A New Life
Having killed a man, and knowing that the Pharaoh and his men were hot on his heels, Musa AS escaped Egypt. He did not know exactly where to head, for he had never stepped outside of Egypt before. Nevertheless, he went towards Madyan, and said that "I hope that my Lord will lead me to the right path." (Qur'an 28:22)
He had no mode of transportation, cash or any provisions. He only had the clothes on his back. Imagine if we were in his position, fleeing without credentials, money, or even an ATM card to pay for the next meal! Ibn Abbas RA reported that Musa AS went from Egypt to Madyan eating only plants and leaves. He was barefooted and his stomach was stuck to his back as a result of his hunger, a direct contrast to the palace luxuries.
When he reached the wells of Madyan (if we recall, it was the same location that Shuaib's AS community used to live before they were destroyed), he observed a group of shepherds watering their flocks. He also spotted two women modestly keeping themselves and their own flocks segregated from the men. He enquired what the matter was, and the women explained that they were sisters and to protect their chastity and personal security, could only draw water from the well once the men had dispersed. Their father was elderly and unable to perform the task himself.
According to reports, once the men were done, they would cover the mouth well with a big rock to protect it, leaving the women the only option of using the leftover water from the previous flock. According to Umar RA, the rock was so heavy that it required the strength of ten men to carry it, however, Musa AS had been bestowed with exceeding strength. On this day, Musa AS removed the rock and helped the sisters water the flock.
Then, tired and hungry, he went into the shade and said "My Lord! I am in need of any good that You may send to me!" (Qur'an 28:24) This humble manner was befitting of a Prophet and teaches us how to ask Allah for help.
When the sisters came home from their daily tasks earlier than usual, their father was surprised. They related the incident to him, upon which he asked one of them to fetch Musa AS and bring him home. According to the Qur'an, one of the two returned to Musa AS, approached him with shyness, and explained that that her father had invited Musa AS to reward him for his kind act. Musa AS complied, and explained his circumstances to their father. The latter, who himself was a righteous man, reassured him not to be afraid, for he had done well to escape from the evildoers.
A Marriage Proposal
While Musa AS was in conversation, one of the sisters hinted to her father that he should hire Musa AS. She suggested that he should "Engage him on wages, surely, the best of those you can employ is the one who is strong and trustworthy." (Qur'an 28:26)
She was alluding that because of his character, Musa AS was a choice prospect for a son in law. Musa AS was without any means of providing for his future wife. However, he was clearly of sound character. Therefore, in consideration of marrying his daughter, the father offered Musa AS employment for eight years, and if Musa AS felt gracious, for an additional two years. However, the older man clarified that it was not his intention to impose hardship upon Musa AS, and thus Musa AS could, of his own volition, work either duration. Musa AS agreed to the terms, and most reports say that he worked for the entire tenure of ten years. He had remained employed for that time, solely for food and for his modesty, and not for wealth.
All Prophets and Messengers have to spend some portion of their lives as shepherds, to isolate and sever themselves from the distractions of the worldly life. Tending a flock requires the type of patience and vigilance that can only be learnt on the job rather than through observation. This patience and self-awareness is key for them to focus on their relationship with God as a preparation for the difficult task ahead. This time is also known as the waqfat tarbiyah, the time and place for Allah to teach them of His Oneness and to train their manner and character. This was the kind of training that cannot be gleaned from books. Musa AS was no different, and further, his time in the desert eradicated the influence that the corrupt lifestyle at the palace might have had on him. This stage of his life was the final preparation for his great destiny as one of the mightiest Prophets and Messengers of Allah.
In the final year, as a reward for his hard work, his father in law offered that for the next breeding season, all lambs born with a particular rare colour would belong to Musa AS. According to some reports, by the will of Allah, the next season, every ewe bore twins, and each alternate sheep was of that rare colour. Therefore, from owning virtually nothing, he amassed a modest amount of wealth.
Conversation with God – The First Revelation
Years passed, and Musa AS missed his family in Egypt. Once his contract with his father in law was fulfilled, he set back with his wife and family back towards his homeland. We have to remember that he was still, as far as Egypt was concerned, a fugitive.
It was at this time that events took a strange turn. To reach Egypt, they had to cross the Sinai desert. On one particularly cold and dark night, they seemed to have lost their way. As Musa AS walked in the darkness, he saw a light in the distance, on the side of Mount Tur. He directed his family: "Stay here, I see a fire, I hope I may bring you from that you may warm yourselves." (Qur'an 28:29) The same incident was also reported in Surah Ta Ha, 20:9, and Surat An Naml, 27:7.
He approached the light and found something wondrous – there was a green tree but it was glowing and burning with an unusual fire and light! Musa AS was, at this time, in the valley of Tuwa, facing the Qibla, when his Lord called out to him. Surah Ta Ha sets out the conversation beautifully:
And when he came to it, he was called, "O Musa, Indeed, I am your Lord, so remove your sandals. Indeed, you are in the sacred valley of Tuwa.
And I have chosen you, so listen to what is revealed [to you].
Indeed, I am Allah. There is no deity except Me, so worship Me and establish prayer for My remembrance. (Qur'an 20:11 - 20:14)
The message continued:
Indeed, the Hour is coming - I almost conceal it - so that every soul may be recompensed according to that for which it strives.
So do not let one avert you from it who does not believe in it and follows his desire, for you [then] would perish. (Qur'an 20:15-20:16)
How great a guidance it was, for this was the beginning to the revelations to Musa AS. From a firsthand introduction by Allah Almighty Himself, and the order to worship Him, Musa AS was immediately directed not to be distracted from such worship by the non-believers. In the first few powerful sentences, Allah has comprehensively reminded Musa AS, and by extension, us as the readers of the Qur’an, of the impending destruction of this temporary world, and of our reckoning thereafter. Imagine the magnitude of the Message and the impact it had on Musa AS!
The Transformation of the Staff
Barely had Musa AS the time to absorb the first revelation when the conversation shifted to another topic: his staff, or walking stick. This is the cadence of the Qur’an – it sometimes presents a general snapshot of the scenario, before suddenly narrowing onto a specific topic or object.
Surah Ta Ha continues:
And what is that in your right hand, O Moses?"
He said, "It is my staff; I lean upon it, and I bring down leaves for my sheep and I have therein other uses." (Qur'an 20:17 – 20:18)
Of course, Allah knew what the staff was for, and needed no explanation. However, here, we are drawn to the qualities of a simple walking stick, an everyday, nondescript and inanimate object.
[Allah ] said, "Throw it down, O Moses."
So he threw it down, and thereupon it was a snake, moving swiftly. (Qur'an 21:20)
His staff miraculously transformed into a writhing snake, pulsing with life and according to some reports, with huge fangs. Musa AS was naturally terrified by this unnatural metamorphosis and ran away. While attributed with strength of faith, Musa AS was also as human as the rest of us, and was freaked out by what he saw.
[Allah] said, "Seize it and fear not; We will return it to its former condition. (Qur'an 20:21)
Musa stopped in his tracks and picked the fearful reptile by the head. Here was the first test of Musa’s AS faith. Within minutes of the first revelation, he was commanded to subordinate his natural terror to the obedience of Allah. Suppressing his fright, he picked up the snake by its head. As Allah promised, the serpent was restored into a staff.