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What were the views of the classical scholars on the faith of Pharaoh (Firawn) when he died?

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In a Nutshell: The question of whether Pharaoh was a believer is one of a number of disputed questions which exercised the minds of Islamic scholars throughout Islamic history. The question was misleadingly simple due to the fact that it had other underlying enquiries which led back to intractable theological problems such as the definition and boundaries of faith, predestination and free will and the nature of Allah's mercy. The general consensus of scholars was that Pharaoh did not truly believe and was not saved at the final moment of his death throes. Isolated opinions from a few scholars stated that Pharaoh had been granted belief by Allah and did indeed die a believer.

Introduction

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. 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.

Our particular question, along with most other arguments, has been debated over the course of centuries. The resuscitation of this particular question from time to time was not without merit since, 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 Istanbuli 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.

Scholars' Views

The vast majority of scholars believed Pharaoh remained an unbeliever throughout his life, not accepting 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."

  • The Ash'arite theologian and commentator Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1209) in his commentary on this verse, states Pharaoh did not truly believe and was not granted salvation despite his last words.

  • Al-Zamakhshari (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 arguing Allah's eternal mercy was all-embracing.

  • Ibn al-Arabi (d. 638/1240) in his al-Futuh'at al-Makkiyah (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 point of 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.

Evidences

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 الْمُفْسِدِينَ

"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)

Analysis

Ibn al-Arabi in his Futuh'at al-Makkiyah (written before the Fusus)argues 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). Pharaoh exemplifies uncompromising disbelief as well as grand hubris. He will not believe even if Allah himself offers him belief. Herein lies one of the debates' particular problems. For Pharaoh, belief is not an option since his acceptance of belief would have raised extremely difficult theological problems. This problem is not particular to Islamic theology and asks whether divine foreknowledge is itself causative.

For most commentators, the key passage is Qur'an 10:98 which 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. The most common view, as epitomised by the Ash'arite theologian and commentator Fakhr al-Din al-Razi in his commentary on this verse, is Pharaoh did not truly believe and was not granted salvation despite his last words. According to Al-Razi, a man cannot utter the profession of faith at the moment of drowning if only for the "technical" reason his own death-rattle in his throat prevents him. This is in line with the Quran's admonishment of death-bed repentance (4:18).

Why then does Allah recount in the Qur'an what Pharaoh said in his final death throes? For al-Razi, this is not divinely revealed exculpatory evidence but rather an affirmation of the validity of "internal speech" (al-kalam bi-l-nafs) as opposed to "voiced speech" (al-kalam bi'l-lisan) as only internal speech is genuine (haqiqi). In other words, 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: "It is possible that Allah is demonstrating through this verse the existence of mental discourse," for it has been proved apodictically that Pharaoh "did not say this with his tongue." (Al-Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb).

For al-Razi, Pharaoh's words were not genuine for a number of reasons. To affirm belief in the face of impending punishment nullifies the profession of belief. Al-Razi states that Pharaoh was practising taqlid, a submissive adherence to imposed belief. Did he not say, "I believe that there is no God but He in whom the Children of Israel believe? He is thus merely repeating what he has heard the Israelites say in parrot fashion and not what he himself sincerely believes. Al-Razi further states that the Israelites were prone to anthropomorphism and corporealism and thus they believed that Allah was incarnate in the body of the calf and it was to this corporeal divinity that Pharaoh professes his belief in. Another disqualifying reason is that Pharaoh was silent about the Prophet Muhammad (saw) in his shahadah and this too invalidates his belief.

It then came as a shock to orthodoxy when the influential Shaykh Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-Arabi (d. 638/1240) stated in his Fusus al-hikam that Allah had indeed granted Pharaoh belief and that he died a believer with all his sins forgiven. According to ibn al-Arabi, 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 lovingkindness to whomever He wishes so that no one may despair of the mercy of Allah (12:87). Had Pharaoh been despairing, he would not have hastened to believe.

A complicating factor in this debate was the fact that ibn al-Arabi's views were highly controversial to many not simply because of what he said but because he was the one who said it. Ironically, ibn al-Arabi has himself been the topic of debate, both contemporaneously and after his death, with regard to whether he was a believer or a kafir. The question of Pharaoh's faith may have excited interest because of a legitimate concern that if such a blasphemous and despotic figure as Pharaoh could be welcomed into the community of believers, who could then be excluded (including for his detractors, ibn al-Arabi himself)?

One of ibn al-Arabi's prime defenders, Jalal al-Din al-Dawwani (d. 907/1501), among others, would claim that the real issue underlying the question was the extent of Allah's mercy which excludes no one who sincerely repents. Ali ibn Sultan Muhammad al-Qari al-Harawa (d.1014/1605), an ardent critic of al-Dawwani, objected on the grounds that belief has juridical conditions and obligations that must be observed. Furthermore, he adds that Pharaoh's profession of faith was not just insincere but incomplete since he could not complete the full shahadah which invalidates it.

It must be made clear that Pharaoh's profession of faith in Qur'an 10:90 had traditionally been deemed invalid on the grounds that it had been uttered by him under duress. Ibn Abbas (d. 68/686) as reported by ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597/1200) said "Allah did not accept his faith in the face of punishment." Al-Zamakhshari (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.

The mystic Abd al-Razzaq al-Kashani, a defender of ibn al-Arabi, argued that 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 prove, he argues, that 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 anyway. What then was the advantage of his faith? Only the certain knowledge that he will not remain eternally in hell.

The philosopher Jalal al-Din al-Dawwani (d. 907/1501) was even more robust in defending al-Arabi's position. For him, repentance, and repentance alone, is the only element which matters. Allah accepts repentance whenever it occurs and Pharaoh both repented and believed. The formidable 17th century theologian Ali al-Qari al-Harawi (d. 1014/1605) wrote a stinging rebuttal to al-Dawwani. While the latter stresses the efficacy of repentance and the depth of Allah's compassion and mercy, al-Harawi 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).

Al-Dawwani states that according to theologians, "belief is assent with the heart (al-tasdiq bi'l-qalb) while recitation with the tongue is merely to fulfil the juridical precepts." Ibn al-Arabi's statement that 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) in order to make Pharaoh "a sign of His providence to whomsoever He will, so that no one might despair at themercy of Allah." Al-Dawwani defends ibn al-Arabi by proclaiming that the Shaykh issimply affirming the "vastness of Allah's mercy". And those critics of the Shaykh who deny this limitless compassion, "vex believers and frighten them into despair in Allah's spirit."

In his hostile commentary on al-Dawwani's work, al-Qari al-Harawi begins with the affirmation of predestination. Al-Harawi's fiercest indignation is reserved for two points. First, he considers it a form of defamation that al-Dawwani should make the scope of divine mercy the focus of debate. In doing so, he is slandering the ulema by accusing them of denial of the divine mercy. Al-Harawi attempts to refute al-Dawwani without seeming to limit the divine mercy. 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 sea shore. For al-Harawi, this was "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", al-Harawi responds that this must also be rejected "since what is in the heart is not knowable except to the Knower of the Invisible (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. 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.

Conclusion

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 point of 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.

It appears from the literature that the majority of scholars on both sides of the argument focused mainly on two assumptions; Death-bed repentance and the scope of Allah's mercy. Ibn al-Arabi conceded that on a fundamental level, it is deeply implanted in the minds of common people that Pharaoh is lost but they have no explicit text on which they can lean to prove it. For ibn al-Arabi and his defenders, the main arguments rested on a close and literal reading of theQur'anic passage 10:98. The fact remains however that these arguments were supported by other assumptions such as the extent of Allah's mercy and death-bed repentance which suggests that the main passage under scrutiny says nothing about the authenticity of Pharaoh's faith or his ultimate destiny.

In the end, Pharaoh, for a minority of scholars, represented the farthest reaches of Allah's mercy and by extension, the farthest acceptable limit of the Ummah. For the majority of scholars, Pharaoh was the archetypal unbeliever who was utterly irredeemable.

References:

Ibn Al-Arabi, al-Futuhat al-Makkiyah

Al-Razi, Mafa'tih al-ghayb

A J Wensinck, The Muslim Creed

Al-Harawi, Farr al-awn min mudda'i imin Fir'awn

Al-Dawwani, Risa'lat iman Fir'awn

E Ormsby, The Faith of Pharaoh: A Disputed Question in Islamic Theology


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