Number 2.

September 2ôô2

Denying the Undeniable: Pharaoh and the
Signs of God
Ahmed Af:aal, Drew Universitv
While the paper by Shaul Magid revolves around the Biblical description
oI Pharaoh's "hardening oI heart," in its theological import it goes well
beyond that particular narrative to embrace complex issues relating to
human Iree will and speciIic Iorms oI God's retribution. The Iollowing
response, thereIore, starts Irom a Qur'anic understanding oI the human-
Divine dialectic as it maniIests itselI in a person's guidance or
misguidance, upon which depends his or her ultimate Iate; it is only in
terms made explicit by this general background that the speciIic issue oI
Pharaoh's "hardening oI heart" could be meaningIully discussed.
Guidance and Misguidance: The Human-Divine Dialectic
OI the many commonalities among the three Abrahamic Iaiths, one oI the
most important is the belieI that the human individual has been created in
the "image oI God." This implies that oI all the creations oI 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 oI the Qur'an,
the narrative oI the origins oI human liIe on earth begins as Iollows:
And when your Lord said to the angels, I am going to place
in the earth a vicegerent.... (Sura Al-Baqarah 2:30)
The Iollowing assumptions are inherent in the notion oI a deputy or
vicegerent: 1) the Sovereign delegates some oI His own authority to the
vicegerent; 2) the vicegerent carries out the will oI the Sovereign
whenever a speciIic commandment comes Irom Him; 3) the vicegerent is
Iree to use his or her own judgment in all other cases; 4) however, even in
cases where the vicegerent is Iree, 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 IulIill the demands
oI this grand responsibility. On the other hand, those who Iail to
recognize their true status as God's servants soon Iall pray to diIIerent
Iorms oI deviance and transgression.
When a person endeavors to IulIill God's purpose on earth, he/she
becomes worthy oI God's help; and the two oI them -- the Lord and the
servant -- then become co-workers Ior a common cause, as alluded in the
Iollowing avaat:
O you who believe! II 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 oI God.... (Sura Aal Imran
When God and the human being help each other to achieve a common
goal, they become Iriends oI each other, as stated in the Iollowing avaat:
God is the friend of those who believe... (Sura Al-Baqarah
Now surelv the friends of God, thev shall have no fear nor
shall thev grieve. (Sura Yunus 10:62)
Being a vicegerent, co-worker, and Iriend oI God requires that the human
being "share" some oI God's attributes, without in any way "sharing" the
divinity oI God. Since God possesses the attribute oI what we understand
as "Iree will" in its uniquely absolute and unlimited maniIestation, the
human being must also possess at least some degree oI Iree will in order
to be truly able to act as God's vicegerent, co-worker, and Iriend. Human
Iree will, however, will remain relative, contingent, and dependent in
relation to Divine Iree will, the latter being absolute, eternal, and
In interpreting the Scripture, particular passages must be understood in
terms oI other passages that address the same issue; otherwise we may
end up with a truncated and incomplete view oI Scriptural truth. In some
passages, Ior instance, the Qur'an appears to Iavor the idea oI human Iree
will, and at other places it seems to negate or minimize it in Iavor oI
Divine omnipotence. Failure to appreciate this style oI emphasizing
diIIerent aspects oI reality in diIIerent contexts led early Muslim
theologians to Iall in the ultimately inconsequential debate oI human Iree
will vs. Divine predestination. The choice is largely artiIicial and
represents a theological artiIact; it would perhaps be closer to the spirit oI
the Qur'an to say that it Iavors a middle course by synthetically
embracing and transcending these diametrically extreme Iormulations oI
the problem.
A plain sense reading oI the Qur'an shows that the human being is Iree to
choose the path oI guidance; at the same time, he/she is equally Iree to
choose the path oI misguidance. The human choice, however, must be
coupled with Divine "Iacilitation" Ior it to produce any concrete outcome.
Thus, while the Qur'an explicitly asserts that human beings can Ireely
choose between good and evil, it also qualiIies this assertion by saying
that human choices produce results only iI God so desires:
We have showed him the way; (it is up to him) whether he be
grateIul or ungrateIul. (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 oI God "Iacilitating" whatever the human individual has chosen
Ior himselI or herselI, whether it is the path oI good or the path oI evil, is
eloquently expressed in the Iollowing avaat:
Verily, (the ends) you strive Ior are diverse. So the one who
gives (in charity) and Iears (God), and testiIies to the truth,
We will indeed make smooth Ior him the path oI ease; but the
one who is a greedy miser, and thinks himselI selI-suIIicient,
and rejects the truth, We will indeed make smooth Ior him the
path to misery. (Sura Al-Lail 92: 4-10)

In the Iinal analysis, thereIore, success or Iailure in the ultimate sense is a
matter oI the human individual decisively taking a certain path and God
helping him or her go that way. II the individual chooses the path oI good
and strives sincerely, God makes easy Ior him or her the path oI goodness,
bestowing His grace and mercy. II, on the other hand, the individual
chooses the path oI evil and continues on this path despite obvious signs
that warn him or her oI the Ilawed nature oI that choice, then God does
not intervene to Iorce another choice on that individual; instead, God
makes easy Ior that person the path that leads to destruction. While God's
"Iacilitation" is important in both cases, the basic choice oI the individual
remains crucial and decisive, as evidenced by the Iollowing avaat:
...God does not change the condition oI a people until they
Iirst change what is in their own souls.... (Sura Al-Ra'd 13:11)

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

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

WillIully disregarding God's guidance and choosing a path that does not
conIorm to one's status as vicegerent and servant puts oneselI 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, iI one so
wills, take one oI these "exits" and go back on to the path oI guidance, the
one that leads to ultimate success and salvation. Taking an "exit," oI
course, is a metaphor Ior repentance. However, iI one continues to persist
in one's misguidance and deliberately ignores all the signs oI God, there
does come a point aIter which one cannot possibly take an "exit," or,
more precisely, aIter 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 oI them
and nothing good can go inside. This is oIten the Iate oI those who do not
accept the truth the very Iirst time it becomes clearly maniIest to them;
once they intentionally and knowingly reject the truth, Irom that stage
onwards it becomes increasingly diIIicult Ior them to accept it, until a
"point oI no-return" is reached where their hearts are "hardened" or
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 Iirst time.
Thus does God seal up the hearts oI those who reject the
truth. (Sura Al-A'raI 7:101)
II a person's heart is "sealed" or "hardened" so that he or she can no
longer repent, who should be held responsible Ior this misIortune?
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 oI the person in question. Since God's action
in this case is a maniIestation or application oI 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." II my driver's license gets
suspended Ior 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 Iinal onus oI 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 oI 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 Ior which Ialls
on the individual in question rather than on the obscure nature oI truth.
According to the Qur'an, the human individual is responsible and
accountable beIore God on the basis oI his or her own natural Iaculties as
well as the truths that are inherent within the human soul. In addition,
there are signs oI God maniIest everywhere in the natural world, in the
rise and Iall oI nations during the course oI history, and additionally in
the Scriptures that have been revealed by God. In this way, there are six
grounds Ior human responsibility and accountability beIore God, three
"inner" and three "outer," as summarized below.
The Qur'an uses three diIIerent terms to describe the three dimensions oI
what we understand as human "selI." The most basic dimension, which
the human being shares with other animals, is that oI "nafs." Even though
the human "nafs" is oI earthly origins and has a tendency to become
Iocused on its own immediate gratiIication that leads to all sorts oI sins, it
is in many ways qualitatively diIIerent Irom those oI lower animals. This
is because the human "nafs" has been endowed with the ability to reason
on the basis oI observations, to name and categorize things and ideas, and
to manipulate abstract thoughts; in addition, the "nafs" has the ability to
diIIerentiate between good and evil. Human beings are accountable in the
Iirst place because oI the reasoning ability and the moral sense inherent in
the "nafs," as demonstrated by the Iollowing avaat:
...surely the hearing and sight and the mind, oI all oI these
one will be questioned. (Sura Al-Isra 17:36)
By the naIs and the proportion and order given to it; and its
inspiration as to its wrong and its right; truly he succeeds that
puriIies it, and he Iails who corrupts it. (Sura Al-Shams 7-10)
The second dimension oI human selI has been called the "wruh," a Divine
element in the human being. The Qur'an identiIies the "ruh" by what God
has "breathed into" the Iirst human being, Adam, out oI 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 oI
God, and his or her being created "in the image oI 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 Iriend oI God.
The human "ruh" has a natural and powerIul inclination toward its
ultimate source, the essence oI Almighty God. The "ruh" harbors
absolutely no doubt or reservation about the Creator and Lord, Ior the
clear recognition and wholehearted acceptance oI the Creator-Lord is
inherent within it. According to the Qur'an, this is because the "ruh" oI
each and every human being was placed beIore Almighty God beIore the
creation oI the physical universe and was made to testiIy in the intimate
presence oI the Ultimately Real, as described in this intriguing avah:
When your Lord drew Iorth Irom the Children oI Adam,
Irom their loins, their descendants, and made them testiIy
concerning themselves, (saying) "Am I not your Lord?" They
said: "Yea! We do testiIy" (Sura Al-A'raI 7:172)
The presence oI a powerIul urge in human beings to love, adore, worship,
and serve the highest ideal oI beauty and perIection that they can Iind --
to have an "ultimate concern" oI one sort or another -- is an undeniable
and irrepressible sign in and oI itselI. The only true object oI this urge is
God; most people, however, erroneously content themselves with one oI
the lesser and imperIect substitutes, beIore their disillusionment causes
them to look Ior something better. This nameless and incessant human
search Ior a beloved is nothing but an echo oI their eternal covenant with
God. Incidentally, each and every human being is bound in this covenant
just by virtue oI his or her existence. This covenant also implies that to
deny God is to deny oneselI, because to reject God is to reject the most
intense longing oI one's own selI. The inner love Ior God, then,
constitutes the second ground Ior human responsibility and
The third dimension oI human selI is what the Qur'an calls the "qalb." It
is a uniquely human Iaculty that can directly perceive spiritual truths in a
single, luminous unveiling. Thus, Al-Ghazali believes that God is
revealed and not hidden; the Iact that we are oIten not able to perceive
God is because oI the "rust" on the mirror oI 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 oI our own
hearts. Indeed, the Qur'an treats the "qalb" as a contemplative inner
Iaculty that "understands" truth in its own peculiarly subtle way.
Heedlessness, however, causes the human beings to willIully 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 Iaculty oI intuitive perception, then, is the third ground Ior human
responsibility and accountability.
In addition to these three "inner" Iaculties Ior the recognition oI truth,
there are three "outer" grounds too; these are the signs oI God in the
world oI nature, in human history, and in the Revealed Word. The Qur'an
makes it abundantly clear that the entire physical universe is Iull oI
indicators that point towards ultimate reality, iI only the human beings
would pay attention.
Most surely in the creation oI the heavens and the earth and
the alternation oI the night and the day, and the ships that run
in the sea with that which proIits people, and the water that
God sends down Irom the cloud, then gives liIe with it to the
earth aIter its death and spreads in it all (kinds oI) animals,
and the changing oI the winds and the clouds made
subservient between the heaven and the earth, (in all oI these)
there are signs Ior 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 Iirm 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 aIIair, making
clear the signs that you may be certain oI meeting your Lord.
And He it is Who spread the earth and made in it Iirm
mountains and rivers, and oI all Iruits He has made in it two
kinds; He makes the night cover the day; most surely there
are signs in this Ior a people who reIlect. And in the earth
there are tracts side by side and gardens oI grapes and corn
and palm trees having one root and (others) having distinct
roots; they are watered with one water, and We make some
oI them excel others in Iruit; most surely there are signs in
this Ior a people who understand. (Sura Al-Ra'd 13:2-4)
The signs oI God are maniIest not only in the world oI nature but also in
the course oI human history and the rise and decline oI nations.
Does it not teach them a lesson, how many generations We
destroyed beIore them, in whose dwellings they (now) go to
and Iro? 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 Iorm oI Sacred Scriptures
that contain His signs in the Iorm oI human speech:
He has revealed to you the Book with truth, veriIying that
which is beIore it, and He revealed the Torah (to Moses) and
the Gospel (to Jesus) aIoretime, a guidance Ior the people,
and He sent the down the Criterion (oI judgment between
right and wrong). Surely they who disbelieve in the signs oI
God shall have a severe chastisement; and God is Mighty, the
Lord oI retribution. (Sura Aal Imran 3:3-4)
To recapitulate, the human being is responsible and accountable beIore
God on the basis oI three "inner" grounds (the Iaculties oI observation,
reasoning, and moral sense inherent in the "nafs," the powerIul inclination
towards and love Ior God that is inbuilt in the "ruh," and the Iaculty oI
intuitive perceptiveness that is Iound in the "qalb") as well as three
"outer" grounds (the signs oI God that are maniIest in the world oI nature,
the signs oI God that are Iound in human history, and the signs oI God
that could be read in Revealed Scriptures).
While these six sources oI knowledge are available to all human beings,
there have been some nations in human history that came cross a seventh
ground Ior accountability -- a Messenger oI 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
oI God had very immediate consequences as compared to rejecting the
truth oI the six other sources. The Qur'an relates the stories oI several
nations oI old, each oI which was guilty oI rejecting their Divinely
appointed Messengers and each oI which was destroyed and eliminated
Irom the Iace oI the earth as a punishment Ior its sins and transgressions.
It is important to note that, according to the Qur'an, such an open
maniIestation oI God's wrath used to appear in the past only aIter one oI
God's Messengers had explicitly and unambiguously communicated the
Divine message to a particular people, and they still remained persistent
in reIusing to surrender beIore the will oI their Lord.
We never punish till We have sent a Messenger. (Al-Isra
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 Iace to Iace with
the seventh "lethal" ground oI accountability in the Iorm oI Prophet
Moses and his miracles. How many undeniable signs can a person
possibly deny and still not Iace any consequences?
Pharaoh's Arrogance and the Blessings of Plagues
In the Qur'anic narrative, Pharaoh appears as the epitome oI rebellion
against God's authority and dominion; he not only rebels against God but
claims to be the absolute lord and sovereign oI Egypt, in both the
religious and political sense.
And Pharaoh said: O chieIs! I do not know oI any god Ior
you besides myselI.... (Sura Al-Qassas 28:38)
He said: I am your Lord, Most High. (Sura Al-Naziyat 79:24)

He said: II you will take a god besides me, I will most
certainly make you one oI the imprisoned. (Sura Al-Shu'ara
Since there were numerous gods and goddesses in the Egyptian religious
system, as evidenced by the Qur'an itselI, the avaat quoted above can
only mean that Pharaoh saw himselI as the unchallenged and absolute
"god" primarily in the political sense oI 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 oI delegated
authority and power; this delegated authority and power, unIortunately,
causes some human beings to be carried away by a delusion oI grandeur
in which they pass all legitimate limits. They reIuse to accept God's
sovereignty and their own status as vicegerents. Mawdudi describes three
stages oI human transgression in Qur'anic terms:
The Iirst 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 reIuses to become the subject oI anyone at all or adopts
someone other than God as the object oI service and
devotion. This is kufr (disbelieI). The third stage is that one
not only rebels against one's Lord but also imposes one's won
will |in disregard oI the will oI 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 oI fisq, kufr, and tagha (or
wrongdoing, disbelieI, and rebellion), it is clear that Pharaoh was at the
third, and worst, stage oI transgression. He not only did not obey God, but
he also reIused to accept in principle that God should be obeyed; even
more seriously, he established himselI as a ruler in a system oI
governance where he himselI enjoyed the unconditional and absolute
right oI political sovereignty in complete disregard to the authority oI the
Creator-Lord. In Pharaoh's claim to divinity, thereIore, religious and
political elements were deeply and inseparably interlinked. It is obvious
Irom the Qur'anic narrative that the issue was not simply the liberation oI
Israelites, but that Pharaoh and his chieIs saw Prophet Moses as a threat
to their political order, Ior the latter was proclaiming the name oI the
Creator-Lord who had dominion over everything and everybody,
including Pharaoh himselI. This is evidenced by the Iollowing avaat:

(Pharaoh and his chieIs) said: Have you come to us to turn us
away Irom what we Iound our Iathers upon, and (that)
greatness in the land should be Ior 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 oI
our land by your magic, O Moses? (Sura Ta-Ha 20:57)

And Pharaoh said (to his chieIs): Allow me that I may slay
Moses and let him call upon his Lord; surely I Iear 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 oI Pharaoh and Prophet Moses Irom 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 aIter repeated rejections oI clear and unambiguous signs oI God
that Pharaoh became worthy oI Divine punishment.
AIter them We sent Moses with Our signs to Pharaoh and his
chieIs; but they wrongIully rejected them. So see what was
the end oI those who made mischieI. (Sura Al-A'raI 7:103)
Has not there come to you the story oI Moses? When his
Lord called upon him in the sacred valley oI Tuwa? Go to
Pharaoh, surely he has become inordinate. Then say: Have
you (a desire) to puriIy yourselI. And I will guide you to your
Lord so that you should Iear. 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 oI the hereaIter and this liIe. Most
surely there is in this a lesson Ior the one who Iears. (Sura
Al-Naziyat 79:15-24)
The plagues that God sent to Pharaoh and his people were not
"punishments" in the usual sense oI the words; more precisely, they were
"wake-up calls." God sent the plagues to warn Pharaoh and his people, to
wake them up Irom their heedlessness, and to "soIten their hearts."
According to the Qur'an, whenever God sent a Messenger to a particular
people, He would simultaneously aIIlict the people with disasters oI one
sort or another, the purpose oI which was to put them in a more receptive
Irame oI 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 aIIliction in order that they might
humble themselves. (Sura Al-A'raI 7:94)
These smaller aIIlictions, then, were meant to bring the aIIlicted 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
And indeed We will make them taste oI the lighter
chastisement beIore the greater chastisement, in order that
they may return. (Sura Al-Sajdah 32:21)
From this perspective, thereIore, the plagues that visited Pharaoh and his
people could be understood as blessings in disguise. These "lighter
chastisements" Irom God did soIten the hearts to some extent. At the
arrival oI each plague, Pharaoh and his people would promise Prophet
Moses that they would accept the Divine truth and liberate the Israelites iI
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 Irom repenting but because oI their own arrogance and
heedlessness. Finally, the number oI chances that God was willing to
allow them ran out, and the Divine Law oI Retribution came into eIIect --
a justiIiable punishment Ior denying the undeniable.

So We sent on them Iloods, locusts, lice, Irogs, and blood:
signs openly selI-evident; but they were steeped in arrogance,
a people given to sin. And when the plagues Iell on them,
they said: "O Moses! On our behalI call on your Lord in
virtue oI His promise to you; iI you will remove the plague
Irom us, we shall truly believe in you, and we shall send
away the children oI Israel with you." But when We removed
the plague Irom them according to a Iixed term which they
had to IulIill, behold! they broke their word (every time). So
We exacted retribution Irom them; We drowned them in the
sea, because they rejected our signs, and Iailed to take
warning Irom them. (Sura Al-A'raI 7:133-136)
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