Despotic saber rattling
Pharaoh hit back, although indirectly, at the believer in an attempt to dismiss the idea of imminent danger that might befall them, which he was warning them against, when he explained the question of God as a reality.
Moses’ reply concentrated on showing real interest in ascending to see the Lord of Moses to take issue with Him, as if he were a person like any other with whom he did battle. This was an attempt from Pharaoh to give the impression that he wanted to find out whether He was real or a figment of the mind. It was a stunt from Pharaoh in a bid to play on the consciences of his people. He wanted to put them under the illusion that he was capable of meeting with the Lord of Moses, by issuing orders to Haman to build him escalators towards the skies.
However, the believer among his people was ready to deal him another blow. That is, with a view to minimizing the effect of his tactics on the people, he raised his voice again without trying to hide the sense of bitterness and pity he felt for them. He started to give them good counsel, stressing the fact that this world would come to an end and that the eternal one is the hereafter. He then reminded them of the nature of responsibility and the consequences thereupon. That is, each person is going to be held responsible for the actions they have committed, be they good or bad. No one else is going to be burdened by another’s responsibility. Moreover, Pharaoh would never be in a position to protect them from any punishment that might come their way.
At this stage of the dialogue, we can feel some sort of struggle looming in the horizon between the believer and his people. It seems that they were trying to lure him away from that trend, i.e. the good he wanted for them, and instead pin him down to the way they were leading their lives, the hallmark of which was self-indulgence. Nevertheless, he stood his ground, explaining the difference between his invitation and theirs. Whereas he was inviting them to paradise, eternal prosperity and the success in this world and the hereafter, they did not seem to offer him anything in return. He concluded that there was no basis for their offer. Rather, they seemed to be desirous of sticking it out with a person [Pharaoh] who could not provide them with any guarantee for this life. Conversely, being with God would certainly mean all the good things, especially when man lives with dignity, which draws on that of the Almighty, with the peace of mind that God would give him.
The dialogue draws to an end after the believer comes to recognize that he has exhausted all means of persuasion. Nevertheless, he reminds them that they are going to remember all that he has explained to them when the realities of life come to challenge all their practices. Thus, he is resigned to that fact that his call has for the time being gone unheeded, as was the case with similar sincere calls of bygone days. But it would be remembered in due course.
In the end, he had to make it clear to them that he was washing his hands of them and leaving the matter to his Lord for He was capable of taking care of him in this world and the hereafter. The Holy Quran puts the final touches on the story, in that God responded to his plea by saving him from the evil deeds of his people. As for them, they would face the consequences of their deeds, ending in hellfire.
The reader must be aware that many lessons can be learned in our contemporary life:
1. Dissimulation, a Qur’anic principle
There is a need for people among the believers, who have already established a presence in some communities, without losing their identity and keeping to the right path, to carry on working in the way of God, with a view to winning people over to their cause. They should also acquaint themselves with the plans that might be hatched against the camp of belief and its followers. Any acquired knowledge in this field could be used to defeat those plots and pre-empt them.
This practice, which is known as dissimulation (taqiyyah), is part of the established Muslim Shia ideology that is derived from the Holy Qur’an, as in this story, the story of the famous companion of the Prophet (s.a.w.) Ammar bin Yasir and others.
2. Indirect dialogue
It is advisable that the workers in the way of God keep abreast with the latest ideas that the rulers keep disseminating, which are intended to mislead the masses and justify their aggression and straying from the right path. However, the activists should seek to go about this without resorting to violent means. The dialogue between them and members of society should be conducted by proxy, as though it were conducted with the ruler, with the aim of guiding him aright and bringing him back from the brink to see sense again. There is no harm in instilling fear in the heart of the ruler, especially when the voices of dissent become more vociferous in criticizing his practices, leaving him with no room to hit back at them, or silence them.
3. The spirit of faith
Muslim activists have to follow the example of that true believer, especially the strength of feelings and innermost serenity, which seemed to have dictated his every move, above all his ability to engage in meaningful dialogue, in the course of calling to the way of God, and emerging victorious. A most striking feature of that man’s demeanor was his determination to shun the limelight, in that he never publicly claimed that he was a sympathizer with Moses. He maintained his wise low key encounters to the end. He had to take that position out of conviction that it was in the best interest of the cause of Moses, i.e. by not openly taking sides.
4. A necessary challenge
It is important to espouse the moralistic approach, by reminding people of God and the outcome on the Day of Judgment. This should be the case across the board, i.e. even with the tyrants and insolent people, as a way of countering their perception of their own power. It should be made clear to them that no matter how powerful they may think themselves, their power does not stand a chance before the Might of the Omnipotent. The efforts should aim to create a chasm between the tyrants and the people, on account of linking the question of right and wrong with man’s destiny. This is bound to create a feeling of keeping oneself out of harm’s way.
5. Drawing the lines
It is necessary to try hard to define the boundaries between the call to the way of God and the call to some other way. By carefully outlining the features of each of the two ways and putting the case for the way of God plainly across –that it is the only safe way to reach happiness in this world and the hereafter, and that following the crooked ways will lead to loss – is capable of yielding good results. This truth has come across abundantly clear in the believer’s last ditch appeal, when he emphatically reiterated that his call would lead to safety and that his people’s unpleasant ways would certainly lead to hellfire.
It is incumbent on Muslim activists to face up to ideological, social, political, and economic trends that aim at adversely influencing the masses. By exposing the true faces of these trends, they should be able to heighten awareness among the masses to be on their guard so as not to fall under their sway. Such trends may divert the masses away from the right path by confusing truth with falsehood or trying to market the latter under the guise of truth. This is true of the attempts by certain political and economic movements to exploit some social problems and exaggerate them, with a view to neutralizing other fundamental factors, simply to imply that those have nothing to do with matters of destiny. That is, they try to mislead people that the idea of destiny is a purely mundane one and that it has no bearing whatsoever on the question of the hereafter and belief in God.
6. The environment and man’s freedom
The story of the believer among the people of the Pharaoh unequivocally lends resounding support to the Islamic notion that rejects the assertion that the environment has a decisive say in constricting man’s free will. In so arguing, the proponents seek to justify the trend of going astray and the kind of self-fulfilled prophecy that emanates from a philosophical ideology that denies man’s freedom. They blame this on the environment, which, they maintain, can contribute to shaping man’s way of thinking and influencing his choices, be they straightforward or devious.
The existence of such a person [the believer among the Pharaohs], who was born in an evil society, or like the wife of Pharaoh, who lived under the shackles of that society, might lend support to the notion that the climate of evil can provide the motivation to evil-doing. Yet, while it might weaken resistance to falling prey to its temptations, it can by no means do away with it. Therefore, there remains for man, despite all the odds, that margin to exercise his free will that could increase his chances of winning.
However, it is equally true that a person who born or raised in a good environment might not emerge to be good. Examples of such people can be found in Noah’s wife and son and Lot’s wife, who were in good company, yet it did not prevent them from going astray as a result of falling prey to the temptations of the wider society they lived in.
In fact, the environment cannot face man with an impossible task of breaking free from the general conduct and practices of his society. The environment could make it difficult, but not impossible, for man to get rid of its yoke by sheer perseverance, determination and unflinching will.
This is what keeps the spirits of the workers in the way of God high and strong, in the face of all the extreme pressures exerted by the environment, in order to push the process of change forward, even though the environment might play a part in enticing man away from his morals and convictions.
“Then there came running, from the farthest part of the City, a man”
This is the story of another believer who chose not to join his people in the way of unbelief, misguidance, and animosity to the prophets and messengers. Instead, he decided to walk the right path that led him to belief and guidance, where he spared no effort in supporting the Message of God by word and deed, not least by trying all ways possible to persuade his people to see sense and follow what the messengers of God called for.
The Holy Qur’an tells his story in the context of the three messengers who were sent to the “Companions [people] of the City” to call them to God and the upholding of His messages. The messengers were met with hostility, threats, and rejection, so much so that not even a single soul was won over. There came bolt from the blue; a man came running from the farthest part of the city, to raise a voice in a last ditch effort to persuade his people to follow the three messengers:
Set forth to them, by way of a parable, the (story of) the Companions of the City. Behold! There came apostles to it. When We (first) sent to them two apostles, they rejected them: But We strengthened them with a third: they said, “Truly, we have been sent on a mission to you.” The (people) said: “Ye are only men like ourselves; and (God) Most Gracious sends no sort of revelation: ye do nothing but lie.” They said: “Our Lord doth know that we have been sent on a mission to you. And our duty is only to proclaim the clear Message.” The (people) said: “For us, we augur an evil omen from you: if ye desist not, we will certainly stone you. And a grievous punishment indeed will be inflicted on you by us.” They said: “Your evil omens are with yourselves: (deem ye this an evil omen). If ye are admonished! Nay, but ye are a people transgressing all bounds!”
Then there came running, from the farthest part of the City, a man, saying, “O my people! Obey the apostles: Obey those who ask no reward of you (for themselves), and who have themselves received Guidance. It would not be reasonable in me if I did not serve Him Who created me, and to Whom ye shall (all) be brought back. Shall I take (other) gods besides Him? If (God) Most Gracious should intend some adversity for me, of no use whatever will be their intercession for me, nor can they deliver me. I would indeed, if I were to do so, be in manifest error. For me, I have faith in the Lord of you (all): listen, then, to me!” It was said: “Enter thou the Garden.” He said: “Ah me! Would that my people knew (what I know)! – For that my Lord has granted me forgiveness and has enrolled me among those held in honour!” And We sent not down against his people, after him, any hosts from heaven, nor was it needful for Us so to do. It was no more than a single mighty blast, and behold! They were (like ashes) quenched and silent. (36: 13–29)
The story consists of three chapters with a three-dimensional dialogue, i.e. between the messengers and the people of the city, the believer and his people, and the believer and the angels. The three dialogues are parts of a trilogy.