Moses and Aaron


Surah 17 (al-Isra/The Night Journey): 101-103

101. We gave Moses nine self-evident signs. So, ask the Children of Israel (to tell you what happened) when Moses came to them (appealing to Pharaoh on their behalf) and Pharaoh responded to him: ‘Truly, Moses, I think you are engaged in witchcraft.’

102 And (Moses) answered ‘You know very well that no one but the Lord of heavens and earth can produce such miracles as evidence so that you may see. So, Pharaoh, (since you have chosen rather to reject what you see) I know you are utterly lost.’

103. And then Pharaoh wanted to wipe (the Children of Israel) from the face of the earth, and We subsequently caused Pharaoh and all who joined him to drown.

[‘The Qur’an – with References to the Bible: A Contemporary Understanding’, Kaskas & Hungerford, 2016]

The Book of Genesis ends with the death of Joseph, and the second book of the Torah, the Book of Exodus, commences with an explanation that the descendants of Jacob remained in Egypt for generations, whereupon they became numerous and strong, leading to the Egyptians enslaving them, and, in fear at their strength, ordering their male children to be slain. Moses escaped this fate by being placed in a basket by his sister, Miriam, and left in a place where it would be found by Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses was then raised in Pharaoh’s household, but he fled Egypt after killing an Egyptian for beating his Hebrew slave (2.11 ). After leaving Egypt he settled in Midian and married Zipporah, the daughter of a priest, Jethro. In an encounter with God whom he saw in the form of a burning bush, Moses was instructed to return to Egypt to order Pharaoh to free his people (chapters 3 and 4).


Upon his return to Egypt, Moses, together with his brother Aaron, became involved in a contest with Pharaoh’s wise men and sorcerers, told at Exodus 7.8-13   ). Each were able to turn their staffs into snakes, but Moses’s snake ate the snakes of Pharaoh’s magicians demonstrating the power of God. Notwithstanding this warning, Pharaoh refused to free the Israelites, and obdurately maintained this refusal despite his kingdom suffering a succession of plagues, only relenting when, in the tenth plague, God struck dead every first-born Egyptian son (chapter 11). Although this catastrophe finally persuaded Pharaoh to release the Israelites, after their departure he changed his mind and pursued them with his army: a chase that came to an end with God miraculously parting the Red Sea to enable the Israelites to pass out of Egypt into Sinai, allowing the waters to return as Pharaoh and his army attempted to follow the same route, drowning them (14).


The latter part of the Book of Exodus concerns Moses leading his people for forty years in the desert, led by God and sustained by miraculously provided food and water. During this time Moses declared God’s law for the Israelites to follow, and in one of the most iconic episodes of the Bible ascended Mount Sinai whereupon he received God’s law in the form of Ten Commandments, only to discover upon his return that his people had immediately lapse to idolatry, creating a golden calf to worship.


The laws that were said to have been prescribed during this period occupy much of the remaining three books of the Torah, those of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Moses also had constructed an ornate gold-covered chest, the Ark of the Covenant, to contain the tablets on which the Ten Commandments had been inscribed. At the conclusion of the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Torah, Moses ascended Mount Nebo to view the promised land of Canaan which God granted to the Israelites in fulfilment of His covenant with Abraham. However, Moses himself was forbidden to enter Canaan as a punishment for having doubted God during the years in the desert.


The historical origins of the Torah remain obscure. The incorporation into it of the Sumerian legends that became the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah strongly suggests that the Torah reached its final form after the end of the Babylonian Captivity in 539 BC. However, the Book of Genesis in particular contains unmistakable evidence of having been compiled from multiple different sources, evident in its retelling of episodes several times in different ways and the different terms to refer to God that are used, and some these sources may well have drawn upon oral traditions that may have long predated the captivity. The earliest evidence of the existence of a people called Israel is the Merneptah Stele, a monumental inscription in which the Pharaoh Merneptah (1213-1203 BC) boasts of having ‘plundered Canaan into every sort of woe’ and ‘laid waste Israel and his seed is not’. The name Moses seems most likely to be derived from the Egyptian name suffix ‘-mose’ meaning ‘son of’ (present in the names of two of the most famous pharaohs: Rameses and Tuthmosis). Consequently, that the Israelites had preserved an ancient folk memory of having escaped slavery in Egypt under the leadership of a man whose was, or ended, –moses, is by no means implausible.


Moses (Musa) is named one hundred and forty-three times in the Qur’an, far more than any other person, and many of the episodes in the biblical narrative are referred to. Given the complexity of the narrative and the quantity of the references, it is convenient to set some of these references out in the form of a list:


Moses’s infancy:

{20.37-39}, {28.7-13};

Moses killing the Egyptian

{20.40}, {26.14 & 19-20}, {28.15-19};

Moses in Midian

{28.22-28} ;

The Burning Bush

{20-9-23}, {27.7-12}, {28.29-35}, {79.15-19};

Moses and Pharaoh

{7.103-134}, {10.75-89}{20.41-73},  {27.13-14}, {28.36-40}, {43.46-56},  {44.17-24}, {40.23-50}, {79.20-26} ;

The Parting of the Red Sea

{2.49-50}, {7.135-138} , {8.84},     {10.90-92},   {17.103}, {20-77-79), {26.63-66}, {43.55}, {44.24};

Wandering in the wilderness

{7.137}, {20.80-99}, {26.52-56}, {43.18-30},  {44.23-32}  ;

The Golden Calf

{2.51-52}, {4.153}, {7.148-152}, {20.86-98};

Moses being given the law

 {2.53 & 87}, {7.142-147}, {19.52}, {40.53}.


Inevitably these many references contains much that is of interest for understanding the Qur’an author’s perspective and message.

  • In {28.7-8} Moses is adopted by the wife of Pharaoh rather than his daughter, which, Gabriel Said Reynolds has pointed out (assuming that Moses deals with only one pharaoh), frames the later events as a father-son confrontation, similar to that between Abraham and Terah-Azar.


  • In {28.23-28} Moses helps two women to water their livestock, since they had feared to approach the well unaccompanied due to the presence of many men there. The incident leads to Moses meeting the father of the two women, who hires Moses to work for him for eight years and in return for the right to marry one of his daughters. Although a meeting at a well features in the biblical story of Moses meeting Zipporah , the Qur’an’s version of how Moses met his future wife, includes elements transferred over from the story of Jacob 〈21.〉 in Genesis chapter 29. Like Quranic Moses, biblical Jacob assisted two unaccompanied sisters to water their flocks and upon meeting their aged father agreed a long fixed term of labour (seven years rather than eight) before he would be permitted to marry the daughter whom he loved, Rachel.


The Genesis story has a twist. Jacob works for Laben for the agreed seven years, only to be tricked into marrying the Rachel’s elder sister, Leah, after which he learns that for the right to marry Rachel he must toil for a further seven years. A faint echo of this is to be found in Surah 28, when Moses’ prospective father in law suggests that Moses works for an additional two years, after the eight of the initial bargain. No reason is offered for this proposed additional work, and so inconsequential is this to the Quranic version of the story, that it is not recorded whether Moses performed the additional period or not.


  • {20.9-16} and {79.16} place the burning bush in ‘the holy valley of Tuwa’ but the location of this valley, the name of which does not appear in any known biblical literature, is unknown.


  • In {7.124}, {20.71}, and {26.49}, Pharaoh Pharaoh threatens to amputate the limbs of his own magicians and to crucify them. These two punishments, which seem somewhat inconsistent with one another, recall in the element of crucifixion, the death of Jesus. But if this was intended to present Pharaoh in a poor light by comparing his threats to Moses with the death of Jesus, the effect is undermined by {4.158}, in which the Qur’an appears to deny that the crucifixion of Jesus took place at all, see 〈25.〉, and by {5.33}, in which the Qur’an itself prescribes crucifixion and amputation, as two of the four punishments that are prescribed by God for ‘working corruption in the land’, see 〈71.〉


  • In Surahs 28, 29 and 40, the account of Moses’ dealings with Pharaoh come to involve two other individuals: Haman and Qarun (Korah). In {28.6-8} and  Moses is sent to ‘Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts’; in {40.24} to ‘Pharaoh, Haman and Korah’ who all respond to him in unison.


In Surah 40 an unnamed believer at Pharaoh’s court speaks up in support of Moses’ message warning Pharaoh of the fate of ‘Ad and Thamud (although if the people of Thamud were, as seems likely, the Nabateans they would have lived long after the time of the pharaohs had passed, 〈26.〉)

In response to this intervention, Pharaoh orders Haman to build a tower ‘to the paths’ (ie the paths of the sun and moon as they travel across the sky), {28.38-39} and {40.36-37}. This is a project that is clearly reminiscent of the Tower of Babel in Genesis chapter 11  but this digression from the main Moses narrative leads nowhere, for in neither story are we told if Haman began to build such a tower, and in each, after the instruction is issued,  the narrative moves on without  returning to the topic of the encounter with Moses.


Although in {40.24} Moses is sent by God ‘unto Pharaoh, Haman and Qarun’, Qarun is described in {28.76}, as being ‘of the people of Moses’. This latter verse accords with the Book of Numbers, chapter 16 ,, where Korah is the name given to an Israelite who leads a rebellion against Moses during the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness. Both perish by God having the earth open before him and swallow him up, Numbers 16.32 / {28.81}. In Surah 28, though, it is not rebellion but personal vanity that is Qarun’s undoing, for his punishment is for his causing envy amongst the Israelites by his flamboyant attire.


In Surah 28, though, it is not rebellion but vanity that is Qarun’s undoing, for when he appears in showy dress, God punishes him by having the earth open before him and swallow him up,


  • The Qur’an frequently implies, and in {17.103} states explicitly, that Pharaoh was drowned by God with his army, yet in {10.93} the Qur’an offers an alternative ending to the story that Pharaoh repented and may have even been saved from drowning (the account is not clear) in order that he might serve as a sign for others.


  • In three instances, {2.63 & 93} and {4.154} the Qur’an asserts that God ‘raised up the Mount’ over the Israelites as He made his covenant with them, and in {7.171} He ‘lifted the mountain above them as if it were a canopy and they thought it would fall upon them’. This dramatic image is no doubt inspired by the unusually literal meaning given in the (pre-550) Midrashic Shabbat (88a) to Moses instructing his people to stand ‘beneath’ Mount Sinai in Exodus 19.17: namely that ‘the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain’ that God had overturned ‘like a tub’.


For a different mountain crumbling to dust as a sign to Moses, see 〈13.〉


  • In Surah 20, the Israelites’ lapse into idolatry whilst Moses is receiving the ten commandments on Mount Sinai through creating and worshipping a golden calf, is also given a dramatic twist since the calf lows as if alive, {20.85-97} and {7.148}, and a man identified only as ‘the Samaritan’ confesses to Moses that he had brought it to life using dust he had taken from ‘the footprints of the messenger.’ Again this story seems to have pre-Quranic roots. In Faces of the Chariot, Early Jewish Responses to Ezekiel’s Vision, a midrash on the Song of Songs is described within which, during the crossing of the miraculously parted Red Sea, an Israelite, Micah (not to be confused with the prophet Micah), conjured up a vision of Ezekiel’s chariot and that he ‘took some of the dust that was underneath the ox element’ (Ezekiel’s chariot consisted of four living creatures ) ‘and kept it with him until the appropriate time’. The Qur’an’s linking of an Israelite dust gatherer and an inanimate object in bovine form brought to life, makes the midrashic source of the story very likely. The blaming of a Samaritan, see 〈18.〉, is the Qur’an’s conflation of the Exodus idolatry with a quite separate biblical story in which the Samaritans, not having learnt their lesson, are said to have later recreated either one or two golden calves to worship (1 Kings 12.28, Hosea 8.5-6).


The reference in {2.93} to the Israelites ‘drinking the calf into their hearts’, is probably a reference to Moses grinding the calf idol into powder and forcing the Israelites to drink it (Exodus 32.20 ) For their sin the Israelites are ‘seized by a thunderbolt as (they) looked on’, {2.55-56}, adopting the same words used elsewhere for the destruction visited upon the people of ‘Ad and Thamud, 〈26.〉


  • The Ark of the Covenant is mentioned in the Qur’an once, but only in the context of it being returned to Israel at a much later time 〈23.〉


  • A particularly enigmatic allusion even by the standards of the Qur’an, which is fairly unintelligible from the text of the Qur’an alone, appears in the story recounted at {2.67-72}, from which Surah 2, ‘The Cow’, takes its name. This passage links a divine instruction to slaughter a yellow or red cow with the successful investigation into an unexplained death. The best explanation appears to be that the Qur’an has conflated two separate sacrifice rituals prescribed in the Torah. In Numbers 19.1-3 , Moses and Aaron are commanded to slaughter a red heifer. In Deuteronomy 21.1-8 , it is prescribed that where there is an unexplained death, the inhabitants of the nearest village should sacrifice a cow and deny that they did not know how the person had died. The Quranic story seems to combine these two cow-sacrifice passages whilst adding a new, miraculous, element that, when these rituals were conducted by Moses, a murder victim was resurrected to name his killer.


  • A young Moses also features in Surah 18 in the unfamiliar role of a disciple, in the story of Al-Khidr 〈28.〉 The Qur’an author may also have sought to plant the suggestion in its audience’s minds that Moses was one and the same with Dhu’l Qarnayn, ‘the two horned one’, normally identified as Alexander the Great 〈29.〉




Aaron (Hārūn) is brought into Moses’ mission to Pharaoh at Moses’ own request, {20.30} (‘Through him increase my strength’), {25.35}, {26.12-13} (‘My Lord truly I fear that they will deny me. And my breast will be straitened and my tongue will not be unfettered, so send unto Aaron’) and {28.34}. Subsequently the Qur’an describes the mission as having been undertaken by the two brothers, and has the Pharaoh’s sorcerers profess their belief in ‘the Lord of Moses and Aaron{7.122}, {20.70} and {26.48} (reflected in {2.248}‘s reference to the Ark of the Covenant containing relics from ‘the House of Moses and the House of Aaron’). Aaron is even raised to the level of having been given ‘the Book’ along with Moses, {37.114}, see also {10.87}. However, Aaron’s only truly independent role in the Qur’an is the somewhat ignominious one of being dragged by the hair by Moses {7.150}, before having to explain to his older brother how it came to pass that the Israelites had succumbed to idolatry under his watch. To this, his reply in {7.151} and, even more so that in {20.94} – ‘O son of my mother! Seize not my beard or my head. Truly I feared that thou wouldst say: ‘Thou hast caused division among the Children of Israel and thou hast not heeded my word’,’ hardly amounts to an impressive defence.


Muhammad as Moses

When the life of Muhammad came to be recorded it would have close parallels with that of Moses. Muhammad, like Moses did not know his father and was raised as an orphan. From humble origins each was admitted into a wealthy household through gaining the affection of a female, Moses through his discovery and adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter, Muhammad by his marriage to Khadija, see 〈D.〉 The wives and concubines of Muhammad. Both received direct messages from God upon a mountain. In the Qur’an, as in the Bible, Moses is described conveying God’s law to the Israelites on ‘tablets’ {7.145} – a reference to the ten commandments, which were the physical equivalent of the Qur’an’s Preserved Tablet from which Muhammad claimed to be reciting. As was the case with most of the Quranic prophets, Muhammad and Moses had the experience of preaching and finding their messages and warnings rejected. More particularly each shared the experience of leading their people from urban persecution into a desert wilderness as a test of their faith. Having passed this test, each established a powerful nation and theocracy by dint of their faith, their unflinching commitment to the strict application of God’s law, and the sword. Where Moses had seen God smite his enemies with plagues and drown them in the sea, Muhammad and his followers had had to make themselves the God’s agent of revenge. Like Moses, Muhammad had opened the way to his people’s inheritance of the Promised Land in realisation of God’s promise to Abraham, but had been taken by God before he could lead them there himself.


In all his major roles – prophet, leader and lawgiver – Moses is presented as a forerunner of Muhammad. The coincidences are unlikely to be a result of chance or of history repeating. Rather, it seems likely that the composers of the Muhammad story in the eighth century purposely modelled their hero-prophet who had made the Arab conquests possible, upon the existing example of Moses.


See also Muhammad as David, Abraham, at 〈23.〉