Denying the Undeniable: Pharaoh and the Signs of God

Ahmed Afzaal, Drew University

While the paper by Shaul Magid revolves around the Biblical description of Pharaoh’s “hardening of heart,” in its theological import it goes well beyond that particular narrative to embrace complex issues relating to human free will and specific forms of God’s retribution. The following response, therefore, starts from a Qur’anic understanding of the human-Divine dialectic as it manifests itself in a person’s guidance or misguidance, upon which depends his or her ultimate fate; it is only in terms made explicit by this general background that the specific issue of Pharaoh’s “hardening of heart” could be meaningfully discussed.

Guidance and Misguidance: The Human-Divine Dialectic

Of the many commonalities among the three Abrahamic faiths, one of the most important is the belief that the human individual has been created in the “image of God.” This implies that of all the creations of God, the human individual is closest to the Divine. According to the Qur’an, the human being is God’s vicegerent on earth and the highest possible status that he/she can achieve as a vicegerent is to be a collaborator, an associate, and a co-worker with God. In the Second Sura of the Qur’an, the narrative of the origins of human life on earth begins as follows:

And when your Lord said to the angels, I am going to place in the earth a vicegerent…. (Sura Al-Baqarah 2:30)

The following assumptions are inherent in the notion of a deputy or vicegerent: 1) the Sovereign delegates some of His own authority to the vicegerent; 2) the vicegerent carries out the will of the Sovereign whenever a specific commandment comes from Him; 3) the vicegerent is free to use his or her own judgment in all other cases; 4) however, even in cases where the vicegerent is free, he or she is not expected do anything that indicates a disloyalty to the Sovereign. The Qur’an seems to assert that while all human beings are potentially God’s vicegerents, only those who “believe and do righteous deeds” will be able to fulfill the demands of this grand responsibility. On the other hand, those who fail to recognize their true status as God’s servants soon fall pray to different forms of deviance and transgression.

When a person endeavors to fulfill God’s purpose on earth, he/she becomes worthy of God’s help; and the two of them — the Lord and the servant — then become co-workers for a common cause, as alluded in the following ayaat :

O you who believe! If you help God, He will help you…. (Sura Muhammad 47:7)
(Jesus) said: Who will be my helpers in God’s way? The disciples said: We are helpers of God…. (Sura Aal Imran 3:52)

When God and the human being help each other to achieve a common goal, they become friends of each other, as stated in the following ayaat :

God is the friend of those who believe… (Sura Al-Baqarah 2:257)
Now surely the friends of God, they shall have no fear nor shall they grieve. (Sura Yunus 10:62)

Being a vicegerent, co-worker, and friend of God requires that the human being “share” some of God’s attributes, without in any way “sharing” the divinity of God. Since God possesses the attribute of what we understand as “free will” in its uniquely absolute and unlimited manifestation, the human being must also possess at least some degree of free will in order to be truly able to act as God’s vicegerent, co-worker, and friend. Human free will, however, will remain relative, contingent, and dependent in relation to Divine free will, the latter being absolute, eternal, and independent.

In interpreting the Scripture, particular passages must be understood in terms of other passages that address the same issue; otherwise we may end up with a truncated and incomplete view of Scriptural truth. In some passages, for instance, the Qur’an appears to favor the idea of human free will, and at other places it seems to negate or minimize it in favor of Divine omnipotence. Failure to appreciate this style of emphasizing different aspects of reality in different contexts led early Muslim theologians to fall in the ultimately inconsequential debate of human free will vs. Divine predestination. The choice is largely artificial and represents a theological artifact; it would perhaps be closer to the spirit of the Qur’an to say that it favors a middle course by synthetically embracing and transcending these diametrically extreme formulations of the problem.
A plain sense reading of the Qur’an shows that the human being is free to choose the path of guidance; at the same time, he/she is equally free to choose the path of misguidance. The human choice, however, must be coupled with Divine “facilitation” for it to produce any concrete outcome. Thus, while the Qur’an explicitly asserts that human beings can freely choose between good and evil, it also qualifies this assertion by saying that human choices produce results only if God so desires:

We have showed him the way; (it is up to him) whether he be grateful or ungrateful. (Sura Al-Dahr 76:3)

And, in the same Sura:

But you cannot will anything unless God wills (too)… (Sura Al-Dahr 76:30)

The idea of God “facilitating” whatever the human individual has chosen for himself or herself, whether it is the path of good or the path of evil, is eloquently expressed in the following ayaat :

Verily, (the ends) you strive for are diverse. So the one who gives (in charity) and fears (God), and testifies to the truth, We will indeed make smooth for him the path of ease; but the one who is a greedy miser, and thinks himself self-sufficient, and rejects the truth, We will indeed make smooth for him the path to misery. (Sura Al-Lail 92: 4-10)

In the final analysis, therefore, success or failure in the ultimate sense is a matter of the human individual decisively taking a certain path and God helping him or her go that way. If the individual chooses the path of good and strives sincerely, God makes easy for him or her the path of goodness, bestowing His grace and mercy. If, on the other hand, the individual chooses the path of evil and continues on this path despite obvious signs that warn him or her of the flawed nature of that choice, then God does not intervene to force another choice on that individual; instead, God makes easy for that person the path that leads to destruction. While God’s “facilitation” is important in both cases, the basic choice of the individual remains crucial and decisive, as evidenced by the following ayaat :

…God does not change the condition of a people until they first change what is in their own souls…. (Sura Al-Ra’d 13:11)


And if your Lord had so willed, surely all those who are in the earth would have believed, all of them together; so will you then compel people against their will to become believers? And it is not for a soul to believe except by God’s permission, but He casts an abomination on those who refuse to understand. (Sura Yunus 10:99-100)


…Then when they went wrong, God let their hearts to go wrong; for God does not guide those who are transgressors. (Sura Al-Saff 61:5)

Willfully disregarding God’s guidance and choosing a path that does not conform to one’s status as vicegerent and servant puts oneself on the road that leads to destruction. The road to destruction, however, is not a closed highway — there are numerous “exits” along the way. One could, if one so wills, take one of these “exits” and go back on to the path of guidance, the one that leads to ultimate success and salvation. Taking an “exit,” of course, is a metaphor for repentance. However, if one continues to persist in one’s misguidance and deliberately ignores all the signs of God, there does come a point after which one cannot possibly take an “exit,” or, more precisely, after which one loses the ability to even want to go back on the correct path. This is the stage where the hearts are hardened and they become impermeable to guidance; or, in the more common Qur’anic parlance, “hearts are sealed” so that nothing good can come out of them and nothing good can go inside. This is often the fate of those who do not accept the truth the very first time it becomes clearly manifest to them; once they intentionally and knowingly reject the truth, from that stage onwards it becomes increasingly difficult for them to accept it, until a “point of no-return” is reached where their hearts are “hardened” or “sealed.”

Such were the towns whose stories We are relating to you; there came to them their Messengers with clear signs, but they would not believe what they had rejected the first time. Thus does God seal up the hearts of those who reject the truth. (Sura Al-A’raf 7:101)

If a person’s heart is “sealed” or “hardened” so that he or she can no longer repent, who should be held responsible for this misfortune? Obviously, it is God who does the “sealing” or “hardening,” but God’s action has to be understood as a response to the continuous and deliberate rebellion and transgression of the person in question. Since God’s action in this case is a manifestation or application of a Divine Law (or Sunnat-Allah), the statement “God sealed his heart” is as correct as the statement “he caused his own heart to be sealed.” If my driver’s license gets suspended for repeated drunk driving, the statement “DMV suspended my license” will be as correct as the statement “I caused my license to be suspended.” In both instances, however, the final onus of responsibility will be on the person who repeatedly and deliberately violated the law rather than on God or the DMV who simply made and executed the law.


Six Grounds for Accountability and the “Lethal Seventh”

The Qur’an makes it abundantly clear that neither the nature of ultimate reality nor the way to human salvation is something incomprehensible, obscure, or puzzling. Not recognizing God and not behaving as a servant and a vicegerent is a disastrous situation, the responsibility for which falls on the individual in question rather than on the obscure nature of truth. According to the Qur’an, the human individual is responsible and accountable before God on the basis of his or her own natural faculties as well as the truths that are inherent within the human soul. In addition, there are signs of God manifest everywhere in the natural world, in the rise and fall of nations during the course of history, and additionally in the Scriptures that have been revealed by God. In this way, there are six grounds for human responsibility and accountability before God, three “inner” and three “outer,” as summarized below.

The Qur’an uses three different terms to describe the three dimensions of what we understand as human “self.” The most basic dimension, which the human being shares with other animals, is that of ” nafs .” Even though the human ” nafs ” is of earthly origins and has a tendency to become focused on its own immediate gratification that leads to all sorts of sins, it is in many ways qualitatively different from those of lower animals. This is because the human ” nafs ” has been endowed with the ability to reason on the basis of observations, to name and categorize things and ideas, and to manipulate abstract thoughts; in addition, the ” nafs ” has the ability to differentiate between good and evil. Human beings are accountable in the first place because of the reasoning ability and the moral sense inherent in the ” nafs ,” as demonstrated by the following ayaat :

…surely the hearing and sight and the mind, of all of these one will be questioned. (Sura Al-Isra 17:36)
By the nafs and the proportion and order given to it; and its inspiration as to its wrong and its right; truly he succeeds that purifies it, and he fails who corrupts it. (Sura Al-Shams 7-10)

The second dimension of human self has been called the ” wruh ,” a Divine element in the human being. The Qur’an identifies the ” ruh ” by what God has “breathed into” the first human being, Adam, out of His “own spirit” (Sura Al-Hijr 15:29 & Sura Saad 38:72). The human being owes his or her peculiar humanness, his or her ability to act as vicegerent of God, and his or her being created “in the image of God” to this very ” ruh .” Without it, the human being is merely an intelligent primate, a sophisticated ape. With it, the human being can become a co-worker and a friend of God.

The human ” ruh ” has a natural and powerful inclination toward its ultimate source, the essence of Almighty God. The ” ruh ” harbors absolutely no doubt or reservation about the Creator and Lord, for the clear recognition and wholehearted acceptance of the Creator-Lord is inherent within it. According to the Qur’an, this is because the ” ruh ” of each and every human being was placed before Almighty God before the creation of the physical universe and was made to testify in the intimate presence of the Ultimately Real, as described in this intriguing ayah :

When your Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves, (saying) “Am I not your Lord?” They said: “Yea! We do testify” (Sura Al-A’raf 7:172)

The presence of a powerful urge in human beings to love, adore, worship, and serve the highest ideal of beauty and perfection that they can find — to have an “ultimate concern” of one sort or another — is an undeniable and irrepressible sign in and of itself. The only true object of this urge is God; most people, however, erroneously content themselves with one of the lesser and imperfect substitutes, before their disillusionment causes them to look for something better. This nameless and incessant human search for a beloved is nothing but an echo of their eternal covenant with God. Incidentally, each and every human being is bound in this covenant just by virtue of his or her existence. This covenant also implies that to deny God is to deny oneself, because to reject God is to reject the most intense longing of one’s own self. The inner love for God, then, constitutes the second ground for human responsibility and accountability.

The third dimension of human self is what the Qur’an calls the ” qalb .” It is a uniquely human faculty that can directly perceive spiritual truths in a single, luminous unveiling. Thus, Al-Ghazali believes that God is revealed and not hidden; the fact that we are often not able to perceive God is because of the “rust” on the mirror of our “hearts,” caused by our sins and heedlessness. All we need to do is to clean and polish the mirror and God will become revealed immediately in the depths of our own hearts. Indeed, the Qur’an treats the ” qalb ” as a contemplative inner faculty that “understands” truth in its own peculiarly subtle way. Heedlessness, however, causes the human beings to willfully disregard the evidence supplied by the ” qalb .”

Have they not traveled in the land so that they should have hearts with which to understand, or ears with which to hear? For surely it is not the eyes that are blind, but blind are the hearts that are in the breasts. (Sura Al-Hajj 22:46)

This faculty of intuitive perception, then, is the third ground for human responsibility and accountability.

In addition to these three “inner” faculties for the recognition of truth, there are three “outer” grounds too; these are the signs of God in the world of nature, in human history, and in the Revealed Word. The Qur’an makes it abundantly clear that the entire physical universe is full of indicators that point towards ultimate reality, if only the human beings would pay attention.

Most surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day, and the ships that run in the sea with that which profits people, and the water that God sends down from the cloud, then gives life with it to the earth after its death and spreads in it all (kinds of) animals, and the changing of the winds and the clouds made subservient between the heaven and the earth, (in all of these) there are signs for a people who understand. (Sura Al-Baqarah 2:164)
God is He Who raised the heavens without any pillars that you see, and He is firm in power and He made the sun and the moon subservient (to His command); each one pursues its course to an appointed time; He regulates the affair, making clear the signs that you may be certain of meeting your Lord. And He it is Who spread the earth and made in it firm mountains and rivers, and of all fruits He has made in it two kinds; He makes the night cover the day; most surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect. And in the earth there are tracts side by side and gardens of grapes and corn and palm trees having one root and (others) having distinct roots; they are watered with one water, and We make some of them excel others in fruit; most surely there are signs in this for a people who understand. (Sura Al-Ra’d 13:2-4)

The signs of God are manifest not only in the world of nature but also in the course of human history and the rise and decline of nations.

Does it not teach them a lesson, how many generations We destroyed before them, in whose dwellings they (now) go to and fro? Verily in that are signs; do they not then listen? (Sura Al-Sajdah 32:26)

To top it all, God also revealed His Word in the form of Sacred Scriptures that contain His signs in the form of human speech:

He has revealed to you the Book with truth, verifying that which is before it, and He revealed the Torah (to Moses) and the Gospel (to Jesus) aforetime, a guidance for the people, and He sent the down the Criterion (of judgment between right and wrong). Surely they who disbelieve in the signs of God shall have a severe chastisement; and God is Mighty, the Lord of retribution. (Sura Aal Imran 3:3-4)

To recapitulate, the human being is responsible and accountable before God on the basis of three “inner” grounds (the faculties of observation, reasoning, and moral sense inherent in the ” nafs ,” the powerful inclination towards and love for God that is inbuilt in the ” ruh ,” and the faculty of intuitive perceptiveness that is found in the ” qalb “) as well as three “outer” grounds (the signs of God that are manifest in the world of nature, the signs of God that are found in human history, and the signs of God that could be read in Revealed Scriptures).

While these six sources of knowledge are available to all human beings, there have been some nations in human history that came cross a seventh ground for accountability — a Messenger of God with clear and miraculous signs. But this seventh ground was a lethal one, in the sense that rejecting the truth that was being presented directly by a Messenger of God had very immediate consequences as compared to rejecting the truth of the six other sources. The Qur’an relates the stories of several nations of old, each of which was guilty of rejecting their Divinely appointed Messengers and each of which was destroyed and eliminated from the face of the earth as a punishment for its sins and transgressions. It is important to note that, according to the Qur’an, such an open manifestation of God’s wrath used to appear in the past only after one of God’s Messengers had explicitly and unambiguously communicated the Divine message to a particular people, and they still remained persistent in refusing to surrender before the will of their Lord.

We never punish till We have sent a Messenger. (Al-Isra 17:15)
But your Lord does not destroy habitations without having sent a Messenger to their metropolis to read out Our commandments to them. (Al-Qasas 28:59)

Clearly, then, Pharaoh’s problem was that he had come face to face with the seventh “lethal” ground of accountability in the form of Prophet Moses and his miracles. How many undeniable signs can a person possibly deny and still not face any consequences?

Pharaoh’s Arrogance and the Blessings of Plagues

In the Qur’anic narrative, Pharaoh appears as the epitome of rebellion against God’s authority and dominion; he not only rebels against God but claims to be the absolute lord and sovereign of Egypt, in both the religious and political sense.

And Pharaoh said: O chiefs! I do not know of any god for you besides myself…. (Sura Al-Qassas 28:38)
He said: I am your Lord, Most High. (Sura Al-Naziyat 79:24)
He said: If you will take a god besides me, I will most certainly make you one of the imprisoned. (Sura Al-Shu’ara 26:29)

Since there were numerous gods and goddesses in the Egyptian religious system, as evidenced by the Qur’an itself, the ayaat quoted above can only mean that Pharaoh saw himself as the unchallenged and absolute “god” primarily in the political sense of word “sovereign.”

As pointed out in the beginning, the human being is meant to act as God’s vicegerent on earth and as such possesses some measure of delegated authority and power; this delegated authority and power, unfortunately, causes some human beings to be carried away by a delusion of grandeur in which they pass all legitimate limits. They refuse to accept God’s sovereignty and their own status as vicegerents. Mawdudi describes three stages of human transgression in Qur’anic terms:

The first stage is that one acknowledges in principle that obedience to God is right, but disregards it in practice. This is fisq (wrongdoing). The second state is that one not only disobeys but also rejects obedience in principle, and thus either refuses to become the subject of anyone at all or adopts someone other than God as the object of service and devotion. This is kufr (disbelief). The third stage is that one not only rebels against one’s Lord but also imposes one’s won will [in disregard of the will of God] on God’s world and God’s creatures. Anyone who reaches such a point is termed taghut (rebel)….

Keeping in mind the Qur’anic terminology of fisq , kufr , and tagha (or wrongdoing, disbelief, and rebellion), it is clear that Pharaoh was at the third, and worst, stage of transgression. He not only did not obey God, but he also refused to accept in principle that God should be obeyed; even more seriously, he established himself as a ruler in a system of governance where he himself enjoyed the unconditional and absolute right of political sovereignty in complete disregard to the authority of the Creator-Lord. In Pharaoh’s claim to divinity, therefore, religious and political elements were deeply and inseparably interlinked. It is obvious from the Qur’anic narrative that the issue was not simply the liberation of Israelites, but that Pharaoh and his chiefs saw Prophet Moses as a threat to their political order, for the latter was proclaiming the name of the Creator-Lord who had dominion over everything and everybody, including Pharaoh himself. This is evidenced by the following ayaat :

(Pharaoh and his chiefs) said: Have you come to us to turn us away from what we found our fathers upon, and (that) greatness in the land should be for you two? And we are not going to believe in you. (Sura Yunus 10:78)

Said he: Have you come to us that you should turn us out of our land by your magic, O Moses? (Sura Ta-Ha 20:57)

And Pharaoh said (to his chiefs): Allow me that I may slay Moses and let him call upon his Lord; surely I fear that he will change your religion or that he will cause corruption to appear in the land. (Sura Al-Momin 40:26)

Looking at the narrative of Pharaoh and Prophet Moses from a Qur’anic perspective, it is clear that God kept the possibility very much open in the beginning that the Egyptian monarch might accept the Divine truth and liberate the Israelites (Sura Ta-Ha 20:44 & Sura Al-Naziyaat 79: 15-19). It is only after repeated rejections of clear and unambiguous signs of God that Pharaoh became worthy of Divine punishment.

After them We sent Moses with Our signs to Pharaoh and his chiefs; but they wrongfully rejected them. So see what was the end of those who made mischief. (Sura Al-A’raf 7:103)
Has not there come to you the story of Moses? When his Lord called upon him in the sacred valley of Tuwa? Go to Pharaoh, surely he has become inordinate. Then say: Have you (a desire) to purify yourself. And I will guide you to your Lord so that you should fear. So he showed him the mighty sign. But he rejected (the truth) and disobeyed. Then he went back hastily. Then he gathered (people) and called out. Then he said: I am your lord, the most high. So God seized him with the punishment of the hereafter and this life. Most surely there is in this a lesson for the one who fears. (Sura Al-Naziyat 79:15-24)

The plagues that God sent to Pharaoh and his people were not “punishments” in the usual sense of the words; more precisely, they were “wake-up calls.” God sent the plagues to warn Pharaoh and his people, to wake them up from their heedlessness, and to “soften their hearts.” According to the Qur’an, whenever God sent a Messenger to a particular people, He would simultaneously afflict the people with disasters of one sort or another, the purpose of which was to put them in a more receptive frame of mind vis-a-vis the Divine message.

And We did not send a prophet in a town but We overtook its people with distress and affliction in order that they might humble themselves. (Sura Al-A’raf 7:94)

These smaller afflictions, then, were meant to bring the afflicted people back to God in repentance. To the extent that an event brings someone closer to God, that event must be seen as good and desirable rather than a punishment.

And indeed We will make them taste of the lighter chastisement before the greater chastisement, in order that they may return. (Sura Al-Sajdah 32:21)

From this perspective, therefore, the plagues that visited Pharaoh and his people could be understood as blessings in disguise. These “lighter chastisements” from God did soften the hearts to some extent. At the arrival of each plague, Pharaoh and his people would promise Prophet Moses that they would accept the Divine truth and liberate the Israelites if he would only pray to his Lord and remove the plague. Each time, however, they went back on their word, not because God had prevented them from repenting but because of their own arrogance and heedlessness. Finally, the number of chances that God was willing to allow them ran out, and the Divine Law of Retribution came into effect — a justifiable punishment for denying the undeniable.

So We sent on them floods, locusts, lice, frogs, and blood: signs openly self-evident; but they were steeped in arrogance, a people given to sin. And when the plagues fell on them, they said: “O Moses! On our behalf call on your Lord in virtue of His promise to you; if you will remove the plague from us, we shall truly believe in you, and we shall send away the children of Israel with you.” But when We removed the plague from them according to a fixed term which they had to fulfill, behold! they broke their word (every time). So We exacted retribution from them; We drowned them in the sea, because they rejected our signs, and failed to take warning from them. (Sura Al-A’raf 7:133-136)

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