Translation & Commentary of Verses from Surah 28: Al-Qasas (The Stories) [38-43]

IN THE NAME OF ALLAH, THE KIND, THE MERCIFUL

[38] Fir`awn said, ‘O chiefs. I do not know of any other deity for you besides me.68 Therefore, kindle for me O Haman, (a fire) upon clay69 and build for me a tall edifice that I may have a look at Musa’s god.70 Surely I think he is of the liars.’

Commentary

68. What this implied on Fir`awn’s part is that he had no evidence that God existed; and, according to him, that which lacked evidence did not exist: an error commonly committed by many people (Razi).

This trend is most common among the atheists, and, surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, among the scientists who know it as the first scientific principle, viz. what they do not have evidence for, can neither be rejected nor accepted. One should observe complete neutrality in such matters. But most often they take sides against some perennial and, in some cases, self-evident, truths (Au.).

A few details of the denial are given elsewhere in the Qur’an. Allah said (79: 23-24),

Then he gathered (his people) and cried aloud, saying, ‘I am your Lord, the supreme’” (Ibn Kathir).

Mawdudi writes: “By saying so, Pharaoh obviously did not mean that he was their creator and the creator of the heavens and the earth… Nor did it mean that they worshipped no other God besides Pharaoh because it is well known that they worshipped many gods and Pharaoh, himself, had been raised to the status of godhead in his capacity as the incarnation of Ra, the sun-god. The Qur’an itself provides a definite testimony in this regard, for it mentions that Pharaoh worshipped many gods: ‘The elders of Pharaoh’s people said, “Will you leave alone Moses and his people to spread mischief in the land, and forsake you and your gods” (Al-A`raf 7: 127).’

“Hence the word ‘god’ used here by Pharaoh for himself was not to claim that he was their creator and their sole object of worship. He rather used this word in the sense that he was the lord and master of Egypt where his command was executed; where he was considered to have full authority, and where people considered themselves bound to obey him, and where he was the absolute sovereign whose orders were carried out, and where he was in a position to decide what was good and what was evil, and where no one else had the authority to issue any commands. In this context, Pharaoh wondered what the locus standi of Moses was.”

Although there is perhaps much truth in the above statement, but perhaps lesser in what follows thereafter in the original work, yet the fact remains that Pharaoh did assume some kind of divinity, and was considered invested with divine qualities, sounds obvious from the Qur’anic statements in this regard, here, and elsewhere (Au.).

Majid gives us the historical background to give us an idea of the somewhat ambiguous position Pharaoh held vis-à-vis, godhead, and which comes closer to explaining the Qur’anic expressions:

“Pharaoh-worship was very much akin to Mikado-worship, and the ‘divinity’ of the ancient Egyptian Imperious House bore close resemblance to that of the present-day Japanese Imperial House. The Pharaoh was a veritable Incarnate Deity. ‘The king in that first monarchy was the visible god upon earth. The only thing like it that has been since seen is the deification of the Roman emperor. No pure monotheism would for a moment have been compatible with such an intense exaltation.’ (Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, Intro p. xxxvi) ‘It is a well-known fact that the Egyptians, from the earliest traceable period of their history, believed their kings to be embodied forms of certain gods … The reigning king was regarded as “Horus” (the national god of lower Egypt in pre-historic times, and, later, of the whole kingdom) … The reigning king was styled “the good god,” or at an earlier day, “the great god.” (ERE, VI, p. 647). Pharaoh ‘was not merely looked upon as the earthly representative of the god Horus … but he was actually regarded as a form or manifestation of that god. The king was therefore a god, and indeed was commonly spoken of as the “good god.” Moreover, by the time of the Vth dynasty the king was believed to be the physical son of the sun-god, the State-god of Egypt.’ (X. p. 294).”

69. The translation is literal, otherwise, the meaning is, “manufacture bricks for me” (Ibn Jarir). Nonetheless, either we believe our Prophet was a veritable encyclopaedia of knowledge, the like of whom did not appear earlier or later, or accept him as a Messenger of Allah. How did he, for instance, know such architectural details as Majid brings to our notice? Majid writes: “Note that brick, rather than stone was the general building material used in ancient Egypt, and the Egyptians were well-known for brick-making. ‘The true countries of brick-makers were Egypt and Mesopotamia … Egyptian bricks were usually twice the size of our modern ones. Many of them (from dynasty 18 onwards) were stamped with the name of a king, to show that they belonged to public buildings … Stamps as well as moulds have been preserved up to the modern times, and bricks with the name of Ramses II, “the Pharaoh of the oppression,” are shown in our museums.’ (EBi. C. 609). ‘Egypt has yielded numerous examples of brick, manufactured in the earliest and subsequent dynasties.’ (EBr. IV. P. 111).

70. There is no way to establish whether the edifice was built or not. Common sense tells us that it was not built. As for the stories that have been narrated concerning the edifice that was built, they only serve to open doors for attack by the adversaries of the Qur’an (Razi).

Elsewhere in this work, we have mentioned the Soviets trying to locate God in the skies. Mawdudi comments a little bit in detail on this point: “This mindset is similar to that of the Communists of the former Soviet Union. They launched sputniks … and then glibly claimed that their spaceships had found no God up there in the sky… This only shows that the reasoning of ignorant people has not changed over the last 3,500 years. What idiocy to believe that God is sitting somewhere up there in the sky waiting to be observed by anyone who can soar high enough. What idiocy to believe that if He cannot be so found, this is proof enough that He does not exist.”

[39] And he waxed proud in the land – he and his forces – without right, and thought that they will not be returned to Us.

[40] So We seized him and his forces, and flung them into the sea.71 See then, how was the end of the wrongdoers.

Commentary

71. The choice of words, [“flung them”] is to express the worthlessness of the man and his army, flung away, (like they were no more than a dead lizard: Au.) – Zamakhshari, Razi.

[41] We made them leaders inviting to the Fire;72 and, on the Day of Standing, they shall not be helped.

Commentary

72. In the words of Asad, “archetypes inviting to the fire.”

That is, they became examples for the evil-minded people of all times, who could take lessons of the failure of tyranny and injustice from them (Alusi and others).

[42] And We made a curse to follow them in this world,73 and, on the Day of Standing they will be of the loathed ones.

Commentary

73. That is, (although cursing is generally disallowed), cursing Fir`awn and his forces has been made lawful to the believers.

[43] We did give Musa the Book74 after We had destroyed the earlier generations:75 insights to men,76 a guidance and a mercy,77 haply that they will receive admonition.78

Commentary

74. Yahya b. Sallam said that Tawrah was the first Book ever revealed that had commandments pertaining to the lawful and unlawful (Qurtubi). Abu Hayyan held the same opinion (Alusi).

Asad points to the significance: “By virtue of its being the first instance of a divinely-inspired Law, the Torah inaugurated a new phase in mankind’s religious history.”

75. Abu Sa`id al-Khudri is reported to have said, “After the revelation of the Tawrah, Allah (swt) did not destroy any nation through a heavenly chastisement, except for transformation of some people into apes and swine. Read if you will, ‘We did give Musa the Book after We had destroyed the earlier generations’” (Ibn Jarir). In fact, according to a version, Abu Sa`id al-Khudri reports this as the Prophet’s own words (Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir). And Shabbir gives us the raison de’tre for the escape of the non-believing rebellious nations from wholesale destruction: Jihad was instituted.

That is, Jihad, instituted after the revelation of Tawrah, and put into action immediately after Musa (cf. the extensive military campaigns of Joshua) helped remove the leaders of disbelief from the way of the common people, who gained their freedom to accept the true religion of their time. In consequence, they escaped the divine punishment which they would have faced because of their disbelief. Allah (swt) was not going to tolerate disbelief for long. This should also explain why Muslim scholars have termed, surprisingly for many, the Islamic Jihad as a mercy, and why our own Prophet has promised that wholesale destruction of this Ummah will not happen because a group from among Muslims will continue fighting in the way of Allah (swt) until the Hour (Au.).

76. How do we reconcile the Qur’anic qualification of earlier revelations as affording insight (basa’ir), with the hadith of `Umar? `Umar was once reading the Torah in the Prophet’s presence. When he raised his head, he found that the Prophet’s face had become red with anger. He said, “By Allah, if Musa was here today, he would have had to follow me.” Qurtubi answers after raising the question that firstly, Torah and Injil were at one time sources of insight, but, with interpolations and corruptions, no more. That, of course, does not mean that they are totally devoid of any ability to offer insight now. But the Prophet had to respond so harshly to make sure that during his own time the people read nothing but the Qur’an. Once they had dwelt deep in to the Qur’an, they could, especially the discerning ones among them, profit from some parts of Torah and Injil.

In other words, writes Shafi`, the prohibition against Torah and Injil is not unconditional. Accordingly, we find some of the Companions quoting from the Torah and Injil during the time of the Companions, to which no one ever objected. Ka`b al-Ahbar was one of those who quoted from Jewish and Christian scriptures without earning any reproach from the Companions. That is because, by then the Qur’an and Sunnah and the message they impart had taken firm root among the Muslims, and it was not feared that they would be misguided by the corrupted portions of the previous Books. Thus, there is no harm at all if they are read by people who are well-versed in the Qur’an and Sunnah, can make the difference between corrupted and uncorrupted portions of Tawrah and Injil and remove chaff from the grain. Common people should stay away from them. 

77. “The first thing that happens to the seeker of truth (when he finds the truth) is that his understanding improves. This is the insight (basair) of this occurrence. Next, he accepts the precepts and injunctions wholeheartedly for practice. This is guidance (hidayah) of the verse. Finally, he harvests the fruits of guidance, which is mercy (rahmah)” – Thanwi.

78. “After the destruction of the Pharaonic Tyranny and other similar Tyrannies before them, Allah (swt) began a new age of Revelation, the age of Moses and his Book. Humanity began as it were with a clean slate again. It was a full Revelation (or Shari’at) which may be looked at from three points of view: (1) as Light or Insight for men, so that they should not grope in darkness; (2) as a Guide to show them the Way, so that they should not be misled into wrong Paths; and (3) as a Mercy from Allah (swt), so that by following the Way they may receive Allah’s Forgiveness and Grace. In vi. 91, we have a reference to Light and Guidance in connection with the Revelation of Moses, and in vi. 154 we have a reference to Guidance and Mercy in the same connection. Here all three are combined, with the substitution of Basair for Nur. Basair is the plural of Basirat, and may also be translated as Proofs (Yusuf Ali).

(To be continued)