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Moses and the Qur’an

Maqam an-Nabi Musa

Here’s an interesting trivia question that hardly anyone gets right: What person is mentioned by name the most times in the Qur’an? If you guessed Muhammad you’d be wrong, because he’s referred to by name only four times in the approximately 6,300 verses of Islam’s sacred text. The correct answer is Moses, who is named a remarkable 115 times. More narrative is devoted to him than to any other person, biblical or not. That fact takes many non-Muslims by surprise, but there are some good reasons for the heavy coverage Moses enjoys in the Qur’an.

The most important reason is that Moses was not only a prophet but also a messenger. The Qur’an teaches that certain prophets were also charged with bringing a divinely revealed text to their people, and this is what makes them messengers. Moses, along with David (the Psalms), Jesus (the gospel), and Muhammad (the Qur’an), is identified as a messenger, and the name of his book is the Torah (in Arabic, tawrat). The Qur’an relates much information about Moses’ life and work as a prophet/messenger, but it does not contain a unified and cohesive biographical account like the one found in the Hebrew Bible. Rather, it refers to Moses in many places throughout the text, and often the passages are only a few verses in length. In addition, there are sometimes multiple versions of the same event that don’t always agree on the details, which can cause confusion for readers familiar with the biblical account. The longest treatment of Moses is found in 20:9-99, and if you read that section you’ll get a pretty good idea of what the Qur’an has to say about him.

Many of the Moses traditions in the Bible have counterparts in the Qur’an, but they are usually told in a way that reflects Islamic theology and beliefs. For example, in its telling of Moses’ birth (28:3-13), the Qur’an has the same story about a newborn who is raised in Pharaoh’s household after his mother puts him in the river (see Exod 2), but there’s an interesting twist. In the Qur’an’s version, God is a major character who is involved with everything that happens from beginning to end. This is in marked contrast to the biblical story, where God isn’t mentioned a single time.

The reason for this difference is simple: Islam teaches that God is all-powerful and in control of everything that happens, so of course the deity would be an active participant in every aspect of Moses’ birth story. In the biblical version, on the other hand, we have to read between the lines or assume God is working behind the scenes in order to make the deity an active part of the story. In this case, as elsewhere when it treats biblical characters, the Qur’an makes God’s presence more obvious and clear.

Other qualities that are central to the Qur’an’s view of God are mercy and forgiveness, and they are manifested in the famous golden calf episode. The biblical account (Exod 32) presents a very angry and harsh picture of God, who is fed up with the Israelites and orders them to kill three thousand of the worst offenders before sending a plague for good measure. The Qur’an story (7:148-54) moves in the opposite direction, as all the human characters—Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites—experience God’s mercy, and all their relationships are strengthened through divine care and compassion.

Of course, God is active, merciful, and forgiving in the Bible as well, but in some places the Qur’an goes to extra lengths to underscore those traits. Many of those stories involve Moses, whether he is encountering God at the burning bush, competing against Pharaoh’s magicians, escaping the Egyptian forces through the dried-up sea, or communing with God on the mountain. As the Qur’an’s leading man, he has a role that can hardly be called trivial. 

  • John Kaltner

    John Kaltner is the Virginia Ballou McGehee Professor of Muslim-Christian Relations at Rhodes College (Memphis, Tennessee), where he teaches courses on the Bible, Islam, and Arabic.