Doctrines > Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue   (11)


Moses’ dialogue with his people

The Holy Quran has reported many instances where Moses conducted dialogue with his people on a host of issues. In the main, the majority of his people showed lack of discipline and understanding of his Message. In certain situations, their role was akin to that of a nosy person who raises many questions endlessly, and with no apparent purpose. Had they acquiesced to the divine injunctions, they would not have ended up having to do more than was originally required of them. Referring to the story of killing a cow, Prophet Muhammad (p.) was quoted as saying: “Should the Israelites have intercepted any cow and slaughtered it [according to God’s command], God would have accepted their offering. But, they were so unyielding in their demands, that God was harsh with them.”

This is how the Quran has described the story of His command to them to kill a cow:

And remember Moses said to his people: “God commands that ye sacrifice a heifer.” They said: “Makest thou a laughing-stock of us?” He said: “God save me from being an ignorant (fool)!” They said: “Beseech on our behalf Thy Lord to make plain to us what (heifer) it is!” He said; “He says: The heifer should be neither too old nor to too young, but of middling age. Now do what ye are commanded!” They said: “Beseech on our behalf Thy Lord to make plain to us her colour.” He said: “He says: A fawn-coloured heifer, pure and rich in tone, the admiration of beholders!” They said: “Beseech on our behalf Thy Lord to make plain to us what she is: To us are all heifers alike: We wish indeed for guidance, if God wills.” He said: “He says: ‘A heifer not trained to till the soil or water the fields; sound and without blemish’.” They said: “Now hast thou brought the truth.” Then they offered her in sacrifice, but not with good will. (2: 67–71)

They were ordered to slaughter a heifer. At first, they did not take the matter seriously. They thought, or pretended to think, that it was a joke. They did not seem to give much weight and reverence to the position of the Prophet (a.s.). They did not seem to make the connection between what they asked about, i.e. of the dispute and finding the killer on the one hand, and the command to kill the cow on the other. Once, they realized that it was serious, they seemed to be treating it as a free play, as might be inferred from the way they put the questions.

Moses (a.s.) handled the situation with calmness and resilience. With every question they asked, the answer came with strings attached, so much so that they ended up incurring a larger than expected expense.

We have to deem this approach as a practical educational tool intended to slam the door in the face of those of Moses’ people who took Divine injunctions lightly, by trading questions on their details, so much so that they felt it was ordinary. Yet, they were taught a lesson that inquisitiveness, be it in jest or earnest, comes with a price, especially when nosiness emanates from trifling with and encroaching upon the position of authority, where there should be no room for humor, as all its lines of responsibility and terms of reference had been clearly defined; for this reason, it was no laughing matter.

Asking for clarifications where ambiguity arises

The moral we draw from this situation and dialogue is that Muslim activists should receive the instructions, as simple and clear as they have been outlined, without trying to attach to them extra constraints or stipulations. If the order has been issued with no strings attached, then let it be. If there is blurring of the lines or lack of clarity, the first person in command would bear the responsibility of any wrongdoing. The activists should not be held responsible for something, which was not made clear to them at the outset, according to the rational principle “Punishment is repugnant where no clear statement was provided”.

There is no objection to the activists’ attempts to seek clarification to what they can see hazily, or to what could be interpreted in more than one way, in order to define clearly the boundaries of responsibility from the start to the finish. This should be viewed as part and parcel of a sense of loyalty and responsibility, lest the activists should be lost in the maze of diverse interpretations and probabilities. This, of course, should be confined to the ambiguous of issues, which could leave one grappling with uncertainty and doubt, and which in turn could constitute legal responsibility.

The following story related from Prophet Mohammad (p.) should shed some light on what has just been mentioned. He addressed his companions, thus:

Allah has commanded you to perform hajj. Ukasha bin Muhsin, or it was said Suraqa bin Malik stood up and asked: Every year, O you Messenger of God?! The Prophet chose to ignore him, until he repeated the question twice or three times when the Prophet yelled at him: Woe unto you! What guarantee would you have, if I said: Yes. By God, if I said it, it would have become compulsory, and if it did, you could not have put up with it. And if you abandoned such a duty, you would have reneged. Leave out what I have left out. Those, who were before you, were eternally damned because they used to ask a lot of, and pounce at, their prophets. So, should I order you to do something, do whatever you possibly can; where I forbade you, keep a distance from that I declared prohibitive.

In this tradition , there might be a reference to the position of the Israelites vis-à-vis the question of killing a cow. There might also be a directive to the Muslims to accept the commands and prohibitions without undue questioning, lest they should become tougher on them.

Moses’ people confronted him in other situations, which served as pointers to their arrogance, ignorance and childish mentality; these verses tell of yet another story and debate between the two sides:

We took the Children of Israel (with safety) across the sea. They came upon a people devoted entirely to some idols they had. They said: “O Moses! Fashion for us a god like unto the gods they have.” He said: “Surely ye are a people without knowledge. As to these folk – the cult they are in is (but) a fragment of a ruin, and vain is the (worship) which they practice.” He said: “Shall I seek for you a god other than the (true) God, when it is God Who hath endowed you with gifts above the nations?” (7: 138–40)

Did that request make sense, coming from a people whom Moses had just snatched from the jaws of Pharaoh’s repression? Were they going to be the building blocks in the edifice Moses had hoped to erect and spread the Word of God and liberate the entire society? As is known, Moses’ struggle was not motivated by personal or nationalistic considerations. It came about as a result of executing his prophetic mission, which had found in the masses a good force to move forth and affect change and build a new life. He also had found in the Children of Israel a group of people who were very close to matters of belief, in that they formed the opposition force to Pharaoh, and all the corruption and wrongdoing that he stood for.

This is how the dilemma of Moses (a.s.) with his people should be construed. He was disappointed with them. They let him down, after the fierce struggle he waged against Pharaoh and the difficult situations he went through, not least by escorting them to safety, miraculously, to the other side of the river. So, what sort of request [fashioning of a god] was that? Where did this leave monotheism and the Lord of Moses, professing Whose oneness was the cause of all the upheaval that took place? Were not the miracles they had witnessed sufficient to reinforce their faith, as the magicians did when they defied Pharaoh in embracing belief and hoisting its banner high?

However, Moses (a.s.) did not lose his temper, because the magnitude of his mission did not leave him any room to cave in to any of his personal feelings. Thus, his answer was two-pronged. While he completely dismissed the idol worshippers as a bunch of misguided people, who would certainly face annihilation and eternal damnation, he warned his people of a severe chastisement. Yet, he reminded them of the favors God bestowed on them, not least by freeing them from the clutches of repression to the light of freedom and security. He made it clear to them that divinity was not a matter for man to exercise wishes or choices whether to stick with this god or that. Divinity is the truth that permeates man’s mind and soul and lightens his way.

Immature mentality

This kind of immature mentality can be found in some Islamic communities, although in a different situation. Some people, among the rulers or others, may come across a new “craze” brought to the fore by the forces of unbelief and misguidance. This might come in the form of a social trend or an ideology propagated by the East or the West. As novelties, some people could be lured by the luster of these trends, so much so that they wish to mimic them, not for a sensible reason, other than jumping on the bandwagon. This could lead to their making mistakes, if not deviations from the right path, both in their personal as well as public life. For any person to follow this trend or the other is a recipe for disaster, in that they will turn into guinea pigs for a myriad of trendy thoughts. As a consequence, they will lose their character and their way.

This can be clearly seen in how some Islamic societies try to run their lives. You may find such communities where, while thinking on Islamic ideology lines, their social practices run contrary to those ideological lines. This is true of political as well as economic activity. These practices mirror, to a certain degree, the mentality of the Israelites who asked Moses (a.s.) to invent to them gods and norms of life on the same lines that others had, as has already been mentioned in the above-quoted verses.

However, the main thrust of the true divine message prevails in the end. That is, as Moses proved his people wrong then, so it will be this time round, for the root of the problem is the same, although it may outwardly look different. That is, the truth is one and constant and thus should not be subjected to personal choices. Rather, it is governed by realistic and objective determinants, which would decide whether it would endure or wither away.

Here is another showdown between Moses (a.s.) and his people, which is indicative of their juvenile mentality; they rejected faith because they did not see God manifestly: “And remember ye said: “O Moses! We shall never believe in thee until we see God manifestly,” but ye were dazed with thunder and lighting even as ye looked on. Then We raised you up after your death: Ye had the chance to be grateful” (2: 55–56).

It is apparent from these verses and others, for that matter, that this issue was the subject of debate between Moses and his people, which led nowhere, in that he was unable to make them relent and come back to the right path from that of arrogance and misguidance. He did not have any alternative but to turn to God in prayer that He might accede to their request of seeing Him. His people, or some of their representatives, whom Moses selected to accompany him in his appointment with God, might have witnessed the sight of Moses pleading with God. There, before God, Moses stood, asking Him, in a direct manner, to grant them their wish. His plan was to put them in the thick of the experience, which was to shock them to the core. That is, it was not possible to see God, for the simple reason that none can stand the Light that He emanates, or any other manifestation of his Might. To this the Quran has alluded, i.e. “manifestation of glory”, which cannot mean His physical appearance, because it is impossible, in that He is not corporeal:

When Moses came to the place appointed by Us, and his Lord addressed him, He said: “O my Lord! Show (Thyself) to me, that I may look upon thee.” God said: “By no means canst thou see Me (direct); But look upon the mount; if it abide in its place, then shall thou see Me.” When his Lord manifested His glory on the Mount, He made it as dust. And Moses fell down in a swoon. When he recovered his senses he said: “Glory be to Thee! To Thee I turn in repentance, and I am the first to believe.” (7: 143)

The author of Majma’ul Bayan, [a Quranic commentary] advocates this opinion, which he traces back to the Sunni School of Thought (al-Jumhour), i.e. when his people were gripped with shivers, Moses (a.s.) turned to God and said: Do you punish us for something only the insolent among us has done? This is indicative of the fact that asking to see God in person was not his idea, in that he attributed it to the impudent among his people. This was a way of continuing the dialogue with them from a different angle, after he had failed to convince them to see sense in a direct way.

This is the opinion we subscribe to, on the basis of what we infer from the exoteric meaning of the Quranic verses, on the one hand, and from some traditions, on the other. This, of course, is contrary to the interpretation of many exegetes who did not discern properly the outward meaning of the verses, ending with a mismatch between their own interpretation and what the verses denote.

That aside, what we are trying to underline here is the approach Moses used in his dialogue with his people when they behaved like children and demanded to clearly see God. Since their request did not make sense from an ideological religious viewpoint, especially as they were supposed to be familiar with the notion of monotheism, he had no choice but to use a practical approach, i.e. by making them experience at first hand the response to their request, a quake that shook them to the core and left them no opportunity to say anything else or remain rebellious.

That is why we come across Moses (a.s.) invoking God to pardon him for that request, in that it was a sin that required those who committed it to ask for forgiveness, so that they could return to the fold. This was Moses’ way of implying to his people to adopt the same position, being the real culprits behind that abhorrent demand, whose acceptance they made a provision for going back to the right path.

The Holy Quran tells of another incident involving the conduct of the Israelites during the absence of Moses to meet his Lord. They took for worship an idol molded in the image of a calf, and rebelled against his brother, Aaron. This was yet another blot on their record of misguidance, which Moses had to engage them in dialogue on, and which they could not rationally defend:

The people of Moses made, in his absence, out of their ornaments, the image of calf, (for worship): it seemed to low: did they not see that it could neither speak to them, nor show them the Way? They took it for worship and they did wrong. When they repented, and saw that they had erred, they said: “If our Lord have not mercy upon us and forgive us, we shall indeed be of those who perish.” When Moses came back to his people, angry and grieved, he said: “Evil it is that ye have done in my place in my absence: did ye make haste to bring on the judgment of your Lord?” He put down the tablets, seized his brother by (the hair of) his head, and dragged him to him. Aaron said: “Son of my mother! The people did indeed reckon me as naught, and went near to slaying me! Make not the enemies rejoice over my misfortune, nor count thou me among the people of sin.” (7: 148–50)

As is evident they were at a loss. Their position was akin to that of a child who got his hands burned after dabbling in fire and realized his fault after it was too late. We may gather from Moses’ showdown with his brother that the people did not treat Aaron as equal to his brother, despite the fact that they were equals. Yet, he [Aaron] could not sway them from the vile deeds they were committing.

In yet another confrontation between Moses and his people, he pleaded with them to fight the tyrannical forces so that they could enter the holy land under their sway. They brushed his plea aside in apparent rudeness:

Remember Moses said to his people: “O my people! Call in remembrance the favor of God unto you, when He produced prophets among you, made you kings, and gave you what He had not given to any other among the peoples. O my people! Enter the holy land which God hath assigned unto you, and turn not back ignominiously, for then will ye be overthrown, to your own ruin.” They said: “O Moses! In this land are a people of exceeding strength: Never shall we enter it until they leave it: if (once) they leave, then shall we enter.” (But) among (their) God-fearing men were two on whom God had bestowed His grace: They said: “Assault them at the (proper) Gate: when once ye are in, victory will be yours; But on God put your trust if ye have faith.” They said: “O Moses! While they remain there, never shall we be able to enter, to the end of time. Go thou, and thy Lord, and fight ye two, while we sit here (and watch).” “O my Lord! I have power only over myself and my brother: so separate us from this rebellious people!” (5: 20–25)