The Mover Who Is Moved: Pharaoh’s Willful Forgetfulness and the Hardening of God’s “Heart”
Magid’s discussion of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is a skillful integration of Scriptural narrative and philosophic inquiry. His summary of the positions of Rashi, Nahmanides and Maimonides unfolds as a reflexive discourse between Scripture and philosophy, where the one simultaneously serves as a inquisitor/commentator on the other. In conclusion, Magid notes that the philosophical perspectives of the Scriptural narrative by Nahmanides and Maimonides “…posit the prevention of free-will as part of covenantal ethics.” In his response Hauerwas notes that he is fascinated by the fact that Origen and Augustine can deal with the same Scriptural narrative of Pharaoh’s hardened heart without letting the “…issue of ‘free will’ get in the way their telling the story.” For the Christian reader the engagement with a Scriptural narrative is to be done in line with the “rule of faith” (or the Apostle’s Creed) and away from the specifics of a given story, in this case the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. The Qur’anic narrative of the encounter between Pharaoh and Moses (as) represents an integration or “weaving” of a specific “philosophical” problem (that of free-will) within a larger narrative of the “dynamics of faith.” The following ayaat in the Qur’an reflect this integration:
Relate to them the story of the man to whom We sent Our ayaat , but he passed them by: So Satan followed him up and he went astray. If it had been Our Will, We should have elevated him with our ayaat ; but he inclined to the earth and followed his own vain desires… (7:175-6)
Here the Qur’an speaks of an individual who does not avail himself of the reminder that is contained in the ayaat (signs, tokens, miracles, marvels) that Allah has sent to him so that he may attain faith, or renew lapsed faith. These ayaat appear in a variety of forms, including but not limited to, the Revealed Word, the working of nature, the unfolding of history, miracles worked by the Prophets. When an individual willfully refuses to take heed of the Reality toward which these ayaat point and move towards faith, there are serious consequences, i.e. becoming a victim of Satan’s traps.
Up till this point, the passage has been concerned with the “dynamics of faith.” But the passage goes on to note that even though Allah could “elevate” anyone He so wills by His ayaat , He does not force His Will on those who cling to the earth and follow their own vain desires. In other words Allah does not impose faith on those who willfully neglect the Reality towards which Allah’s ayaat point. Here the Qur’anic narrative suggests that Allah has set “limitations” on His Will, thus creating a space for the exercise of human “free-will.” At this juncture, the Revealed Word explicitly introduces the issue of will into the narrative. But the Qur’anic discussion of “free-will” does not proceed from an ontological (philosophical) perspective; it is rather embedded in a larger Scriptural narrative. In the passage cited above and in the Qur’anic account generally, Divine and human will is not an issue of ontology; the discussion focuses on the human tendency to abuse the “free-will” that has been granted and the consequences thereof. In short the Qur’anic narrative allows the possibility of the “…the issue of ‘free-will'” being integrated with the discussion of the narrative that is fundamentally about the “dynamics of faith.” In the following pages an attempt will be made to present such an integrated discussion of the encounter between Pharaoh and Moses (as), thereby bridging the conceptual gap between Magid and Hauerwas.
The God of Aristotle is a disinterested party when it comes to human affairs. His sole “activity” is thinking about thought. This God has nothing to do with (and nothing to say about) the mundane realm in which flesh and blood human beings experience fears/disappointments, hopes/triumphs, dreams/nightmares. While the origin of the mundane realm that human beings inhabit is ultimately a product of His “thought experiment,” nothing that happens (least of all any decisions made by human beings) on this mundane plane affects His “thought experiment” in any way. In so many words, this is another way of saying that the God of Aristotle is an Unmoved Mover “up there” uninterested in/by anything that happens “down here.”
In stark contrast, the God of Abraham is profoundly concerned with matters related to the drama of human life. The Covenant that He made with Abraham can be seen as a concrete/formal expression of this concern. In very personal, intimate terms the God of Abraham let it be known that He would never be very far from the mundane realm in which human beings experience fears/hopes, disappointments/triumphs, nightmares/dreams. The conditions of the Covenant with Abraham suggest that Divine happiness/joy, anger/wrath, passion/exasperation etc. would be (at least partially) affected by human decisions. In other words the Great, Glorious, Self-Sufficient God “up there” can be moved by decisions made by weak, insignificant, confused, human beings “down here.”
From the Qur’anic perspective the issue of Covenantal Ethics is older than Moses’ encounter with Pharaoh, older than God’s promise to Abraham-it is even prior to the birth of very first human child.
And (recall) when thy Lord drew forth from the Children of
Adam ‘ from their loins ‘ their descendents, and made them
testify concerning themselves (saying): “Am I not your Lord?”
‘ they said: “Yea! We bear witness [to this fact]!.” [We
narrate this to you] lest you should say on the Day of
Judgment: “We were unaware of this [fact].” (7:172).
The event alluded to in this ayah has been seen by the spiritual sages as having taken place on the spiritual plane. At one stage of existence, the soul of every single human being who was to ever walk on earth freely, consciously and individually bore testimony to the fact that Allah alone is the Lord ‘ there is no Lord besides Him. The spiritual sages see in this ayah the “Covenant of ‘Am I not?’.” In reply to the question of “Am I not your Lord?” all of us (and every other human being) replied in the affirmative. Commenting on this ayah , Ali states:
This passage has led to different differences of opinion in interpretation. According to the dominant opinion of commentators each individual in the posterity of Adam had a separate existence from the time of Adam, and the Covenant was taken from them, which was binding accordingly on each individual. The words in the text refer to the descendants of the Children of Adam, i.e., to all humanity, born or unborn, without any limit of time…
Consequently, the moment an individual comes into this world he/she is already bound by a Covenant. The “awareness” of this Covenantal relationship is rooted in the instinctual human nature (the primordial “state of nature” of the philosophers). Commenting on this (7:172) Muhammad Asad notes:
According to the Qur’an the ability to perceive the existence of the Supreme Power is inborn in human nature ( fitrah ); and it is this instinctive cognition ‘ which may or may not be subsequently blurred by self-indulgence or adverse environmental influences- that makes every sane being “bear witness about himself” before God. As so often in the Qur’an, God’s speaking and man’s answering is a metonym for the creative act of God and of man’s existential response to it. 
This ayah establishes the fact that the “knowledge” of God is ingrained in the very nature of the human being. It may be that the individual “forgets” or “loses” this knowledge for a variety of reasons, but it is the function of the ayaat (signs) of Allah to serve as reminders of that which has been forgotten. Revelation is a means of “reminding.” Once an individual is presented the ayaat , he/she instinctively recalls that which is ingrained in human nature ‘and upon being reminded of what has been forgotten, one is expected to embrace the “forgotten truth.”
Because of differing dispositions, different people respond differently even when the same “reminder” aimed at reminding them of the same “forgotten truth” is presented to them. A vivid description of those who willingly refuse to acknowledge the Lordship of Allah after clear ayaat are presented to them is contained in this passage ‘ along with an explicit identification of the reasons why they reject the ayaat .
Relate to them the story of the man to whom We sent Our ayaat , but he passed them by: So Satan followed him up, and he went astray. If it had been Our Will, We should have elevated him with Our ayaat ; but he inclined to the earth, and followed his own vain desires. (7:175-6).
This passage explicitly states that Allah does not impose His will on an individual who has consciously opted to ignore His Signs. Allah does not force an awareness of the “forgotten truth” upon those who consciously choose to remain in a state of heedlessness after the ayaat have been presented. The passage goes on to state that the reason why such individuals choose “willful forgetfulness” is the fact that they are inclined/clinging to the earth and following their vain desires. The Qur’anic narrative, along with the second order commentaries cited above, allow us to establish the following:
a) At birth, each human being is bound to the Creator Lord by a Covenant.
b) The awareness of this Covenantal relationship with the Creator Lord is part of human nature/instinct (the fitrah ).
c) Individuals may “forget” or become negligent of this Covenant due to a variety of reasons.
d) It is the function of the ayaat (signs) of Allah to serve as “reminders” of the “forgotten truth.”
e) Allah does not impose His Will on the “willfully forgetful.”
From the plain sense of the meaning it appears that the fore-cited ayaat have no direct bearing on the Moses-Pharaoh encounter. But looking at the ayah just before the ayah establishing the “Covenant of ‘Am I not?'”, one finds a vivid description of the Covenant at Mt. Sinai. Referring to the Covenant at Mt. Sinai, the Qur’an states:
When We shook the Mount over them, as if it had been a canopy, and they thought it was going to fall on them (We said): “Hold firmly to what We have given you, and bring (ever) to remembrance what is therein; perchance you may fear Allah. (7:171)
Commenting on the relation between (7:171) and (7:172) Usmani notes that the first ayah refers to a Specific Covenant and the second ayah to a General Covenant ‘ the first one made to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai and the second one made to all of humanity in pre-history. Among the Qur’anic exegetes it is an accepted principle that the placing of the ayaat next to each other evidences the fact that they are part of the same narrative, no matter how distinct the specific subject matter of the different ayaat may appear to be. In light of the fact the ayah referring to the Covenant of “Am I not?” is placed between the ayah describing the Covenant at Mt. Sinai and the ayaat describing the fate of an individual who willfully forgets, we are justified in asserting that these ayaat are all related to each other.
The Qur’an discusses the life/events of Moses (as) more frequently than those of any other Prophet ‘ approximately 550 ayaat out of 6600 in the Qur’an narrate the story of Moses (as). The encounter with Pharaoh is itself discussed in numerous different places. The place we choose to begin our discussion will be determined by the questions/concerns that we bring to Scripture. Since the question we are bringing to the Scripture revolves around free-will, Sura Ta-ha offers a good starting point. Magid notes that a philosophical problem presents itself if it is assumed from the very beginning that God knew that Pharaoh will reject the Signs presented to him ‘ thus making the entire episode an acting out of a pre-determined script.
But the Qur’anic text makes it explicit that during Moses’ (as) conversation with God at the Burning Bush, the future is undetermined and open to a variety of possibilities. After Moses (as) requests that Aaron (as) be made his partner in the ministry to Pharaoh, Allah replies:
Go, thou and thy brother with my ayaat , and slacken not, either of you, in keeping Me in remembrance. Go, both of you to Pharaoh, for he has indeed transgressed all bounds; but speak to him mildly; perchance that he may take warning or fear (Allah). (20:42-4)
The words “…perchance that he may take warning or fear (Allah)” indicate that the future is indeed open. In the Qur’anic narrative there is no indication at this point a decision has already been taken “up there” that the Pharaoh’s heart will be hardened and that he will not accept the Message. The words in this passage express the hope that after hearing the “mild” exhortations of the Messengers Pharaoh will be inclined towards accepting the Message. Neither in this particular passage, nor in any other similar passage in the Qur’an is it ever stated that God will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not accept the call of Moses (as). In other places it is merely mentioned that the two Messengers are to go to Pharaoh because he has “…transgressed all bounds” and the matter is allowed to rest at that. In this particular passage a guarded hope is expressed that Pharaoh will react positively to the message of the messengers.
After having received this commission from the Creator of the worlds, both Moses (as) and Aaron (as) express their concerns in these words: “They (Moses and Aaron) said: ‘Our Lord! We fear lest he hasten with insolence against us, or lest he transgress all bounds'” (20:45). The words Allah uses to reassure/comfort His Chosen Prophets further evidence that the future remains open regarding the outcome of the mission. Allah replies to their concern in these words:
He said: Fear not: for I am with you: I hear and see (everything). So go ye both to him and say: “Verily we are Messengers sent by thy Lord: Send forth, therefore, the Children of Israel with us and afflict them not: With a Sign, indeed have we come from thy Lord! And Peace on all who follow guidance! Verily it has been revealed to us that the Penalty (awaits) those who reject and turn away.” (20:46-7)
In the context of our discussion this passage contains two key points that deserve our attention. Firstly, in two places the Messengers are commanded by Allah to say to Pharaoh that they have come from/sent by “…thy Lord.” The Lord who has commissioned Moses (as) and Aaron (as) is not just the Lord of the Israelites, He is the very same Lord whom Pharaoh himself had already accepted as being the only Lord during the Covenant of “Am I not?” ‘ it is the Lord of Pharaoh (and everyone else) who has sent the Messengers to Pharaoh. The second key point is that the Messengers are commanded to inform Pharaoh that Peace will be the lot of those who follow the guidance and Penalty the fate of those who reject guidance. It is implicit in this second point that the ultimate fate that will befall Pharaoh will depend on the choice he makes ‘ Peace if he accepts, Penalty if he rejects.
When Moses (as) and Aaron (as) reach Pharaoh they call him towards Allah and rehearse a number of different ayaat in front of him to demonstrate that they are indeed Messengers of Allah. To begin with Moses (as) presents the ayah of the “white hand” and the ayah of the staff becoming a snake. Along with these special Signs that have been given to Moses (as) for this particular mission, Moses (as) reminds Pharaoh of the ayaat of Allah in the heavens and the earth in these words:
“…my Lord never errs, nor forgets ‘ He who has made for you the earth like a carpet spread out; has enabled you to go about therein by roads (and channels); and has sent down water from the sky.”
With it have We produced pairs of plants each separate from the others. Eat (for yourselves) and pasture your cattle; verily, in this are ayaat for men endued with understanding. (20:52-4)
After seeing all of these different ayaat , Pharaoh and his advisors were not moved toward being reminded of the “forgotten truth.” After having seen these ayaat the witnesses thereof should have immediately acknowledged the Ultimate Reality towards which these Signs were pointing ‘ especially in light of the fact that their innermost souls bore testimony to the Truth.
The Qur’an states:
But when Our ayaat came to them, that should have opened their eyes, they said: “This is sorcery manifest!” And they rejected those ( ayaat ) in iniquity and arrogance, though their own souls were convinced thereof: so see what was the end of those who acted corruptly! (27:13-4)
These ayaat “…should have opened their eyes” and their souls were indeed “…convinced thereof.” But as a matter of fact the outcome was quite the opposite ‘ instead of being reminded of the Creator Lord after having seen the ayaat of Allah, Pharaoh made the absurd claim that he himself was the Lord. The Qur’an records his reaction after the initial meeting with Moses (as) in these words: “Then he collected his men and made a proclamation. Saying: ‘I am your Lord, Most High'” (79:23-4). After having assembled his advisors, the Qur’an records the directives Pharaoh gave to them as follows:
Pharaoh said: “O Chiefs! No gods do I know for you but
myself: therefor, O Haman, light me a (kiln to bake bricks) out of clay, and build me a lofty palace [tower], that I may mount up to the god of Moses: But as far as I am concerned, I think (Moses) is a liar.” (28:38)
Besides giving this “theological” reason for rejecting Moses’ (as) claim, the Qur’an records the “sociological” reason for Pharaoh’s rejection. The Qur’an then goes on to record the “empirical” test that Pharaoh himself proposed in order to test the veracity of Moses’ (as) “spiritual” claims.
And We showed Pharaoh all our ayaat , but he did reject and refuse. He said: “Hast thou come to drive us out of our land with thy magic O Moses? But we can surely produce magic to match thine! So make a tryst between us and thee, which we shall not fail to keep ‘ neither we nor thou ‘ in a place where both shall have even chances.” (20:56-8)
Pharaoh (and his advisors) interpreted the goal of Moses’ (as) mission as being an attempted coup d’etat , seeking to deprive the Egyptians of their economic and political supremacy. They could not take seriously the claim that he wanted the Israelites to attain freedom so that they may be able to worship the One True Lord in peace and security. For Pharaoh and his advisors, the main instrument that Moses (as) was using in this attempted coup was magical tricks and they sought to prove such “chicanery” by pitting Moses (as) against the best magicians in the land. On the agreed upon Great Feast Day, the “champion/expert” magicians in the land gathered to challenge Moses (as) in a transparent contest in which both sides had “…even chances.” The Qur’an records the events of this momentous day in these words:
They said: “O Moses! With thou throw (first), or shall we have the (first) throw?” Said Moses: “Throw ye (first).” So when they threw, they bewitched the eyes of the people, and struck terror into them: for they showed a great (feat of magic). We put into Moses’ mind by inspiration: “Throw (now) thy rod”: and behold! It swallows up straightaway all the falsehoods which they fake! Thus the truth was confirmed. And all that they did was made of no effect. So the (great ones) were vanquished there and then, and were made to look small. (7:115-9)
Moses (as) had assented to submit his “spiritual” claims to an “empirical” test chosen by Pharaoh and under the conditions dictated by Pharaoh, with the final outcome of this “empirical” test being apparent for all to see. One would expect that the verity of the spiritual claims being made by Moses (as) had been established beyond all doubt at the conclusion of the contest. The fact that the contest left no room for doubt regarding the verity of the claims made by Moses (as) is attested to by the reaction of the magicians whom Pharaoh had employed to uphold his claims. The Qur’an records the reaction of the magicians at the conclusion of the contest in these words: “But the sorcerers fell down prostrate in adoration. Saying: ‘We believe in the Lord of the Worlds. The Lord of Moses and Aaron'” (7:120-2). With the outcome of the contest absolutely clear and with his own chosen “defenders” having accepted the Lord of Moses (as) and Aaron (as), the logical thing for Pharaoh to do is to acknowledge the verity of Moses’ (as) message. But as a matter of fact, Pharaoh’s reaction at the conclusion of the contest is no less absurd than his reaction after seeing the ayaat of Allah being rehearsed to him initially. At that point, instead of being reminded of the Lord of Worlds towards whom these ayaat point, he affirmed his own god-hood and at this point instead of following the lead of the magicians and accepting the Lord of Moses/Aaron (as) he upbraids the magicians in these words:
Said Pharaoh: “Believe ye in Him before I give you permission? Surely this is a trick which ye have planned in the city to drive out its people: But soon shall you know (the consequences). Be sure I will cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides, and will crucify you all.” (7:123-4)
If the magicians’ reaction at the conclusion of the contest was not enough to convince Pharaoh of the strength of Moses’ (as) claims, their reaction to his threats of crucifixion should have had some effect on him. In reply to Pharaoh’s threats, the very same individuals who just a short time before were vying with each other to become his close associates and confidants said:
They said: “For us, we are but sent back unto our Lord: But thou dost wreak thy vengeance on us simply because we believed in the ayaat of our Lord when they reached us! Our Lord! Pour out on us patience and constancy, and take our souls unto Thee as Muslims (who bow to thy Will!). (7:125-6)
These words reveal the real difference between Pharaoh and the magicians. While the magicians chose to be reminded of the “forgotten truth” after the ayaat of their Lord (attesting to this truth) had reached them, Pharaoh chose the option of “willful forgetfulness.”
The wording of (7:130-1) suggests that a number of years passed after this encounter with the magicians during which time the Egyptians were punished by “shortness of crops: that they might receive admonition” (7:130). Instead of recognizing the fact that this was a punishment for their obstinate refusal to recognize the Reality towards which the Signs were pointing after the ayaat had reached them, they attributed the crop failures to some “evil omens connected with Moses and those with him” (7:131). While the Bible contains an extensive narration of the Plagues ‘ describing each plague vividly ‘ the Qur’anic description of the Plagues is, by comparison, a short summary. But the Qur’anic description of the Plagues is strategically embedded between two “quotes” of the Egyptians ‘ the first related to ayaat and willful forgetfulness and the other to the immediate/specific promise they made to Moses (as). After suffering from drought and then being relieved of it, the Qur’an records the reaction of the Egyptians and its consequences in these terms:
They said (to Moses): “Whatever be the ayah [Sign] thou bringest, to work therewith thy sorcery on us, we shall never believe in thee.” So We sent (plagues) on them: Wholesale death, locusts, frogs and blood: ayaat [Signs] openly self- explained: but they were steeped in arrogance, a people given to sin. (7:132-3)
Up till this point the Pharaoh and his cohorts had willfully ignored the Reality towards which relatively benign Signs pointed ‘ the ayaat of the white hand, the Staff, reminders of God’s work in the world of nature etc Now they had reached a point where they were explicitly stating that they will not believe irrespective of the ayah that Moses (as) brings. At this point the Plagues descend upon them ‘ the ayaat of Allah appearing in the form of a Penalty/Punishment. The suffering engendered by the Plagues momentarily brings them to their senses and they make a promise/covenant with Moses (as) so that they may be relieved of the suffering.
Every time the Penalty fell on them, they said: “O Moses! On our behalf call on thy Lord in virtue of His promise to thee: If thou wilt remove the Penalty from us, we shall truly believe in thee, and we shall send away the Children of Israel with thee.” But every time We removed the Penalty from them according to a fixed term which they had to fulfill ‘ Behold ! They broke their word. (7:134-5)
Here we have repeated breaking of a specific temporal Covenant, coupled with the repeated breaking of general spiritual Covenant by Pharaoh and his cohorts. The former is the promise to accept the Message of Moses (as) and free the Israelites once the Plague is removed. The latter is to acknowledge the “forgotten truth” when the requisite ayaat evincing this truth are presented. Up till this point Pharaoh and his cohorts have been determining the narrative flow of the story ‘ Moses (as) and his Lord have been merely reacting to the claims, actions and decisions made by Pharaoh. In other words, Pharaoh’s will has been the determining factor in shaping the flow of events up till this point. But a point has been reached where the patience of Moses (as) and Aaron (as) has reached its end. Citing Shah Waliulah, Usmani posits that the following prayer was made by Moses (as) after he saw that the Egyptians would not embrace faith even after the Plagues:
Moses prayed: “Our Lord! Thou hast indeed bestowed on Pharaoh and his chiefs splendor and wealth in this worldly life, and so, Our Lord, they mislead (men) from Thy Path. Deface, Our Lord, the features of their wealth, and send hardness to their hearts, so they will not believe until they see the grievous Penalty. (10:88) 
Here we find the first Qur’anic reference to the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” and it comes in the form of a request made by Moses (as) the Allah. The reply comes: “Allah said: ‘Accepted is your prayer (O Moses and Aaron)! So stand ye straight, and follow not the path of those who know not'” (10:89).
From the Qur’anic perspective the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is just as much the result of decisions made “down here” as it is the result of a decision made “up there.” A plain sense reading of the text suggests that the decision made “up there” was directly affected by decisions made “down here.” Down here Pharaoh was constantly exercising his given free-will to reject the ayaat of Allah, and Moses (as) was dealing with the rejections as patiently as he could. But his patience eventually runs out and he prays to Allah to harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not believe. This prayer itself suggests that up till the point that the prayer is accepted the possibility existed that Pharaoh would come to believe ‘ that the options remained open as the instructions that Moses (as) received at the Burning Bush suggested “…perchance that he may take warning or fear (Allah).”
But a point of no-return has been reached where the Lord of the Worlds seizes the initiative in response to Moses’ (as) prayer ‘ and the seizing is terrible indeed. After their repeated breaking of the promise that they themselves had made (not unlike their rejection of the outcome of the “magic” contest that they themselves had proposed), the fate of Egyptians is described in these words: “So We exacted retribution from them: We drowned them in the sea because they rejected Our ayaat , and failed to take warning from them.” (7:136) A variety of ayaat were rehearsed to the Egyptians, in a variety of settings, at a variety of times ‘ on every such occasion there own “innermost souls” bore testimony to the Truth towards which these Signs were pointing, but they refused to take heed. The destruction of the Egyptians in the sea is a retribution for their repeated failure to take heed of the Reality towards which these ayaat . While the issue of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is a central motif in the Biblical narrative, the Qur’anic narrative suggests an alternative point of emphasis: willful forgetfulness in the face of repeated reminders. Based on the Qur’anic narrative, a strong argument could be made that in the final analysis it is not Pharaoh’s heart that was hardened beyond repair, it was God’s “heart” that had become hard. The last words Pharaoh utters before he is drowned in the sea clearly indicate that his heart still had the capacity to overcome its hardness and attain faith. The Qur’an states:
We took the Children of Israel across the sea: Pharaoh and his hosts followed them in insolence and spite. At length, when overwhelmed with the flood, he said: “I believe there is no god except Him Whom the Children of Israel believe in: I am of the Muslims [those who submit to Allah in Islam].” (10:90)
One would expect that the “repentance” of Pharaoh would be accepted at this juncture, or at least he would be given further reprieve. This is a perfectly “logical” expectation in light of the fact that he had been given many reprieves before and there is no “rational” reason why this case should be different. Furthermore, this is the first time in the entire narrative that Pharaoh had explicitly acknowledged the fact that there is no deity other the One True God ‘ the God of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob. This acknowledgment is a major “concession” on his part, and one cannot doubt its sincerity given the circumstances in which it was made. Putting all these (philosophical/conjectural) possibilities aside, the fact of the matter is that the reply that is given after Pharaoh’s declaration of “faith” leaves little room for doubt that it was God’s “heart” that had become hard by this point far more than Pharaoh’s heart. The Qur’an records the reply to Pharaoh’s declaration of “faith” in these words: “(It was said to him: ‘Ah now! ‘ But a little while before, thou wast in rebellion! ‘ and thou didst mischief (and violence)!'” (10:91)
Who is this God Who rejects this heart-felt plea by Pharaoh? It is the same God who has said the following: “If human beings were to stop sinning, I would destroy them all and in their place bring a creature who sinned ‘ so that I may forgive them.” The Mercy, Power, Love, Greatness of Allah all manifest themselves most majestically when He forgives the sins of the repentant. He descends to the lowest heaven in the hours just before dawn, every night, looking for those seeking forgiveness for their sins. He is constantly asking the angels if they have come across any mortal on earth seeking forgiveness, so that He may forgive them. It is the “heart” of this God that was hardened by willfull forgetfullness of Pharaoh. In return Pharaoh was rejected, in spite of his declaration of faith at the end, by a terrible rejection. This is actually prelude to “real” punishment in the Here-after. Fire and brimstone will be relatively mild affairs when compared to the real punishment that will be meted out to those who choose to remain oblivious of the “forgotten truth” when the clear ayaat of Allah were rehearsed to them during their temporal existence.
He will say: “O my Lord! Why hast Thou raised me up blind, while I had sight [in my worldly life]?” Allah will say: “Thus did you, when Our ayaat came to you, disregarded them: so wilt thou, this day, be disregarded” (20:125-6)
This episode illustrates as clearly as any other episode how the Mover “up there” is moved by events/decisions taking place “down here.” Not only is Pharaoh’s plea rejected by Allah, the following words, though being expressions of poetic justice, cannot but send shivers up one’s spine. As he is breathing his last, this individual who had repeatedly chosen the option of willfull forgetfullness whenever the ayaat of Allah were presented to him, is informed by Allah: “This day We shall preserve thee in the body, so that thou may become an ayah for those who come after thee! But verily, many among mankind are heedless of Our ayaat .” (10:92)
From a Qur’anic perspective the major issue in the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh is not (ontological) free-will vs. predestination, it is willful forgetfulness in the face of undeniable Signs. In other words the Scripture does not frame the discussion in terms of “free-will”, this is something that we are reading into the Scripture based upon the distinctions we draw between “…Pharaoh hardened his heart” and “… God caused Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened” ‘ but this is not to say that the text of the narrative does not allow for such “reading into.” A neat and dichotomous separation of “the dynamics of faith” from philosophical concerns would be possible (and desirable) only if faith was a distinct species from rationality. The developments during the post-Enlightenment era show that any attempt to posit such a neat dichotomy between faith and rationality is not in the interests of either faith or rationality. The manner in which the Qur’an embeds “philosophical” concerns within the larger narrative outlining the “dynamics of faith” demonstrates that faith and rationality can be brought into meaningful conversation.
In conclusion, the Qur’anic narrative emphasizes the importance of recognizing the Reality towards which the ayaat point, once these ayaat are rehearsed before a person. The Qur’an posits that one’s natural instincts/inclinations induce the individual to recognize/accept the Ultimate Reality towards which the Signs point and the Qur’an exhorts the individual not allow oneself to become a victim of “willful forgetfulness” and remain oblivious of the Ultimate Reality once the clear Signs are rehearsed. While the issue of free-will enters the discussion, it is discussed within the larger context of the dynamics of faith as these dynamics are shaped by the interaction between human nature, forgetfulness, Signs, and recalling/remembering. This is how Scripture treats the issue and this is how we should engage the text if we are doing Scriptural Reasoning (otherwise we would be Reasoning Scripture).
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