(peace be upon him)
Moses (Musa) lived at the time of a mighty tyrant ruler, the pharaoh, and rose from a member of the oppressed classes to a formidable antagonist, ultimately bringing down the whole edifice of arrogant power. He was ideally placed to play this role by having been brought up in the household of the pharaoh himself .
"And the family of Pharaoh took him up, that he might become for them an enemy and a sorrow." (Al-Qur’an 28:8)
Just as a prophet’s work continues to leave an impact long after his departure from this world, his arrival is usually preceded by a period of high anticipation. Moses was no different in this respect: Tales of a saviour of the oppressed Israelites were making the rounds in Egypt and grew so strong that the ruling class felt the need to take precautionary measures. To prevent the birth of this champion of the people they had enslaved, the pharaoh ordered that every newborn male child would be put to death during the year his arrival was foretold, leaving only the female babies alive.
"Pharaoh exalted himself in the earth and made his people castes. A tribe among them he oppressed, killing their sons and sparing their women. He was one of those who work corruption." (Al-Qur’an 28:4)
Fearing for the life of her son, Moses’ mother, Miryam put him into a basket and let him drift on the river to be found by a member of pharaoh’s family, as intended by Divine decree.
"And We inspired the mother of Moses, saying: Suckle him and, when you fear for him, then throw him into the river and fear not nor grieve. We shall bring him back to you and shall make him (one) of Our messengers." (Al-Qur’an 28:7)
Not only was Moses reared and nurtured in the household of his future enemy, but to console his mother, she was even employed as a wet nurse when nobody else suitable could be found.
"And We had before forbidden foster-mothers to him, so she said: Shall I show you a household who will rear him for you and take care of him? So We restored him to his mother that she might be comforted and not grieve, and that she might know that the promise of Allah is true. But most of them know not." (Al-Qur’an 28: 12-13)
Moses is usually seen as the liberator as well as the law-giver for the Israelites. However, like all lives, his life is complex and not done justice by over-simplifying. There are numerous lessons and sources of inspiration in his teaching and actions, starting from his early days before he was even called to the prophethood, until his final days when the Promised Land was barred to him and his people for their persistent disobedience.
"And (remember) when Moses said to his people: O my people! Remember Allah's favour to you, how He placed among you prophets, and He made you kings, and gave you that (which) He gave not to any (other) of (His) creatures. O my people! Go into the holy land which Allah has ordained for you. Turn not in flight, for surely you turn back as losers. They said: O Moses! A giant people (dwell) in it and we go not in till they go out from there. When they go out from there, then we will enter (not till then). Then spoke two of those who feared (their Lord, men) to whom Allah had been gracious: Enter in upon them by the gate, for if you enter by it, you will be victorious. So put your trust (in Allah) if you are indeed believers. They said: O Moses! We will never enter (the land) while they are in it. So go you and your Lord and fight! We will sit here. He said: My Lord! I have control of none but myself and my brother, so distinguish between us and the wrong-doing folk. (Their Lord) said: For this the land will surely be forbidden them for forty years that they will wander in the earth, bewildered. So grieve not over the wrongdoing people." (Al-Qur’an 5:20-26)
Naturally, a brief treatise on the life of a great person like him must be limited to only some aspects chosen as relevant either for providing a better overview or some more interesting details whose importance is not merely historic but retains validity up to our own time.
Moses grew up as the privileged young man destined to be a future ruler. Yet, he did identify with his people, either consciously through an understanding of his origins, or unwittingly through a more general sense of justice. When witnessing a fight between an Israelite and an Egyptian, he takes sides and helps the Israelite. The blow he gives the Egyptian was so powerful that it killed him, bringing immediate trouble to a remorseful Moses who did not expect his interference in the rights and wrongs of a dispute to have such lasting consequences.
"And he entered the city at a time of carelessness of its people, and he found in it two men fighting, one of his own caste, and the other of his enemies; and he who was of his caste asked him for help against him who was of his enemies. So Moses struck him with his fist and killed him. He said: This is of the devil's doing. He is an enemy, a mere misleader. He said: My Lord! I have wronged my soul, so forgive me. Then He forgave him. He is the Forgiving, the Merciful." (Al-Qur’an 28: 15-16)
It must have been a time of general turmoil in Egyptian society, for the very next day he encounters the man he saved involved in another quarrel and once again asking for his help. Moses hesitates and then, helped by the urging of third parties, decides to leave the city altogether, realising that he would otherwise be tracked down and asked to account for what he had done.
"And morning found him in the city, fearing, vigilant, when he who had appealed to him the day before called out to him for help. Moses said to him:: You are indeed a mere hothead. And when he would have fallen upon the man who was an enemy to them both, he said: O Moses! Would you kill me as you did kill a person yesterday. You would be nothing but a tyrant in the land, you would not be of the reformers. And a man came from the uttermost part of the city, running. He said: O Moses! The chiefs take counsel against you to slay you; therefore escape. I am of those who give you good advice. So he escaped from there, fearing, vigilant. He said: My Lord! Deliver me from the wrongdoing people." (Al-Qur’an 28: 18-21)
A refugee and fugitive from a justice he knew would not be in his favour, Moses travelled as far as Midian, a territory around where Jordan and Saudi Arabia meet today and which was the home of another prophet, Jethro (Shu’aib) from whom Moses would learn much to equip him for his eventual return to Egypt.
At his arrival at Midian a hungry and tired Moses felt compassion for two shepherd girls who had difficulty getting their flock to the watering place amidst all the male shepherds, so he offered to carry out that task for them. In return, their father invited him to his home where, after listening to his story, he offered him employment for a set number of years and marriage to one of his daughters.
"And when he came to the water of Midian he found there a whole tribe of men watering. And he found apart from them two women keeping back (their flocks). He said: What troubles you? The two said: We cannot give (our flocks) to drink till the shepherds return from the water; and our father is a very old man. So he watered (their flock) for them. Then he turned aside into the shade, and said My Lord! I am needy of whatever good You send down for me. Then there came to him one of the two women, walking shyly. She said: My father asks you, that he may reward you with the payment for that you did water (the flock) for us. Then, when he came to him and told him the (whole) story, he said: Fear not! You have escaped from the wrong-doing people. One of the two women said: O my father! Hire him! For the best (man) that you can hire is the strong, the trustworthy. He said: I intend to marry you to one of these two daughters of mine on condition that you hire yourself to me for (the term of) eight years. Then if you complete ten it will be of your own accord, for I would not make it hard for you. Allah willing, you will find me of the righteous." Al-Qur’an 28: 23-27)
A good decade later Moses left Midian with his family in search of a lifelihood elsewhere or, as some suggest, wanting to return incognito to Egypt. But God had other plans. En route he noticed a fire. Since where there is a fire there must be people, he leaves his family behind as a precautionary measure and goes to either find some food or some news. But this fire was not of the usual kind. It burned without devouring the bush from which it seemed to come, and a voice called from within ordering Moses to take off his shoes as a mark of respect. He is further told to throw down his shepherd’s staff which turns into a snake, and to pick it up again and watch it regain its original shape. And his own hand changes colour and becomes a pale white, without any sign of disease however.
"Then, when Moses had fulfilled the term, and was travelling with his family, he saw in the distance a fire and said to his family: Wait (here). I see in the distance a fire; perhaps I shall bring you tidings from there, or a flame from the fire that you may warm yourselves. And when he reached it, he was called from the right side of the valley in the blessed field, from the tree: O Moses! I, even I, am Allah, the Lord of the worlds; Throw down you staff. And when he saw it writhing as if it was a demon, he turned to flee headlong, (and it was said to him): O Moses! Draw near and fear not. You are of those who are secure. Put your hand into the inside of your robe. It will come out white without hurt. And guard your heart from fear. Then these shall be two proofs from your Lord to Pharaoh and his chiefs. They are evil-living people. He said: My Lord! I killed a man among them and I fear that they will kill me. My brother Aaron is more eloquent than me in speech. Therefore send him with me as a helper to confirm me. I fear that they will give the lie to me. He said: We will strengthen your arm with your brother, and We will give you both power, so that they cannot reach you for Our signs. You both, and those who follow you, will be the winners."(Al-Qur’an 28: 29-35)
Frightening as this encounter was it set him up for his mission in life: to go and confront pharaoh with the demand to release the Israelites from bondage. It helped him overcome the fear to face up to the tyrant who would surely have him killed, and it provided him with the miracles needed to make the pharaoh's magicians take notice. Still, Moses is unsure whether he will be up to the task and asks for his elder brother Aaron (Harun) to come along with him. This wish is granted, although we do not know whether Aaron had already caught up with Moses in Midian or was going to meet him upon his return to Egypt.
Pharaoh, who considered himself a god to be worshipped, was anything but delighted to have Moses come back and challenge him with a higher authority, demanding the release of the Israelites on whose slave labour the Egyptian economy depended.
"But when Moses came to them with Our clear signs, they said: This is nothing but invented magic. We never heard of this among our fathers of old. And Moses said: My Lord is Best aware who brings guidance from His presence, and whose will be the sequel of the Home (of bliss). The wrongdoers will not be successful. And Pharaoh said: O chiefs! I know not that you have a god other than me, so kindle for me (a fire), O Haman, to bake the mud; and set up for me a lofty tower in order that I may survey the God of Moses; and I consider him of the liars." (Qur'an 28:36-37)
He was hardly inclined to consider this man a true prophet, having previously raised him in his own household but finding that, instead of showing him gratitude he had turned against him.
"(Pharaoh) said (to Moses): Did we not rear you among us as a child? And you did dwell many years of your life among us, and you did that deed of yours which you did, and you were one of the ungrateful."(Qur'an 26:18-19)
For this purpose pharaoh arranged for a magnificent public event, and the magicians who had been honing their skills in preparation were given further prizes and incentives should they win the contest.
"And verily We showed him all Our signs, but he denied them and refused. He said: Have you come to drive us out from our land by your magic, O Moses? But we surely can produce for you magic the like of it; so appoint an appointed time between us and you, which neither we nor you shall fail to keep, at a place convenient (to us both). (Moses) said: Your appointed time shall be the day of the feast, and let the people assemble when the sun has risen high."(Qur'an 20:56-59)
"So the wizards were gathered together at a set time on a day appointed. And it was said to the people: Are you (also) gathering? (They said): Yes, so that we may follow the wizards if they are the winners. And when the wizards came they said to Pharaoh: Will there surely be a reward for us if we are the winners? He said: Yes, and you will then
surely be of those brought near (to me)."(Qur'an 26:38-41)
Nobody doubted the outcome, yet when Moses’ staff devoured all the magic they conjured and renderd it void, the magicians realised that a greater power was involved and submitted to Moses and his religion, much to the dismay of pharaoh.
"Then the wizards were (all) flung down prostrate, crying: We believe in the Lord of Aaron and Moses. (Pharaoh) said: You put faith in him before I give you permission. He is your chief who taught you magic. Now surely I shall cut off your hands and your feet alternately, and I shall crucify you on the trunks of palm trees, and you shall know for certain which of us has sterner and more lasting punishment. They said: We choose you not above the clear proofs that have come to us, and above Him Who created us. So decree what you will decree. You will end for us only this life of the world. We believe in our Lord, that He may forgive us our sins and the magic to which you did force us. Allah is better and more lasting." (Qur'an 20:70-73)
"And the wizards were flung prostrate, calling: We believe in the Lord of the worlds, The Lord of Moses and Aaron. (Pharaoh) said: You put your faith in him before I give you permission. He doubtless is your chief who taught you magic! But verily you shall come to know. Verily I will cut off your hands and your feet alternately, and verily I will crucify you, every one. They said: It is no hurt, for to our Lord we shall return. We ardently hope that our Lord will forgive us our sins because we are the first of the believers."(Qur'an 26:46-51)
The miraculous signs given to Moses, however, make pharaoh cautious, and he decides to put the matter off for another date in order to have his claim tested.
This event is followed by a showdown between Moses and pharaoh over many years during which Egypt is plagued with one disaster after the other as a warning and punishment from God.
"And we distressed Pharaoh's people with famine and shortage of fruits that perhaps they might heed. But whenever good befell them, they said: This is ours; and whenever evil struck them they ascribed it to the evil auspices of Moses and those with him. Surely their evil auspices were only with Allah. But most of them knew not." (Qur'an 7:130-131)
At the same time the Israelites were suffering persecution and hardship until many of them also turned against Moses in frustration, blaming him for the turn of events.#
"They said: We suffered hurt before you came to us, and since you have come to us."(Qur'an: 7:129)
After years of suffering throughout Egypt the pharaoh finally concedes that Moses should be allowed to lead the Israelites out of captivity. When they had hardly a day’s head start, however, he regretted his decision and pursued them ahead of his army.
"Then Pharaoh followed them with his forces and there covered them that which covered them of
the sea."(Qur'an 20:78)
The Israelites lose faith in Moses and fear annihilation, but he parts the sea with his staff to let them through, drowning the Egyptians after them.
"And when the two forces saw each other, those with Moses said: We are indeed caught. He said: Nay, verily! for my Lord is with me. He will guide me. Then We inspired Moses, saying: Strike the sea with your staff. And it parted, and each part was like a vast mountain. Then We brought the others near to that place. And We saved Moses and those with him, every one. And We drowned the others. In this is indeed a sign, yet most of them are not believers." (Qur'an: 26:61-67)
Far from his mission being accomplished, there follow long years of wandering through the desert during which Moses finds that his people could be stubborn and obstinate, but had little faith, conditioned through generations of subservience and slavery. In spite of the many miracles that they had witnessed and continued to be blessed with, like finding food and water in the barren desert, they resented the hardship of their journey and started idealising their regulated lives back in Egypt.
"And when you said: O Moses! We are weary of one kind of food; so call on your Lord for us that He bring out for us that which the earth grows - of its herbs and its cucumbers and its corn and its lentils and its onions. He said: Would you exchange that which is higher for that which is lower? Go back to Egypt, there you will have what you ask for. And humiliation and wretchedness were stamped upon them and they were visited with wrath from Allah. That was because they disbelieved in Allah's revelations and killed the prophets wrongfully. That was for their disobedience and transgression." (Qur'an 2:61)
They were also jealous of other people whom they encountered and who had idols made of precious materials. They wanted prosperity and idols like them.
"And We brought the Children of Israel across the sea, and they came to a people who were given up to idols which they had. They said: O Moses! Make for us a god just like they have gods He said: You are a people who know not."(Qur'an: 7:138)
In fact, when Moses climbed up to mount Sinai in order to receive commandments from God, leaving his people camped at the foot of the hill, they make a golden calf and declare it as their god and saviour.
"And the people of Moses, after (he left them), chose a calf (for worship), (made) out of their ornaments, of saffron hue, which gave a lowing sound. Did they not see that it spoke not to them nor guided them to any way? They chose it, and became wrongdoers."(Qur'an 7:148)
Moses, once he returned from having talked to God on his own, became furious at what they had done. He initially blamed his brother Aaron for not stopping them but accepted that any such attempt would have only divided them and created vicious fighting amongst them.
"He (Moses) said: O Aaron! What held you back when you did see them go astray, That you followed me not? Have you then disobeyed my order? He said: O son of my mother! Clutch not my beard nor my head! I feared lest you should say: You have caused division among the Children of Israel, and have not waited for my word." (Qur'an 20:92-94)
Only Moses himself was a charismatic enough leader to demand unconditional compliance from his people. He ordered the idol destroyed and banished Samiri, who had invented the worship of the calf for them, making him the first untouchable in recorded history.
"(Moses) said: And what have you to say, O Samiri? He said: I perceived what they perceive not, so I seized a handful from the footsteps of the messenger, and then threw it in. Thus my soul commended to me. (Moses) said: Then go! and in this life if is for you to say: Touch me not! and there is for you an appointed time you cannot break. Now look upon your god of which you have remained a devotee. Verily we will burn it and will scatter its dust over the sea."(Qur'an 20:95-97)
To teach his people Moses took a selected party of seventy from amongst them up the mountain with him where they witnessed such grandeur and power that they fell unconscious.
"And Moses chose out of his people seventy men for Our appointed time and, when the trembling came on them, he said: My Lord! If You had willed, You had destroyed them long before, and me with them. Will you destroy us for that which the ignorant among us did? It is but Your trial (of us). You send whom You will astray and guide whom You will: You are our Protecting Friend, therefore forgive us and have mercy on us, You, the Best of all who show forgiveness."(Qur'an 7:155)
Yet, when they were ordered to sacrifice a cow after having returned to their people, they tried all kinds of clever reasoning and questioning in order to avoid having to give up one of their best animals and almost did not observe the command.
"And when Moses said to his people: Allah commands you that you sacrifice a cow; they said: Do you make fun of us? He answered: Allah forbid that I should be among the foolish. They said: Pray for us to your Lord that He make clear to us what (cow) she is. (Moses) answered: He says, Surely she is a cow neither with calf nor immature; (she is) between the two conditions; so do that which you are commanded. They said: Pray for us to your Lord that He make clear to us what colour she is. (Moses) answered: He says: Surely she is a yellow cow. Bright is her colour, gladdening beholders. They said: Pray for us to your Lord that He make clear to us what (cow) she is. Cows are much alike to us; and if Allah wills, we may be led aright. (Moses) answered: He says: Surely she is a cow unyoked; she ploughs not the soil nor waters the tilth; whole and without mark. They said: Now you bring the truth. So they sacrificed her, though almost they did not." (Qur'an 2:67-71)
The Qur’an also contains a story of Moses travelling to meet the mysterious Green Prophet al-Khidr trying to learn wisdom from him but being unable to keep up with his demands due to a lack of insight and knowledge of the matters he was confronted with.
"Then they found one of Our slaves, to whom We had given mercy from Us, and had taught him knowledge from Our presence. Moses said to him: May I follow you, to the end that you may teach me right conduct of that which you have been taught? He said: You cannot bear with me. How can you bear with that of which you cannot comprehend any knowledge?"(18:65-68)
Many other stories and spiritual parables about Moses abound. In summary, he was a strong and determined man, devoted to the worship of the only one God, facing up to the greatest tyrant in human history, yet in need of guidance himself and unable to fully rally his own people behind him and make them see the truth for what it was. The story of the next major prophet to whom we now turn our attention, Jesus, is not all too different in this respect.