Qur’an Contradiction

Was there a second period of slaying the sons of the Israelites?

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 between the different versions of the story in the Qur'an as well as the similarities and differences between (the various versions of) the Qur'an and the Bible.

In Exodus 1:8 - 2:10 and Sura 28:1-13 we find the story of the birth of Moses. These two texts have plenty of differences and disagreements. However, the Qur'an agrees with the Bible that Moses was born at a time when the Pharaoh of Egypt had given the order to kill all male infants of the Israelites; only female babies were allowed to live. The Bible gives a clear reason for this cruel decision of the Pharaoh (Exodus 1), while the Qur'an does not tell us why this command was given, except for calling Pharaoh a proud and evil man:

Verily, Fir'aun (Pharaoh) exalted himself in the land and made its people sects, weakening (oppressing) a group (i.e. Children of Israel) among them, killing their sons, and letting their females live. Verily, he was of the Mufsidun (i.e. those who commit great sins and crimes, oppressors, tyrants, etc.). S. 28:4 Al-Hilali & Khan

The Bible and the Qur'an agree that Moses was miraculously saved from this fate and grew up at the court of the Pharaoh. Later he killed a man (who had oppressed the Israelites) and had to flee from Egypt and lived in Midian. When Moses was an old man God spoke to Moses from within a burning bush. Moses was called to be God's messenger and was sent back to his people and to Pharaoh. Pharaoh didn't believe Moses and didn't obey God's message. There was then a confrontation between Moses and the Egyptian magicians in which the miracles of Moses proved to be more powerful than those of the sorcerers.

Then the Qur'an departs from the Biblical story in a major way. 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 (S. 7:113-126), we read again that Pharaoh gives the order to kill the male infants of the Israelites:

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

And indeed We sent Musa (Moses) with Our Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.), and a manifest authority, To Fir'aun (Pharaoh), Haman and Qarun (Korah), but they called (him): "A sorcerer, a liar!" Then, when he brought them the Truth from Us, they said: "Kill the sons of those who believe with him and let their women live", but the plots of disbelievers are nothing but errors! S. 40:23-25 Al-Hilali & Khan

The Qur'an mentions the slaying of Israelite boys in these passages: al-Baqara 2:49, al-A`raf 7:127,141, Ibrahim 14:6, al-Qasas 28:4, Ghafir 40:25. Among those, S. 28:4 refers to the slaying around the time of Moses' birth, S. 7:127 and 40:23-25 speak of an alleged second slaying after Moses had come back as a prophet, while S. 2:49, 7:141, and 14:6 look back at the fact that the Israelite boys had been slain, but it is unclear whether these verses refer to the first or the second slaying period, or even both.

On the level of facts, this is in blatant contradiction to the Bible. There was no second slaying of Israelite boys several decades after the birth of Moses, after Moses had come to Pharaoh as a messenger from God. The author of the Qur'an was apparently quite confused about this matter.

The author's confusion can also be seen from the fact that the story of the Qur'an is incomplete and incoherent in both instances, when it recounts the Biblical story of the slaying of Israelite baby boys at the time of Moses birth, and when it presents the invented story of a second "son slaying operation" after Moses came to Pharaoh to bring him God's message several decades later.

Notice that there is a strange imbalance in Pharaoh's command to "slay their sons" and "spare their women". If the order should be executed only on infants (as is clear from the Biblical account), should it not be "slay their sons" and "spare their daughters"? What is the age limit up to which the sons should be slain? Only the newborn ones? Up to age six? Or ten? Or fourteen? Or twenty? The Qur'an does not give an answer to this question, but the use of the word "women" instead of "girls" or "daughters" seems to indicate that more than just newborn sons are supposed to be killed. A son remains a son most or even all of his life, at least as long as one of the parents lives. Does the Qur'an even claim that the Pharaoh ordered to "slay their males" (of any age) and "spare their females"?[1]

For how long was the command to be in force? Was this a one time genocidal action of killing all males, or a sustained program of killing male infants whenever they are born? For what reason would it be one or the other? Who was supposed to do the killing? The Egyptian police or military? Or every Egyptian was supposed to go and kill his Israelite neighbour's son? The Qur'an does not make much sense here without bringing in outside information.

Did the command of the Pharaoh have the same range (regarding the age of the sons to be killed) in the second instance as in the first, or was it to be understood differently?

In the Qur'an, this command of the Pharaoh lacks a clear reason in both cases, but since the second instance stands in clear contradiction to the Bible, I want to examine this claim more closely and ask: What purpose should this order serve?

Although it is not stated in the text of the Qur'an, the classical Muslim commentators (and modern ones as well) follow the Biblical story and state or assume that the command of the Pharaoh applied only to male infants in both instances. Muslim interpreters are here clearly dependent on the Bible text.

Although evil and reprehensible, this approach makes some sense as a population control mechanism when the Egyptians were faced with a population development problem (see Exodus 1). It is a strategic approach that shows its effects in the long term.

However, killing male infants does not make much sense as an answer to the challenge of Moses. How many newborn baby boys did exist at that time? As cruel as it would be to the parents of these babies, killing 50 or 100 or even 300 babies would be totally irrelevant to the message and challenge that Moses brought to Pharaoh. There an answer was needed that would have quick results and that could counter Moses' miracles. Moses was certainly not intending to stand there and wait a generation or two until he became impressed.

Conclusion: The Qur'anic account does not only contradict the Torah, it is incoherent and does not make sense. Duplicating the command of the Pharaoh and placing it into the wrong situation is evidence of the confusion of the author of the Qur'an.

Jochen Katz


1. Maybe Muhammad simply assumed the Pharaoh would treat the Israelites in a similar way as Muhammad acted himself when he ordered the males of the Banu Qurayza to be slain and the females to be taken as slaves, see What really happened to the Banu Qurayza. Interestingly, Yusuf Ali states in his note on S. 28:4, "Pharaoh decreed that all male sons born to his Israelite subjects should be killed, and the females kept alive for the pleasure of the Egyptans." That is similar to Muhammad's mindset but finds no parallel in the Biblical account.

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