A Tale of Two Mothers: The Birth of Moses

By Younus Mirza

In honor of Mother’s Day, I wanted to speak about how the mother of Moses/Musa represents one of the most dramatic characters in the Qur’an relating to the relationship between one’s child, faith in God and trust in the divine plan. The Qur’an begins the story in sūrat al-Qaṣaṣ verse 71 by stating:

“We inspired Moses’s mother, saying, ‘Suckle him, and then, when you fear for his safety, throw him in the river: do not be afraid, and do not grieve, for We shall return him to you and make him a messenger.’”

The verse is remarkable because the command seems paradoxical; the mother is supposed to “throw” (alqī) Moses/Musa in the river if she fears for his safety. Nonetheless, God comforts her by telling her not to be afraid or grieve. Moses/Musa will come back to her and become one of the messengers. The verse is further fascinating because it seems that God is directly communicating (awḥaynā) to the mother, leading some to contend that she was a prophet. The Arabic word used here waḥy is the same as the one used for “revelation”.2

After Moses is put into the river, the mother’s heart becomes “empty” (fārigha) and sadness creeps in. The Qur’an states that she would have revealed Moses’s/Musa’s whereabouts if God had not strengthened her heart. In this depressed state, she tells her daughter to follow Moses/Musa from a distance while others are unaware. At Pharaoh’s palace, his wife, known as Asiya in the Islamic tradition, sees Moses and exclaims, “Here is a joy to the eye (qurrat ‘ayn) for me and for you! Do not kill him: he may be of use to us, or we may adopt him as a son” (28:9). What is notable here is that the wife of Pharaoh is emphasized, not Pharaoh’s daughter who discovers Moses in the Bible (Exodus 2). Asiya wants to adopt Moses/Musa as a son since he is literally “a joy to the eye” (qurrat ‘ayn). This phrase is often repeated in the Qur’an, most famously in the verse “Our Lord, give us joy to the eyes (qurrat al-a‘yun) in our spouses and offspring. Make us good examples to the righteous” (25:74). Children are seen as “joys to the eyes”, especially if they are righteous and become good examples to others.

Moses/Musa, however, does not suckle with any of the palace’s women leading his sister to exclaim, “Shall I tell you about a household which could bring him up for you and take good care of him?” Moses/Musa is then returned back to his mother, nursed and raised by her (Exodus 2). What is remarkable is how the Qur’an speaks about this restoration:

“We restored him to his mother in this way, so to bring joy to her eye, not grieve, and know that God's promise is true, though most of them do not know” (28:13)

The phrase “joy to the eyes” returns again, this time in reference to the mother of Moses/Musa. Moreover, God returns Moses/Musa back to his mother to comfort her heart, so she would not be sad or grieve, and that she would know that the promise of God is true. It is as if this first part of the story is less about Moses’s/Musa’s impending prophecy but rather more about his mother, her child, and her faith in the divine plan.

Thus, the Qur’anic story is an interplay between two caring mothers, one birth and the other adoptive. The story is further unique in how the divine voice speaks directly to the mother, commanding her but also comforting her and easing her concerns.

Younus Y. Mirza is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Allegheny College and a Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University. This blog post is adapted from the chapter “Moses’s/Musa’s Mother” in the author’s recently released book “The Bible and the Qur’an: Biblical Figures in the Islamic Tradition”.

1. The story also appears in Qur’an 20:37-40 but I will focus here on 28:7-13.
2. However, other Qur’an commentators would argue that the word waḥy is also used in the Qur’an to mean “inspiration” instead of “revelation”. For instance, the Qur’an speaks of God “inspiring” (awḥā) the bees to build houses within the mountains and trees (16:68).


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