This week Shaykh Mohammed al-Hilli gave the last session of the tafsīr programme for this this year, with the programme returning in January 2016.
Shaykh Mohammed began by considering that one of the big problems in society, and one of the things that we really don’t like, is stubbornness and hardheartedness in human beings. Islam always presents softheartedness as a quality to be admired in people. In a famous saying from Prophet Muhammed (s) we are told that: “al-mu’minu layyinu al-`arīkah – the believer is someone with a gentle disposition” (Al-Kāfi, vol. 2, p. 226). Often when people are trying to justify their stubbornness you will hear them say: “It’s a matter of principle”, that they won’t back down from their position because their principles are at stake. However, when it comes to Islam, the only principles that matter or those that are derived from faith. Over the last few weeks we have been looking, in Sūrat Ṭā Hā, at the conversation that took place between Moses and Pharaoh. Pharaoh here is represented as the epitome of stubbornness. He is the one who was shown sign after sign from God, and would constantly turn away and reject it. In Sūrat Ṭā Hā we follow the conversation between Moses and Pharaoh up until God says: “walaqad ‘araynāhu ‘āyātinā kullahā fakaδδaba wa’abā – and We showed him our signs, all of them, yet he disbelieved and rejected” (20:57). We will return to this verse soon, but for the time being we should consider that Sūrat Ṭā Hā does not narrate the events of the miracles shown to Pharaoh, nor all of the conversation that leads up to these miracles. However, these events are narrated in Sūrat al-Šu`arā’.
The conversation that is narrated in Sūrat al-Šu`arā’ is the same as the one that is narrated in Sūrat Ṭā Hā, but it’s presented from a different aspect, and focuses on elements not referred to in Sūrat Ṭā Hā. When Moses confronts Pharaoh, Pharaoh says: “‘alam nurabbika fīnā walīdan walabiθta fīnā min `umurika sinīn | wafa`alta fa`lataka allatī fa`alta wa’anta min al-kāfirīn – did we not bring you up as a child and you stayed with us for years of your life? | And did that thing that you did and you are of the disbelievers” (26:18-19). The thing that Moses did that Pharaoh is referring to is the killing of the Egyptian, an incident we have investigated in detail in previous weeks. What is interesting here is Pharaoh’s use of the phrase “wa’anta min al-kāfirīn – and you are of the disbelievers”. The interpretation of the word kāfir in this context is worth a little thought. Some have said that what Pharaoh is referring to is Moses’s disbelief in Pharaoh’s divinity. In Sūrat al-Šu`arā’, as in Sūrat Ṭā Hā, Moses and Aaron come to Pharaoh professing themselves messengers of the Lord, a Lord above Pharaoh, and thereby diminishing Pharaoh’s claims of divinity. Others have said that in this instance the word kāfir refers to the idea that Moses has rejected the bounties that Pharaoh had placed upon him, in raising him in his palace and so on. Both of these interpretations carry weight in the light of the following verses, as we shall see.
The first thing Moses responds to is the accusation of the killing of the Egyptian, saying “fa`altuhā iδan wa’anā min al-ḍālīn – I did do it then, and I was from those who are astray” (26:20). We must ask ourselves the question: what does it mean here for Moses to be “ḍāl – astray”? One interpretation is that it means he acted hastily during the incident of the killing and exercised an error of judgement. Others say it means that when he committed that deed he was unaware of the consequences of his actions, that it would mean his flight from Egypt and the long years of exile in Midian. A third opinion, which is the dominant opinion in the school of Ahl al-Bayt, is that by referring to himself as ḍāl Moses is saying that he was looking for more guidance. There is a dialectic of opposition throughout the Qur’an between “ḍalāl – being lost, being astray” and “hudā – guidance”, with the sense that the person who is astray requires guidance. For example, in Sūrat al-Ḍuḥā Prophet Muhammed is addressed: “wawajadaka ḍālan fahadā – and He found you lost so He guided [you]” (93:7). As such being ḍāl can be interpreted as being in need of guidance, so Moses is referring to his subsequent years of guidance and development outside of Egypt. Following this Moses tells Pharaoh: “wafarartu minkum lammā xiftukum fawahaba lī rabbī ḥukman waja`alanī min al-mursalīn – and I fled from you when I feared you, then my Lord gave me wisdom and made me one of the messengers” (26:21). The meaning of the word ḥukm here has been a bone of contention amongst various scholars and between various schools within Islam. Some have claimed that here ḥukm refers to prophethood, and that Moses is saying that God made him into a prophet at this point. This is not convincing, however. The meaning of the root Ḥ-K-M has to do with wisdom and judgement, not with prophethood. Furthermore, if we look in Sūrat Āli `Imrān we find the phrase: “yu’tiyahu allāhu al-kitāba wal-ḥukma wal-nubuwwah – God gives him the Book and wisdom and prophethood” (3:79). Here “ḥukm – wisdom” and “nubuwwah – prophethood” are shown to be distinct things. As such, the interpretation of Moses’s use of the word should be that he is referring to wisdom, or judiciousness, or the strengthening of the intellect.
After this, Moses addresses the first point that Pharaoh made (that he was brought up in Pharaoh’s palace), by saying: “watilka ni`matun tamunnuhā `alayya ‘an `abbadta banī ‘isrā’īl – and is that a blessing you’ve favoured me with, that who have enslaved the Israelites?” (26:22). Moses reminds Pharaoh of the circumstances of his birth and of his upbringing. It was Pharaoh who forced Moses to be separated from his mother and left in a box on the river, lest he be killed. It was through Pharaoh’s tyranny and transgression that the baby Moses ended up on the banks of the Nile in need of support. It was no favour, then, that Pharaoh raised Moses in his palace, because if it weren’t for Pharaoh in the first place Moses would have been raised at home by his mother. Faced with this incontrovertible logic Pharaoh has no choice but to change the subject. He says: “wamā rabbu al-`ālamīn – and who is the Lord of the worlds?” (26:23). Moses is undeterred, answering: “rabbu al-samāwāti wal-arḍi wamā baynahumā ‘in kuntum mūqinīn – the Lord of the heavens and the earth and what’s between them, if you will be convinced” (26:24). Notice how Moses doesn’t give the answer by itself. He knows that Pharaoh is simply trying to evade the issue at hand and by saying “if you will be convinced” he challenges Pharaoh’s sincerity. Again, Pharaoh see no option for himself other than trying to change the direction of the conversation. He says, this time not to Moses but to those around him: “‘alā tastami`ūn – do you not hear?” (26:25), trying to paint Moses’s words as absurd. But Moses’s carries on regardless, saying: “rabbukum warabbu ‘ābā’ikum al-‘awwalīn – your Lord and the Lord of your forefathers” (26:26). We remember a few weeks ago we looked at the verse in Sūrat al-Fuṣṣilat in which God says: “sanurīhim ‘āyātinā fi al-‘āfāqi wafī ‘anfusihim – We will show them our signs in the horizons and in themselves” (41:53). This is the opposition that Moses is using now. His description of God as the Lord of the heavens and the earth is an ‘āyah ‘āfāqiyyah, a horizon-sign that establishes God’s sovereignty in the furthest places. Then he uses an ‘āyah nafsiyyah, a self-sign that shows that God is also closer to us than anyone else. But using these two signs Moses expresses the comprehensiveness of God’s presence.
Again, Pharaoh needs to change the subject and, still addressing those around him, he says: “‘inna rasūlakum allaδī ‘ursila ‘ilaykum lamajnūn – indeed your messenger that was sent to you is mad” (26:27). Notice how Pharaoh says: “your messenger that was sent to you”, not “my messenger that was sent to me”. We remember that Moses was explicitly sent to confront Pharaoh (“‘iδhab ‘ilā fir`awna ‘innahu ṭaġā – go to Pharaoh for he has transgressed” (20:24)), but here Pharaoh sees the need to get the populous on his side, so he begins to portray Moses as a threat to them, not to himself. This accusation of madness is not something peculiar to Moses, though. In Sūrat al- Đāriyāt God tells us: “mā ‘ata allaδīna min qablihim min rasūlin ‘illā qālū sāḥirun ‘aw majnūn – no messenger came to those before except that his was called a magician or a madman” (51:52). In Sūrat al-‘A`rāf we are told the story of Prophet Hud, and how his people said to him: “‘innā narāka fī safāhatin wa’innā lanaẓunnuka min al-kāδibīn – we see that you are in foolishness, and we think that you are from amongst the liars” (7:66), to which he calmly replies: “laysa bī safāhatun walākinnī rasūlun min rabbi al-`ālamīn – there is no foolishness inside me; I am a messenger from the Lord of the worlds” (7:67). Time and time again the prophets and messengers of God are abused and dismissed, called madmen and magicians and liars, and every time they remain steadfast, unabashed and faithful to their cause.
We might ask what it is that gives them the strength to stand firm. We can find a possible answer in Sūrat al-Muzzammil. Sūrat al-Muzzammil forms a pair with the chapter that comes after it, Sūrat al-Muddaθθir – the word “muzzammil” means someone who wraps himself up in his own clothes, whilst the word muddaθθir means someone who wraps himself up in an external cloth, like a sheet or a blanket. So, Sūrat al-Muzzammil begins by saying “yā ‘ayyuha al-muzzammil – oh you who wrap yourself up in your clothing” (73:1), referring to Prophet Muhammed. God commands him to: “qum al-layla ‘illā qalīlā | niṣfahu ‘aw inquṣ minhu qalīlā | ‘aw zid `alayhi warattil al-qur’āna tartīlā – get up in the night night, except for a little, | half of it, or subtract from it a little, | or add to it, and recite the Qur’an slowly” (73:2-4). There is a reason for this command – God follows by saying: “‘innā sanulqī `alayka qawlan θaqīlā – We will place upon you a heavy word” (73:5). This “heavy word” clearly refers to the message of Islam that he was charged with delivering, and that was a heavy burden upon him in the sense of the abuse and ridicule he faced. But this burden can be eased by worshipping God at night. God continues by saying: “‘inna nāši’ata al-layli hiya ‘ašaddu waṭ’an wa’aqwamu qīlā – the hours of the night are stronger for connection and more appropriate for speech” (71:6). It is worship at night that gives the prophets the strength and forbearance to continue in their missions. God continues to command Prophet Muhammed a few verses later: “waṣbir `alā mā yaqūlūna wahjurhum hajran jamīlā – and be patient with whatever they say and avoid them with a gracious avoidance” (73:10). We see the results of the nighttime worship – the ability to persist in the face of adversity, and not to descend to the levels of reactionary anger and abuse.
Of course, worship at night isn’t just for prophets or for Ahl al-Bayt; it’s for all of us, and we have it in the form of Salat al-Layl. Salat al-Layl isn’t just for the Nights of Qadr, when we’re staying awake anyway and praying it is not a problem – we should try to pray it regularly throughout the year. It’s better to pray Salat al-Layl regularly, even if we only do three rak’aat, or only pray it once a week, than praying it intensely for a short period of time and then stopping. We have many hadiths telling us of the importance of worship at night in general, and of Salat al-Layl in particular. Imam Ali tells us that: “prayer at night will result in health of the body” (Biḥār al-‘Anwār, vol. 87, p. 143, no. 17). Imam Hussain (a) has said that “Salat al-Layl enlightens people’s faces, makes pleasant their fragrance and brings down rizq” (`Alal al-Sharā’i`, p. 363). Once a man approached Imam Ali (a) and said: “Oh Commander of the Faithful, I am deprived of prayer at night.” Imam Ali said to him: “You are a man who has been enchained by your sins” (Al-Kafi, vol. 3, p. 450). We should all make an effort to pray at night and perform Salat al-Layl on a regular basis so that God might fortify our hearts and give us the forbearance to stand firm in the face of adversity.
Returning to Sūrat al-Šu`arā’, we see that regardless of Pharaoh’s attempts to derail the conversation and discredit him, Moses doesn’t desist from preaching his message. He continues to tell Pharaoh and those around about God. He says: “rabbu al-mašriqi wal-maġribi wamā baynahumā ‘in kuntum ta`qilūn – He is the Lord of the east and the west and what’s between them, if you would understand” (26:28). Pharaoh responds by saying: “la’in ittaxaδta ‘ilāhan ġayrī la’aj`alannaka min al-masjūnīn – if you have taken a god other than me I will imprison you” (26:29). Moses sees that Pharaoh will be not be convinced by words alone and so responds: “‘awalaw ji’tuka bišay’in mubīn – even if I have come to you with a clear thing?” (26:30), referring to the signs God had bestowed upon him. Disbelieving Pharaoh is confident that Moses will be unable to perform any miracles and so invites Moses to do his best. So we are told: “fa’alqā `aṣāhu fa’iδā hiya θu`bānun mubīn | wanaza`a yadahu fi’iδā hiya bayḍā’u lil-nāẓirīn – so he threw his staff and suddenly it was a manifest snake | and he drew out his hand and suddenly it was white for all to see” (26:32-33). These are, of course, the two miracles God gave Moses in the valley of Ṭuwā, and we can now return to the fifty-sixth verse of Sūrat Ṭā Hā: “walaqad ‘araynāhu ‘āyātinā kullahā fakaδδaba wa’abā – and We showed him our signs, all of them, yet he disbelieved and rejected” (20:56). Some have said that “kullahā – all of them” refers to all of miracles Moses would show to Pharaoh, including all those after the confrontation currently being narrated. Others have said that it refers only to all of the miracles that Moses had at that point, namely his staff turning into a snake and his hand becoming white. This correlates with the story as narrated in Sūrat al-Šu`arā’. It has also been suggested that the two signs represent God’s punishment and His reward, with the snake representing punishment and the hand representing reward.
Having been faced with the miracles Pharaoh changes tactics and says: “‘aji’tanā lituxrijanā min ‘arḍinā bisiḥrika yā mūsā – have you come to take us out of our land with your magic, oh Moses?” (20:57). Unable to completely disregard the signs shown to him, Pharaoh is reduced to painting Moses as a threat to the people of Egypt as a whole. How many times have we seen political leaders use this tactic when they want to attack or discredit someone who is threatening their interests or sovereignty? Pharaoh depicts Moses’s miracles, not as signs from God, which is what they are, but as magical threats to Egyptian sovereignty. In doing so, he opens the door for himself to use similar threats against Moses. He continues, saying: “falana’tiyannaka bisiḥrin miθlihi faj`al baynanā wabaynaka maw`idan lā nuxlifuhu naḥnu walā ‘anta makānan suwā – so we will come with similar magic, so make between us an appointment that neither you or we will fail to keep, in an equal place” (20:58). Pharaoh uses his rhetoric to imply that he has been forced into showing his might, and that all he is concerned about is the fairness of the competition. Moses, of course, remains completely unafraid of this proposition. He says: “maw`idukum yawmu al-zīnati wa’an yuḥšara al-nāsu ḍuḥā – your appointment is on the day of the festival, when the people are amassed at morning” (20:59). It’s interesting to point out here at the verb ḥašara is related to the noun ḥašr, which is used in the phrase “yawm al-ḥašr – the day of assembly”, a term used for the Day of Judgement. It therefore implies a huge mass of people being brought together. Moses wants as many people as possible see the competition between him, with the signs bestowed upon him by God, and Pharaoh’s magicians. The stage is therefore set for a manifest proof for all the people of Egypt.
Here we will end our tafsīr for the time being. Insha’allah we will pick it up again in January, when we will continue with Sūrat Ṭā Hā and look at the competition between Moses and Pharaoh’s magicians.