Was Pharaoh Drowned or Saved when chasing Moses and the Israelites?

Was Pharaoh Drowned or Saved when chasing Moses and the Israelites?

Mohamad Mostafa Nassar


According to the Christian missionaries:

In Sura 10:92, Allah speaks to Pharaoh who ferociously chased the Children of Israel, “But this day We save you in your body, that you may be a portent for those after you.” Although this verse makes it clear that Allah saved Pharaoh from drowning, Suras 28:40, 17:103, and 43:55 contradict this, stating that Pharaoh was drowned: “Therefore We seized him and his hosts and abandoned them unto the sea … But We drowned him and those with him, all together … And [We] drowned them, everyone.”


We use the traditional method of Qur’ânic exegesis involving Context & Internal Relationships, i.e., al-Qur’ân yufassiru bacduhu bacdan (different parts of the Qur’ân explain each other). What is given in a general way in one place is discussed in detail in some other place in the Qur’ân. What is dealt with briefly at one place is expanded in some other place.

Certain themes have been treated in more than one place in the Qur’ân, including, for instance, God’s power and grace, the hereafter, stories of earlier prophets, etc. The conciseness or expansion in one place or another depends on muqtada’i ‘l-hal, and an expanded statement in one place clarifies a concise one in another.

Let us first quote the relevent verses and see what they say.

So We seized him and his hosts, and We flung them into the sea: Now behold what was the end of those who did wrong! [Qur’ân 28:40]

So he resolved to remove them from the face of the earth: but We did drown him and all who were with him. [Qur’ân 17:103]

When at length they provoked Us, We exacted retribution from them, and We drowned them all. [Qur’ân 43:55]

It is clear from the above verses that the Pharaoh and his hosts were drowned. But it does not say what happened to the body of the Pharaoh after he was drowned. The verse below explains:

We took the Children of Israel across the sea: Pharaoh and his hosts followed them in insolence and spite. At length, when overwhelmed with the flood, he said: “I believe that there is no god except Him Whom the Children of Israel believe in: I am of those who submit (to Allah in Islam).” (It was said to him): “Ah now!- But a little while before, wast thou in rebellion!- and thou didst mischief (and violence)! “This day shall We save thee in the body, that thou mayest be a sign to those who come after thee! but verily, many among mankind are heedless of Our Signs!” [Qur’ân 10:90-92]

that Allah saved the body of the Pharaoh as a sign to those who come after him. The most relevant explanation here would be that the body of the Pharaoh washed ashore and his folks embalmed him.

So, there is no contradiction in the above verses. Rather they clarify fully the fate of the Pharaoh. It is clear for any Arabic speaker that the special mention of “in the body” (i.e. bibadanika) means clearly that it is the lifeless body of Pharaoh that was saved and not Pharaoh himself. This is confirmed by the use of the verb drown (i.e., aghraqa) in the above verses as the drowned are dead (even in English).

Further the Christian missionaries say:

When the Qur’an says “But this day We save you in your body, …” what exactly does this mean? Today Muslims want us believe that this means “We will preserve your body for posterity”, but why doesn’t then the Arabic say “We will save your body” (but not your life)? Why does it use the preposition “in” when it says “save you IN your body”? The “you” is distinguished from “your body” and what is saved is not “the body” but the “you”.

That is how I read the translation. I would like to know if that is the common way how one would express it in Arabic that the person will die but the body will be preserved. In order to establish that this has always been the meaning, I would like to ask that somebody please tell me what the classical commentators said about this verse up to 100 years ago.

Too many verses are given “new meanings” these days. What did Jalalayn, Razi, ibn Kathir, Tabari and others say is the meaning of this verse? Is it the saving of the life of Pharaoh [you in your body, i.e. you will stay alive in this body] or is it “you will die but your body will be preserved for those after you.”? This is the linguistic question.

The commentaries of the Qur’ân give valuable linguistic openings about verse 10:92

“This day shall We save thee in the body, that thou mayest be a sign to those who come after thee! but verily, many among mankind are heedless of Our Signs!”

In order to get a full understanding of what is said in various commentaries we need to transcribe the verse 10:92 in Arabic:

falyawma nunajjĂ®ka bibadanika litakĂ»na liman khalfaka ‘âyah […]

In the commentary of Ibn Kathîr[1], one reads the following:

Excerpt from tafs�r Ibn Kath�r on verse 10:92

This is translated as

Ibn cAbbâs and other people from the salaf said that some people among the Children of Israel doubted about the death of Pharaoh. So, God ordered the sea to project his untouched lifeless body bearing his well-known shield on a najwah – a piece of land that juts out – in order that they know for sure that Pharaoh died.

This is why He, the Almighty, said “falyawma nunajjĂ®ka” meaning “this day shall We raise you on a bulge” and “bibadanika” means “in your body” according to Mujâhid; Al-Hasan said “in a lifeless body” and cAbdullâh Ibn Shadâd said “untouched body with no torn limbs so that he could be identified” whereas AbĂ» Sakhr explained it [i.e., bibadanika] as “with your shield”. There is no contradictions between these sayings as previously shown and God knows best.

So, according to the commentary of Ibn KathĂ®r, it is the lifeless body of Pharaoh wearing his shield that was projected on a bulge for everyone to check that he really died. If we stick to the linguistic alternatives highlighted by the commentary, we would translate verse 10:92 as “This day shall We project you with your shield on a bulge in order that you may be a sign to those who come after you” or “This day shall We project your lifeless body on a bulge in order that you may be a sign to those who come after you”. If we adopt the common meaning of “nunajjĂ®ka“, the verse could be rendered:

“This day shall We save your lifeless body in order that you may be a sign to those who come after you”. Of course, the reader will have noticed that “you” was omitted in the last translation.  This is because while it is clear in Arabic that only the lifeless body of Pharaoh was saved, a word by word translation “save you in your body” would be somewhat redundant or misunderstood.

Various accounts with very similar narrations are quoted in the commentaries of al-QurtubĂ® and at-TabarĂ®.[2] From the latter, we quote the following:

Excerpt from tafs�r at-Tabar� on verse 10:92

Muhammad Ibn Sacd told me: My father told me: My uncle told me that his father reported from his own father who reported that Ibn cAbbâs commented on “falyawma nunajjĂ®ka bibadanika litakĂ»na liman khalfaka ‘âyah” that God saved Pharaoh from the sea for the sake of the Children of Israel so that they looked at him after he was drowned.

If one asked why say “bibadanika” and whether it would be possible for Pharaoh to be saved without his body so that one needs to specify “bibadanika”. It would be said that Pharaoh could be saved as a body without life/soul meaning lifeless.

Of course, it is worthwhile to check the various meanings of the word “badan” (in bi-badan-ika) in a good dictionary. We looked it up in Lisân al-cArab[3] the famous Arabic lexicon and we found that it means body as well as old deer and shield. Some narrators (e.g. Thaclab) said that it means any shield and others (e.g., Ibn SĂ®duh) said that it means a small shield more specifically.

Typically, the Lisân quotes a hadĂ®th from Imam cAlĂ®(KW) that when he asked Fatimah(RA) for marriage he was asked: “What do you possess?”. He answered “farasi wa badani” (i.e. my horse and my shield), badan being a shield made of chains/stitches. Also, in the Lisân, we checked that najwah means a high land that is not covered by the flood so that one could think to be saved on it, synonym najâh and plural nijâ’. More interestingly, the Lisân quotes verse 10:92 in both entries (badan and najwah) and quotes additional narratives supporting what is in the Qur’ânic commentaries.

In a nutshell, all the commentaries agree on the fact that it is the lifeless body of Pharaoh that was projected ashore (this is why the verse mentions specifically “bibadanika“) for the Children of Israel to identify beyond any doubt that he really died. They could do so thanks to his famous shield or because his lifeless body was not torn after he was drowned.

Now that we have dealt with the issue of the ‘contradiction,’ let us now go into the red herrings which the missionaries have posed.

Red Herrings

According to the Christian missionaries:

Maurice Bucaille wrote his book in the early 70ies, long before the current reconstruction of Egyptian history. If indeed this body is of Merneptah as both of the above Muslims confirm just as it is the claim of Dr. Bucaille, then it is most probably not the body of the Pharaoh of Moses time. New research during the last 5 years or so tells a different story.

For details please see the review of David Rohl’s new Egyptian chronology.

By the way, David Rohl who is putting forth this research is not a Bible believer (to my knowledge). The fact that all his research dovetails very well with the Biblical account was a surprise to him.

At the end of the day, one has to admit that Maurice Bucaille is no Muslim either. So, what is the point? Surely, being a non-Muslim or a non-Bible believer is not supposed to indicate that they got all the facts right.

Further, if one sees what the evangelical Christians at ChristianAnswers.net (See article Pharaohs and Kings Confused) say about the work of David Rohl called The Test Of Time, it is pretty clear that there Christians themselves are confused whether Rohl’s revision is to be taken with correctly. Moreover it has been pointed out by Kenneth Kitchen that this “new chronology” creates more problem than it solves.

There were parallel civilizations running with the Egyptian civilization and they were engaged in trade, battles etc. So, if one shifts the Egyptian chronology then it should fit with the chronologies of parallel civlizations. But unfortunately for Rohl much of his work would like to be proven as fictional, God willing.

Furthermore, a careful investigation of the text on Merneptah’s Stela mentioned above is contrary to the presented claim a strong indication that Merneptah is not the Pharaoh of the Exodus. You will easily be able to conclude this after reading the following article on the Menerptah stela.

Well, there a theory has been proposed that is not yet verified. So, one can either accept it or reject it.

And one last thought. Much of the old knowlegde has been lost. Maybe it was still known at the time of Muhammad that this particular pharaoh was preserved and he just used the information he had and put it into the Qur’an.

This wouldn’t qualify as prophecy since prophecy is about something that will be in the future, but as a fact he know and then couched in words of a prophecy spoken to the Pharaoh. Let us look at the Qur’anic text to see what we can observe there. Sura Yunus, 10:90-93 reads in Yusuf Ali’s translation:

From a Christian missionary’s viewpoint it seems Muhammad(P) not only knew the Old Testament, New Testament and the apocrypha (not to mention the stories in Arabia!) but also the Egyptology. They make it sound as if he had the encyclopaedic knowledge.

When they are asked to furnish the evidence of where Muhammad(P) learnt all these stories and who were his teachers, they have none to offer. We have already refuted the borrowing theories of the Qur’ân as well as mentioned some of the facts surrounding Egyptology and deciphering of hieroglyphs.

And Allah knows best!