The Qur’an narrates several conversations between Moses (peace be upon him) and Pharaoh. One of the most detailed accounts is in Surah Ash-Shu`ara’ (chapter 26). The Prophet Moses speaks kindly to Pharaoh about Allah, His Mercy and His Paradise, but Pharaoh reacts disdainfully and arrogantly. He reminds Moses of his past crime and asks Moses to be grateful to him as he was raised in his palace amongst luxuries and wealth. Moses (peace be upon him) excuses himself by saying that he committed the crime of killing an innocent man when he was ignorant and points out that he was raised in the palace only because he was unable to live with his own family due to Pharaoh’s indiscriminate killing of baby boys.
[Moses] said, “I did it, then, while I was of those astray. So I fled from you when I feared you. Then my Lord granted me wisdom and prophethood and appointed me [as one] of the messengers. And is this a favor of which you remind me – that you have enslaved the Children of Israel?”
Said Pharaoh, “And what is the Lord of the worlds?”
[Moses] said, “The Lord of the heavens and earth and that between them, if you should be convinced.”
[Pharaoh] said to those around him, “Do you not hear?”
[Moses] said, “Your Lord and the Lord of your first forefathers.”
[Pharaoh] said, “Indeed, your ‘messenger’ who has been sent to you is mad.”
[Moses] said, “Lord of the east and the west and that between them, if you were to reason.”
[Pharaoh] said, “If you take a god other than me, I will surely place you among those imprisoned.”
[Moses] said, “Even if I brought you proof manifest?”
[Pharaoh] said, “Then bring it, if you should be of the truthful.” (Ash-Shu`ara’ 26:20-31)
Pharaoh began by mocking Moses (peace be upon him), then accusing him of being ungrateful and finally he threatened him. During this historical period, many people in Egypt practiced magic. There were even schools teaching classes in magic and illusion. Pharaoh jumped to the wrong conclusion, he thought that the manifest signs, that Moses was able to show by the permission of Allah, were magic tricks and illusions.
When Moses (peace be upon him) threw his stick and it became a serpent, slithering and sliding along the ground, and when he withdrew his hand from his cloak and it strongly shone bright and white, Pharaoh presumed that Moses has learned the art of illusion. Ibn Kathir narrates that Pharaoh detained Moses and Aaron (peace be upon them) and dispatched couriers throughout Egypt to summon all the magicians to the palace. Pharaoh promised the magicians prestige and money in return for their tricks. A contest was set up between Moses and the Egyptian magicians.
Pharaoh was confident that his magicians were unbeatable. He had long been using them to influence the hearts and minds of the people. Pharaoh used their conjuring tricks and illusions to dominate and control his subjects. Moses (peace be upon him) was able to set the day for the contest and he chose a customary festival day. The streets would be crowded with people and the power and strength of Allah (glory be to Him) would be visible to all. There would be maximum exposure to the truth of the words that, there is none worthy of worship except Allah Alone.
He said, “Have you come to us to drive us out of our land with your magic, O Moses? Then we will surely bring you magic like it, so make between us and you an appointment, which we will not fail to keep and neither will you, in a place assigned.”
[Moses] said, “Your appointment is on the day of the festival when the people assemble at mid-morning.” (Taha 20:56-59)
Moses (peace be upon him) asked the magicians to perform first. It is narrated that there were up to 70 magicians lined up in a row. The magicians threw their sticks and ropes in the name of the Pharaoh and the ground became a seething sea of serpents, writhing and slithering. The crowd looked on in amazement. Moses (peace be upon him) was afraid, but he was steadfast and affirmed that Allah would protect him and make his task easy. Allah covered him with tranquility and directed Moses to throw his stick.
Moses’ stick transformed into a huge serpent and quickly devoured all the illusionary serpents that covered the ground. The crowd rose up like a great wave, cheering and shouting for Moses (peace be upon him). The magicians were astounded. They were well skilled in the art of magic and illusion, for they were the best magicians in the world at the time, but their conjuring was nothing but a trick. The magicians knew that Moses’ serpent was real. They collectively fell in prostration declaring their belief in the Lord of Moses and Aaron.
So the magicians fell down in prostration [to Allah]. They said, “We have believed in the Lord of the worlds, The Lord of Moses and Aaron.” Said (Pharaoh): “Believe ye in Him before I give you permission? surely he is your leader, who has taught you sorcery! but soon shall ye know! Be sure I will cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides, and I will cause you all to die on the cross!” They said, “No harm. Indeed, to our Lord we will return. Indeed, we aspire that our Lord will forgive us our sins because we were the first of the believers.” (Ash-Shura’ 26:46-51)
The magicians began that day as disbelievers, corrupt and interested only in riches and fame; however, within a few hours they had recognized the truth. They saw with their own eyes the Omnipotence of Allah and repented for their errant ways. Allah (glory be to Him) is the Most Merciful, and He will forgive those who turn to Him with sincere and humble repentance.
Moses and Aaron (peace be upon them) left the contest field. The magicians, as it is told, were put to death, their bodies hung in the squares and market places to teach the people a lesson. Pharaoh returned to his palace and his rage magnified. He quarreled with his ministers and advisors. He sent them away and then summoned them into his presence. He turned to his chief minister and said, “Am I a liar Oh Haman?” The Pharaoh had built his kingdom on the fact that he was a god, what would he do now as Moses had revealed that there is no God but the one and only Allah?
And Pharaoh said, “O Haman, construct for me a tower that I might reach the ways. The ways into the heavens – so that I may look at the deity of Moses; but indeed, I think he is a liar.” And thus was made attractive to Pharaoh the evil of his deed, and he was averted from the [right] way. And the plan of Pharaoh was not except in ruin. (Ghafir 40:36-37)