It has often been noted that while the Bible is (among many other things) a series of historical narratives, the Qur’an is a series of sermons. This is nowhere clearer than in the oft-repeated story of Moses. While the Bible’s first five books contain the story of Moses in what is in the main a continuous narrative, the Qur’an tells parts of this story in suras 2, 7, 10, 17, 20, 26, 27 and this one (and elsewhere also).
There is a great deal of repetition and overlap, but there are also unique features of most every retelling. Each one has its own homiletic point: details of Moses’ life are used to warn unbelievers or exhort believers to greater piety. As we saw last week, Ibn Abbas and Jabir bin Zaid say that suras 26, 27, and 28 were revealed in that order. Maududi says that “the different parts of the Prophet Moses story as mentioned in these surahs together make up a complete story.” Still, if someone were to try to reconstruct the chronology of Moses’ life by means of the Qur’an alone, it would be very difficult.
Meanwhile, the recurring preoccupation with Moses reinforces his status as a prophet of Islam, as well as the perversity of the Jews in not recognizing the congruence of Muhammad’s message with that of Moses, and then becoming Muslims. Maududi emphasizes that, here again, the point of these retellings of Moses’ story is not to make a point about Moses, but about Muhammad: “The main theme” of this sura, he says, “is to remove the doubts and objections that were being raised against the Prophethood of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (upon whom be Allah’s peace and blessings) and to invalidate the excuses which were being offered for not believing in him. For this purpose, first the story of the Prophet Moses has been related…by analogy with the period of revelation.”
Verses 2-43 tell Moses’ story, echoing many elements of the Biblical account, although Haman is imported from another time and place (his story is in the Book of Esther) to be Pharaoh’s assistant (v. 8). Allah tells Moses’ mother to cast him into the river “when thou hast fears about him” (v. 7). She does, the “people of Pharaoh” rescue him (v. 8), and his mother, her identity not known to the Egyptians, becomes his nursemaid (v. 13). Moses declares he will never assist those who sin (v. 17) – a declaration that modern Salafis (rigorous, “pure” Muslims) link to Muhammad’s saying recorded in the Mishkat al-Masabih, that someone who knowingly assists a tyrant is no longer a Muslim. This is their justification for opposing authoritarian rulers in Muslim countries who do not implement the fullness of Sharia (such as Mubarak and Musharraf).
Moses kills an Egyptian and Allah forgives him (vv. 15-16), but his deed becomes known (v. 19) and Moses flees to Midian (v. 22). There he agrees to work for the unnamed Jethro in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage (v. 27). He sees the burning bush (v. 29), encounters Allah (v. 30), and is given the miracles of the rod (v. 31) and his white hand (v. 32) to show Pharaoh. Pharaoh dismisses his preaching as “sorcery” (v. 36), just as the unbelievers will say about Muhammad (11:7, 15:15). And after Allah flings Pharaoh and his hosts into the sea (v. 40), we get to the point of the story.
That point is in verses 44-55: the fact that Muhammad knows these details of Moses’ life, when he wasn’t there to witness them, is proof that Muhammad is a prophet. Ibn Kathir explains: “Allah points out the proof of the prophethood of Muhammad, whereby he told others about matters of the past, and spoke about them as if he were hearing and seeing them for himself. But he was an illiterate man who could not read books, and he grew up among a people who knew nothing of such things.” So we see Allah reminding Muhammad that he wasn’t present at various events in Moses’ life (vv. 44-46). Yet the pagan Arabs demand that Muhammad perform miracles as Moses did, even though they don’t believe in Moses either (v. 48); “they only follow their own lusts” (v. 50). The People of the Book know that the Qur’an is true — “this was revealed,” says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “regarding certain Jews who became Muslims, such as ‘Abd Allāh b. Salām and others, and [certain] Christians who had come from Abyssinia and Syria [who also became Muslims].”
Verses 56-75 excoriate the perversity of the unbelievers, in ignoring and denying the clear signs of Allah. Allah guides whom he will; Muhammad will not be able to bring to the truth all those he loves (v. 56) – yet another verse indicating that belief and unbelief is solely in Allah’s hands. This verses was revealed,” Ibn Kathir explains, “concerning Abu Talib, the paternal uncle of the Messenger of Allah” — and the father of Ali, the hero of the Shi’ites. Abu Talib “used to protect the Prophet, support him and stand by him. He loved the Prophet dearly, but this love was a natural love, i.e., born of kinship, not a love that was born of the fact that he was the Messenger of Allah. When he was on his deathbed, the Messenger of Allah called him to Faith and to enter Islam, but the decree overtook him and he remained a follower of disbelief, and Allah’s is the complete wisdom.”
Allah will taunt the unbelievers on the Day of Judgment, asking them where his “partners” are (vv. 62, 74-75). Verses 76-88 follow this with the story of Qarun (Korah of Numbers 16:1-40), who rebelled against Moses. Qarun trusts in his great wealth instead of worshipping Allah (v. 78). According to a hadith, Abu Hurayra, one of Muhammad’s companions, recalled Muhammad saying that only three things actually belong to the man who glories in his riches: the food he eats, the clothes he wears out, and the money he spends in the cause of Allah. “All else,” said Muhammad, “ he will leave for his heirs.” No doubt about that.
Those “whose aim is the life of this world” (v. 79) envied him, but the righteous knew better (v. 80), and sure enough, in due time Allah “caused the earth to swallow up him and his house” (v. 81). Muhammad should “never be a helper to the disbelievers” (v. 86) – “rather,” says Ibn Kathir, “separate from them, express your hostility towards them and oppose them.” For in the end, everything will perish except His Face” (v. 88) – that is, everything except Allah. This might seem to contradict the idea of the eternity of Paradise and hell, but the Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs glosses it in this way: “all works that are for other than Allah’s Countenance…will not be accepted…except that which is meant for the sake of His Countenance.”
Next week: Sura 29: “Do those who practice evil think that they will get the better of Us?”
(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic Qur’an, with English translations available; here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)