Lessons on power and oppression from Moses 6
By Fedwa Wazwaz, Engage Minnesota
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)
Sometimes, it takes time before God’s justice will manifest. Oppressors are sometimes given many chances for repentance and transformation. Some receive, while others reject and grow in delusion.
I was trying to decide which article by scholars on trauma to share, but the reading is quite long and difficult to follow. However, I found this article on psychotherapy which is a very easy reading that can help you follow my analysis in this piece. Try to read it before continuing with the rest of this reflection piece.
God opened a door of repentance, and, in the case of the magicians, they saw the truth and told Pharaoh:
So the magicians were thrown down to prostration: they said, “We believe in the Lord of Aaron and Moses”.
Pharaoh was more and more alone in his oppression, particularly after the chief magicians bore witness that Moses was not a sorcerer or a liar.
(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!”
But the magicians were willing to sacrifice themselves for the truth.
They said: “Never shall we regard thee as more than the Clear Signs that have come to us, or than Him Who created us! so decree whatever thou desirest to decree: for thou canst only decree (touching) the life of this world. “For us, we have believed in our Lord: may He forgive us our faults, and the magic to which thou didst compel us: for Allah is Best and Most Abiding.” (20:70-73)
Initially, the magicians had been fraudulent sycophants, seeking only to please and profit from the Pharaoh. Yet, after they witnessed the truth, they repented their wrongdoing. This is an important lesson: Despite how corrupt some people are, the reformer doesn’t come to destroy them. Instead, the reformer comes to nurture and to open the door to repentance. If the door isn’t open, many will lose hope and continue doing evil. You cannot fight tyranny if people aren’t given a door out, and a path to transformation.
God is the Oft-Forgiving and Most Merciful, and He will forgive those who sincerely seek His forgiveness.
After witnessing the truth, the magicians transformed into witnesses to truth and died as witnesses. Just so, the people around him now witnessed that he was a liar. But instead of humbling himself, Pharaoh grew even more enraged and insisted on proving Moses a “fake news” liar. He wanted to join forces with anyone among the Israelites who would side with him in exchange for fame and riches. There was one, Hamam, who he asked to build him a tower, and to whom he granted great privileges.
Pharaoh said: “O Haman! Build me a lofty palace, that I may attain the ways and means- “The ways and means of (reaching) the heavens, and that I may mount up to the god of Moses: But as far as I am concerned, I think (Moses) is a liar!” Thus was made alluring, in Pharaoh’s eyes, the evil of his deeds, and he was hindered from the Path; and the plot of Pharaoh led to nothing but perdition (for him). (40:36-37)
After the magicians left him, Pharaoh felt livid, humiliated, and betrayed. His kingdom had been built by oppressing the people and holding their hearts and minds captive. But his grip on them was crumbling, and this caused rumors to spread, that he wasn’t as powerful as he claimed. People started to question their fear of their ruler.
Yet Pharaoh refused look at himself or his actions. Instead, he started to spread rumors. When he should have become humble, he grew in arrogance. The power infrastructure was beginning to fall apart, so he doubled up on his brainwashing of the people.
When a tyrant is caught, often he starts to spread rumors. Just like, when Donald Trump thought he was going to lose the 2016 election, he suggested it had been rigged, the Pharaoh spread news that Moses and some magicians had secretly organized for Moses to win over the magicians. In reality, it was the Pharaoh who had plotted in secret.
Yet he projected his own plotting onto Moses, accusing Moses of “rigging” the challenge to justify his loss.
So that people wouldn’t lose their fear of him, Pharaoh had the magicians killed and hung in public places. However, even though the magicians stood by the truth, not everyone was willing or able. Some of the oppressed blamed Moses for the ill-treatment they’d received and feared what the Pharaoh would do now that Moses had returned. They, too, saw the truth. But, unlike the magicians, they were still in the grip of fear.
The Pharaoh increased his oppression, and many blamed Moses.
Oppressors moved through the city like a furious wind, committing evil after evil. Yet Moses could do nothing about it but wait on God. Some of the Israelites began to turn against Moses, and some of them refused to stand with him.
Hamam was one of Moses’s relatives who stood with the Pharaoh against him, and so was Qarun. Both called Moses a sorcerer and a liar, and joined openly in attacking him.
In exchange for standing with the Pharaoh, Qarun was granted both wealth and status, while all around him people were destitute. Moses called Qarun to pay a “poor tax,” but Qarun refused, and joined with the Pharaoh in spreading rumors about Moses.
Moses was given laws to nurture the community, one of those laws was similar to zakat—a tax on the wealthy to aid the poor. Qarun wouldn’t pay, and even accused his cousin Moses of using the tax to enrich himself. After he spread these rumors, God punished Qarun by opening the earth and letting it swallow him as though he’d never existed.
“Qarun was doubtless, of the people of Moses; but he acted insolently towards them: such were the treasures We had bestowed on him that their very keys would have been a burden to a body of strong men, behold, his people said to him: “Exult not, for Allah loveth not those who exult (in riches). “But seek, with the (wealth) which Allah has bestowed on thee, the Home of the Hereafter, nor forget thy portion in this world: but do thou good, as Allah has been good to thee, and seek not (occasions for) mischief in the land: for Allah loves not those who do mischief.”
The story mentions Qarun and Hamam because it’s important to realize there are opportunists among the oppressed. It was never that all Egyptians were evil and all Israelites innocent. There were opportunists among the oppressed who will sell their people, and there were good people among the Egyptians. In every underdog community, there are people who will sell out their own community for gain.
If we understand these stories, we can come to expect people who sell out their communities. Thus, just because someone comes from a community doesn’t mean they can fully represent it. We should expect opportunists and fully investigate their arguments. If their arguments are smoke, mirrors, and fearmongering, then they should recall to us Qarun and Hamam.
Haman and Qarun stood with the Pharaoh against their own people, for selfish gain. After Qarun was punished by an earthquake swallowing him up, slowly, people began to listen to Moses, and this infuriated the Pharaoh, who summoned Moses to the palace.
Yet, just as Moses had close relatives who worked with the Pharaoh, the Pharaoh had close relatives siding with Moses. Moses never asked for Qarun to be killed. But Pharaoh had the relatives who stood against him killed, or he plotted to kill them.
There was one government official who kept his faith secret and argued on behalf of Moses. He was not just an advisor to the Pharaoh, but also a relative.
A believer, a man from among the people of Pharaoh, who had concealed his faith, said: “Will ye slay a man because he says, ‘My Lord is Allah’?- when he has indeed come to you with Clear (Signs) from your Lord? and if he be a liar, on him is (the sin of) his lie: but, if he is telling the Truth, then will fall on you something of the (calamity) of which he warns you: Truly Allah guides not one who transgresses and lies! (40:28)
The secret advisor eloquently defended Moses, a powerful man speaking truth to power.
Then Allah saved him from (every) ill that they plotted (against him), but the burnt of the Penalty encompassed on all sides the People of Pharaoh. (Quran 40: 45)
At this point, God commanded Moses to give stern warnings to the Pharaoh and those in power. They must let the children of Israel go, or they will suffer a severe punishment.
Moses, where is your power?
The Pharaoh began to fear losing his power, and he called all the people in his lands to a huge gathering. He claimed to be their Lord, pointing out that Moses was no more than a lowly slave with no power. He even mocked his speech impediment.
Despite all the signs, many people still obeyed the Pharaoh. Falsehood doesn’t always listen to evidence or reason, but rather to power.
It is now that God’s wrath descended.
God brought a drought. The Pharaoh appealed to Moses, the drought eased, and Moses gave Pharaoh a deadline to let the Israelites go. But Pharaoh went back on their agreement. So they began again.
This, too, is part of the story of power and oppression. There are often repeated violations of treaties, as well as false negotiating followed by false peace-making.
People don’t always wake up after seeing a truth, particularly when fear has built a nest in their hearts. Many continued to believe in Pharaoh’s power, not realizing it was they who gave him that power, and that only God’s power is true.
Next, God sent a massive flood, and the false peace-making began again.
Every time the penalty fell on them, they said: “O Moses! on your behalf call on thy Lord in virtue of his promise to thee: If thou wilt remove the penalty from us, we shall truly believe in thee, and we shall send away the Children of Israel with thee.” (Qur’an 7:134)
After this false truce was declared, Moses appealed to God, and the land returned to normal. But again, the Pharaoh refused to fulfill his promise and he continued to oppress the children of Israel.
The cycle continued, and next, God sent a plague of locusts. People begged Moses for help, and the door to repentance swung open. Yet as soon as the locusts departed, they went back on the terms of the treaty.
The punishments—and the chances—continued. Next was a plague of lice, then a plague of frogs. Next, God caused the Nile to turn into blood. Only for the children of Israel did the water remain pure. Yet again, the same cycle of false peace-making went on.
But every time We removed the penalty from them according to a fixed term which they had to fulfil,- Behold! they broke their word! So We exacted retribution from them: We drowned them in the sea, because they rejected Our Signs and failed to take warning from them. And We made a people, considered weak (and of no account), inheritors of lands in both east and west, – lands whereon We sent down Our blessings. The fair promise of thy Lord was fulfilled for the Children of Israel, because they had patience and constancy, and We levelled to the ground the great works and fine buildings which Pharaoh and his people erected (with such pride). (Quran 7:135-136)
Now, God orders Moses to move his people out of Egypt.
Tyranny benefits from the labor of the oppressed. The United States could not have been built without the labor of enslaved people. Likewise, Egypt’s beautiful buildings and great works were the handiwork of the oppressed Israelites. The loss of this labor would destroy the empire. Word reached the Pharaoh that Moses was working to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, so the Pharaoh gathered his military forces and pursued them.
The soldiers had all types of weaponry and fast horses, and thus they were able to catch up with the Israelites just as they reached the Red Sea. The Israelites had the dust from the soldiers’ horses behind them, and in front of them the Red Sea.
They felt trapped, powerless, helpless. What could they do now? The image of a massacre must have appeared in the minds of many.
Some began to blame Moses. Panic spread as they watched the approaching army grow closer and closer. Instead of comforting and supporting each other and their leader, many complained and blamed Moses. Some still had a love-hate relationship with the Pharaoh, and wanted to be Qarun and Haman.
And so they were: the enemy behind, the Red Sea in front.
Moses marched to the front and stood before the Red Sea. Some narrators said that Joshua questioned Moses and said, “The sea is before us, and the enemy is behind us; surely death cannot be avoided!” But Moses trusted God. He stood with his brother Aaron and waited for God to guide him.
Death of delusion and trauma
Just then, God inspired Moses to strike the sea with his stick. And, before their eyes, the Red Sea parted, a reflection of the two sets of people facing it, creating a safe passage to pass in the seabed.
Moses waited at the back for the last person to pass before he followed his people. They all reached the other side, but were still filled with panic, as the army was close behind, and had entered the seabed.
This, finally, was the appointed time of justice.
We took the Children of Israel across the sea: Pharaoh and his hosts followed them in insolence and spite. At length, when overwhelmed with the flood, he said: “I believe that there is no god except Him Whom the Children of Israel believe in: I am of those who submit (to Allah in Islam).” (It was said to him): “Ah now!- But a little while before, wast thou in rebellion!- and thou didst mischief (and violence)! “This day shall We save thee in the body, that thou mayest be a sign to those who come after thee! but verily, many among mankind are heedless of Our Signs!” (Qur’an 90:92)
After patience, then justice
God sent many people to nurture the hearts of the oppressors. Warnings came to shake him up, but that didn’t make Pharaoh take heed.
Even at the very end, Pharaoh didn’t have to enter the seabed. But he deluded himself, believing he had all powers. Intoxicated by his own self-deception, he thought he, too, could part the sea.
But the sea folded back, and the Pharaoh and his soldiers drowned.
Sometimes, it seems as though a cruel tyrant will live forever. No matter what evils they do, and how many stand bravely against them, it seems they will never fall. But in the end, God’s justice comes.
When Pharaoh saw his death before his eyes, he cried out to “the God of Moses,” still too arrogant to call God his own Lord. Even now, the Pharaoh wasn’t truly remorseful.
To God belong the most Beautiful Names. Has the story of Moses reached you?
Links to previous lessons are 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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Posted on April 1, 2018, in Engage Minnesota, Fedwa Wazwaz and tagged Beautiful Names of God, interfaith, moses, Muslims, Power and Oppression, Reflections of Faith: Lessons from the Prophets. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.