[This is a talk I prepared to give at Nehar Shalom in preparation for their celebration of Passover]
Soon after the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) immigrated to Medina, he noticed that the Jews there were celebrating and fasting on a particular day. When he inquired, they told him they were fasting to commemorate the Exodus and to thank God for delivering the Hebrews from the Pharaoh. The Prophet happily embraced this occasion, explaining that the bond between Muslims and Moses was even stronger. He had it announced in the city that whoever had not yet had breakfast should continue fasting and whoever already had breakfast should begin fasting till sunset. The Prophet said that God would forgive the shortcomings of the previous year for those who fast on such a blessed day; when God rescued Moses and the Children of Israel from the Pharaoh. Later, when fasting the month of Ramadan became an obligation and pillar of Islamic practice, fasting to commemorate the Exodus became an optional act of worship still observed till this day.
That Muslims have a stronger bond with Moses is not meant to establish religious territories where Moses is on the Muslim side rather than on the Jewish. Rather, it is an emphasis on the centrality of Moses in the message of Islam. The person most mentioned by name in the Quran is Moses (136 times). What I find interesting is that second most mentioned person is not Abraham (69) or Jesus (25 + 11 as Christ and 23 as Son of Mary). It is none other than the Pharaoh and he is mentioned 74 times. What this reflects is the attention given in the Quran to the interaction that occurred between Moses and the Pharaoh and thus the importance of the Exodus in Islam.
The centrality of Moses and the Pharaoh in Islamic faith, I believe, comes from them symbolizing the relationship between Tawhid and excess. Tawhid is the belief that God is the only one worthy of worship and is the only one who determines the fate of all matters. Furthermore, Tawhid is the embodiment of that faith in ones actions and transactions. Excess on the other hand is to exceed limits determined by God and Pharaoh being a symbol of political excess. Tyranny is a form of excess in which a leader exceeds the limits of acceptable leadership and transgresses against those under their rule. A core message in the Quran is “Beware of Excess,” and of the first verses revealed were “Man transgresses, once he sees himself as self-sufficient. But to your Lord [everything] returns.” [96:6-8].
Excess compromises ones Tawhid, for it only arise from forgetting the transitory nature of this worldly life and that we all will return to our Lord, the maker and sustainer of all things. For that reason the Quran warns against excess in all its forms, especially in the political form embodied by the “Pharaoh.”
Gamal Hemdan (1928- 1993) was a prominent Egyptian scholar who specialized in anthropology and Egyptian geopolitics. His magnum opus was Shakhsiyyet Masr (Egypt’s Character) and one of his observations was that the nature of Egypt’s geography encouraged the emergence of Pharaohs (or authoritarian rule). Egypt is a desert with a river running in the middle around which a narrow valley and a delta developed. Agriculture is the main source of livelihood and it depends on water. The water does not fall from the skies from flows in a single river. Thus it is necessary to manage this central water source for everyone’s benefit. From this equation derives the necessity of central rule, and the fact that whoever controls the water controls Egypt. The Pharaoh emerges from such necessity and power. Although Egypt today has other sources of income such as the revenue from tourism and the Suez Canal, millennia of agricultural dependence have engrained in the Egyptian psyche a certain attitude that enables the continuing emergence of Pharaohs.
However, the same way Egypt is still able to produce the Pharaoh, it is also able to give birth to a Moses, and that is what we saw on January 25th. One of the main differences though is that Prophet Moses (peace be upon him) lead the Hebrews to escape Egypt in order to enter the Promised Land. But for most Egyptians, there is no escape, and even if some do emigrate, Egypt itself remains their Promised Land. Thus on January 25th what we saw was not the People escaping the excess of authoritarian rule, but rather a demand that such excess, represented in former President Mubarak, must leave. It was Mubarak who had to cross the Red Sea and is now spending his days in Sinai. Egyptians on the other hand, are reclaiming their Promised Land.
To stand in Tharir during the revolution was one of the most significant moments in my life, second only to standing in Mecca during the Hajj. The immense power that was in the Square, the focus of the people, the feeling that we can succeed and that we will overcome and prevail, all served to invigorate something that I was afraid I had lost from repeated failures and disappointments. There was a sense of Sakinah in Tahrir, a dwelling caress of hope and assurance that filled our souls. Mubarak had been in power for as long as I had been alive. He became a constant to me, like the sun, the moon, the mountains and the sea. Countless efforts to develop and improve Egypt always seemed to hit that Rock, and I, like many others, had begun to accept that there are things you cannot change but must learn to live with. With that came wavering faith in the message and promise of emancipation conveyed in the Quran. However to see Mubarak step down was no less empowering and reorienting than what it must have felt to see the Red Sea split before Moses and the Hebrews, and to see the Pharaoh drown. For Mubarak to step down meant to me that even Natural Barriers could fall and I had no excuse to give up hope, and with that came a renewed commitment to my covenant with God.
Yet, the Hebrews crossing the Red Sea and their deliverance from the Pharaoh was not the end of the story. Rather it was the beginning of a new chapter in their spiritual development to enable them to enter the Promised Land. Likewise, that Mubarak has stepped down and that a generation was able to cross that Natural Barrier, only represents the beginning of a new chapter. For the Pharaoh is still alive in each and every one of us as an urge towards excess. The struggle to be true to Tawhid remains. Today Egyptians have been freed from a political Pharaoh, but much remains to be done to free ourselves from the Pharaohs that reside in our hearts.
It therefore honors me to share with you in your preparations for celebrating Passover, as a reminder for myself that the struggle against the Pharaoh within me continues.