Examples of Those Who Were Astray
In addition to these people who have an exalted place by Allah's side due to their sincerity, the Qur'an also tells us about those who did not follow their conscience. It is important when reading these examples to be aware that such behaviour is as much in evidence today as it was in the past.
Pharaoh lived at the time when Prophet Musa (AS) was sent and is much referred to in the Qur'an as a great disbeliever. We have chosen to use him as an example because the qualities he possessed and the attitude and behaviour he displayed are very commonly practised in today's society. The most sincere approach will be to look for these traits in ourselves as well as in the people we know or hear about or see on the television. Above all, we should try hard to correct these negative traits.
The cruelty of Pharaoh
One of the basic traits of Pharaoh related in the Qur'an is his cruelty. He brought great pressure to bear on a certain group (particularly the children of Israel) among his people, even going so far as killing their children.
Pharaoh exalted himself arrogantly in the land and divided its people into camps, oppressing one group of them by slaughtering their sons and letting their women live. He was one of the corrupters. (Surat al-Qasas: 4)
With the sole purpose of maintaining his authority and forestalling all possible future movements of opposition, Pharaoh not only slaughtered boys but also male babies.
The order Pharaoh built on cruelty, is nothing but a historical example of a type of conduct we are accustomed to in our day. All mentalities based on rejection and transgression may, if necessary, slaughter women and children, start wars and drop bombs on thousands of innocent people just to maintain their state. Their purpose is to protect their own interests and power, by any means, regardless of the consequences.
If man lives without considering Allah's judgement of his actions, there is nothing to stop him crossing the borders of cruelty, wronging people, and making decisions that cost the lives of many. The example of Pharaoh is one that presents the most extreme ends of cruelty, but which is still practised today, though with different methods.
Pharaoh had grown arrogant because of the power and glory he held, and on top of completely transgressing the limits of Allah, he even went so far as to declare himself a god. He made his people suffer unbearable agonies, and went to extravagant ends to protect his power, which was the only important thing to him. At that point, Allah revealed to His messenger Prophet Musa, 'Go to Pharaoh. He has overstepped the bounds.' (Surah Ta Ha: 24), and He sent him to Pharaoh as a warner.
Pharaoh's growing haughty and his resulting transgression are told in the following verses:
'Go to Pharaoh; he has overstepped the bounds. But speak to him with gentle words so that hopefully he will pay heed or show some fear.' They (Musa and Harun) said, 'Our Lord, we are afraid that he might persecute us or overstep the bounds.' He said, 'Have no fear. I will be with you, All-Hearing and All-Seeing.' (Surah Ta Ha: 43-46)
Thus Pharaoh was invited to the right way personally by the messenger of Allah. However, instead of reforming him, this increased his rage and transgression. The underlying reason for such rage was his arrogance because of the political and military power he wielded and his fear of losing his position. In the Qur'an, Pharaoh's admiration for himself and derision for Allah's messenger are described:
Pharaoh called to his people, saying, 'My people, does the kingdom of Egypt not belong to me? Do not all these rivers flow under my control? Do you not then see? Am I not better than this man who is contemptible and can scarcely make anything clear? (Surat az-Zukhruf: 51-52)
An important psychological tactic lies behind this speech. First, he asks his people some questions that would make them acknowledge his power. The statement 'Does the kingdom of Egypt not belong to me? Do not all these rivers flow under my control? Do you not then see?' shows that the main reason for his arrogance is his possessions. In the rest of the verse, Pharaoh refers to Prophet Musa, who is the messenger of Allah, as 'this man' and describes him as 'contemptible'. An interesting comparison can be made here between Pharaoh and the shaytan. When the shaytan was ordered to prostrate before Prophet Adam (AS), he rebelled against Allah's command and declared himself superior to Prophet Adam.
He (Allah) said, 'What prevented you from prostrating when I commanded you to?' He replied, 'I am better than him. You created me from fire and You created him from clay.' (Surat al-A'raf: 12)
This shows how arrogance completely covers consciousness. The shaytan had direct contact with Allah and understood His oneness and sole right to be worshipped and obeyed, yet in spite of this he denied the command to prostrate to Adam. Similarly, Pharaoh's illimitable transgression was a result of his pride in the possessions and favours Allah granted him, and it led him to see himself as superior. After refusing to listen to Prophet Musa, Pharaoh asked a question to his people, which has been asked about almost all prophets throughout history:
Why have gold bracelets not been put upon his arms and why is there not a train of angels accompanying him? (Surat az-Zukhruf: 53)
This question shows a very significant point. Disbelievers cannot accept that a common person may be assigned as messenger. Since the measure of disbelievers is not their conscience, what they want to see in a messenger is not sincerity, wisdom and humble submission to Allah. Disbelievers expect to see extraordinary wealth and supernatural events for them to believe. This is one of the main reasons why disbelievers cannot be guided to the right. The arrogance inside them prevents them from following and obeying someone who looks just like themselves. Instead of following their conscience, they prefer to protect their short-sighted interests by following the orders of their nafs.
Pharaoh's asking irrational questions
After receiving the revelation from Allah, Prophet Musa went to Pharaoh with his brother Prophet Harun and started to communicate the message as he was ordained.
Upon hearing this, Pharaoh took recourse to a tactic which disbelievers often employ. He lined up his irrational and satanic questions, which he thought would confound the prophets. His objective was not to learn or even try to understand, but merely to look for fault and ridicule. Pharaoh actually knew the answer to each of his questions in his conscience. For instance, the first question he asked was: 'Who then is your Lord, Musa?' (Surah Ta Ha: 49)
The answer of Prophet Musa was simple and wise.
He said, 'Our Lord is He who gives each thing its created form and then guides it.' (Surah Ta Ha: 50)
In the face of this extremely reasonable and sincere answer, Pharaoh could find no defence, so he asked another illogical question:
He (Pharaoh) said, 'What about the previous generations?' (Surah Ta Ha: 51)
With this question he tries to divert attention from the 'here and now' and side-track the prophet.
Disbelievers often take recourse to similar 'distracting' questions. Such questions will not save them from the eternal wrath of hell. Advice and warnings are made to them at the time in which they live; they are not asked to investigate the state of the people who lived previously. The state of those people is something that is known by Allah, the Lord of all worlds, the Owner of eternal justice, Who does not forget anything. Accordingly, the answer of Prophet Musa reveals this fact quite explicitly:
He (Musa) said, 'Knowledge of them is with my Lord in a Book. My Lord does not misplace nor does He forget.' (Surah Ta Ha: 52)
Then Prophet Musa reminded Pharaoh of the blessings Allah has bestowed upon people, and presented evidence of His existence:
It is He Who made the earth a cradle for you and threaded pathways for you through it and sent down water from the sky by which We have brought forth various different types of plants. (Surah Ta Ha: 53)
Acting upon the sole purpose of protecting his position and looking for a discrepancy, Pharaoh completely changed the course of the conversation when faced with such clear truths. He stopped asking questions about Allah and started to make political accusations against Prophet Musa.
He resorted to such tactics because he was pushed into a corner and could not get the better of Prophet Musa through fair and rational means. He accused Prophet Musa of making magic:
We showed him all of Our signs, but he denied and spurned them. He said, 'Have you come to us to expel us from our land by means of your magic, Musa?' (Surah Ta Ha: 56-57)
In our day, too, there are many people who do not refer to their conscience to grasp the eternal power of Allah, and grow arrogant by displaying the character of Pharaoh. These people do not necessarily have to rule a country, or be at the head of a dictatorship like Pharaoh. The examples quoted here are some of the insincere questions Pharaoh asked to try to mock and deny the power and oneness of Allah. In modern day societies, such questions are frequently voiced, though with different words. Briefly, every age sees the same disbelieving philosophy insisting on employing wickedness and deviousness. However, it should not be forgotten that Allah made Pharaoh's end an example to people by drowning him and all the forces behind him. Those who display the character of Pharaoh will one day also face the wrath of Allah.
His distorted thoughts about Allah
As far as we learn from the Qur'an, Pharaoh did not have an atheist creed in the fullest sense. His claim that he was a god was intended for the people he reigned and this claim implied that he was the one to be obeyed and submitted to unconditionally across the land.
In other words, like many disbelievers, he too knew about the existence of Allah but failed to comprehend His true might. Intoxicated with the worldly position he held, he thought of Allah as a god ruling not on the earth but in the heavens and he saw himself as the 'lord' of Egypt, over which he reigned. A typical attitude of many pagan religions is that the 'gods' existed in another realm and did not concern themselves with life on earth. In line with this belief, Pharaoh utters the scornful words:
Pharaoh said, 'Council, I do not know of any other god for you apart from Me. Haman, kindle a fire for me over the clay and build me a lofty tower so that perhaps I may be able to climb up to Musa's god! I consider him a blatant liar.' (Surat al-Qasas: 38)
It is possible to see the deviant logic of Pharaoh still in evidence today. Because of their distorted and inadequate education, many people think that God is 'up in the sky'. This is a result of conditioning from an early age, where they are accustomed to seeing paintings supposedly depicting God and heaven. Many have been misguided into believing that God created the whole universe and all life within it and then left it to its own devices. They think that He does not interfere with worldly affairs. This nonsensical belief is due to man's not allowing himself to reflect deeply and listen to his conscience, and not allowing himself to accept his Lord Who has bestowed endless favours upon him. Allah is All-Powerful; His being encompasses the heavens and the earth; He is the Lord of them and everything in between.
Pharaoh's hypocrisy and untrustworthiness
Pharaoh and his associates were condemned to suffer various long-lasting torments, such as plagues and sicknesses, because of their disbelief. When they could not stand any more, they turned to Prophet Musa, although this was hard on their pride and arrogance. They promised him that they would believe if he removed the torments from them:
Whenever the plague came down on them they said, 'Musa, pray to your Lord for us by the contract He has with you. If you remove the plague from us, we will definitely believe in you and send the tribe of Israel away with you.' (Surat al-A'raf: 134)
Allah responded to Prophet Musa's prayer and removed the punishment from them for a certain time so that they would keep their promise. However, they displayed the untrustworthy and flighty character adopted by all corrupt disbelievers, and when the punishment was removed from them, they betrayed their word by returning to their old ways.
Finally, Allah took revenge on these people for their constant denial of His signs in spite of the many chances He had given them to believe. He manifested His attribute of 'al-Muntaqim' (one who punishes):
But when We removed the plague from them – for a fixed term which they fulfilled – they broke their word. Then We took revenge on them and drowned them in the sea because they denied Our Signs and paid no attention to them. (Surat al-A'raf: 135-136)
Deep within themselves, Pharaoh and those who followed him were aware of Allah's power, in spite of their denial and transgression. In their greatest hours of need, they turned to Prophet Musa to ask help from Allah for them. In those moments of pain and despair they knew that no one could help them but Allah the Almighty.
Nowadays when faced with disaster from which there appears to be no escape, such as a plane crash or a hurricane, many people who do not consider themselves religious will start praying, then when the danger is passed they forget and return to their old ways. The true believer worships Allah in times of hardship and fear and equally in times of happiness and security.
Pharaoh's oppression of the believers and their steadfast conviction
Pharaoh tried various ways to overcome Prophet Musa. One of these was the contest he organised to make Prophet Musa compete with the magicians he trusted most. He thought to humiliate Prophet Musa with a deceitful trick dressed up as a just and fair contest.
When the appointed day came, Prophet Musa and the magicians faced each other in a field where people had gathered. The magicians threw down their sticks to show their power. On account of their magic, the sticks seemed to be slithering about like snakes. When Prophet Musa threw his stick, by Allah's will it swallowed up the sticks of the magicians. The magicians were amazed and immediately realised that Prophet Musa was telling the truth and that he was the messenger of Allah. Pharaoh's own magicians then testified that there is no god and power but Allah. Seeing his scheme backfire on him, Pharaoh flew into a rage. He was humiliated in front of his people, and Prophet Musa, whom he considered to be so far beneath him, had won a great victory. He reacted violently against the magicians who believed, and ordered that they have opposite arms and legs amputated, then be executed by crucifixion (See Surat al-A'raf: 120-124).
The extreme cruelty of this punishment would be more than enough to silence a weak conscience, but amazingly the magicians who saw the truth, persisted in following their conscience despite such torture. Their conduct was a measure of the strength of their conviction, and is an example to all Muslims. After Pharaoh gave the orders for their torture and execution, they said:
'We will never prefer you to the Clear Signs which have come to us nor to Him who brought us into being. Decide on any judgement you like. Your jurisdiction only covers the life of this world.' (Surah Ta Ha: 72)
Pharaohs are rulers who lived thousands of years ago. The pharaoh related in the Qur'an, represents the character of hundreds of leaders preceding and succeeding him. The common quality of all these leaders is their summoning to the Fire. And the leader of these leaders is the shaytan. By not following their conscience and even more, waging a war against their conscience, these people have followed the orders of the shaytan out of greed for the world.
However, the counterparts of Pharaoh are not always rulers. The character of Pharaoh can be observed in all disbelievers who deny Allah as he did. With their absolute persistence in denial and their greed for rank and riches, even to a lesser degree thousands and millions of pharaohs will always exist on the earth. They will all end up in the same place in the hereafter: hell, the place of eternal disgrace and the wrath of fire.
Another example from the Qur'an
In Surat al-Kahf, Allah relates the example of two men. One of them was unable to fully comprehend the might of Allah. He was spoilt by his prosperity and achievements, and did not think about the hereafter. His friend was a sincere Muslim who understood Allah's power and spoke with humility and wisdom. Their conversation is related thus:
Make an example for them of two men. To one of them We gave two gardens of grape-vines and surrounded them with date-palms, putting between them some cultivated land. Both gardens yielded their crops and did not suffer any loss, and We made a river flow right through the middle of them. He was a man of wealth and property and he said to his companion, debating with him, 'I have more wealth than you and more people under me.' He entered his garden and wronged himself by saying, 'I do not think that this will ever end. I do not think the Hour will ever come. But if I should be sent back to my Lord, I will definitely get something better in return.' (Surat al-Kahf: 32-36)
The words of the owner of the vineyard represent a very common belief; many people 'believe' but do not understand the implications or responsibilities of belief. It is possible to hear someone who has prospered say, 'God didn't give me this, I worked hard for it', or someone who is persistent in wrongdoing say, 'God will forgive me'. The basis of this wrong belief is arrogance, self-delusion and believing in self-subsistence.
However, no matter how self-sufficient one may believe oneself to be, death is a fact that cannot be disputed. For those who believe that this life is everything, death represents the end: darkness, nothingness, no consciousness. This is terrifying for them, so they construct a picture of 'a happy afterlife' to console them and help them cope with death. On the one hand they do not believe in resurrection and judgement, while on the other hand they deceive themselves into believing that they will live a better life after death.
They are deceived by the gain they achieve in the life of this world. As shown in the above verse, the owner of the vineyard had almost attributed endlessness to his wealth, and thought that no power could destroy it.
In reply to the arrogant speech of the owner of the vineyard:
His companion, with whom he had been debating, said to him, 'Do you then disbelieve in Him who created you from dust, then from a drop of sperm, and then formed you as a man? He is, however, Allah, my Lord, and I will not associate anyone with my Lord. Why, when you entered your garden, did you not say, "It is as Allah wills, there is no strength but in Allah"? Though you see me with less wealth and children than you possess, it may be that my Lord will give me something better than your garden and send down on it a fireball from the sky so that morning finds it a shifting heap of dust, or morning finds its water drained into the earth so that you cannot get at it.' (Surat al-Kahf: 37-41)
A conscientious person practises and says what his conscience orders him under all circumstances. A true friend is not someone who remains silent for fear of offending his friend, but someone who cares about his friend's hereafter to such an extent that he cannot remain silent when he sees him doing something wrong. He speaks out and advises his friend with sincerity and good counsel, and warns him of Allah's penalty.
However, there will always be people who will not take counsel despite all the reminders. When it is time for Allah to punish such people, no friend can help them:
The fruits of his labour were completely destroyed and he woke up wringing his hands in grief, ruing everything that he had spent on it. It was a ruin with all its trellises fallen in. He said, 'Oh, if only I had not associated anyone with my Lord!' There was no group to come to his aid, besides Allah, and he was not given any help. In that situation the only protection is from Allah, the Real. He gives the best reward and the best outcome. (Surat al-Kahf: 42-44)