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In gist, the people of Sayyidna Musa عليه السلام, by giving him a flat response at such a crucial time, broke all pledges they had made.
The Determination of Sayyidna Musa عليه السلام against the Treachery of his People
The prayer of Sayyidna Musa عليه السلام : قَالَ رَبِّ إِنِّي لَا أَمْلِكُ إِلَّا نَفْسِي He said, "O My Lord, I have no control except over myself" should be seen in the perspective of the events in the life of the people of Bani Isra'il, the favours of Allah bestowed upon them and the conduct of their prophet, Sayyidna Musa عليه السلام in their case. An impartial observer would not fail to notice that the people of Bani Isra'il had been suffering from all sorts of pain and disgrace as slaves and serfs of the Pharaohs for centuries. It was the teaching of Sayyidna Musa عليه السلام, and his barakah by virtue of which Allah Ta'ala blessed them with unprecedented stations. With their own eyes, they saw so many manifestations of the most perfect power of Allah Jalla Sha'nuhu. The Pharaoh and the people of Pharaoh were defeated on their own grounds, in the Court confrontation summoned by them at the hands of Sayyidna Musa and Sayyidna Harun, peace be upon both of them. The magicians they had trusted were the magicians who placed their trust in Sayyidna Musa عليه السلام and elected to stay by his side. Then, there was the Pharaoh, the one who claimed to be God, and along with him, there were so many members of his family who lived in luxury in the royal palace. And then, their eyes saw how the great subduing power of Allah, the Mighty, the Exalted, made all of them vacate all palaces and mansions they lived in and leave behind all they once owned, all simultaneously, in a single sweep of time. And how He drowned the Pharaoh in the sea with Bani Isra'il looking on the spectacle and how did He make the miracle of Bani Isra'il themselves cross the river. And finally, how was the wealth, over which the Pharaoh waxed proud by saying: اليس لي ملك مصر وهذه الانهر تجري من تحتي (Is it not that this land of Egypt is for me and these are rivers which flow from beneath me?) given out by Allah Ta'ala, the entire country and the entire wealth, without any fighting or killing, to the Bani Isra'il !
These were great happenings. These people were direct witnesses to the manifestations of Allah's supreme power to subdue. No less was the good done to them by Sayyidna Musa عليه السلام who first delivered them from heedlessness and ignorance and then freed them from the slavery of the Pharaoh facing unbearable hardships in that process. After all that, when these very people were commanded to mount a Jihad on Syria, of course with assurances of Divine help and promises of rewards, they betrayed their mean nature and said: اذْهَبْ أَنتَ وَرَبُّكَ فَقَاتِلَا إِنَّا هَاهُنَا قَاعِدُونَ (So go, you and your Lord, and fight. As for us, we are sitting right here). Let the greatest possible reformer in the world stop for a while, cross his hand over his heart and think what effect such low attitudes demonstrated by the people he was working for would have poduced on him. But, here we are talking about a highly determined Rasul of Allah who stands there as an immovable model of steadfastness, despite all odds, and pursuing his goal relentlessly.
Now that he was made helpless by repeated breaches of trust committed by his people, he turns to his Lord and to Him he says only this much: إِنِّي لَا أَمْلِكُ إِلَّا نَفْسِي وَأَخِي (I have no control except over myself and my brother). And the problem was how could he now carry out the Jihad expedition against the Amalkites? Also worth noticing is the fact that there were at least two chiefs of the Bani Isra'il, Yusha' ibn Nun and Kalib ibn Yu'qina, who had proved themselves to have been faithful followers of Sayyidna Musa عليه السلام and had made consistent efforts with him to give good counsel to their people and bring them to the right path. Still at this time, he made no mention of them as well. He simply talked about himself and his brother, Sayyidna Harun عليه السلام. It had no other cause but the same treachery and disobedience of the people of Bani Isra'il. Sayyidna Harun عليه السلام, being a prophet was the only one Divinely protected there. That he would stand firm by the truth in word and deed was certain. As for the two chiefs, they were not so protected and infallible. So, being in pain and anger, he mentioned only those he was certain would stand firm on truth 'I have no control except over myself and my brother.'
The prayer that Sayyidna Musa عليه السلام, made after that was: فَافْرُقْ بَيْنَنَا وَبَيْنَ الْقَوْمِ الْفَاسِقِينَ (So, make a separation between us and the sinning people). The substance of this prayer, according to an explanation given by Sayyidna 'Abdullah ibn 'Abbas رضي الله عنه, was that 'the punishment these people deserved should be given to them; and whatever we are found to be deserving of should be awarded to us.'
The manner in which Allah Ta'ala answered this prayer was: قَالَ فَإِنَّهَا مُحَرَّمَةٌ عَلَيْهِمْ ۛ أَرْبَعِينَ سَنَةً ۛ يَتِيهُونَ فِي الْأَرْضِ (This [land] is prohibited to them for forty years. They shall be wandering around the earth). It means that the land of Syria was forbidden for them for forty years. They shall' not go there, even if they wanted to. And not simply that they would be unable to go to the land of Syria, they would also be unable to return back to their homeland of Egypt, if they thought of going there. Instead of that, they shall be detained in this wilderness.
For punishments that come from Allah Almighty who needs the police and their handcuffs or the high and strong walls and iron-gates of prisons? When He intends to detain anyone, He needs none of these formal arrangements. He can put one under arrest even on grounds open from all sides. The reason is obvious. The whole universe is at His command. It was created by Him and from Him it takes its orders. When the universe is served with Divine orders to put someone under arrest, the air and the atmosphere and the earth and the space become the jailor for the condemned.
So, this open land area located between Egypt and Baytul-Maqdis is comparatively small. Its measurement, according to the Tafsir of Sayyidna Muqatil رحمه الله, is thirty Farsakh in length and nine Farsakh in width. If one Farsakh is taken to be equal to three miles, it comes to be a total area of ninty miles in length and twenty seven miles in width. And according to some narrations, the whole area is thirty by eighteen miles. Thus, Allah Ta'ala detained a whole people whose total number, according to the statement of Sayyidna Muqatil رحمه الله, was six hundred thousand, restricting them within this small open ground in a manner that they kept struggling for full forty years to somehow get out of this open land area and return back to Egypt, or go forward and reach Baytul-Maqdis. But, what actually happened was that by the time came evening after a whole day's journey, they discovered that they have been as if moving in a circle having returned to the same spot from where they had started in the morning.