The Story of Moses (part 1 of 10): Who is Moses?
By Aisha Stacey (© 2010 IslamReligion.com)
In both Judaism and Christianity Moses is a central figure. He is the man from the Old Testament most mentioned in the New Testament, he led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, communicated with God and received the Ten Commandments. Moses is known as both a religious leader and a lawgiver.
In Islam, Moses is loved and respected; he is both a Prophet and a Messenger. God mentions him more than 120 times, and his story ranges across several chapters. It is the longest and most detailed story of a prophet in the Quran and is discussed in elaborate detail.
The word Prophet (Nabi in Arabic) is derived from the word Naba, meaning news. God’s message is revealed and the Prophet spreads the news amongst his people. A Messenger, on the other hand, comes with a specific mission, usually to convey a new ordainment from God. Every Messenger is a Prophet, but not every Prophet, is a Messenger.
Islam teaches that all prophets came to their people with the same proclamation, “O my people, worship God, you have no other God but Him”. (Quran 11:50). Moses called the children of Israel to worship God alone and he laid down the laws prescribed in the Torah.
“Verily, We did send down the Torah to Moses, therein was guidance and light, by which the Prophets, who submitted themselves to God's Will, judged the Jews. And the rabbis and the priests too judged the Jews by the Torah for to them was entrusted the protection of God's Book, and they were witnesses thereto.” (Quran 5:44)
Quran is a book of guidance for all of humankind. It is not a history book; however, it does contain historical information. God asks us to reflect and contemplate on the stories of the Prophets in order that we may learn from their trials, tribulations, and triumphs. Moses’ story contains many lessons for humankind. God says that the account of Moses and Pharaoh in Quran is the truth. It is a story of political intrigue and of oppression that knew no bounds.
“We recite to you some of the news of Moses and Pharaoh in truth, for a people who believe. Verily, Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and made its people sects, weakening (oppressing) a group (i.e. Children of Israel) among them; killing their sons, and letting their females live. Verily, he was of those who commit great sins and crimes, oppressors, tyrant.” (Quran 28:3&4)
Moses was born into one of the most politically charged times in history. The Pharaoh of Egypt was the dominant power figure in the land. He was so incredibly powerful that he referred to himself as a god and nobody was inclined or able to dispute this. He said, “I am your lord, most high”, (Quran 79:24)
Pharaoh effortlessly exerted his authority and influence over all the people in Egypt. He used the strategy of divide and conquer. He set up class distinctions, divided the people into groups and tribes, and set them against one another. The Jews, the children of Israel, were put at the lowest level of Egyptian society. They were the slaves and servants. Moses’ family was from amongst the children of Israel.
Egypt at the time was the known world’s superpower. The ultimate power rested in the hands of very few. Pharaoh and his trusted ministers directed matters as if lives of the population were of little or no consequence. The political situation was in some ways similar to the political world of the 21st century. In a time when the young people of the world are used as cannon fodder for the political and military games of the most powerful, the story of Moses is particularly pertinent.
According to Islamic scholar Ibn Kathir the children of Israel talked vaguely about one of their nation’s sons arsing to wrest the throne of Egypt from Pharaoh. Perhaps it was just a persistent daydream from an oppressed people, or even an ancient prophecy but the story of Moses begins here. A yearning for freedom coupled with a tyrannical king’s dream.
The people of Egypt were influenced by dreams and the interpretation of dreams. Dreams featured prominently in the story of prophet Joseph and once again, in the story of Moses the fate of the children of Israel is affected by a dream. Pharaoh dreams that a child from the children of Israel grows to manhood and seizes his throne.
True to character, Pharaoh reacts arrogantly and gives the order that all male children born to the children of Israel be killed. His ministers however perceive that this would lead to the complete annihilation of the children of Israel and economic ruin for Egypt. How, they ask, would the empire function without slaves and servants? The order is changed; the male children are killed in one year but spared in the next.
Pharaoh becomes so fanatical he sends spies or security agents to seek out pregnant women. If any woman gives birth to a male child, he is immediately put to death. When Moses’ mother becomes pregnant with the child destined to lead the children of Israel out of bondage, she conceals her pregnancy. However, God wished to do a favour to those who were weak and oppressed, and pharaoh’s plans are thwarted.
“And We wished to do a favour to those who were weak (and oppressed) in the land, and to make them rulers and to make them the inheritors, And to establish them in the land, and We let Pharaoh and Haman (Egypt’s Chief Minister) and their hosts receive from them that which they feared.” (Quran 28:5&6)
The scene is set, and the child is born. The winds of change begin to blow and God demonstrates that humans may plan and scheme but He Alone is the best of planners.
The Story of Moses (part 2 of 10): Trust in God
There are lessons for humankind throughout the story of Moses, which are not only learnt after his prophethood; rather, they are found even when he was a newborn. His righteous mother’s behavior gives us numerous lessons that are relevant even today. Put your trust in God!
Moses was born in a year in which the sons of the Children of Israel were put to death the moment they were born. Imagine the sense of fear that permeated every aspect of life under such conditions. Pregnancy was not an event to be celebrated and cherished but a source of fear and insecurity.
Security guards roamed the streets and invaded homes searching for pregnant women, therefore Moses’ mother concealed her pregnancy. Imagine the conditions under which she gave birth: fearful, silent, possibly shrouded in darkness. Was she surrounded by women or alone? Did her husband hold her hand praying that she did not cry out revealing herself to the neighbours or guards?
Whatever the conditions, Moses was born. A boy. His parents’ heart must have constricted with joy and fear simultaneously. What were they to do now, how would they conceal a newborn baby? Moses’ mother was a righteous woman, pious and God fearing, therefore in her hour of need she turned to God and He inspired her next actions.
“And We inspired the mother of Moses saying, suckle him, but when you fear for him, then cast him into the river and fear not, nor grieve. Verily! We shall bring him back to you, and shall make him one of (Our) Messengers.” (Quran 28:2-7).
Moses’ mother has just spent the last months concealing her pregnancy for fear that her child would be put to death, now as she holds him to her breast God inspires her to cast him into the river. Not a gentle stream but the Nile River, a huge powerful river with a strong current. Her initial reaction must have been that such an action would be condemning him to certain death.
Moses’ mother put her trust in God. “Do not fear and do not grieve, for We will bring him back to you.” She made a waterproof basket, placed her tiny son inside, and cast him into the river. Ibn Kathir narrates that as the basket touched the water the raging current became calm and gentle, sweeping the basket silently downstream. Moses’ sister was instructed by her mother to slip silently through the reeds and follow the basket on its journey.
The basket with its precious cargo courses down the Nile River, passing houses, boats, and people, unnoticed until it stops at Pharaoh’s palace. Moses’ sister watches in fear, as someone from Pharaoh’s household removes the basket from the river. Moses was cast into the river to escape certain death and now his resting place is the palace of Pharaoh. This is surely too much for a mother to bear, however events about to unfold will demonstrate that the promise of God is true.
“...And whosoever fears God and keeps his duty to Him, He will make a way for him to get out (from every difficulty). And He will provide him from (sources) he never could imagine. And whosoever puts his trust in God, then He will suffice him. Verily, God will accomplish his purpose. Indeed God has set a measure for all things.” (Quran 65:2-3)
Baby Moses was taken to Asiya, the wife of Pharaoh. Asiya, in contrast to her arrogant, proud husband was a righteous, merciful woman. God opened her heart and Asiya looked down up on the tiny baby and felt overcome by her love for him. The royal couple were unable to conceive a child and this tiny baby awakened her maternal instincts. Asiya clutched him to her chest and asked her husband to accept the child into family.
Possibly, against his better judgement Pharaoh accepted the child, who was part of God’s plan to bring down the royal house. Far from abandoning him, God set Moses up as a royal son of Egypt, he provided him with the strongest human support in the land. Asiya and Pharaoh now had a son, who was now protected by the very person who had sought to kill him.
“Then the household of Pharaoh picked him up, that he might become for them an enemy and a cause of grief. Verily! Pharaoh, Haman, and their hosts were sinners. And the wife of Pharaoh said; ‘A comfort of the eye for me and for you. Kill him not, perhaps he maybe of a benefit to us, or we may adopt him as a son.’ And they perceived not (the result of that).” (Quran 28:8-9)
Asiya summoned wet nurses to the palace, but the tiny child refused to suckle. This was a cause of great distress; in those days there were no baby formulas or supplements to offer the child. At this stage the royal palace was in turmoil, the women of the household were fussing over Asiya and her new baby therefore no one noticed the presence of Moses’ sister amongst the servants. She summoned all her courage and stepped forward offering a solution. She said she knew of a woman who would suckle the child affectionately. Why would the royal household take the advice of an unknown child, if not to fulfil God’s plan. Moses’ sister was ordered to rush and fetch the woman.
“And We had already forbidden (other) foster suckling mothers for him, until she (his sister came up and) said: "Shall I direct you to a household who will rear him for you, and sincerely they will look after him in a good manner?” (Quran 28:12)
Moses’ mother was in her home. Was she pacing, or weeping silently? We do not know, but God tells us that her heart was empty and that she was about to reveal herself. Was she considering dashing down to the river and searching frantically through the reeds? God relieved her of her torment when her daughter rushed into the house breathlessly relating the story of what had happened to Moses.
Mother and daughter lost no time returning to the palace. When Moses was handed to his real mother, he settled immediately and began to suckle. According to Ibn Kathir, the household, including Pharaoh himself, was astonished. Pharaoh asked the woman who she was and she replied, "I am a woman of sweet milk and sweet smell, and no child refuses me." Pharaoh accepted this answer, and thus Moses was returned to the arms of his mother and raised in the palace as a prince of Egypt.
“So did We restore him to his mother, that she might be delighted, and that she might not grieve, and that she might know that the Promise of God is true. But most of them know not.” (Quran 28:13)
The Story of Moses (part 3 of 10): Moses flees Egypt
Description: God replaces weakness with strength.
Chapter 28 of the Quran is named, ‘The Narration’, the first 45 verses focus solely on the story of Moses. It is from here that we learn about the strength and piety of his mother, and how God rewarded her righteousness and trust in Him by returning her son. Some scholars believe that Moses and his mother retuned to their home among the Children of Israel, others, including Ibn Kathir believe that Moses and his mother lived in the palace while she was breast feeding him and that as he grew up she was allowed the privilege of visiting him.
The Quran and the authentic traditions of Prophet Muhammad, may God praise him, are silent about this period of Moses life, although it would be fair to say that by the time Moses was a man, he probably knew about his origin and identified with the children of Israel. The traditions of Prophet Muhammad describe Moses as a tall, well-built, dark skinned man with curly hair. Both his character and physique are described as strong.
“And when he attained his full strength, and was perfect (in manhood), We bestowed on him Hukman (Prophethood, right judgment of the affairs) and religious knowledge (of the religion of his forefathers, Islamic Monotheism). And thus do We reward the Muhsineen (good-doers).” (Quran 28:14)
We will discover in the story of Moses that he was a forthright man. He believed in speaking his mind and standing up for the weaker members of society. Whenever he witnessed oppression or cruelty, he found it impossible to stop himself from intervening.
Ibn Kathir narrates that one day while walking in the city; Moses came upon two men fighting. One was an Israelite and the other an Egyptian. The Israelite recognised Moses and cried out to him for help. Moses stepped into the fight and struck the Egyptian one ferocious blow. He immediately fell to the ground and died. Moses was overcome with grief. He was aware of his own strength but did not imagine that he had the power to kill someone with one blow.
“And he entered the city at a time of unawareness of its people, and he found there two men fighting, one of his party and the other of his foes. The man of his own party asked him for help against his foe, so Moses struck him with his fist and killed him. He said, “This is of Satan’s doing, verily, he is a plain misleading enemy.”
He said, “My Lord! Verily, I have wronged myself, so forgive me.” Then He forgave him. Verily, He is the Oft-Forgiving, the Most Merciful.
He said, “My Lord! For that with which You have favoured me, I will never more be a helper for the criminals, disobedient to God, polytheists, sinners, etc.!” (Quran 28:15-17)
Either because the streets were relatively deserted or because the people had no wish to be involved in a serious assault, the authorities had no idea that Moses was involved in the melee. However, the next day Moses saw the same Israelite man involved in yet another fight. He suspected that the man was a troublemaker and approached him to warn him about such behaviour.
The Israelite saw Moses striding towards him and became afraid, he called out, “Would you kill me as you killed the wretch yesterday?” The man’s opponent, an Egyptian heard this remark and rushed away to report Moses to the authorities. Later on that day, Moses was approached by a person unknown who informed him that the authorities were planning to arrest him and possibly put him to death for the crime of killing an Egyptian.
So he became afraid, looking about in the city (waiting as to what will be the result of his crime of killing), when behold, the man who had sought his help the day before, called for his help again. Moses said to him, “Verily, you are a plain misleader!” Then when he decided to seize the man who was an enemy to both of them, the man said, “O Moses! Is it your intention to kill me as you killed a man yesterday? Your aim is nothing but to become a tyrant in the land, and not to be one of those who do right.”
And there came a man running, from the farthest end of the city. He said, “O Moses! Verily, the chiefs are taking counsel together about you, to kill you, so escape. Truly, I am to you of those who give sincere advice.”
So he escaped from there, looking about in a state of fear. He said, “My Lord! Save me from the people who are polytheists, and wrong-doers!” (Quran 28:15-21)
Moses immediately left the confines of the city. He did not take the time to return to his home to change his clothes or prepare provisions. Moses strode into the desert towards Midian, the country that lay between Syria and Egypt. His heart was filled with fear and he was afraid that he would turn around and see the authorities pursuing him. He walked, and walked, and when his feet and legs felt like lead, he continued walking. His shoes wore away on the rough desert ground and the hot sand burned the soles of his feet. Moses was exhausted, hungry, thirsty, and bleeding but he forced himself to continue, some say for more than a week, until he came to a watering hole. Moses threw himself under the shade of a tree.
Death in the dry dusty heat of the Egyptian desert should have been the likely outcome of Moses journey. Tracking across the inhospitable landscape with no provisions and inappropriate clothing would have been an expedition doomed to failure. Yet once again, the story of Moses reveals a fundamental truth. If a believer submits fully to the will of God, god will provide for him from sources unimaginable. God will replace weakness with strength, and will replace failure with victory.
Moses arrived safely at the desert oasis, the smell of water and the shade of the trees must have seemed like paradise on earth. Moses however was not alone in his newfound paradise; the waterhole was surrounded by shepherds watering their flocks.
The Story of Moses (part 4 of 10): A Stranger in a Strange Land
After walking for more than a week across the burning desert, Moses arrived at an oasis where groups of men were watering their animals. They were pushing, fighting, joking, and laughing, behaving in a rough, and tumble manner. Moses flung himself onto the ground grateful for the shade of a tree. As he caught his breath, he noticed two women and their flock of sheep. They were standing well back, hesitant to approach the waterhole.
Moses was a man of honour. Even though he was exhausted and dehydrated Moses could not bear to see the women standing back afraid to move toward the waterhole. He approached them, and asked why the men in their family did not look after the sheep. The two young women explained that their father was an old man and the task of caring for the sheep was now their responsibility.
Moses took the women’s sheep to the waterhole, where he easily pushed in amongst the men already there. After completing this task, Moses’ energy was totally spent. He sat under the shade of the tree and began to supplicate God. He said, “O Lord, whatever good you can bestow on me, I am surely in need of it”.
“And when he arrived at the water of Midian he found there a group of men watering their flocks, and besides them he found two women who were keeping back their flocks. He said, “What is the matter with you?” They said, “We cannot water (our flocks) until the shepherds take their flocks. And our father is a very old man.” Therefore, he watered their flocks for them, and then he turned back to shade, and said, “My Lord! Truly, I am in need of whatever good that You bestow on me!” (Quran 28:22-24)
Quran relates to us the stories of the prophets of God in order that we might learn from them. The Prophets are worthy role models and their lives are not so different from our own. How many times has each one of us sunk to the ground or into a chair in despair? How many times have we felt so physically or mentally exhausted that it seems we will be unable to go on for even one more second?
Moses once again turned to the only real source of help for humankind – God, and before his supplication was finished help was on its way. Moses was probably hoping for a slice of bread or a handful of dates but instead God gave him safety, provisions and a family.
One of the two women returned to Moses. She conducted herself with modesty and shyness and said to Moses, “My father wants to reward you for your kindness and invites you to our home’. Consequently, Moses roused himself and went to see the elderly man. They sat together and Moses related his story. The elderly man allayed his fears and told Moses that he had safely crossed the Egyptian border; he was now in Midian and was safe from any authorities that may have been pursuing him.
“Then there came to him one of the two women, walking shyly. She said, “Verily, my father calls you that he may reward you for having watered our flocks for us.” So when he came to him and narrated the story, he said, “Fear you not. You have escaped from the people who are polytheists, disbelievers, and wrong-doers.” (Quran 28:25)
After Moses had been invited to stay with the family, one of the women approached her father privately and advised him to hire Moses. When her father asked why, she answered because he is strong and trustworthy. Two qualities that Islam tells us are signs of leadership. In the years immediately following the death of Prophet Muhammad, may God praise him, the leaders of the Muslim nation were chosen for these two qualities. They learned their politics from Quran, from the stories of their righteous predecessors.
The elderly man, who some scholars believe was Prophet Shuaib, although there are no authentic sources either confirming or denying this, offered Moses the safety and security of his own family. He gave one of his daughters in marriage to Moses on the condition that he work for eight years, or ten if Moses agreed to stay on for the further two years. Moses was a stranger in a strange land. Exhausted and alone, but God heard his supplication and provided for him from sources that Moses could never have imagined.
And said one of them (the two women): “O my father! Hire him! Verily, the best of men for you to hire is the strong, the trustworthy.” He said, “I intend to wed one of these two daughters of mine to you, on condition that you serve me for eight years, but if you complete ten years, it will be a favour from you. But I intend not to place you under a difficulty. If Allah wills, you will find me one of the righteous.” He (Moses) said, “That is settled between me and you whichever of the two terms I fulfil, there will be no injustice to me, and Allah is Surety over what we say.” (Quran 28:26-28)
As believers we must never forget that God hears our prayers and supplications, and answers. Sometimes the wisdom behind the answers is beyond our comprehension but God desires only good for us. Putting our trust in God and submitting to His will allow the believer to weather any storm, and to stand tall in the face of adversity. We are never alone, just as Moses was not alone as he trudged across the desert fleeing the only life and land he had ever known.
The Story of Moses (part 5 of 10): Moses Hears the Voice of God
Moses married one of the women from the waterhole and spent the next ten years working with her father and raising his own family. His new life was quiet and contemplative, he did not have to endure the intrigue of the Egyptian court or the humiliation of his people, the Children of Israel. Moses was able to ponder the wonders of God and the universe.
Any account of Moses’ life is filled with lessons and guidance, for Moses and for humankind. God put Moses through experiences that would hold him in good stead in his coming mission. Moses had been brought up in the house of the Pharaoh of Egypt; therefore, he was well aware of the politics and intrigue of the Egyptian government. Moses also had first hand experience of the corruption of Pharaoh himself – the man who had declared himself God.
God saw to it that Moses fled Egypt and travelled in the land. He was able to experience other cultures and people. Travel then and now broadens horizons and opens hearts and minds to, not only the differences but also the similarities between people of diverse backgrounds.
“O humankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.” (Quran 49:13)
During his time in Midian, Moses was a shepherd. Prophet Muhammad informed us that all the prophets of God had spent time tending to sheep. It may seem a strange profession but on careful examination, we can see that shepherds learn some valuable lessons while tending to their flocks. A shepherd has a lonely quiet life; there is time for personal reflection and contemplation of the wonders of life.
However, at the same time a shepherd must be constantly on alert for danger. Sheep in particular are weak animals requiring constant care and attention. If even one sheep wanders away from the protection of the flock, it becomes easy prey. A prophet usually has the job of protecting a whole nation, he must be alert and aware of any danger threatening his followers, especially the weak, poor and oppressed among them.
After Moses had completed ten years of service with his father in law, he was overcome by homesickness. He began to miss his family and the land of Egypt. Even though he was afraid of what would happen if he returned, he experienced a strange longing to return to the land of his birth. Moses gathered his family together and made the long journey back to Egypt.
“Then, when Moses had fulfilled the term, and was travelling with his family, he saw a fire in the direction of Tur (Mount). He said to his family, “Wait, I have seen a fire; perhaps I may bring to you from there some information, or a burning fire-brand that you may warm yourselves”. (Quran 28:29)
While Moses was trekking back across the desert, he became lost. It was a cold dark night. Moses saw what appeared to be a fire burning in the distance. He told his family to stay where they were. He had hopes of either getting directions or being able to carry some fire back to warm his family. Moses was about to participate in one of history’s most amazing conversations. He walked towards the fire, and as he did, he heard a voice.
“…Blessed is whosoever is in the fire, and whosoever is round about it! And glorified be God, the Lord of the ‘Alameen (mankind, jinns and all that exists). “O Moses! Verily! It is I, God, the All-Mighty, and the All-Wise.” (Quran 27:8&9)
God spoke to Moses. He asked Moses to remove his shoes for he would be standing on scared ground. God revealed to Moses that he had been chosen for a special mission and bid him listen to what was about to be said.
“Verily! I am God, none has the right to be worshipped but I, so worship Me, and perform prayer for My Remembrance. Verily, the Hour is coming and I am almost hiding it that every person may be rewarded for that which he strives. Therefore, let not the one whobelieves not therein (i.e. in the Day of Resurrection, Reckoning, Paradise and Hell, etc.), but follows his own lusts, divert you, lest you perish.” (Quran 20:14-16)
In a direct conversation between God and Moses, prayer was prescribed upon Moses and his followers. Prayer was also prescribed upon Prophet Muhammad and his followers in much the same way on the night of Prophet Muhammad’s journey to Jerusalem and ascent into the heavens. What does this say about the importance of prayer and its ability to connect the believer with God?
At this time, Moses must have been mesmerised. He set out for Egypt, following a strange yearning to return to his homeland. He had become lost in the dark and cold and was searching for light and guidance. He walked towards what he thought was a burning fire and found the light and guidance of God.
Moses was holding a stick or staff in his hand. God spoke to him and said what is this stick Moses, tell me about it. Moses answered, “This is my stick, whereon I lean, and wherewith I beat down branches for my sheep, and wherein I find other uses.” (Quran 20:18) Moses knew his stick very well; he knew it had no miraculous qualities. God asked Moses to throw the stick to the ground and when he did, it began to slither and shake. The stick had been transformed into a snake.
Moses was afraid; he turned on his heels and began to run away. It is a natural human inclination to be afraid of strange and unknown things, but God wanted to remove this fear from Moses’ heart. He was about to embark on a difficult mission and it was important that he began with complete trust that God would protect him, knowing that there was absolutely no reason for him to be fearful.
“And throw your stick!” But when he saw it moving as if it were a snake, he turned in flight, and looked not back. (It was said): “O Moses! Draw near, and fear not. Verily, you are of those who are secure”. (Quran 28:31)
God then instructed Moses to put his hand inside his cloak, He revealed to him another sign of his magnificence and omnipotence. Signs, which Moses would need in his coming mission, proof for those who are disobedient and rebellious.
“Put your hand in your bosom, it will come forth white without a disease, and draw your hand close to your side to be free from fear (that which you suffered from the snake, and also by that your hand will return to its original state). These are two signs, (miracles, evidences, proofs) from your Lord to Pharaoh and his chiefs. Verily, they are the people who are rebellious, and disobedient towards God.” (Quran 28:32)
God intended to send Moses to Pharaoh. The man he feared most, the man Moses thought would surely put him to death. His heart constricted on fear but God reassured him.