Qur’an Discrepancy

How many gods did the Egyptians worship?

The story of Moses’ confrontation with the Pharaoh of Egypt is a very prominent one in the Qur’an. It is told in nearly a dozen places, see this list.

This story being retold so often, and its details being scattered in so many places, calls for comparing the different versions and discovering similarities and differences. When doing a careful comparison, many inconsistencies between the different versions come to light. In this short paper, we will look at one of these.

After the showdown of Moses against the sorcerers of Egypt in which the miracles of Moses are so convincing that the sorcerers afterwards believe in the God of Moses, and Pharaoh therefore punishing them for their betrayal, we read that the chiefs of the Egyptians turn to Pharaoh with a concern:

The chiefs of Fir'aun's (Pharaoh) people said: "Will you leave Musa (Moses) and his people to spread mischief in the land, and to abandon you and your gods?" He said: "We will kill their sons, and let live their women, and we have indeed irresistible power over them." S. 7:127 Al-Hilali & Khan

A side remark: As is so often the case in false religions, when they are confronted by truth they feel threatened and resort to violence. The quranic Pharaoh supposedly intends to murder Moses (S. 40:26) and/or the sons of the Israelites (S. 7:127, 40:25), much like Muhammad who had many of those individuals murdered who challenged his religous authority (cf. Muhammad and his enemies) and even eliminated a whole Jewish clan, the Banu Qurayza. Pharaoh's command to slaughter the Israelite boys is discussed in detail in this article.

The main point, however, is this: The chiefs of the Egyptians point out that this victory of Moses over the Egyptian magicians could result in an abandonment of the gods of Egypt in favor of the God of Moses. In particular, it testifies to the fact that the Egyptians were polytheists at the time, worshipping many gods. Moreover, the statement of the chiefs of the people distinguishes between Pharaoh and the gods when they caution that the people may "abandon you and your gods". Pharaoh is not identical with the gods, and the gods of Pharaoh are also the gods of the Egyptians since otherwise it would not make any sense to fear an abandoning of these gods if the Egyptians never worshipped them in the first place.

This passage therefore testifies to the fact that many gods were worshipped in Egypt at the time of Moses, and it presupposes that the gods of Pharaoh were also the gods of his people.

Yet, in another version of the story the Quran claims that the Pharaoh responded to Moses’ message and miracles with these words:

Fir'aun (Pharaoh) said: "O chiefs! I know not that you have an ilah (a god) other than me, so kindle for me (a fire), O Haman, to bake (bricks out of) clay, and set up for me a Sarhan (a lofty tower, or palace, etc.) in order that I may look at (or look for) the Ilah (God) of Musa (Moses); and verily, I think that he [Musa (Moses)] is one of the liars." S. 28:38 Al-Hilali & Khan

And Pharaoh said, ‘Council, I know not that you have any god but me. Kindle me, Haman, a fire upon the clay, and make me a tower, that I may mount up to Moses' god; for I think that he is one of the liars.’ S. 28:38 Arberry

In other words, the Pharaoh claims that he is the only god for his people, the Egyptians, in direct contradiction to 7:127 where the chiefs of his people express concern that Moses’ victory could lead to the downfall of their traditional Egyptian gods (in the plural).

In summary, the Qur'an contains these contradictory statements about the religion of the Egyptians at the time of Moses:

The next question to investigate would be this: What does history say about the religion of the ancient Egyptians. Did the Egyptians have many gods or only one god? Since this may not have been the same at all times, we would have to ask more specifically: What was the religion of the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus?

Independent from the answer to this historical question, however, the tension and discrepancy in the Qur’an remains. The Qur’an speaks of the Egyptians as having many gods in S. 7:127 but in S. 28:38 it is stated that the Pharaoh was the only god of the Egyptians. These passages do not refer to different times in Egyptian history, but they explicitly speak of the very same Pharaoh directly after his confrontation with Moses.

In fact, history informs us that the Egyptians worshipped many gods (cf. *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, etc.). Realizing this historical mistake in the formulation of the Qur’an, the late Muhammad Asad tries to practice some damage control and comments on S. 28:38:

In view of the fact that the ancient Egyptians worshipped many gods, this observation IS NOT TO BE TAKEN LITERALLY; but since each of the Pharaohs was regarded as an incarnation of the divine principle as such, he claimed – and received – his people’s adoration as their "Lord All-Highest" (cf. 79: 24), combining within himself, as it were, all the qualities attributable to gods. (Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an [Dar Al-Andaulus, Gibraltar, rpt. 1994], p. 595, fn. 36; online source; underline and capital emphasis ours)

It is rather evident that Asad’s reply is ad hoc since there is nothing within the context itself to suggest that the verse shouldn’t be taken literally. Asad’s comments are based on his awareness that this claim about the Pharaoh is contradicted by the facts of history, and therefore had to find some answer to explain this error away. That the Pharaoh was allegedly "regarded as an incarnation of the divine principle as such ... combining within himself, as it were, all the qualities attributable to gods" is merely a claim for which Asad provides no evidence. History testifies that the Egyptians worshipped many gods, and they built plenty of temples dedicated to those individual gods. That there supposedly was a (comprehensive) "divine principle" that was incorporated in the Pharaoh seems to be an invention of Asad. Moreover, the text of the Qur'an itself contradicts Asad, when S. 7:127 makes the explicit distinction between the Pharaoh and the gods of Pharaoh, see above. [For the historical answer on the question in what sense the Pharaoh was divine, explore these pages (*, *, *, *, *).]

The late Abdullah Yusuf Ali is much more honest and faithful to the Arabic text of the Qur’an when he explains Pharaoh’s claim in a footnote to S. 28:38:

Pharaoh claimed himself, to be God, - not only one god among many, BUT THE ONLY god: "I am your Lord Most High": lxxix. 24. At any rate he did not see why his people should worship any one but him. (Yusuf Ali, fn. 3370; capital emphasis ours)

In summary, there are two problems: First, the discrepancy whether the Egyptians at the time of Moses had many gods (7:127) or Pharaoh was their only god (28:38), and second, the historical error in the alleged claim of the Pharaoh to be the one and only God of the Egyptians.

This is at least the conclusion when taking these two passages at face value.

Considering a possible objection

Some may say that formally this is not a contradiction. It would only be a contradiction if the Qur'an had claimed that the same person at the same time had made both of these contradictory statements. As it stands, the first is a statement by the chiefs of Egypt, the second is made by Pharaoh. The Qur'an merely reports these statements — one or both of them possibly being wrong — but it does not directly make these claims. Therefore, one could reason, the Pharaoh may contradict the chiefs, but the Qur'an does not contradict itself. The possibility of this objection is the reason that I chose to call it a discrepancy in the title of this paper, instead of a contradiction. That does not mean, however, that it is not a problem.

We have searched through many Muslim commentaries on the Qur'an, both classical and modern, and hardly anyone as much as mentions the existence of this discrepancy. Even Muhammad Asad who realizes the historical error in the footnote mentioned above does not comment on the tension between S. 28:38 and S. 7:127. The only attempt for a solution made by a few commentators consists of the claim that Pharaoh said what the Qur'an reports but he lied.

Since history testifies that the Egyptians had many gods, i.e. the statement of the chiefs being in agreement with the historical facts in this regard, anyone trying to defend the Qur'an will have to question the veracity of Pharaoh's statements. Theoretically, a wrong statement could have been made intentionally (i.e. a deliberate lie) or unintentionally (i.e. an honest mistake due to ignorance). Since the predominant religion of a whole empire is not a peripheral issue to any government, the claim that Pharaoh was simply uninformed about this matter would be so silly that we will not waste time by discussing it here.

What about the hypothesis of some commentators that the Pharaoh may have been lying? Is this a credible explanation?

People lie because they expect to get some advantage out of it, compared to telling the truth. Lies only make sense when trying to mislead people who do not know the facts and are unlikely to discover the truth any time soon. Lying to people who already know the truth is silly and self-destructive.

Who was present when Pharaoh made that alleged statement of S. 28:38? He addressed the chiefs of his people. They are explicitly mentioned. Perhaps Moses and Aaron were still standing there as well. According to the Qur'an, this is Pharaoh's response to Moses' message and the signs which he showed in confirmation of his message.

Why would the Pharaoh make himself look stupid before the chiefs of his people, his advisory committee so to speak? That they knew the truth about the religion of their people is not only common sense but even stated explicitly in S. 7:127.

Nor is there any point in lying about this matter to Moses. Whether the idolatry of Pharaoh consisted of worshipping several false gods or claiming to know only one god, himself, he would still be disobedient to God's message to him. This lie would not gain him any advantage whatsoever. Moreover, Moses had grown up at the royal court. He had been raised by the family of the Pharaoh and had received a thorough Egyptian education. Moses knew the religion of the Egyptians very well.

If Pharaoh had lied, then the chiefs knew it was a lie, Moses knew it was a lie, and even the common people would have known it was a lie. So, what would be the point? There is absolutely no benefit in doing so, only a loss of respect for him from all sides, damaging his authority even further.

Thus, the hypothesis that Pharaoh's statement, "O chiefs! I know not that you have a god other than me", was a deliberate lie makes no sense at all. This alleged "resolution" of the tension between S. 7:127 and 28:38 carries a hefty price tag, since it renders the story completely incoherent.

Besides these general reasons, an analysis of the structure of Pharaoh's argument will make it even less credible that it should have been a lie. Let's look at this verse again:

Fir'aun (Pharaoh) said: "O chiefs! I know not that you have an ilah (a god) other than me, so kindle for me (a fire), O Haman, to bake (bricks out of) clay, and set up for me a Sarhan (a lofty tower, or palace, etc.) in order that I may look at (or look for) the Ilah (God) of Musa (Moses); and verily, I think that he [Musa (Moses)] is one of the liars." S. 28:38 Al-Hilali & Khan

And Pharaoh said, ‘Council, I know not that you have any god but me. Kindle me, Haman, a fire upon the clay, and make me a tower, that I may mount up to Moses' god; for I think that he is one of the liars.’ S. 28:38 Arberry

The statement "I know not that you have a god other than me", is a report of information. Pharaoh states what he knows (or what he thinks he knows), and does so for a particular reason. He had been confronted with Moses' message. He does not want to obey. He tries to build a case why he should rather not obey Moses' message. The purpose of the argument is his conclusion, "I think that he is one of the liars.", implying that therefore he and his government should ignore Moses' message.

He addresses the chiefs, i.e. the representatives of his vast empire, his council, and includes them in the deliberation of the case. The basis of his argument is that he knows of no god other than himself. (An unspoken assumption to this argument may be that Egypt is the major empire of the time, and most advanced in every aspect of science and knowledge. Something that they don't know about most likely does not exist.) Whatever his further assumptions, based on his ignorance of any other god, he concludes that Moses must be lying.

Whether or not his argument is fully logical (it is not), the validity of his conclusion, i.e. the force of his whole argument, depends vitally on whether his audience considers the premise of his argument to be true. If everyone knows that Pharaoh is lying, then he doesn't have any leverage to call Moses a liar. He can only expect that his council and his people will accept his conclusion if they are in agreement with the premise. People not trained in philosophy may not always be able to detect more subtle mistakes in logical reasoning but even laymen know that one cannot use what is obviously and blatantly wrong as a premise to derive that somebody else is a liar.

Pharaoh is trying to justify his rejection of Moses. However, to lie in this context and in this way is so utterly ridiculous, it would have been better to reject Moses without giving a reason, i.e. doing so simply on his own authority as the ruler of the land, than giving a reason which everyone knows to be wrong. By doing so, Pharaoh greatly damages his authority. It would not be a justification (strengthening) but a severe weakening of his decision in the eyes of everyone he wants to convince.

If they know that Pharaoh is lying here, then he has no credibility in calling Moses a liar. One cannot denounce anyone as a liar based on an obviously false statement made by the accuser. That simply does not work. For that reason alone, the text only makes sense if Pharaoh subjectively spoke the truth in this statement.

Moreover, with his command to Haman to build a lofty tower, Pharaoh is about to spend a fortune on his proposed test to find out whether Moses' God is real. Such a tower would have to be higher than any other building in the empire to yield new insight. Even the Pharaoh is not going to waste the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars based on what he knows to be a lie. Some may say, this command was sarcastic, and not really supposed to be executed. After all, it would take years to complete, and nobody had that time. Nevertheless, even such sarcasm would only work if the premise is understood to be true.

Finally, the Qur'an does not give any indication that Pharaoh was lying, neither by registering some kind of protest against his claim coming from the chiefs or anyone else, nor by commenting directly that this was a lie. The overall message of the Qur'an makes it clear that both statements, that of the chiefs and that of the Pharaoh are wrong theologically, i.e. they both reflect false religion since neither the many gods nor Pharaoh as only god are the one true God. But it nowhere indicates that one or the other party made an intentionally false statement about the actual religion of Egypt at the time.

Proposing the "Pharaoh lied" hypothesis ‘saves’ the Quran from this one contradiction (out of hundreds), but makes the quranic version of the story incoherent, and being utterly incoherent is not really a lot more credible than being contradictory. Would an essay with this story line be able to get a passing grade in a high school literature class? In my opinion, it takes considerably more faith believing that the story really happened as it is reported in the Qur'an than believing that the author of the Qur'an messed up on this one, particularly since this story is messed up on so many other details as well (*, *, *, *, *, etc.).

The "Pharaoh lied" hypothesis is a dead end, not a credible solution.

Even Muhammad Asad who often cites minority opinions from classical Muslim commentators in his footnotes, and who was therefore most likely aware of the claim of some commentators that the Pharaoh lied in S. 28:38, does not offer that hypothesis as an option. Apparently, Asad did not consider this to be credible, and rather offered his other interpretation that was quoted above.

Even when insisting to take the view that the Pharaoh was lying in S. 28:38 against all the reasons stated above, one needs to ask whether it makes sense to assume that both statements were actually made. In which order could they have been made without resulting in nonsense?

The chiefs of Fir'aun's (Pharaoh) people said: "Will you leave Musa (Moses) and his people to spread mischief in the land, and to abandon you and your gods?" ... S. 7:127

Fir'aun (Pharaoh) said: "O chiefs! I know not that you have a god other than me, ... S. 28:38

After the chiefs had just raised the concern that the gods of Pharaoh and Egypt are in danger of being abandoned by the people, would the Pharaoh then address these same chiefs and present an argument against Moses based on the premise that he does not know of any other god except himself? That would be a ridiculous situation. The Pharaoh would look utterly stupid.

The other sequence does not make sense either. After the Pharaoh, the absolute ruler of Egypt, made an argument against Moses based on the premise that he does not know of any god besides himself, would anyone dare to contradict him and raise a concern about the worship of gods whose existence Pharaoh had just denied?

The situation is impossible. Even assuming the highly unlikely case that one should understand that Pharaoh lied in S. 28:38, both stories talk about the same people, the Pharaoh and his chiefs, discussing what to do now after Moses had delivered his message and shown miracles. It is simply not credible that both conversations happened.

In other words, at least one of the versions of the story is fictitious, unhistorical, made up.

Adding S. 79:24 into the discussion

In their footnotes on S. 28:38, Muhammad Asad and Abdullah Yusuf Ali both referred to S. 79:24 as if those two verses were obvious parallels. These passages are in agreement as far as both containing a claim in regard to Pharaoh being the only god of Egypt, and this claim being made in response to Moses’ message and miracles:

Has the story of Moses reached thee? Behold, thy Lord did call to him in the sacred valley of Tuwa:- "Go thou to Pharaoh for he has indeed transgressed all bounds: And say to him, ‘Wouldst thou that thou shouldst be purified (from sin)? - And that I guide thee to thy Lord, so thou shouldst fear Him?’" Then did (Moses) show him the Great Sign. But (Pharaoh) rejected it and disobeyed (guidance); Further, he turned his back, striving hard (against God). Then he collected (his men) and made a proclamation, Saying, "I am your Lord, Most High". 79:15-24 Y. Ali

However, there is at least one considerable difference to S. 28:38 which may introduce further difficulties instead of helping to resolve the problem. Let's repeat S. 28:38 for direct comparison:

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!" S. 28:38 Y. Ali

In S. 28:38 the statement, "no god do I know for you but myself", is formally a report of factual information. In principle, such a statement could be correct or incorrect. As we have seen above, it must be (subjectively) true since it is the basis of an argument, and the force of the argument depends on the audience being in agreement with the statement, i.e. the statement summarizes common knowledge in order to build on it. To assume that it was a deliberate and obvious lie would make the whole story incoherent.

In S. 79:24, on the other hand, it appears that Pharaoh's proclamation is something new. It would seem strange to call together everyone to make a proclamation of something that is common knowledge. One could get the impression that because Moses called Pharaoh to belief in and obedience to the one and only true God, Pharaoh decides to put himself in that place and declare to the Egyptians that he alone is their Lord, Most High.

In that case, it would not contradict the polytheistic faith of the Egyptians, since this proclamation is then a command that despite having many gods until now, in the future they will only take Pharaoh as their Lord. Such an interpretation would ease the tension between 79:24 and 7:127, but it would then stand in conflict with 28:38 instead of supporting and explaining it, as assumed by Asad and Ali.

Moreover, it would be a really bad move on the part of the Pharaoh. Being confronted by Moses is a crisis. To obey him would mean many changes and difficulties. In a crisis situation, an outside threat, rulers usually appeal to their subjects on the basis of common values. It would make much more sense to rouse the people against Moses by depicting him as their enemy who attacks their deeply held religious beliefs. That Pharaoh tried to introduce a new religion in this situation, contradicting and confronting both Moses and his people, does not make sense. The story is again incoherent.

Or was that proclamation made to confirm what they always believed, i.e. to rally his people behind him when he was challenged by Moses? Possibly. Then this passage would complement S. 28:38, and simply extend the contradiction to S. 7:127 vs. 28:38 and 79:24. However, in that case, this passage is putting another nail into the coffin of the "Pharaoh lied" hypothesis. If 28:38 was a lie, then 79:24 cannot be seen as a confirmation of a reality that never existed.

Thus we have come full circle. If it does not make sense to assume that Pharaoh lied in S. 28:38, then the discrepancy between S. 7:127 and 28:38 is indeed a serious problem. It seems to be difficult to have an interpretation of S. 7:127, 28:38 and 79:24 that resolves the contradictory aspects in a way that is both coherent and in agreement with the historical facts.

These problems make it difficult to view the Qur'an as divine revelation. There are too many inconsistencies, statements contradicting each other as well as history, to be considered a credible account of Moses' encounter with Pharaoh.

One reason that the author of the Qur'an did not recognize those contradictions may be the disorganized structure of this book, i.e. that details of this story are scattered in so many places, and parts of the story have been "revealed" at different times and circumstances of Muhammad's life, so that he did not realize that the later versions contradicted what he had said before, those earlier versions being located elsewhere in different parts of the Qur'an. A divine author would not have had a problem to keep all these details together in his mind, but the many logical and historical problems found in the Qur'an are evidence for a confused human author.

For me, there is one more interesting question: What is the purpose of putting those statements (S. 28:38, 79:24) into the mouth of Pharaoh? What advantage would it be for Muhammad? (Was it simply a desire to make Pharaoh, i.e. the person opposing the messenger of God in this story, look even more evil? And by association, those who oppose Muhammad are in really bad company? If that is the reason it may also deliver an explanation for second slaying of sons in the Qur'an.) There are many stories in the Qur'an that have been manipulated and one can clearly see why many of the changes have been introduced. The reader should refer to the article, I am all the prophets, for a detailed discussion. Further research may be necessary to resolve this question.

Jochen Katz

Other articles dealing with errors and contradictions in the Moses and Pharaoh stories of the Qur'an

Contradictions in the Qur'an
Answering Islam Home Page