Qur'an Contradiction:

A Pharaoh Who Forgot to Die in Time

There are plenty of problems and contradictions associated with the various Pharaoh stories in the Qur'an (cf. [1] , [2], [3] , [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11], [12], [13]).

In this article we want to discuss something that may not be so readily obvious when reading the Qur'an, but carefully comparing a number of passages will lead to the conclusion that according to the Qur'an the Pharaoh reigning at the birth of Moses is still in power at the time of the Exodus, when Moses is an old man. The Torah specifies this to be some eighty years later. The Torah also states explicitly that these are different Pharaohs.

As such, the Qur'an is not only in clear contradiction to the Torah, but Muslims will have a hard time finding any Pharaoh who reigned for such a long time anywhere in Egyptian history, let alone in the period that could contain the Exodus. This seems to be one of many historical compressions found in the Qur'an.

Before examining the Qur'an in detail, we will present the Biblical time frame. Chapter 1 of the book of Exodus reports the command of Pharaoh that every new-born male infant of the Israelites is to be killed. Exodus 2:1-10 then tells the story of the birth of Moses, how he was miraculously saved from death by being hidden in a basket, found and then raised at the Egyptian court by Pharaoh's daughter. The following scripture references will give an outline of the relevant events and the time spans involved.

2:11-12     One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. ...
2:15When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, ...
2:23During that long period, the king of Egypt died. ...
4:19Now the LORD had said to Moses in Midian, "Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead."
5:1Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, "This is what the LORD , the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, ...’"
7:7Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh.

Stephen's testimony when he was questioned before the Sanhedrin, the High Council of the Jews, agrees with the data reported in Exodus and provides us with some more details:

7:23-24      When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his fellow Israelites. He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian.
7:29-30When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons. After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai.

The Holy Scriptures state unanimously in both the Old Testament (the Jewish Scriptures) and the Christian New Testament that Moses was eighty years old when he appears before Pharaoh with the command of God that the Israelites may now leave Egypt.

The Torah states clearly that the Pharaoh who reigned at the time when Moses had to flee to Midian had died before Moses was sent back to Egypt. The Torah not only speaks of the death of this one Pharaoh in the meantime but also says "all the men who wanted to kill you are dead" which seems to indicate an even longer time may have passed. These fourty years in exile may have been contemporary to successive reigns of several Pharaohs. Furthermore, in the story of the birth of Moses we find in Exodus 2:10 that Pharaoh's daughter adopted the baby Moses and raised him as her own son. This means the Pharaoh reigning at the time of Moses' birth already had an adult daughter. This implies that Pharaoh was most likely at least fourty years old.

According to the Biblical data, there were at least two, more likely three different Pharaohs in Moses' life up to the Exodus. (1) The Pharoah of his childhood, (2) the Pharoah of the Oppression when he had to flee at the age of fourty, and (3) the Pharaoh of the Exodus, when Moses came to lead Israel out of Egypt at the age of eighty.

We now turn to examine the Qur'anic data about the Pharaoh(s) during the life time of Moses. We read about the birth of Moses:

Truly 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. And We wished to be Gracious to those who were being depressed in the land, to make them leaders (in Faith) and make them heirs, To establish a firm place for them in the land, and to show Pharaoh, Haman, and their hosts, at their hands, the very things against which they were taking precautions. So We sent this inspiration to the mother of Moses: "Suckle (thy child), but when thou hast fears about him, cast him into the river, but fear not nor grieve: for We shall restore him to thee, and We shall make him one of Our messengers." Then the people of Pharaoh picked him up (from the river): (It was intended) that Moses) should be to them an adversary and a cause of sorrow: for Pharaoh and Haman and (all) their hosts were men of sin. The wife of Pharaoh said: "(Here is) joy of the eye, for me and for thee: slay him not. It may be that he will be use to us, or we may adopt him as a son." And they perceived not (what they were doing)! But there came to be a void in the heart of the mother of Moses: She was going almost to disclose his (case), had We not strengthened her heart (with faith), so that she might remain a (firm) believer. S. 28:4-10

Apart from the error that the Qur'an replaced the daughter of Pharaoh by the wife of Pharaoh as being the person finding and saving Moses (disagreeing with the Torah instead of confirming it, cf. Who Adopted Moses?), and the translation of Haman from Persia into Egypt (see the articles The Haman Hoax, Pharaoh and Haman for details), we note for the purpose of our current discussion that Haman is already in a government position at the time of Moses' birth. The fact that Haman is named directly after Pharaoh in several places gives the strong impression that he is a top government official, probably even the second in command, the highest government official under Pharoah. What does that mean for his age?

Even though there have been a number of Pharaohs who ascended to the throne at a very young age (teenagers or even children) because the position of the Pharaoh was hereditary, it is highly improbable that anyone would become a leading government official before the age of thirty, and that would be a very low minimum estimate indeed.

Roughly parallel to Exodus 2:11-12, 15 (quoted above) are these verses from the Qur'an about Moses' murder of an Egyptian and his flight to Midian:

When he reached full age, and was firmly established (in life), We bestowed on him wisdom and knowledge: for thus do We reward those who do good. And he entered the city at a time when its people were not watching: and he found there two men fighting, - one of his own religion, and the other, of his foes. Now the man of his own religion appealed to him against his foe, and Moses struck him with his fist and made an end of him. ... S. 28:14-15

He therefore got away therefrom, looking about, in a state of fear. ... Then, when he turned his face towards (the land of) Madyan, ... And when he arrived at the watering (place) in Madyan, ... S. 28:21-23

Surah 28:23-29 then tells the story of Moses in Midian, getting married and raising a family. (Incidentally, the author of the Qur'an manages to introduce yet another error in this passage, cf. Moses or Jacob?)

The verses following those we will quote again here since they report the calling of Moses and the appearance of Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh:

Now when Moses had fulfilled the term, and was traveling with his family, he perceived a fire in the direction of Mount Tür. He said to his family: "Tarry ye; I perceive a fire; I hope to bring you from there some information, or a burning firebrand, that ye may warm yourselves." But when he came to the (fire), he was called from the right bank of the valley, from a tree in hallowed ground: "O Moses! Verily I am Allah, the Lord of the Worlds. ... Now do thou throw thy rod!" But when he saw it moving (of its own accord) as if it had been a snake, he turned back in retreat, and retraced not his steps: "O Moses!" (It was said), "Draw near, and fear not: for thou art of those who are secure. Thrust 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." He said: "O my Lord! I have slain a man among them, and I fear lest they slay me. 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." When Moses came to them with Our Clear Signs, they said: "This is nothing but sorcery faked up: never did we hear the like among our fathers of old!" Moses said: "My Lord knows best who it is that comes with guidance from Him and whose end will be best in the Hereafter: certain it is that the wrong-doers will not prosper." Pharaoh said: "O Chiefs! No god do I know for you but myself: therefore, O Haman! light me a (kiln to bake bricks) out of clay, and build me a lofty palace, that I may mount up to the god of Moses: but as far as I am concerned, I think (Moses) is a liar!" And he was arrogant and insolent in the land, beyond reason,- he and his hosts: they thought that they would not have to return to Us! So We seized him and his hosts, and We flung them into the sea. Now behold what was the end of those who did wrong! S. 28:29-40

Two observations: First, Moses expresses the fear that Pharoah and his chiefs still remember him, and still want to kill him for his manslaughter of an Egyptian. Different from the Bible, God does not tell Moses that the Pharoah and the people who wanted to kill him are dead but instead promises that he will strengthen Moses and enable him to face his enemies. The passage assumes implicitly that this is the same Pharaoh and government from whom he had fled earlier. Second, this implicit assumption is confirmed by the fact that Haman is still one of Pharaoah's officials at the time Moses challenges Pharaoh. (How old would make this Haman, when we know that Moses is now eighty years old?)

Further information about the understanding of the Qur'an regarding the relationship of Moses and Pharaoh is given in this passage:

Behold, thy Lord called Moses: "Go to the people of iniquity,- The people of the Pharaoh: will they not fear Allah?" He said: "O my Lord! I do fear that they will charge me with falsehood: My breast will be straitened. And my tongue will not speak (plainly): so send unto Aaron. And (further), they have a charge of crime against me; and I fear they may slay me." Allah said: "By no means! Proceed then, both of you, with Our Signs; We are with you, and will listen (to your call). So go forth, both of you, to Pharaoh, and say: ‘We have been sent by the Lord and Cherisher of the Worlds; Send thou with us the Children of Israel.’" (Pharaoh) said: "DID WE NOT CHERISH THEE AS A CHILD AMONG US, and didst thou not stay in our midst many years of thy life? And thou didst a deed of thine which (thou knowest) thou didst, and thou art an ungrateful!" Moses said: "I did it then, when I was in error. SO I FLED FROM YOU WHEN I FEARED YOU; but my Lord has (since) invested me with judgment (and wisdom) and appointed me as one of the messengers. And this is the favor with which thou dost reproach me,- that thou hast enslaved the Children of Israel!" Pharaoh said: "And what is the ‘Lord and Cherisher of the Worlds’?" (Moses) said: "The Lord and Cherisher of the heavens and the earth, and all between,- if ye but sure belief." S. 26:10-24

The Pharoah addresses Moses as somebody who had lived with and been cared for in his childhood by him and his family. Moses in turn addresses Pharaoh, stating that he had fled fearing them, not some earlier Pharaoh and government.

This is again reinforced by this passage:

Of old We sent Moses, with Our Signs and an authority manifest, to Pharaoh, Haman, and Qarun; but they called (him)" a sorcerer telling lies!" ... Now, when he came to them in Truth, from Us, they said, "Slay the sons of those who believe with him, and keep alive their females," but the plots of Unbelievers (end) in nothing but errors (and delusions)! ... Said Pharaoh: "Leave me to slay Moses; and let him call on his Lord! What I fear is lest he should change your religion, or lest he should cause mischief to appear in the land!" S. 40:23-26

Apart from the confirmation by yet another Surah that Haman is still present, we find here that the command for male infanticide by Pharoah — which was given around the time of Moses birth (Exodus 1:15-22, Sura 28:4) — is allegedly repeated when Moses comes to Pharaoh as the prophet of God.

A couple of thoughts about this: It is true that people tend to repeat themselves, also in their evil actions. As such this is further circumstantial evidence supporting the quranic understanding that there was only one Pharaoh from the birth of Moses to the Exodus, acting consistently in his evil personality.

However, even evil people have usually reasons for what they do. The "evil logic", the reason behind this command is given in Exodus 1. The Qur'an doesn't give a reason for this crime in either of the two passages quoted above (S. 24:4, 40:25, nor in S. 7:127, 141 where this is stated again). In this latter passage, S. 40:25, the Qur'an makes the command an arbitrary act of cruelty on the part of Pharaoh, and completely lacks any reason for this action.

Finally, it contradicts the Bible. The command to kill the male infants, was only in force around the time of Moses' birth — which makes Moses' survival a miracle of God. Here the author of the Qur'an just got confused about the timing again, as in so many other stories and in regard to elements of this same story as we have already seen. (A more detailed discussion regarding the alleged repetition in the slaying of Israelits infants is provided in Was there a second period of slaying the sons of the Israelites?)

Be that as it may, all these passages point to the conclusion that in the mind of the author of the Qur'an there was only one Pharoah. He already reigned at the birth of Moses and still reigned together with Haman as a top government official at the time when Moses came back to Egypt and challenged Pharaoh to let the Children of Israel go.

This poses a double problem for the Muslims. This mistaken opinion of the author of the Qur'an blatantly contradicts the Torah, and it will be very difficult for Muslims to find any Pharaoh in history whose life span and time of government is in harmony with the quranic understanding.

Jochen Katz

Further reading and observations

  1. Who Was The Pharaoh Of The Exodus? — an analysis and proposition by a Christian author.
  2. There are Muslims who have made similar observations like those presented in this present article. Here is a quotation from one such Muslim article:

    It is noteworthy that the opinion of two Pharoahs among the Muslims is found only among the modern commentators. ibn Katheer in his Story of the Prophets, refutes this view. The Quran rejects the two notion theory in numerous places. One of the most manifest is in Surah Qasas where Allah relates the "parts of the story of Musa and Pharoah." It becomes even more obvious in 26.22 when Pharoah tries to gain sympathy from Musa (AS) by relating the 'favours' he had done for him in his childhood. Another point that refutes the two-Pharoah theory is speficially in regards to Musa's (AS) fears of returning to Egypt because of his killing an Egyptian. The Quran rejects the Biblical account that there was nothing to fear by returning "for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead." (Exodus 4:19) In 26:14 and 26:15 of the Quran, Musa (AS) fears the people's retribution for his killing an Egyptian and Allah reassures Musa (AS) by saying that they will not be able to harm him because of "OUR SIGNS." In 28:35 this is clarified even further that on account of his SIGNS they shall not be able to him (AS). The narration tells us that it is the miraculous signs which prevent Pharoah from killing Musa (AS). (Asim Mehmood, Who was the Pharaoh of the Exodus?; source; bold emphasis mine)

    In other words, that the Quran only speaks of ONE Pharaoh is not our own far-fetched idea from those "enemies of Islam". It is the conviction of this Muslim writer, and he claims that Ibn Kathir and other classical commentators also argue for it based on the above outlined reasons. If that is true, Muslims who want to deny what we have concluded in this article, would then not only have to refute us, but would also go against their own most respected scholars.

    One minor caution regarding the above quotation: I read all 70 pages of "The Story of Moses" in the English edition of Ibn Kathir's "Stories of the Prophets", and I could not find a section in which Ibn Kathir discusses this matter. He nowhere explicitly deals with the question whether there were one or more Pharaohs from the birth of Moses to the Exodus of Israel. Perhaps the English edition is an abridged version and this part was deleted? Perhaps the above Muslim author accidentally gave the wrong title and it was another book by Ibn Kathir? Perhaps it is not in Ibn Kathir at all but in another one of the classical commentators? This awaits clarification. (If anyone knows the answer, please send me an email and let me know as well.) Nevertheless, the above observations, i.e. the arguments for there being only one Pharaoh, are still valid — independent of who made them first.

    However, even though Ibn Kathir never mentions the idea that there could have been several Pharaohs, and he nowhere explicitly argues against the theory that there could have been two or more Pharaohs, his formulations clearly display the conviction that there was only one Pharaoh. In other words, Ibn Kathir assumes that it is the same Pharaoh, but he does not make this an argument. He does not state that some people believe those were different Pharaohs, and then refutes that claim.

    Here are some excerpts of what he writes. In his comments on S. 28:33-35 he states:

    As a matter of fact, the previous scene as well as this one both denote a very important turning point in Moses' life. They represent Moses' transition to prophethood. He was ordered to go to Pharaoh, from whom he had escaped, to deliver Allah's message. He was given some signs to strengthen his call because Moses had an impediment in his speech because of some incident that happened to him in his childhood. It is reported that when he was a young child, it happened that he once meddled with Pharaoh's beard. He (Pharaoh) got very exasperated and was about to kill Moses. But he was told that the child was still very young and could not differentiate between dates and life coal. Thus Pharaoh brought Moses and presented to him dates and live coal to see which one he would choose. In fact Moses was about to choose the date but Allah sent an angel that make him take the live coal in order to be saved. However, he ended up burning his tongue. To support Moses, Aaron was also chosen to assist him in his mission. (Ibn Kathir, Stories of the Prophets, translated by Sayed Gad, Tamir Abu As-Su‘ood, Muhammad A. M. Abu Sheishaa, edited by Noha Kamal Ed-Din, Dar Al-Manarah for Translation, Publishing & Distribution, 1422/2001, second edition July 2001, pp. 182-183; emphasis mine)

    According to Ibn Kathir the Pharaoh from whom Moses escaped is the same to whom he returns. Even more, since he does not give any hint to the contrary, the natural reading is that this is also the same Pharaoh of Moses infancy.

    Directly after the above section, on page 183, Ibn Kathir quotes S. 26:10-22 (see above), which is one of the core passages establishing the identity of the Pharaoh, but he does not comment further on this matter. If anywhere, this would have to be the place to discuss the issue, if Ibn Kathir had even been aware of a controversy about this matter. However, this issue is not mentioned there.

    Later on, after quoting S. 7:127-129, Ibn Kathir comments:

    Pharaoh's orders against the magicians were drastic. But his council was not satisfied. The participants appealed to Pharaoh's vanity, superstition and sense of power. If you leave them alone, they said, where will that leave you? You and your gods will be defied. Pharaoh had already, before the birth of Moses, passed a cunning order to exterminate the whole people of Israel. With the aid of Egyptian midwives, all male children were killed and all females were left alive and given to the Copts; with the aim of putting an end to the entire race of Israel. ... (Ibid., p. 188)

    Clearly, based on those formulations, Ibn Kathir works under the assumption that there was only one Pharaoh from before the birth of Moses until the Exodus.

    Is that also the opinion of the other commentators? Are there any classical commentators which argue that these are different Pharaohs? Given the number of classical commentators on the Qur'an and the number of passages in the Qur'an that mention Pharaoh (*), it may be a time-consuming project to check which of the commentators discussed the question at all, and to determine their respective opinion on this matter — whether it be found in the conclusion of an explicit discussion of this question or is only an implicit assumption on their part just as I have shown this for Ibn Kathir with the above quotations from "Stories of the Prophets". Whatever the case, I would be interested to know, and mention this information here, if any of our Arabic speaking readers would like to invest the time that is necessary to research this.

  3. The Muslim apologetics website, Islamic Awareness, changed one of their articles on the Qur'an and Egyptian history. The first edition (April 1999 - February 2006) contained the following statement:

    The generally accepted theory appears to be that Moses(P) lived during the reign of at least two kings, Rameses II and his successor Merneptah. The Pharaoh Rameses II died while Moses(P) was in exile in Midian (NW Arabia) ...

    And they supported this claim with quotations and references to various books and encyclopedias by non-Muslim scholars, and also two books by Dr. Maurice Bucaille, who is an apologist for Islam and "identified" Merneptah as the Pharaoh of the Exodus.

    In other words, Islamic Awareness originally not only agreed that the life of Moses spanned the reigns of several Pharaohs, they even positively identified which Pharaohs those were.

    However, in the second edition of their article (online since March 2006) the section titled "When Did Moses(P) Enter Egypt?" was reduced from about three pages down to half a page, and this particular statement disappeared along with much other text.

    Although the dating they provide for Moses is still the same, they no longer make an attempt to identify the Pharaoh of Moses. Maybe they came across articles like the above, or Muslim commentators which pointed out that according to the Qur'an there is only one Pharaoh from the birth of Moses to the time of his later return to Egypt and the Exodus of Israel. They have apparently seen the problem and thus "corrected" their article in a way that would not alert the readers to this problem and would hopefully not raise any doubts about the Qur'an. (The full text of the original and the new version of the argument by Islamic Awareness is displayed here.)

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