The Sublime Child in the Persona of Moses

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

First, because Moses, or the prophet Musa as we know him in the Quran, is an unusual hero— a newborn all on his own, swaddled and floating in a papyrus basket on the Nile— my brothers and I couldn’t get enough of his story as children. Second, it is also a story of siblings: his sister keeps an eye on him, walking along the river as the baby drifts in the reeds farther and farther away from home, his brother, the prophet Harun accompanies him through many crucial journeys later in life, another reason the story was relatable. Returning to the narration as a young woman, a mother, I found myself more interested in the heroines in the story: Musa’s birth-mother whose maternal instinct and faith are tested in a time of persecution, the Pharaoh’s wife Asiya who adopts the foundling as her own, confronting her megalomaniac husband’s ire and successfully raising a child of slaves and the prophesied contender to the pharaoh’s power under his own roof. As a diaspora writer, especially one wielding the colonizer’s tongue and negotiating the contradictory gifts of language, I have yet again been drawn to Musa. He is an outsider and an insider— one who carries a “knot on his tongue”— the burden of interpreting and speaking, not entirely out of choice, to radically different entities: God, the Pharaoh and his own people. Among the myriad facets of the legend, the most enduring is the innocence at the heart of his mythos, the exoteric quality of wisdom explored beautifully in mystic writings and poetry as a complementary aspect of the esoteric.

The narrations about Musa in the Exodus as well as the Quran are full of spectacular images besides the floating baby: the burning bush, the miracle of his “aasa” (walking staff) or rod that can turn into a serpent, the dramatically-timed parting of the Red Sea, the golden calf that emits a lifelike sound, the drowning of the pharaoh’s entire army. Throughout these narrations, the stakes are high and the calamities are large in scale. In contrast, Musa, the protagonist, represents the dispossessed, the powerless, and comes across as disadvantaged in every way but one: there is the Almighty Himself offering support. When tasked with confronting the oppressor, he feels helpless, like a child. He feels better prepared once he is empowered with “evidence” in the form of miracles: an exoteric aspect that meets critical disdain from some mystic angles, such as the sentiment expressed in this verse by the Urdu poet Mushafi Ghulam Hamdani:

muusā ne koh-e-tūr pe dekhā jo kuchh vahī
aatā hai ārifoñ ko nazar sañg-o-ḳhisht meñ

What revealed itself to Musa in the spectacle on Sinai
The true mystic may see in common rocks and soil

Other poets of Urdu and as well as other Persianate traditions liken God to the beloved whose visage renders the lover unconscious as it did Musa; Musa is the impatient or reckless lover who harms himself by insisting to behold the Veiled One. By another interpretation, the true devotee is unafraid of the consequences in the cause of true love, like Musa. 

Moses may have come to symbolize nuanced roles to the followers of the three Abrahamic faiths, but the figure of Moses appears most prominently in both the old testament and the Qur’an. His persona illuminates the quintessentially human— doubt, pragmatism, fear— alternating with the highest forms of devotion to Divine will. Moses emerges as a popular figure in the mystic interpretations of the sacred Islamic texts; he conquers the pharaoh, a stand-in for the ego. In parable after parable we see how the persona of Musa becomes the vehicle for understanding the inner journey, more often than not as an alignment with the human, perceptible, perhaps even palpably equitable as he negotiates what seems rational and just in an incomprehensible existence. 

The 13th century Sufi sage Ibn Arabi, in his work The Seals of Wisdom, sheds light on a certain purity and sublime artlessness in Musa by drawing a connection between him and all the newborns murdered by the pharaoh as he was spared; Ibn Arabi considers Musa a manifestation of sorts— of the spiritual rewards for all those innocent souls killed at birth. He is an embodiment of the sublime wisdom characteristic of youth.  Ibn Arabi’s interpretation of Musa as an amalgam of younger spirits balancing older ones becomes clearer when we view it in the context of the well-known legend of Khidr.

Khidr or Khizer appears in the Quran as a mysterious figure, a prophet or traveling saint. In the scholar Henri Corbin’s view, Khiḍr is essentially an archetype of the esoteric, whose work is to help reveal the seeker to herself, to guide each disciple toward her own theophany. In the Quran, he performs this function for Musa as they travel together, Khidr taking actions that seem to violate moral principles, Musa being deeply disturbed, unable to wait patiently until the wisdom of those actions is revealed. Khidr symbolizes the impenetrable aspects of truth. Musa, in contrast, is a prototype of innocence in the context of the sublime. In Ibn Arabi’s words: “Look at the perfection of these two men in knowledge and the completion of divine adab as right, and the justice of al-Khidr, peace be upon him, in what he acknowledged to Musa when he said, “I have a knowledge which Allah has taught me which you do not know, and you have a knowledge which Allah has taught me which I do not know.” This information which al-Khidr imparted to Musa was a remedy for the wound inflicted on him in his words, “How indeed could you bear with patience something you have not encompassed in your knowledge?” (18:68) although he knew the sublimity of his rank with the message, and al- Khidr did not have this rank. Ibn Arabi further elaborates in his chapter on Musa in The Seals of Wisdom:

Allah manifests Himself in a special way in every creature. He is the Outwardly Manifest in every graspable sense, and He is the Inwardly Hidden from every understanding except the understanding of the one who says that the universe is His form (4) and His He-ness (huwiyya), and it is the name, the Outwardly Manifest. Since He is, by meaning, the spirit of whatever is outwardly manifest, He is also the Inwardly Hidden. His relation to whatever is manifested of the forms of the world is the relation of the governing spirit to the form. The definition of man, for example, includes both his inward and outward; and it is the same with every definable thing. Allah is defined in every definition, yet the forms of the universe are not held back and He is not contained by them. One only knows the limits of each of their forms according to what is attained by each knower of his form. For that reason, one cannot know the definition of Allah, for one would only know His definition by knowing the definition of every form. This is impossible to attain, so the definition of Allah is impossible. Similarly, whoever connects without disconnection has given limits to Allah and does not know Him. Whoever combines connection and disconnection in his gnosis, and describes Allah with both aspects in general – because it is impossible to conceive in detail because we lack the ability to encompass all the forms which the universe contains – has known Him in general and not in particular, as he knows himself generally and not in particular. For that reason, the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, linked knowledge (ma’rifa) of Allah to knowledge of oneself and said, “Whoever knows himself knows his Lord.” Allah says, “We will show them Our signs on the horizons (what is outside of you) and in themselves (what is your source) until it is clear to them (the contemplators) that it is the Truth,” (41:53) inasmuch as you are His form and He is your spirit. You are to Him as your body-form is to you, and He is to you as the spirit which governs the body.

There is much to glean from the long quote above, but the most necessary point is that there are many ways to reach enlightenment and each is valid and viable. 

Musa is known in the Islamic tradition as “kaleemullah” (the one who conversed with God”)— an honorific. In the mystical and poetic tradition, it is a richly layered, dynamic metaphor. Musa speaks as a being of clay, frail in his humanness, to the Almighty. He brings up practical concerns, he pours forth earnest prayers and supplications. His sincerity earns him all the rewards. But before the speech and the famed conversations with the pharaoh and the people he must lead and save, before he performs the task of persuasion, he asks God for help against the burden of his speech impediment, which some understand to be a metaphor and others an actual impairment.

In Exodus 4:10: “And Moses said unto the LORD, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.”

The Quranic version of this address is in the form of prayer. It is one of the most beautiful and frequently quoted prayers in the tradition. In its tone, it is an intimate prayer; it is a four-part prayer that rhymes, and functions like a quatrain or ruba’ai, with the penultimate phrase tethered to the final line, a profoundly moving climax. Each of the four phrases of prayers within the prayer has the inward sound of “ee,” the phoneme that designates the personal. The sonic aesthetics are impossible to ignore; one of my favorite discoveries is the word “ahlul” or “dissolve” (in the context of the “knot” on the tongue), which is related to the word “hull” or “solve/solution;” the word “solve” embedded in “dissolve” is an elegant metaphor that translates perfectly in English. 

Rabbi shrahli sadri
wa yassirli amri
wah lul uqdatan min lisaani
yaf qahu qauli (20:25-28)

“O my nurturer/sustainer, open for me my breast/heart, and ease my task for me, and dissolve the knot on my tongue, so they may understand what I say.”

This prayer is for the anxious child in each of us, the one who is suddenly made aware of the enormity of the world he must contend with, its complexity, its chaos, and the clear inadequacies within. It really is an everyday prayer; a reminder to expand the chest, the heart, deepen the breath, access inner courage to ease the task, to unknot the tongue and speak clearly and freely.