“Crossing the Red Sea.” Image courtesy of Yoram Raanan

On Ashura, Muslims recall how faith in God overcomes tyrants

(RNS) — The story of Moses (peace be upon him) is the most frequently narrated story in the Quran. We learn about his birth, his escape from Egypt as a fugitive, his unlikely return to the palace of the Pharaoh, his dueling with the magicians, the ten plagues, the exodus, his receiving the commandments, his 40 years in the wilderness and more.

But the story of Moses in the Quran is also deeply personal, giving us insight into his innermost moments of vulnerability through his profound supplications.

A natural attachment to him develops as you read the Quran and an anticipation of the next chapter of his story.

That attachment is enshrined in a tradition that records that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the early Muslims took the day of Ashura, which is the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram, as an annual day of fasting in commemoration of God giving victory to Moses over the Pharaoh.

But the power of the story of Moses is not just his victory over the Pharaoh, but the lead-up to that moment.

The first interaction that Moses has with his Lord, God asks him what he has in his right hand. Moses mentions that it is his staff that he leans upon and uses for his shepherding, amongst other things. God commands him to drop the staff, and it becomes a live snake. Moses reacts in a very ordinary way, running away to escape danger.

God calls Moses back and says, "Seize it and fear not; We shall return it to its former condition” (Quran 20:21).

Later in the same chapter of the Quran, the scene of Moses and the magicians unfolds. In that scene, the Pharaoh commands his thousands of magicians to cast their staffs, which all form an optical illusion of thousands of moving snakes.

Moses is then told to cast his staff once again alongside his brother Aaron. This time, Moses doesn’t run when the staff becomes a snake, but the verse reads that “he felt an apprehension inside of him” (Quran 20:67).

God shows Moses his proof by causing his staff to consume the staffs of Pharaoh’s magicians. The certainty of Moses had grown to the point that he did not run, but he still had to overcome the apprehension inside.

Then comes the moment that we commemorate on Ashura, Moses arriving at the sea with his people fleeing from a murderous tyrant with an army closely following. At this point, the causes for fear are greater than all of the previous incidents. If his staff fails him, his people will certainly be massacred. And his people say to him as much, as they are caught between the seas and the army of Pharaoh.

They cry out to him, “Indeed we have been overtaken!”

Moses responds with full conviction: “Certainly not. My Lord is with me, and He shall guide me” (Quran 26:61). God then commands Moses to strike the sea with his staff whereby it is parted into two, making way for the safe escape of Moses and the Israelites before drowning Pharaoh and his army.

This time Moses doesn’t run, nor does he feel apprehension in his heart.

Moses conquered something else before the Pharaoh.

His fears.

It wasn’t that he no longer had reason to be afraid, it was that he learned that he had greater reason to find courage in divine assurance.

That divine assurance is what we celebrate. It teaches us that, even in worldly defeat, there is success in adherence to principle. And even in moments of great despair, the victory of God is always near. That victory doesn’t always come in the same fashion.

In the Quran (66:11), we learn about Asiya, the wife of Pharaoh, who defied him and believed. When Pharaoh found out about her belief, he brutally murdered her to make an example out of her.

Yet God makes her an example in another way.

“And God presents an example of those who believed: the wife of Pharaoh, when she said, "My Lord, build for me near You a house in Paradise and save me from Pharaoh and his deeds, and save me from a transgressing people."

Her divine assurance is not in the parting of the seas but in something outside of this world. She was saved differently. God shows her a palace in paradise before she leaves this world and takes her soul from her body before it is crushed.

Her victory was in her perseverance.

Likewise on this day of Ashura, in the year 680, Hussain, who was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, led an uprising against the tyrant of his time, Yazid. Hussain was murdered along with the handful of followers who stuck around to fight by his side. His body was dismembered, and his tyrant sought to make an example out of him.

But Hussain was victorious. He already conquered his fears and sought a Paradise that was inaccessible to any tyrant.

This Ashura, I am holding closely the families of the victims of the Christchurch terrorist attack as they have just wrapped up the trial facing their murderer in the court. Some of those who stood before him, like Abdul Aziz who saved lives by chasing the terrorist away, stared him down in defiance once again as they did on that fateful day.

“You think your actions have destroyed our community and shaken our faith, but you have not succeeded. You have made us come together with more determination and strength,” Wasseim Daragmih told him, according to the BBC.

Maysoon Salama, the mother of Atta Elayyan, who was slain in the massacre, wrote an op-ed for the Guardian, saying that the shooter's attempt to destroy the community at the mosque failed.

“We miss our loved ones, but we know that they are in a better place. You didn’t achieve anything,” she wrote.  

One by one, they stood in front of a terrorist who robbed them of their loved ones, expressing sadness and anger, but also resilience.

In that perseverance is a triumph.

In the promise of Paradise is divine assurance even when the world shows its vilest cruelty.

No pharaoh, tyrant or terrorist can take any of those things away.

(Imam Omar Suleiman is the founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research and an adjunct professor of Islamic studies in the graduate liberal studies program at Southern Methodist University. He is also co-chair emeritus of Faith Forward Dallas. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)