Last week I spent a lot of time on a little content because I was combing details to compare with the Exodus account. It was more achievable to do that comparison with material from the origin stories alone. Moving forward today it is more useful to compare how Surah Ṭah Ha narrates Moses and Aaron’s ministry versus the account in Surah al-Aʕraaf 103-154. Through the details you can see that each is telling the story with a different purpose in mind. Al-Aʕraaf is a little more concerned with societal judgement, linking Moses’ ministry in with the judgements of a whole community like the prophets before him. Today’s surah will set up more emphasis on the influence of wicked leaders, setting up the concept of the anti-prophet.
Though this surah exemplifies and condemns anti-prophets, it still continues the normal sermon that each person fully responsible for earning their own fate. Though there are individuals to blame for removing large masses of people from guidance, God allows no excuses or intercessors at the Day of Judgement, and so the individual should watch for the trap of such false leaders.
The scene in Pharaoh’s court starts in the same breath as the end of Moses and Aaron’s commission in ayah 47. Last week I already covered how the initial dialogue with Pharaoh is a bit nebulous in terms of voice and audience. The initial demand is to a single “you” for Pharaoh, but then switches to a “y’all” that aims at perhaps the whole court or perhaps is a slip in the fourth wall that starts talking to Muhammad’s adherents. I do want to contrast how Moses’ address in this surah is different from the version in Surah al-Aʕraaf. Back when writing upon that, I had noticed how Moses and Aaron’s ministry differed from the other Quranic prophets’ because the brothers’ message was “send the Israelites with me” and not “repent or be destroyed.” Ṭah Ha bridges this gap by being more explicit that Moses’ message is “send the Israelites with me –obey or be punished.” The content of the dialogues is not identical, but I hope I made my point last week that it’s unfair to demand that the Quran be precisely literal with its account of those dialogues. Due to the limits of languages, the Quran really can only be seen as presenting a translated gist or summary of the speeches given.
Al-Aʕraaf places much of the challenge to Moses and Aaron in the general court’s mouths. Ṭah Ha puts dialogue directly in Pharaoh’s mouth and thus lays most of the blame on the foremost leader. The contribution to the portrayal of disbelievers as a category is essentially the same. He questions Moses, but disqualifies any answers that Moses gives him. He puts more faith in the traditions of ancestors than the testimony of a newcomer, even though Moses has miraculous signs to demonstrate. He rejects the signs as magic and perceives magic as a human power that testifies to the strength of the conjuror rather than spiritual association. He discredits the prophet by reading dark motivations into him. Pharaoh and the magicians plot and connive and incite each other to evil. Stepping out of the surah to the Quran’s broader view, that the magicians actually can do some kind of magic does imply they are connected to demonic/jinnic power as well. The thing that is surprising about the magicians, however, is their complete conversion after the showdown. They repent of their sins, including their practice of magic. This stands as the one of the few proper responses to a prophet that gets portrayed in the Quran. While other prophets get token sentences of having some followers or people who escape destruction with them, I’m struggling to remember if we’ve ever seen those people’s moments or processes of repentance.
I noted in The Traditions, Part 2 that the showdown between Moses and the magicians is vague and seems to rely upon some prior knowledge of the Exodus account. I want to repeat that the “snake eats snakes” substance of the story is guessable from one angle, and add that today’s surah provides more detail to ground that guess in sola-Quranic terms. For one, the basic action defining the magic/miracle at play is always “throw,” and we know that God first taught the miracle to Moses by commanding him to throw his staff. The resulting snake in the instruction phase was described as tasʕaa, “rushing.” In the showdown, the magic done by the sorcerers is described as an illusion in which the ropes and staffs they throw appear to be “rushing.” Though snakes are never mentioned, this detail does link to a passage in which a throw resulting in a snake is mentioned. From the linked vocabulary of throwing and rushing, you can guess that the showdown results in snakes without the Exodus account.
The Quran also is explicit that this is a magical illusion, and that the magic is actually upon the eyes of the watchers (including Moses, who reacts with fear) rather than anything the magicians have done to the actual staffs. It isn’t clear how Moses’ “throw” (again, we assume staff-snake result) could talqaf (they translate it as “swallow,” but Lane’s Lexicon’s entries on page 3012 “لقف” and page 659 “حنك def.1” suggests “seize with a bite” is more accurate) what the magicians contrived if their contrivance was only an illusion on the eyes and not real snakes. Okay, sorry for getting esoteric there, but my gist is this: there are details that would help Muslims guess that the showdown plays out as Moses’ snake eating the magicians’ snakes, but how the story plays out still isn’t described like a story. This frustrates a lot of modern expectations for how a story should be told, expectations that the Quran isn’t concerned with meeting.
A note about Pharaoh’s sins in this story. Today’s surah does not explain what Pharaoh is doing to the Hebrews. Pharaoh is being warned against his “exceeding of the limits” or his “transgressions.” We can picture this involves an opulence that exploits the Hebrews, but Ṭah Ha in isolation shows no concern for the existing plight of the Hebrews in Egypt. Though the command is to let Moses take the Hebrews away, what the Hebrews want or need is not mentioned, and neither do we have scenes of Pharaoh abusing them. Much more at play is how Pharaoh misleads his court. The moment that best represents Pharaoh’s sin is when he martyrs the converted magicians. He sentences them in ayah 71, “…I will surely cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides, and I will crucify you on the trunks of palm trees…” This could seem to portray him as cruel –except that the Quran has sanctioned these punishments itself for equivalent crimes. These executions don’t fall outside of the Quran’s methods of justice, it’s just that Pharaoh is using those methods for the wrong theology. Pharaoh’s sin hinges upon that fact that he is wrong, that he refuses to let anyone tell him he’s wrong, and that he leads and incites his people to be casualty to his wrongness. The moral of the story is summed up in ayah 79: “And Pharaoh led his people astray and did not guide [them].” He is the antithesis of a prophet.
The Golden Calf
Once out of Egypt, God makes an appointment with the people on the right-ward side of the mountain, provides them with manna and quails, and warns them in terms that match the warnings to Pharaoh: enjoy that which is lawful and flourish, transgress the limits and be damned. The way that God greets Moses in ayah 83 implies to us that Moses ran ahead of the rest of the Israelites to get a head start on that appointment at the mountain. Moses says his people are right behind him, and that he rushed in order to please God. God reveals to Moses that this was a mistake. He took opportunity of Moses’ absence to test the people and they have failed by listening to as-saamiriyy, “the Samaritan.”
We need to have a conversation about this, but for the sake of focus today I’m going to follow the lead of Islamic tradition and romanize this title like a name, “As-Samiri.”
Again, we have a contrast in the purpose of the stories. Remember in Al-Aʕraaf that the people as a whole showed a tendency to favor idolatry. As soon as Moses left for the appointment with God (an appointment they were not included in) the people overrode Aaron and made an idol. They also showed repentance, even before Moses comes back if we take the events to reflect a linear sequence of time. The story is one of societal failure and redemption, with no central characters driving the action. In Ṭah Ha we have a central character, As-Samiri, misleading the people. This is not to say that the people are held innocent of their error. When Aaron tries calling them to repentance they push back by declaring their unshakable loyalty to the idol as long as Moses isn’t there to say otherwise. However, As-Samiri usurps Aaron’s role as prophet and deputy to Moses, explaining to the people that the idol is their god and also Moses’ god except that Moses forgot. This idea that As-Samiri proclaims his concept of god was the original God who has just been forgotten mirrors the rhetoric of the Quran. Like Pharaoh, As-Samiri applies Quranic concepts but according to an opposing theology.
Considering how linked the act of throwing has been to miracles/magic throughout this surah (even the acts of Moses’ mother were responses to commands to cast and throw), there is some question about the process through which As-Samiri and the Hebrews make their idol. The Hebrews throw the ornaments they carried off from Egypt and the Samaritan throws alongside them. As-Samiri pulls out as a result of this throwing a calf “which had a lowing sound.” Now, there is some question as to whether this statue actually produced lowing noises miraculously or through some illusion. Combine this with a traditional explanation that can be found in some translations of ayah 96 that As-Samiri has thrown in a secret ingredient: dust trodden upon by the messenger/Gabriel. And you can kind of imagine how that confusing description blends with all this throwing in the surah to suggest to some people that there actually they’ve actually created something supernatural in this calf. However, I interpret this mention of the lowing sound to be a description of calves in general, not the idol specifically. By mentioning that calves make lowing sounds, the surah is trying to impress the mundanity of the idol. It goes on to denounce the idol as being incapable of speech or action. So I think there’s less reason to read miraculous properties in this idol than some other commentaries make of it.
The conclusion of this story is rather unsatisfying. Moses had run ahead of his people, leaving them behind in what was described as an appointment for all of them. While nothing that happened is his fault, he doesn’t acknowledge that he let his excitement override his responsibility to his people. Aaron is the most blameless character in this matter, as the man who tried to do his duty and was cast aside. The people, however, have disrespected Aaron and insisted upon their idolatry. They face their accusations with whining and blaming rather than repentance, but this goes unaddressed. There is broader guilt to be dealt with, but only As-Samiri is singled out punishment with a sentence to be anathematized until damnation. This version of the story falls short of resolving all its conflicts, but it does serve to portray and condemn an example of an anti-prophet.
The Beginning and End
The last and most obvious anti-prophet this surah mentions is Iblees in the story of the Fall of Man. In this case the story does not concern itself with the villain, and instead examines those who are misled. God warns Adam that Iblees is the enemy, and promises Adam a painless and stressless life in the garden if he remembers this. There is still no suggestion that humans have access to immortality in this Paradise, and what Iblees offers to Adam and wife is a source of immortality. The actual result of eating is that something in human nature is changed, so that husband and wife are ashamed to stand naked before each other and so that God expels all mankind from the garden for their inherent animosity to each other. That Adam was lied to by Satan does not matter in weighing mankind’s guilt, especially since Adam was forewarned. While Iblees is definitely our anti-prophet character, Adam also could be viewed as a failed leader. His (and his wife’s) moral failure is what sets the course of so many other men towards destruction. However, God selects Adam for mercy and guidance much as He selects other prophets. In a way, Adam stands with the converted magicians as a teachable example of shaking off error and getting on the right path.
Throughout the surah there is the general sermon seeded that God has been sending periodic guidance down to Earth in the form of of previous scriptures and the examples of fallen civilizations. The Day of Judgement is described in ways that are designed to rebuke the unbelievers. They enjoy and pride their earthly pleasures, but at Judgement they will only remember their lives as being as brief as ten days or one day. Hell will be a place where the sinner neither dies nor lives. The unbelievers refuse to see the signs that God has provided, and so not only shall Earth on the day of judgement be rendered bleak, silent, and featureless, but the people themselves shall be resurrected blind.
This image of unbelievers being resurrected blind clashes with other accounts where they will be told to read their records in heaven, so we may question how literal the scenes of judgement in the Quran actually are. Does God relate these stories to actually describe the process of judgement or just to rebuke the objections of the unbelievers? At any rate, these sermons throughout the surah declare individual judgement and prevent any ideas that the individual shall be treated easier if their error was due to receiving bad leadership.
Always Back to Muhammad
Always what comes to mind when reading a surah is what these words would mean to Muhammad’s ministry. I noticed ayah 114 warning Muhammad not to hasten in the recitation/Quran before it had finished being revealed to him. The text is not clear whether Muhammad has done this before or whether he is merely being warned against something he is inclined towards doing. This haste he is being warned against reminded me of Moses hastening to the appointment on the mountain and exposing his people to error in doing so. Skeptics could question whether Muhammad has come to regret some past content of the recitation/Quran and is defending some new amendments. By saying he presented material before he had learned it from Gabriel completely, Muhammad can remove/amend material while only taking a small blow to his credibility. After all, Moses hastened to the mountain in order to please God –with the failure to his people an accident of his haste– and who could condemn someone who was just over-eager to please God? Whether the verse is just protecting Muhammad with forewarning, or whether Muhammad just slipped up in his eagerness to please God and serve his people, the situation still manages to reflect favorably towards Muhammad.
With the presence of central antagonist figures in this surah, I do wonder whether this surah reflects there being central antagonists to Muhammad’s ministry? Spoilers, but in the far, far future we will be reading a five-verse surah that uses every breath to damn a certain ‘Abu Lahab and his wife. ‘Abu Lahab was one of Muhammad’s uncles and is reputed by tradition to have been the most vehement opposition to Muhammad and Islam. As I said, he gets a whole surah devoted to declaring his personal damnation. There was also a man called by Muslims ‘Abu Jahl who Muhammad is vaguely reputed to have called “Pharaoh of his community.” So we can speculate that while this surah is giving timeless examples of leaders who schemed to undo the work of the prophet, Muhammad’s original audience applied these examples to interpret specific leaders who stood against Muhammad.