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Moses as Hero in Islamic Tradition

Dr. Connell Monette, Assistant Professor


Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco

The story of Moses has always been the object of much attention, both academic and popular,
ranging from academic works such as Wayne Meeks The Prophet-King: Moses Traditions and
the Johannine Christology (1967) and Jan Assmans Moses the Egyptian (1998) to cinema
productions such as Cecil B. DeMilles The Ten Commandments (Paramount Pictures, 1956)
or most recently Wells and Hickners The Prince of Egypt (DreamWorks, 1998).1 Yet this
fascination with the character of Moses is by no means a recent phenomenon, but rather can be
traced to classical and early medieval traditions, in which Moses appears as an aristocrat,
prophet, and statesman.
In 1936, Lord Raglan asked a new question in his study The Hero: A Study in Tradition,
Myth, and Drama: should we consider Moses as a heroic figure?2 On the one hand we do not
think of Moses wielding sword and spear; yet on the other, it appears that early Christian authors
described Moses using a vocabulary which is identified clearly with the pre-Christian heroic
tradition. For example, in recent years such scholars as J. R. R. Tolkien (1981), Charles Wright
(1984), Gernot Wieland (1988) have examined connections between Beowulf and the story of
Moses from The Old English Exodus text.3 Yet while these studies have enhanced our
understanding of medieval heroic literature and its development in the West, they do not
generally take into account the Islamic literature dealing with the same subject matter.
This paper, then, aims to examine the Islamic texts detailing with Moses (e.g. The
Quran, Ibn Kathirs Tales of the Prophets) and then to discuss whether or not the Islamic
depiction of Moses should be considered as a part of the medieval heroic corpus. This paper will
consider the models used in previous studies of medieval heroic traditions and determine
whether the Islamic traditions of Moses fits such a model, or whether it differs significantly
and if so, in what ways.

1
See W.A. Meeks, The Prophet -King. Moses Traditions and the Johannine Christology (NTS 14; Leiden 1967); J.
Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1997).
2
See Lord Raglan, The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama (London: Greenwood, 1936, reprinted 1975).
3
See J. R. R. Tolkien, The Old English "Exodus" Text, translation and commentary. Ed. Joan Turville-Petre
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981); C. Wright, "Moses, manna mildost (Exodus, 550a)," in Notes and Queries 229
(1984), 440-43; G. Wieland, Manna Mildost: Moses and Beowulf in Pacific Coast Philology 23 (1988), 86-93.
It will be beneficial to briefly discuss the heroic models developed by earlier scholars of
medieval traditions. As early as 1864, J.G. von Hahn developed an international biographical
pattern for the hero, followed closely by Lord Raglan then Alfred Nutt, who each developed a
world-spanning heroic model, but these (while useful) are too generalized for this essay, as they
try to incorporate most major mythologies this is a difficult (perhaps impractical) task.4 Otto
Rank and Joseph Campbell each developed a heroic model with similar geographic scope, but
focused on psychological and Jungian interpretations of the functions or roles of the hero.5 This
is again potentially useful, but ultimately produces a rather generalized type of analysis. More
recently in 1957, Jan de Vries developed a more specific model for the warrior hero (versus the
heroic-fool, the trickster hero, the antihero) which was adopted and further developed by T.
Cathasaigh in his critical study The Heroic Biography of Cormac Mac.6 Cathasaigh (pp.67)
discusses why he believes the model of Jan de Vries to be the most appropriate for discussing the
warrior hero, since it uses geographically related data (versus the world-spanning spectrums of
Raglan and Nutt), and does not rely on a basic reduction to psychological or Jungian archetypes,
as do the models of Campbell and Rank. Having examined these models, I find, together with
Cathasaigh, that de Vries system may be useful to adopt if we intend to examine Moses as a
type of warrior hero, especially one case in a royal model. Arguably, de Vries developed the
model to examine European characters, but given the close relation between medieval European
and Near Eastern literary traditions, we will see below that this model is equally useful for
examining Islamic and Abrahamic characters like Moses.
This model consists of:
1. Begetting the hero,
2. Birth of the hero,
3. Threatened youth of the hero,
4. The way in which the hero is brought up,
5. The hero often acquires invulnerability,
6. Hero fights with dragon or monster,

4
See J. G. von Hahn, Griechische und Albanesische Mrchen (Leipzig: Engehnann, 1864); J. de Vries, Heroic Song
and Heroic Legend, trans. B.J. Zimmer (London: Oxford University Press, 1963); Lord Raglan, The Hero: A Study
in Tradition, Myth, and Drama (London: Greenwood, 1936, reprinted 1975).
5
See J. Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971); O. Rank, The
Myth of the Birth of the Hero, and Other Writings. Edited by Philip Freund (New York: R. Brunner, 1964).
6
See T. Cathasaigh, The Heroic Biography of Cormac Mac Airt (Dublin, 1977), 38.
7. Hero wins a maiden, often with great danger,
8. Hero makes a journey to the otherworld,
9. The hero, banished, returns to his homeland to defeat enemies,
10. Death of the hero.

It will be helpful to summarize the early part of Moses life up until the crossing of the Red Sea.
Ibn Kathirs tale runs as follows.

Pharaoh oppresses the children of Israel (Al Qasas:1-6). Allah decides to rescue the
Israelites from Egypt (Al Araf:137). Pharaoh has a dream, in which he sees a fire arise from the
region of Jerusalem and come against the homes of Egypt with great destruction. His wise-men
indicate that a boy is about to be born, which will bring great ruin on Egypt [Ibn Kathir p.321].
In response, Pharaoh orders the slaughter of Jewish babies (Ghafir:25). When Moses is born, his
mother hides him in the basket and places it in the river (Al Qasas:7-9); this differs from the
Torah account, since Ibn Kathir states his mother uses a string attached to the basket to keep it
attached to land. Ibn Kathir further states that this is clearly a type of divine inspiration (not
prophetic inspiration) similar to the way the bees are guided (An-Nahl: 68-69). The basket is
found by Pharoahs wife (not daughter Ibn Kathir is clear that this is an error) (Al Qasas: 7-9)
and Moses is taken to be raised as the son of Pharaoh. Mosess mother sends his sister to watch
over him, who suggests Moses mother as a nurse for the baby; in this way the mother and child
are re-connected. (Al Qasas: 10-13; Ta-Ha: 37-39). Moses grows to be mature and wise (Al
Qasas:14).

As a young adult, one day he sees two men fighting (an Israelite and an Egyptian); the
Israelite asks for help. Moses strikes the Egyptian with his fist and kills him. He repents of the
killing immediately (Al Qasas: 14-17). The next day Moses sees the Israelite he had aided
against the Egyptian; this man is involved in another quarrel. Moses rebukes him but comes to
his assistance; the Israelite (or possibly the Egyptian) then asks whether Moses will kill him as
Moses killed the Egyptian the day before; he then calls Moses a tyrant. Suddenly another man
approaches and warns Moses to flee before the town elders have him killed (Al Qasas: 18-21).
Moses goes to Midian, where he meets the two young women having a hard time caring
for their flocks due to a group of shepherds(Al Qasas: 22-24). Moses aids the young women,
then is brought home to meet their elderly father (Al Qasas: 25-28). Ibn Kathir (p.331) adds an
anecdote that in order to water the flocks; Moses lifts the stone cover off the well which
normally took ten shepherds to lift. Ibn Kathir also includes a brief anecdote, describing how
Moses obtained flocks from his father-in-law, using the same technique by which Jacob was able
to obtain flocks from his father-in-law Laban.7

Later, as Moses journeys with his family, he sees a fire on the mountain; he goes to
investigate the fire, and finds a tree covered in flames. God speaks from the burning bush, and
reveals Himself to Moses. He tells Moses that he is standing in the holy valley Tuwa. He invests
Moses with prophethood, ordering Moses to worship God and to establish prayer. God
demonstrates power by turning Moses staff into a serpent, and Moses hand white as though
leprous: these are signs are for Pharaoh and his court. (Al Qasas: 29-32; Ta-Ha: 9-20; An-Naml:
7-14). These are considered the first two of nine signs (Ibn Kathir relies on Al Isra: 101-102, Al
Araf 130-33). God orders Moses to confront Pharoah, but Moses asks for assistance, as he fears
Pharaoh; God agrees to send Aaron, Moses brother, to be his helper; God also promises to make
Moses and Aaron the victors (Al Qasas: 33-35; Ta-Ha: 24-36; 40-46; As-Shuara: 10-19).
Specifically, in surahs Ash-Shuara: 15 and Ta-Ha: 45-46 God tells Moses to fear nothing Ibn
Kathir insists on this in his commentary (p.346).

Moses returns to Egypt and confronts Pharaoh, demanding the release of the children of
Israel; Pharaoh accuses Moses of ingratitude for his upbringing and murder (As Shuara: 17-19).
Moses admits the crime, and states that God has made him a prophet (As Shuara: 20-22).
Pharaoh asks more about God, Moses answers by describing Gods complete control over nature
(Ta-Ha: 49-55). Pharaoh denies Moses claims, calling him a madman; he even claims to be
God (An Naziate: 23-24; Al Qasas: 38). Moses rebukes Pharaoh for his foolishness (As
Shuara: 23-28). Pharaoh challenges Moses to show proofs of his mission. Pharaohs magicians
throw their staves down, which become serpents. Moses throws the staff (which becomes a
serpent), and shows that his hand has been made white (Ta-Ha: 65-69; As Shuara: 29-51; Al

7
Cf. Genesis 30:25-43.
Araf: 17-22). Moses serpent devours the other serpents. According to Ibn Kathir, this scares
Pharaoh so badly that he is stricken with severe chronic diarrhea (p.344).8 Also, Moses is clearly
afraid (Ta-Ha: 67), which would be poor makings of a magician.9 Ibn Kathir reports that the
serpent of Moses was of enormous size and had paws, which sounds suspiciously draconic (Ibn
Kathir p.352). The magicians surrender the contest immediately, and state that the God of Moses
is supreme. Pharaoh threatens them with torments, but they reply it is better to die in this life,
than be trapped in hell where one neither lives nor dies (Ta-Ha: 70-76). The scene concludes
with the end of the duel.

Pharaoh later decides to kill the male Israelites while allowing the females to live. Moses
counsels patience to his people. (Al Araf: 127-29). God unleashes the plagues (drought, storms,
locusts, frogs, and blood (Al Araf: 130-33). Interestingly, Ibn Kathir includes the Passover tale
(including the final plague of the killing of the firstborn), but adds the caveat that he has read it
in the Torah and God knows best about the truth of the matter (Ibn Kathir p.386). Repeatedly
Pharaoh promises to release the Children of Israel, but reneges on his word. When the Israelites
are finally released but then pursued by Pharaoh and his hosts, God drowns the Egyptians in the
Red Sea, using Moses to perform the miracle (Al Araf: 134-36; Ta-Ha: 77-78).

Ibn Kathir reports three accounts of Moses death: the best attested is that when the
Angel of Death comes to take him, Moses strikes the angel and blinds him. After receiving
instructions from God, Azrail is able to reason with Moses (Ibn Kathir p.464-65). The other
two traditions either state that he is taken physically to Heaven, leaving Joshua holding his
mantel; the second, that he was buried in a tomb cut from the rock by angels (Ibn Kathir p.466-
67).
Let us now examine the life of Moses, using the heroic model as a means of evaluating
whether or not the life of Moses can be considered a type of heroic tale.

8
One could say (perhaps in poor taste) that the crap was scared out of him.
9
I am indebted to Assistant Imam Zakaria El Khawa of Al Akhawayn University for pointing this out to me.
Heroic Criteria Ibn Kathir's "Tale of Moses"
Preceeded by a dream, in which Pharaoh sees a fire arise from the region of Jerusalem and
come against the homes of Egypt with great destruction. His magicians and wise-men
Begetting the Hero
indicate that a prodigious boy is about to be born, which will bring great ruin on Egypt [Ibn
Kathir p.321].

Pharaoh oppresses the children of Israel (Al Qasas:1-6), then orders the slaughter of the
Birth of the Hero
Jewish children (Ghafir:25). Moses is born in a time of great peril.

Moses mother hides him in the basket and places it in the river ; and uses a string attached
Threatened youth of the Hero to the basket to keep it attached to land (Al Qasas:7-9). She is obliged to do this whenever
Egpytian patrols come near their home.

The basket is found by Pharoahs wife and Moses is taken to be raised as the son of
The way in which the Hero is brought Pharaoh (Al Qasas:7-9). Mosess mother is allowed to act as a nurse for the baby; in this way
up the mother and child are connected (Al Qasas: 10-13; Ta-Ha: 37-39). Moses grows to be
mature and wise (Al Qasas:14).

Moses goes to Midian, where he meets the two young women having a hard time caring for
Hero wins a maiden, often with great their flocks due to a group of shepherds(Al Qasas: 22-24). Moses aids the young women,
danger then is brought home to meet their elderly father (Al Qasas: 25-28). Ibn Kathir (p.331) adds
that Moses was able to lift a stone that took ten shepherds to lift.

Later, as Moses journeys with his family, he sees a fire on the mountain; he goes to
investigate the fire, and finds a tree. God speaks from the burning bush, and reveals Himself
Hero makes a journey to the otherworld to Moses. He tells Moses that he is standing in the holy valley Tuwa. He invests Moses with
prophethood, ordering Moses to worship God and to establish prayer (Al Qasas: 29-32; Ta-
Ha: 9-20; An-Naml: 7-14).

God orders Moses to confront Pharoah, but Moses asks for assistance, as he fears Pharaoh;
God promises to make Moses and Aaron the victors (Al Qasas: 33-35; Ta-Ha: 24-36; 40-46;
The Hero often acquires invulnerability
As-Shuara: 10-19). Specifically, in Shuara: 15 and Ta-Ha: 45-46 God tells Moses to fear
nothing Ibn Kathir (p.346) insists on this point.

Moses returns to Egypt and confronts Pharaoh. After Moses defeats Pharaoh's magicians,
The Hero, banished, returns to his God unleashes the plagues (drought, storms, locusts, frogs, and blood (Al Araf: 130-33).
homeland to defeat enemies Repeatedly Pharaoh promises to release the Children of Israel, but reneges on his word; in
retaliation, God drowns the Egyptians in the Red Sea (Al Araf: 134-36; Ta-Ha: 77-78).

In the contest of miracles, Pharaohs magicians throw their staves down, which become
serpents. Moses throws down his staff, which becomes a serpent and devours the other
Hero fights with dragon or monster
serpents.(Ta-Ha: 65-69; As Shuara: 29-51; Al Araf: 17-22). Ibn Kathir reports that Moses'
serpent was enormous and had paws, which are draconic features (Ibn Kathir p.352).

When Azrail (the Angel of Death) comes to take him, Moses hits Azrail and blinds him.
Death of the Hero After receiving instructions from God, Azrail is able to better reason with Moses, and
Moses allows his soul to be taken (Ibn Kathir p.464-65). C1
Analysis
As is clear from Ibn Kathirs own text, his early life of Moses primarily follows Surahs
Al-Qasas, Ta-Ha, Ash-Shuara. In addition, Ibn Kathir acknowledges that he has consulted the
Torah. A solid historian, he habitually gives the chain of narration for the hadiths and popular
tales he interpolates. However, he occasionally recounts a tale and simply attributes it to
ancient sources and in keeping with the common practice of his day, this is very likely
popular oral tradition at work.10
It is clear from the data above and from tradition that Moses birth, as with any hero, is
complicated by circumstance in this case, Pharaohs attempts to cull the births of the Children
of Israel. Further, the birth is preceeded by Pharaohs nightmare this likewise heralds Moses
greatness. Finally, the means by which he survives his early days (the river and the basket) is
likewise unusual so much so, that Moses derives his name from the fact that he is taken from
the water. On the other hand, Moses upbringing in the palace of Pharaoh makes him, as with
many other heroes, a member of the royalty or aristocracy. No doubt as a member of the
Egyptian aristocracy he is trained in weapons, logistics, warfare, as well as the sciences of the
day.
Here, the order of the chart needs some revision that is to say the order of the
categories. Next, Moses meets his future wife, while fleeing from Egypt. When he lifts the rock
from the well, in order to water the herds of the two maidens at Midian, his display of physical
strength is in keeping with heroic tradition. After all, there is little reason for Moses to possess
the strength of ten men, since his mission is a prophetic one, not that of a warrior like David or
Alexander. Yet nevertheless, Ibn Kathir interpolates this non-Quranic tradition into his
narrative, which encourages the reader to think of Moses as a powerful young male.
The Journey to the Otherworld and Gaining of Invulnerability are likewise connected.
When Moses goes to see the burning bush and finds God, he is told he is on holy ground, the
valley of Tuwa. Likewise, it is here that Moses is given his miracles and told he is invincible
this, arguably, can be read as being invested with invulnerability, and the fact that Moses is

10
We see this commonly in heroic literature of the period, i.e. Nezami or Ferdowsi. See, for example: C. Monette,
The Medieval Hero: Christian and Muslim Traditions (Saarbrucken: VDM, 2008); O. Davidson, The Crown
Bestower in the Iranian Book of Kings, Acta Iranica. 2nd ser.: Hommages et Opera Minora, vol 10, Papers in
Honour of Professor Mary Boyce (Leiden, 1985).
unharmed throughout his contest with Pharaoh is evidence of this. This otherworld encounter is
clearly a transformative event.
Moses is obliged to return to Egypt to face his enemies this too is in keeping with the
model set up by the heroic biography. The confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh is a crucial
scene: in short, Moses is made to face Pharaohs magicians, who attempt to show that their
sorcery is greater than any miracle he can bring to bear. Their primary magic trick is to turn their
staves into serpents, which is impressive in itself. Moses is said to be frightened by this display
(Ta-Ha: 67), so we can assume that these serpents were sizable creatures. Moses own staff
becomes a serpent of enormous size, with a menacing head and four legs (see above). The scene
is significant since the Hero faces a number of serpents, but with the draconic creature on his
side. This is a type of literary inversion, since the dragon is not the creature to be overcome, but
rather proves instrumental in defeating Pharaohs magicians and their magic serpents. A
lengthier essay would examine in detail the ensuing plagues that God unleashes on Egypt, but for
the sake of time we note Moses has the final and definitive victory when Pharaoh and his army
are drowned in the Red Sea. Here, in the same way epic heroes such as Hercules, Antar, or
Rostam are seen to defeat armies, Moses likewise destroys an entire host, though arguably
through supernatural means, rather than by force of arms.
For this reason, the death-tale of Moses is significant for our examination of Moses as a
heroic figure. As stated above, when Azrail (the Angel of Death) comes to take Moses, the
prophet reacts by striking the Angel of Death and blinding him. Moses ability to see Azrail, let
alone hit him or injure him is especially significant. This is reminiscent of semi-divine heroes
like Hercules and Achilles, who on rare occasion strike at the divine beings in their respective
epics. Moses may be a prophet, but even in his old age he proves to be feisty enough to give
Death himself pause, and this is important since he does this with his fists, not with his staff or a
divine command.
In summary, the life of Moses in Islamic sources has definite parallels with Jewish and
Christian tradition, but differs in some respects. Nevertheless, much like the earlier Jewish and
Christian sources, the Islamic tales of Moses clearly show him to be a warrior figure: mighty in
his youth, and bellicose even in his final moments. While clearly a human character, the divine
presence in his life gives him a measure of power which reminds us of ancient heroes like
Gilgamesh or Hercules. Finally, and perhaps importantly, the figure of Moses has remained a
popular character even in contemporary culture and films, and I believe that this rugged aspect of
his character has helped to ensure his popularity not only with academic but also popular
audiences.