It’s worth admitting that we all sneak a smile when reciting Musa’s stories: the broken tablets, the stammering speech, the pulling of beards, etc. (you know the rest). Not that we revel in his anger and fear, but we smile, knowing that the struggle against the soul isn’t solely our own. But there is a point in his life when Musa’s emotional experience is foreign to even the best of us-—that point just before he splits the sea. Something happens then… Musa beats down instinctual fear and faces his enemy with a kind of serenity deemed almost humanly impossible. He is changed. While we perceive Musa as an unshakable force against tyranny and oppression, the Qur`ānic stories that bear his tale dispense a new perspective. Synthesize the stories, and you will notice that this serenity wasn’t always there. It was earned, for his early years of prophethood (compared with his later years) were marked with degrees of insecurities. Let’s take a look.
Case no. 1 in study: surat Ṭāha
Upon Allah’s command, Musa set out for his first confrontation with Firʿawn. With limbs coy, demeanor meek, and a sidekick brother for comfort, Musa waited with bated breath while Firʿawn’s magicians unspooled their sorcery. Their ropes and staffs danced like snakes in one grandiose act of illusion. A promising performance. Next, all eyes shifted from the magicians to Musa, and it was at that moment that fear nearly paralyzed him from action. Had it not been for divine inspiration, prodding him along, he may have settled for defeat while Firʿawn reigned victorious. Qur`ān relates: “Musa perceived fear within himself. We said, ‘Fear not, it is you who is superior. And throw what is in your right hand-—it will swallow up what they have crafted. What they have crafted is but the trick of a magician, and the magician will not succeed wherever he is.’”
فأوجس في نفسه خيفةً موسى قلنا لا تخف إنك أنت الأعلى
Case no. 2 in study: surat ash-Shuʿarā
Fast forward a few days later. Victory before Firʿawn’s court left Musa’s spiritual muscles tested, rested, and rebuilt for stronger self-assurance. He now stands before the Red Sea. Violent waves strike the shores before him; a tired, battered Bani `Isrā`il surround him; and from behind, Firʿawn and his armies march forth with swords, poised for bloodshed. With every speck of the physical world portending his destruction, Musa should have cracked. We would expect fear to seize him, as it did when he faced the magicians. He should have quivered and cracked to Bani `Isrā`il’s nagging when they shouted, “We are surely overcome!” But he didn’t. With a newfound confidence not seen in the previous scene, Musa stands and declares, “No, surely, my Rabb is with me. He will guide me.”
فلما ترٰءا الجمعان قال أصحاب موسى إنَّا لمدركون قال كلا إن معى ربى سيهدين
So do not think for a moment that serenity (ṭama`nīnah) will fill your heart’s crevices overnight. It must be earned. Even for the prophets, it was earned. We will have moments, long after professing لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله, of doubt and uncertainty-—moments we bristle at His decree, at His wisdoms we cannot see, questioning, “Why me?” And I think this serenity we seek is something like a spiritual muscle. You knock out the doubts with practice: tribulation is your barbell and time is your added weights, with breaks of ease in between. They teach us to trust in Him, because again and again, we find Him there, opening the doors and tossing a rope just before the fall.