Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

From Jonah to Pharaoh?

Part II: What was the Sign of Pharaoh?

Masud Masihiyyen

After analyzing the sign of Jonah in the New Testament and rebutting Deedat’s misinterpretation of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 12:40 in the first part of this project, we can now analyze the teaching about Pharaoh being a sign in the Qur’an and seek answers to the question, “What was the sign of Pharaoh?”

The story of Pharaoh chasing the Israelites with his army and then drowning in the sea is repeated in various chapters of the Islamic scripture, but Surah 10 is different than all the others because it attaches to the narrative the assertion that Allah made Pharaoh a sign for the people coming after him:

And We brought the Children of Israel across the sea, and Pharaoh with his hosts pursued them in rebellion and transgression, till, when the (fate of) drowning overtook him, he exclaimed: I believe that there is no God save Him in Whom the Children of Israel believe, and I am of those who surrender (unto Him). What! Now! When hitherto thou hast rebelled and been of the wrong-doers? But this day We save thee in thy body that thou mayst be a portent for those after thee. Lo! most of mankind are heedless of Our portents. (Surah 10:90-92 Pickthall)

The idea that God turned Pharaoh into a sign in the sense that He used Pharaoh to declare His might to the universe is actually of Biblical origin and embodied in the following verse:

For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with plague, and you would have been destroyed from the earth. But for this purpose I have caused you to stand: to show you my strength, and so that my name may be declared in all the earth. (Exodus 9:15-16)

The context of the Biblical verse is rather different from the one in the Qur’an. The account in Exodus recounts what God said through Moses to Pharaoh just before the seventh plague was poured on the land of Egypt. The verses in the Qur’an, on the other hand, are claimed to be directed at Pharaoh just at the time of his drowning in the sea. According to the Bible, God kept Pharaoh alive until He poured all His plagues on Egypt and thus manifested His power. According to the Qur’an, however, Allah did the same thing by killing Pharaoh at the time he chased the Israelites and caught up with them. These are totally different means of manifesting power.

According to the traditional Islamic commentary reported by Ibn Kathir, the weird phrase “save thee in thy body” in Surah 10:92 means Allah saved only Pharaoh’s dead body by casting it on the shore so that the Israelites could see it as a sign and be sure that Pharaoh was finally dead:

So this day We shall deliver your (dead) body (out from the sea) that you may be a sign to those who come after you!) Ibn `Abbas and others from among the Salaf have said: "Some of the Children of Israel doubted the death of Fir`awn so Allah commanded the sea to throw his body -- whole, without a soul -- with his known armor plate. The body was thrown to a high place on the land so that the Children of Israel could confirm his death and destruction." That is why Allah said, ("So this day We shall deliver your…") meaning that We will put your body on a high place on the earth. Mujahid said, (your (dead) body) means, "your physical body." (that you may be a sign to those who come after you!) meaning, so that might be a proof of your death and destruction for the Children of Israel. That also stood as a proof that Allah is All-Powerful, in Whose control are all the creatures. Nothing can bear His anger. (Source)

This commentary is in line with the Biblical teaching that the Israelites could see the corpses of the Egyptians on the shore (Exodus 14:30), but the claim in it that the specific placement of Pharaoh’s body on the shore had the purpose of convincing the Israelites of Pharaoh’s death was most likely drawn from non-canonical Jewish literature:

Pharaoh and his host were drowned, and the waves washed their corpses towards the Israelites, so that they could see them with their own eyes. It is a long and well-known story. (Source)

Some modern Muslim speakers/writers prefer disregarding this traditional commentary on Surah 10:92 since they have a better goal to achieve: fabricating a pseudo-historical miracle and inserting it into the Qur’an. In the hands of some miracle hunters a simple Qur’an verse narrating Pharaoh’s story and designating him as a sign is transformed into a historical prediction that has allegedly been fulfilled with the help of some recent archeological findings regarding Egyptology.

Another Pseudo-Miracle of the Qur’an: Preservation of Pharaoh’s Body

A number of Islamic propagandists argue that Surah 10:92 contains a historical miracle that substantiates the divine origin of the Qur’an. For instance, on a website1 dedicated to the propagation of Qur’an’s supposed miracles, we read the following assertion:

We took the children of Israel across the sea. Pharaoh and his army followed them aggressively and sinfully. When drowning became a reality for him, he said, “I believe that there is no god except the One in whom the children of Israel believe. I am of those who submit.” (10:90)

“Ah now! For you have rebelled in the past, and you did mischief.” (10:91)

“Today, We will save your body, so that you may become a sign to those who come after you. But verily, many people are heedless of Our signs.” (10:92)

When he understood he was going to die, the Pharaoh was converted. This so-called conversion is looked at askance by God, who says that his body shall be saved as a sign for the coming generations. At the time of the Prophet, and for quite some time afterward, we could not guess that a science called museology would be developed to harbor objects of historical value, amongst others mummified bodies of the Pharaohs. The Quran’s reference to this and to the people heedless of God’s signs are points deserving attention. The signs of God are many and the majority of people are unaware of this. At the time of the revelation of the Quran, mummified bodies of all the Pharaohs lay concealed in the Valley of Kings along the banks of the Nile. Their discovery took place in the 19th century. The Pharaoh mentioned in the Quran may have been any of them, it happens to be among those preserved in the Cairo Museum, open to public visitation. To the period in which Moses is believed to belong, Rameses II and his son Merneptah correspond. Merneptah’s body bears the traces of fatal blows. It is reported that these marks may have been caused during his drowning or after the recovery of his body, that had washed ashore; the Egyptians mummified him like all the other Pharaohs. The evidence available does not permit us to derive a convincing conclusion about the details of his death. However, no conflicting relationship could be established between the death of this Pharaoh and the account given in the Quran.

The discovery of the Pharaoh’s body took place after an interval of 3000 years (1881-1898). Considering that the Quran had predicted that Pharaoh’s body would constitute a sign, one supposes that it should have been found. Indeed it was found. When and how? Well, after a time gap of 3000 years. What happened though was as the Quran predicted. “...But verily, many people are heedless of Our signs.” (Source)2

Similarly, famous miracle-inventor Harun Yahya does not miss the chance of perverting the Qur’an in order to fabricate a pseudo-miracle and designate it as a prediction fulfilled by the discovery of a mummy:

The Qur’an relates that Pharaoh immediately turned to belief when faced with Allah’s punishment. … However, this last-minute conversion was not accepted, for it was not sincere. According to the Qur’an, Allah exclaimed:

"What, now! When previously you rebelled and were one of the corrupters? Today we will preserve your body so you can be a Sign for people who come after you. Surely many people are heedless of Our Signs." (Qur'an, 10:91-92)

The information that Pharaoh’s corpse would serve as a sign for later generations may be regarded as an indication that his body would not decay. On display in the Royal Mummies Chamber of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is a mummified body believed to be that of this tyrant. In all likelihood, Pharaoh’s body floated to shore after being drowned, was found and mummified by the Egyptians, and then carried to a previously prepared burial chamber. (Source)

Translation Issues

Unsurprisingly, the promotion of the miracle claim necessitates the use of a peculiar English translation of the Qur’an verse about the sign of Pharaoh. As seen in the versions above, people who make every effort to associate the Islamic scripture with a historical miracle avoid following the literal interpretation of the verse and inject into the text their personal interpretation.

Still, even the literal rendering of the verse in view exhibits an odd formulation in the Qur’an and is not free from distortion. The claim that Pharaoh was saved in his body is rather unusual in terms of linguistics and begets the assertion of a discrepancy when compared with many other verses that overtly talk of Pharaoh’s death (Surah 7:136, Surah 17:103).3 Ibn Kathir’s efforts to overcome this problem are visible in the addition of the word “only” into the sentence so that the positive meaning of the verb “save” can be dismissed through restriction: whatever is saved is made Pharaoh’s dead body.

This odd formulation in the Qur’an verse makes no sense unless Exodus 9:16, where God’s maintaining Pharaoh alive in order to make him a tool/sign of His might, is taken into account for a comparison. In the light of Exodus 9:16, it is plausible to construe the phrase “save thee in thy body” in the Islamic scripture as a reference to Pharaoh’s remaining in his body, that is, not dying before all of God’s destined plans about him are fulfilled. This intended meaning in the Bible is clear unlike in the Qur’an since in the former God explains why He had not killed Pharaoh instantly whereas in the latter there is no such explanation and the verse related to Pharaoh’s destruction has a different context.

Khalifa’s peculiar and inaccurate translation4 of Surah 10:92, which is often used in the propagation of the pseudo-miracle regarding Pharaoh’s body, employs the same verb occurring in the Greek translation (Septuagint) of the Book of Exodus 9:16:

"Today, we will preserve your body, to set you up as a lesson for future generations." Unfortunately, many people are totally oblivious to our signs.

And for this purpose hast thou been preserved, that I might display in thee my strength, and that my name might be published in all the earth. (Source)

Obviously, the meaning is different despite the use of the identical verb. In the Septuagint what is preserved by God is Pharaoh’s life, but in Khalifa’s edition Pharaoh’s body. What is rather interesting is that Khalifa felt at liberty not only to insert the word “preserve” into the Qur’an verse, but also to ignore that in the original language of the text the direct object was Pharaoh himself (his identity) rather than his dead body. In short, Khalifa did not preserve the principle of honesty in his translation.

If we keep the translation issues aside and imagine for a moment that Khalifa’s translation was endorsed by the Arabic original, could we give credit to the claims of a historical miracle in the Qur’an? The answer to this vital question is NO due to a few reasons. In the first place, the allegations about the miracle are grounded on subjective conclusions that cannot be proven historically correct. In contrast to the information given in the Qur’an, Pharaoh was not the name of a single ruler in Egypt.5 There lived and reigned many Pharaohs in Egypt, and even the Pharaoh of Moses’ infancy was not the same person as the Pharaoh of the Exodus. More to the point, the Islamic scripture is silent on the identity of the single Pharaoh, who supposedly became a Muslim at the time of his death. Additionally, the identity of the Pharaoh of the Exodus is still under dispute as historians have not reached a consensus on this significant issue yet.6 Above all, the Qur’an verse does not say that Pharaoh’s body had any specific mark or sign to indicate his last-minute conversion. It is a matter of wonder if Islamic propagandists publishing the pictures of some mummies on their websites to support their hoax have found a record of Pharaoh’s final words next to his corpse in a tomb.

Unsurprisingly, miracle hunters also ignore that there are dozens of mummies of many different Pharaohs which are preserved to this day. In fact, although some of them may be lost today due to grave robbers and accidental destruction, originally basically all Pharaohs would have been mummified and preserved since that was the standard procedure. This is why we have the right to ask: In what way is the existence of the body of this particular Pharaoh a special miraculous sign, and how would his body show future generations something other bodies would not? If we look at this claim from a different angle, this interpretation would imply that the author of the Qur’an was ignorant of the historical fact that the bodies of basically all Pharaohs were preserved by mummification. A sign is something exceptional. Trying to pass off the normal as exceptional reveals an ignorance of what is normal.7

Second, miracle hunters and followers of scientific/historic hoaxes disregard the fact that Surah 10:92 reads “we save thee in thy body so that YOU can be a sign...” rather than “we save thee in thy body so that YOUR BODY can be a sign. If the Muslim interpretation were correct, one would expect a more straight-forward formulation. Then the verse would be in the following form:

“This day shall We rescue and preserve thy body, that IT may be a sign to those who come after thee…”

Thus, it is evident in the current form of the verse that the author of this narrative considered Pharaoh himself a sign for people, not his dead body. This fundamental distinction enables us to question and find out the meaning of Pharaoh’s presentation as a sign in the Islamic scripture. According to the Qur’an, Pharaoh was a mighty, but unfair and cruel leader that chased the Children of Israel in an effort to catch and kill them. When he saw that he would not be able to escape death, he repented in the last minute and expected to receive salvation. However, an unidentified voice rebuked him by reminding him of his past misdeeds and then declared him a sign for people coming after him. The important thing for the writer of these verses was that Pharaoh finally surrendered to Allah in fear despite his might and arrogance. His death represented his loss of not only the political battle with the Israelites, but also his religious battle, that is, his resistance against Allah and his message which Moses had delivered to him in addition to exemplifying the tragic end of cruel leaders. This kind of an interpretation is also in line with the teaching given about Pharaoh in another Qur’an chapter:

So, when they angered Us, We punished them and drowned them every one. And We made them a thing past, and an example for those after (them). (Surah 43:55-56)

It is not wrong or unreasonable to affiliate Pharaoh’s designation as a sign in Surah 10:92 with Surah 43:56, for the words “sign” and “example” are similar and can be used interchangeably. The only difference between these thematically associated narratives is that in Surah 43 not only Pharaoh, but also his people are said to have drowned and made by Allah a historic example for those coming after them. In Surah 10, however, Pharaoh was singled out as a remarkable figure and the head of his nation while the same teaching was stated in a slightly different form.8

Third, miracle hunters’ eagerness to focus on the word “sign” and link it to an archeological discovery solely because signs are believed to be accessible and visible is nothing but a hasty conclusion. This is because the word “sign” is frequently used in the Islamic scripture and sometimes ascribed to certain figures, but this does not mean that these signs are visible and open to public examination. For instance, in the Qur’an both Jesus and His mother are reckoned as a sign for all people (Surah 21:91), but no one can see or touch these signs now. Muslims can object to this example by stressing that nothing specific is said about Jesus and Mary’s bodies in this verse, but they cannot deny that in another instance the author of the Qur’an narrated the story of an unnamed figure that was made a sign for people through his awakening (resurrection) at the end of a 100-year sleep:

Or (take) the similitude of one who passed by a hamlet, all in ruins to its roofs. He said: "Oh! how shall God bring it (ever) to life, after (this) its death?" but God caused him to die for a hundred years, then raised him up (again). He said: "How long didst thou tarry (thus)?" He said: (Perhaps) a day or part of a day." He said: "Nay, thou hast tarried thus a hundred years; but look at thy food and thy drink; they show no signs of age; and look at thy donkey: And that We may make of thee a sign unto the people, Look further at the bones, how We bring them together and clothe them with flesh." When this was shown clearly to him, he said: "I know that God hath power over all things." (Surah 2:259 Yusuf Ali)9  

We would like to ask our miracle hunters where we can find this unnamed man, who became the sign of bodily resurrection in the Qur’an? Since the story is related to the man’s body and he is claimed to be a sign for people in the same way as Pharaoh in Surah 10, we have every right to expect to see this sign and praise the Qur’an for its historical miracle. Obviously, dishonest and misleading miracle hunters will go silent on this issue and ignore our demand since their pseudo-miracle was invented after the discovery of a mummy and its adaptation to an obscure Qur’an verse through the distortion of the text.

Another example comes from the narrative about Noah’s story and deluge:

We (once) sent Noah to his people, and he tarried among them a thousand years less fifty: but the Deluge overwhelmed them while they (persisted in) sin. But We saved him and the companions of the Ark, and We made the (Ark) a Sign for all peoples! (Surah 29:14-15 Yusuf Ali)

Where is this ark, which was made a sign for all people? How is it possible for us to see it now and be assured of the validity of the statement in the verse quoted above? Why are the miracle hunters and supporters of the hoax about Pharaoh’s body silent on the whereabouts of this ark although it is claimed to be a sign twice in the Qur’an? Here is the second instance where the ark is called a sign:

But We bore him on an (Ark) made of broad planks and caulked with palm-fibre: Sailing, before Our eyes, a reward for him who was denied. And We have left this as a Sign (for all time): then is there any that will receive admonition? (Surah 54:13-15 Yusuf Ali)

Why can we not access this great and historic sign despite Allah’s assertion in the verses above that he left the ark as a token of admonition?

Fourth, possible Talmudic influence on the creation of Surah 10:90-92 needs a closer analysis. As a person owing most of his material to non-canonical Jewish writings/oral stories, the author of the Qur’an borrowed several elements regarding Pharaoh from Talmudic Judaism. The funny thing is that some of the stories seemingly peculiar to the Islamic scripture and shown as hard evidence for the celestial origin of Muhammad’s teachings turn out to have been plagiarized from Jewish rabbis’ speculations and commentaries. For instance, while commenting on Pharaoh’s death in Surah 10, Ibn Kathir makes the following claim:

(I believe that none has the right to be worshipped but He (Allah) in Whom the Children of Israel believe, and I am one of the Muslims.) He believed at a time when he couldn’t benefit from his faith. (So when they saw Our punishment, they said: “We believe in Allah Alone and reject (all) that we used to associate with Him as (His) partners.” Then their faith could not avail them when they saw Our punishment. (Like) this has been the way of Allah in dealing with His servants. And there the disbelievers lost utterly (when Our torment covered them).)(40:84-85) Therefore Allah said, as a response to Fir`awn, (Now (you believe) while you refused to believe before) do you say that just now when you have disobeyed Allah before that. (And you were one of the mischief-makers.) You were among the makers of mischief on the earth who misled the people. (and We made them leaders inviting to the Fire: and on the Day of Resurrection, they will not be helped.) (28:41) These facts about Fir`awn and his status at that time were among the secrets of the Unseen that Allah revealed to His Messenger, Muhammad. (Source)

Actually, these so-called facts about Pharaoh were revealed to Muhammad by his contacts that were familiar with Talmudic legends. In order to find out the source of the Quranic teaching that depicts Pharaoh as a person inviting people to Hell, it will suffice us to read the following account quoted from the Legend of the Jews:

Pharaoh never died, and never will die. He always stands at the portal of hell, and when the kings of the nations enter, he makes the power of God known to them at once, in these words: "O ye fools! Why have ye not learnt knowledge from me? ..." (Source)

Our further comparison exhibits that both Surah 10:90-92 and the traditional Islamic commentary on these verses look like a verbatim copy of the material recorded about Pharaoh’s destruction in the Jewish legend. According to the Qur’an, Pharaoh was singled out from his people and surrendered to Allah when he realized that he would not be able to escape death. He finally acknowledged that there was but one true God (Surah 10:90). The Jewish legend promotes the same teaching in the following narrative:

Thus all the Egyptians were drowned. Only one was spared - Pharaoh himself. When the children of Israel raised their voices to sing a song of praise to God at the shores of the Red Sea, Pharaoh heard it as he was jostled hither and thither by the billows, and he pointed his finger heavenward, and called out: "I believe in Thee, O God! Thou art righteous, and I and My people are wicked, and I acknowledge now that there is no god in the world beside Thee." (Source)

The writer devising Surah 10 contended that an unidentified voice reacted to Pharaoh’s verbal testimony and reprimanded him for his sudden conversion in fear of death (Surah 10:91). Although it is not explicitly stated in the Qur’an, the linguistic structure implies Allah to be the person addressing Pharaoh. However, it is not far from possibility that Allah’s words were delivered to Pharaoh via an angel. In the original version of the story, the Angel Gabriel is the speaker uttering these harsh words of rebuke to Pharaoh:

When the children of Israel raised their voices to sing a song of praise to God at the shores of the Red Sea, Pharaoh heard it as he was jostled hither and thither by the billows, and he pointed his finger heavenward, and called out: "I believe in Thee, O God! Thou art righteous, and I and My people are wicked, and I acknowledge now that there is no god in the world beside Thee." Without a moments delay, Gabriel descended and laid and iron chain about Pharaoh’s neck, and holding him securely, he addressed him thus: "Villain! Yesterday thou didst say, ‘Who is the Lord that I should hearken to His voice?’ and now thou sayest, ‘The Lord is righteous.’"

It is by no means a coincidence that Ibn Kathir’s commentary on Surah 10:90-92 incorporates Gabriel into the story as the main character that reacted to Pharaoh’s repentance and wanted to prevent his reception of forgiveness:

Similarly Abu Dawud At-Tayalisi recorded that Ibn `Abbas said that Allah’s Messenger said: (Jibril said to me, "If you could have seen me while I was taking black mud from the sea and placing into the mouth of Fir`awn out of fear that the mercy would reach him.'') Abu `Isa At-Tirmidhi and Ibn Jarir also recorded it. (Source)

Despite these significant similarities, traditional Islamic commentary radically differs from the apocryphal Jewish tales when the question what happened to Pharaoh after his conversion is posed. According to Ibn Kathir, Pharaoh could not escape death, and Allah saved only his corpse by throwing it on the shore. In sharp contrast, the Legend of the Jews declared Pharaoh immortal. Although Pharaoh was punished and tortured by Angel Gabriel beneath the water for many days, he did not experience death:

Pharaoh never died, and never will die. He always stands at the portal of hell, and when the kings of the nations enter, he makes the power of God known to them at once, in these words: "O ye fools! Why have ye not learnt knowledge from me? I am denied the Lord God, and He brought ten plagues upon me, sent me to the bottom of the sea, kept me there for fifty days, released me then, and brought me up. Thus I could not but believe in Him." (Source)

Further, the teaching that Pharaoh was saved from death recurs in another section of the Talmud:

Perceive the great power of repentance! Pharaoh, king of Egypt, uttered very wicked words - 'Who is the god whose voice I shall obey? (Exod. 5:2). Yet as he repented, saying. 'Who is like unto thee among the gods?' (Exod. 15:2). God saved him from death; for it saith; Almost had I stretched out my hands and destroyed; but God let him live, that he might declare his power and strength.' " (Pirke Rabbi Elieazer, xliii; Midrash Yalkut, ccxxxviii - see also T.P. Hughes, Dictionary of Islam [Kazi Publications Inc., Chicago Il. 1994], p. 241) (Source)

Clearly, the claim that God saved Pharaoh from death due to his repentance is bound to God’s previous statement about maintaining Pharaoh alive for the sake of using him as a sign of His power (Exodus 9:16). Evidently, in the non-canonical Jewish literature the Biblical verse about God’s not allowing Pharaoh to experience death and turning him into a tool of His authority was adapted to the account of the Egyptians’ destruction in the Red Sea. Even though Pharaoh is not even implied in the Bible to survive the destruction of the Egyptians, some people misinterpreted Exodus 9:16 through exaggeration and reached the conclusion that Pharaoh was always saved from death! The author of the Qur’an adopted this faulty conclusion when he claimed that Pharaoh was saved in his body in Surah 10:92, but Muslim commentators failed to understand what was meant by this formulation since Exodus 9:16, the root of the Talmudic teaching about Pharaoh’s salvation, did not make its way into the Islamic scripture. Consequently, Pharaoh’s rescue from death in the Qur’an lost its connection with the Jewish tales about the Exodus, and Surah 10:92 was interpreted by Islamic commentators in accordance with some other verses narrating Pharaoh’s death in their effort to avoid contradictions.

The Mystery Concerning Pharaoh’s Alleged Survival

The accidental extension and adaptation of Exodus 9:16 to the Biblical narrative about the Egyptians’ destruction in the Red Sea is obviously the foremost reason underlying the Talmudic assertion that Pharaoh did not drown or die, but some minor or secondary factors may have contributed to this claim in the apocryphal Jewish literature. It is evident in the quote taken from the Midrash above that Jewish Rabbis considered Pharaoh’s supposed rescue from death as a sign demonstrating the power and significance of repentance. Thus, the key word in Pirke Rabbi Elieazer’s comments that will lead us to the root of the teaching about Pharaoh’s rescue from death is repentance.

According to the Talmud, the remarkable character that exhibited the significance of repentance by being saved from death was taught to be Pharaoh, but in the Hebrew Bible it was the Prophet Jonah who testified to the importance of repentance by becoming a vivid symbol of salvation from death. Thus, apocryphal Jewish literature tended to associate Pharaoh’s story with Jonah’s and conclude with the help of further analogies that Pharaoh was similar to Jonah in terms of survival. Since Jonah spent some time beneath the sea and then came back, Pharaoh was also claimed to have spent some time beneath the sea and then come back to the land of the living. In other words, Pharaoh was believed to be cast on the dry land as Jonah was.

Some interesting details occurring in Jonah’s story in the Hebrew Bible may have augmented the parallelisms between Pharaoh and Jonah in the apocryphal Jewish tales. For instance, the term used by Jonah in reference to the current in the sea occurs in a Psalm and signifies the Sea that the Israelites passed during the Exodus:

You threw me into the deep waters, into the middle of the sea; the ocean current engulfed me; all the mighty waves you sent swept over me. (Jonah 2:3)

The NET Bible footnote on the word “current” in this verse reads:

The Hebrew word נָהָר (nahar) is used in parallel with יַם (yam, “sea”) in Ps 24:2 (both are plural) to describe the oceans of the world and in Ps 66:6 to speak of the sea crossed by Israel in the exodus from Egypt. (*)

More, the word “seaweed” appearing in Jonah’s prayer in the verse below is directly linked to the Red Sea in the Midrash:

Water engulfed me up to my neck; the deep ocean surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. (Jonah 2:5)

The NET Bible footnote on the word “seaweed” offers the following information:

The reading in Tg. Jonah 2:5 interpreted this as a reference to the Reed Sea (also known as the Red Sea). In fact, the Jewish Midrash known as Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer 10 states that God showed Jonah the way by which the Israelites had passed through the Red Sea. (*)

Likewise, the version of Jonah’s story in the Legend of the Jews is not devoid of these interesting parallelisms:

Then it was that the captain of the vessel approached Jonah where he lay asleep, and said to him: "We are suspended ‘twixt life and death, and thou liest here asleep. Pray, tell me, to what nation dost thou belong?" "I am a Hebrew," replied Jonah. "We have heard," said the captain, "that the God of the Hebrews is the most powerful. Cry to Him for help. Perhaps He will perform such miracles for us as He did in days of old for the Jews at the Red Sea." (Source)

The strongest and explicit connection between Pharaoh’s supposed survival and Jonah’s story in regard to the significance of repentance is found in the account of Pharaoh’s punishment by the Angel Gabriel in the Legend of the Jews:

Thus all the Egyptians were drowned. Only one was spared - Pharaoh himself. When the children of Israel raised their voices to sing a song of praise to God at the shores of the Red Sea, Pharaoh heard it as he was jostled hither and thither by the billows, and he pointed his finger heavenward, and called out: "I believe in Thee, O God! Thou art righteous, and I and My people are wicked, and I acknowledge now that there is no god in the world beside Thee." Without a moments delay, Gabriel descended and laid and iron chain about Pharaoh's neck, and holding him securely, he addressed him thus: "Villain! Yesterday thou didst say, 'Who is the Lord that I should hearken to His voice?' and now thou sayest, 'The Lord is righteous.'" With that he let him drop into the depths of the sea, and there he tortured him for fifty days, to make the power of God known to him. At the end of the time he installed him as king of the great city of Nineveh, and after the lapse of many centuries, when Jonah came to Nineveh, and prophesied the overthrow of the city on account of the evil done by the people, it was Pharaoh who, seized by fear and terror, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes, and with his own mouth made proclamation and published this decree through Nineveh: "Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed nor drink water; for I know there is no god beside Him in all the world, all His words are truth, and all His judgements are true and faithful." (Source)

In the apocryphal Jewish literature Pharaoh’s survival is astonishingly bound to Jonah’s story and the conversion of Nineveh. What about the Qur’an? Does the Qur’an establish similar ties between Pharaoh and Jonah? Strikingly, in the 21st chapter of the Islamic scripture Jonah’s prayer in the belly of the fish sounds very much like Pharaoh’s final words of repentance. To compare:

And (mention) Dhu'n-Nun, when he went off in anger and deemed that We had no power over him, but he cried out in the darkness, saying: There is no God save Thee. Be Thou Glorified! Lo! I have been a wrong-doer. (Surah 21:87 Pickthall)

“I believe in Thee, O God! Thou art righteous, and I and My people are wicked, and I acknowledge now that there is no god in the world beside Thee”. (Source)

Thus, in the Qur’an both Jonah and Pharaoh are said to have professed the monotheistic doctrine when they became aware of God’s might and authority when faced by death.

Finally, the strongest link between Pharaoh and Jonah that disregards the time factor and turns the repentant King of Nineveh into the Pharaoh of the Exodus in the Legend of the Jews is not explicitly present in the Qur’an. Still, a couple of points need examination. First, in the entire Islamic scripture the only verse that recounts Pharaoh’s salvation in his body exists in Surah 10, and this chapter is surprisingly named after Prophet Jonah although Jonah’s story is not present in it. The name of the chapter is arbitrarily derived from verse 98, which relates the repentance of Jonah’s folk, that is, the people of Nineveh:

If only there had been a community (of all those that were destroyed of old) that believed and profited by its belief as did the folk of Jonah! When they believed We drew off from them the torment of disgrace in the life of the world and gave them comfort for a while. (Surah 10:98 Pickthall)

The reason underlying the use of the erroneous phrase “people of Jonah” in this verse and the naming of the chapter after “Jonah” may be traced back to the account in the Jewish legend associating Pharaoh with the People of Nineveh in Jonah’s time.

Second, the reference to Jonah’s people and their salvation through repentance is placed in Surah 10 a few verses after the verse talking of Pharaoh’s salvation in his body. Some people can take this as an example of pure coincidence, but a number of commentators hold the view that Surah 10:94-97 belong to the post-migration period of the alleged revelation (*). If this speculation is true, the verse relating Jonah’s people and their repentance comes right after the account where Israelites’ exodus and Pharaoh’s salvation in his body are narrated. In that case, there would be a direct transition in the Qur’an from the narrative of Pharaoh’s salvation in his body to the verse relating the salvation of Jonah’s people.

If the current order of the verses in Surah 10 is accurate, however, it is possible to take into consideration the problem of interpolation. Muhammad or the person devising this Surah was aware of the connection between the Exodus narrative and Jonah’s story in the Legend of the Jews, but problems in the transmission of the text loosened these ties and resulted in an account that maintained these links only vaguely.


The foregoing study has shown that Pharaoh’s presentation as a sign in the Qur’an is of Talmudic origin and thus actually a sign of Muhammad’s inept plagiarism from apocryphal Jewish literature. Many Islamic propagandists today strive to conceal the ties between the Talmudic information on Pharaoh and Surah 10:92 and promote a pseudo-miracle fabricated through the distortion of the Qur’an. Consequently, a verse talking about the sign of Pharaoh turns in the hands of such Muslim speakers/writers into a sign of their dishonesty and deceptiveness.

Note: I want to thank Brothers Khaled (*)  and Jochen Katz (*) for their contribution to this article.


1 This website belongs to a Turkish academician named Caner Taslaman  and displays chapters of his book entitled “The Quran: Unchallengeable Miracle”.

2 This miracle claim can also be found on page 216 of Taslaman’s book.

3 In Arabic the formulation in Surah 10:92 (“We shall save you with/in your body”) is similar to saying that “a man was saved with/in his car” with the idea of his survival in an accident. Although the expression in the Qur’an verse does not guarantee Pharaoh’s spiritual salvation, it does point out his rescue from a disaster. This is why it is not wrong to conclude that what was meant in Surah 10:92 was Pharaoh’s survival.

4 Harun Yahya partly follows Khalifa’s translation when he inserts the verb “preserve” into Surah 10:92.

5 For more information on this Quranic problem stemming from misinformation, see this article.

6 In one of his rebuttals, Sam Shamoun presents differing opinions with regard to the identity of the Pharaoh of the Exodus while responding to Badawi’s assertions on Pharaoh and his drowning (*).

7 I owe this striking observation to Jochen Katz.

8 Defining the means or results of divine punishment as a sign for people was not an unusual strategy for the author of the Qur’an. For instance, while narrating Lot’s story, he designated the disaster that befell Lot’s folk as a sign left for people who have sense (Surah 29:33-35). Thus, associating the concept of being a sign with punished nations was not confined to Egyptians in the Islamic scripture.

9 It must be noted that this single verse was adopted from a Jewish legend and incorporated into the Qur’an as a piece of divine revelation. The Islamic version of the story, of course, falls short of the literary quality of its original and displays trivial variations. For a comparison, read the Jewish legend concerning the sleep of a hundred years here. Ibn Kathir’s commentary on Surah 2:259 supports the accusations of Talmudic influence and Muhammad’s plagiarism from some Jewish fairy tales as it provides the same historical setting for this supposed miracle (*). Although the Islamic tradition ascribes this event to Uzayir (who is claimed to be the Arabic/Islamic equivalent of Ezra, the name Uzayir most likely being the twisted form of Ezra’s full name in Hebrew: Azaryahu), the Jewish tale identifies the main character as Rabbi Onias. Rabbi Onias’ replacement in Islamic traditions with Ezra, a Biblical figure, most likely stems from Ezra’s association with the return from the exile to Jerusalem and the reconstruction of the Temple. Nehemiah 2:12 may have contributed to this modification. A few elements in the Islamic counterpart of the Jewish tale also seem to have been derived from the biblical story in Ezekiel 37:1-10.

Articles by Masud Masihiyyen
Answering Islam Home Page