SOVEREIGNTY OF PHARAOH IN EGYPT
and THE CONDITION OF THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL
Besides the city states established in Mesopotamia, Egyptian civilization was one of the most ancient civilizations in history. Ancient Egypt is known to have had the most organised social and political order of the time. Their invention of writing around 3000 B.C., their use of the river Nile, the deserts surrounding the country and serving as a strong defence against external threats were major factors in the successful progression of the Egyptian Civilization.
Nevertheless, this great civilization was ruled by Pharaoh, whose reign is clearly described in the Qur'an as an example of obstinance. These people acted proudly against God, turned their backs on Him, persisting in their denial of the truth. Therefore, even their advanced civilization, social and political order, and military achievements, could not protect them from destruction.
The most important events of the history of Egypt took place in connection to the presence of the children of Israel in the land.
Israel is the other name of the Prophet Ya'qub (Jacob) (as). The sons of Ya'qub had formed "the children of Israel," the tribe which in time came to be known as "Jews." The children of Israel first came to Egypt during the time of the Prophet Yusuf, the youngest son of Ya'qub. In the Qur'an, a detailed account of the life of Yusuf is given in Sura Yusuf. Beginning in the early years of his life, Yusuf had faced many difficulties and had been subjected to numerous assaults and slanders. Later in his life, after his release from prison where he had been put because of a false accusation, Yusuf was placed in authority over the treasures of Egypt. His appointment was followed by the influx of the children of Israel into Egypt. This is described in the Qur'an as follows:
Then when they entered into Yusuf's presence, he drew
his parents close to him and said, "Enter Egypt safe and sound, if God
wills." (Qur'an, 12: 99)
According to the account in the Qur'an, the children of Israel, who had dwelled in peace and security in Egypt, eventually lost their status in the society, and in time, were finally enslaved. From the related verses in the Qur'an we understand that the children of Israel lived in such a condition at the time Musa arrived on the scene. As described in the Qur'an, Musa went to Pharaoh as "a member of an enslaved tribe." The following arrogant answer, which Pharaoh and his inner circle made to Musa (as) and Harun (Aaron) (as), informs us about this fact:
They said, "What! Should we believe in two human beings
like ourselves when their people are our slaves?" (Qur'an, 23: 47)
As depicted in these verses, the Egyptians had subjected the children of Israel to slavery and placed them in their personal service. To maintain and enforce this system of slavery, the Egyptians employed methods of repression. This pressure was exercised to the extent of controlling the entire Israelite population. The proliferation of the male population, deemed to be a challenge to the Egyptian's own survival, was obstructed, whilst the female population was exploited for their service. This situation is conveyed in the verses in which God addresses the children of Israel:
Remember when We rescued you from the people of Pharaoh.
They were inflicting an evil punishment on you-slaughtering your sons
and letting your women live. In that there was a tremendous trial for
you from your Lord. (Qur'an, 2: 49)
Remember when We rescued you from Pharaoh's people who
were inflicting an evil punishment on you, killing your sons and letting
your women live. In that there was a tremendous trial from your Lord.
(Qur'an, 7: 141)
The religion that was prevalent in the land of Egypt was the legacy of the idolatrous practices of Pharaoh's ancestors. This unjust religion posited the existence of numerous gods. Pharaoh was, on the other hand, believed to be a living god. It was precisely this belief which proffered pharaohs with such power over their subjects. Pharaoh and his immediate circle saw Musa as a threat to the way of life dictated by the religion of their ancestors, since, according to that religion, it was Pharaoh who possessed all the might and glory. Pharaoh's arrogance, his striving to maintain control, and his regarding Musa and Harun as rivals, are evidenced in the following words of Pharaoh and his immediate circle, in their address to Musa and Harun:
They said, "Have you come to us to turn us from what
we found our fathers doing, and to gain greatness in the land? We do not
believe you." (Qur'an, 10: 78)
In accordance with his ancestors' religion, Pharaoh claimed that he was a god. He even went to such lengths as to claim he was their most exalted Lord :
(Pharaoh) saying, "I am your Lord Most High!" (Qur'an,
Because of their superstition, Pharaoh and his inner circle saw themselves as divine beings. Their arrogance stemmed from the fact that they were far from the love, care and compassion, which are precepts commanded by the original religion. As a consequence of their arrogance, they believed themselves to have the right to resort to cruelty. Their mentality is conveyed in the following verse:
…to Pharaoh and his ruling circle. But they were proud
and were a haughty people. (Qur'an, 23: 46)
Pharaoh exercised such a great influence over the people of Egypt that all submitted themselves completely to him. They believed Pharaoh was the sole possessor of the entire land of Egypt and the Nile river:
Pharaoh called to his people, saying, "My people, does
the kingdom of Egypt not belong to me? Do not all these rivers flow under
my control? Do you not then see?" (Qur'an, 43: 51)
The Nile was correctly said to be life for Egypt. All of Egypt depended on the Nile for agriculture. She irrigated the crops, provided potable water for animals and people alike. According to Pharaoh and his inner circle, the sole owner of these waters and the land itself was Pharaoh. Everyone in Egypt acquiesced to his power and complied to his rule.
In order to secure his power and reduce his people to submission, Pharaoh had divided them into factions and, by the help of his trusted advisors among them, ruled over these weakened groups. In a verse, God draws our attention to this situation:
Pharaoh exalted himself arrogantly in the land and divided
its people into camps, oppressing one group of them by slaughtering their
sons and letting their women live. He was one of the corrupters. (Qur'an,
Prior to the birth of Musa, Egypt was a land of depravity and corruption. Based purely on racial discrimination, people were enslaved and tortured. Without apparent justification, Pharaoh decreed that all male sons born to his Israelite subjects should be killed. Moreover, plunged into arrogance and cruelty, he saw himself as a god on earth. By way of an established system of rule, Pharaoh held everything under his control and made people adhere to him.
It was under these circumstances that Musa was sent by God as a messenger, to bring about an end to the oppression and cruelty, to remind people that their Lord is God, teach them the original religion, and rescue the children of Israel from captivity.