Surah 20: Ṭ H, Part 1

English has problems. Given. One specific problem can be found in our alphabet: how do you spell the letter “H”? It’s odd, but I really couldn’t figure out how to do it. Aich? Aitch? Eighch? Blech, that’s ugly. Also, English letter names don’t necessarily inform us about the letter itself. Looking at you again, “eitch,” what sound do you represent? Oh, “hhhh,” …..wonder where that came from. Arabic’s alphabet boasts clarity on these two levels. Not only do Arabs know how to spell the name of their letters, all their letter names start with the sound they produce. Today’s surah starts with another set of mysterious letters, the names of which are chanted in recitation, and this set was unique enough to become the surah’s title. To Arabs, this is Surat Ṭah Ha. In keeping with my custom of translating the titles, I thought about translating and spelling out the letter names in English but realized very quickly that there was no way on earth I was going to title my post “Ṭah Aitch.”

But this digression, like the letters themselves, does not contribute to the content of the surah. Ṭah Ha is retelling the story of Moses and Aaron, the Fall of Man, and the process of judgement. If you feel fatigued with this material and are expecting to be bored with old rehash, you are forgiven, but the surah is actually going to give us much more novelty than you’re expecting. We shall start today with ayat 9-55. In The Traditions, Part 2 I eschewed comparing the Quran’s account of Moses’ ministry with the Exodus account because their scope and scale were too different to cover. Today I’m going to reverse that decision and indulge in a comparison for just the shorter and more manageable sections of Moses’ origin stories.

Moses’ Beginnings

When we meet Moses in this surah, he is already a full grown man with a family. They seem to be living on their own as migrant herders (as evidenced by Moses’ shepherding staff which is mentioned soon later). Moses sees a fire, and here’s a curious thing: he tells his family that he will bring back a burning brand for them or some kind of guidance. Surely fire wasn’t a thing that needed to be salvaged from the wild at this point in human society. Also, the idea of looking to a fire for guidance sounds fairly superstitious, though it doesn’t have to be so. Fire out in the wild is definitely a thing worth investigating, whether it is to suss out if the fire is man made and who made it, or if it is a wildfire to be extinguished or fled from. But that Moses goes looking to a fire also comes across like a prophetic “spider sense” and demonstrates that he is perhaps being called.

When Moses reaches the fire (no bush is mentioned), God tells him to take off his sandals while in His presence. In Exodus, the sacredness of the ground is left unexplained, but we do infer that it’s God’s presence that makes the ground sacred. Here, God names the location as “the Holy Ṭuwa Valley,” which suggests that something about the location is inherently holy. As such I’m surprised that there aren’t more Muslim sources trying to locate the valley. There is a site called Dhi Ṭuwa around Mecca, one that existed in Muhammad’s time, but all that remains (perhaps not for much longer) is a well and there are no hadith connecting the two Ṭuwas. Anyhow, that the location is holy also sets up this moment as that divine intersection of fate, an appointment made by God.

(By the way, the questions I’m mulling through in those above two paragraphs has caught Islamic curiosity as well, and there exists an Islamic midrash of the story. I wasn’t able to find any English translations of the written materials, but you can read a short summary of it here.)

God announces Himself to Moses first with a dose of theology and then with two verifying miracles. There is no divine statement of identity that correlates to the Hebrew one (“I Am“), but rather God identifies Himself with the term Al-Llah, “The God.” God speaks of the coming Judgement, and even declares a fickle inclination to not warn men of the judgement so that they will get the punishment they deserve (this is a backhanded way of saying God is merciful, since it communicates that God isn’t obligated to guide humans from damnation). It is after God first establishes the tenants of monotheism, prayer, final judgement, and divine power that He commissions Moses to go convict Pharaoh.

So a quick comparison of the differences between the Exodus and Ṭah Ha accounts up to this point:

Exodus Ṭah Ha
Moses marries into Midianites and serves his father-in-law as a shepherdMoses and family are independent herders, unaffiliated with a tribe or community
Leaves flock in order to investigate a bush that is on fire but not burningLeaves family in order to salvage/consult fire
The location of divine encounter unmentioned. God meets Moses where he is Location named, raising questions as to site’s significance or source of holiness; contributes to the idea that this meeting is an “appointment”
God introduces Himself in relation to Moses’ heritage as a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and JacobGod introduces Himself in relation to Moses as isolated individual: “Your Lord”
God names Himself by establishing the concept of Godhood, i.e. unconditional existence (in contrast with attributes like supernatural powers, superior hierarchy to man, creator relationship, etc.) God names Himself with term meaning The God, without definition of Godhood, and lays out expectations for how the individual will remember and recognize His exclusive authority
No theology of final judgment and damnationTheology of final judgment and damnation
Demonstrates miracles to Moses in context of approaching PharaohDemonstrates miracles to Moses in context of establishing His identity
Moses questions God, hesitates to obey, shows fearMoses answers God’s questions and obeys orders
God commissions Moses by explaining His compassion for the plight of the Hebrews, and sends him to Pharaoh to demand their extradition God commissions Moses to convict Pharaoh of his sins

These differences may seem small and piddly to someone not invested in the texts, but this is what makes religious texts so fascinating: the depths to which their adherents mine meanings from them. If your source of guidance is written words, then you become concerned with pulling the fullest meaning out of these words as possible. Between Exodus and Ṭah Ha the biggest difference –one that becomes clearer as we move forward into the Quran’s text– is how the details build a different character out of Moses. In Exodus, Moses is questioning, objecting, hesitant; much of what God says is in reaction to the protests or concerns of Moses. In Ṭah Ha, Moses is compliant, willing, and resolved to be obedient. Indeed, that he has stepped away from his family to seek guidance already speaks well for his character in the context of how the Quran has spoken about the subjects of family bonds and the pursuit of divine knowledge. The most defining moment of this difference is in ayat 25-35. All the things that Exodus’ Moses raised as objections to his appointment to leadership are mentioned here in a petition by Moses to have those things removed from his heart: fear and a faltering tongue. Moses asks God to appoint his brother Aaron as a deputy in order to be more effective in administering the Israelites. And God grants these wishes, which should mean that Moses goes forward without any struggle with anxiety/doubt or speech impediment, and that Aaron is only ever helpful to Moses. The Jewish account of Moses contributes to a broader narrative in which God reaches out to the weak in order to show compassion and to demonstrate His strength. The Muslim account contributes to a broader narrative wherein God provides favor and authority to those who are already spiritually perfect or near perfection. While a wider lens shows commonality between Jewish and Islamic theology, it’s details like these that make their adherents shy away from saying they believe the same things.

The Other Beginnings

Exodus tells of Moses’ life like a more conventional biography and details his events chronologically. This is not to say that it isn’t loaded with dramatic meaning. The origin story of Exodus 2:1-10 is a grand setup for Moses as the “Child of Promise.” I think the movie “Prince of Egypt” portrays this in its introduction sequence very well, even though the movie changes the story to see Moses raised without Hebrew influence for dramatic purposes. Ayat 36-41 in today’s surah tell us of Moses’ early origins as a story within a story, and combined with some changes of detail this makes it a little different in purpose too.

After granting Moses’ requests as an act of mercy, God reminds Moses that He has shown him mercy in the past as well. God inspired Moses’ mother to seal Moses in a chest and then throw the chest into the river so that he would be picked up by a pagan enemy. This inspiration is a bit disturbing without the context of Pharaoh’s order to execute all male infants, moreover I am not sure if this context is implied in the background since other suwar have placed the killing of male infants as a reaction to Moses’ ministry rather than a prequel event. It is not explicit that Moses drifts into the Pharaoh’s household, just that he is found by his enemy, but I think context makes it an easy assumption. Moses’ sister (Miriam) is still present in the story. While in the Exodus account she only offers to find a Hebrew woman who can nurse the baby for the finder, in this account she offers to find someone who can raise the baby, a narrative choice that removes Moses from the influence of idolatry and paganism altogether.

Asiya - Wikipedia
So in modern usage, the word Quran’s word for “chest” has evolved to mean “coffin.” I wonder if that usage was already happening at the point this illustration came to be.

This origin story is of Moses being ejected from his people, landing into the hands of his enemy, and then being returned to his people unharmed. It does not have the details that set him up as “Child of Promise,” but rather serves as a true parable to assure Moses that God has delivered him in and out of the hands of his enemy before. When the surah summarizes the rest of Moses’ prequel life, we can see parallels to the infancy story in that Moses has been cast out from his people (he killed someone and suffered some exile before being sheltered by the Midianites before striking out with his family). Now God is sending him into the hands of an enemy, after which he shall be returned to his people unscathed from the encounter. That the story serves as a parable to foreshadow greater events makes it different from the Exodus version, but it is still good storytelling.

Let us also pause to add two more female characters to the Quran’s roster! They have no names, and those so inclined might discount them still as women whose only role is to provide maternal-type support to the male heroes, but their roles are purely positive ones and resemble the actions of other prophets. Moses’ mother sacrifices her child according to an inspiration from God –an act that mirrors the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son. God explicitly expresses concern for the mother’s emotional welfare in returning Moses to her care. The sister’s part only takes nine words in the Arabic, but she trespasses social bounds by walking up to an enemy in order to advocate for the powerless –not unlike what her brothers will be doing later– and thus serves as the tool through which God secures Moses back into his mothers’ arms. Perhaps our best feminist icon for Islam is not actually Mary, but Miriam.

The Commission

According to Moses’ wishes, Aaron joins the picture, which we know because God starts talking to “you both.” God’s commission to the brothers is very pleasant: they are told to go speak to Pharaoh gently for Pharaoh’s own benefit. The brothers express some fear that Pharaoh will lash out at them or commit some sin. (That latter fear reminds me of Al-Anʕaam 108.) God assures the brothers that He will protect them. As for the latter fear, God equips them with a command that should guide Pharaoh to better choices (don’t hurt the Hebrews) and forewarn him of the positive or negative potentials for his choices.

In the very midst of God’s commission to Moses and Aaron the surah’s setting invisibly transitions to when Moses and Aaron stand before Pharaoh’s court. Through ayat 47-55 it is not clear when Moses/Aaron are speaking and when God is. Remember that there is no punctuation in the Quran and that all punctuation requires interpretive leaps. Note that the content of ayah 52 flows very smoothly into ayat 53-54, but that Sahih does not include the latter in the quotation marks of the former. Perhaps this is because ayah 55 has to be coming from God’s voice, even though in many ways it is just another extension of Moses’ sermon. By breaking it out of the sermon and linking it more to God’s narration in ayah 56, the “y’alls” of 53-55 are redirected to Muhammad’s audience. In this section, the lens in very inconsistent in matters of who is talking, who is being spoken to, and where the conversation is happening.

These inconsistencies are why some skeptics have a hard time not believing that Muhammad was the one telling these stories. They interpret such inconsistencies to be the symptoms of someone in a live performance losing track of place, time, and voice as they recite a story that is not supposed to be from their own perspective. Advocates for the divine source of the Quran, however, see this fluidity as a sign that the story is being told by a being too “omni” for its perspective to be captured in conventional narrative and voice boundaries. Yet this “omni” perspective also blurs our understanding of what a prophet is doing when he speaks. Just as with Al-ʕabd (also known as Al-Khiḍr) in Surah al-Kahf, we can question where God stops and the prophet starts when the prophet is speaking for God. How much is Moses himself when speaking to Pharaoh? When does a prophet’s voice carry divine authority and when not?

And this wakens in me other questions about what the Quran is doing when it retells these stories. One big question is how accurate the Quran can be about these events and their dialogues when one has to assume the original conversations were not happening in Arabic. Perfect translations across languages are very rare, and probably impossible except in short moments. So how precise can we take the words of the Quran to be when they are representing the words of another language? While Hebrew at least comes from the same language family as Arabic, ancient Coptic does not, and we’d assume that Pharaoh would operate in Coptic. So we have to assume that the Quran is telling us summaries and abandoning nuance and precision in the dialogue in order to present the information in Arabic. This little example of the inherent limit of languages is part of what makes it complicated for Muslims to imagine how God was able to incarnate His will and thoughts into words. That God should struggle to fit into these limits is how some Muslims explain the Quran’s liquid perspective and narration. That God does not use language and story-telling to its fullest and clearest competency is a challenge that many skeptics raise in return.

Getting Ahead of Myself

However, this sneaky transition of the narrative from Moses and Aaron’s commission to Pharaoh’s court has slipped my attention beyond the material I meant to cover today. Next week we will continue into the meat of their ministry.

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