Islamic Awareness, the Qur'an, and the Pharaoh of Moses

The team at Islamic Awareness has about a decade of efforts under their belt to defend the Qur'an with reference to Egyptian history. During this time they have written plenty of articles arguing that the Qur'an is historically accurate and can be harmonized with the results of history and archaeology.

Here I want to draw attention to one interesting change in one of their arguments. In the first edition of their article, Qur'anic Accuracy Vs. Biblical Error: The Kings & Pharaohs of Egypt, which was online from 11 April 1999 to 3 March 2006, they had written:

4.4 When Did Moses(P) Enter Egypt?

Scholars have tried to find the period occupied by Moses(P) in history and have placed him at various points within the New Kingdom, from Tuthmosis II (c. 1493-1479 BC) to Merneptah (c. 1212-1202 BC). Most attempts have tried to locate Moses(P) in time according to whichever king of Egypt may have played a part in the Exodus.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica situates Moses(P) in the reign of Seti I and Rameses II:

According to the biblical account, Moses' parents were from the tribe of Levi, one of the groups in Egypt called Hebrews. Originally the term Hebrew had nothing to do with race or ethnic origin. It derived from Habiru, a variant spelling of Hapiru (Apiru), a designation of a class of people who made their living by hiring themselves out for various services. The biblical Hebrews had been in Egypt for generations, but apparently they became a threat, so one of the pharaohs enslaved them. Unfortunately, the personal name of the king is not given, and scholars have disagreed as to his identity and, hence, as to the date of the events of the narrative of Moses. One theory takes literally the statement in I Kings 6:1 that the Exodus from Egypt occurred 480 years before Solomon began building the Temple in Jerusalem. This occurred in the fourth year of his reign, about 960 BCE; therefore, the Exodus would date about 1440 BCE.

This conclusion, however, is at variance with most of the biblical and archaeological evidence. The storage cities Pithom and Rameses, built for the pharaoh by the Hebrews, were located in the northeastern part of the Egyptian delta, not far from Goshen, the district in which the Hebrews lived. It is implicit in the whole story that the pharaoh's palace and capital were in the area, but Thutmose III (the pharaoh in 1440) had his capital at Thebes, far to the south, and never conducted major building operations in the delta region. Moreover, Edom and Moab, petty kingdoms in Transjordan that forced Moses to circle east of them, were not yet settled and organized. Finally, as excavations have shown, the destruction of the cities the Hebrews claimed to have captured occurred about 1250, not 1400.

In as much as tradition figured about 12 generations from Moses to Solomon, the reference to 480 years is most likely an editorial comment allowing 40 years for each generation. Since an actual generation was nearer 25 years, the most probable date for the Exodus is about 1290 BCE. If this is true, then the oppressive pharaoh noted in Exodus (1:2-2:23) was Seti I (reigned 1318-04), and the pharaoh during the Exodus was Ramses II (c. 1304-c. 1237). In short, Moses was probably born in the late 14th century BCE.

The Academic American Encyclopaedia situates Moses(P) in the 13th century BC, with the Exodus taking place c. 1250 BC:

Moses was a leader of the ancient Hebrews who brought them out of Egypt in the so-called Exodus (c.1250 BC), mediated the covenant between them and Yahweh at Sinai, and guided them through the desert to the borders of Canaan. The biblical tradition assigns him a life span of 120 years, but the reliability of this figure is questioned.

The books of Exodus through Deuteronomy in the Bible are the only available sources for details about Moses' life. No contemporary Egyptian documents yet found mention him, and the later traditions about him recorded in the work of Philo of Alexandria and in Josephus and rabbinic sources appear to be mere elaborations of the biblical story.

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):

"In the course of those many days the king of Egypt died." (Exodus 2:23).

According to the Bible, God ordered Moses(P) to go to Pharaoh and lead his people out of Egypt. The new king, Merneptah, refused to allow the Hebrews to leave Egypt and finally perished in the sea whilst in pursuit of Moses(P).

Holt's World History: A Dictionary of Important People, Places and Events identifies Merneptah as the Pharaoh of the Exodus:

c. 1236 - c. 1223 BC Merneptah reigned; defeated attacks by the Libyans and Sea Peoples; records of his reign contain the earliest mention of Israel, and many believe him to have been king at the time of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt.[30]

The Egyptologist Pierre Montet in his book Egypt and the Bible[31] also concludes that Merneptah was the Pharaoh of the Exodus. The Hutchinson New Century Encyclopaedia believes that Merneptah was most likely the Pharaoh at that time:

Ramses was succeeded by his 13th son, the elderly Merneptah (possibly the pharaoh of the Exodus), who had to suppress a rising in Palestine - the accounts of this revolt contain the first mention of Israel. He also dealt successfully with invasions from the west. Then followed 30 confused years, when several pharaohs reigned, most with doubtful claims to the throne.[32]

Medical science has also been of assistance in helping identify the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Between 1974-76 modern medical examinations of the mummified bodies of Rameses II and Merneptah were carried out by a team of specialists:

In all, there were ten doctors and dentists engaged in the primary investigations. An expanded field of study led by such experts allowed us to make certain discoveries that cast new light on a variety of old questions pertaining to Pharaoh Merneptah, in particular the visible lacuna[33] in his skull. Also included in our study was the mummy of Ramesses II.

The general findings of these studies are well known within the medical profession, and the final reports were read before various scholarly and professional societies, of which the most important was the French National Academy of Medicine on February 17, 1976. Also included were the French Society of Radiology and the French Society of Forensic Medicine. The medical profession was perfectly well informed and up-to-date concerning the work that had been carried out in Egypt during 1974 and 1975.[34]

Whomever was the pharaoh of Egypt in the Exodus, it is clear that he must have been in good enough health to have led the pursuing army. The medical study of the mummy of Rameses II make it clear that Rameses II was totally incapable of taking such a warrior-like initiative just before his death:

In order to obtain comparative data concerning certain medical findings, we extended the research to mummies of the kings of Egypt who reigned during other periods. The research put us in a position to bring data concerning certain points to light, in such a way that today many hypotheses suggested by biblical commentators before 1976 cannot be upheld. As far as the Exodus is concerned, for example, as I will emphasize in chapter 9, Ramesses II could not have been in a position to be at the head of the Egyptian army pursuing the Hebrews. Since he was suffering from a disease which rendered him disabled --as shown by X-rays-- he would not have been able to participate in the pursuit. Ramesses II could not have played the least part in the Exodus. On the other hand, we may state without reservation that his successor, Merenptah, was obviously injured by multiple blows resulting in severe lesions which were rapidly or instantaneously lethal. Without excluding death in water, emphasized by commentators of the Scriptures, the medical study has shown that the wounds were provoked by considerable violence.[35]

For a detailed discussion concerning the periods when Joseph(P) and Moses(P)entered Egypt and the identification of the Pharaoh of the Exodus see: Moses And Pharaoh: The Hebrews In Egypt[34], and Mummies Of The Pharaohs: Modern Medical Investigations[35] by Dr. Maurice Bucaille.

Clearly, Islamic Awareness is not only reporting what these authors are saying, they are convinced that this is the right interpretation. They are not giving any room to other interpretations. They have one theory which they are promoting, and of which they are convinced that it agrees with the Qur'an, a conviction that they share with Dr. Maurice Bucaille, one of their witnesses. Merneptah is the Pharaoh of Exodus.

Interestingly, further research did not lead them to an expansion of their argument with further evidence, but in the current second edition of their article (online since 3 March 2006), this section was cut down considerably:


The placing of Moses in ancient Egyptian history is not as contentious as that of Abraham. Scholars have tried to find the period occupied by Moses in history and have placed him at various points within the New Kingdom, from Tuthmose II (c. 1493-1479 BCE) to Merenptah (c. 1212-1202 BCE). According to the Dictionary Of Proper Names And Places In The Bible, under "Moses":

Moses career unfolds ca. 1250, the date generally accepted for the Exodus.[39]

Similarly, the Encyclopaedia Judaica describes Moses as a:

... leader, prophet, and lawgiver (first half of the 13th century BCE).[40]

This date is also endorsed by The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia which says:

The period during which Moses apparently lived was the third or fourth quarter of the 13th cent. BCE; accordingly, Ramses II or Merneptah was the Pharaoh of the Exodus.[41]

Similar dating is also endorsed by The Lion Handbook To The Bible,[42] New Bible Dictionary,[43] The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary,[44] Harper's Bible Dictionary,[45] Encyclopedia Of The Bible,[46] The Interpreter's Dictionary Of The Bible[47] and The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.[48] Scholars such as Pierre Montet,[49] Kenneth Kitchen[50] and J. K. Hoffmeier[51] also place Moses in the New Kingdom Period.

What is the main change? Islamic Awareness still sticks to a rough dating of the event, but they no longer identify the Pharaoh of Exodus. They are no longer claiming that it is definitely Merneptah. The most important statement that disappeared is this one:

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 then this one:

For a detailed discussion concerning the periods when Joseph(P) and Moses(P)entered Egypt and the identification of the Pharaoh of the Exodus see: Moses And Pharaoh: The Hebrews In Egypt[34], and Mummies Of The Pharaohs: Modern Medical Investigations[35] by Dr. Maurice Bucaille.

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. Today, they are no longer arguing that Merneptah was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, despite the fact that Dr. Bucaille's books and theories have been very popular among Muslims for nearly three decades. But they are not offering a genuine alternative either. In fact, the name of Maurice Bucaille disappeared completely from their discussion of the Pharaoh of Moses.

What could be the reason for their retreat from their original position?

My guess is this: The Islamic Awareness team realized that the Qur'an actually teaches that there was only one Pharaoh from the birth of Moses to the Exodus, thus obliterating their earlier theory. Maybe they came across the article, Who was the Pharaoh of the Exodus?, written by Asim Mehmood? Maybe they found the evidence for this in some of the classical Qur'an commentaries? They have not informed their readership of the reasons for their change, but this change is rather substantial.

The data of the Qur'an regarding the Pharaoh are examined in detail in the article, A Pharaoh Who Forgot to Die in Time?, which exposes a number of problems in the Quranic version(s) of this story.

Whatever the source and reason, the Islamic Awareness team has apparently seen this problem, or even more problems, and thus they "corrected" their article in a way that would not alert the readers and would hopefully not raise any doubts about the Qur'an.

In other words, they realized that the Qur'an does actually not agree with "the generally accepted theory" (their earlier words) and so they no longer like to call it "the generally accepted theory".

The main thrust of their article is that the Bible uses the title "Pharaoh" anachronisticly, but the Qur'an uses it correctly, i.e. uses it only for the Pharaoh of Moses, but not the king of Egypt at the time of Joseph. Assuming that the Qur'an is correct on this detail, they suggest that divine revelation could be the only reason for this amazing accuracy.

However, given the many details regarding Egypt about which the Qur'an is clearly wrong (cf. the list of articles at the top of this article), that seems to be a premature conclusion. Had the Qur'an been correct on all historical details, and if it had provided details that go way beyond what is found in the Bible, this could have been considered impressive. In the present case, the Qur'an seems to be correct by accident rather than supernatural revelation.

Jochen Katz

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