Quranic Storytelling – The believer among the pharaohs

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SHAFAQNA - Among the stations of progress of the prophetic missions and the Divine doctrine, the Holy Quran discusses the history of the communities of unbelief to which the messengers were sent. However, amid the ups and downs, the Quran presents us with striking examples of personalities whose emergence at certain stages of the prophetic missions manifests extraordinary phenomena, especially when it comes to unequivocal position-taking at critical historical moments.

It is not a far-fetched notion to find a believer living amidst a community of unbelief. Yet it could prove highly unlikely to find such a person in the highest echelons of power, a regime that is a patron of the movement of unbelief, defending it against any force that opposes it. The vehement and instinctive protection by the center of power is understandable because it is viewed as the source of all the concessions the ruler and his clique are enjoying and the luxurious life they are leading. Thus, the ruling elite would feel insecure in their positions if belief ruled supreme. It is because they think that it would detract from their character and undermine their position. An example of this state of affairs is that of Pharaoh and his society. He ruled people, believing that they thought that his position was sacrosanct because of his embodying divinity or having part thereof. To his mind, this justified his demanding others to submit to, and sanctify, him.

Glowing phenomenon

We may, therefore, conclude that the believer who was in the midst of the Pharaohs represents a shining example, which is worth thinking about. It is a glimmer of hope to dispel the darkness of despondency. This is particularly so, when Muslim activists find themselves with their backs to the wall. Bringing the picture of that good man to mind would provide the incentive for the activists to carry on. His example would provide that much needed boost, regardless of all the manifestations of the luster of power and privileges.

The Holy Quran has painted a picture for the believer in the midst of the Pharaohs as the epitome of the trusted bearer of the Message who feels sorry for his people for their groping in darkness. Thus, his words to them tell of his real feelings for them. He spares no effort in opening a window of opportunity so that the light of the truth might shine on them and guide them aright.

After the calm and quiet call he has issued to them, he goes forth proclaiming his message with fortitude that is tinged with melancholy for them. Nevertheless, his earnest words will have no room for mincing, as he has to open the door wide for the truth with determination and vigor, since the softly-softly approach with them does not seem to pay off.

The great importance of this believer is the strength of his feelings about the question of belief. Not only does his true propensity to belief make him an idealistic person busy with his personal faith, which would guarantee him a place in heaven, but also he feels responsible for guiding his fellow humans to the right path. In him, we are introduced to an exemplary believer who should be emulated in every step. Many of today’s believers should take a leaf out of his book. That is, the type of believers who think that their responsibility stops at performing acts of religious worship, i.e. short of public responsibility, in the belief that it is the way to save one’s skin on the Day of Judgment. They seem to convince themselves that ideological, social, and military challenges, which subject man to perils, are not their concern because there are other people who can face up to them.

In the case of the believer who is the subject of our discussion, individual and collective responsibilities are inseparable. So, while fulfilling responsibility on a personal level, in order to save himself on the Day of Judgment, he used to do his bit for others. This is because the main thrust of belief is that all believers should have affinity with each other. In other words, they should all feel a kind of a collective responsibility and that they are small messengers each in their own right and according to their own capabilities. They all experience the vitality of the message, translating words and deeds into lively currents moving in more than one direction, so that they converge to serve the ultimate goal, i.e. the prosperity of man under the sway of God’s Law and Message.

The believer among the Pharaohs was not concealing his faith for fear of reprisals because it looks as though he was in a very influential position in the hierarchy of power. He resorted to that to avail himself of much needed freedom of movement from within, to help spread the message in a practical and adaptable manner, assuming neutrality and tolerance. This approach was intended to counter Pharaoh’s extremist views and his overwrought attitude, which could have spelled disaster for the message and the messenger. He started quietly and discreetly to demolish Pharaoh’s plans against Moses (a.s.) by spreading the word, the main thrust of which urged reflection and caution. His words, which had the power of belief, yielded results by having the required impact on Pharaoh’s shaky position. This was evident in Pharaoh’s pleadings with his people to take a strong stand against Moses, but to no avail. From the dialogue he conducted with his people, the believer seemed to have been working tirelessly to undermine Pharaoh’s position from within. This policy was aimed at draining the pressure that was being exerted on the Message, making the messenger have a firmer foothold. He was doing this from a position of strength that he managed to muster. This is evident from the Quranic narrative, which will ensue, about how he used to speak his mind on all issues without credible opposition.

Achieving the goal with ease

The Holy Quran speaks about that believer and his stand in the context of the Moses and Pharaoh story. Here is another highlight of the story where Pharaoh is depicted meeting with his people, asking their permission to kill Moses (a.s.), under the pretext of keeping peace and order in the land. No doubt these are the same excuses that tyrants, since the dawn of history, have given to liquidate their opponents among the bearers of principles and proponents of new reformist ideologies.

At this juncture, the role that this believer is going to play, should prove vital. Using his position of power within the close-knit circle of Pharaoh, and avoiding any direct clash with his master, he turns to the people, preventing them from agreeing to Pharaoh’s request. This is a new type of dialogue where the interlocutors are conducting the dialogue through a third party. Basically, the trading of arguments is done in this manner because the prime party to dialogue is not keen on getting to the truth through direct dialogue for, according to him, it is a matter of power that should prevail, not one of the truth that should be upheld. That is why criticizing or arguing with him would prove ineffective, let alone stifling the voice of the truth and installing barriers between the truth and the masses. The most effective way was to appeal directly to the hearts and minds of the people, with a reasoned counter-argument, to dismiss Pharaoh’s demand to kill Moses. This was done away from the pressures of the ruler. Such an approach would certainly yield vital results.

In this breathtaking dialogue neither Pharaoh’s voice, nor that of the believer is heard. Instead Moses’ voice is sometimes heard flowing harmoniously to give the whole picture of the progress of the prophetic noble mission, especially, on the part of the messenger and the tyrant. Moreover, the believer is always there to do his share. The opposing parties were vying to lead society to what they were propagating. At the same time, society did not seem to be playing an important part in all the traffic that was coming from all sides, apart from the fact that its members had been receptive to all the mental and psychological pressures, yet in a passive way. Society did not appear to be having a say in all that was happening, in that it was not given the opportunity to exercise its free will, not least because it was saddled by the ruler and his propaganda machine breathing down its neck. Society was left to its own devices to try to find some sort of accommodation between the remnants of old and its interests on the one hand and its real feelings on the other.

Now, let us dwell on the whole story of the believer amongst the Pharaohs as it is told by the Holy Quran:

Said Pharaoh: “Leave me to slay Moses; and let him call on his Lord! What I fear is lest he should change your religion, or lest he should cause mischief to appear in the land!” Moses said: “I have indeed called upon my Lord and your Lord (for protection) from every arrogant one who believes not in the Day of Account!” A believer, a man from among the people of Pharaoh, who had concealed his faith, said: “Will ye slay a man because he says, ‘My Lord is God’? – When he has indeed come to you with Clear (Signs) from your Lord? And if he be a liar, on him is (the sin of) his lie: but, if he is telling the Truth, then will fall on you something of the (calamity) of which he warns you: Truly God guides not one who transgresses and lies! O my People! Yours is the dominion this day: Ye have the upper hand in the land: but who will help us from the Punishment of God, should it befall us?” Pharaoh said: “I but point out to you that which I see (myself); nor do I guide you but to the Path of Right!”

Then said the man who believed: “O my people! Truly I do fear for you something like the Day (of disaster) of the Confederates (in sin)! – Something like the fate of the People of Noah, the ‘Ad, and the Thamud, and those who came after them: but God never wishes injustice to his Servants. And O my people! I fear for you a Day when there will be Mutual calling (and wailing), – A Day when ye shall turn your backs and flee: No defender shall ye have from God: Any whom God leaves to stray, there is none to guide… And to you there came Joseph in times gone by, with Clear Signs, but ye ceased not to doubt of the (Mission) for which he had come: At length, when he died, ye said: ‘No apostle will God send after him.’ thus doth God leave to stray such as transgress and live in doubt, – (Such) as dispute about the Signs of God, without any authority that hath reached them, grievous and odious (is such conduct) in the sight of God and of the Believers. Thus doth God, seal up every heart – of arrogant and obstinate Transgressors.”

Pharaoh said: “O Haman! Build me a lofty palace, that I may attain the ways and means – The ways and means of (reaching) the heavens, and that I may mount up to the God of Moses: But as far as I am concerned, I think (Moses) is a liar!” Thus was made alluring, in Pharaoh’s eyes, the evil of his deeds, and he was hindered from the Path; and the plot of Pharaoh led to nothing but perdition (for him).

The man who believed said further: “O my people! Follow me: I will lead you to the Path of Right. O my people! This life of the present is nothing but (temporary) convenience: It is the Hereafter that is the Home that will last. He that works evil will not be requited but by the like thereof: and he that works a righteous deed – whether man or woman – and is a Believer– such will enter the Garden (of Bliss): Therein will they have abundance without measure. And O my people! How (strange) it is for me to call you to Salvation while ye call me to the Fire! Ye do call upon me to blaspheme against God, and to join with Him partners of whom I have no knowledge; and I call you to the Exalted in Power, Who forgives again and again! Without doubt ye do call me to one who is not fit to be called to, whether in this world, or in the Hereafter; our return will be to God; and the transgressors will be Companions of the Fire! Soon will ye remember what I say to you (now), My (own) affair I commit to God: for God (ever) watches over His Servants.” Then God saved him from (every) ill that they plotted (against him), but the brunt of the penalty encompassed on all sides the People of Pharaoh. (40: 26–45)

At first, we can see the believer showing a semblance of neutrality, i.e. he is apparently not concerned with the subject of dispute. He is posing the question as a member of the family, as the issue is Pharaoh’s request of his people to give him the permission to kill Moses, on account of preserving the faith and maintaining peace and order, in that Moses came up with a mission to subvert all that.

At this point, the distinctive calming voice of Moses is heard again. He stands defiant against Pharaoh’s threat of death, proclaiming loudly that he seeks refuge in the power of God, his Lord and theirs, from death. He reminds them that there is no power that can challenge the Might of the Almighty, in whose presence all mankind shall be called to book where severe reckoning will await the tyrants.

Branding Pharaoh a tyrant is significant, in that the position he took vis-à-vis Moses’ invitation was dictated by big-headedness and despotism; it did not stem from a well-founded conviction because he was trying to make up for his precarious situation in proving his case against overwhelming evidence.

Here, the believer steps in, with his credible argument, decrying their plot to kill Moses for merely arguing, with conviction, his case in inviting them to believe in God.

He managed to avert the danger that was hanging over Moses’ head, by persuading them that he did not pose any danger to them, as he did not have any military force. All he had was ideology. So, if he were a liar, he would face the consequences of his lying without any harm coming their way. Yet, if he was truthful, surely some harm might befall them. He then embarked on a campaign of psychological warfare, with a view to damaging their morale. By simply making comparisons between Pharaoh’s material power and what Moses had described of the absolute power of God, he would instill fear in their hearts, because the two powers were disproportionate, and they would not stand a chance before the Almighty.

Pharaoh did not seem to hearken to this type of threat, preferring instead to fall back on the tactics of a ruler who gives the impression that he is in charge and issuing orders to the effect that he wanted them to see through his own eyes and that he would guide them aright. Thus, they should not listen to the narrative of the believer.

In resorting to this approach, Pharaoh was sure that no negative response would come his way from his people because, to his mind, the role of the followers was to listen and carry out the orders without discussion. However, the believer had other ideas. He started warning them against the bleak end that was awaiting them as a result of their negative stand on what Moses had called them to. What he did was to remind them of bygone peoples who took the same position by oppressing and fighting the prophets who were sent to them, without giving them the chance to argue their case in a well informed and free debate.

The believer then raised before his people the divine notion that condemned their arguing about the signs of God without evidence, merely because this was the way Pharaoh wanted it to be. His words fell on deaf ears. This would eventually subject them to God’s wrath.

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