reasonableness, after all, you should first be able know what it is.