Pharaoh, Haman, Korah - In the Quran
"Go, both of you, to Pharaoh, for he has indeed transgressed all bounds; but speak to him in soft words; perchance he may take warning or fear." 20: 43,44
The scope of this essay is to explore the personality of Pharaoh, Haman and Korah as portrayed in the Quran, supplementing from the historical perspective and confirming what can be authenticated from the Bible and Torah. The reason to join these three characters in one essay is their interrelatedness in the events spoken of in the Quran and their being pieces that complete the picture of the way Pharaoh’s court was conducted. The Quran itself mentions them together in two places 29:39 and 40:24,
‘Unto Pharaoh and Haman and Korah, but they said: A lying sorcerer!’ 40:24
Historic/Cultural Position of the Pharaoh
The ayahs referred to at the beginning indicate that when Moses and Aaron were first sent to Egypt, though they were reluctant and fearful of the tyrannical nature of Pharaoh, yet Allah bade them to be gentle with him and not forsake the chance that he might take heed of the true signs sent to convince him and his people. So when Moses and Aaron reached the Pharaoh’s court and Moses showed him the miracles assigned to him, asking him to believe in God and to ‘let the children of Israel go with us, and torment them not’, so that they could take them back to the their homeland, Pharaoh replied with some odd questions:
(Pharaoh) said: Who then is the Lord of you twain, O Moses? He said: Our Lord is He Who gave unto everything its nature, then guided it aright. He said: What then is the state of the generations of old? 20: 49-51
These ayahs become more interesting when observed from the cultural and historic position of the Pharaoh. The Dynastic civilization comprising of the pharaohs of Egypt started from about 3100bc, before that villages were scattered along the Nile but there was no empire. It is thought that Narmer or Menes was the first pharaoh who united the Upper Egypt and the Lower Egypt. So who were the people of the Upper and Lower Egypt?
According to the Quranic tradition Mesopotamia was the first region inhabited after the Deluge subsided. As it happened, with the passage of ages the whiter race was pushes towards the northern sides and the swarthy race was pushed to the south, while the medium brown people dominated the mainland of that time. Considering the very early migrations from the Mesopotamian civilization a general track can be identified of the movement of the swarthy races along the eastern coastline of Arabia, at the end of which moving to the southern coast line they entered Africa via the Bab ul Mandeb Strait into Somalia. This route explains how most of the swarthy races inhabited central and southern Africa while the lighter Semitic races settled on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea, in North Africa and the South of Europe.
Considering this theory accurate, it can be determined that uniting Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt would have meant uniting the two diverse races, one of the dark-skinned Hamitic race and one of the Semites, under one king - the Semitic king of Lower Egypt. So for about 3millinia the pharaohic dynasties of the Lower Egypt control all the land along the Nile, from its delta falling in the Mediterranean up to modern Sudan. Though the Pharaohs had several periods of low, but at the peaks they aimed to not only control the population along the Nile but also the area to their west, now Libya, and the areas to their east up to the Levant, even engaging Syria in battles.
Raising crops and domesticating animals along the Nile had allowed the prosperity which led to trade with other states and import of technology. Culturally, the might gained by the pharaohs compelled them to assert divinity in their kingship, as in the case of Narmer, who was the representative of the god Horus and had subdued Set the god of Upper Egypt for Horus, thus making himself a god-king.
Rameses II who is thought to have ruled from 1279 to 1213bc, coinciding with the time of Moses, was also a pharaoh of great might and had made several campaigns over the Levant and Syria, where he tried to subdue the Hittite Empire. The famous Battle of Kadesh, the earliest battle in recorded history, was one of these campaigns. The map shows that the whole of the Levant was under control of the Pharaoh of that time.
Rameses II also had a cultural value in the historicity of Egypt, he brought the old system of many-gods back, which the last dynasty had changed by dominating the worship of the sun-god Aten over all other gods. After reigning for 30 years he was turned into a god in the Sed festival. The Sed Festival was an elaborate ceremony conducted under the High Priests of Amun, in a complex series of rituals and magic spells.
Big and small pyramids and statues celebrated the greatness of the pharaohs and were eternal abodes of the pharaohs and their family members. In this essay we will suppose that Rameses II was the pharaoh of Moses, but readers should be aware of the fact that all details pertaining Rameses II found from decipherings and other historical sources may not agree with the Quran. But it is suffice to assume that all deciphering may not have been accurate nor is it essential that the king’s historians would have been obligated to write only-the-truth.
The pyramids and the process of mummification represented the belief that the god-kings and their kin were to be received by the gods and got to live a yet more kingly life after death, perhaps among the stars. So when Moses asked the Pharaoh to believe in One God, it was natural for the Pharaoh to ask who their God was.
This would perhaps be useful in the assessment if Moses’ god was a weak one like Set whom the Pharaoh could defeat or a strong god like his own Horus. And it was again vital for Pharaoh to know of his dynastic ancestors who lay in the great pyramids along with their provisions, for he being a god-king himself, he was prepared for an after-death glory too. But Moses did not have an answer to such a question because the God that Moses was sent from was not a god of Egypt or of the sun or the moon but the God of the whole Universe and of the whole life-supporting cycle of events called nature and to Whom all will return alike and be judged with the same justice. Moses answered:
‘He said: The knowledge thereof (of your ancestors) is with my Lord in a Book. My Lord neither errs nor forgets. Who hath appointed the earth as a bed and hath threaded roads for you therein and hath sent down water from the sky and thereby We have brought forth diverse kinds of vegetation. Eat and feed your cattle. Lo! herein verily are portents for men of thought. Thereof We created you, and thereunto We return you, and thence We bring you forth a second time. And We verily did show him all Our tokens, but he denied them and refused’. 20:52-56
The other demand Moses and his brother presented to the Pharaoh, of freeing the Children of Israel and letting them go back to the Levant, would be equally surprising for the Pharaoh. Firstly because letting the Israelites go would mean losing a major work force that had been working almost like slaves for them for centuries. Secondly if the Israelites, estimated to be between 2 to 3million at that time, were to return to their native land in the Levant, that would mean planting a viable enemy force within a region Ramesses II and his predecessors had subdue with much warship. And now that the Hittite Empire finally seemed to be tottering to its collapse due to losses from battle both with the Pharaohs forces and with those of the rising Assyrian Empire at its east, it would be suicidal to put a blocking force in the way. Ramesses II deemed himself to be god-king of all land from Nubia to Anatolia and around the Nile from delta to source and that was how he wanted it to remain. Or perhaps there was a greater fear that compelled Pharaoh to say:
‘He said: Have you come to drive us out from our land by thy magic, O Moses?’ 20:57
Perhaps Pharaoh and his chieftains thought that to free a nation of people whom they had enslaved and excruciated for the last 3 or 4 centuries, would open the possibility that they would fire back at them. Perhaps the Pharaoh also knew that the Israelite were much more skillful and diligent then his own people and would prove a cleverer and more cunning nation, which would easily defeat them if they were granted any amount of freedom. Moreover as the Pharaoh considered the Levant a part of his homeland, as it had been conquered in his time, giving it away to the Israelites would mean being driven out of their own land and worse than that would be the case that the Israelites would soon be attacking back Egypt with their armies. Moreover the Israelites were not the only ones persecuted and enslaved by the Pharaohs, they did the same to the Nubians and the Put people, and freedom would set a dangerous precedence for them to follow.
Internal politics of Pharaoh’ Egypt
The Quran also gives us a picture of Pharaoh’s court-life and the internal politics of the state. The Quran often refers to Pharaoh and his Chieftains. Hieroglyphic interpretations has revealed that in the times of the pharaohs, Egypt was divided in some 42 provinces called nomes or sepats, each sepat was governed by princes called Heritepa-a or Haty-a. The Quranic narrations shows that these princes or chieftains were usually present at the Pharaoh’s court, perhaps also because most of them would be members of the Pharaoh’s own kingly clan. So the Pharaoh lived among closely knit, trustworthy associates, making possible a centralization of power. Pharaoh’s closeness to the Chiefs has been demonstrated in the Quran, whenever Moses and Aaron are present in the court of Pharaoh, the Chiefs are also there and Pharaoh take their approval in whatever he thinks right. Observe:
‘And We sent Moses with Our revelations unto Pharaoh and his chiefs… (43:46)
‘(Pharaoh) said to the chiefs: Lo! this is verily a knowing wizard’. (26:34)
‘And Pharaoh said: O chiefs! I know not that ye have a god other than me…’ (28:38)
Apart from the dynastic princes, there was another stratum of power based on faith and priesthood, the oracle of which was assumed by the High Priests of Amun. The Priests of Amun were accomplished in the art of magic required in the rituals in tombs and temples honoring the king and his kin. The Quran calls the High Priest of Amun by the name Haman. The name itself is of interest, as it is also similar with the name of Noah’s son Ham, who is known to be the swarthy one and whose generations entered Africa via the Horn of Africa and populated central and southern Africa. If this similarity is taken as valid then one could conclude that Haman represented the centralization of power of the people of the Upper Egypt – and once the Upper was united with the Lower, the unity was easily maintained with a slight devolution of power by giving some merits and benefits to the people of the Upper Egypt through the institution of Amun or Haman. The Quran uses the words:
‘…Pharaoh and Haman and their armies…’ 28:6
These words prove that Haman was not only the High Priest but also had under his command armies, perhaps comprising of the men of Upper Egypt. In Jewish text Haman and Korah were two richest men in the world.
The Book of Exodus mentions Korah as being the son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi. The Quran confirms this by saying:
‘Now Korah was of Moses' folk, but he oppressed them…’ 28:76
And when, according to the Quran, the people of Israel were advising Korah to use his riches to earn some favors for the hereafter, they accused him of corrupting the land:
‘…and be thou kind even as Allah hath been kind to thee, and seek not corruption in the land…’ (28:77)
This bring us back to the policy by which Pharaoh ruled his land – the policy of divide and rule! The Quran mentions:
‘Lo! Pharaoh exalted himself in the earth and made its people (divided in) sections (shee’ah, sheen-ya-ayn), oppressing a group among them, killing their sons and sparing their women. Lo! He was of those who work corruption.’ (28:4)
This ayah in fact points outs the general policy that Pharaoh had against the people and not just particularly with the Israelites. He would keep the people divided and instil in them fear by terrorizing each section by savagely punishing a group within them. And Korah, whom Allah had granted enormous wealth, was perhaps a linchpin for implementing Pharaoh’s policy upon the Israelites. The Quran does not give a direct evidence of how Korah made corruption in the land but the Bible and the Jewish text tell us that Korah would try to break the Jews from Moses and Aaron and engaged in logical arguments to let down Moses.
‘Now Korah… took men (250 men), they rose up in face of Moses… and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron…’ Book of Numbers (16: 1-3)
So Korah was a divider of the Israelites from within. The Quran mentions Korah with Pharoah and Haman in a way that shows him as an accomplice to their crime:
‘And had We sent Moses, with Our signs and an authority manifest, to Pharaoh, Haman, and Qarun; but they called (him) a sorcerer, a liar. And when he brought them the Truth from Our presence, they said: Slay the sons of those who believe with him, and spare their women.’ (40: 23-25)
The ayahs tell us that when Moses showed the signs to the three of them, all three consented on the decision of slaying those who believed in him – showing that they all were together and well-connected in the power play.
Pharaoh’s Concept of God and Haman
When Moses calls upon Pharaoh to believe in the One God who controls the earth, the heavens and the after-life, Pharaoh is stunned. Partly because he is too arrogant, considers himself a god and is spoilt in his tyranny and partly because of lacking the ability to recognize or simply refusing to recognize an all-powerful God that demands a total submission, who can neither be bribed by rituals nor does side with one against one’s enemies. Not the sun-god Ra or the moon-god Khonsu, not Osiris, the god of the dead nor Thoth the god of wisdom, but what Moses had to offer was a complete annihilation of all gods except One, Whom according to Moses was the one:
‘Who gave unto everything its nature’ (20: 50), who was ‘the Lord of the Worlds’ (26: 16), ‘Lord of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them’ (26: 24), who is ‘your Lord and the Lord of your fathers’ (26: 26), ‘Lord of the East and the West and all that is between them’ (26: 28).
But Pharaoh was unconversant with such a God, the gods Pharaoh knew of, perhaps were not so far-fetched nor were their purpose to put a great king like himself into accountability. The Egyptians believed that like Horus was god in the sky, Pharaoh was the living-Horus on earth and all the exuberant rituals and offering that the pharaohs spent on the gods were a handsome due, to win the gods to their favor. Moreover, the Pharaoh himself had been proclaimed to be a god, at the Seth Festival in the recent past, after completing 30years of his kingship. And at such a panicle of glory achieved with wars, strategy and an iron-fist had Moses come to tell him of a God greater than himself?
‘And Pharaoh said: O chiefs! I know not that ye have a god other than me…’ (28:38) ‘And proclaimed: "I (Pharaoh) am your Lord the Highest."’ (79: 24)
How could Pharaoh be so sure that he was of the greatest gods? How could Pharaoh be so sure of the realms of the unknown? Was it merely stubborn arrogance and absolute trust upon his military might, his administrative wisdom and his constant victories at all fronts that urged the Pharaoh to be oblivious to the possibility of another God that would require him to submit? And if so, would that God send an army of mere two men, one a slave and the other a fugitive, with an ammunition of mere trickeries, the like of which are commonplace in Egypt? Or was it something different?
Did Pharaoh have direct experiences with the realm of the gods and was it such an experience that had made Pharaoh so cock-sure of what the real worth of gods was? Observe how the Quran tell of Pharaoh commanding Haman, the High Priest and magician of the highest order, for a fresh experience of such a kind:
‘And Pharaoh said: O chiefs! I know not that ye have a god other than me, so kindle for me (a fire), O Haman, to bake the mud; and set up for me a tower (Sirhan) in order that I may survey the God of Moses; and lo! I deem him of the liars.’ (28:38)
‘And Pharaoh said: O Haman! Build for me a tower (Sirhan) that haply I may reach the means (as-sbaab), the means to the heavens, and may mount up to the God of Moses, though verily I think him a liar. This is how the evil deeds of Pharaoh were made to look good to him, and his route was shut (sadda). And what scheme Pharaoh had made ended but in ruin (Tababin)’ (40: 36, 37)
These ayahs demand a thorough analysis, as they may be revealing the nature of relation between Pharaoh and Haman. Let’s first look at the words used in these ayahs, the root word sad-ra-ha means to make manifest, pure or clear, while Sarhun refers to a palace, high tower, lofty structure or a single camber built apart in an open area. Sarhun fits the definition of an obelisk, while generally obelisks are tall, four-sided, tapering monuments which end in a pyramid-like shape at the top, it seems that these obelisks are symbolic to the actual obelisk. The actual obelisk that Haman was ordered to construct would be a lofty tower with a staircase inside it, raising the initiate from level to level and from gate to gate, until the initiate reaches the top, which might be an opening to a star-gate. And at the star-gate the initiate would encounter visions of perhaps the gods residing in the heavens, which of course were not real but effects created by magic. This type of initiation is common in most belief-systems based on magic and rituals, for example the Babylonians believed in the ‘Ladder of Lights’ (or Bab.Ili , Stairway of the Gods).
The word Tababin is also of interest, the root word ta-ba-ba means to suffer loss, become beaten/trodden/lost, become old, perished, to cut-off, be doomed. But if we consider the first letter ‘ta’ as a prefix which comes sometimes as a swearing, or as an imperative or as denoting wonder then we are left with the word Bab of root-word ba-waw-ba meaning door/gate, place of entrance, mode/manner. If this is so then it would add a dimension to Pharaoh being beaten and doomed in his act against the God of Moses, as he is left vanquished between the gates he endeavored to pass.
Haman being the high priest must have been in charge of the construction of the temples, the pyramids and the obelisks, so when Pharaoh heard of Moses’ God, he thought it best to go and meet Him by face, as he had experienced with other gods before. So he asks Haman to build a lofty obelisk for him. Pharaoh asked him to kindle a fire, a special fire to bake bricks for a construction such as required now. Once the obelisk was ready Pharaoh was to climb it, Haman’s magic would help him pass higher and higher through the gates of experience. Pharaoh did not realize that an earthly king like him should not think that the King of the Universe would allow His subjects to deem anyone but Him as their God, the Quran says that like this Pharaoh saw his sinful arrogance as a matter of pride - but his route was made to be cut off and he was left bewildered between the gates and the mark of doom was stamped upon his fate.
Who drowned with Pharaoh?
There are two instances in the Quran that raise in our minds the question of the possibility of ascertaining whether those drowned with Pharaoh were Egyptians in general or some particular people.
Firstly the set of ayahs that mentions how Allah intended to make a people who were weak in the land, hire of the land by drowning Pharaoh:
‘Indeed Pharaoh elated himself in the land and broke up its people into sections, depressing a small group among them: their sons he slew, but he kept alive their females: for he was indeed a maker of mischief’. 28:4
‘And We wished to be Gracious to those who were being depressed in the land, to make them leaders and make them heirs,’ 28:5
‘To establish a firm place for them in the land, and to show Pharaoh, Haman, and their hosts, at their hands, the very things which they were fearing’. 28:6
And secondly the other ayahs that mention the drowning of the Aal e Firoun (meaning the family of Pharaoh), like:
‘And remember We divided the sea for you and saved you and drowned the Aal e Firoun within your very sight’. 2:50
‘…so We destroyed them for their crimes, and We drowned the Aal e Firoun, for they were all oppressors and wrong-doers’. 8:54
The first set of ayahs indicates the fact that Pharaoh did not only persecute the Bani Israel but also the other folk that were perhaps indigenous to the land. As analyzed above, the dynastic Pharaohs had slowly occupied the surrounding lands of the Put people (Lybia) to their west and the Land of the Kush and the Punt people of present Sudan and Ethiopia and had definitely kept all these people under their oppressive rule.
The Quran’s saying that Allah intended to be ‘gracious to those who were being depressed in the land, to make them leaders and make them heirs, and to establish a firm place for them in the land’, clearly shows that here the Quran is not talking about the Bani Israel, as they were to be sent away from this land to another land that was promised to them. Historians estimate the time when Ramesses II lost power and the Dynastic Period of the Pharaohs ended to be the time when the Upper and Lower Egypt split, meaning Egypt split from the Nubian or Sudanese region. Following this at about 800bc the Nubian king Piy conquered Egypt.
The usage of the word ‘aal’ in the Quran itself signifies that the Quran tends to use this word for someone’s ‘family’ not as someone’s ‘nation’, as elaborately discussed in the essay Darood e Ibraheemi. Also shown in the above analysis was the fact how the Pharaohs had placed their kin and clan in all positions of power, spread around the kingdom to hold strongly to control. Perhaps that is the fact referred to when the Quran says at the event of the exodus and when the Aal of Pharaoh was to be drowned;
‘Then Pharaoh sent into the cities summoners: These (Israelites) are but a band small-numbered. And lo! they have angered us. And we are an alert army. Thus We (Allah) took them out of their gardens and water-springs. And from treasures and fair estates. (26:53-58).
These iyahs show that those whom Pharaoh summoned and gathered were not the common people of Egypt but the richest, most powerful ones, comprising the fighters and controllers and that it is most probable that most of these if not all were the clan of Pharaoh. This leads us to the probable conclusion that Pharaoh and his Army that drowned that day, was mostly comprised of the dynastic clan that had conquered, ruled and enslaved the indigenous people adjacent to the Upper and Lower Nile.
The Quran testifies that Korah was one of the Bani Israel and therefore he was among those who had crossed the Red Sea safely with Moses and the rest of the tribe, whilst he saw his former accomplice and dear friend Pharaoh drown along with his whole army and clan. Then comes the very intriguing tale of Korah’s parade of self-exult and his punishment thereof. The Quran says:
‘Now Korah was of Moses' folk, but he oppressed them; and We gave him so much treasure that the stores thereof would verily have been a burden for a troop of mighty men. When his own folk said unto him: Exult not; lo! Allah loveth not the exultant;’ 28:76
‘But seek the abode of the Hereafter in that which Allah hath given thee and neglect not thy portion of the world, and be thou kind even as Allah hath been kind to thee, and seek not corruption in the earth; lo! Allah loveth not corrupters,’ 77
‘He said: I have been given it only on account of knowledge I possess. Knew he not that Allah had destroyed already of the generations before him men who were mightier than him in strength and greater in respect of following? The guilty are not questioned of their sins’.78
‘Then went he forth before his people in his pomp. Those who were desirous of the life of the world said: Ah, would that we had the like of what hath been given unto Korah! Lo! he is lord of rare good fortune’.79
‘But those who had been given knowledge said: Woe unto you! The reward of Allah for him who believeth and doeth right is better, and only the steadfast will obtain it’. 80
‘So We caused the earth to swallow him and his dwelling-place. Then he had no host to help him against Allah, nor was he of those who can save themselves’.81
‘And morning found those who had coveted his place but yesterday, crying: Ah! Allah enlargeth the provision for whom He will of His slaves and straiteneth it (for whom He will). If Allah had not been gracious unto us He would have caused it to swallow us (also). Ah! the disbelievers never prosper’. 28: 82
A very striking lesson that the Quran gives here is Korah’s saying that ‘I have been given it (all this wealth) only on account of knowledge I possess’, the vanity in his remark is obvious, but the Quran wants us to understand that knowledge itself is a virtue bestowed to one by the grace of Allah, it is a wealth like other wealth and it too it has a zakat (tax) on it, for the possessor of this wealth are obligated to return the fruits of this wealth to the society too. So Korah’s being a genius in his crafts and knowledge does not give him the right to be vain among the people, but that is exactly what he did; the Bible’s account on his story shed some light upon his character in this context too, in Numbers -16 it comes like this:
‘ Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and certain Reubenites—Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—became insolent and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council. 3 They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”’
In Rabbinic literature, Korah is depicted as a man of acumen with the ability to leave Moses clueless of what was going on; here are the questions Korah presents to Moses: "Does a ṭallit made entirely of blue wool need fringes?" To Moses' affirmative answer Korah objected: "The blue color of the ṭallit does not make it ritually correct, yet according to thy statement four blue threads do so" (Num. xv. 38). "Does a house filled with the books of the Law need a mezuzah?" Moses replied that it did; whereupon Korah said: "The presence of the whole Torah, which contains 175 chapters, does not make a house fit for habitation, yet thou sayest that one chapter thereof does so. It is not from God that thou hast received these commandments; thou hast invented them thyself."
If these accounts are accurate then it is clear that Korah was a sort of evil-genius, who not only kept to his wealth at a desperate time when the Israelites were suffering in the wilderness of Sinai, but had also kept them divided by proving Moses wrong with his logical fallacies. On the other hand, to think that Moses would be defeated by Korah’s jugglery of words, when Moses was on the truth all the time, is unacceptable – the same Moses who had encountered Pharaoh along with his host of council several times in Egypt.
So Korah’s haughtiness and his sinister claim of being the wisest brought upon him the wrath of Allah and he was along with his immense treasures engulfed by the earth, as his whole camp was swallowed by the ground.
And real knowledge, in the eyes of Allah was with those who said, ‘…Woe unto you (Korah)! The reward of Allah, for him who believeth and doeth right is better, and only the steadfast will obtain it’. May Allah give such knowledge with true knowing to all believers, and may He accept our little efforts as big, ameen.