Matzah, Moses, and Muslims


Hesham A. Hassaballa’s Column

Another year brings another season of Passover, during which Jews commemorate the bitterness of Egyptian bondage, the grace of having death pass over them on its way to claim each Egyptian first born, and the elation of freedom from that bondage at the hands of God’s mighty Messenger. I send my warmest wishes for a happy and fruitful Passover to all my Jewish readers, friends, and colleagues.


Many may not know this, but Muslims also commemorate the Exodus of the Hebrews out of Egypt by fasting the ninth and tenth day of the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The event is called Ashura, stemming from the Arabic word for “ten.”


While this may be surprising to many, it is important to understand that Moses figures very prominently in Muslim belief. The Exodus story is a happy one for Muslims; it is a tale of bitter bondage and hardship and the glory of God’s deliverance from that hardship. The Qur’an speaks a great deal about Moses and his dealing with Pharaoh. In fact, around 73 passages-many encompassing several verses at a time-deal with Moses. More verses mention Moses by name than Muhammad (peace be upon them both).


The Qur’an tells of two miracles-Moses’ staff turning into a serpent and his hand glowing brightly after placing it under his arm-that God gave Moses as proof of his prophet-hood. It details the plagues that were unleashed on the Egyptians for their refusal to believe in God and set the Hebrews free: “We (God) then sent upon them the flood, and locusts, and lice, and frogs, and blood as manifest signs; [as a result] they became arrogant and were a people steeped in crime” (7:133).


The Qur’an then speaks about a great affliction that befell the Egyptians which led them to finally let the Hebrews go. The text, however, does not go into what sort of affliction it was (the death of every Egyptian first born?). My favorite part of the story, the splitting of the Red Sea, is mentioned at least twice in the Qur’an as well.  I am happy to fast on Ashura to commemorate this event, although, unfortunately, I was only able to fast one of the days this year. I pray I am able to fast both days next year.


Muslims and Jews have much in common: both espouse a staunch monotheism; a great number of Hebrew prophets, whom Muslims love dearly, are mentioned in the Qur’an and highly honored; both trace their faith origin to Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him). These commonalities far outweigh and outnumber any differences there may be, and they should serve to bring both communities closer together.


I pray that peace finally comes to the Middle East and both Israelis and Palestinians live together side by side. Although it has not always been smooth-sailing in the past, Muslims and Jews have lived together in peace before; the greatest example of this was in Muslim Spain, where Moses bin Ma’mun (Maimonides), the great Jewish physician and philosopher, was high advisor to the Muslim Sultan. In large part, I think we are re-living that golden age here in America, where Muslims and Jews live and work together in peace. I pray that the commonalities between Muslims and Jews serve as all-important bridges of understanding between the two faith communities. Together, all people of faith can work to make America and the world a much better place in which to live.  Failure can not be an option.