January 16, 2022

Was Moses handicapped or speech impaired

Many Muslims whose knowledge is based on folklore and the Jewish mythology will readily answer yes; but those who rely on the Qur-aan for guidance and reflect on the Qur-aanic text in its own context will have to say no.

There are four places in the Qur-aan relevant to this question.

In Soorah 28, Al-Qaŝaŝ, when Moosa (‘AS) goes to the mount to get some embers from the fire and Allaah talks to him, gives him two miracles and tells him: “These are two proofs from your Lord to Pharaoh and his Establishment; they surely are defiantly disobedient people.”

33 Moosa said, “My Lord! I have killed one of them, so I fear lest they kill me. 34 And my brother, Haroon, is more eloquent in speech than I; therefore, send him with me as an aide so that he can confirm me because I am afraid that they will deny me.” 35 Allaah confirmed, “We will strengthen your arm with your brother and equip both of you with awe so that they will not dare touch you; and because of Our signs, you two and those who follow you shall triumph.”  (Al-Qaŝaŝ 28:33-35)

Accordingly, Moosa (‘AS) was apprehensive to confront Pharaoh for two main reasons:

  • For a person who had run away to avoid the wrath of Pharaoh, it was not easy for him to show up in Pharaoh’s court to challenge his right to govern and his authority to treat his subjects the way he wanted. He was fearful that he might be killed on the pretext of his previous manslaughter incident.

  • He thought that he would not be able to convince them to believe him, so a testimony from his more eloquent brother would be useful. The word used is “afŝaĥu” or “more eloquent.” There is absolutely no hint of any impairment, just one being more eloquent, the other being comparatively reticent. Allaah SWT allays both of Moosa’s apprehensions, assures him that he will be helped by his brother wherever more eloquence is needed and both of them will be granted an “awe” that Pharaoh will not dare touch them.

The same is reported in Soorah 26, Ash-Shu‘araa, in the following words:

  • For a person who had run away to avoid the wrath of Pharaoh, it was not easy for him to show up in Pharaoh’s court to challenge his right to govern and his authority to treat his subjects the way he wanted. He was fearful that he might be killed on the pretext of his previous manslaughter incident.
  • He thought that he would not be able to convince them to believe him, so a testimony from his more eloquent brother would be useful. The word used is “afŝaĥu” or “more eloquent.”  There is absolutely no hint of any impairment, just one being more eloquent, the other being comparatively reticent. Allaah SWT allays both of Moosa’s apprehensions, assures him that he will be helped by his brother wherever more eloquence is needed and both of them will be granted an “awe” that Pharaoh will not dare touch them.

The same is reported in Soorah 26, Ash-Shu‘araa, in the following words:

10 Remember when your Lord called out to Moosa saying: “Go to the iniquitous people – 11 the people of Pharaoh – (and warn) ‘will they not adopt Taqwa’?” 12 He said, "O my Lord! I am afraid that they will reject me, 13 so my breast will feel tightened and my tongue will not be fluent; therefore, give messengership to Haroon. 14 In addition, they have a charge of crime against me, so I fear that they will kill me.” 15 Allaah said, “Indeed not; both of you go with Our signs, knowing that We will be with you, listening.  (Ash-Shu‘araa 26:10-15)

“Tightening of breast” means feeling pressured, inhibited and anxious, and consequently not being able to express fluently and eloquently (my tongue will not be fluent). When Allaah SWT made it clear that he had no choice but to take up the mission, he prayed to Allaah SWT in the following words, as reported in Soorah 20, Taa Haa:

25 Moosa said, “My Lord! Expand for me my breast; 26 make my job easy for me; 27 untie the knot from my tongue 28 so they may understand what I say; 29 appoint for me a helper from my family – 30 Haroon (Aaron), my brother – 31 strengthen my back through him, 32 and have him share my duties 33 so that we extoll Your flawless glory frequently 34 and mention You often; 35 indeed You have always watched over us.”  (Taa Haa 20:25-35)

Thus, for his fear, he prayed for “sharĥ-ŝadr” or the “Expansion of his breast” – the faith, courage, confidence and determination befitting of the difficult job assigned to him. It is the same expression used for the Prophet ŜA‘WS in Soorah 94, “Did We not expand your breast for you (O  Muhammad)?” It is also the same expression used in Soorah 6:125 and 39:22 for similar meanings.

When a person does not have an appropriate level of sharĥ-ŝadr (the confidence and courage needed in a threatening situation), a person may become tongue-tied, unable to express oneself and deliver the message properly. For his apprehension that he may become tongue-tied due to anxiety, he prayed for fluency and eloquence in the challenging circumstances that he would encounter during his mission. Thus, by asking Allaah, “untie the knot from my tongue so they may understand what I say”, he prayed for eloquence as a natural extension of his du‘aa for sharĥ-ŝadr. Allaah SWT accepted his du‘aa and his apprehensions were fully allayed, and he was told in verse 36, “You have been granted your request, O Moosa.” It is clear from the Qur-aanic reports of his speeches in the court of Pharaoh that he never had any anxiety or difficultly in expressing himself eloquently thereafter, from the first day of his audience with Pharaoh to the last day of his mission. It is for the same reason, most of the Muslim speakers make this supplication before their speeches.

In short, Moosa ‘AS had a full, firsthand knowledge of the attitude and mentality of the Pharaohs and their courtiers, and he knew well how they would react. As a visionary, he also had a clear idea of the highly tactful, courageous and tenacious communication that would be needed for the task, but in his humility, he underestimated his own capabilities. Subsequently, during the mission he did demonstrate his deftness in those skills by Allaah’s mercy. Many people took his humble comment in the wrong manner and speculated that he had some physical communication handicap.

Moosa ‘AS is said to be the one most like the Prophet, both having many similar experiences during their respective missions. Moosa’s initial apprehensions were also like those expressed by the Prophet after the first visit of Jibreel and similar to the Prophet’s saying three times, “I am not a reciter (an orator) (1).” But once the Prophet undertook the mission, his courage, confidence and eloquence were unparalleled.

1  For details, see author’s article “Allaah’s first command to the Prophet – Iqra”

Some people also refer to a comment made by Pharaoh towards the end of the mission of Moosa, as reported in Soorah 43, Az-Zukhruf. The soorah describes that when miracles were shown to Pharaoh and his establishment, they just laughed at them. Then, Allaah showed them a series of miracles, each one greater than the previous one. After all those miracles, Pharaoh continued to come up with excuses for not believing because he just did not want to believe. His stance was:

51 And Firʻawn announced among his people saying, “O my people! Is not the kingdom of Egypt mine? And these rivers that flow beneath me? Do you not then see? 52 Is it not that I am better than this fellow who is worthless and can hardly express himself clearly! 53 Then, why have not bracelets of gold been bestowed upon him, or why have angels not come with him as companions?”  (Az-Zukhruf 43:51-53)

Obviously, Moosa (‘AS) was not worthless, nor was it that he was unable to express himself clearly. These were Pharaoh’s excuses:

  • Firstly, Moosa is nobody, so his views do not matter.
  • Secondly, what he says does not makes sense – what invisible God is he talking about, am I not the owner and king of Egypt right before your eyes?
  • Thirdly, were there the God Who sent Moosa to represent Him, He would have sent with him wealth of gold and angels.

Here, Pharaoh is not claiming the inability to express himself in the sense of any speech impairment on Moosa’s part, who had been talking to him eloquently throughout his mission; rather, he implied that Moosa had been unable to prove his point in a manner that would convince him. Had it been about his speaking ability, he would have raised this objection earlier in the mission, which never happened. The use of the word “Yubeen” is used exactly in the same manner as “Mubeen” was used earlier in the same Soorah in the following verses:

17 But when any of them is given news of a daughter, which he attributes to the Most Gracious, his face becomes dark, and he becomes grief-stricken; 18 and wonders, “Is for me the one who is brought up in ornaments and is ineloquent in the art of disputation?”  (Az-Zukhruf 43:17-18)

Obviously, “Ghairu-Mubeen” (ineloquent) in verse 18 does not mean that the Arab girls had speaking impairment(s); rather, it implied that they were considered insufficiently forceful and expressive in boasting competitions (disputations).

The above shows that the Qur-aan, when understood in its own context, interpreting its expressions consistently, does not ascribe any speech impediment or impairment to Moosa ‘AS. So, where does the story of his speech-impairment, stuttering or handicap come from? It comes from the Jewish mythology contained in the Talmud. It is reported in the Talmud by Polano as follows:

About this time, when Moses was three years old, Pharaoh sitting at his banquet table, with his queen upon his right, Bathia at his left, and his two sons, with Bi’lam and the princes of his realm about him, took Moses upon his lap. The child stretched forth his hand, and taking the royal crown from Pharaoh's head placed it upon his own.

In this action, the king and the people around him imagined they saw a meaning, and Pharaoh asked: "How shall this Hebrew boy be punished?"

Bi’lam suggested that the boy should be killed; but Jithro, the priest of Midian, suggested:

"If it be pleasing to the king, let two plates be placed before the child, one containing fire, the other gold. If the child stretches forth his hand to grasp the gold, we will know him to be an understanding being, and consider that he acted towards thee knowingly, deserving death. But if he grasps the fire, let his life be spared."

This advice met with the king's approval, and two plates, one containing gold, the other fire, were placed before the infant Moses. The child put forth his hand, and grasping the fire put it to his mouth, burning his tongue, and becoming thereafter "heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue," as mentioned in the Bible. Through this childish action, the life of Moses was saved.

This story begs many questions such as: Would a normal three-year-old pick up something and put it right into his mouth? Would he not see any difference between gold and fire? Will his soft fingers not burn in the time the fire is picked up and taken to the mouth? If the fingers burn, what will be the natural reaction of the child: to withdraw the hand; to let go of the hot ember/fire; or to put it in his mouth? For argument’s sake, even if he puts it in his mouth, would anyone let it stay there to burn his tongue and lips so much as to permanently affect his speaking ability? Also, Moses was being brought up as the adopted son, the king’s holding him in his lap at the banquet table indicates that it was normal for him to hold him as a son. Was it the first time that the child ever tried to grab something? Then, why in one instant would the king become so indignant to talk about him condescendingly as a Hebrew boy and killing him? In short, no part of this story makes any sense.

The Legends of the Jews by Louis (vol. II, ch. IV) gives more and somewhat variant details of the story. It especially mentions the role of Gabriel, not mentioned by Polano, as follows: 

Pharaoh sent and called for all the wise men of Egypt, and they came, and the angel Gabriel was disguised as one of them. When they were asked their opinion in the matter, Gabriel spoke up, and said: "If it pleases the king, let him place an onyx stone before the child, and a coal of fire, and if he stretches out his hand and grasps the onyx stone, then shall we know that the child hath done with wisdom all that he hath done, and we will slay him. But if he stretches out his hand and grasps the coal of fire, then shall we know that it was not with consciousness that he did the thing, and he shall live." The counsel seemed good in the eyes of the king, and when they had placed the stone and the coal before the child, Moses stretched forth his hand toward the onyx stone and attempted to seize it, but the angel Gabriel guided his hand away from it and placed it upon the live coal, and the coal burnt the child's hand, and he lifted it up and touched it to his mouth, and burnt part of his lips and part of his tongue, and for all his life he became slow of speech and of a slow tongue.

Someone may speculate that the natural reactions of the child were stymied by Jibreel’s intervention. First of all, the idea of Jibreel infiltrating Pharaoh’s advisers is ludicrous; would the Pharaoh not know who his wise men were? Secondly, if Jibreel was sitting there as one of the advisors, how was he able to interfere in the test? Thirdly, as soon as the boy picked up a burning coal instead of gold, onyx, rubies or dates (different narrations have different things), the test was done. Jibreel did not have to torture the boy to make him handicapped. Fourthly, if Allaah SWT was preparing and developing Moosa specifically for His mission that involved tremendous speaking skills, why would He send Jibreel to deprive the person of the very skill he needed the most. Could not Allaah SWT save the child by any other means? Finally, in all of Moosa’s life, no one ever complained of his speaking impediment, not the Madyan girls whom he asked about their predicament, nor their father to whom he related his whole story. Even Pharaoh raised all kinds of objections against him in their series of encounters, but his speaking ability was not one of them.

Unfortunately, this Israelite legend was adopted by Muslims without due critique and it found its way into the Muslim books of Tafseer with one significant variation: the child Moses pulled Pharaoh’s beard, instead of taking his crown.

Considering the mention of the heavy tongue and heavy mouth in the Bible, the absurd story of burning coals in the Talmud and the indiscriminate quotation of these in some major books of Tafseer, some people may feel that there must be some truth behind it; and Moosa ‘AS must have some form of speech impediment. They need to remember that Allaah SWT has mentioned in Soorah Taa Haa that:

41 And I have especially prepared you for Myself (My mission).  (Taa Haa 20:41)

Allaah SWT prepared him for a mission that was highly dependent on speaking clearly and fluently. When people assume that Moosa had a speech impediment, they are indirectly suggesting that Allaah SWT failed, Na‘oodzubillaah (we seek Allaah’s refuge from such blasphemy), in preparing him rightly. It is up to them to decide if they would prefer to reject a human speculation about Moosa ‘AS or accept the implication that Allaah SWT could not prepare a person appropriately suited for His mission.

This is a small example illustrating the danger of taking any stories from the Bible or Talmud to add to the details given in the Qur-aan. This is also an example that underscores the importance of understanding the Qur-aanic text within its own context only, and that demonstrates how the meaning of the Qur-aanic text can be misconstrued and misinterpreted when contaminated by the Biblical or Talmudic stories.

Posted in Prophets on January 16, 2022 by Ayub Hamid

Related Posts

ADAM – The First Muslim

ADAM – The First Muslim

Examples of Myths in the Bible and the Talmud

Examples of Myths in the Bible and the Talmud

Where and which sea did Moosa cross

Where and which sea did Moosa cross

Who was the king who dreamed

Who was the king who dreamed

Contact me if you have any questions