The question of the faith of Pharaoh was often ignited by a controversial passage or comment in the work of an eminent Islamic scholar after which critics and defenders of the opinion sought to present their own arguments in treatises (rasa'il). These would then become recurring questions argued over the course of centuries.
The question we are dealing with here was posed continuously, with some gaps, over some five hundred years. At first sight, the question may appear trivial, but reputations were on the line depending upon the answer given. Apart from the personal prestige of those involved in the debate, there lay hidden within the subtext of this seemingly minor issue more important and unresolved topics.
Like other questions, ittracked back to other unresolved theological problems which had frustrated the minds ofmany eminent scholars since at least the second/eighth century such as the definition and boundaries of faith, predestination and free will, and the nature of Allah's mercy. In Islamic tradition, Pharaoh, the "Pharaoh of Moses" (Fir'awn Musa) is the quintessential tyrannical ruler or as William C. Chittick puts it, "the chief villain of the Qur'an". However, he is more than just a despot because of his claims to divinity, claiming in the Qur'an (79:24): "I am your Lord most high".
This staggering display of hubris was enough to seal Pharaoh's fate in some Muslim minds as an iconoclastic enemy of Allah most High. The Egyptian lieutenant Khalid Islambouli who assassinated Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 declared, "I shot the Pharaoh." Yet, for other Muslims, Pharaoh is a source of historical pride. The national Egyptian football team is proudly called The Pharaohs. Evidence that, in the minds of the common people at least, the question has no easy answer.
1. وَقَالَ مُوسَىٰ رَبَّنَا إِنَّكَ آتَيْتَ فِرْعَوْنَ وَمَلَأَهُ زِينَةً وَأَمْوَالًا فِي الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا رَبَّنَا لِيُضِلُّوا عَن سَبِيلِكَ رَبَّنَا اطْمِسْ عَلَىٰ أَمْوَالِهِمْ وَاشْدُدْ عَلَىٰ قُلُوبِهِمْ فَلَا يُؤْمِنُوا حَتَّىٰ يَرَوُا الْعَذَابَ الْأَلِيمَ
"Our Lord, obliterate their possessions and harden their hearts so that they do not believe until they see the painful punishment... Your prayer is answered." (Qur'an 10:88-89)
2. وَجَاوَزْنَا بِبَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ الْبَحْرَ فَأَتْبَعَهُمْ فِرْعَوْنُ وَجُنُودُهُ بَغْيًا وَعَدْوًا حَتَّىٰ إِذَا أَدْرَكَهُ الْغَرَقُ قَالَ آمَنتُ أَنَّهُ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا الَّذِي آمَنَتْ بِهِ بَنُو إِسْرَائِيلَ وَأَنَا مِنَ الْمُسْلِمِينَ آلْآنَ وَقَدْ عَصَيْتَ قَبْلُ وَكُنتَ مِنَ الْمُفْسِدِي
"And We brought the Children of Israel over the sea; and Pharaoh and his hosts followed them insolently and impetuously till, when the drowning overtook him, he said, 'I believe that there is no God but He in whom the children of Israel believe; I am of those that surrender. Now? And verily, you (had) disobeyed before and you were of the corrupters?" (Qur'an 10:90-91)
3. وَلَيْسَتِ التَّوْبَةُ لِلَّذِينَ يَعْمَلُونَ السَّيِّئَاتِ حَتَّىٰ إِذَا حَضَرَ أَحَدَهُمُ الْمَوْتُ قَالَ إِنِّي تُبْتُ الْآنَ وَلَا الَّذِينَ يَمُوتُونَ وَهُمْ كُفَّارٌ أُولَٰئِكَ أَعْتَدْنَا لَهُمْ عَذَابًا أَلِيمًا
"But repentance is not accepted of those who continue to do evil deeds up until, when death comes to one of them, he says, 'Indeed, I have repented now' … For them we have prepared a painful punishment." (Qur'an 4:18)
4. يَا بَنِيَّ اذْهَبُوا فَتَحَسَّسُوا مِن يُوسُفَ وَأَخِيهِ وَلَا تَيْأَسُوا مِن رَّوْحِ اللَّهِ إِنَّهُ لَا يَيْأَسُ مِن رَّوْحِ اللَّهِ إِلَّا الْقَوْمُ الْكَافِرُونَ
"For indeed, no one but despairing folk despairs of the spirit of Allah..." (Qur'an 12:87)
The vast majority of scholars believed Pharaoh remained an unbeliever throughout his life and did not accept death-bed repentances or violation of Allah's foreknowledge of his disbelief.
The companion Ibn Abbas (d. 68/686) is reported by ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597/1200) as having said: "Allah did not accept his faith in the face of punishment."
Al-Maturidi (d. 333/944) stated, "If Pharaoh had been able to believe, he would have been able to invalidate Allah's foreknowledge. This is so of Pharaoh and of everyone who in Allah's knowledge will not believe."
Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1209) in his commentary on this verse states that Pharaoh did not truly believe and was not granted salvation despite his last words.
Al-Zamakshari (d. 597/1144) in his tafsir asks Pharaoh: "Do you believe in the Last Judgement at the moment when you are compelled, when drowning has overtaken you, and you despair for yourself?"
The scholarly consensus here was that Pharaoh's belief was the belief of desperation (iman al-yas) and as such was null and void.
A smaller number dissented, accepting death-bed repentance, and argued that Allah's eternal mercy was all-embracing.
Ibn al-Arabi (d. 638/1240) in his al-Futuh'at al-Makkiyyah (written before the Fusus where he changed his position) originally designated Pharaoh among the "four groups of the damned" who will remain eternally in hell. Ibn al-Arabi's later view held Allah had indeed granted Pharaoh belief and he died a believer with all his sins forgiven.
Jalal al-Din al-Dawwani (d. 907/1501) held the opinion Pharaoh both repented and believed and his sins were forgiven.
The mystic Abd al-Razzaq al-Kashani, a defender of ibn al-Arabi, argued there were only two issues here: whether Allah accepted Pharaoh's profession of faith and whether it was beneficial to Pharaoh to believe. Scripture and logic suggest Pharaoh's last-minute belief was both sincere and accepted. However, his profession of faith only saved him from "doctrinal defilement" (khubth i'tiqadi) and did not absolve him of four hundred years of sinful living and unbelief. As a result, Pharaoh's faith was accepted but he was confined to hell regardless. What then was the advantage of his faith? Only the certain knowledge that he will not remain eternally in hell.
Al-Dawwani notes that among scholars there is a difference of opinion on the faith of Pharaoh. On the one hand there are those who considered him an unbeliever and on the other hand there are those who considered him to be a believer.
Even on this difference of opinion lies controversy. Al-Harawi states that no wide divergence of opinion exists on the matter and that anyone, but ibn al-Arabi ventured to declare Pharaoh a believer.
The following assumptions underpin the various arguments on this issue.
1. Predestination and Free Will
If Allah knows from all eternity that Pharaoh will not believe, then any change from that position becomes impossible, for such a subsequent conversion would invalidate Allah's omniscience. But if Pharaoh's acceptance of belief is impossible, how can he be considered responsible for his unbelief? If Allah does not know from all eternity that Pharaoh will not believe, then His knowledge is not perfect. If Allah knows that Pharaoh will not believe, is His knowledge a factor in Pharaoh's unbelief?
2. Eternal Damnation
Another difficulty arises when we see Allah granting to some the gift of belief, and therefore salvation, and singling out others for unbelief and subsequent damnation. The problem is made more difficult when we note Allah Himself hardens Pharaoh's heart. In the Qur'an (10;88), Moses asks Allah to "harden the hearts" (wa'shdud ala qulubihim) of the Egyptians: 'Our Lord, obliterate their possessions and harden their hearts so that they do not believe…' Allah obliges, 'Your prayer is answered.'
3. Death-bed Repentance
Death-bed repentance, or the "belief of desperation", is not valid and indeed this type of belief will be available to every kafir on Judgement Day. Abu Hanifah pointed out with grim wit that there will be no unbelievers in Hell. On Judgement Day, all will have resorted to the same despairing faith.
4. The Scope of Allah's Mercy
How powerful is the efficacy of repentance and subsequently what is the farthermost reaches of Allah's mercy? Allah will not indulge in cheap grace or permit exploitation of His propensity to pardon which in the specific case of Pharaoh would have been four hundred years of sinful living and unbelief.
The arguments arising from the evidences comprise that Pharaoh will remain eternally in hell not simply because of his arrogance (mutakabbir) but because of his claims to divinity (idda'a al-rububiyah li-nafsihi wa-nafaha an Allah), and Pharaoh's affirmation of faith being genuine, and if so, whether Allah accepted it from him and granted him mercy.
Pharaoh the enduring unbeliever
Pharaoh exemplified uncompromising disbelief as well as grand hubris throughout his life. That is clear from the series of evidences throughout Pharaoh's life.
The key passage in Qur'an 10:98, however, poses the question of whether Pharaoh's affirmation of faith is genuine, and if so, whether Allah accepted it from him and granted him mercy.
Pharaoh's profession of faith had traditionally been deemed invalid on the grounds that it had been uttered by him under duress. His words were deemed not to be genuine for additional reasons. To affirm belief in the face of an impending punishment nullifies the profession of belief. Both of these claims are applicable to Pharaoh.
Fakhr al-Din al-Razi adds to this in his commentary on this verse in his book Mafatih al-Ghayb, arguing a man cannot utter the profession of faith at the moment of drowning if only for the "technical" reason that his own death-rattle in his throat prevents him. This is in line with the Quran's admonishment of death-bed repentance (4:18).
Pharaoh is also alleged to have been practising taqlid, a submissive adherence to imposed belief. His statement, "I believe that there is no God but He in whom the Children of Israel believe" seems to be parroting what he heard the Israelites say and not what he himself believed. There also remains ambiguity in this claim as the Israelites were prone to anthropomorphism and corporealism, believing Allah was incarnate in the body of the calf. Was it to this corporeal divinity Pharaoh professed his belief? Perhaps.
Whilst some add another disqualifying reason, namely that Pharaoh was silent about the Prophet Muhammad (saw) in his shahadah, this too invalidated his belief. This point remains unpersuasive since this was not a requirement prior to Muhammad's (saw) later arrival. All this then begs the question, why does Allah recount in the Qur'an what Pharaoh said in his final death throes? Razi persuasively argues by recounting Pharaoh's last words, Allah is simply illustrating the reality of mental discourse. Articulate speech may not be possible at the moment of death, but mental discourse is.
The formidable 17th century theologian Ali al-Qari al-Harawi (d. 1014/1605) places unyielding insistence on the eternal decree of Allah. In his view, Moses and Aaron were blessed with happiness while still in their father's loins while Pharaoh had been predestined to misery while still in his mother's womb. Pharaoh's repentance was not genuine, and his outward belief was coerced under duress. Allah saved Pharaoh's drowned body as a physical sign of his condemnation (Qur'an 10:02). Unfortunately, al-Harawi doesn't cite the evidences for his claims of preordained happiness and misery, so I cannot comment on this argument.
Arguments about Pharaoh not believing even if Allah himself offers him belief poses particularly difficult theological problems. This problem is not particular to Islamic theology and asks whether divine foreknowledge is itself causative. I would suggest not and reject this aspect of the argument as the position would tend towards the Jabriyya claims that we live predetermined lives – a claim that is at odds with a plethora of texts suggesting we have been endowed with free will and choice.
Pharaoh the believer
Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-Arabi (d. 638/1240) is amongst the few scholars who argue for Pharaoh the believer arguing Allah seized Pharaoh at the moment of belief before he could commit any sin, since submission to Allah extirpates all that has occurred before. Allah had made Pharaoh a sign of his loving kindness to whomever He wishes so no one may despair of the mercy of Allah (12:87). Had Pharaoh been despairing, he would not have hastened to believe. For ibn al-Arabi, Pharaoh was taken despite his affirmation of faith, but he had no certainty that his fate was sealed and thus his belief was not born out of desperation. Furthermore, his drowned body was itself a sign of his salvation.
An issue underlying this question appears to be the extent of Allah's mercy which excludes no one who sincerely repents. It can however be objected to on the grounds that belief has juridical conditions and obligations (e.g., sincere repentance prior to the deathbed, a complete acceptance with no conditions etc.) that must be observed which are missing here. Pharaoh's profession of faith was incomplete since he could not complete the full shahadah which invalidates it. Even if profession of faith is accepted as valid, it would save Pharaoh from "doctrinal defilement" (khubth i'tiqadi)but not absolve him of four hundred years of sinful living and unbelief. As a result, Pharaoh's faith was accepted but he was confined to hell anyway albeit he would not remain eternally in hell.
As a counter to that, one could cite theologians who argue, "belief is assent with the heart (al-tasdiq bi'l-qalb)while recitation with the tongue is merely to fulfil the juridical precepts." Allah seized Pharaoh at the instant of belief before any of his sins were written down (and he did not live any longer after that moment) to make Pharaoh "a sign of His providence to whomsoever He will, so that no one might despair at themercy of Allah." This would simply affirm the vastness of Allah's mercy otherwise one vexes believers and frightens them into despair.
The arguments are unpersuasive when making the scope of divine mercy the focus of debate and suggests opponents as deniers of divine mercy. One can argue had Allah intended to demonstrate mercy by his treatment of Pharaoh, and had Pharaoh's faith been sincere, Allah would have preserved him alive and not flung his naked body on the seashore. This is arguably "fictitious deliverance" as is appropriate for "compelled belief." It is true that there are occasions when the actions of unbelievers take the same outward form as the actions of believers, such as works of charity and helping the sick, but this does not entitle unbelievers to rewards. As far as the claim that Pharaoh believed "with his heart", this too must also be rejected since what is in the heart is not knowable except to Allah himself. Had Pharaoh been saved from drowning, this would have proven that his profession of faith was genuine. Instead, his body washed up so that his followers couldsee his ultimate fate.
The main arguments rest on a close and literal reading of theQur'anic passage 10:98 and related passages such as 4:18. The fact remains that these arguments were supported by other assumptions such as the extent of Allah's mercy, Allah's foreknowledge, and death-bed repentance which suggests the main passages under scrutiny say nothing about the authenticity of Pharaoh's faith or his ultimate destiny. Pharaoh, for a minority of scholars, represented the farthest reaches of Allah's mercy, and by extension, the farthest acceptable limit of the Ummah. The stronger position would suggest, as agreed upon by the majority of scholars, that Pharaoh was the archetypal unbeliever who was utterly irredeemable.
Ibn Al-Arabi, al-Futuhat al-Makkiyah
A J Wensinck, The Muslim Creed
Dawwani, Risa'lat Iman Fir'awn
E Ormsby, The Faith of Pharaoh: A Disputed Question in Islamic Theology
Harawi, Farr al-Awn Min Mudda'i Iman Fir'awn
Razi, Mafa'tih al-Ghayb
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