Muslims and the Bible, Biblicists and Islam

 

Muslims have long known of the Bible and its contents. There, are, however, specific corners of the Bible that have been of especial interest to Muslims, not (merely) because they overlap with Muslim scriptural traditions but because they overlap with local, cultural ones.

See Also: Veiling Esther, Unveiling Her Story: The Reception of a Biblical Book in Islamic Lands, Oxford, 2018).

By Adam J. Silverstein
Department of Middle Eastern Studies
Bar Ilan, Tel Aviv
March 2019

In this essay, I would like to reflect on some aspects of the relationship between the Bible and its study on the one hand, and Islamic cultures on the other. The relationship is a complex one, taking in many regions and periods of history, and all I would like to do here is remind readers who are interested in Biblical Studies that Muslims, Islam, and Islamic sources, have interacted with the Bible and its contents in ways (and with results) that may well interest Biblicists.

 

Muslims and ‘the Bible’

From its very beginnings, Islam, its scripture and its adherents have demonstrated awareness and knowledge of the Bible.[i] One could say that, just as the Quran declared Muhammad to be the ‘seal’ of a line of prophets (Quran 33:40), a line that is made up of, amongst others, numerous Biblical characters, the Quran is the ‘seal’ of Scriptures. The Quran itself recognizes the Torah (tawrat, broadly envisioned, taking in midrashic elaborations on the Hebrew Bible), the New Testament (injil, ‘Evangelion’, also in the term’s broadest sense), and some other scriptural works that are either no longer extant, or no longer identifiable (such as ‘the Scrolls of Abraham’). Indeed, in some of its verses the Quran claims to be little more than an affirmation of previous Scriptures: “And before it was the Book of Moses, as a guide and a mercy; and this is a confirming book in the Arabic language, as a warning to those who have oppressed, and as glad tidings to those who do good.” (Quran 46:12).

In a related manner, the Quran encourages its audience to seek amongst Jews and Christians clarification for those aspects of the Quranic revelations that are unclear or raise questions. In one instance (Quran 10:94), God turns to Muhammad directly and states: “And if you are in doubt about that which we have revealed to you, then ask those who have been reading the Book before you…” Indeed, for the first centuries of the Islamic era, historians and exegetes often drew on Jewish and Christian materials (including scriptures and their exegesis) to fill in the gaps of their own scriptural traditions. An entire genre known as Isra’iliyyat (lit. ‘Israelite [narrative]s’) emerged, containing copious Judeo-Christian materials that fleshed out Muslim ones.

Later, when Islam and the Quran emerged from the phase of proving themselves worthy, into the phase of proving other religions and scriptures unworthy, knowledge of ‘the Bible’ was acquired and deployed in the context of inter-religious polemics. Unsurprisingly, in certain circles recourse to Isra’iliyyat and related traditions came to be frowned upon.[ii]

Conversely, rather than disproving other religions and their foundational texts, some Muslims sought to prove the truth of their own Scripture by finding proof-texts for Muhammad’s emergence within the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, often focusing on Deut. 18:18 (“I will raise up for them a prophet from amongst their brethren”; and see also Deut. 18:15), on the reference in John 14:16 to “another Paraclete” (whom they identified with Muhammad), or on various other phrases and verses from the Bible that might allude to Islam or Muhammad. In the view of these Muslims, not only are the previous Scriptures not wrong, but they are right, specifically about the fact that Muhammad will one day be sent by God with a final Scripture; the only thing wrong here are those Jews and Christians who fail to grasp the true meaning of these prognostications within their own holy books.[iii]

For a number of reasons, then, Muslims have long known of the Bible and its contents. There, are, however, specific corners of the Bible that have been of especial interest to Muslims, not (merely) because they overlap with Muslim scriptural traditions but because they overlap with local, cultural ones. A good example of this is the Biblical book of Esther, to which I will return shortly.

Biblicists and Islam

Muslim theological challenges to the Bible’s contents spawned a (largely Christian) polemical reaction, which – from early medieval times – focused on perceived mistakes or other shortcomings of the Quran.[iv] I would hesitate to refer to pre-modern theologians engaged in interfaith polemics as ‘Biblicists’ who engaged with Islam, but it is worth remembering that aspects of the Quran’s contents and exegesis were available in the West for centuries before Western Bible scholars applied themselves seriously to the study of Islam, its languages and traditions.

There have, of course, been scholars known for their contributions to Biblical studies, who also took an interest in Islamic sources. The obvious examples come from the 19th century Orientalist tradition, which encouraged – indeed, demanded – a broad acquaintance with the entire gamut of Near Eastern cultures and languages. Students of early Islamic history, who come to study the Umayyad caliphs (reigning mostly from Damascus, 661-750 CE), are often shocked to discover that the author of the classical work on this subject – one Julius Wellhausen (d. 1918) – was more famous for his groundbreaking contributions to Biblical studies.[v] And while Judaicists know Abraham Geiger (d. 1874) as a founding founder of Reform Judaism, Islamicists know him as the author of the first scholarly work on the Jewish heritage of early Islamic ideas.[vi]

Other scholars, in the late-19th and early-20th century turned to contemporary Arabian Bedouin societies to learn more about ancient Israelite tribalism,[vii] while philologists have long turned to Classical Arabic, which is a ‘conservative’ language that preserves ancient Semitic features despite its relative lateness, for insight into the meaning of difficult Biblical Hebrew words and phrases.[viii]

As a general rule, however, those who study the Bible nowadays do not include Arabic, Persian, or Islamic Studies more broadly, within their toolkit. This is understandable: A student of the Hebrew Bible has enough on their plate – once the various forms of Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Greek, German and French are covered, one’s sub-specialty may then lead them to Egyptology, Assyriology, Ugaritic, Old Persian or some other languages – both ancient and modern, or perhaps to paleography or archaeology. The idea of getting through all of that and then turning to the squiggles of the Arabic alphabet, only to find oneself confronted with the quicksand of early Islamic historiography, is probably not appealing. Even worse, imagine making the Herculean effort to add Islamic studies to your Biblical repertoire, and publishing or lecturing on a topic that appears to relate your pre-Islamic materials to early Islamic ones, only to be vocally criticized for being an intellectual imperialist or an ‘orientalist’ (the latter being the English language’s only eleven-letter four-letter-word).

And yet, in my view, those who choose to focus on ‘Persian’ books of the Bible and associated literature – such as the books of Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Second Isaiah (chs. 40-55), Tobit, and others – may find that recourse to Islamic materials repays the effort. Having worked on Esther in Islamic lands, I will demonstrate this point with three examples from that book.

Esther and Islamic Cultures

Although Esther is a Biblical book, it is also a ‘Persian’ story, relating events at the court of ‘Xerxes’ (in the Masoretic Text; ‘Artaxerxes’ in the Septuagint), where the Jews of the Achaemenid Empire were threatened by the genocidal plot hatched by the king’s vizier, Haman. Through the efforts of the Jews Mordecai and Esther, the threat was neutralized; Haman, his sons, and their supporters throughout the empire were killed, and an annual holiday (‘Purim’) was instituted to commemorate the events. In the version of Esther contained in the Hebrew Bible there is remarkably little theology; not even God is mentioned, to say nothing of Jerusalem, Israel, or the Temple. And although crucial moments of the story take place during the middle of the month of Nisan, thereby overlapping with Passover, that holiday goes unmentioned too. While there is little religion in Esther, there are greatly detailed descriptions of the Persian Empire – its capital, functionaries (detailed lists of names are provided), postal couriers, harem-customs, and much more besides. In other words, a reader seeking information about ancient Judaism will find little in the lines of the story (and much more between the lines, though that is another matter), whereas a reader seeking information about ancient Persia will find a considerable amount of apparently relevant material (the accuracy of which, however, is debatable).

Interestingly, towards the end of Esther (10:2), the book’s author confidently poses the following rhetorical question: “All the acts of his power and of his might, and the full account of the greatness of Mordecai, how the king advanced him, are they not written in the Chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia?” Virtually all scholars who have commented on this verse have answered the question in the negative, either because they recognize it to be a formulaic statement (along the lines of other Biblical references to ‘the Chronicles of the kings of Israel’, such as 1 Kings 14:19, to cite but one example), or because the contemporary sources for ancient Persia appear to know nothing of this Jewish ‘Mordecai’ or of a Jewish queen called ‘Esther’. None has consulted the Islamic-era surveys of ancient Persian history, included within the numerous ‘universal’ histories written during the reign of the Abbasid caliphs (reigning mostly from Baghdad, 750-1258 CE). This brings me to my first example of the contribution of Islamic materials to ‘Persian’ books of the Bible: The description of Mordecai and Esther in the context of Abbasid-era historiography on ancient Iran.

Perhaps the best representative of universal-history writing in Abbasid lands is al-Tabari (838-923), a Quranic exegete and religious authority who wrote an incredibly long history of the world – the English translation fills some 40 volumes – from its creation until 915 CE. History for al-Tabari represented the unfolding of God’s plan for humankind; historiography was thus a ‘religious’ science. But al-Tabari was not merely a good Muslim, he was also a proud Iranian. As his name implies, he was a native of the Tabaristan region of Iran, and his coverage of pre-Islamic history combines both the (expected) materials on Judeo-Christian sacred history with the Persian (partly mythologized) historical tradition. In fact, he is often at pains to reconcile the ‘Biblical’ and ‘Iranian’ narratives, as in his view there is no question but that they are both accurate. In any event, al-Tabari’s coverage of ancient Iranian political history, which is based on various pre-Islamic sources, does include a summary of the Esther story, albeit one that also draws on both Iranian and Judeo-Christian sources and is thus only partly recognizable to those familiar with the Biblical Esther. What is important to stress here is that al-Tabari is but one of many ethnically-Persian Muslims who incorporated pre-Islamic Iranian traditions within their historical writings, and these writings do contain memories of a threat to the Jewish population of ancient Iran, defused by a Jewess who rose to become queen.

There is little doubt that such Persian Muslims also drew on Jewish and Christian information and we cannot determine the extent to which ‘the Chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia’ are reflected in their works. More decisive in this regard are the ancient Persian stories that were preserved by Islamic-era authors, a corpus of folktales and myths that serve as my second example of the contribution of Islamic materials to our understanding of Esther.

Scholars of Esther have convincingly argued that Greek storytelling about Ancient Iran may help contextualize Esther, with some mining Greek sources for confirmation (or refutation) of Esther’s contents, and others seeing the Greek materials as providing not a historical context for Esther but a literary one.[ix] Complementing the Greek descriptions of Ancient Iran are Iranian stories from the Parthian era (247 BCE – 224 CE), that were transmitted in various forms into written epics recorded in Persian in 10th century Iran and thereafter. From internal evidence, it is clear both that these Islamic-era materials are indeed very ancient (and in some cases identifiably Parthian) and that they belong to a historiographical tradition that ran parallel to the Biblical (and Greek) one. There is thus no risk that the Persian stories have been ‘tainted’ by acquaintance with Esther: These stories know nothing of Xerxes, Artaxerxes, Darius, Cyrus, and events at their courts; instead, they relate the quasi-legendary tales of ancient Iranian heroes and villains, tales that include a regicidal attempt by two courtiers (foiled by a third functionary); six-month long banquets at the Persian court; a month-long celebration in which the societal order is inverted; a leader of the Iranians’ arch-enemies called ‘Homan’; and a Jewish queen who saved her nation from an existential threat; amongst other details found in Esther (but not in Greek storytelling contexts).

Finally, Muslim sources of many sorts preserve Jewish and Christian interpretations of Esther that have not survived elsewhere. A number of these interpretations appear to be very ancient indeed, in some instances providing missing links in a midrashic chain that extends from Greek translations of Esther to medieval Ashkenaz. In one such case, the idea that Haman sold himself as a slave to Mordecai (a very ancient notion, which already appears in a Greek version of Esther and in the Babylonian Talmud) is related in Muslim sources that elaborate on this theme, though in less detail than the later, medieval versions of the midrash. This intermediate stage of the account is no longer extant in Jewish sources but does surface in Muslim ones, allowing us to reconstruct the stages of this midrash’s development.

Another such case pertains to Haman’s epithet ‘Bougaios’, which replaces ‘Agagite’ in Greek versions of Esther. The meaning of this epithet has been debated by scholars for centuries.

Already A. Augustin Calmet (d. 1757) proposed that it refers to the fourth-century BCE Persian courtier, Bagoas, infamous for a series of successful (and one failed) regicidal attempts. There is some overlap between descriptions of Bagoas and Haman, which convinced Calmet that the epithet ‘Bougaios’ meant to associate Haman with Bagoas, but as there was no real evidence that Jews or Christians ever equated the two characters, other interpretations of the epithet gained the favour of scholars. Here, too, Muslim sources provide the missing link: A selection of Arabic descriptions of Haman’s career mention that before rising to a position at the royal court, Haman sat in the local graveyard and demanded bribes from those who wished to bury their dead (Arabic: nawawis). Crucially, Diodorus Siculus (first century BCE) tells us that Bagoas confiscated the sacred writings of Egyptian priests, only agreeing to return them on the payment of bribes. The word for such writings in Arabic is nawamis, which is nearly identical to the word for ‘corpses’ used in the vignettes about Haman. Apparently, in pre-Islamic times, Haman’s biography was infused with details taken from Bagoas’s career, lending support to the postulate that some Jews or Christians took ‘Bougaios’ to refer to ‘Bagoas’. Muslims sources are thus indispensable for our understanding of ancient interpretations of Haman’s epithet in Greek versions of Esther.

Not only can Muslim sources illuminate Esther itself and pre-Islamic exegetical traditions on it, they can also tell us much about the reception history of Esther in the very same lands where the Biblical story is set. Numerous Muslim writings, from medieval to modern times, make it clear that the Esther story was well known, despite the fact that neither Mordecai nor Esther appear in the Quran or in ‘religious’ literature. Purim celebrations were known to (and often described by) Muslims from various regions and periods of Islamic history. And the story’s relevance to Iranian Muslims can be seen in unexpected places: Witness the exchange in 2015 between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif over the historical lessons imparted by Esther: For Netanyahu, the ancient Haman has a modern version in the Islamic Republic; for Jawad Zarif, what Esther teaches us is that Jews have been flourishing in Iran – with a Jewess becoming queen and a Jew vizier – for millennia.[x]

Bearing all this in mind, it is not surprising that the tomb of Mordecai and Esther in Hamadan (why it is there, in ancient Ecbatana, rather than in Susa, is a long story), which both Jewish and Muslim pilgrims visit, was upgraded by the Iranian government to the status of a national heritage site in 2008.

Gathering the various retellings of the Esther story in Muslim sources, and combining them with Muslim descriptions of Purim celebrations that they (or their predecessors) witnessed, offers us a detailed and often fascinating corpus of materials that represent a sort of Islamic reception-history of Esther. There is good reason to expect that a comparable survey of Muslim materials on Daniel (amongst other examples) will similarly yield fascinating insights into both the reception history of that Biblical book and into ancient Jewish and Christian interpretations of it, that no longer exist outside of Muslim traditions. The only way to find out, of course, is to explore the Islamic sources that deal with Biblical history – not with the attitude that their contents reflect ideas that somehow ended up in the Middle East, but rather with the recognition that some of the information they contain has been ‘Middle Eastern’ all along.

 

 

[i] Good surveys of this topic include Camilla Adang, Muslim Writers on Judaism and the Hebrew Bible, Leiden, 1996; and Hava Lazarus-Yafeh, Intertwined Worlds: Medieval Islam and Biblical Criticism, Princeton, 1992.

[ii] On this topic, the classic study is Meir Kister, “Ḥaddithū ‘an banī Isrā’īla wa-lā ḥaraja: A study of an early tradition”, Israel Oriental Studies 2 (1972), 215-239.

[iii] A fascinating, highly-detailed discussion of this topic may be found in Abdul Ahad Dawud, Muhammad in the Bible, Kuala Lumpur, 1969.

[iv] For the modern version of such interfaith polemics, see the entries in www.islamic-awareness.org/polemics/ and www.answering-islam.org respectively.

[v] Wellhausen’s book on the Umayyad dynasty (Das arabische Reich und sein Sturz, Berlin, 1902) was translated into English as The Arab Kingdom and its Fall, Calcutta, 1927.

[vi] Geiger’s prize-winning book (Was hat Mohammed aus den Judentume aufgenommen?, Bonn, 1833) was translated into English as Judaism and Islam: A Prize Essay, Madras, 1898.

[vii] This trend continues to be represented, e.g. in Clinton Bailey, Bedouin Culture in the Bible, New Haven, 2018.

[viii] An accessible summary of this topic may be found in John Kaltner, The Use of Arabic in Biblical Hebrew Lexicography, Washington, DC, 1996, passim and especially pp. 1-21, where the state of the field is surveyed.

[ix] For a recent statement of the case, see Adele Berlin, “The Book of Esther and Ancient Storytelling”, Journal of Biblical Literature 120 (2001), 3-14.

[x] For transcripts of this exchange, see Adam J. Silverstein, Veiling Esther, Unveiling Her Story: The Reception of a Biblical Book in Islamic Lands, Oxford, 2018, 5-6.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.