The twentieth chapter of the Qur’an, “Ta Ha,” describes the birth, corruption, and potential transfiguration of holy orders. Aaron was established priest to help Moses. He helped Moses preach to Pharaoh, and in the Qur’anic narrative deserves credit for the conversion of Pharaoh’s magicians. But he built the golden calf, led the people astray, and mimicked instead of imitated Moses. Yet God was merciful, Aaron was re-united with Moses, and he was able to truly follow Moses after this correction.
If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.
A Reading, from the Book of Exodus
Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
And Aaron said to them, “Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf.
Then they said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!”
So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.” Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.
A Psalm, from the Psalms:
He made a path for His anger;
He did not spare their soul from death,
But gave their life over to the plague,
And destroyed all the firstborn in Egypt,
The first of their strength in the tents of Ham.
But He made His own people go forth like sheep,
And guided them in the wilderness like a flock;
And He led them on safely, so that they did not fear;
But the sea overwhelmed their enemies.
And He brought them to His holy border,
This mountain which His right hand had acquired.
A Reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews:
Therefore, if perfection were through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law. For He of whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no man has officiated at the altar.
For it is evident that our Lord arose from Judah, of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood. And it is yet far more evident if, in the likeness of Melchizedek, there arises another priest who has come, not according to the law of a fleshly commandment, but according to the power of an endless life. For He testifies:
“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek.”
For on the one hand there is an annulling of the former commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness, for the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand, there is the bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.
Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ, King of Endless Glory!
“This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us.
Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ, King of Endless Glory!
A Reading, from the Holy Gospel according to John:
“These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. These things I command you, that you love one another.
And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the ordinance of the Passover: No foreigner shall eat it.
A Qur’anic Homily
The Lost and the Found
We read of those great events in the wilderness, the Epiphany in the desert. That day of Moses, foreshadowing the Day of the Lord:
So when he came to it, he was called, “Oh Moses!
I am indeed your Lord! So take off your sandals. You are indeed in the sacred valley of Tuwa.
I have chosen you, so listen to what is revealed.
I am indeed God — there is no god except Me. So worship me, and maintain the prayer for My remembrance. Indeed, the Hour is bound to have.
I will have it hidden, so that every soul may be rewarded for its endeavor. So do not let yourself be distracted from it by those who do not believe in it and who follow their desires, or you will perish.
Let’s look at what that promised Hour is. It’s the restoration of things, when the way they should have been, are made again. Consider the transfiguration of Moses’s staff:
Moses, what is that in your right hand?’
He said, ‘It is my staff. I lean on it and with it I beat down leaves for my sheep, and I have other uses for it.
He said, ‘Moses, throw it down.’
So he threw it down, and lo! It was a snake, moving swiftly.
He said, ‘Take hold of it and do not fear. We will restore it to its former state.
Now let’s briefly look at another thing, lost but to be found. One man, Moses himself. Lost to his mother, and found again after his sister Mary became his helper.
When your sister walked up, saying “Shall I show you someone who will take care of him?” Then We restored you to your mother, so that she might not be grieve and comforted. Then you slew a soul, whereupon We delivered you from anguish, and We tried you with various ordeals. Then you stayed for several years among the people of Midian. Then you turned up as ordained, O Moses!
Man, lost during the fall, but regained through the Redemption:
Certainly We had enjoined Adam earlier, but he forgot, and We did not find any resoluteness in him…
Then his Lord chose him and turned to him clemently, and guided him.
Between the apparent triviality of Moses’s staff, the clear importance of a man’s own life and our existential (to us, at least) importance as humans, comes another class of creation: the priest. Like the staff it was created at first for Moses (according to the Qur’anic author), to assist him in his work:
Appoint for me a minister from my family, Aaron, my brother. Strengthen my back through him and make him my associate in my task, so that we may glorify You greatly, and remember You much. You indeed are watching us.
He said, “Moses, your request has been granted!”
Moses, and that kind of other-Moses the priest, are here to provide instruction, correction, and encouragement. Even Pharaoh should be spoken to softly.
Go ahead, you and your brother, with My signs, and do not flag in My remembrance. Both of you go to Pharaoh, for he has indeed rebelled. Speak to him in a soft manner; maybe he will take admonition or fear.
They said, “Our Lord! We are indeed afraid that he will forestall us or will exceed all bounds.”
He said, “Do not be afraid, for I will be with the two of you, hearing and seeing.
God will never abandoned us, never abandon anyone. As Christ said during Maundy Thursday, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you”:
And I chose you for Myself.
Even those who, from our perspective, were always lost may be found. Consider the Pharaoh’s magicians, who were never Hebrews, and never loyal to the God of Moses:
They said, “These two are indeed magicians who indeed to expel you from your land with their magic and to abolish your excellent tradition.
God is the ultimate sovereign, and God can save even them. Even persecutors from whom you have never experienced kindness may be saved by the Lord:
Thereat the magicians fell down prostrating. They said, “We have believed in the Lord of Aaron and Moses!”
[Pharaoh] said, “Did you believe him before I should permit you? He is indeed your chief who has taught you magic! Surely, I will cut off your hands and feet from opposite sides, and I will crucify you on the trunks of palm trees, and you will know which of us can inflict a severer and more lasting punishment.”
They said, “We will never prefer you to the clear proofs which have come to us and to Him who originated us. Decide whatever you want to decide. You can only decide about the life of this world. We have indeed believed in our Lord that He may forgive us our offenses and the magic you compelled us to perform. God is better and more lasting.”
Of course, the opposite fate may befall them. Others, who were never gracious, will be destroyed:
We revealed to Moses, “Set out with my servants at night and strike out for them a dry path through the sea. Do not be afraid of being overtaken, and have no fear.
Then Pharaoh pursued them with his troops, whereat they were engulfed by what engulfed them of the sea. Pharaoh led his people astray and did not guide them.
The difference is clear: there is always the option to turn towards the Lord. In all places and in all times the Lord has the right to forgive who he wishes, and the contrite heart is always his desire:
I indeed forgive those who repent, become faithful, act righteously, and thereafter follow guidance.
Now, let’s turn from these two situations: the once virtuous who were lost, and the simply lost, to another: when the lost are your religious leaders.
When the Priests Turn From God
When Moses went up the mountain he left his brother Aaron as a shepherd over the flock of Israel, as a watchman over the people.
It did not go well.
He said, “We indeed tried your people in your absence, and the Watchman has lead them astray.
The Qur’anic author sees Aaron’s specific mistake as something between idolatry and iconography. Aaron creates a Golden Calf, and appears to equate it with his own God, Moses’s God, the God of salvation. This is in keeping with the old religion’s view of God as bull-like:
Then he produced for them a calf — a body with a low — and they said. This is your God and the god of Moses, so he forgot! Did they not see that it did not answer them, nor could it bring them any benefit or harm?
Aaron had turned away from God, insisting the people follow his (instead of the Lord’s) command — until Moses comes again, said the people:
Aaron had certainly told them earlier, “O my people! You are only being tested by it. Indeed, your Lord is the All-beneficent. So follow me and obey my command!’ They had said, ‘We will keep on attending to it until Moses returns to us.”
He said, “O Aaron! What kept you, when you saw them going astray, from following me? Did you disobey my command?”
The parallel to the Catholic Church is clear. Aaron’s conception of intermediaries made it easy for him to become a law to himself. Pope Benedict XVI wrote of a similar phenomenon, the secularization of the bishops, and their move to be powers of their own. This processed criticized as early as the Qur’an was not corrected until the middle 20th century:
While the medieval text prescribed a so-called indicative sacramental formula and saw the ordination as resulting from the indicative of the conferral of power, ordination is accomplished according to the 1947 text in a supplicatory form, in the manner of a petition, of a prayer. Thus it is apparent even in the external form that the true conferrer of powers is the Holy Spirit, to whom the sacramental prayer is addressed, not the human consecrator.
The medieval rite is formed on the pattern of investiture in a secular office. Its key word is potestas. The rite that Pius XII decrees represents a return to the form used in the early Church. It is pneumatologically oriented in terms of both gesture (since the imposition of hands signifies the conferral of the Holy Spirit) and word: the Preface is a petition for the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, the key word is now ministerium or munus: service and gift; hence the words of priestly ordination speak also of the duty of good example and moral discipline.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, p. 241
The Priest mimicked Moses out of love. But the Qur’anic author distinguishes this mimicry from true imitation. Consider the dust came from Moses’s walk on his way. The Priest also throws up dust in mimicry, but by his hands and not his feet:
He said, “I saw what they did not see. I took a handful from the messenger’s trail and threw it. That is how my soul prompted me.”
From this Aaron is restored. Neither the Torah, nor the Psalms, nor the Gospels, nor the Qur’an itself (according to the Qur’anic author) are there to cause misery, but are hope and help from God.
We did not send down the Lectionary to you that you should be miserable, but only as an admonition to him who fears. A sending down from Him who created the earth and the lofty heavens — the All-beneficent, settled on the Throne.
Aaron was transfigured from a sinner he becomes a sacred priest and a preacher of righteousness.
He said, “Begone! It shall be yours throughout life to say, “Do not touch me!” There is indeed a tryst for you which you will not fail to keep! Now look at your god to whom you kept on attending. We will burn it down and then scanner it into the sea.
“Your God indeed is God; there is no God except Him. He embraces all things in knowledge.”
And thus, the Qur’anic author at last finally turns to his audience: religious and priests of the Catholic Church.
The Qur’anic community was Arian Christians who were cut off from the Sacraments. But the novel theology of his denial of the Church and attack on corrupt bishops— combined with his reassuring love of Mary, devotion to the Passion and admiration of Peter — made him attractive for Catholic priests and religious too. The Qur’anic author seems to be speaking to Catholic priests and monks, whose alienation has a different source than the Qur’anic authors (presumably wavering Catholics upset by perceived unfair and unjust treatment, as opposed to Arian die-hards. But to this new audience the Qur’an (“Lectionary”) is presented as addressed to a particular people, and in a way that requires close reading to understand. The response to reading a part of it should not be to actually change one’s practices, but to give the rest a fair hearing as well:
Thus We have sent it down as an Arabic Lectionary and We have paraphrased the warnings in it variously, so that they may be Godwary, or it may prompt them to remembrance. So, exalted is God, the True Sovereign. Do not hasted with the Lectionary before its revelation is completed for you, and say, “My Lord! Increase me in knowledge.”
The bishops, those antagonists of the Qur’anic author, are much more powerful than either the author or his audience. But in the most prophetic part of the Lectionary, he looks upon the bishops in their cathedrals and remembers others who have been torn down:
Does it now dawn on them how many generations We have destroyed before them, and in whose dwellings they walk? There are indeed signs in this for those who have a good sense. Were it not for a prior decree of your Lord and a stated time… would have been immediate!
The solution is to be patient, as Moses was patient with Pharaoh. In the end the Pharaoh’s armies were smashed, and the same thing would happen to those armies loyal to the bishops. But just as Aaron was able to enlist the magicians to his side, the early Christian sympathizers to the Qur’anic author may gain allies as well.
Say, “Everyone is waiting.” So wait! Soon you will know who are the people of the right path, and who is guided.
So for now, be patient, and pray the Liturgy of the Hours. The Sacraments may not be physically available, but God still turns his ears to prayer.
So be patient with what they say, and celebrate the praise of your Lord before the rising of the sun and before the sunset, and glorify Him in watches of the night and at the day’s ends, so that you may be pleased.
But what of the ‘family’ of these — other priests and religious who are still in the Church? And what of the beloved dead, whose names would be forgotten if monasteries close? Will they be forgotten?
They are not forgotten, because God remembers them:
[Pharaoh] said, “Who is your Lord, Moses?”
He said, “Our Lord is He who gave everything its creation and then guided it.”
He said, “What about the former generations?”
He said, “Their knowledge is with my Lord, in a Book. My Lord neither makes any error nor forgets.”
And the beloved living should be encouraged in prayer. Pray. And trust in God. For God will decide what happens next.
And bid your family to prayer and be steadfast in maintaining it. We do not ask any provision of you: it is We who provide for you, and the ultimate outcome belongs to Godwariness.
The twentieth chapter of the Qur’an, “Ta Ha,” follows directly from the nineteenth, “Mary.” “Mary” contrasted the grace and simplicity of Mary with the behavior of the apostles and their successors, and asks the question: why rely on sacraments from the successors to the apostles when one can imitate the devotions of our holy mother? “Ta Ha” takes a similar aim but to a specific argument: Catholic religious. In “Ta Ha” the unique features of the Qur’an are minimized, the bishops are sympathetically if critically compared to Aaron, and the true nature of the imitation of Christ is explored.
In a dialogue intended to be between an angel and Moses, but applicable to all the faithful, the Qur’anic author writes:
Certainly We have down you a favor another time, when We revealed to your mother whatever was to be revealed: “Put him in the casket and cast into the river. Then the river will cast it on the bank, and he shall be picked up by an enemy of Mine, and an enemy of his.” And I made you endearing, and that you might be reared under My eyes.
Indeed. It is by entering a casket in a river — dying to ourselves — that we may be re-united with our holy mother. To this pious exhortation the Qur’anic author of course adds his heretical views — in his post-ecclesial community, a priest to die to himself means abandoning the bishops, abandoning the sacraments, and accepting a role as a preacher and a helper to the One whose return he awaits.