Commentary by Sayyid Qutb
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Beneficent
One day he entered the city at a time when its people were unaware (of his presence). He found there two men fighting, one belonging to his own people and the other to his enemies. And the one from his own people cried out to him for help against the one from his enemies, whereupon Moses struck him down with his fist and killed him.
He said: “This is of Satan’s doing! Indeed, he is an open foe, seeking to lead man astray.” He then prayed: “My Lord! I have certainly wronged myself, so forgive me.” So He forgave him. He alone is Much Forgiving, Merciful.
He said: “My Lord! For all that with which You have blessed me, never shall I give help to wrongdoers.”
Next morning, he was in the city, fearful, vigilant, when he saw the man who sought his help the day before again crying out to him for help. Moses said to him: “Indeed, you are clearly a quarrelsome fellow.”(The Story, Al-Qasas: 28: 15-18)
We are told first that he “entered the city”, which is understood to be the capital. Where did he come from to enter the city? Was he in the palace at Ein Shams? Alternatively, had he deserted the palace and the capital but came in this time when the people were unaware of his presence? He might have come around noon when people were resting? Anyway, he came in to a surprise: “He found there two men fighting, one belonging to his own people and the other to his enemies. And the one from his own people cried out to him for help against the one from his enemies.” (Verse 15)
One of the two was an Egyptian, said to belong to Pharaoh’s staff, with some reports suggesting that he was his cook. The other was an Israelite. The two were fighting as Moses came into the city, and the Israelite appealed to him for help against their Egyptian enemy. How could this happen? How could an Israelite appeal to Moses, Pharaoh’s adopted son against one from Pharaoh’s court? This could not have happened if Moses was still residing in the palace, or one of Pharaoh’s courtiers. It could happen if the Israelite was certain that Moses had no longer any contacts with the palace, and that he was in reality an Israelite who was opposed to the Pharaoh and sympathetic to his people’s cause against persecution. This last possibility is more in line with Moses’ character. It was certainly unlikely that he could tolerate life in the corrupt environment of the palace.
We will continue our discussion of this event next time, God willing.
“Whereupon Moses struck him down with his fist and killed him.” (Verse 15) The Arabic word wakaza, used for ‘struck’, indicates a punch with the full weight of one’s arm. We understand that Moses punched the man only once, and it caused his death, which gives us an idea of Moses’ physical strength, his anger and the strength of his opposition to Pharaoh and those in his court.
However, it appears from the drift of the narrative that Moses did not intend to kill the Egyptian man. Indeed, when he saw him lifeless, he regretted what he had done and attributed it to Satan’s temptation. It was the result of anger, and anger is a devil or part of what Satan does: “He said: This is of Satan’s doing! Indeed, he is an open foe, seeking to lead man astray.” (Verse 15)
He goes on to show genuine regret for what his anger caused, acknowledging that by so doing, he has wronged himself, burdening himself with such results. He appeals to God for forgiveness. “He then prayed: My Lord! I have certainly wronged myself, so forgive me.” (Verse 16) God responded to his prayer, knowing that his repentance was genuine: “So He forgave him. He alone is Much-Forgiving, Merciful.”
It appears that his refined sense indicated to him that God has responded to his genuine appeal and has forgiven him. A believer’s heart, which has reached such a superior level of sensitivity, feels that his prayer has been answered once it is made, particularly when it reflects a burning hope and eager appeal. As he felt such acceptance, Moses trembled and made a firm pledge, considering it as part of his gratitude for God’s favors: “He said: My Lord! For all that with which You have blessed me, never shall I give help to wrongdoers.” (Verse 17) It is an absolute pledge that he would never side with wrongdoing folk or help them. It is a disavowal of wrongdoing in all shapes and forms, even though he might be strongly motivated to give such help by the need to rebel against injustice.
Thus Moses shows his appreciation of God’s favors when He has responded to his prayer after He had given him physical strength, wisdom and knowledge. His profound sorrow after his strong response to an appeal for help indicate that Moses’ personality was of the passionate, spontaneous type with strong reaction to events and situations. We will see such aspects of his character in several instances. Indeed we see it in the very next scene of this episode:
Next morning, he was in the city, fearful, vigilant, when he saw the man who sought his help the day before again crying out to him for help. Moses said to him: ‘Indeed, you are clearly a quarrelsome fellow.’ (Verse 18)
It was only a day after the first fight ended with the death of the Egyptian, followed by God’s acceptance of Moses’ repentance and answering his prayers, and his pledge never to support wrongdoing. But he was in fear lest his offense be discovered. We see him on his guard, expecting a reaction at every moment. This is again a reflection of his spontaneous character. We are given an impression that as he walked “in the city”, which is normally a place of security, he experienced real fear.