|Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue (10)|
Moses turns to God
The Israelites were refusing to respond positively to Moses’ call to them to wage jihad, preferring to relax in safety and security, and leaving Moses alone in the battlefield, in a situation similar to when a commander’s soldiers desert him in the thick of the fight. This was an indication that they did not attain the level of belief Moses had wished they would reach, especially after all the efforts he put in redeeming them from the clutches of Pharaoh and his repression. Against this background, Moses had no alternative but to turn to God with a final entreaty, for he had exhausted all the ways possible to put his people on the right track.
It seems that Moses was not different from other prophets who had to fight on two fronts, that of the adversaries and that of their own followers. After they had felt that there was nothing more they could do, they had recourse to God to bear witness that they had done their level best, beseeching Him to perpetuate the chasm between them and the corrupt people.
This is the practical lesson the workers in the way of God must learn. When they face rebellion and disappointment, they should feel contented with what they have achieved, never feel sorry, and be satisfied with the effort they put in discharging their responsibility. They should have peace of mind because they have been carrying out God’s will in delivering His Message. Their final submission should be before God to present Him with their last report, outlining the effort they put in the work and the problems they encountered. Thus, their mission should either come to an end, or there might be another mission to be had somewhere else.
Moses’ dialogue with the good man
In the last chapter of Moses’ story, we linger on his dialogue with a good man he met. This is a unique tale, in which God had desired that Moses be exposed to a completely new experience, which the prophets with missions must handle when faced with unforeseen circumstances.
In a nutshell, the story concludes that behind what the eyes can perceive and the mind concludes, there are hidden matters. Those out of sight things could change the whole picture and consequently the conclusion, i.e. they might turn out to be diametrically opposed to the initial conclusion the person has come up with.
God had willed that Moses should go through this “on-the-job” training with one of God’s less famous good servants. God endowed him with wisdom and imparted to him His knowledge. The significance of this experience was that it had a direct bearing on Moses’ legislative acumen, i.e. in his capacity as prophet. That is, when giving his rulings on certain issues, he should bear in mind that not all things could be judged by their outward appearance, for once the unknown side was revealed, the outcome would be different. This principle is a common one that is applicable to judgments of a public nature, and those concerning special cases:
“Behold, Moses said to his attendant, “I will not give up until I reach the junction of the two seas or (until) I spend years and years in travel.” But when they reached the junction, they forgot (about) their fish, which took its course through the sea (straight) as in a tunnel. When they had passed on (some distance), Moses said to his attendant: “Bring us our early meal; truly we have suffered much fatigue at this (stage of) our journey.” He replied: “did thou see (what happened) when we betook ourselves to the rock? I did indeed forget (about) the fish: none but Satan made me forget to tell (you) about it: it took its course through the sea in a marvelous way!” Moses said: “That was what we were seeking after:” So they went back on their footsteps, following (the path they had come).”
“So they found one of Our servants, on whom We had bestowed Mercy from Ourselves and whom We had taught knowledge from Our own Presence. Moses said to him: “May I follow thee, on the footing that thou teach me something of the (Higher) Truth which thou hast been taught?” (The other) said: “Verily thou wilt not be able to have patience with me! And how can thou have patience about things about which thy understanding is not complete?” Moses said: “Thou wilt find me, if God so wills, (truly) patient: nor shall I disobey thee in aught.” The other said: “If then thou would follow me, ask me no questions about anything until I myself speak to thee concerning it.”
“So they both proceeded: until, when they were in the boat, he scuttled it. Said Moses: “Hast thou scuttled it in order to drown those in it? Truly a strange thing hast thou done!” He answered: “Did I not tell thee that thou canst have no patience with me?” Moses said: “Rebuke me not for forgetting, nor grieve me by raising difficulties in my case.” Then they proceeded: until, when they met a young man, he slew him. Moses said: “Hast thou slain an innocent person who had slain none? Truly a foul (unheard of) thing hast thou done!” He answered: “Did I not tell thee that thou cannot have no patience with me?” (Moses) said: “If ever I ask thee about anything after this, keep me not in thy company: then would thou have received (full) excuse from my side.”
“Then they proceeded: until, when they came to the inhabitants of a town, they asked them for food, but they refused them hospitality. They found there a wall on the point of falling down, but he set it up straight. (Moses) said: “If thou had wished, surely thou couldst have exacted some recompense for it!” He answered: “This is the parting between me and thee: now will I tell thee the interpretation of (those things) over which thou was unable to hold patience. As for the boat, it belonged to certain men in dire want: they plied on the water: I but wished to render it unserviceable, for there was after them a certain king who seized on every boat by force. As for the youth, his parents were people of Faith, and we feared that he would grieve them by obstinate rebellion and ingratitude (to God and man). So we desired that their Lord would give them in exchange (a son) better in purity (of conduct) and closer in affection. As for the wall, it belonged to two youths, orphans, in the Town; there was, beneath it, a buried treasure, to which they were entitled: their father had been a righteous man: So thy Lord desired that they should attain their age of full strength and get out their treasure – a mercy (and favor) from thy Lord. I did it not of my own accord. Such is the interpretation of (those things) over which thou was unable to hold patience.” (18: 60–82)
We do not want to expand on this story in the way the writers of prophetic stories did, in that we are doing away with trying to know the name of the person whom Moses accompanied on his learning curve – was it al-Khidher or someone else? Where was the place where the fish found its way back to the water, after it had been grilled, as is claimed? All of this does not concern us as what we are dealing with is the subject of dialogue in the Holy Quran.
What we have found interesting in this story is the following:
1. Sublime ethical values
This can be demonstrated by the humility shown to knowledge and scholars, regardless of the positions in the social or religious hierarchy the teacher and the student might be occupying. The divine ethics can be found in the gentle words Moses addressed the good man with and the humble request he made to him: “May I follow thee, on the footing that thou teach me something of the (Higher) Truth which thou hast been taught.”
2. The direct approach
What is salient in the story is the practical and direct approach the trainer used with his apprentice. It is apparent that the approach was free from any flattery and wiliness that could be dictated by social structures, as is the case nowadays. Devious ways are in vogue, just to impress others and turn them into numbers on the list of followers, in a bid to attach pomp and give aura to the position of the teacher, regardless of whether or not there is benefit to be reaped of his knowledge, or whether the students are up to the standard of making them learn something of substance from their teacher.
That good man was different from others [such as Moses] in the extent of his true knowledge of reality. Although he shared with others the knowledge of the visible side of matters, yet, unlike them, he owned an insight into the invisible side, as in many cases the outward appearance belies the truth. Thus, others either rejected his way of doing things or could not put up with it. As a result, remaining in his company became unrewarding, or so it seemed. Staying with him appeared to generate more controversy, which did not serve anyone’s interest, nor did it benefit the truth in the least.
In this light, and at the outset, the good man made it clear that Moses would find most of what he was going to do beyond the pale, for a simple reason, i.e. man might not fathom that which he did not have knowledge about. Thus Moses promised him patience and total obedience. The good man’s condition was that Moses should not ask him about anything, unless he said so, no matter how strange it might have looked. That was why their relationship was that of companionship, based on the pursuit of knowledge in a framework of discipline and realism.
3. Exemplary discipline
The actions of the good man were testing Moses’ patience, not least for believing they were unlawful, especially the incidents of killing the boy and scuttling the boat. The first incident, killing the boy without an apparent reason, represented a crime against the human soul. The second incident constituted a crime against the property of others, putting other people in harm’s way, and neglecting the principle of using one’s energy in protecting oneself from hunger, especially those who did not uphold ideals in their public life. Thus, Moses’ complaints were unremitting until the last incident, which was preceded by his giving an undertaking to show restraint and the good man’s giving Moses (a.s.) the freedom to part company with him should he choose to remain confrontational and show impatience.
This was how the case turned out to be, i.e. Moses’ patience snapped. After the good man had stuck to his word of parting company with Moses, he explained to him all the actions he had carried out to which Moses objected, in that God decreed them all and that he was instrumental in implementing them.
However, this study is not concerned with critically evaluating those actions, i.e. whether they were in keeping with the general guidelines of the Islamic law, or special cases governed by their own circumstances. All that we are after is to make use of the dialogue we have experienced in making reference to two salient points that have a bearing on the work of the activists in the way of God.
The activists must live and breathe with discipline, patience, and quiet while going about discharging their duties in public life, provided that the parties which they represent or collaborate with are up to the level of confidence all round, i.e. ideologically, religiously, and practically. They should not hasten to object to the orders issued to them, showing displeasure with any actions that might go contrary to what they are familiar with. This sort of reaction might adversely affect the work and result in indiscipline among the ranks of workers. The activists may speak their mind when the time and circumstance are right.
The believers should accept with patience and submission the divine instructions imparted to them, which they may not be used to. This is because God knows best what is good and what is bad. Should they have any lingering thoughts, they can critically examine such thoughts, and then they can explore the rationale behind the instructions, in which case they might arrive at their own conclusions.