“I am Your Lord Most High”: Pharaoh and the Sin of Hubris in the Qur’an

Vincent J. Cornell, University of Arkansas

The basic theological principle of Islam is tawhid , the oneness or unicity of God. In the Qur’an, this concept is summarized in Sura (discourse) 112, the “Sura of Sincere Belief” (Surat al-Ikhlas), and its text is commonly recited in the Islamic prayer:

Say: He is Allah, the Unique,
Allah the Perfect, beyond compare.
He gives not birth, nor is He begotten,
And He is not, in Himself, dependent on anything.

The idea that God is one, unique and transcendent, constitutes the fundamental message of the Qur’an. Indeed, one can go so far as to say that tawhid is what the Qur’an is “really” about. Nearly every Qur’anic discourse, in one way or another, serves to demonstrate the existence of Allah– the One God, absolutely independent, absolutely transcendent, and immanent yet utterly beyond compare.

Tawhid is also what Islam is “really” about. The Arabic word, Islam , connotes surrender, submission, or giving oneself up to another’s disposal. A full understanding of tawhid implies that universal or primordial Islam submission to God as the sole master of destiny and ultimate Reality- is an ontological state that pertains to all created beings. Unlike animals, angels, and jinn, the other sentient beings mentioned in the Qur’an, humans are endowed with the capacity of choice. Because humans are endowed with choice, it is incumbent upon them that their acknowledgement of tawhid be a matter of choice. The most important sign or token of this acknowledgement is the conscious submission of a person’s individual will or ego to The One who manifestly is. This act of submission is what the Qur’an means by Islam. Only when both the faith and practice of one’s Islam are in accord with a full understanding of tawhid can a person truly be called a Muslim, “one who submits to God.”

Similarly, a formal act of submission and a reaffirmation of tawhid through symbolic gestures constitute the “meaning” of the Islamic prayer. At its most basic level, prayer is a form of remembrance. From the perspective of the individual Muslim believer, prayer constitutes one’s remembrance of the essential reality of tawhid , one’s remembrance of human contingency before the Divine Absolute, and one’s remembrance of human weakness before the manifestation of Divine power and potency. In Understanding Islam (Comprendre l’Islam) , Frithjof Schuon, the noted esoterist and specialist on comparative religion, sums up the Islamic God-man relation in the following terms:

Islam is the meeting between God as such and man as such. God as such: that is to say God envisaged, not as He manifested Himself in a particular way at a particular time, but independently of history and inasmuch as He is what He is and also as He creates and reveals by His nature. Man as such: that is to say man envisaged, not as a fallen being needing a miracle to save him, but as man, a theomorphic being endowed with an intelligence capable of conceiving of the Absolute and with a will capable of choosing what leads to the Absolute . [2]

In Islam, fundamental error consists in rejecting or misunderstanding the concept of tawhid — in holding that the Absolute is not absolute, or that it is relative, or that there is more than one Absolute, or that the relative itself is absolute. Sin consists in actualizing this error on the level of human behavior. In the Qur’an, Pharaoh personifies fundamental error and sin through his denial of the uniqueness of the Absolute and by his hubris in considering himself more than a mortal man.

It often comes as a surprise to the non-Muslim to discover that the most widely mentioned prophet in the Qur’an is Moses. In a number of Qur’anic narratives, Moses is depicted as a Messenger ( rasul ) and bearer of divine authority ( sultan ). In these passages, Moses wields the signs and credentials of authority that God has bestowed on him as part of a campaign for spiritual, moral, and social purification ( tazkiya ), justice ( ‘adl ), and prosperity ( thawba Allah ). [3] More than the just the political liberator of his people, the Qur’anic Moses is a Messenger of the divine word and liberator of the human soul. In the course of the Qur’anic narrative he transforms the tribe of Israel ( Banu Isra’il ), the oppressed and lowly slaves of the lordly Pharaoh, into a paradigmatic community of divine guidance ( umma )– a community whose servitude now belongs only to God.

In the Qur’anic narrative, Pharaoh appears as Moses’ foil: his grandeur, limitless worldly authority, and pretended divinity contrast sharply with Moses’ simplicity, lack of rhetorical fluency (Moses is depicted as a stutterer in the Qur’an), and complete dependence on guidance from above. Yet despite his personal shortcomings, the Qur’an mentions time and again that Moses, not Pharaoh, is the one who possesses true authority ( sultan ). [4] In Arabic, the word sultan means “holder of power.” Depending on its context, this word can mean a divinely guided leader, a ruler, or even a dictator, whose authority is based on the force of arms alone. Unlike the truly authoritative leadership of Moses, which is described in the Qur’an as a divine mission ( risala ) to carry God’s word ( kalam ) to Israel and the people of Egypt, the leadership of Pharaoh is depicted as completely illegitimate, based as it is on power, oppression, and vanity. The most conclusive proof of Pharaoh’s illegitimacy lies in his outrageous claim of divinity– an act of hubris unparalleled by any other in the Qur’anic narrative:

Pharaoh said: “O Chiefs! I know of no God for you but myself. Therefore, O Haman! Light me [a kiln] out of clay, and build me a lofty palace that I may mount up to the god of Moses. For verily I believe that Moses is a liar!” [Qur’an 28:38]

And [Pharaoh] was arrogant and insolent in the land– beyond reason, he and his hosts. They thought that they would not have to return to Us! [Qur’an 28:39]

Has the story of Moses come to you? Behold, his Lord called to him in the sacred valley of Tuwa: “Go to Pharaoh, for he has transgressed all bounds, “And say to him: Do you wish to be purified? And should I guide you to your Lord so that you may fear him?'” Then Moses showed [Pharaoh] the Great Sign (al-aya al-kubra). But he rejected it and disobeyed. Then he turned his back, striving hard [against God]. And he collected [his hosts] and made a proclamation, Saying: “I am your lord most high!” (ana rabbukum al-a’la) [Qur’an 79:15-24]

The belief in the divinity of Pharaoh in New Kingdom Egypt (when the term, “Pharaoh” was first used as a royal title) is well attested. The Egyptian people identified Pharaoh with the sky god Horus and with the sun gods Ra and Amon. After death Pharaoh was transformed into Osiris, god of the dead and father of Horus, and passed on his sacred powers to his son, the new Pharaoh and the new Horus. Pharaoh’s divine status was also believed to endow him with magical powers. His uraeus (the serpent on his crown) was believed to spit flames at his enemies. In addition, Pharaoh was all-powerful, knowing everything and controlling nature and fertility. As a divine ruler, he was believed to preserve the divine order, called ma’at . He was responsible for his people’s economic and spiritual welfare, and dispensed justice to his subjects. [5]

These historical tokens of Pharaoh’s divinity provide striking contrasts to the divinely bestowed “signs” ( ayat ) of authority ascribed to Moses in the Qur’an. Pharaoh was associated with the gods of the sun and the sky. Moses was sent as a Messenger by the One God (Allah or al-Ilah, “The God”), who reigns above both sun and sky. (Moses said: “Oh Pharaoh! I am a Messenger from the Lord of the Worlds. It is my duty to say nothing but the truth about God.” [Qur’an 7:104-5]) Pharaoh gave birth to a new god, Horus, by delegating his powers to his son. In the Qur’an, Moses delegates ( awzara ) the duties of prophethood (but not his custodianship of the divine message) to his brother Aaron. The magical powers believed to be controlled by Pharaoh are contrasted in the Qur’an with the divine miracles given as tokens of grace to Moses by Allah. Moses’ transformation of his shepherd’s staff into a serpent may well be an ironic echo of the Egyptian belief in the fire-spitting cobra of Pharaoh’s uraeus. (“Then Moses threw down his staff, and behold, it was a serpent! And he drew out his hand, and behold, it appeared white to the onlookers!” [Qur’an 7:107-8]. And we inspired unto Moses: “Throw down your staff! For it will swallow all of the falsehoods that they may devise!” [7:117]) Finally, the Egyptians believed that Pharaoh controlled the divine order. Moses, along with the other Islamic prophets, exhibited an intuitive knowledge of the divine order and governed the affairs of his people through the Law of Divine Command ( shari’ah min al-amr ) [Qur’an 45:18]. This latter term refers to more than just the divine governance of human affairs. It also carries the connotation of the “way of the world” or the natural order, analogous to the Egyptian concept of ma’at , and the Vedic concept of rta .

In the Qur’anic narrative, even the miracle of the parting of the sea is related, at least indirectly, to the concept of tawhid (Qur’an 2:50). In this passage, Allah proclaims: “Remember, We parted ( faraqna ) the sea and saved you, and drowned the men of Pharaoh before your very eyes.” The Arabic word faraqa , meaning “parted,” is the root of the word furqan , a term used in the Qur’an to refer to the prophets Muhammad, Moses, and Aaron, to the fasting month of Ramadan, and to the Torah, the Gospel, and the Qur’an. Theologically, the term furqan means “criterion”– that which separates truth from error. As we have seen, the fundamental criterion in Islam is tawhid , the acknowledgement of the One and Absolute, and the disavowal of the plural and contingent. The miracle of the parting of the sea and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army is the final furqan or criterion given by Allah to Moses which proves the truth of his message. With this miracle, Allah puts the final lie to Pharaoh’s claims of divinity by destroying the greatest army of the time. Even more ironically, it is a miracle in the service of the weak against the most powerful ruler of the day. How could anyone fail to heed such a lesson? The conceit of Pharaoh, which was to assert that the contingent (himself) is absolute (godlike and self-sufficient), was dashed to pieces by a force he was unable to control.

To summarize, Pharaoh in the Qur’an is the epitome of the arrogant, unjust, and egoistic man of power, who calls those below him to worship at the altar of his conceit. Acknowledging the truth of tawhid in his heart, he deliberately suppresses this truth in order to arrogate to himself the attributes that rightfully belong to Allah. For the thirteenth-century Andalusian Sufi Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, (d. 1240) Pharaoh epitomized the perversion of the vice-regal function of man by attempting to rule in his own name and without the guidance of Allah’s Law. By contrast, Moses epitomized submission to tawhid and the divine Law, without the intermediary power of self-reliance ( tadbir ). For Ibn ‘Arabi, the great paradox of the Moses narratives was that Pharaoh was aware of the reality of Moses’ Messengership, as well as of the truth of tawhid , but refused to acknowledge either of them openly. In a complex and counter-intuitive chapter on “The Wisdom of Highness in the Mosaic Word” in his book Fusus al-Hikam (lit. “The Ring-Settings of Wisdom Teachings”), Ibn ‘Arabi depicts Pharaoh as playing the role of Moses’ antagonist like an actor playing a role in a drama. [6] He knows that his words and actions are false, but he persists in his creation of falsehoods, thus fulfilling the divine will by parodying in his conceit the true authority that God reveals through Moses.

For ‘Arabi, the figures of Moses and Pharaoh are inseparable from each other, like conjoined twins, each representing a contrasting yet complementary aspect of the human condition. This is why Pharaoh can be understood as obeying the Law of Allah while flouting the tenets of divine justice. It is also why he can be understood as acknowledging tawhid at the very moment that he appears to reject it. For Ibn ‘Arabi, the key to “The Wisdom of Highness in the Mosaic Word” can be found in the verses where Pharaoh mockingly asks Moses, “And what is the ‘Lord of the Worlds?'” [Qur’an 26:23]. According to Ibn ‘Arabi, Pharaoh was fully aware of the answer to his question, and only asked it so that Moses could give the answer that his role required him to give:

[Moses] answered:
“The Lord of the Heavens and the Earth and what is in between– if you are among those who have attained certainty.”
[Pharaoh] said to those who surrounded him: “Do you not hear?”
Then [Moses] said: “Your Lord and the Lord of your fathers, from the beginning.”
[Pharaoh] said: “Verily this Messenger of yours who has been sent to you is possessed!”
[Moses] said: “Lord of the East and the West, and all that is in between, if only you had sense!”
[Pharaoh] replied: “If you take any god other than me, I will surely make you a prisoner!” [26:24-29].

In Ibn ‘Arabi’s hands Pharaoh’s words become pregnant with double meaning. When Moses affirms the identity of Allah as Lord of all things, Pharaoh exclaims, “Do you not hear?” appearing to rebuke Moses, but actually affirming the truth of what he says. When Moses next describes Allah as the deity of a specific group of people (in this case Pharaoh’s royal ancestors), Allah rebukes Moses’ apparent shortsightedness by making Pharaoh say, “Verily this Messenger of yours is possessed!” When Moses returns to divine transcendence by proclaiming that Allah is Lord of the East and the West and all that is in between them, his understanding of the true nature of tawhid is affirmed by means of Pharaoh’s parody of the divine commandment: “Thou shalt have no other god before Me.”

As a final irony, Pharaoh (in Ibn ‘Arabi’s interpretation) is both destroyed by Allah and “saved” by being drowned in the crashing waves of the sea as he pursues the fleeing Israelites. As his body is crushed by the waves, his soul is “drowned” in the ocean of divine foreknowledge. If only Pharaoh had known, says Ibn ‘Arabi, of the true highness within himself! The highness of the human being as vicegerent of Allah, whose altar is lit by a miraculous fire within– a theophany of the divine, like the burning bush that that spoke the word of Allah to Moses:

Like the fire of Moses, which [Pharaoh] perceived in the extremity of his need,
He, too, was the divinity, but was not aware of it!


Ka nari Musa ra’aha ‘ayna hajatihi,
Wa huwwa al-Ilah, wa lakin laysa yadrihi
[7]

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