A commentary by Sayyid Qutb
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Beneficent
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.” But then, when he was about to strike the one who was their enemy, the latter exclaimed: ‘Moses! Do you want to kill me as you killed another man yesterday? You want only to become a tyrant in the land, and you do not want to be one who sets things right.’” (The Story, Al-Qasas: 28: 18-19)
Moses’ story as told in this surah begins with his early days in Egypt, beginning of his birth then his adulthood. We have already mentioned how he supported a man from his own people against an Egyptian, and he killed the latter with a punch. Like anyone in such a position, he would fear the consequences of his deed: “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.
That Moses should feel such fear suggests that at this stage he did not have any association with the Pharaoh’s palace. Under tyranny, it is a trifling matter that anyone close to the palace should kill a person. He would have not entertained any fear, let alone that he should walk in the city expecting harm, watching every step. Yet as he walked vigilantly, he looked up and there “he saw the man who sought his help the day before again crying out to him for help.” (Verse 18) It is the same man who sought his help the day before fighting another Egyptian man and again appealing to Moses for more support. Probably he wanted him to do to this one what he did to the other.
But the image of the man falling dead only the day before was still vivid in Moses’ mind, as was his regret, repentance, and his pledge to God. His fear that he may come to harm as a result was also genuinely felt by Moses, which explains his outburst accusing the Israelite of being unfair and quarrelsome: “Moses said to him: ‘Indeed, you are clearly a quarrelsome fellow.” (Verse 18) The man appeared to be involved in endless quarrels that inevitably enhanced angry feelings against the children of Israel at a time when they could not protect themselves or mount a full-scale revolution. Nothing good could be expected from engaging in such fights.
Yet Moses was subsequently full of anger against the Egyptian and he moved to strike him as he did with the other one. This again gives us a glimpse of his passionate and spontaneous personality, but it also shows how strongly he was affected by the injustice suffered by the Israelites and how keen he was to do whatever he could to repel the aggression under which they had been suffering for long.
“But then, when he was about to strike the one who was their enemy, the latter exclaimed: ‘Moses! Do you want to kill me as you killed another man yesterday? You want only to become a tyrant in the land, and you do not want to be one who sets things right.’”
When injustice is widespread and values are undermined, good people will be greatly distressed to see wrongdoing practically shaping society’s laws and traditions, and corrupting people’s nature so as to make them accept injustice without a thought of taking action to repel it. Indeed people’s nature may suffer such degeneration that they may reproach the victim for resisting injustice. They may even describe as “tyrant in the land” a person who tries to prevent injustice being done to him or to others, as this second Egyptian called Moses. The fact is that the situation where tyranny smites at will, with no one to resist it, has become so familiar that people tend to accept it as the norm that reflects good manners, propriety and sound social structure. Should anyone rise to destroy such foul structure, their outcry would be loud, calling such rebel a killer or a tyrant. He would be the recipient of much of their blame, while the wrongdoer will get away with little criticism, if any. The victim will be denied any justification, even though they may know that he could not tolerate injustice any longer.
Moses has been so upset with the injustice suffered for so long by the Israelites. Thus we see him first taking spontaneous action and then regret it, then again we see him moved to almost repeat the action he regretted, stepping to strike the one who was hostile to his community.
Therefore, God did not abandon him. On the contrary, He took care of him and responded to his prayer. God knows human nature and that people have a limit for their tolerance. Therefore, when injustice becomes acute and the way to restore justice is blocked, a victim may well go on the attack, risking all. Hence we do not see Moses’ action painted in stark colors. It is only human communities where human nature has been distorted under prolonged injustice that exaggerate such action which remains, despite going beyond the normal limits, the natural release of long suffering.
This is what we understand from the way the Qur’an describes the two events and what comes after them. It neither provides justification for Moses’ action, nor does it paint its significance in exaggerated style. Perhaps its description by Moses as wronging oneself is due to the fact that his action was motivated by ethnic affiliation when he is God’s choice to be His messenger. Or it may be that his action precipitated a fight with some individuals who served tyranny, which is of little avail in achieving the ultimate goal of freedom, while God wanted complete freedom for the oppressed community in the way He had chosen. This is akin to the situation in Makkah when God restrained the Muslims from fighting until the appropriate time had come.