Verses from Surah Taha (56-73)

 [56] Indeed, We showed him all Our signs but he gave the lie and refused.

[57] He said, ‘Have you come to us to drive us out of our land by your magic, O Musa?53


53. This question indicates that Fir`awn was completely convinced that Musa and the Message he had brought were truly of an extraordinary nature, and that, if he did not employ his best means of defense, he was very likely to lose out everything to Musa. If for a moment he had believed that Musa was a mere magician, he would have ceased to pay him any attention (Zamakhshari).

But perhaps like the unbelievers of all times he too was a victim of skepticism and fought against the rising conviction in his heart until he met with his destruction (Au.).

Mawdudi touches upon other aspects, “It would also appear that at this stage Pharaoh had begun to seriously believe that both his courtiers and common people of his realm were being favorably impressed by Moses. He, therefore, had to resort to lies and fraudulent practices in an attempt to arouse his people’s latent prejudices. He, therefore, argued that what Moses had demonstrated were simply magical feats rather than miracles; tricks which any magician of his realm could perform – transmuting a rod into a serpent. He also attempted to incite his people’s anger against Moses by saying in effect, ‘Look, Moses brands your ancestors to be ill-guided; as those who deserve to be cast into Hell-Fire. Beware of him! He is no Prophet, but merely hungers for power. He merely wants the Israelites to be able to seize power from the Copts and rule over this country as in the time of Joseph..’

“At this point it is also worth mentioning that the ruling classes, throughout all times, have maligned the votaries of truth, accusing them of hungering for power, misconstruing all their activities as being directed to that sole objective.”

[58] We shall indeed produce a magic similar to it. Therefore, appoint between us a time that we shall not fail to keep – neither we nor you – (at) a place mutually agreeable.’54


54. Other possible meanings of “makanan suwa” are, as Yusuf Ali put it, “(1) a place equally distant from both sides, a central place, or (2) equally convenient to both sides, or (3) an open level plain, where people can collect with ease” as also, in Razi’s words “a prominent place, visible to all.”

[59] He said, ‘Your appointed time is the day of adornment55 and let the people be gathered when the sun is well up.’ 


55. That is, a day of festivities. Majid writes: “There were two great festivals of the Egyptians when thousands of people gathered, one of 20 days in March, and another of 27 days in August.. And there was a yet greater festival named after Sed held on the occasion of the king being deified as Osiris.. After his 30th year Rameses repeated it every third year.”

[60] So Fir`awn withdrew, got together his tricks and then came back.56


56. That is, he prepared a stratagem and then reappeared on the day of appointment (Au.).

Mawdudi adds: “Pharaoh and his courtiers considered this encounter to be of crucial importance. Messengers were sent to all parts of the country to summon all skilled magicians to the capital. Likewise, efforts were made to attract the maximum number of people in order that they might witness the magicians’ feats. It was hoped that the people’s minds would thus be disabused of the favorable impression that had been formed by Moses on account of his magic.”

[61] Musa told them, ‘Woe unto you! Forge not a lie on Allah, lest He exterminate you with a chastisement. And surely, he who forged a lie will suffer failure.’

[62] So they debated their affair between themselves,57 but kept their counsel secret.


57. It is said that they said to each other that if Musa were to be a mere magician, they will have no problem defeating him. But, against all expectations if he defeated them then surely, that would be a sign of his Messengership. The verse is alluding to the debate that ensued (Tabari). Another possibility is that having heard Musa’s words ringing with truth, some of them might have remarked that those were not the words of a magician (Razi, Ibn Kathir). After all, they knew the vocabulary of the magicians better than anyone else. Did Musa’s words match with their own vocabulary? (Au.).

[63] Saying (among themselves), ‘These two are58 no more than magicians who wish to drive you out of your land by their magic, and do away with your time-honored way of life.59


58. Several commentators have devoted several pages discussing whether “in hadhayni” should be read as “inna hadhayni” which happens to be a second variant reading. But most have defended the present reading, viz., “in hadhayni” as linguistically quite correct.

59. What they meant is that Musa’s victory would mean (in Mawdudi’s words), “the downfall of and extinction of their splendid way of life.. that Moses’ rise to power would sound the death-knell of their own culture; their arts, their attractive civilization, their varied entertainments.. in sum all the essentials of a life in pursuit of pleasure, would be destroyed. What would be left would be a life of cold and stark piety; a life so insufferable that it would be preferable for men of good taste to die rather than continue living.”

[64] So, resolve 60 upon your plan and then come forward as one (united) body.61 Surely, today he will prosper who prevailed.’


60. In Arabic when you say, “ajmi`u ala al-amr” it means, “prepare yourself for an affair,” or “resolve upon it” (Tabari).

61. Lit. “come forward in rows” (Au.).

[65] They said,62 ‘O Musa, either you cast, or let us be the first to cast.’


62. Although some have stated the number of the magicians as running in thousands, a conservative estimate is that they were nine hundred (Ibn Jarir). Ibn `Abbas however said that they were only seventy (Ibn Kathir).

[66] He said, ‘Rather you cast.’ Then behold, their ropes and their staffs appeared to him on account of their magic63
as if they were moving swiftly.


63. This writer can recall witnessing a street charmer in India slit the throat of a companion lad, and then, after the final rounds of money collection, remove the cloak from his body to recover him alive.

[67] Musa felt a fear within him.64


64. That is, Musa feared that the magicians might sway the people’s opinion in their favor by their mighty magical feat (Qurtubi). That is because, until he actually threw, Musa perhaps did not know what his own staff, which normally turned into snake, would do. If it just slithered around, along with other make-belief snakes, would the masses know the difference? (Au.).

Yusuf Ali applies the verse to life’s situations: “The concerted attack of evil is sometimes so well contrived from all points that falsehood appears and is acclaimed as the truth. The believer of truth is isolated, and a sort of moral dizziness creeps over his mind. But by Allah’s grace Faith asserts itself, gives him confidence, and points out the specific truth which will dissipate and destroy the teeming brood of falsehood.”

[68] We said, ‘Fear not. You will have the upper hand.

[69] Cast down what is in your right hand, it will swallow what they have faked. Indeed, what they have faked is a magician’s tricks. And a magician will not prosper, howsoever he comes.’65


65. Asad writes, “The above statement implies a categorical condemnation of all endeavours which fall under the heading of ‘magic’, whatever the intention of the person who devotes himself to it.”

According to a hadith in Ibn Abi Hatim as well as in Tirmidhi, the Prophet said, “If you overpower a magician, kill him.” Then he recited this verse, “And a magician will prosper not, howsoever he comes” (Ibn Kathir).

Although Ibn Kathir attributes it to Tirmidhi, the report could not be located in it (Au.).

[70] Then the magicians were thrown into (an involuntary) prostration. They said, ‘We have believed in the Lord of Harun and Musa.’

[71] He (Fir`awn) said, ‘Have you believed in him before I gave you leave? Surely, he is your chief who taught you magic. I shall surely sever your hands and feet from opposite sides66 and then shall crucify you by the trunks of the palm-tree67 and you will surely learn which of us is more severe in punishment and more abiding.’


66. That is, right hand and left foot, or the other way round.

67. He carried out his threat so that they were magicians by morning and martyrs by evening (Ibn `Abbas: Ibn Jarir).

In ancient times crucifixion consisted in nailing a victim’s spread out hands to a cross bar while he was hoisted on a vertical wooden pole with a foot rest. The feet were also nailed. The victim was then left to die a slow death. In case of the former magicians a palm-trunk tree was used, to which a cross bar would have been added (Au.).

[72] They asserted, ‘We shall never prefer you over that which has come to us of the signs, nor over Him who originated us. So, go ahead and do your doing. Indeed you can only decree concerning the life of this world.

[73] We have believed in our Lord that He might forgive us our sins, and what you compelled us to perform of magic.68
And, Allah is better and more abiding.’


68. Ibn `Abbas has said that the allusion is to the fact that they were employed as instructors (in an institute set up) at a place called Firman. Fir`awn himself used to send talented young men to learn magic under them (Ibn Jarir, Razi, Ibn Kathir, Shawkani).

Asad has another explanation to add, “Pharaoh (a title borne by every indigenous ruler of Egypt) was considered to be a “god-king” and, thus, the embodiment of the Egyptian religion, in which occult practices and magic played a very important role; hence, every one of his subjects was duty-bound to accept magic as an integral part of the scheme of life.”

(To be continued)