When I sit down with my family at the Passover Seder dinner this April 14th and 15th, I will read, in addition to the traditional Jewish retelling of our deliverance from oppression in Egypt, the following passage from the Qur’an, with explanations from myself and Sayyid Qutb.
Moses said to his family: “I perceive a fire. I will bring you from there some information, or else, I will bring you a burning brand so that you may warm yourselves. But when he came close to it, Moses was addressed: “Blessed are those in the fire and those around it! And limitless in His glory is God, the Lord of all the worlds.
“Moses! Truly, I alone am God, the Almighty, the Wise! Now throw down your staff!” But when Moses saw it moving, as if it were a serpent, he turned and fled, with no thought of turning back.
“Moses, have no fear!” (said God): “Messengers have nothing to fear in My presence. If anyone has done wrong and then replaced the wrong with good; well, I am Much-Forgiving, Merciful.
“Now place your hand inside your garment, and it will come out (shining) white without blemish. (This is one of) the nine signs for Pharaoh and (the Egyptians) his people. They are wicked people. When Our light-giving signs came to them, they said: ‘This is plain sorcery.’ (The Ants; Al-Naml: 27: 7-13)
“I perceive a fire. I will bring you from there some information,” (Verse 7) Most people expect to bring a burning brand from a fire to warm themselves and others but Moses expects/hopes/seeks much more; he seeks enlightenment.
No one knows how long the God’s fire was burning, or how many others saw it and just walked on by. Moses was different, Was he already seeking God’s inspiration?
“Blessed are those in the fire and those around it!” (Verse 8) Those in the fire were the Jews, who were a people oppressed by Pharaoh. Those around the fire were the Egyptian nobility and priesthood, who if they had supported Moses, could have saved Pharaoh and the Egyptian people from suffering and destruction.
“Now throw down your staff.” (Verse 10) In this case the call is given in a nutshell. We have little of the long discourse that appears in Surah 20, Ta Ha, because the emphasis here is laid on the call to Moses and the two fold assignment of his mission.
One, to warn Pharaoh to let the Banu Israel go out from Egypt. And two, to lead the Jewish People to Mount Sinai, where they will make a partnership covenant agreement with God to become a Holy Ummah (nation or community).
“But when he saw it (the staff) moving, as if it were a serpent, he turned and fled, with no thought of turning back.” (Verse 10) When Moses did as he was told and threw down his staff, he saw it come alive moving fast like a certain type of small fast moving snake.
Hence, he ran away from the snake, with no thought of going back to look at this serpent. The whole reaction suggests a complete surprise and reaction. Moses, like all messengers, was only a human being.
But he was soon reassured with the call from on high being resumed. The call now tells him of the nature of his assignment: “Moses, have no fear!” (said God): “Messengers have nothing to fear in My presence.” (Verse 10)
Moses is told thus that he is entrusted with a message from God, and God’s messengers must entertain no fear in the presence of their Lord, as He informs them of their duties.
“If anyone has done wrong and then replaced the wrong with good; well, I am Much-Forgiving, and Merciful.” (Verse 11) Only those who do wrong should be afraid. However, those who replace wrong with what is good, abandoning injustice, evil and unbelief to ensure justice, believe and do righteous deeds, will receive God’s forgiveness.
Moses is now reassured and calm. So God gives him a second miracle before even telling him about his mission or its nature: “Now place your hand inside your garment, and it will come out (shining) white without blemish.” (Verse 12)
Again he did as he was told, putting his hand through the top opening of his robe, and it came out brilliant white. He had no skin disease. What happened was another miracle. God promises to support him with nine miraculous signs which will be much greater than the two he has already seen.
At this point he is told of his assignment for which he has been given such preparation. “(These are two of) the nine signs for Pharaoh and his people. They are wicked people.” (Verse 12)
The surah does not give us here details of these nine signs that are mentioned in Surah 7, The Heights. These were the years of drought, shortage of crops, floods, locusts, ants, frogs and blood.
The lack of details in this instance is due to the fact that the emphasis here is on clear miraculous nature of these signs, and the stubborn refusal of Pharaoh’s people to acknowledge them and take heed: “But when Our light-giving signs came to them, they said: ‘This is plain sorcery.’ (Verse 13)
But these signs are described here as “light-giving” which is an inadequate rendering of the Arabic adjective, mubsirah, which means “endowed with insight”. But Pharaoh was blinded by the Egyptian belief that he was the son of the God Horus, and his own extreme arrogance, so his magicians described these signs as “plain sorcery” because they too can do them.
Their attitude was one of stubborn arrogance because they just did not wish to believe.
The same was the case with the Quraysh elders. They persisted in denying and rejecting the Prophet’s call on them to believe in God alone. They wanted to continue with their false beliefs because of their privileges and advantages that they felt would be threatened if they were to abandon their idol worshipping religion.
“Consider, then, what happened in the end to the evil-doers.” (Verse 14) The end Pharaoh met is well known, and the Qur’an tells us about it in other surahs. Here we have only a brief reference to it as one of the lessons of the past.
(Originaly published at Arab News Friday, 17, June, 2005 10, Gummed al-Ula, 1426)
Rabbi Allen S. Maller retired after serving for 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His web site is rabbimaller.com.