By Ansar Al ‘Adl
The allegation is as follows:
Was Pharaoh Drowned or Saved when chasing Moses and the Israelites? Saved [10:92], drowned [28:40, 17:103, 43:55].
Since it is well-established amongst Muslims that Pharaoh was drowned, we need only examine verse 10:92 in context, which is the basis upon which the critic builds his argument:
10:90-92. And We took the Children of Israel across the sea, and Pharaoh and his army pursued them in oppression and enmity. At length, when he began to drown, he said: “I believe that none has the right to be worshipped but the One in Whom the Children of Israel believe, and I am one of the Muslims.” [We declared] “Now (you believe) while you refused to believe before and you were one of the evil-doers. [Thus, you shall never be forgiven] but this day We shall deliver you as a corpse (out from the sea) that you may be a sign to those who come after you! And verily, many among mankind are heedless of Our signs.
- The claim is based on a misinterpretation of verse 10:92, specifically the phrase ‘falyawma nunajjîka bibadanika‘, that ‘this day we shall deliver you as a corpse’. The misinterpretation arises from some translations rendering the phrase as “this day we shall save you in your body”, which can be confusing to the reader since the key point to note is thatPharoah was not saved, but his dead body was preserved and delivered from the sea for the Children ofIsrael as proof of his death. This explanation has been provided in many books of tafsir (Qur’anic exegesis), for example the renowned scholar Ibn Kathir Ad-Damishqi (d.1372CE) writes in his Tafsir Al-Qur’an Al-Azim:
About Allah’s statement,
(So this day We shall deliver your (dead) body (out from the sea) that you may be a sign to those who come after you!)
Ibn ‘Abbas and others from among the Salaf have said:
“Some of the Children of Israel doubted the death of Fir’awn (Pharoah) so Allah commanded the sea to throw his body – whole, without a soul – with his known armor plate. The body was thrown to a high place on the land so that the Children of israel could confirm his death and destruction.” (fn. At-Tabari 15:196). That is why Allah said,
(So this day we shall deliver you..”) meaning that we will put your body on a [raised] place on the earth. Mujahid said,
“(your (dead) body) means, ‘your physical body.'” (fn. At-Tabari 15:197).
(that you may be a sign to those who came after you!) meaning, so that might be proof of your death and destruction for the Children of Israel. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Abridged, Darussalam Publishers & Distributors 2000, vol. 4, pp. 653-654)
Thus, Ibn Kathir explains, by quoting the traditional understanding of the earliest Muslims, that this phrase only signifies that the dead body of Phraoah was delivered from the Sea. This is confirmed by many narrations found in the tafsir of Imam Ibn Jarir At-Tabari (d. 923CE):
God says that He told Pharaoh that We shall throw your body on a raised piece of land so that people see you dead, whoever has any doubts about your death.
…Muhammad Ibn Sa’d told me: My father told me: My uncle told me that his father reported from his own father who reported that Ibn ‘Abbâs commented on “falyawma nunajjîka bibadanika litakûna liman khalfaka ‘âyah” that God saved Pharaoh from the sea for the sake of the Children of Israel so that they looked at him after he was drowned. If one asked why say “bibadanika” and whether it would be possible for Pharaoh to be saved without his body so that one needs to specify “bibadanika”. It would be said that Pharaoh could be saved as a body without life/soul meaning lifeless. (ARABIC SOURCE)
A similar explanation is given in the tafsir of Fakhr Al-Din Ar-Razi (d. 1209CE), in which he clarifies the meaning of several phrases in the verse:
There are certain aspects that need explanation in “Today We shall save you as a body”: Firstly, “We shall save you” means We shall throw you [out of the water] on a plateau, which is a raised piece of land. Secondly: We shall bring you out of the waters and relieve you from what has befallen your people in the pit of the sea, but only after you have drowned. The phrase “as a body” is a circumstantial phrase, implying that ‘such would be your situation at that time that you shall be a body, without life’. Thirdly, this is a promise of relief for the Pharaoh, by way of sarcasm, as the Qur’an has said [elsewhere] ‘give them the glad tidings of a painful punishment’. This is as if to say to Pharaoh: We shall relieve you, but this relief shall be granted to your body only, not to your soul. (Tafsir Al-Kabir, SOURCE)
And the following explanation is found in Tafsir Al-Jalalayn, written by Imam Jalal Ad-Deen Al-Muhalla (d. 1460CE) and his student, Jalal Al-Din As-Suyuti (d. 1505CE):
“falyawma nunajjîka” [meaning] We will deliver you from the sea; “bibadanika” [meaning] as a corpse devoid of life/soul; “litakûna liman khalfaka” [meaning as a sign for those who would come] afterwards… (ARABIC SOURCE)
The above detailed commentaries have been cited so as to leave no doubt in the reader’s mind concerning the unanimous agreement amongst Muslim scholars on this issue – that these verses imply that Pharoah was drowned, while his body was preserved. It by no means can be taken to mean that Pharoah was saved as such an interpretation would conflict with the literal arabic wording, other parts of the Qur’an, and the statements from the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the early Muslims.
2. Some critics also raise the question as to who is conveying the words in verses 10:91-92 to Pharoah. According to them, this verse necessitates that he is either a Prophet since God is speaking to him directly, or a Prophet must be there whil he is drowning speaking these words to him. This objection is flawed for several reasons.
First of all, even though God is the speaker addressing Pharoah in verses 10:91-92, this does not necessitate that God’s words were actually heard by Pharoah. We can find many analogous exampls in our daily lives. For instance, a hunter loses his prey and mutters, “You won’t get away! I’ll hunt you down wherever you may hide!” Thus, it is common for a statement to be directed towards someone but not intended for that individual to hear. Nevertheless, the words conveyed to us in verse 10:91-92 may heave been heard by the Angels or inhabitants of heaven, or it is possible that an Angel may have conveyed them to Pharoah – the verse simply doesn’t specify which, as it is an irrelevant matter.
3. Some historians and Muslim scholars have identified the ‘Pharoah’ mentioned in the Qur’an with some Pharoahs from Ancient Egypt, such as Ramses II or Merneptah. Although these may be interesting historical theories, they are not confirmed facts nor do they have any bearing on the Qur’anic message. As Mufti Muhammad Shafi, the late Grand Mufti of Pakistan, writes in his tafsir:
Some time back, newspaper reports indicated that the dead body of Pharoah was found intact and was seen by the public at large and that it was deposited safely in the Cairo Museum. But, it cannot be said with certainty that this is the same Pharoah who confronted Sayyidna Musa (Moses) (peace be upon him), or is some other Pharoah because names of Pharoahs differ. Every ruler of Egypt in that period of history had the title of Pharoah.
But, no wonder, the Divine power had throwned a drowned dead body ashore. Very similarly, it may have kept it even preserved against spoilage so that it could become a lesson for future generations. And it may still be there! (However it remains essential to learn a lesson from it as compared to becoming excited about its discovery as an archaeological triumph). (Shafi, Ma’ariful Qur’an, Maktaba-e-Darul-Uloom, Karachi, 2003, vol. 4, p. 574, emphasis added)
Thus, Muslims should remember that these stories have been revealed in the Qur’an as a lesson and reminder for us, so that we may take heed and serve Allah before it is too late.
The above points should clarify that there is no contradiction between the referred passages in the Qur’an, as nothing has been stated that indicates Pharoah did not drown.
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