Surah 28: The Stories, Part 1

Here’s a question: Will the Quran change up it’s material in the future? When I opened up this surah and saw that, yet again, it told a Moses-centric narration, I began to question how often in the future I’d be re-reading this material to the end of the book. From a search on this concordance, many times are still ahead, but fewer and farther than they have been. In the meantime, today’s Moses narrative is actually a rare thing to enjoy discovering because it provides a rather distinct insight into Moses: his life before prophetic commission.

Moses’s pre-prophetic life is something that the Quran hasn’t explored much as of yet. We did get a brief flash-back type narrative of his journey down the Nile in a basket back in Surah Ṭah Ha, but the most scandalous story of his youth has only received fleeting comment: the murder. And so I’m interested to go forward and read these events told in narrative form. How will the Quran reconcile Moses’ youthful murder with the paragon character it expects of a prophet?

Photo: The Brick Testament

Moses’s Childhood

Ayat 3-14 introduce the world into which Moses was born and the circumstances of his upbringing. The world of Moses’ Egypt is presented very simply to the point of feeling reductive. There is only one Pharaoh in the story, which is part of why some people suspect the Quran of thinking “Pharaoh” is the proper name of one individual and not a passing title. It is interesting that Pharaoh’s transgression in the land involved making “its people into factions, oppressing a sector among them.” This is…nice. What I I mean is, this portrayal of Pharaoh’s actions very clearly represents this kind of systemic discrimination as wrong. That Pharaoh sees a distinction between people, rather than treating people as an equal whole, is framed as a terrible sin. That’s a really good moral value to have built into your scripture. At the same time, this description doesn’t have much comment on how this kind of discrimination happens other than it being a sort of arbitrary act of evil from an evil man.

This telling of the story is the first one to distinctly place the killing of Hebrew sons as an event leading up to Moses’ life, rather than a response of Pharaoh’s to Moses’ mature ministry. Thus the motivations and stakes leading to Moses’ journey down the Nile river are more clear than when we last heard this story in Surah Ṭah Ha. The circumstances of Moses entering Pharaoh’s household are much the same as in Exodus. Some details are different, but mostly not in ways that change the meaning (like it bieng Pharaoh’s wife, not daughter, who advocates for Moses). The one big difference I observed caught my attention because it relates to how the Quran trends towards accrediting the basest of motivations to non-Muslims. In the Bible, Pharaoh’s daughter recognizes Moses to be a Hebrew and has compassion on him specifically for his plight. She’s a member of Pharaoh’s household, whose leadership is tormenting the Hebrews, but individually she still is a person with compassion and sympathy. In this surah, Pharaoh’s wife sees the child and adopts him for selfish motivations: he’s pretty, he might be useful, and maybe even worth adding to their lineage. The narrative frames this whole circumstance as ironic, that they would help the boy with this kind of casual selfish motivation when the action really works against their interests. She also never notices that the boy is Hebrew, and so there could also be irony that she’s adopting one of the boys her husband has elected to kill. Thus the act of Mrs. Pharaoh drawing Moses from the Nile becomes a laughable irony, that she takes the boy to provide for herself, unaware that she has only provided for her own doom.

Because this story does not feature a surrogate mother who is compassionate and even sympathetic to the Hebrews, it becomes surprising that she would be willing to hand Moses into the custody of a Hebrew household. The Quran does include extenuating circumstances to lead to this by having Moses reject the available nursemaids. Now, I think here the story beat of Moses rejecting Egyptian nursemaids is distinctly functional to the story and probably intends no implied message. At the same time I do remember also that among the incest limits in Surah an-Nisa were one’s past wet-nurses, using terms that showed they achieved a blood-tie status through nursing. So while I think that Moses rejecting the nursemaids is in order to propel the story, I do also think it carries potential implications that further separate him from association with Pharaoh’s household and the Egyptian community.

The Murder

Okay, so the murder. I had wondered for a long time during this Quran project whether the Quran would ever acknowledge that Moses murdered a man. When I first found a fleeting mention of the murder I became curious how the Quran would represent it. In Exodus, I would have to say that Moses’ act of murder is of the second degree. It seems to have been done in a moment of high emotion, as Moses was described as having seen the hard labor of the Hebrews and to have been outraged at the assault upon one of his own people. But there is also a cold slyness to it, some amount of conscious action, because Moses is said to have looked “thus and thus” before acting. The movie “Prince of Egypt” had watered down the incident by turning the murder into a sort of accident, reducing the second-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter. I thought perhaps the Quran would go that route. So what does the Quran say?

Well, it’s a bit confused. In Surah ashShuʕara, Moses had explained the murder as being from a time when he was ignorant. That message was important because it communicated that one could become a moral paragon, and that a past life of crime could be left behind and have no comment on your present character. Here, though, Moses has been raised in a God-fearing household and immediately recognizes his crime and throws himself upon God’s mercy. This would suggest to me that he is on the whole not ignorant. He knows who God is, knows when he’s transgressed, knows the consequences of his crime, and knows the value of God’s mercy. Indeed, ayah 14 declares Moses’ divine wholesomeness. The murder is told of in ayat 15-21. He comes to the aid of a Hebrew who is fighting with an Egyptian. The word for “fighting” is based off the root q-t-l, which has to do with killing, suggesting high stakes in the fight. The words used for Moses’ deed of killing the Egyptian are that he wakazahu “punched him” and thus qaḍaa him, “finished him.” So the circumstances at first seem extenuating, and the murder potentially an accident considering Moses was using his fists and the death is described euphemistically in a way that contrasts the more direct word qatal “killed.” So potentially this crime is presented as a case of involuntary manslaughter.

Despite the extenuating circumstances, Moses realizes the sinfulness of his action and immediately repents. His repentence feels a little misdirected in some respect because he declares “indeed I have wronged myself,” without remembering to mention that he wronged another human being and that human’s family. Therein lies something that reflects a little on our cultural interpretations of sin here in modern America. Here, we see sin and crime as being primarily about doing harm to other people. As exemplified in Moses’ repentance, the Quran wants to make clear that the prime victim of any sin is yourself. It doesn’t matter if your sin doesn’t technically hurt anyone else, it hurts yourself in that it jeopardizes your standing with God. This makes a tougher standard for evaluating what counts as sin, since you can’t beg off the consequences by pleading that no one else got hurt. Of course, in this case someone did get hurt too, but it doesn’t matter that perhaps Moses didn’t mean to kill the Egyptian because the murder still hurt his standing before God. He repents, and responds to mercy with the promise that he will never support criminals.

So it seems that the Quran addresses Moses’ act of murder by minimizing the crime and immediately following it up with repentance and character growth. The example set is that prophets don’t necessarily go through their life without committing a sin, but they always know their standing before God and throw themselves on his mercy.

But wait. Why does Moses promise never to aid criminals? Wasn’t the man he aided a victim? This prayer anticipates the next beat in the story when Moses finds the very next day the same Hebrew struggling in the same circumstances and again calling upon Moses for help. Given the social situation, repeated fighting between oppressed and oppressor is not really a strong reason to draw negative conclusions about the Hebrew’s character. If the Egyptians were as evil as this surah depicts, then one might presume that the Egyptians were regularly picking on Hebrews and this man had bad luck. Yet without considering that thought, Moses denounces the Hebrew as a clear deviator. Thus, Moses’ involvement in the murder is further diminished. His sin was a case of entrapment. He still needs forgiveness for his action, but the negative commentary upon his character is thus minimized. At this point, Moses is now enlightened concerning the character of the man he is defending. He is elevated above what was admittedly only a situational ignorance and can read the situation clearly.

And yet the sinfulness of the Hebrew never factors in, for Moses still steps forward to help him. The word for his intention is yubṭish, “seize,” and still implies some violence. So what of his promise never to help criminals, which he has now identified this Hebrew as being? Moses grows from ignorance of the situation to enlightenment, and then seems to act the same way as when he was ignorant. It’s not clear to me why Moses simultaneously concludes that the Hebrew is of the type that he has promised not to aid, and yet does again anyways. Has Moses not learned his lesson after all? Is he repeating a sin? Is there some other unmentioned factor that justifies his action? Is he justified in reaching out against the Egyptian? Should you defend deviant people as long as they are fighting your mutual enemy? What is the moral we’re supposed to draw here?

The situation would be a little clearer if the text paid more attention to the social position of the Hebrew. He is, after all, a man whose human rights are so low that his sons can be killed with the king’s blessing. The surah has set up the oppression of the Hebrews as the political backdrop of Egypt, yet quite some time has passed since the opening events and it’s less clear what that oppression looks like now. The Quran doesn’t weigh such into this story and instead evaluates the man as morally deviant. This makes it less clear why Moses would still turn to the aid of a flawed man against someone whose only declared flaw is being Egyptian, and how we should feel about that.

Creative Engagement

So besides the confused moral of the story, there are confused details. In ayah 19, Moses decides to act against the enemy, and some undefined “he” calls out to Moses and denounces his murder of the day before. I would have immediately assumed it was the Egyptian speaking, since the man screams in self defense and that clearly is now the Egyptian’s position in this fight. But some Quranic scholars disagree. How would the Egyptian know about yesterday’s crime? Surely the only person who knows about the murder is the Hebrew man? Therefore it must be the Hebrew who speaks. My paper copy of Sahih International includes this footnote with the “he”:

This is also the view of classic Quranic scholar Ibn Kathir, which is probably why Sahih takes this position since Sahih defers to such scholars whenever faced with ambiguity. By Ibn Kathir’s logic, the Hebrew –whose character was explicitly evaluated as debased– was so cowardly that he mistook Moses’ raised arm as being aimed towards himself and thus denounced Moses in the Egyptian’s presence. This declaration then becomes responsible for the news of the murder reaching the authorities, resulting in the authorities formulating action against Moses. And so, by this interpretation, the Hebrew is instigator, coward, and snitch. The entire situation leading to Moses’ exile is the Hebrew’s fault.

Alternately, I will recommend Yusuf Ali‘s fleshed out explanation: Moses had initially killed by accident and had repented, but was still processing his new resolve and unsure of how to act upon it. He was distracted and fearful, not thinking straight, when he re-encountered the Hebrew in another fight. Though he denounced the Hebrew, he still calculated in his mind that the Egyptian was the more unjust and thus began to reach out towards the Egyptian. The Egyptian rebuked him, which coincides with another man coming to warn Moses of the authorities planning to kill him. That the Egyptian knew about the murder was a result of the Jews getting too excited and being indiscreet about this potential new Champion of the Hebrews. This stirred up fear amongst the authorities and explains why the Egyptian accuses Moses of becoming a violent tyrant rather than a reformer. This elaboration of the story could lead to two opposing moral views. One view is that it’s right to defend imperfect beings from even worse beings, and that Moses was acting rightly to reach out again against an Egyptian. In this case, the authorities coming after Moses is just another case of evil persecuting those who stand for justice. The other view is that Moses was about to commit wrong and the Egyptian’s response was a Quran-endorsed rebuke against using such violence for justice. In light of this condemnation of Moses’ intentions, the Egyptians coming after Moses is a natural consequence for sin. Either way, the story makes more coherent sense and leads to Moses’ exile.

The story in the words of this surah is –I would argue– poorly told. Perhaps it would work better with full-form oral storytelling, complete with voice changes and expressive pantomime, but as written the details and emotional beats do not lead into each other. It takes an engaged imagination to infer and add details to fill in the gaps and smooth out the story. To be fair, the books in the Bible also include stories that are loose with the details. Now in some Biblical circles, this is seen as a desirous thing. A lot of Jewish commentary on the Bible involves engaging the stories with imagination, using your life and logic to internalize and relate to the events being described, and through this process pulling out themes that you can apply to your own life. This is called midrash, or as Roland Barthes puts it, “writerly reading.” Christians are usually more hesitant to do this, or at the least less self-aware of when they do it, but some circles embrace this custom more.

So given that the story of Moses’ crime is poorly told in the Quran, could that be an invitation to read the story and explore the details through your own writing? I like Yusuf Ali’s explanation of the events because he adds a very human level of emotion and mental process to Moses. A lot of Quranic characters come across as unambiguous, always certain, always ready and prepared to do the right thing. Case in point, Joseph, who through every stage of his biographical surah was not only morally impeccable but also divinely self-assured. Yusuf Ali imagines a sort of shock and indecision in Moses. He reconciles the conflict between Moses’ repentance and his willingness to repeat the same actions as a case of Moses feeling distracted and brooding, acting without a plan. And from that view of the story, the moral you can draw is that even when you don’t have a plan, God has a plan, so be patient.

Is the Quran okay with its adherents being creative with its narratives? I get the sense that it came to be in a world filled with stories. The way the Quran casually references stories and leaves out their details leads me to believe they were things the people were already familiar with, and furthermore that it is counting on such. But since those stories were not solidified along with the Quran, or at least not the forms of the stories the Quran seems to reference, we are left with dangling details and disjointed narratives. Muhammad is not alive to moderate when there are gaps in the text. It rather invites creativity to make sense of it.

One thought on “Surah 28: The Stories, Part 1

  1. Hello Tuppence, thanks for this thorough article. I enjoyed your considered positions on the subtle differences between the Exodus and the Quranic accounts. The shades of meaning in the original Arabic require a balanced consideration of the intents within each context. This is particularly important when choosing the best translation into English, a language that does not employ the root system. As you note, ‘QTL’ is very context-sensitive.


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