Pharaoh in the Quran

When we have understood the character of Pharaoh properly, we will be able to understand why it is that the pharaonic powers of our time can say that they are prepared to release nuclear weapons that will destroy the whole world, their enemies and themselves, rather than surrender their power.

The Quran is a rahmah for mankind because it is the guidance for them that can, if they will (and their will is not compelled), inform them about how to believe in their Lord, how to understand the teaching and follow the lead of His Messenger, and how to live their lives so that they are properly prepared for the judgement that awaits them at the Hour. The Quran assures its hearers that if they believe in God and the last Day and do righteous deeds, they will have nothing to fear, no cause to grieve.

The Arabs, most of whom were mushrikun (unbelieving polytheists), did not know how to believe in the Messenger sent to them, what to expect of him so that they could be sure he was the Messenger of God, nor how far they were expected to change their beliefs and behaviours. So the Quran has many narratives, short and long, about the relation between the Messengers and their people, about how they received the message, how they reacted, and whether they believed and changed their behaviours or not. Of these narratives, the most important and the most frequently mentioned concern Musa (as), who was sent to the Israelites when they were enslaved in Egypt and to the people of Egypt, specifically their ruler Pharaoh and his court. Thus, the narratives about Musa have four major phases: his being brought up among the elite of the Egyptian people, though he was an Israelite; the events leading to his escape or hijra from Egypt to a pastoral life in exile until he is addressed by God Himself and commanded to return to Egypt and call the Pharaoh to the true religion; his calling of Pharaoh, with plain speech, with demonstration of the illusory power of the sorcerers, and multiple spectacular proofs of the power of God which altogether surrounds and easily overwhelms any human power, even Pharaoh’s; and, finally, his escape with his people, the Israelites, after the destruction of Pharaoh and his army, and his handling of the Israelites in their freedom, and their inadequate response to his commands and teaching.

In these notes, I will focus on why Pharaoh is called to repent and mend his beliefs and behaviours, again and again, rather than destroyed straightaway. We must always keep in mind that what is presented in these Quranic narratives is not intended as a history of the Israelite people. It is always intended to educate the conscience of the Arabs listening to the da`wah of God’s Messenger, sallal-lahu `alayhiwa-sallam.

The Arabs knew from their own history, and from their acquaintance with the history of the Romans and Persians, with whom they were in regular contact both as subjects and as traders and merchants, two kinds of powerful people. Both types self-centred, but one in a selfish way and the other in an unselfish way. We can think of them as being self-centred in a self-serving way or in a way oriented to serving the people.

The example of the former is Qarun. Perhaps he is one of the Israelites; for sure he thinks himself very cunning because he has amassed an unimaginably large fortune. He is of the type who get rich and go on getting richer. They expend a lot of attention and energy doing this, and in protecting their wealth. What do they do with this wealth? They display it. They need people to know they have what others want but do not have. They spend it on luxuries, anything that others cannot afford. A few others – those who build their palaces or tailor their silks or prepare their gourmet wines and foods – may catch some of this wealth. But in principle this wealth concentrates, it does not circulate. It is predatory wealth, wealth taken by force or cunning from others and accumulated. The attitude and energy behind it are not creative of wealth nor distributive of wealth. So why do the Qaruns of the world do this? What is the point, what motivates them? You will have heard about the dragons of Northern European mythology. These fantasy creatures prey upon mankind and steal their treasures, then build a great horde which they hide and guard in a cave. Eventually, a warrior-hero slays the dragon, acquires the treasure and is generous with it. What motivates the dragon? It cannot eat the treasure, nor spend it on luxuries, it can only hide it and look at it in a dark, secret place. It hordes what others treasure; the treasure has no value for the dragon except the value others put on it. Its motive is sheer malice, a perverse pleasure in depriving others of what they value. The Qaruns of the world take pleasure in possessing what others are thereby dispossessed of; they enjoy being objects of envy.

Another example of self-serving self-centredness is Haman. The archetype of the tyrant’s chief aide and advisor. He knows where power is, what side his bread is buttered on. His skill is to know what his tyrant master wants before he wants it, to flatter him, to manage and maintain his power and glory. By such service he guarantees his own power and the privileges of wealth and status that go with it. Typically, such men are feared and hated by their inferiors and mistrusted by their master, because their ambition for power and status can always tempt them to be disloyal. As Qarun is trapped in his malice and wealth, Haman is trapped in his ambition for power and position. So it is Haman or a Haman-like who is quickest to interpret the Messenger’s call as a device to rob those in power of their authority over the hearts and minds of the people; a Haman-like who recommends immediate humiliation of those who might be drawn to the Messenger’s side: kill their sons and keep their daughters alive.

The self-centredness of Pharaoh is of a different nature; it can even look like unselfish public service. Like the great emperors of Rome and Persia that the first audience of the Quran would certainly have heard about, he is the author of great public works – irrigation systems, roads, ports, markets; military organisation to protect or enlarge frontiers; civil administration to maintain standards of value, weights and coinage; and judiciary and police to enforce the laws of the land – all intended to create and distribute prosperity. He is the author also of grand monuments and histories to celebrate the glory of himself (and his dynasty) as the embodiment of the greatness of the people. They are expected to identify their good with his good. He ensures the laws and justice, but is himself above the law and answerable only to himself.  To be sure, his economic system is hierarchical and operates by tyrannical exploitation – just as in our day, there is an oppressed ‘third world’ without which there cannot be the order and success of the ‘first world’. But Pharaohs pay that price, perhaps sincerely believing that, one day, prosperity will reach all levels of his society and maybe even all societies. At the bottom of the hierarchy there are slaves. But even the slaves (as we see in the later behaviour of the Israelites when they are free and long for the goods of Egypt) can walk the streets of the great city and see the variety of goods and services, and marvel at the high towers, the pyramids and what not. In some way Pharaoh cares, or believes he cares, for his people. He does not lead a life of lazy luxury. Rather, he is attentive to how the world is, to possible threats to his dominions, external and internal; to possible new ways to improve wealth-creating opportunities for his subjects. To be the great ruler in the service of his people, he has to be willing to learn something he did not know before. In his high, secure position, he can let things happen for a time, and see what comes out. He is, in short, curious. It may be (la`alla), as God says, that Pharaoh may pay heed; so Musa is commanded to call him to repentance.

If Pharaoh is a trapped being, it is not in the manner of the Qaruns and Hamans. Like any tyrant, he is exasperated by challenges to his power, which he punishes with swift fury – one might almost say with a religious indignation, as if to challenge him were a sort of blasphemy. (Nearer our time, imperial powers have behaved in the same self-righteous way, and punished whole peoples with utmost severity for daring to resist the empire or question its right to rule over them.) As examples of Pharaoh’s curiosity, or openness of disposition, think of how he takes in the infant Musa at the request of his wife, who is so hopeful that some good might come to them from doing this act of kindness. Think of his bewilderment that Musa, though brought up amid the advantages of Egypt, nevertheless turned his back on those advantages for something else. For what? Think also of how he questions God’s Messenger about his Lord, for he can see in the dignity and authority of manner of the Messenger that he, the Messenger, knows something that he, the Pharaoh, does not know. He does not order the Messenger to be killed; he has some legal excuse, though, as Pharaoh, he has no need of one to order killing (States authorise soldiers to do in their name what, out of the State’s uniform, would be the terrible crimes of plunder and murder). He does take his courtiers’ advice and order a trial that will demonstrate that the knowledge at his command (the sorcerers) is superior to that of God’s Messenger. His courtiers are proven to be wrong. But Pharaoh does not see, will not see.

Then, a series of wonders are produced by God’s will responding to the supplication of His Messenger, whereby the people of Egypt are rescued from disasters and plagues that all the knowledge and power at Pharaoh’s disposal cannot remove. Again and again, at every opportunity, Pharaoh does not see, will not see. Why not?

The reason is the fact that, for all his public service and his good works as he supposes and intends them to be, he remains self-centred. He does not, will not, understand that he is not an autonomous agent, rather he is indebted for all his powers, his knowledge, for all the means laid at his disposal in the world, to his Lord, who is the Lord of all beings and all worlds. So, despite the repeated proofs of the limitation of his power to enact his will, he is determined to assert his will and power over God’s Messenger and the escaping Israelites. He is ruined, and all that he built of towers and canals, fine gardens and monuments, all are ruined altogether. He achieves this absolute ruin of his works because he cannot let go of his self-centredness, his belief in his autonomy and absolute right to absolute power. He cannot surrender his self, so he is trapped in it. (As contrasting examples, we have in the Quran the great conqueror Dhu l-Qarnayn, the Prophet-King Sulayman (as), and the wise Queen Bilqis; all of whom are mindful of their indebtedness to God and the transience of all that their courage, knowledge, and wisdom can achieve by His leave.

When we have understood the character of Pharaoh properly, we will be able to understand why it is that the pharaonic powers of our time can say that they are prepared to release nuclear weapons that will destroy the whole world, their enemies and themselves, rather than surrender their power. They say so believing that in this way they are saving their people and their way of life. In truth, they hate their enemies (i.e., those who challenge their power) more than they love their own children and grandchildren. And their commitment to holding their power is greater than either their love or their hate. It is not sane. And that is why with all the good intentions and the good works, with all the science and technology greater than what was available or imaginable in the time of Pharaoh, the modern powers necessarily do far greater harm than good, create more poverty than prosperity, more war and suffering than peace and ease. In the past, they enriched themselves by exporting poverty and political instability to weaker peoples beyond their own boundaries; now, their obsession with power, combined with a Qarun-like infatuation with concentrating wealth, has begun to import poverty and instability into their own lands. They do not see, will not see.

Mohammad Akram Nadwi
Director | Al-Salam Institute


17 Sha’ban 1437 AH / 23 May 2016 CE

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