Image of headless statue of an Egyptian god or powerful person by Mercédesz Rajkibiró

By Rabi’a Elizabeth Brown

In the Revelation of Allah SWT, the harmful stereotype of the “evil stepmother” is turned on its head. The best-known example of a foster mother in the Quran is Asiya (ra) [1], the wife of Firawn (Pharaoh), who took the infant Musa (as) into her home out of love for the child. And she is recognized as one of the most virtuous women of Islam:

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Many men reached perfection but none among the women reached perfection except Mary, the daughter of  Imran, and Asia, Pharaoh’s wife.” Sahih al-Bukhari 5418, Book 70, Hadith 46

The Quran does not deal in tropes or stereotypes. Revelation teaches us not to assume anything about a person’s heart or nearness to Allah based solely on their gender, their ancestry, their wealth, or their position in society. A poor, underprivileged man may deliberately turn away from the Islamic “straight way” and set a course for Jahannam (Hell), while a rich, privileged woman can fulfill her destiny by fulfilling the obligations of Islam and, after her earthly death, entering Jannah.

Specifically on the question of gender and virtue, the Quran says:

Divine grace is neither by your wishes nor those of the People of the Book! Whoever commits evil will be rewarded accordingly, and they will find no protector or helper besides Allah. 

But those who do good—whether male or female—and have faith will enter Paradise and will never be wronged even as much as the speck on a date stone. (Quran 4:123-124)

And so it was with Asiya. Not only did Allah SWT influence Asiya to provide Musa with everything he needed as a child, but, later in life, she also publicly turned her back on polytheism to profess Islam. By submitting to Allah SWT, she gave up all her worldly privileges, including the very privilege of life itself, for what her heart told her was true. 

Biological mothers, then and now, are often invisible or disparaged to their children and those around them. But Allah SWT raises up many others whom society leaves behind. And so Allah SWT specifically ensures that the family tie between Musa and his birth mother, Jochebed (ra) [2], is honored and respected even after his adoption by Asiya.

The two devoted mothers of Musa

Image of a woven natural-wood basket by Kat Med

A baby in a box

At the time Musa was born, sometime after the time of the prophet Yusuf (as), Firawn had enslaved the Israelites and indeed subjugated all of his people to authoritarian rule. He routinely persecuted groups of his subjects according to his whim. The Israelites, many of whom worshipped Allah SWT, were frequent and favorite targets of his abuse. As the Quran says,

Indeed, Pharaoh arrogantly elevated himself in the land and divided its people into subservient groups, one of which he persecuted, slaughtering their sons and keeping their women. He was truly one of the corruptors. (The Noble Quran, 28:4)

But Allah SWT al-Muqtadir (the All Powerful) chose to uplift the very people persecuted by Firawn:

But it was Our Will to favor those who were oppressed in the land, making them models of faith as well as successors; and to establish them in the land; and through them show Pharaoh, Hamân, and their soldiers the fulfillment of what they feared. (Quran, 28:5-6) [3]

According to the tafsir (commentary) of ibn Kathir, at the time Musa was born, Firawn regularly had the infant sons of Israelites put to death. But he ordered their murder only in alternating years so as to preserve some of them for the enslaved workforce. As a result, Harun (as), the older brother of Musa, was safe from harm. But Musa, born the following year, would have been a target for murder had he been found.

And so Allah SWT guided Jochebed to hide the infant in a closed box, tied to the reeds along the Nile, when Firawn’s murderous forces came around looking for a baby boy. 

We inspired the mother of Moses: “Nurse him, but when you fear for him, put him then into the river, and do not fear or grieve. We will certainly return him to you, and make him one of the messengers.” (Quran 28:7)

The tafsir of ibn Kathir goes on to say that one day, Jochebed forgot to tie the box to the reeds. And so, baby and box floated down the river, eventually coming into the view of some of Firawn’s servant women. They plucked the closed box from the river and took it to Asiya, who opened it. And she was overjoyed to see a healthy infant boy. As the tafsir says:

When the box was opened, they saw it was a child with the most beautiful features. Allah filled her heart with love for him when she saw him; this was because she was blessed and because Allah wanted to honor her and cause her husband’s doom. 

And so, thanks to the love of Asiya, Musa found a home with Firawn’s family for a time. 

And it so happened that Pharaoh’s people picked him up, only to become their enemy and source of grief. Surely Pharaoh, Hamân, and their soldiers were sinful. 

Pharaoh’s wife said to him, “This baby is a source of joy for me and you. Do not kill him. Perhaps he may be useful to us or we may adopt him as a son.” They were unaware of what was to come. (Quran 28:8-9)

As an adult, he would bring about the undoing of Firawn, as willed by Allah SWT.

The unique role of Musa’s birth mother

Meanwhile, Jochebed was inconsolable about her lost son. She nearly made the situation public, but Allah SWT strengthened her heart. She kept her loss private within the family and asked her daughter, Miriam, to keep an eye and ear out for news of the baby. Miriam soon tracked down the infant.

And the heart of Moses’ mother ached so much that she almost gave away his identity, had We not reassured her heart in order for her to have faith in Allah’s promise. And she said to his sister, “Keep track of him!” So she watched him from a distance, while they were unaware. (Quran 28:10-11)

The timing was perfect: Musa was refusing milk from all of the women brought to Asiya’s residence. Fortunately, wet-nursing, or the practice of breastfeeding infants by women who are not their birth mothers, was common in those days. So when Miriam saw Asiya’s servants at the local market, she offered her mother’s home and wet-nursing services:

And We had caused him to refuse all wet-nurses at first, so his sister suggested, “Shall I direct you to a family who will bring him up for you and take good care of him?” (Quran 28:12)

At first, says ibn Kathir, the servants questioned Mariam’s intentions, but she convinced them that she and her family had only Firawn’s best interests at heart. And so Musa came back for a time to the home of his birth mother, and she nursed him, as Allah SWT had promised her.

This is how We returned him to his mother so that her heart would be put at ease, and not grieve, and that she would know that Allah’s promise is always true. But most people do not know. (Quran 28:13)

Family, biological and otherwise, in Islam

Image of a passageway in Cairo, Egypt, framed by a tall pointed arch and pillars characteristic of the Islamic architecture of the region. By Yousef Salhamoud

The details of who nursed Musa, and the fact that he refused all milk but that of his birth mother, are critical to this narrative. Ties of blood are the key bonds in the Quran, far more so than other social connections or arrangements such as adoption. While Asiya was no doubt a devoted foster mother to Musa, Islam teaches that her relationship to Musa, which was what shariah law now refers to as a sponsorship, was not on a par with that of Jochebed. The Quran says,

Allah does not place two hearts in any person’s chest. Nor does He regard your wives as unlawful for you like your real mothers, even if you say they are. Nor does He regard your adopted children as your real children. These are only your baseless assertions. But Allah declares the truth, and He alone guides to the Right Way.

Let your adopted children keep their family names. That is more just in the sight of Allah. But if you do not know their fathers, then they are simply your fellow believers and close associates. There is no blame on you for what you do by mistake, but only for what you do intentionally. And Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (Quran 33:4-5)

Muslims who sponsor a foundling child like Musa (one whose parents cannot be located) are obligated to raise the child as a Muslim. 

Inheritance principles are laid out in the Quran as well:

As ordained by Allah, blood relatives are more entitled to inheritance than other believers and immigrants, unless you want to show kindness to your close associates through bequest. This is decreed in the Record. (Quran 33:6)

And those who believed after the initial emigration and emigrated and fought with you – they are of you. But those of blood relationship are more entitled to inheritance in the decree of Allah. Indeed, Allah is knowing of all things. (Quran 8:75)

If Asiya and Jochebed were alive today, Asiya as a Muslim would be obliged to acknowledge that Jochebed was in fact the child’s natural mother. This fact would not prevent Asiya from taking the child into her home and using her resources during her lifetime to benefit that child. In fact, the sponsorship (fostering) of orphans is considered a praiseworthy act in Islam:

And they ask you about the orphans. Say, “To work for their good is good. And if you live with them jointly, they are, after all, your brethren. And Allah knows the one who makes mischief distinct from the one who promotes good.” (Quran 2:220)

Asiya, one of the earliest Muslim martyrs

Image of small, square mosque made of stone, with a rounded dome, on a hill overlooking the River Nile, Aswan, Egypt. By AXP Photography

Asiya is in fact one of the earliest Muslim martyrs.

As Musa grew to adulthood, he stayed faithful to Allah SWT, which brought him into more and more frequent conflict with his pagan adoptive father. And as Firawn saw the threat to his power on earth, which he bolstered by putting fear of his powerless idols into his subjects, he turned viciously on anyone in his purview who followed the path of Musa. Firawn did not spare even the people he supposedly loved: Asiya eventually became one of the many casualties of Firawn’s rage, on account of her faith. 

The tafsir of Maarif-ul-Quran says that shortly after Musa publicly defeated Firawn’s sorcerers (see Quran 26:45), Asiya became a Muslim. What a blow to Firawn’s ego! It did not take long for Firawn to order the torture of his wife.

According to some reports, Asiya’s hands and feet were pegged with nails to the ground and a huge rock placed on her chest. As she was tortured, she prayed aloud to Allah SWT. Other sources reported that Asiya prayed aloud to Allah SWT shortly after it was suggested that a heavy rock be dropped upon her chest. She made her prayer, and by the time the rock was dropped, her rūh, or spirit, had already departed from her body.

The supplication of Asiya to Allah SWT during her torture is recorded in the Quran:

And Allah sets forth an example for the believers: the wife of Pharaoh, who prayed, “My Lord! Build me a house in Paradise near You, deliver me from Pharaoh and his evil doing, and save me from the wrongdoing people.” (Quran 66:11)

Matters of life and death

Image of gleaming chunk of iron pyrite (fool’s gold) courtesy of ScienceStockPhotos.

Unlike Jochebed, most of us do not have to protect our children from mortal danger on a daily basis. And unlike Asiya, most of us will never be faced with a choice between execution or renunciation of our faith. 

But we still have choices to make in our daily lives that will in fact affect what happens to us after we leave our earthly lives behind. We can and in fact must pray, like Asiya did, for guidance on the straight path to Jannah. 

The Quran instructs us that if you pray exclusively for success in the dunya, or this world, that’s exactly what you’ll be left with, and nothing else. But if you pray for what you need to lead you to Jannah, Allah SWT will happily give it to you.

Whoever desires the harvest of the Hereafter, We will increase their harvest. And whoever desires only the harvest of this world, We will give them some of it, but they will have no share in the Hereafter. (Quran 42:20)

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References

  1. Asiya is identified by name, Asiyah bint Muzahim, in the tafsir (commentary) of ibn Kathir on Surah al-Qasas (28), ayahs 7 to 9. 
  2.  Jochebed is not named in the Quran. However, she is named in Exodus 6:20, which forms part of the Tawrat, or the Book of Musa. 
  3.  Ayah 6 of Surah al-Qasas names Haman, who is believed to have been chief architect in Pharaoh’s employ. “The fulfillment of what they feared” refers to an old dream of Firawn’s that his reign would come to an end at the hands of an Israeli boy.

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