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Adoption by Adaption

The stories of Moses and Joseph in the Qur’an

Masud Masihiyyen

The discrepancies between the Bible and the Qur’an do not only concern central theological doctrines (the notion of prophetic lineage, religious identity of the messengers, Jesus’ crucifixion, the concept of sin and salvation, etc.) but also various inconsequential details in the narratives of prominent figures. One such discrepancy that is relatively well-known is the question of who adopted Moses. The Bible1 clearly teaches that infant Moses was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter:

Then the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself by the Nile, while her attendants were walking alongside the river, and she saw the basket among the reeds. She sent one of her attendants took it, opened it, and saw the child – a boy, crying! and she felt compassion  for him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get a nursing woman for you from the Hebrews, so that she may nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes, do so.” So the young girl went and got the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse him for me, and I will pay your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. When the child grew older she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “Because I drew him from the water.”  (Exodus 2:5-10)

The Qur’an2, however, contradicts this teaching when it says that the idea of adopting baby Moses originated from Pharaoh’s wife:

And the family of Pharaoh took him up, that he might become for them an enemy and a sorrow, Lo! Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts were ever sinning. And the wife of Pharaoh said: “(He will be) a consolation for me and for thee. Kill him not. Peradventure he may be of use to us, or we may choose him for a son” (Surah 28:8-9).

Moreover, Moses’ adoption is implied in Pharaoh’s response when Moses challenges him after his return from Median:

(Pharaoh) said (unto Moses): “Did we not rear thee among us as a child? And thou didst dwell many years of thy life among us” (Surah 26:18).3

Despite the fact that this difference, whether Moses was adopted by the daughter or the wife of Pharaoh, has no effect on Christian or Islamic theology, or perhaps even because of it, it is interesting to ask WHY the author(s) of the Qur’an changed this detail. Was it mere ignorance of the facts, or was there a deeper reason? While responding to this question, Muslim apologists and Muslim believers who have rudimentary knowledge of the Bible can do nothing more than reiterate their baseless allegations about the textual corruption of the Torah. Their naïve conclusion is that the Torah is absolutely wrong whenever it contradicts what is stated in the Qur’an. However, a closer analysis of the Qur’an verses about Moses’ infancy enables us to comprehend why the authors4 of the Qur’an replaced Pharaoh’s daughter in Exodus with Pharaoh’s wife while relating this story and whether this alteration was deliberate.  

First of all, it should be kept in mind that some chapters of the Qur’an are well-developed narratives that have more thematic and chronological unity than many others which have almost no coherence. Such coherent chapters were penned by the same group of people who attached significance to the order and flow of narratives, giving adequate attention to the form of an account along with its content. These kinds of writers underscored their peculiar writing style by laying emphasis on the fact that what they presented was a nice narrative that aimed to inform people of the detailed stories of certain figures. This approach can be found in two chapters of the Qur’an: Surah 28 and 12. The former, named the Narration (Al-QASAS in Arabic) begins to recount Moses’ story from the days of his birth whilst the latter, named Joseph (YUSUF in Arabic), relates Joseph’s story from the days of his earliest dreams about his brothers.

We narrate unto thee (somewhat) of the story of Moses and Pharaoh with truth, for folk who believe (Surah 28:3).

We narrate unto thee (Muhammad) the best of narratives in that We have inspired in thee this Qur'an, though aforetime thou wast of the heedless (Surah 12:3)

Both Joseph and Moses are prominent biblical figures whose lives bear remarkable similarities and contrasts with various theological implications. In the first place, Joseph and Moses represent Israel’s relation with Egypt. Through Joseph, Jacob and his other sons (Israelites) leave their country and settle in Egypt, where they stay until the Exodus at Moses’ time. Thus, Moses marks the end of Israel’s settlement in a foreign land whereas Joseph the beginning. Second, both Joseph and Moses’ lives are threatened by people who devise schemes against them. Out of jealousy and hatred, Joseph’s brothers plot to kill him and finally cast him into a cistern. Pharaoh similarly hates all Israelites living in his country and asks his people to cast all male Hebrew children into the river (Exodus 1:22). Both Joseph and Moses survive5 these evil plots of their adversaries and later gain a high position in the administration of Egypt. As God blesses Egypt through Joseph, He blazes His wrath against the same Egypt through Moses.

This set of parallelisms between the stories of Joseph and Moses in the Hebrew scripture definitely fascinated some writers of the Qur’an and prompted them to devise chapter 28 and 12, which have common features and a similar message with regard to being a detailed narrative teaching the wisdom of God and His control of affairs. Accordingly, these specific writers demonstrated the similarities between Joseph’s and Moses’ life through repetitive words and phrases. For example, they used the word L’ARD (the earth/ the land) to refer to Egypt in both stories:

Thus we established Joseph in the land that We might teach him the interpretation of events (Surah 12:21).

Lo! Pharaoh exalted himself in the earth and made its people castes. A tribe among them he oppressed, killing their sons and sparing their women. Lo! he was of those who work corruption. And We desired to show favour unto those who were oppressed in the earth, and to make them examples and to make them the inheritors, And to establish them in the earth, and to show Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts that which they feared from them (Surah 28:4-6)

More, the same authors interpreted certain events as natural outcomes of providence, of which certain elected people were informed through divine inspiration:

Then, when they led him off, and were of one mind that they should place him in the depth of the pit, We inspired in him: “Thou wilt tell them of this deed of theirs when they know (thee) not” (Surah 12:15).

And We inspired the mother of Moses, saying: “Suckle him and, when thou fearest for him, then cast him into the river and fear not nor grieve. Lo! We shall bring him back unto thee and shall make him (one) of Our messengers” (Surah 28:7).

Allah was predominant in His career, but most of mankind know not (Surah 12:21).

And she said unto his sister: “Trace him. So she observed him from afar, and they perceived not” (Surah 28:11).

Likewise, Jacob’s father was countered in the Qur’an by Moses’ mother when the theme of waiting with patience for divine intervention and guidance in the course of sorrowful events was introduced:

And they came weeping to their father in the evening. “O our father! We went racing one with another, and left Joseph by our things, and the wolf devoured him, and thou believest not our saying even when we speak the truth”. And they came with false blood on his shirt. He said: “Nay, but your minds have beguiled you into something. (My course is) comely patience. And Allah it is Whose help is to be sought in that (predicament) which ye describe”. (Surah 12:18)

And the heart of the mother of Moses became void, and she would have betrayed him if We had not fortified her heart, that she might be of the believers. (Surah 28:10).

The more these writers were awed by the parallelism between Joseph and Moses in the biblical version of the story, the more willing they became to augment these similarities through different methods. After some time they reached the point of constructing almost identical sentences about Joseph and Moses, providing evidence for the fact that both of these chapters were their product.

And when he reached his full strength and was ripe, We gave him wisdom and knowledge. Thus do We reward the good (Surah 28:14).

And when he reached his prime We gave him wisdom and knowledge. Thus We reward the good (Surah 12:22).

Nonetheless, the act of deriving parallelism between Joseph and Moses turned into a dangerous game in the hand of these writers, who erroneously adapted the things peculiar to Moses to Joseph and vice versa, failing to grasp who was similar to whom in the original version of the stories. The disastrous result was that they awkwardly inserted the notion of adoption into Joseph’s story solely because Moses had been adopted as an infant although no such thing had occurred in Joseph’s life. (The Book of Genesis does not even imply that Joseph was adopted by the Egyptian chief named Potiphar.)

And he of Egypt who purchased him said unto his wife: Receive him honorably. Perchance he may prove useful to us or we may adopt him as a son (Surah 12:21).

Besides, these writers wanted to accommodate the people supposedly adopting Joseph to the people adopting baby Moses as a result of their extended and exaggerated analogy. Thus, they mistakenly concluded that those who wanted to adopt Moses were a couple (Pharaoh and his wife) because the people who supposedly thought of adopting Joseph were also a couple (al-Aziz and his wife). This fabricated similarity between Joseph and Moses in regard to the notion of adoption also includes a contrast based on gender. In Joseph’s story, who brings up the suggestion of adopting Joseph is al-Aziz (the husband), who is portrayed as a benevolent and compassionate person in sharp contrast to his wife. In Moses’ story, the same suggestion comes from Pharaoh’s wife, who is depicted as a merciful woman that tries to save Moses from the plots of her evil husband. To compare and contrast:

And he of Egypt who purchased him said unto his wife: “Receive him honorably. Perchance he may prove useful to us or we may adopt him as a son” (Surah 12:21).

And the wife of Pharaoh said: “(He will be) a consolation for me and for thee. Kill him not. Peradventure he may be of use to us, or we may choose him for a son” (Surah 28:9)

The authors of chapter 28 and 12 did certainly not anticipate that overextending their analogy would cause them much trouble even to the point of betraying their whole idea of similarities.

Even if we suppose that Joseph and Moses’ means of getting access to the royal palace of Egypt were meant to be similar, it would have been more convenient for baby Moses not to be directly adopted by Pharaoh just as Joseph was first bought by Potiphar/al-Aziz, not by Pharaoh. Consequently, the writers of the Qur’an burned their hands while playing with fire and became ironically more inconsistent in the name of consistency.6

The authors of the Qur’an were apparently so fascinated by a number of the similarities in the life stories of Joseph and Moses that they changed several other details to increase the number of similarities. They forced the notion of adoption into Joseph’s story and the replaced the daughter figure in the story of Moses’ adoption with that of a wife so that the couple in Joseph’s story could be transferred to Moses’ as well as Joseph could be made more similar to Moses in terms of an adoption.

This foregoing analysis has presented only one example7 of how the author(s) of the Qur’an played with and corrupted the historical records for the purpose of developing more and stronger similarities and cross connections between various stories in their literary composition. This sort of a writing style also reveals the clear motivation that the composers of the Qur’an had for their changes in these stories, which resulted in the perversion of the historical truth. On the other hand, the Muslim charge of corruption of the Torah is without substance since there is neither evidence nor any discernable motivation for it.


1 All Biblical references in this paper, unless otherwise stated, come from the NET version of the Holy Bible:

2 Pickthall’s English translation of the Qur’an is used for all Islamic scriptural references in this article:

3 This verse leads the readers of the Qur’an to the conclusion that throughout Moses’ lifetime there was only one single Pharaoh in power, which causes some theological and historical problems for Muslims. For further info on this issue:

4 A meticulous linguistic analysis of the Qur’an text has led me to the conclusion that it was composed by several authors whose peculiar writing style is discernible in various places. The issues I am going to present in this paper are compatible with and evidence for this theory of mine.

5 Another noteworthy parallelism between these figures is that Joseph was “drawn out of the cistern” whilst Moses was “drawn out of the waters”.

6 The exaggerated analogies drawn by the authors of the Qur’an between Joseph and Moses also resulted in the other erroneous Islamic claim that the Israelites took the land of the Egyptians during the Exodus. The settlement of the Israelites in Egypt during Joseph’s time, when combined with the similarities between Joseph and Moses, motivates the authors of the Qur’an to mistake Egypt for the Promised Land. For further info about this confusion:

7 This is certainly not the only case where the authors of the Qur’an resort to distorting the original account of the stories in the Torah for the sake of their extended and innovated analogies. The weird quranic allegation that Moses served his father-in-law in return for his marriage (Surah 28:26-28) is most likely adopted from the biblical story of Jacob’s marriage, which is recounted in Genesis 29:15-18. What drove the writers of the Qur’an to incorporate the peculiar elements of the story of Jacob’s marriage into that of Moses’ was that watering the flocks of sheep at a well eventually led both of these figures into a marital union. For further info about the faulty Islamic allegations derived from the similarities between Joseph and Moses’ marriage:

Articles by Masud Masihiyyen
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