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Lessons on power and oppression from Moses 4

God! There is no deity but He! To Him belong the most Beautiful Names. Has the story of Moses reached thee? (Qur’an 20:8-9)


In this blog, I continue with Lesson 4.  You can find links to previous lessons below.

Lesson 1
Lesson 2
Lesson 3

According to Islamic teachings, Moses, upon him peace, is a revered prophet and messenger. As I explained in previous blogs, Islam is not a whole new religion that started with Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings, but the culmination and continuation of previous monotheistic faiths.  So Muslims revere many of the same prophets who are revered in the Bible. Moses of the Qur’an is not exactly the same as the Christian or Jewish Moses, and this has been discussed in many interfaith dialogues.  However, the aim of the series is not to refute or disagree with other narratives of Moses, but to share lessons from the Islamic narrative on Moses.  I ended the previous lesson with Moses, upon him peace, being called to prophethood.

“…Blessed is whosoever is in the fire, and whosoever is round about it!  And far removed is God from every imperfection, the Lord of all that exists.  “O Moses!  Verily!  It is I, God, the All-Mighty, and the All-Wise.” (Quran 27:8-9)

Before I continue with this lesson, it is important to mention that although Moses, upon him peace, was a strong military leader, he did not wage war against the Pharaoh.  This story of Moses and the Pharaoh is a unique one that has many, many lessons that call for intensive study and reflection.  I only hope to capture a few of them to put on the table as we continue our conversations on Islam and Muslims.  In addition, I hope this lesson can be revisited during conversations about power and oppression.

One scholar who I respect, Reza Aslan, noted that people do not hurt the people they know.  Thus the solution to Islamophobia is relationships.  I agree and disagree, but first I ask: What type of relationships?  After all, people do hurt people they know.  Most cases of rape are between people who know one another, and domestic violence is one of the leading causes of injury to women in the United States.  Oppression cannot be fought by simply having dinner and being kind to your neighbors, who are sometimes also your oppressors.   A case in point is the Chapel Hill shootings, where three youths were shot dead execution-style by their neighbor, who apparently knew them and yet still hated them, apparently for their religion.  He knew them, yet the father of two of the victims said that he had brought a gun to their house before and threatened them with it.  Healthy boundaries within relationships are necessary for coexistence and harmony, and there was not a healthy boundary to protect the three youths from their neighbor.  

This lesson can also be found in the story of the Pharaoh, who kills his wife Asiya.  According to Islamic teachings, Asiya is a noblewoman, a role model for all women.  Yet the Pharaoh believed he was the deity, and that everyone should look up to him. He saw others as objects to exploit and enslave, acted like judge, jury and executioner and used “divide and conquer” strategies to maintain power in the land.  There was no one to call him to account for his cruelty or slaughter of others.  He acted with no accountability to any rule of law or power.

He knew his wife very well, but this didn’t stop him from killing her, as he believed he had the right to do it. Perhaps he even believed he was “defending” himself.

The oppressed, like the Jews during Moses’s time, find they must resist this abusive power to liberate themselves.  Oftentimes throughout history, religion has been used to fight wars. Some of these are for liberation, while others are a distortion of religious teachings.  I share these lessons because of the chaos that has allowed some Muslims to distort and twist Islamic teachings and promote themselves as “reformers” – harming others in the process. Others have used these reformers to malign Islam and Muslims broadly, even though their actions were repeatedly condemned by many leading voices and organizations.

One cannot trivialize or discount the valid grievances that many Muslims have toward powerful countries today.  An article by Nafeez Ahmed called “Unworthy victims,” states that Western wars have killed four million Muslims since 1990. Much of this is the result of power unchecked.  But there are other powers that are corrupt and unchecked, among them many Arab and Muslim leaders in many, areas in the Middle East, including the rise of ISIS and other Islamic groups using terror to gain power.

It is ludicrous to blame everything on the West, as it is ludicrous to blame everything on Islam.  The clash between the West and Islam is really all in our minds:  It is a means to avoid looking at the real issues: Who has power, what sort of power, and what is it being used for?

These issues cannot be wished away by getting to know each other. Many influential US columnists travel to Arab and Muslim lands, engage, share meals and discuss issues, yet what type of relationships do they establish with the residents?  As a case in point, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wants President Obama to be blunt with Turkey on the Armenian genocide. Indeed, Turkey should hold a reckoning about its genocide.  Yet in all his articles Kristof refuses to be similarly blunt with his own government, especially his and his colleagues’ cheerleading and shutting down of public debate on the Iraq war, a war that contributed to the rise of ISIS.  In their usual fare, most just want to blame it all on Islam.

Chris Hedges describes these false friends best in his article on Truthdig, "The Treason of the Intellectuals.”

Hedges’ argument shows that the relationships they created were not healthy, equal ones, where each knew and appreciated the other, but relationships that enable and support unchecked abusive power while silencing the voices of the oppressed.

Likewise, in an ALTERNET article by CJ Werleman, "Maher have in common with medieval Christian crusaders," Werleman equates the language and arguments on ISIS, Middle Eastern conflict, and Islamic terrorism, by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher, with Christian Crusaders and 21st-century U.S. neo-conservatism.  How many conversations, discussions and relationships have they established with Muslims and Arabs? What sorts of relationships are these?

One might convince oneself that they do not believe in God, but when one acts like cheerleaders for war and shuts down the public debate and any and all critical thinking -- these are actions of a Pharaoh. 

Moses, upon him peace, went through his tests in order to manifest to us the inner reality of his struggles, helping us to reflect on our inner selves and our inner realities.  These were difficult and severe trials, through which he surrendered to God's will, allowing God to be his teacher, and opening himself to the means that God uses to teach him and protect him.  The means were many.

The test of the Midian, during which Moses arrived in a foreign land as an immigrant in difficult circumstances, is a particularly beautiful test, and many of us face a similar test when we immigrate to another land and need to establish wholly new relationships.  What type of relationships did Moses establish with the residents of Midian?  Who is in our heart?  Did we run from the Pharaoh physically, yet does he still lurk in our heart and soul?  When God places another human being who is weak and unprotected before us, do we fulfill their needs without asking for anything in return, or do we exploit them?  Do we justify to ourselves their oppression and persecution because we were persecuted?  

When some Muslims and Arabs fled persecution from various Muslim and Arab countries, how did they treat women, minorities, those who are weak and unprotected?  When some early European-Americans fled persecution from Europe, what happened to the earlier residents of this land?  When Jews fled persecution from Europe to Palestine, what happened to the residents there?  

The lessons and trials so far were to teach us to look inward and ask ourselves, first and foremost: Who lurks in our heart and soul?  The first medicine that faith offers to the oppressed is not to rise up in arms and put oneself in power. Instead, it is to remove the Pharaoh from your soul. Don't be a Pharaoh to others.  Likewise Moses, upon him peace, was asked to give spiritual counseling to the Pharaoh, as well as to society, where many have a love-hate relationship toward him.

As with Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings, prayer was prescribed for Moses and his followers.  

But when he came to the fire, a voice was heard: "O Moses!  "Verily I am thy Lord! therefore (in My presence) put off thy shoes: thou art in the sacred valley Tuwa.  "Verily, I am God: There is no diety but I: So serve thou Me (only), and establish regular prayer for celebrating My praise. "Verily the Hour is coming - My design is to keep it hidden - for every soul to receive its reward by the measure of its Endeavour.  "Therefore let not such as believe not therein but follow their own lusts, divert thee therefrom, lest thou perish!".. (Quran 20:11-16)

God does not benefit by our prayers or remembering Him.  The prayers benefit us and our hearts, by protecting them from allowing the Pharaoh to enter and the light of faith to increase.  Here, I would like to reflect on the following names of God:

as-Sami - All-Hearing.  He hears all, that which comes from the lips, passes through the minds, is felt by the hearts; the rustling of leaves in the wind, the footsteps of the ants and the atoms' moving through the void.  There is no screen that prevents the sound from reaching Him, nor is one sound heard less than the other when an almost infinite number of voices is speaking.

al-Basir - All-Seeing.  He sees all that has passed, all there is and all there will be until the end of time...He has also given to His creatures the ability to see colors and movements to behold his creation...He has given man an eye of the heart, to see deeper than what meets the eye-an inner eye to see the inner man.

--The Most Beautiful Names, Sheikh Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi al-Halveti

Often silenced by the cheerleaders of war and abusive power, the oppressed have a strong desire for a witness to hear their pain and suffering.  Malcolm X said that power respects power, and I think healthy power respects everyone. However, abusive power only respects power that will hold it in check.  For this reason, when one finds themselves weak, and those in power are abusive, and their leaders are corrupt, one connects to the All-Seeing, the All-Hearing and seeks His guidance on how to respond and protect oneself.  

God spoke directly to Moses, and Moses was told the wisdom behind everything that had happened to him, which was in preparation for his mission in life as a prophet and messenger of God.  A dialogue begins on signs that Moses was commanded to take to the Pharaoh as proof that he was sent by God.

This was the first sign for the Pharaoh:

“And throw your stick!”  But when he saw it moving as if it were a snake, he turned in flight and looked not back.  (It was said): “O Moses!  Draw near, and fear not.  Verily, you are of those who are secure”. (Quran 28:31)

Another sign for the Pharaoh:

"Move thy hand into thy bosom, and it will come forth white without stain (or harm), and draw thy hand close to thy side (to guard) against fear. Those are the two credentials from thy Lord to Pharaoh and his Chiefs: for truly they are a people rebellious and wicked." (Quran 28:32) 

The staff that Moses used as a shepherd is turned to a snake to illustrate to Moses that God is not limited to means, and one should use the means while relying on God.  Although Moses was very strong on the outside, we see through this dialogue with God his humility, his humanity, and his vulnerability.  A healthy person does not see themselves as a deity who can take on the world, but is in touch with his or her weaknesses and vulnerability.  It also shows us that when Moses, upon him peace, faced the Pharaoh, he faced him not relying on himself, or the means in his hand (staff), seeing himself as a deity, but on God, commanded by Him and protected by Him to speak to Pharaoh.

A key is the humility of Moses, who did not forget the man he accidentally slew in error.

He said: "O my Lord! I have slain a man among them, and I fear lest they slay me. (Quran 28:33) 

Moses, upon him peace, has an inner life that shows he was aware of his weaknesses, a deeply humble person.  He argues, Maybe I am not the most qualified person for the job.  But God had selected him and was preparing him throughout his life for this mission.  He will also protect him.

"And my brother Aaron - He is more eloquent in speech than I: so send him with me as a helper, to confirm (and strengthen) me: for I fear that they may accuse me of falsehood." He said: "We will certainly strengthen thy arm through thy brother, and invest you both with authority, so they shall not be able to touch you: with Our Sign shall ye triumph,- you two as well as those who follow you." (Quran 28:34-35)

God directed Moses to go to Pharaoh.  

"Go, both of you, to Pharaoh, for he has indeed transgressed all bounds;  "But speak to him mildly; perchance he may take warning or fear (God)."

To varying degrees, we all have a pharaoh and Moses within us.  The dominant voice within is based on our relationships with those in power and those who are unprotected.  If we obsess over our security only, and are cheerleaders for those in power, then we are the Pharaoh or the Pharaoh's yes-men.  If we seek power and are obsessed with our own pain and suffering only, then we are the Israelite who fought for selfish motives, a Pharaoh wanna-be.  If we align ourselves with those in power and hold them in check and align with those who are oppressed and support them, then the dominant voice within us is Moses.  Reflect on your relationships with people who are in power and those who are unprotected.  Are these relationships that promote coexistence and harmony and security for all, or are they relationships that promote us to the top with total disregard for who is sacrificed?

To God belong the most Beautiful Names. Has the story of Moses reached you? 

NOTE:  I will be leaving Your Voices, I hope to continue the series on Engage Minnesota.  I will make updates later today or early morning.

Lessons on power and oppression from Moses 3

God! There is no deity but He! To Him belong the most Beautiful Names. Has the story of Moses reached thee? (Qur’an 20:8-9)


I would like continue the series on power and oppression.  Links to the previous blogs on this series are below:

Lesson 1
Lesson 2

He prayed "O my Lord! save me from people given to wrong-doing." Then, when he turned his face towards (the land of) Midian, he said: "I do hope that my Lord will show me the smooth and straight Path."   (Quran 28:22)

Moses, upon him peace, went from being like a prince, experiencing privilege and prestige to now a fugitive running away from a tyrant out to slay him, to the land of Midian.  The land of Midian was inhabited by Arabs, and some commentators say that the Arab Prophet, Shuaib was in the town, while others say it was the esteemed believer, known in the Bible as Jethro or Yathra in Arabic.

When Moses arrived to Midian, he was traveling for eight days, exhausting himself to the very end, reaching a point of starvation with his feet bleeding from walking tirelessly without food or water, except what he can find on the trees.  He came near a well and fell underneath the shade of trees for shelter.  He had completely nothing with him, and fully exhausted himself - to the very depth of his body and soul in pursuit of survival.  It is not an easy experience - but in that state - what does he do?  

Some would commit suicide, others go on shooting rampage, and others on drugs to numb their feelings or escape from the pain, fear and a whole new reality.  He just experienced and accepted the event.  He surrendered to the new reality he was in as this is where God brought him to.  Then, in a state of dire need and exhaustion, he saw two women who had a need.  Instead, of being absorbed with his need and his near starvation and exhaustion, he got up and approached them, asked a clarifying question, then addressed their need.  He asked them for nothing in return.  He made no assumptions or ugly accusations about their standing with their flock instead of a male relative.  Afterwards, he turned to God and put forth his prayer asking for "whatever good that You bestow on me."

“And when he arrived at the water of Midian he found there a group of men watering their flocks, and beside them he found two women who were keeping back their flocks.  He said, “What is the matter with you?”  They said, “We cannot water (our flocks) until the shepherds take their flocks.  And our father is a very old man.”  Therefore, he watered their flocks for them, and then he turned back to shade, and said, “My Lord!  Truly, I am in need of whatever good that You bestow on me!”  (Quran 28:22-24)

In this blog, I would like to reflect on the following names of God:

Al Wahhab - Allah has created a creation of donors who give without expecting return.  But because they are not the creators of the things given through their hands, they are but signs of Allah's al-Wahhab.  He is the donor of all, without conditions, without limits, without asking any benefit or return, given everything to everyone, everywhere, always. he gives money to the poor, health to the sick, children to those who are barren, freedom to the trapped, knowledge to the ignorant.

Al Muhaymin - He is the Protector and Guardian.  He is the one who sees to the evolution and the growth of His creation, leading them where they are destined to go.  Nothing escapes His attention for a moment.  He is the one who watches the good deeds and rewards them fully.  He counts the sins exactly, not adding to their punishment evens an amount the size of a mustard seed.  One may find the reflection of al-Muhaymin in oneself through consciousness and awareness-by watching intently ones's actions, words, thoughts, and feelings, and by trying to control them.

--The Most Beautiful Names, Sheikh Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi al-Halveti

Moses hoped for anything to help him survive as he was near starvation.  Yet, God, Al Muhaymin watched the good deed that Moses fulfilled for the two women, without expecting anything in return.  So, God, rewarded him, in return, turning to him with His name al-Wahhab - giving him shelter, food, job, and a family.  Two things to note in this part of the story - a leader cannot have a deep seated prejudice towards women, see them as objects or exploit them.  

So, people who go to strip joints, and then shoot Charlie Hebdo or Boko Haram who kidnap girls to abuse them, are not reformers.

A leader or reformer does not violate the boundaries of another human being, does not manipulate, does not hype others, does not overpower others for selfish motives and is open to embracing and receiving wisdom and knowledge from others.  He does not look down at other cultures or embrace xenophobia or bigotry.  He does not fear learning "Western education" and encourages Western societies not to fear "Eastern education."

“O humankind!  We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.” (Quran 49:13)

Like Prophet Muhammad, Moses, upon them peace and blessings, was not a tribal leader or promoted tribalism or racism.  He was able to live amongst Arabs in Midian and embrace other cultures - and appreciate them.  

Another important point to note is that the woman hinted to her dad, her desire to marry Moses.  The relationship among them was a deep loving relationship of father and daughter.  This was not a forced marriage, the father merely facilitated the process.

“Then there came to him one of the two women, walking shyly.  She said, “Verily, my father calls you that he may reward you for having watered our flocks for us.”  So when he came to him and narrated the story, he said, “Fear you not.  You have escaped from the people who are wrong-doers.”  And said one of them (the two women): “O my father!  Hire him!  Verily, the best of men for you to hire is the strong, the trustworthy.”  He said, “I intend to wed one of these two daughters of mine to you, on condition that you serve me for eight years, but if you complete ten years, it will be a favour from you.  But I intend not to place you under a difficulty.  If Allah wills, you will find me one of the righteous.”  He (Moses) said, “That is settled between me and you whichever of the two terms I fulfil, there will be no injustice to me, and Allah is Surety over what we say.”  (Quran 28:25-28)

Like all reformers, Moses was given the gift of insight and awareness. He was made to observe and witness the negatives and ugly consequences of what Pharaoh and his soldiers were doing.  He surrendered to God's will and accepted the way things are, and was nurtured by his new family of faith that there is a higher wisdom, yet outside his grasp. 

Moses married the woman, named Zopparah, and spent the next ten years working with her father (either Prophet Shuaib or Jethro) and raising his own family.  He went from a life of privilege learning leadership, politics and government and now was experiencing the life of a shepherd - a life of solitude and reflection.  Instead of watching his people suffering and humiliated, he was made to ponder the wonders of God and the universe.  There is a type of awe that penetrates one's soul when one looks at the stars in the midst of darkness.

During his time in Midian, Moses was a shepherd, like many of the prophets.  Some argue, that people are like sheep, and to guide people and nurture them, the prophets were trained by attending to sheep. If you talk to a shepherd, this is not an easy job.  Like humans, sheep, in particular, are weak animals requiring constant care and attention.  A shepherd must be constantly on alert for their safety and wellbeing.  The whole flock must be attended to and the shepherd must pull them back if they stray.  His new profession increased him in knowledge, wisdom and insight, and one can speculate, allowed him to heal.  

After the ten years of service, Moses, gathered his family together and made the long journey back to Egypt, but he got lost and was looking for guidance and how to find his way.

“Then, when Moses had fulfilled the term, and was traveling with his family, he saw a fire in the direction of Mount Tur.  He said to his family, “Wait, I have seen a fire; perhaps I may bring to you from there some news, or a burning fire-brand that you may warm yourselves”. (Quran 28:29)

The call to prophethood

He walked towards the fire, and as he did, he heard a voice.

“…Blessed is whosoever is in the fire, and whosoever is round about it!  And far removed is God from every imperfection, the Lord of all that exists.  “O Moses!  Verily!  It is I, God, the All-Mighty, and the All-Wise.” (Quran 27:8-9)

Throughout his whole stay in Midian, he was under the watchful Eyes of God, being nurtured and prepared for prophethood.  Now that he was trained and nurtured, he was ready to change the oppression he witnessed and liberate the Israelites.  His next task was to train and nurture his people, so he could liberate them.  I will discuss this in the following blog.

To God belong the most Beautiful Names. Has the story of Moses reached you?