Monday, July 20, 2015

Traveling over next few weeks

As-salamu `alaykum all.  Insha'allah I will be traveling over the next several weeks and will not be able to continue my blog posts as planned, but hope to resume them in the second half of August.  Jazakumullahu khayran to all those who are reading!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Exodus in the Qur’an, the Bible, and History (Part 10): "King" vs. "Pharaoh"

In English, “pharaoh” is used as a generic term for any king (or queen) of ancient Egypt, without distinguishing between different periods or dynasties.  This is how the term is used in the Bible as well.  In the stories of Abraham and Joseph, which are almost universally located in the Middle Kingdom period (c. 2055-1650 BCE), the ruler of Egypt is called “Pharaoh” over ninety times.  Likewise, in the story of Moses, which is almost universally located in the New Kingdom period (c. 1550-1069 BCE) (see part 6, “The Identity of Pharaoh”), the Egyptian ruler is called “Pharaoh” 128 times.[1]  The term “king of Egypt” is also used in both the stories of Joseph (Gen. 40:1; 41:46) and Moses (Exod. 6:13, 27; Deut. 11:3).  Therefore, in the Bible, the terms, “Pharaoh” and “king of Egypt” are both used for both time periods without distinction.[2]

The Qur’an is therefore peculiar in that it does not follow the biblical pattern.  It does use both terms, “Pharaoh” and “king,” but without mixing between them.

In the story of Joseph, the Qur’an consistently refers to the Egyptian ruler as al-malik (“the king”), and never as Fir‘awn (“Pharaoh”).  For example,

The king (al-malik) said, ‘I dreamed about seven fat cows being eaten by seven lean ones; seven green ears of corn and [seven] others withered.  Counselors, if you can interpret dreams, tell me the meaning of my dream.’ (12:43)

Further references to the ruler as “the king” occur in āyas 50, 54, 72, and 76.

On the other hand, in the various retellings of the story of Moses in the Qur’an, the Egyptian ruler is consistently referred to as Fir‘awn—over seventy times—and never as al-malik.  For example,

And Moses said, ‘O Pharaoh, I am a messenger from the Lord of all peoples’ (7:104)

What is surprising about the Qur’an’s usage is that it accords precisely with the way the term “Pharaoh” was historically used in ancient Egyptian history.  The term comes from the Egyptian pr-‘3, meaning “great house.”  Prior to the New Kingdom period, the term was used to refer to the royal palace as a whole.  It is only during the New Kingdom period, and specifically the eighteenth dynasty (16th-14th centuries BCE), that the term came to specially designate the Egyptian ruler.  As we saw in part 6, this is exactly the time the Exodus is dated.

The Qur’an’s selective usage of the terms “Pharaoh” and “king” is therefore striking in its precision.  The Qur’an could employed any of the following possibilities:
  1. It could have used both terms for both times periods, just as in the Bible and even modern English, without any distinction.
  2. It could have exclusively used the term “Pharaoh” for both time periods.
  3. It could have exclusively used the term “king” for both time periods.
  4. It could have used the term “Pharaoh” for the period of Joseph and “king” for the period of Moses.
  5.  Instead, the Qur’an uses the term “king” exclusively for the period of Joseph and the term “Pharaoh” exclusively for the period of Moses.

From the perspective of a seventh-century Arab, Jew, or Christian, any of these possibilities would be acceptable, and there would be little to favor one over the other.  The historical distinction between the two epithets has only come to light with the advent of modern Egyptology following the translation of hieroglyphics in the nineteenth century.  In light of these facts, the Qur’an’s usage is an impressive example of one of its most remarkable features, its stunningly precise word choice.

[1] “Pharaoh” in O. Odelain and R. Séguineau (Trans. M. J. O'Connell), Dictionary Of Proper Names And Places In The Bible, 1981, Robert Hale Ltd.: London, p. 301-302.  Cited in David, Karim, and Saifullah.
[2] I have summarized this information from A. David, E. Karim, and M.S.M. Saifullah, “Qur’anic Accuracy Vs. Biblical Error: The Kings & Pharaohs Of Egypt.”, 3 Mar. 2006.  Accessed 2 Feb. 2015.  (For the record, though the Qur’an’s precise and selective usage of these terms is remarkable, I do not personally regard the biblical usage as an “error.”)  One may consult the essay for a more detailed explanation, with more extensive reference to the scholarly literature.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Exodus in the Qur’an, the Bible, and History (Part 9): The Preservation of Pharaoh’s Body

The mummified body of Ramesses II was discovered in 1881 in a cache of forty mummies.  Priests had deposited and concealed these mummies around 1,000 BCE because of an epidemic of grave robbery.  They remained concealed for almost three thousand years until their discovery less than two centuries ago.[1]

This finding confirms another distinctive element of the Qur’an’s narrative of Pharaoh, its claim that his body would be preserved for later generations:

Today We will save you in your body so that you may be a sign for those after you.  Truly many people are heedless of Our signs. (10:92)

This claim is unique to the Qur’an, and is not found in the Bible or any prior Jewish or Christian sources.  This āya has been compared before to some rabbinic tales in which the Pharaoh repented and God rescued him, so he went on to become the king of Nineveh.[2]  However, the obvious implication of this āya is that Pharaoh’s last-minute recantation was not deemed acceptable and he drowned, but his body was in some way preserved as a sign for later generations.  The Qur’an here and elsewhere emphasizes Pharaoh’s demise as a punishment for his crimes.

It is significant that the Qur’an never makes a similar statement about other destroyed peoples, but only states that their abandoned buildings, ruins, or “news” have been made signs for later generations.  This āya explicitly specifies that Pharaoh’s body was preserved as a sign, and not just for his own time or witnesses (as some commentators have suggested), but in open terms—“for those after you” (li-man khalfa-ka).  As Fatoohi and Al-Dargazelli point out, “Since its discovery, Ramesses II’s mummy has been seen by people from everywhere.  It is currently one of the major tourist attractions in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.”[3]

The mummy of Ramesses II

An objection that has been raised before is that at the time of death, Ramesses was at the ripe age of ninety and was suffering from atherosclerosis as well as battle wounds.  He would have not been in the physical condition to pursue the Israelites into the desert.  The Bible answers this objection best when it states that Pharaoh’s stubborn and reckless actions were a consequence of God hardening his heart, in order that God may display His signs against him (Exod. 7:3), or as the Qur’an says, “as a sign for those after you.”

[1] Fatoohi and Al-Dargazelli, 112.
[2] Pirke De Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 43, pp. 341-343 (Friedlander); Book of Jashar 81:36-41; Chronicles of Jerahmeel 48:12; Legends of the Jews, vol. 3, 29.  Moreover, each of these sources postdates the Qur’an.
[3] Fatoohi and Al-Dargazelli, 114.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Exodus in the Qur’an, the Bible, and History (Part 8): The Pharaoh’s Claim to Divinity

One of the major narrative differences between the Qur’anic account of the Exodus and the Biblical one is the Qur’an’s emphasis on the Pharaoh’s claim to divinity.  The Qur’an narrates:
Then he gathered (his people) and proclaimed, “I am your Lord, Most High.”  So Allah seized with the exemplary punishment of the hereafter and the former. (79:23-25) 
 Pharaoh said, “O my chief!  I do not know of any god for you other than me” (28:39)[1]
Today it is common knowledge that the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt claimed divine status, so the statements of Pharaoh that the Qur’an reports here come as no surprise.  However, this element of the narrative is unique to the Qur’an’s account of the Exodus.  The Pharaoh’s claim to divinity does not play an important role in the biblical text, and in fact, lacks any explicit mention of it at all.  This is also the case with the retellings of the Exodus story in the Jewish pseudepigrapha (extrabiblical writings between 300 BCE and 300 CE), such as the Book of Jubilees, and likewise (as far as I am aware) with rabbinic accounts.  The Pharaoh’s claim to divinity is distinctive to the Qur’an’s account; it lacks any biblical, Jewish, or Christian precedents.  Yet, it is also historically accurate:
By the early New Kingdom, deification of the living king had become an established practice, and the living king could himself be worshipped and supplicated for aid as a god.[2]
Two steles, 410 and 1079 of the Hildesheim Museum, each describe Ramesses II as “Ramesses-meryamun, the God,” and the Papyrus Anastasi II praises Ramesses as “god,” “herald,” “vizier,” and “mayor.”  The Great Temple at Abu Simbel (see the picture in the part 7) was built by Ramesses II to honor himself.  The entrance of the temple is flanked by four colossal statues of Ramesses II, which dwarf the statue of the god Re-Horakhty located above it.[3]   The building also contains a relief that depicts Ramesses II making a sacrifice to his divine self:

Relief in the Great Temple at Abu Simbel of Ramesses II making an offering to his divine self.
Courtesy of

It must be kept in mind that Egypt had not been ruled by a pharaoh for more than six centuries before the Qur’an was revealed.  The last independent rulers of Egypt were Cleopatra and her son Caesarion, who reigned until 30 BCE, after which Egypt was taken over by Rome.  While the title of “pharaoh” continued to be appropriated by a number of Roman emperors, the title appears to have died off well before the Christianization of the Roman Empire, and certainly none of the Christian emperors had claimed divinity.

The Qur’an’s reference to the Pharaoh’s claim to divinity is another historically accurate piece of information that is distinctive to its narrative of the Exodus, and is not mentioned in the earlier known biblical or extrabiblical versions of the story.

[1] This is āya is not a denial of the polytheism of Egyptians during the time of Pharaoh, but simply expresses Pharaoh's arrogance.  7:127 affirms that Pharaoh and his chiefs recognized a multiplicity of gods: “The chiefs among the people of Pharaoh said, ‘Will you leave Moses and his people to cause corruption in the land and abandon you and your gods?’”
[2] D. P. Silverman, “Divinities And Deities In Ancient Egypt.” Religion In Ancient Egypt: Gods Myths, And Personal Practice. Ed. B.E. Shafer: London, Routledge, 1991. 64.  Qtd. in “The Identification Of Pharaoh During The Time Of Moses.”, 4 Jan. 2012.
[3] See “The Identification Of Pharaoh During The Time Of Moses.”, 4 Jan. 2012.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Exodus in the Qur’an, the Bible, and History (Part 7): “Pharaoh of the Awtād”

In the previous article, we saw that the distinct evidences from both the Bible and the Qur’an point firmly to an identification of the Pharaoh of the Exodus with Ramesses II. 

One element that is distinctive to the Qur’an’s narrative of Pharaoh is that it describes him several times as “Pharaoh of the Awtād":

The people of Noah and ʿĀd, and Pharaoh of the awtād rejected [the messengers] before them. And Thamūd, and the people of Lot…” (38:12-13)

Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with ʿĀd; the city of Iram of the lofty pillars, the like of which had never been created in the lands; Thamūd who cut the rocks in the valley; and Pharaoh of the awtād…? (89:6-10)

Muslim commentators differed over the meaning of awtād (singular watad) in this epithet, since the word is capable of a variety of meanings.  The most common interpretation is “stakes,” on which Pharaoh crucified people.  However Fatoohi and Al-Dargazelli argue that awtād is used in the Qur’an not to mean “stakes” or “pegs,” but tall structures.[1]  This is the interpretation of “Pharaoh of the Awtād” that al-Qurṭubī relates from Ibn ‘Abbās and ad-Daḥḥāk, in his commentary of 38:12:

Ibn ‘Abbās said, “It means the owner of sturdy construction.”  ad-Daḥḥāk said, “He owned many buildings.  Buildings are called awtād.”  

This makes the most sense in light of 89:6-10, quoted above, because the other nations mentioned are also identified with the construction of lofty, firm buildings.

There is no more appropriate description for Rameses II.  Of all the pharaohs of Egypt, he is the one most famous for his ambitious building projects.  Peter A. Clayton writes:

His genuine building achievements are on a Herculean scale. He added to the great temples at Karnak and Luxor, completed his father Seti’s mortuary temple at Gourna (Thebes) and also his Abydos temple, and built his own temple nearby at Abydos. On the west bank at Thebes he constructed a giant mortuary temple, the Ramesseum. Inscriptions in the sandstone quarries at Gebel el-Silsila record at least 3000 workmen employed there cutting stone for the Ramesseum alone. Other major mortuary temples rose in Nubia at Beit el-Wali, Gerf Hussein, Wadi es-Sebua, Derr and even as far south as Napata.[2]

Similarly, Kitchen states:

certainly in his building-works for the gods the entire length of Egypt and Nubia, Ramesses II surpassed not only the Eighteenth Dynasty but every other period in Egyptian history. In that realm, he certainly fulfilled the dynasty’s aims to satiety.[3]

E.P. Uphill states,

Per Ramesses was probably the vastest and most costly royal residence ever erected by the hand of man. As can now be seen its known palace and official centre covered an area of at least four square miles, and its temples were in scale with this, a colossal assemblage forming perhaps the largest collection of chapels built in the pre-classical world by a single ruler at one time.[4]  

The unique feature about Per Ramesses is that it is the only city of imperial size in the ancient near east, rivalling Heliopolis, Memphis and Thebes in splendour, known to have been entirely planned, built and fully completed under one King.[5]

However, most of what Ramesses II built failed to last.  The city of Pi-Ramesses was abandoned in c. 1130 BCE, after which it was dismantled.  The building materials were used to build the city of Tanis, which now lies in ruins, just as the Qur'an says:
We destroyed what Pharaoh and his people used to build and what they used to erect. (7:137)
Fatoohi and Al-Dargazelli also add the following observation:

The fact that the expression ‘Pharaoh of the awtād’ occurs [in sūra 89] where Thamud’s practice of building houses in mountains is mentioned may suggest that this title also implicitly refers to the two temples at Abu Simbel in Nubia which were cut in the living rock of the mountainside. The first of these, the ‘Great Temple,’ is a huge building with two pairs of colossal seated figures of Ramesses II, each 18 meter high, flanking its entrance. These temples are considered to be Ramesses II's greatest building achievement.[6]

The Great Temple of Abu Simbel.  For more on the temples of Abu Simbel, see “The Identification Of Pharaoh During The Time Of Moses.”, 4 Jan. 2012.

Against this historical background, one can truly appreciate the following āya:

Pharaoh was most surely lofty in the land and most surely he was of the extravagant (musrifīn). (10:83)

[1] See Fatoohi and Al-Dargazelli, 107-111.
[2] Clayton, P. A. (1994). Chronicle of the Pharaohs: The Reign ByReign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson: Slovenia.  Cited in Fatoohi and Al-Dargazelli, 110.  Emphasis added.
[3] Kitchen, K. A. (1982). Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II King of Egypt, Aris & Phillips ltd: Warminster.  Cited in Fatoohi and Al-Dargazelli, 110.  Emphasis added.
[4] E. P. Uphill, “Pithom And Raamses: Their Location And Significance,” Journal Of Near Eastern Studies, 1968, Volume 27, Number 4, p. 299.  Qtd. in “The Identification Of Pharaoh During The Time Of Moses.”, 4 Jan. 2012.  Accessed 12 Feb. 2015.
[5] E. P. Uphill, The Temples Of Per Ramesses, 1984, Aris & Phillips, Warminster: England, p. 228.  Qtd. in “The Identification of Pharaoh.”
[6] Fatoohi and Al-Dargazelli, 110.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Exodus in the Qur’an, the Bible, and History (Part 6): The Identity of the Pharaoh

The Bible provides several details that historians can use to identify the pharaoh of the Exodus.  Interestingly, as we will see, the Qur’an also gives separate indications that lead to the same conclusion.

First of all it is important to establish the general time period of the Exodus.  It is almost universally agreed that the Exodus, if it happened, had to have occurred during the New Kingdom period.  Here I will mention three of the main reasons for this:

1. The enslavement of Semitic people and their exploitation as forced laborers in construction projects was an innovation of the New Kingdom period (c. 1540-1170 BCE).  During this period, Egypt’s sovereignty extended to Syria and Canaan (Palestine), and massive numbers of Semitic prisoners were brought into Egypt as slaves.  While foreign slaves had been used in Egypt before the New Kingdom period, they served domestic roles in large households or cultic roles in temples.  Only during the New Kingdom period were they used as forced laborers in building bricks and constructing buildings and cities.[1]

2. The biblical account states that the Israelites were used in the building of the store-city Ramses (Exod. 1:11).  Historians and archaeologists identify this with the city of Pi-Ramesses, where the Pharaoh Seti I (r. 1295/1290-1279 BCE) built his summer palace, and which his son Ramesses II (r. 1279–1213 BCE) expanded it into a great city and made his capital.  Along with the biblical Pithom (Exod. 1:11), identified as Per-Atum, the city was located in the eastern Nile Delta, which must therefore be the region in which the Israelites were located.  Pi-Ramesses continued to thrive as the royal capital only until the reign of Ramesses VI (r. 1143-1136 BCE), when it was abandoned.[2]  Based on this evidence, the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt must have taken place in the thirteenth or twelfth centuries BCE.  Richard Hess is even more precise.  He writes,

Again, only in the thirteenth century B.C. was it known for the pharaoh of Egypt to have his capital in the eastern Delta region, the only region in Egypt that would allow for Moses and Aaron to visit pharaoh and return on the same day to the oppressed Israelites working on the cities of Pithom and Ramesses.[3]

Therefore, the story of Moses fits remarkably well with this historical context, and in no other.  Moreover, as Kitchen and Hoffmeier point out, because the city was abandoned in the 1130s BCE, it could not have been known to the author(s) of the Book of Exodus if they were recording a made-up story many centuries later.  They could only have received it as an authentic detail preserved in the memory of an actual historical Exodus from Egypt.

3. The first explicit mention of Israel in the archaeological record is in a stone slab (called a stele) erected by Merneptah (r. 1213-1203 BCE), the son and successor of Ramesses II.  In it, Merneptah boasts of his military forays in Canaan and among the vanquished peoples he mentions Israel.  Merneptah’s Stele dates to c. 1208 BCE, and indicates that the Israelites were already located in or near the region of Canaan by this time.  The name Israel is written with a hieroglyphic determinative signifying a “people” rather than a territory or city-state, unlike the other nations.  This indicates that Israel was still only a tribal entity, and had not yet matured into a city-state.[4]

For these reasons, most historians accept Ramesses II as the pharaoh during the time of the Exodus.  This is also the view of Kitchen and Hoffmeier.

Although the Qur’anic story modifies the biblical one in several relevant details, it only supports—rather than contradicts—this identification:

First, while the biblical account distinguishes between the pharaoh during Moses’ youth (who in this case would be Seti I) and another after his escape to Midian (Ramesses II), the Qur’an does not make this distinction.  Instead, it identifies the pharaoh during Moses’ childhood and after his call to prophethood as the same pharaoh.  As Fatoohi and Al-Dargazelli point out, this requires that the pharaoh of the Qur’anic exodus autonomously ruled Egypt for at least around forty years.[5]  The only pharaoh in Egyptian history who had such a lengthy reign as an absolute monarch was Ramesses II, who ruled for about sixty-six years.[6]  Therefore, the Qur’an provides a separate indication for identifying the Pharaoh of the Exodus as Ramesses II.  This argument may not be conclusive, since the Qur'an often adapts details of its stories to make them more accessible to contemporary audiences.  Nonetheless, it points in the same direction as the rest of the evidence.

Second, the Qur’an refers to Pharaoh several times with the unique title of “Pharaoh of the Awtād.”  This will be the subject of the next article.  In the subsequent articles, we will also see how other details the Qur’an gives are consistent with the identification of Ramesses II.

[1] Kitchen, 247.
[2] Hoffmeier, 117; Kitchen, 256.
[3] Hess, Richard S. “Israel Finkelstein, Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed” (Review).  Denver Journal 4 (2001): Denver Seminary, Mar. 2001. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
[4] Kitchen, 451.
[5] This figure is an estimate based on Qur’anic indications about “The time that Pharaoh ruled before Moses’ birth…Moses’ age when he left Egypt to Midian…The time that he stayed in Midian [and]…The length of his second sojourn in Egypt after returning from Midian” (Fatoohi and Al-Dargazelli, 101).  The pharaoh Tuthmosis III ruled nominally for forty-six years, but assumed the throne as a mere child and only became an absolute ruler after the death of Hatshepsut in 1483 BCE, more than two decades later.  Similarly Amenhotep III ruled nominally for thirty-seven years, but was also only a child when he assumed the throne and ruled autonomously for a shorter period of time.  See Fatoohi and Al-Dargazelli, 101-106. 
[6] Fatoohi and Al-Dargazelli, 105.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Exodus in the Qur'an, the Bible, and History (Part 5): The Adoption of Moses

From here onwards, we will be looking at historical gems in the Qur’an’s telling of the Exodus story.

In the Qur’an and the Bible, the story of Moses begins with his mother hiding him as a baby, in order to protect him from the Pharaoh’s systematic infanticide of the Hebrew newborn males.  When Moses’ mother fears she can no longer keep him, she places him in a chest in the Nile river.  The Qur’an indicates that she did this according to divine inspiration (28:7).  A female member of the royal family—Pharaoh’s daughter in the Bible, his wife in the Qur’an—takes pity on the baby Moses.  The Qur’an reports that she felt special affection for him:

And the wife of Pharaoh said, “A comfort for the eye for me and for you!  Do not kill him.  Perhaps he may benefit us, or we can adopt him as a son/child (walad)” (28:9)

There are two things about this āya that are interesting from a historical perspective.  First, it is widely agreed that the name Moses is of Egyptian origin, meaning “son” or “child.”  This word frequently appeared in theophoric Egyptian names during the New Kingdom period (c. 1540-1170 BCE), such as Thutmose (“son of Thoth”), Ptahmose (“son of Ptah”), and Ramesses (“son of Ra”), but also occurred as a name by itself.  The word walad used in this āya is a precise translation of the Egyptian word “Moses.”[1]  This contrasts with the folk etymology of the name Moses in the Hebrew Bible, which says Pharaoh’s daughter named him Moses “ ‘because’, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water’” (Exod. 2:10).  The Hebrew word Moses (Mōsheh) is not in the passive (“drawn out”) but the active (“draws out”).

Secondly, the wife of Pharaoh in fact suggested two possibilities to him: “perhaps he may benefit us, or we can adopt him as a child.”  By suggesting “perhaps he may benefit us,” she  also seems to have had in mind making Moses an attendant of the royal court.  Only in this way could he both serve them and be a coolness of the eye for them.  The upbringing of a foreign boy in the service of the Egyptian court might seem improbable, but it is actually a well-attested phenomenon during the New Kingdom period.  Kitchen writes,

Exod. 2:10 notes the full adoption of the boy [Moses] by his princess patron; that implies his becoming a member of the ruling body of courtiers, officials, and attendants that served the pharaoh as his government leaders under the viziers, treasury chiefs, etc.  Such a youth would need to be fully fluent in Egyptian (not just his own West Semitic tongue); so he would be subjected to the Egyptian educational system, learning the hieratic and hieroglyphic scripts.  This is typical enough during the New Kingdom, especially in the Nineteenth (Ramesside) Dynasty of the thirteenth century.  One may cite a papyrus from the Fayum Harim (under Sethos II, grandson of Ramesses II), in which a leading lady writes to the king: “Useful is my Lord’s action in sending me people to be taught and trained to perform this important task…For those here are grown-up children, people like those my Lord sent, able to act, able to receive by training.  They are foreigners like those brought to us under Ramesses II your good [fore]father, and they would say, ‘We were quite a number in the households of the notables,’ and could be trained to do all they were told to do.”
     In the Fayum, these youths may have been set to weaving rather than school; but the attitude expressed applies across the board—and its outcome is the considerable number of foreigners (especially Semites and Hurrians) who served at court and beyond.  These included the personal cupbearers of Pharaoh (who became his right-hand men, in conducting royal enterprises like temple building, stone quarrying, gem mining, etc.), directors, and scribes of the royal seal bearer, court herald, high steward of the chief royal memorial temples, generals, and so on.  A Moses would be simply one among many.[2]

Therefore, the adoption and upbringing of even a Hebrew boy as a member of the royal Egyptian court fits in remarkably well with the evidence from New Kingdom Egyptian records.

[1] Kitchen objects that the Hebrew Mōshe does not derive from ancient Egyptian because the sibilant s in Egyptian toponyms (as Msi) does not change into to sh when they enter Hebrew (as Mōshe).  However other scholars have noted that personal names exhibit greater fluidity once they enter the new language, and Griffiths records examples in which the Egyptian sibilant s changed into Hebrew sh.  In any case, even Kitchen does grants that the naming of Moses involved some wordplay with the Egyptian Msi.  See Hoffmeier, 140-142.
[2] Kitchen, 297. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Qur'an and Philosophy (Part I)

Insha'allah, I will be delaying the next installment of my series on the Exodus in the Qur'an, the Bible, and History for another week or two.  Today I am in the mood for a rant.

One sometimes hears sweeping claims like "philosophy is ḥarām," that philosophy is somehow incompatible with revelation, or the stereotype that philosophers wallow in discussions of abstract problems that are of no relevance to the real world.  So what is the fact of the matter?  Is philosophy incompatible with revelation, or with Islam?

The Qur'an does not require people to accept it's worldview without any kind of epistemic or rational justification.  To do so would be to make an unreasonable demand on people.  Quite the opposite in fact, the Qur'an constantly tries to persuade its audience using philosophical arguments.  At the very heart of the worldview that the Qur'an argues for are philosophical issues:

  • What does the concept of God entail?
  • What are the reasons for believing that God exists?
  • Does the universe exhibit evidence of design?
  • Does the universe exhibit evidence of purpose?  If so, what is that purpose?
  • What is the human being?  Is he simply a material entity, or something more?
  • Is it possible for the human being to somehow continue to exist after death?  In what sense?
  • Why does evil exist?  Can it be reconciled with God's existence?
  • Is nature governed by precise laws, and if so, what is the source of these laws?
  • Is there an afterlife?  What are the reasons for believing so?
  • What is the nature of knowledge, evidence, faith, and justified belief?
  • How do we arrive at knowledge of religious truths?

On many of these questions—particularly what the concept of God entails, what the warrant for believing in God is, how creation functions as a reservoir of "signs" of God, and the reasons for believing in a purpose, an afterlife, and and postmortem accountability—the Qur'an gives not only philosophically rich answers, but also philosophical arguments.  It is absolutely impossible to take the Qur'an seriously without doing philosophy.  It constantly urges its audience to "reflect" and "contemplate" its arguments and the signs of God in the creation.

The problem then, from the Qur'an's point of view, is not with philosophy as an endeavor.  The problem is when believers fail to explore the Qur'an's epistemology and philosophical arguments, fail to internalize them, fail to develop and defend them in contemporary intellectual discourse or in the context of advances of human knowledge about the universe, and fail to respond to bad philosophical reasoning with good philosophical reasoning.  As C.S. Lewis once said, "Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy must be answered."

It must be noted that the Qur'an does not present its arguments in the form of rigorous syllogisms.  The Qur'an is extremely philosophically rich and its worldview extremely persuasive and coherent, but it usually presents its answers in implicit ways, expecting its audience to discover them through careful study and contemplation.  When the Qur'an does present an argument explicitly, it tends to be very brief.  This is because the Qur'an was primarily an oral composition that interacted with living audiences in a specific historical context, and at the same time it had to address audiences of various different backgrounds and levels of understanding on a universal level while being concise enough to handle. 

For example, the Qur'an exhorts us to study and contemplate the creation of the universe and of life, asking us to consider whether or not it could have been the product of other than an intelligent agent.  It does not give us developed arguments regarding cosmology, the fine-tuning of the universe, the origin of life and biological information, consciousness, and so on.  Rather it pushes us to study these matters and carefully reflect on them, promising that they contain signs of God.  Similarly, it indicates that knowledge of God comes not only through observation and logical arguments, but an intuition that is already programmed in the human being.  It guides us to these evidences, but it leaves them up to us to study and reflect on.  Its arguments are highly condensed or (perhaps more accurately) allusive, and they require us to unfold and develop them as we observe and contemplate.

Today there is a field that is entirely devoted to this quest: analytic philosophy of religion.  In the past, Islamic tradition has had some great analytic thinkers who rigorously developed various aspects of the Qur'an's philosophy, such as Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Taymiyya, and in more modern times Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, all of them with a concern for contemporary philosophical problems that had far-reaching implications for the people of their times (and certainly later times as well).

Today, however, it is almost exclusively Christian philosophers who are doing top-notch work in analytic philosophy of religion.  For example, in the last several decades Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, Paul Moser, and C. Stephen Evans have produced extremely sophisticated works on how God is known intuitively through His "natural signs" and by other experiential means—an extremely Qur'anic concept.  Christian philosophers have also done the same on the arguments for the existence of God based on the evidence of creation and human intuitions, and on questions such as the problem of evil and the nature of miracles.  In developing these arguments they have taken into account the best criticisms by other analytic philosophers as well as (when relevant) scientists.  Analytic philosophy of religion is a booming field, to which Muslims have in modern times contributed very little.  The Qur'an's constant urge to reflect on God's signs has been almost completely neglected by Muslims and has been taken up almost entirely by Christian philosophers and scientists.

The result is that within the Muslim community, there are almost no up-to-date sources for addressing intellectual doubts about fundamentals of the Islamic worldview, and most Muslims are completely unaware of the advances that have been going on in the field of philosophy of religion over the last four decades.  As a consequence, many people are afflicted with serious doubts about the existence of God (etc.) and have no idea how to deal with them.  Some of them become atheists or agnostics, completely unaware that cogent answers to to their questions are available.

As a solution to this problem, I plan to write a book with my friend Hassan explaining the Qur'an's epistemology and arguments for the existence of God (benefiting from the insights of earlier Muslim thinkers like Ghazali and especially Ibn Rushd and Ibn Taymiyya), and how insights in science and contemporary analytic philosophy have reinvigorated these arguments with incredible power.  At the same time, we will aim to answer the best and the most common (which usually tend to be among the worst) objections to the arguments, to show that they still come out very strong.  The book will be a primer for doubting Muslims, Muslims interested in better understanding these questions, atheists and agnostics, and even Christians and people of other faiths who are interested.  Insha'allah.

There are a few more points I wanted to make here, but my post is already long enough.  I will reserve them for another post insha'allah, maybe for next week.  In particular: What exactly is philosophy?  Is it important for everyday life?  Does this mean that just anyone should become involved in philosophy?  Who is a philosophical appreciation of the Qur'an for?  And what are some important guidelines?

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Exodus in the Qur'an, the Bible, and History (Part 4): Moses and Muhammad

In Judaism, the Exodus story forms the basis of the Israelites’ obligation to adhere to the Torah:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. (Exod. 20:2-3)

In the Qur’an, the Exodus story functions as a model for the emerging Muslim community.  Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is cast in the role of Moses.  The persecution of the Israelites in Egypt is related to the persecution of the early Muslim community in Mecca.  The Exodus is the model of the Hijra.  The establishment of a new community under the Law given to Moses is the model for the establishment of a new community under the Shari’a given to Muhammad.

Muslims have traditionally seen Deuteronomy 18:15-19 as a prophecy of Muhammad:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me[1] from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet…Then the Lord replied to me: ‘They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from the midst of your brethren;[2] I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable.

While the notion that this text specifically refers to Muhammad is debatable, it should at least be granted that if likeness to Moses is a biblical sign of authentic prophecy, then no one fits this profile like the Prophet Muhammad.[3]

Like Moses, Muhammad was the original and preeminent religious and political leader of his community.  Like Moses, he was a prophet, the founder of a monotheistic religion in the Abrahamic tradition, a lawgiver, a statesman, an arbiter, a diplomat, and a military leader.  Like Moses, a defining event in his prophetic ministry was a forced immigration experienced by he and his community.  Like Moses, he received an authoritative scripture purporting to be from God, which he spoke “in God’s name” (cf. Deut. 18:18), and which was dictated and written down during his prophetic career.  And like Moses, he also had a natural birth and death, and married and had children.  In most of these respects, Moses and Muhammad differ, for example, from Jesus or other Israelite prophets.

In fact, the similar careers of Moses and Muhammad lack any other analogue in history or legend.  I once read an interview with biblical scholar Carol Meyers entitled “Moses and the Exodus.”  When asked about the historicity of the character of Moses in the Bible, she replied,

The Moses of the Bible is larger than life.  The Moses of the Bible is a diplomat negotiating with the pharaoh; he is a lawgiver bringing the Ten Commandments, the Covenant, down from Sinai.  The Moses of the Bible is a military man leading the Israelites in battles.  He’s the one who organizes Israel’s judiciary.  He’s also the prophet par excellence and a quasi-priestly figure involved in offering sacrifices and setting up the priestly complex, the tabernacle.  There’s virtually nothing in terms of national leadership that Moses doesn’t do.  And, of course, he’s also a person, a family man.  Now, no one individual could possibly have done all that.  So the tales are a kind of aggrandizement... (emphasis added)

Her argument is that no man could have such an impressive résumé, fulfilling such a staggering variety of roles.  But one exception came to my mind when I read this—Muhammad.

This unique similarity between the two figures was recognized by the eminent Jewish biblical scholar, Moshe Greenberg:

No single figure in later Israel plays the many roles ascribed to Moses...The best analogue to Moses in the history of religions, Muhammad, exhibits the very same multiplicity of roles: oracle, political-military leader, cult founder and lawgiver.[4] 

In a sense, then, Muhammad is a confirmation of Moses just as the Qur’an portrays Moses as a confirmation of Muhammad.

[1] The Book of Deuteronomy concludes,
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. (Deut. 34:10-12)
[2] The New Revised Standard Version says “from among your own people,” but Hebrew literally says “from the midst of your brethren (aḥeḵā).”
[3] The Qur’an implicitly compares Muhammad to Moses in order to legitimize his prophetic authority to audiences familiar with the biblical narrative.  See Bobzin, Hartmut. “The ‘Seal of the Prophets’: Towards an Understanding of Muhammad’s Prophethood.” The Qur’ān in Context: Historical and Literary Investigations into the Qur’ānic Milieu. Ed. Angelika Neuwirth, Nicolai Sinai, and Michael Marx. Leiden: Brill, 2011. 579-81.
[4] Greenberg, Moshe. “Moses.” Encyclopaedia Judaica. New York: Macmillan & Co., 1971. Qtd. in Crook, Jay R., The Old Testament: An Islamic Perspective, Volume 2: From Moses to Alexander.  Chicago: ABC International Group, 2005. 507.