Lessons on power and oppression from Moses 5
By Fedwa Wazwaz, Engage MN
God! There is no deity but He! To Him belong the most Beautiful Names. Has the story of Moses reached thee? (Qur’an 20:8-9)
Oppression works in many ways. One way is by convincing people that they’re bad: that they’re thugs, savages, or terrorists. A people can be controlled psychologically when an oppressor makes them feel as though they can’t overcome a mistake that they’ve made or defines them by their worst moment. This is also true if an oppressor defines the “other” by the worst actions of the fringe amongst them.
An oppressor thus doesn’t allow people to grow. To oppress another, you have to dehumanize them in your eyes first and then, later, in the eyes of others, then in their own eyes. An oppressor takes the worst act and the worst moment and keeps people hostage to that act or moment.
Sometimes, we react to this by trying to show only our best moments. This creates a cycle of showing good Muslim, bad Muslim, good Muslim, bad Muslim, and doesn’t advance the discussion. A case in point is 9/11 or the Paris attacks, where many in the Muslim community reacted to being demonized by working to prove that Muslims are model citizens.
Even though it doesn’t seem so, it’s counter-productive for Muslim-Americans to present everything that Muslims do as good. It feeds into the psychological construct of oppression by not allowing Muslims to admit error and grow. We cannot “prove” that Muslims are perfect, because there are also bad and ugly aspects of Muslim communities like everywhere else. Our argument should be, we are human and then turn the mirror around and say, like you.
Craig Hicks, who assassinated three young people in Chapel Hill, counted himself an atheist, but this hardly proves all atheists would act in this way. But it does tell Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins, two atheists who are also prominent bigots, that you and your group are human, too.
But we can’t just condemn Dawkins and others. We also need to give opportunities for growth and repentance, because God is a perpetual forgiver.
The Lessons of the Prophets
As was discussed in previous blogs, Islam is not a whole new religion that started with Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings. Instead, it is the culmination and continuation of previous monotheistic faiths. So Muslims revere many of the same prophets who are revered in the Bible. Moses of the Qur’an is not exactly the same as the Christian or Jewish Moses, and this has been discussed in many interfaith dialogues. However, the aim of the series is not to refute or disagree with other narratives of Moses, but to share lessons from the Islamic narrative on Moses. I ended the previous lesson with God directing Moses to go to the pharaoh.
“Go, both of you, to Pharaoh, for he has indeed transgressed all bounds; “But speak to him mildly; perchance he may take warning or fear (God).”
Moses was a member of an oppressed community, and he killed a man by accident. His intention was to help a fellow Jew, but instead he accidentally killed a soldier.
Before we go with Moses to the pharaoh, it’s important to understand that he had also been affected by the toxic environment of oppression — his group was defined by the oppressor. First, we have to remove ourselves from the environment, detox the mind and the spirit.
Later on, we will see in the communication between Moses and the Pharaoh – the use of magicians to play with the mind and the threats of persecution, inciting fear, obligation and guilt to submit to the Pharaoh.
But Moses doesn’t run from his oppressor. Owning up to the reality of the tyrant is being true to oneself. We see this in Moses’s response to God. Although Moses, upon him peace, was strong and powerful, when he went to see Pharaoh, he went relying on God, and not himself. We should not delude ourselves to be fearless and pit ourselves against the brutal force of evil.
They said, “Our Lord! Verily! We fear lest he should hasten to punish us or lest he should transgress all bounds against us.”
Going to see the pharaoh was not what Moses wanted to do. Moses felt the pharaoh would “transgress all bounds,” and Moses approaches the pharaoh with fear. But God told him to go, and Moses let himself be prepared by God for this visit, to speak to the pharaoh not with angry tones, but “mildly.”
Moses’s immediate repentance at the moment of the act, expressing his remorse to God when directed to go, and again when meeting with the pharaoh, shows his true internal state. Moses knows you’ve got to call yourself out before you call others out. Moses repented and, when God tells him to go, he accepts criticism. Part of fighting tyranny is not saying that, “I’m all good and you’re all evil.” It’s to be open, to express remorse, and to be willing to accept criticism. The Pharaoh reminds Moses of the life of privilege he’s lived and how he killed a man. He accuses Moses of being ungrateful.
“Moses said, “I did it then, when I was an ignorant (as regards my Lord and His Message). So I fled from you when I feared you. But my Lord has granted me religious knowledge, and Prophethood, and appointed me as one of the Messengers. And this is the past favour with which you reproach me, and that you have enslaved the children of Israel.”
Upon reflection, the beauty of this passage is in the abundant gifts that genuine repentance brings. In a prophetic narration, it is said that God loves those who repent. Why? Besides manifesting God’s Mercy and Perpetual Forgiveness, repentance empties the person of his or her ego and opens them to receive gifts from God, gifts that will not allow them to betray their soul. The reality of love is to give of oneself, and God loves to give to His creation. But to receive, like Moses, you must empty yourself of the social ills around you and allow God to fill you with His gifts.
It is a message to the oppressed not to rationalize injustice or a responding vengeance. It’s also a message that those who make mistakes should seek forgiveness and God will likewise aid you with His gifts.
Speaking Truth to Power
There is an Arab proverb that says, “What made you, O Pharaoh?” Pharaoh replied: “I didn’t find anyone to tell me stop.” Indeed: Silence and sycophancy are the building blocks of tyranny.
In every field, we use benchmarks to measure our work, to check our performance and the results produced. Likewise, God tells us the stories of the Prophets to compare our work, performance, deeds, thoughts, and feelings with the Prophets to measure ourselves. As we read their stories, each story or part of a story takes us to a junction point where we have to make a choice. Faith is about making choices and not about following blindly. At each of these many junctions, we have to make a decision: one path calls to faith and another calls away from God.
One such junction point is when we need to decide whether and how to speak out against injustice.
Speaking out against injustice doesn’t just mean helping the oppressed. Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings, said to help your brother if he is the oppressor or oppressed. People responded: We know how to help him if he is oppressed, but how do we help him if he is the oppressor? “You can restrain him from committing oppression. That will be your help to him.”
If you are an officer of the law, for example, you can use your power to restrain others from committing oppressive acts. If, contrarily, you are alone in the face of tyranny, you must use your voice. But this doesn’t mean name-calling or ridicule, it means creating a way for the oppressor to save face and to become a better person, just as Moses attempted with the pharaoh.
Part of speaking truth to power is reminding the tyrant that there is someone who can hold him or her to account, someone who has more power than they do. Tyrants act in the belief that no one will call them to account, and that needs to be punctured and deflated. The Prophets reminded those in power of God’s presence and power. This reminder was to wake them up so they might see their vulnerability and the vulnerability of others, not to oppress them. Tyrants have a hatred of weakness, be it in themselves or others.
Prophet Abraham, upon him be peace, reminded Nimrod of this by telling him that he could not make the sun rise::
“Abraham said: ‘Lo! God causes the sun to rise in the east, so you cause it to come up from the west.’ Thus was the disbeliever absolutely defeated. And God guides not wrongdoing folk.” (Quran 2:258)
In this way Moses, upon him peace, also speaks truth to power.
He does not allow the pharaoh to rationalize his oppression. Tyrants project their fears not just on the people they oppress, but also on God. They accuse God of what they are doing, and instead of allowing the pharaoh to do that, Moses closes that door. In this dialogue, the pharaoh questions God’s power and justice, overlooking his own reality: That he’s a vulnerable human being who is enslaving others. Moses, upon him peace, directs the pharaoh to focus on the present moment which he can see clearly before him, the diversity of God’s creation and how each is nurtured. Open your eyes to the present moment, he says.
What is interesting about this advice is that many healers likewise encourage their patients to go into nature and look at the diversity of plants and creation and observe them. There is a healing effect in just looking at stars and sky and the present moment.
The Pharaoh hypes the town and finds the top magicians. One scholar mentioned, that he brought up to 700 magicians to face Moses and Aaron. Moses then brings their conversation to the people, because tyrants hate transparency.
(When this message was delivered), (Pharaoh) said: “Who, then, O Moses, is the Lord of you two?”
He said: “Our Lord is He Who gave to each (created) thing its form and nature, and further, gave (it) guidance.”
(Pharaoh) said: “What then is the condition of previous generations?”
He replied: “The knowledge of that is with my Lord, duly recorded: my Lord never errs, nor forgets,-
“He Who has, made for you the earth like a carpet spread out; has enabled you to go about therein by roads (and channels); and has sent down water from the sky.” With it have We produced diverse pairs of plants each separate from the others.
Eat (for yourselves) and pasture your cattle: verily, in this are Signs for men endued with understanding.
From the (earth) did We create you, and into it shall We return you, and from it shall We bring you out once again.
And We showed Pharaoh all Our Signs, but he did reject and refuse.
He said: “Hast thou come to drive us out of our land with thy magic, O Moses?
“But we can surely produce magic to match thine! So make a tryst between us and thee, which we shall not fail to keep – neither we nor thou – in a place where both shall have even chances.”
Moses said: “Your tryst is the Day of the Festival, and let the people be assembled when the sun is well up.”
So Pharaoh withdrew: He concerted his plan, and then came (back).
Moses said to him: Woe to you! Forge not ye a lie against Allah, lest He destroy you (at once) utterly by chastisement: the forger must suffer frustration!”
So they disputed, one with another, over their affair, but they kept their talk secret.
They said: “These two are certainly (expert) magicians: their object is to drive you out from your land with their magic, and to do away with your most cherished institutions.
“Therefore concert your plan, and then assemble in (serried) ranks: He wins (all along) today who gains the upper hand.”
They said: “O Moses! whether wilt thou that thou throw (first) or that we be the first to throw?”
He said, “Nay, throw ye first!” Then behold their ropes and their rods-so it seemed to him on account of their magic – began to be in lively motion!
So Moses conceived in his mind a (sort of) fear.
We said: “Fear not! for thou hast indeed the upper hand:
“Throw that which is in thy right hand: Quickly will it swallow up that which they have faked what they have faked is but a magician’s trick: and the magician thrives not, (no matter) where he goes.”
So the magicians were thrown down to prostration: they said, “We believe in the Lord of Aaron and Moses”.
(Pharaoh) said: “Believe ye in Him before I give you permission? Surely this must be your leader, who has taught you magic! be sure I will cut off your hands and feet on opposite sides, and I will have you crucified on trunks of palm-trees: so shall ye know for certain, which of us can give the more severe and the more lasting punishment!” (49-71)
Here, we stop and ask ourselves to reflect on the following questions:
Who used the language of projection and prejudice and who called for listening?
Who hyped the crowd and who educated the crowd?
Who operated in the shadows and who called to the light?
Several of the names of God are echoed by this story: The first is “al-Aziz, or the All-Powerful.” The One who is the most Powerful and most Cherished. The victorious One whose strength, glory and power are overwhelming and cannot be overcome or resisted.
The second is “Mawjood, The Present One.” You don’t need to find Him. He is near and present as he is present to Moses, upon him peace.
To God belong the most Beautiful Names. Has the story of Moses reached you?
You can find links to previous lessons below.
This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, currently titled Reflections of Faith: Lessons from the Prophets.
Fedwa Wazwaz is a Palestinian-American born in Jerusalem, Palestine and raised in the US. She has completed training in restorative justice at the University’s Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking. She was a 2008-2009 policy fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. She lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.
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