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Then The Sea Split: Reflections On The Story Of Prophet Musa, Gaza, And Hope


The the sea split

[Note from the author: “I was asked to speak to students at Georgetown, as well as at the encampment at George Washington University. This post is adapted from that talk: Then the Sea Split.”]

The Arresting Power of the Quran

Most times, we read the Quran like the speed limit on a highway – a quick glance, half-acknowledgment, and then continuation at the same speed irrespective of its instructions. A heedless heart passes admonishment after admonishment, knowing that it is negligent, and yet negligent of its own negligence. Life passes, signs pass, recitation of the Quran passes, and our speed remains entirely unchanged.

And then there are times when the Quran grips us with the terror of wailing sirens, squeezes us like a chest compressed by fear akin to looking down at a distant world from atop the tallest tower. This is one of those times – a time when the heedless heart comes to a sudden stop before the majesty of Divine speech, is arrested by the power of transcendent words.

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This is a divine story of subjugation and emancipation; of oppression and liberation; of resilience and perseverance in moments of absolute desperation. This is the story of the tyrant “god-king” Fir’own and his defeat at the hands of the mighty messenger of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him).

The Pharoah’s Dream

If there are two quintessential dreams in the Quran, it is Yusuf’s 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) dream of eventual emancipation and the Pharoah’s dream of eventual destruction. The first dream signals the arrival of Banī Isrāʾīl to Egypt, and the other signals their departure from it. The dream of Yusuf 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) is mentioned explicitly in the Qur’an, while the Pharoah’s dream is only ever referenced, particularly in Surat al-Qaṣaṣ. At the beginning of the surah, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) introduces the story as follows:

“Indeed, Pharaoh ˹arrogantly˺ elevated himself in the land and divided its people into ˹subservient˺ groups, one of which he persecuted, slaughtering their sons and keeping their women. He was truly one of the corruptors.”

“But it was Our Will to favor those who were oppressed in the land, making them models ˹of faith˺ as well as successors;”

“and to establish them in the land; and through them show Pharaoh, Hāmān, and their soldiers ˹the fulfilment of˺ what they feared.” [Surah Al-Qasas: 28;4-6]

The reference in this ayah is to the well-known history of the Pharoah’s rule over Egypt – how he ruled over an enslaved Banī Isrāʾīl and elevated himself to the status of god-king. At the height of his power and glory, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) showed him a dream in which he told the Pharoah that he would be deposed by a child of the Banī Isrāʾīl, and, instead of acknowledging his evil and changing his ways, he resolved to perpetuate it further by killing the children of his slaves to avoid his eventual fate. And yet, fate is not a thing that can be avoided. It is either accepted willingly or brought about unwillingly. The Pharoah chose the latter.

The irony, of course, is that his eventual downfall was brought about by the very actions he took to prevent it. He killed the children of Banī Isrāʾīl, forcing the mother of Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) to throw him into the river; which led to the wife of Pharoah adopting Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him); which led to Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) growing up in the palace; which led to him having the privilege to roam the city without fear; which led to him having the confidence to punch the Egyptian and accidentally kill him; which led him to flee Egypt; which led him to the watering hole of Madyan where he met Shuʿayb 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him); which led to his eventual arrival at the burning bush and prophecy; which led to his return to Egypt; which led to the nine signs; which led to the exodus of Banī Isrāʾīl from Egypt; which led the Pharoah and his army chasing their slaves; which led to the splitting of the sea; which led to the drowning of the Pharoah.

The very act the Pharoah took to avoid his fate brought it about. Every tyrannous regime believes it can avoid its collapse if it exerts further and greater control; but we believe in a just and merciful God, Who brings about the eventual destruction of the regime that hangs on to every last strand of a progressively slipping power by its very act of avoiding their downfall.

The Difference Between Resignation and Liberation is Hope

We often imagine the hand of God as a flash of lightning hidden in the darkness of the sky or the violence of the battering winds of a hurricane hidden in the timid breeze that blows softly on a cool spring night. The hand of God is not hidden only in the forces of nature. Rather, it is also hidden in the hope nestled deeply in the hearts of those who believe in Him. It is from His Majesty and Glory that He turns the hands of His Believers into the hand of God.

There are two such moments in the story of Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him). The first takes place at the very beginning of the story, when Musa’s 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) mother holds her child against her chest and is engulfed by fear like Yunus 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) is engulfed by the roaring waters of a sea possessed by the rage of a violent tempest. In that moment, she has a choice to make: to resign herself to the fate of her child’s death, or to act – in complete desperation – to try and save him. What would the world have told her when she fed her child, then placed him in a basket, then placed him in the river? Would they have called her delusional? Would they have chided her for trying to avoid a fate clearly written? Would they have called her unrealistic, unpragmatic, wildly clinging onto hope she should have long since buried?

The great Pharoah has decreed it. The armies have conceived it. The people have believed it: that there is no hiding, no running, no hoping for emancipation, liberation, and revolution against the utter inhumanity of the god-king himself.

And, yet, the mother of Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) knows what all others have forgotten – that, as long as there is a God, there is hope. The false god-king is ruled himself by the King of kings; that the power of the One overrules the power of all. 

And so she threw him into the flowing river, and that one act of desperate hope led to another moment before another body of water – this time at the end of the story of liberation.

The Strike of Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him)

Just like his mother before him, Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) stood face to face with utter desperation. Before him lay the vastness of an untraversable sea; behind him stood the chariots and spears of an unfeeling horde; and between the two of them stood the exhausted, terrified, hopeless Banī Isrāʾīl.

“We are caught,” they said.

“Never,” he replied. “My Lord is with me; He will guide me.”

And, indeed, his Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) did guide him, but to the strangest, most pointless actions possible: “Strike the sea,” he was told. Strike the boundless, outstretched, unpassable sea – a wall of water – with a glorified stick.

How strange he must have seemed to his people, to his companions, to the army that stood behind him – that this so-called prophet, standing with the world’s greatest army hell-bent on his annihilation to his back, with nothing but a stick to his name, who was thrown into the river as a child, betrayed by those who raised him, abused and oppressed when he returned to them – that he of all people would still have hope in his heart.

But hope is not something that can be taken. Wealth can be taken. Health can be taken. Freedom can be taken. Even life itself can be taken. But hope – that must be willingly surrendered by the hand of despair. Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) had known loss, suffering, and pain; but he had yet to know despair.

And so he held onto hope in hopelessness. And so he struck the sea. And the sea split.

Gaza Stands Before the Sea

Is there any greater parallel to the story of Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) in our lifetime than the brave people of Gaza trapped against the impenetrable sea at Rafaḥ? Boundless water stretches before them, and a merciless, well-equipped, powerful army hell-bent on their complete annihilation stands behind them. This is the army that has slaughtered their children without cause, humiliated their women without pause, turned an entire city into a graveyard of rubble accompanied by thundering applause.

All this, after they endured almost two decades of starvation, isolation, and humiliation. All this, after they endured 75 years of subjugation, dehumanization, and domination. All this, after their land was stolen, their ancestors slaughtered, and their parents thrown out of their own homes. All this, after they watched the world stand by, cheerful observers of their ethnic cleansing and genocide.

What hope resides in the desperate hearts of Gaza except the hope they have in Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)? What do they have left to say – and to whom will they say it? Will they say it to a world that has proven unbothered by their annihilation? Or will they say it to their brothers who have seemed to abandon them as Yusuf 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was abandoned in the well? Or do they say it to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) – the One, the Living, the Resolute, the Avenger – He Who hears the unspoken pleas hidden in the desperate beating of impassioned hearts?

For a people who choose between annihilation and subjugation, their every breath is a testimony of lā ilāha illā Allah. Their every drop of blood that flows in their veins, or is plastered against their bodies, or is mercilessly splattered onto the ground, becomes a testament to their belief in their final deliverance by the hand of God.

By their simple act of continuing to live and breathe, they have communicated their hope in Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). So what of us? As we watch a genocide unfold live on our Instagram feeds and TikTok homepages, what of us? We, who feel helpless and hopeless, grieved and sorrowed, anguished and desperate – what does it mean for us to hope in Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)?

To Lose Hope Is to Lose Faith

When the genocide first started, there was a sudden explosion of activism in the American Muslim community. From rallies and protests to calling and writing campaigns, it seemed as if a once politically dormant community had come to sudden life to do whatever they could for Palestine. It seemed to reach its climax in two historic moments, when we marched 300,000 in DC in November, and then another 400,000 in January. Despite all that movement and committed action, nothing seemed to come out of it.

We’ve been left a deeply disappointed people. We knew the moral nature of our cause, and we believed that if we marched and wrote and called and raised awareness and voted uncommitted, something – anything – would change. Instead, we faced disappointment after disappointment. Congresspeople we helped get into office refused to call for a ceasefire and continued to vote in favor of further aid for a regime dedicated to genocide. Companies fired people on charges of antisemitism, and the media continued to contort reality into a pre-packaged narrative. It all culminated in the events of the last few weeks, when university students across the world exercised their civil right to protest and were met with a brutal and reprehensible crackdown by universities and police departments.

It becomes then tempting for us to think, “What good is any of this going to do?”  

Do we have to know what good it will do before we do it? Are we supposed to be guaranteed success before we pursue it? We spend too much time overthinking ourselves into despair. We try to think ten steps ahead, can’t see a way out, and become so desperate that we fail to act. We don’t realize that to lose the desire to act is to lose hope, and to lose hope is to lose faith.

It doesn’t always matter if we don’t know what good will come from a good action, an action sanctioned by the moral law of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) and in the service of His Cause, in the service of protecting and acting on behalf of the downtrodden, the oppressed. Thinking has its place; planning has its place; but if none of it leads to clear action, then they have lost their place.

At the very least, when the scattered ashes of our bodies that have mixed in with the soil of the earth are gathered up and molded into a perfect replication of every line on our fingertips, and we are brought face-to-face with our Creator, and we are questioned about what we did, what will we answer? When we are asked, “When my people were driven against the sea, slaughtered mercilessly, humiliated constantly, thrown to the wolves with utter savagery, what did you do?”

On that day, can we afford to answer, “Nothing?”

We don’t need to be perfect. Our plans don’t need to be foolproof. Our actions don’t need a guaranteed result. What guarantee did Musa’s 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) mother have when she threw him into the river, or Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) when he struck the sea with his staff, except for the promise of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)? And that is a promise that we share, because Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) says in the Quran:

“˹He will also give you˺ another favour that you long for: help from Allah and an imminent victory. ˹So˺ give good news ˹O Prophet˺ to the believers.” [Surah Al-Saf: 61;13]

Each one of us has a staff, and each one of us is set before an impassable sea. We all have abilities, talents, tools, and agency; we all have openings and opportunities; and we are all sitting before an immovable barrier between us and the freedom of Palestine.

Feel sincerely. Act morally. Plan thoroughly. Then strike the sea. It will split.



The Story of Prophet Musa: A Story of Optimism | Part 1

Podcast: Gaza’s Strength, Our Weakness | Shaykha Zaynab Ansari


Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

Alhamdulillah, we're at over 850 supporters. Help us get to 900 supporters this month. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Here's what I use as my standard pfp. If first person is permitted in the bio, this is what I usuall: If a man is what he does, then M. Saad Yacoob is a student (of knowledge and other, less useful things), an aspiring writer, and poet. If it is what he's learned, then Saad is a Bachelor's in English from George Mason University and a PhD Student in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. If he is what he eats, then Saad is currently cake rusk. But, perhaps, a man is not what he does or knows or eats but how he's been formed and who he's come to be. If so, then Saad comes from the land between two rivers and has flowed like water around the world. His lineage may stretch back centuries, but it is like an uprooted tree floating upon the roaring current of a river beset by flood. He is, as his family has always been, a wanderer, liminal in every way.

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