Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Esther's Loss and Haman's Time Travel (Part 1 A)

Omission of Esther’s Story from the Qur’an

Masud Masihiyyen

It was one of Muhammad’s dreams to have Jews and Christians acknowledge him as a true messenger of God and believe in the book he produced with much difficulty. Expecting them to serve the principle of mutuality, he depicted himself as a prophet gaining revelation from above in order to confirm the previous scriptures (Surah 2:41, Surah 3:3, Surah 5:48, Surah 35:31). In further efforts to prove himself sincere and reliable, Muhammad claimed that the scripture supposedly descended to him was not different from the scriptures given before. In accordance with this fundamental assertion, he designated his book as a repetition and detailed explanation of what had already been taught the prophets preceding him:

A Book, whereof the verses are explained in detail; - a Qur'an in Arabic, for people who understand (Surah 41:3 Yusuf Ali)

This Qur'an is not such as can be produced by other than God; on the contrary it is a confirmation of (revelations) that went before it, and a fuller explanation of the Book - wherein there is no doubt - from the Lord of the worlds. (Surah 10:37 Yusuf Ali)

There is, in their stories, instruction for men endued with understanding. It is not a tale invented, but a confirmation of what went before it, - a detailed exposition of all things, and a guide and a mercy to any such as believe. (Surah 12:111 Yusuf Ali)

And (bethink you of) the day when We raise in every nation a witness against them of their own folk, and We bring thee (Muhammad) as a witness against these. And We reveal the Scripture unto thee as an exposition of all things, and a guidance and a mercy and good tidings for those who have surrendered (to Allah). (Surah 16:89 Pickthall)

And lo! it is in the Scriptures of the men of old. (Surah 26:196 Pickthall)

And before this, was the Book of Moses as a guide and a mercy: And this Book confirms (it) in the Arabic tongue; to admonish the unjust, and as Glad Tidings to those who do right. (Surah 46.12 Yusuf Ali)

A person reading only these verses and having no information about the content of the whole Qur’an may mistakenly conclude that Muhammad’s book actually did the same job as the writings given to Jews and Christians and exhibited perfect agreement with them. However, the bitter truth is that the book supposedly revealed to Muhammad is rather different from the Bible in both form and content to the extent that some of its verses overtly deny and denounce some fundamental teachings of the Bible. This shows that Muhammad talked of the confirmation of the previous scriptures either with no awareness of their actual content or solely for the sake of propagation, thus without sincerity or integrity.

The comparison of the Qur’an with the Bible reveals not only the fact that the Qur’an is in disagreement with the Bible in many regards, but also that the Qur’an verses quoted above are problematic and far from truth since the Qur’an does not mostly repeat the Biblical accounts, nor does it give a detailed explanation of them. We cannot believe in these claims unless we acknowledge that Muhammad had in mind some stories drawn from the Jewish and Christian apocryphal writings, which never became a part of the Bible. Another possibility is that the whole idea of repetition was related to the appearance of the accounts occurring in the Qur’an in different chapters and in slightly different forms.

Naturally, the discrepancy between Muhammad’s statements and the content of the Bible in regard to the maintenance and recurrence of the Biblical stories is consolidated when we realize that some major narratives and even books of the Bible were given no place in Muhammad’s scripture. This lack may be bound to Muhammad’s ignorance or to his deliberate omission of such accounts due to some reasons, the final word and decision being his alone.1 The process of omission primarily pertained to Muhammad’s and/or his scribe’s inaccurate knowledge of the Bible.

This particular problem of the Qur’an was surprisingly aggravated whenever Muhammad and/or his scribe attempted to force into the text some historical compressions. These came into existence through the confusion of some figures and/or incidents and the relevant assimilation of one to another on the basis of some thematic similarities/analogies/parallelisms. For instance, the author of the Qur’an made a gross historical blunder when he accidentally assimilated the Miriam of the Old Testament to Jesus’ mother Mary by identifying the latter (Surah 3:34, Surah 66:12, Surah 19:28) as the former (1 Chronicles 6:3, Exodus 15:20). In some cases the historical compressions wrought by the author of the Qur’an were more intricate in nature and contained a set of confusions. The Islamic version of King Saul’s story in Surah 2:246-252 is a brilliant example illustrating the omission of the Biblical figure Gideon, the faulty ascription of a test conducted by him to King Saul, the accidental incorporation of Goliath and Philistines into the first narrative of King Saul’s battle (*).

Among the historical compressions peculiar to Muhammad’s book the omission of Esther’s and Mordecai’s story (The Book of Esther in the Old Testament) and that of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) have a unique place and require a deep analysis as they are connected to probably the most bizarre and shocking form of historical compression in the entire Qur’an: Haman’s designation as Pharaoh’s vizier and his association with the construction of a lofty building that reminds one of the Biblical Tower of Babel:

To establish a firm place for them in the land, and to show Pharaoh, Haman, and their hosts, at their hands, the very things against which they were taking precautions. (Surah 28:6 Yusuf Ali)

Pharaoh said: "O Chiefs! no god do I know for you but myself: therefore, O Haman! light me a (kiln to bake bricks) out of clay, and build me a lofty palace, that I may mount up to the god of Moses: but as far as I am concerned, I think (Moses) is a liar!" (Surah 28:38 Yusuf Ali)

Apparently, Muhammad really believed that Pharaoh’s vizier was named Haman and that Pharaoh asked Haman to build up a lofty tower in his eagerness to challenge and mock Moses’ God. In sharp contrast, the Jewish scriptures, which Muhammad claimed to confirm and regard as a guide equal to the Qur’an (Surah 28:49), taught that Haman was the vizier of the Persian King Ahasuerus at the time of the Jews’ deportation and that the incident related to the Tower of Babel occurred in the generation succeeding Noah and the deluge. In short, Muhammad’s inadequate knowledge of the Bible was most likely coupled with his hasty conclusions and made his book contradict the Bible primarily in terms of the chronology of a figure (Haman) and an incident (construction of a lofty tower for reaching and challenging God).

Naturally, some modern Islamic commentators and zealous defenders of the Qur’an were deeply troubled with these historical blunders and raced to create a pathetic set of lies that later constituted the great Haman Hoax. Their efforts to force Haman into ancient Egyptian history were mostly attached to the so-called recent discovery of a word similar to the name Haman in some historic writings concerning the stone workers in Egypt at the time of the Exodus. With a thorough and amazing project Jochen Katz debunked this late Haman myth and exposed the desperation and dishonesty of its fabricators.

Esther and Mordecai, two leading characters in the Biblical story recounting Haman’s enmity to the Jewish race and his plans to exterminate them, on the other hand, were not as fortunate as Haman to make their way into Muhammad’s book, having been omitted by the writer of the Qur’an, who did not only grant evil Haman a free time travel, but also promotion in ancient Egypt along with the honor of witnessing Moses and the Exodus. This leads us to the question why Muhammad and/or his scribe omitted Esther’s story and moved Haman back in time to Moses’ era and inserted him into the account of Pharaoh’s enmity to Moses and the Jewish people?

Similarly, which weird reasons instigated Muhammad to thematically associate Pharaoh and Haman with the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis? Did he simply know that the two protagonists in the Book of Esther had Babylonian names (Mordecai and Esther)2 and feel free to link them to the Tower of Babel on the basis of a phonological connection with Babylon? In the first part of this project I shall seek answers to the question why Esther and Mordecai were not allowed into the Qur’an whilst in the second I shall analyze the subject of the Tower of Babel in the Qur’an and its mistaken ascription to Pharaoh along with Haman.

The Book of Esther in the Jewish scripture

The Book of Esther relates the story of the heroic Mordecai and his niece Esther, who were among the Jews that had been deported to Babylon in the time of Jechoniah. Esther and Mordecai lived in the Persian Empire at around 485 B.C., which can be inferred from the identification of the King Ahasuerus in the Hebrew text as Xerxes I (485-465 B.C.).3 Although this Biblical and inspired account had two protagonists (Esther and her relative Mordecai), it was named after Esther most probably because Esther was the main figure through whose efforts the Jews living in the Persian Empire were rescued from a genocide.

The story started when the Persian King decided to divorce his wife due to her insolence in the public and replace her with a new queen. During this selection process Esther became one of the candidates, having been considered eligible to enter the royal palace. At the same time a man named Haman the Agagite, of Amalekite origin as indicated by his designation, soared to power and was made King Ahasuerus’ vizier. His hostility to Mordecai, who often went to the gate of the King’s court and acted as Esther’s main advisor and protector, turned him into the antagonist of the story. The origin of Haman’s vehement enmity to Mordecai and later in his person to all Jews was most likely not only theological (Mordecai would not bow to Haman), but also racial in nature. Haman, himself being a descendant of the Amalekites, wanted to kindle the old enmity and rivalry between the Amalekites and the Israelites.

Haman’s evil plots to exterminate all the Jews were found out by Mordecai, who later informed Esther to take action as she had already gained the King’s favor. Haman’s eagerness to get rid of all the Jews living in Persia was so strong that he had made meticulous preparations for his ideals and cast lots to determine the exact date on which the eradication of the Jewish race would be accomplished. However, Queen Esther managed to hinder evil Haman’s plots and the King’s love for her twisted Haman’s fortune all of a sudden, changing Haman from a hunter into a hunt. Consequently, Haman was hanged along with his sons on the gallows that he had got erected for Mordecai. Similarly, Mordecai was granted Haman’s position in the administration.

Esther’s story contained another twist related to the date of the planned massacre: On the very day that had been destined for their murder the Jews were to defend themselves and take revenge from all those who wanted to conduct genocide on them. The day of lots, Purim, as it is called in Hebrew, also became for Jews a day of joy and celebration that reminded them of God’s saving grace.

However, we cannot find any reference either to Esther or Mordecai or to their story in the Islamic scripture, excepting Haman’s awkward and inaccurate transfer from the post-deportation period to the time of Moses and his subsequent appearance as Pharaoh’s vizier. Thus, it will not be wrong to make a comparison and conclude that in the Qur’an Haman came to represent the idea of a twist in the chronology of historic incidents in sharp contrast to that of a twist in an evil man’s fortune in the Bible.

Possible reasons underlying the omission of Esther’s story from the Qur’an

First, it must be made clear that Esther’s story is not the only narrative that is found in the Bible but is missing from Muhammad’s book. Still, what makes the omission of this story unusual and worthy of analysis is the reappearance of its antagonist (Haman) in similar yet chronologically separate and distant incidents: Moses’ adoption and later confrontation by Pharaoh.4 Before examining and discussing all the Qur’an verses in which the name Haman occurs, it is therefore necessary to evaluate the possibilities underlying the exclusion of Esther’s story by the writer of the Qur’an.

The so-called secular content of Esther’s story

The fact that the word “God” does not occur in the current Hebrew version of the Book of Esther is the primary argument held in favor of the claim that this particular historical narrative in the Bible is secular in nature. Unsurprisingly, some Muslim scholars bring up the same critique while trying to cast doubt upon the canonicity and historical authenticity of Esther’s story.5 Of course, such Muslim scholars’ attacks that target the historical canonicity of the Book of Esther stem from their enmity to this book in reaction to the historical blunder concerning Haman’s identity in their Qur’an. At one point it is not implausible to suggest or presume that the Biblical narrative about Esther and Mordecai may have been omitted by the author of the Qur’an due to its alleged secular nature.

However, the absence of an explicit reference to God at least in the Hebrew text does not suffice to make this fundamentally historical book secular, for possible divine intervention in the course of events is apparently implied by Mordecai, who sounds more confident and hopeful in his instructions to Esther: “If you keep quiet at this time, liberation and protection for the Jews will appear from another source, while you and your father’s household perish” (Esther 4:14). Second, in response to Mordecai, Esther urges all the Jews in the city of Susa to have a strict fast for three days and three nights, which obviously adds a theological motif into the historical story as fasting is a kind of worship practiced to gain the favor of God.6

Third, the Book of Esther in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, contains some additional parts that heighten the religious element of the story by making overt and frequent references to God. In the Greek text between the fourth and fifth chapters of the Hebrew text occur Mordecai and Esther’s fervent prayers for their deliverance (*). Even the King’s letter granting the Jews the right to defend themselves talks highly of the Jewish race in theological language:

“But we find that the Jews, who have been consigned to destruction by the most abominable of men, are not malefactors, but living according to the justest laws, and being the sons of the living God, the most high and mighty, who maintains the kingdom, to us as well as to our forefathers, in the most excellent order.” and ascribes the Jewish victory directly to God’s might: “For in the place of the destruction of the chosen race, Almighty God has granted them this [time of] gladness”. (Source)

Bearing in mind the fact that Muhammad blended his vague and inadequate knowledge of the Hebrew Bible with the traditional yet non-biblical commentaries of Judaism, it is crucial to check such documents on the question of Esther’s alleged non-religious make-up. Such a check reveals that the Talmudic commentaries on the Book of Esther also contain some additional elements and narratives that partly reiterate the teachings given in the Septuagint and bring Esther’s story closer to that of the Exodus through the amplified use of religious terminology (*).

Yet even if the Septuagint did not have those additional sections and the Hebrew version of Esther lacked even the few religious implications and if it were therefore fair to identify Esther’s story as a pure example of secular literature in the Bible, it would not logically follow that this peculiarity of the narrative would compel Muhammad to discard it or prevent him from borrowing it. If he had really determined to borrow this particular story, nothing would hinder him from painting it anew in theological colors and benefit from it in his religious propaganda. He even delighted in adding religious elements into partly historical narratives of the Bible as we witness that he took Solomon’s story from the Bible (1 Kings 10:1-13), combined it with Solomon’s fable in the Talmud, and finally designated Solomon as an Islamic King that attempted to correct the Queen’s pagan folk’s faith (Surah 27:24) by forcing them to conversion (Surah 27:31, 34).

It is similarly not a matter of wonder that in Muhammad’s mind Alexander the Great, a prominent historic figure known to be affiliated with polytheism, came to represent a Muslim leader of great might (Surah 18:83-84) that became Allah’s agent and was given even the right of choosing either to punish or reward the folks of the world (Surah 18:86). In short, the vast amount of political or historical motifs in a narrative in contrast to the scarcity of religious themes and terms did not the least bother Muhammad since he had a magic wand that turned even some ungodly warriors and leaders into blessed messengers of Allah’s political religion. This is why it is not probable to conclude that he intentionally dismissed Esther’s story because he found it too political and less theological for his new book.

Names and meanings and Purim

Even a quick comparison of the Bible with the Qur’an exhibits that the latter is bafflingly mute on certain names, their meaning and origin, and their significance. The act of ascribing names to people, places, and even festivals is an outstanding feature of the Biblical narratives. For instance, the inspired author of the Hebrew Bible was zealous to give the name of Adam’s wife along with its meaning (Genesis 3:20). He similarly explained how and why certain people and places were given a new name.7 Some festivals were also particularly named after significant incidents or related terms. For instance, the main Jewish festival commemorating and celebrating Israel’s exodus from Egypt is named Passover because at that time the Lord struck all the firstborns of Egyptians and passed over, that is, spared the firstborns of the Israelites (Exodus 12:11-12) (*). Above all, God manifested His sacred name to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:14) and commanded Israel not to misuse it (Exodus 20:7).

The author of the Qur’an, on the other hand, was by no means interested in names and their meanings. No matter how many times he repeated the story of Genesis and talked of Adam’s wife, he never ascribed a name to her. He seemed totally unaware of the name Abram and its difference from the name Abraham, mistakenly presuming that Abraham possessed one and the same name even before his call and selection for promises (*). Again, he did not take pains to give the etymological origin of the few place names mentioned in the Qur’an. He seemed ignorant even of the Jewish festival named Pesach (Passover), not referring to any narrative with the aim of explaining the origin and meaning of a festival or celebration.

Giving an account for the birth of the Jewish festival named Purim is one of the principal functions of Esther’s story in the Bible. We find out that this memorable festival was named after the lots that Haman had cast to determine the date of the massacre. After Haman’s death and the Jewish triumph over their adversaries who wished to exterminate them, all Jews were asked to remember this incident and celebrate the Feast of Lots (Purim) in order to cherish God’s grace and help in time of trouble:

For this reason these days are known as Purim, after the name of pur. Therefore, because of the account found in this letter and what they had faced in this regard and what had happened to them, the Jews established as binding on themselves, their descendants, and all who joined their company that they should observe these two days without fail, just as written and at the appropriate time on an annual basis. These days were to be remembered and to be celebrated in every generation and in every family, every province, and every city. The Jews were not to fail to observe these days of Purim; the remembrance of them was not to cease among their descendants. (Esther 9:26-28 NET Bible)

This account highlights the ties between the Book of Esther and the Jewish festival of Purim, giving us a clue about the possible reasons for Esther’s omission from Muhammad’s scripture. Since Muhammad hardly had any interest in names and their meanings and was totally indifferent to Jewish festivals, the obvious association between Esther’s story and the institution of the Feast of Purim was most likely one of the factors that instigated him to leave Mordecai and Esther out of the Qur’an. When compared to the first possibility mentioned above, this particular argument related to the use of names in the Islamic scripture actually sounds stronger.

Setting of Esther’s story

Yet we may think of another reason that possibly prevented Esther’s incorporation into Muhammad’s version of the Bible. The temporal and spatial features of the Book of Esther may have played a more a significant role in Muhammad’s reluctance to adopt it. According to the details given in the Bible, Esther and Mordecai lived in Persia rather than in Israel, and they were members of the Jewish Diaspora there as a result of the Jewish exile conducted at the time of King Jeconiah:

Now there happened to be a Jewish man in Susa the citadel whose name was Mordecai. He was the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjaminite, who had been taken into exile from Jerusalem with the captives who had been carried into exile with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken into exile. (Esther 2:5-6) (According to the Legends of the Jews, Mordecai was not born in the exile: Mordecai belonged to the highest aristocracy of Jerusalem, he was of royal blood, and he was deported to Babylonian together with King Jeconiah, by Nebuchadnezzar, who at that time exiled only the great of the land. Later he returned to Palestine, but remained only for a time. He preferred to live in the Diaspora, and watch over the education of Esther. When Cyrus and Darius captured Babylon, Mordecai, Daniel, and the Jewish community of the conquered city accompanied King Cyrus to Shushan, where Mordecai established his academy. (Source)

Thus, Esther and Mordecai, like many other Jews, had been living outside their homeland Israel at the time of the exile when Haman the Agagite threatened the lives of all Jews in the Kingdom of Persia. In short, this story belonged to the time of sorrow and desperation as the Jews missed their land and had to live under a pagan reign. These particular conditions make Esther’s story more appealing and sympathetic with the help of the contrasts occurring between the gloomy beginning and bright ending of the narrative. God intervened to rescue His people even when the Temple was down and the Jews had almost no hope of survival in case of the severe threat posed by Haman.

Strikingly, the author of the Qur’an provided zero information on what the Children of Israel experienced during or after the exile. More, although many of the Biblical accounts concern Israel’s deportation and teach that many prophets preached to revive and encourage suffering Jews, the Qur’an is silent on these issues except for giving a brief and vague description of the armies attacking Israel and ravaging the Jewish Temple:

And We gave (Clear) Warning to the Children of Israel in the Book, that twice would they do mischief on the earth and be elated with mighty arrogance (and twice would they be punished)! When the first of the warnings came to pass, We sent against you Our servants given to terrible warfare: They entered the very inmost parts of your homes; and it was a warning (completely) fulfilled. Then did We grant you the Return as against them: We gave you increase in resources and sons, and made you the more numerous in man-power. If ye did well, ye did well for yourselves; if ye did evil, (ye did it) against yourselves. So when the second of the warnings came to pass, (We permitted your enemies) to disfigure your faces, and to enter your Temple as they had entered it before, and to visit with destruction all that fell into their power. It may be that your Lord may (yet) show Mercy unto you; but if ye revert (to your sins), We shall revert (to Our punishments): And we have made Hell a prison for those who reject (all Faith). (Surah 17:4-8 Yusuf Ali)8

Evidently, this account talks of two corruptions that the Children of Israel wrought and their subsequent punishment. Although the desecration and destruction of the Temple (place of worship) are stated, there is nothing in this text even to imply the Jewish exile. Besides, the inadequate amount of information in these verses compels Muslim scholars to create contradictory interpretations with regard to the time and type of the two corruptions worked by the nation of Israel. Being outraged, Ibn Kathir gave up and confessed that Muslim scholars’ explanations showed variation. Unsurprisingly, he bound this unsatisfactory piece of information in the Qur’an to Allah’s reluctance to reveal the details (*).

Similarly, the Qur’an says nothing about the period intervening between Solomon and Jesus, in particular, about the dark era that the nation of Israel went through after the division of the country among Solomon’s sons. Although some prophets are mentioned, they are oddly dissociated from Israel. For instance, Jonah’s story is related in a few chapters, but even in the longest and most organized form of the story no explanation is given for Jonah’s refusal to carry out his prophetic mission and for his fleeing to a laden ship (Surah 37:139-148).

Elijah, one of the greatest prophets of Israel living after Solomon, is again uncannily detached from the Children of Israel in the Qur’an. His story appears only in one chapter, and the reader is deprived of the basic information concerning the time and place of his mission. Elijah is said to have been sent to his folk although nothing is said about this folk except for the claim that they worshipped Baal (Surah 37:125). Consequently, it is impossible to infer from the insufficient data in the Qur’an Elijah’s affiliation with Israel and know about the days of his prophetic ministry.9

These examples demonstrate Muhammad’s tendency to be silent on the period following Israel’s fragmentation after Solomon as well as on the details of the Jews’ banishment to Babylon. When we look at the Qur’an in the light of this fact and peculiarity, there seems to be nothing unusual with Muhammad’s refusal to adopt Esther’s story from the Bible as it took place after Solomon’s reign and in close association with the Jewish exile, belonging to the period Muhammad did not care about.

It is also worthy of note that Muhammad mostly related stories that were connected to prophets, but there is no prophet in Esther’s story. Moreover, it is a story of God rescuing the Jews in exile. Muhammad was not on too good terms with the Jews and may not have liked the thought that God STILL protected the Jews even after He himself sent them into Exile as a punishment for their sins.

Tendency to assimilation

A stronger motive that possibly led to the omission of Esther’s story from the Qur’an was Muhammad’s distinctive talent in assimilating thematically analogous and relevant figures and/or incidents. Although he rarely walked in the other extreme end of this inclination by fabricating excessive and unnecessary parallelisms, he mostly seemed to delight in working multiple narratives of similar kind into one single account. Needless to say, this tendency to assimilation, which came to represent a feature of the Qur’an, went hand in hand with Muhammad’s errors and misunderstandings. For example, while relating Israel’s wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus, he devised the following verse:

And remember Moses prayed for water for his people; We said: "Strike the rock with thy staff." Then gushed forth therefrom twelve springs. Each group knew its own place for water. So eat and drink of the sustenance provided by God, and do no evil nor mischief on the (face of the) earth. (Surah 2:60 Yusuf Ali)

Of course, someone who is well-versed in the Bible can easily figure out that the Qur’an verse above was produced through the combination of two different yet similar verses in the Old Testament:

I will be standing before you there on the rock in Horeb, and you will strike the rock, and water will come out of it so that the people may drink.” And Moses did so in plain view of the elders of Israel. (Exodus 17:6)

Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve wells of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there by the water. (Exodus 15:27)

Evidently, what prompted the author of Surah 2:60 to contend that precisely twelve springs gushed forth when Moses hit the rock in the desert was the reference to twelve wells of water in Elim in Exodus 15:27. Even though the number of the wells in this biblical verse most likely had a symbolic association with Israel’s twelve Children (tribes),10 the commandment to hit the rock was clearly given to Moses on a different occasion. It is no wonder that the author of the Qur’an did not talk of the Israelites’ different encampments during their journey in the wilderness and did not give the account of the bitter water in Marah (Exodus 15:22-26).

Something worse was that the inclination to these kinds of assimilations did not only make the Qur’an incompatible with the Torah, but also hampered Muhammad from recognizing the symbolic connections between the Old Testament and the New. Consequently, he was never acquainted with the notion of typology and the basic Christian teaching that some of the events predicted and foreshadowed in the Torah found fulfillment in Christ and were recorded in the Gospels. Although Muhammad probably did not have access to the canonical Gospels, his gross ignorance of the issue is apparent also in his dealing with the apocryphal Christian writings he made use of. To illustrate, he severed the typological link between the particular account of the miraculous provision of date and water for Mary in the desert, which he obviously adopted from the non-canonical Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (chapter 20), and that of the Israelites’ encampment in Elim (Exodus 15:27).11 Since the author of Surah 19 did not state that Mary was provided with dates and fresh water in the desert on her way to Egypt and did not repeat Exodus 15:27 from the Torah, it became improbable for the reader of the Qur’an to detect the latent typological connection between these two incidents.

A closer analysis of the assimilations applied by the author of the Qur’an to the parallel yet originally multiple incidents shows that this weird inclination, to some extent, went hand in hand with Muhammad’s aversion to and ignorance of the post-exile period of the Jews. This is why when he became familiar with two narratives and saw that one of them functioned as the parallel of the other in the post-Solomon period of Jewish history, he did not hesitate to assimilate the latter narrative to the former by ascribing it to the period of the Patriarchs or at least to Moses’ time. For example, he disregarded and omitted the story of the three youth that were cast into a furnace of blazing fire, but miraculously saved and came out unscathed at the time of King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:1-27). Instead, he ascribed a similar incident to Patriarch Abraham (Surah 21:62-68) with the help of an accidentally produced legend in the Talmud (*). Thus, he did not only present Abraham more analogous to himself in terms of being a monotheist believer threatened by the hostile pagans, but also managed to maintain in his book the theme of miraculous redemption from the fire of idolaters without referring to the period of the Jewish exile.

Esther’s story and its parallels

Since Esther’s story was partly similar to some previous accounts in the Torah on the basis of a few major elements, the author of the Qur’an resorted to the mechanism of assimilation for the sake of avoiding a reference to the events happening between post-Solomon period and Jesus’ birth. Unsurprisingly, he could easily transfer Haman from the Book of Esther to the period of the Exodus because what Haman planned and failed to do to the Jewish captives in Persia was extremely similar to what Pharaoh had attempted and failed to do to the Children of Israel in Egypt. In both accounts we have an antagonist that wields administrative power and hates the Israelites to the extent that he tries to slaughter them. As a result, it is possible to say that the writer of the Qur’an had no difficulty in transferring Haman as a vizier from Esther’s story right into the story of the Exodus at the time of Moses’ birth and of Pharaoh’s commandment concerning the slaughter of the new born Israelite males (Surah 28:4-9 compare with Exodus 1:15-16, 22; 2:1-10).

In addition to its thematic association with the story of the Exodus, the overall theme of the story in Esther bears some amazing similarities to the narrative relating Joseph’s forced migration to a foreign land (Egypt) due to the hostility of his brothers, the trouble he experienced away from his home, his sudden twist of fortune and related elevation in Egypt’s administration (Genesis 37-47). In this respect Mordecai can be compared to Joseph: he was a stranger in a pagan land (Esther 2:5-7), he experienced trouble because of Haman’s hostility (Esther 3:5-6), and his sudden twist of fortune gained him a great position in Persian administration (Esther 10:1-3). Very much like Joseph, Mordecai emerged victorious from his struggle.

If we get into details, we see that the means of Mordecai’s elevation in Persia was also partly analogous to the means of Joseph’s promotion in Egypt. As Joseph gained fame and significance with the help of his acquaintance with Pharaoh’s two officials in prison (Genesis 40:1-23), Mordecai was introduced to and honored by the Persian King because he disclosed the assassination plot of the King’s two eunuchs (Esther 2:21-23). More, as Pharaoh’s official forgot about Joseph and Joseph therefore stayed in prison until Pharaoh had a dream (Genesis 40:23; 41:1-14), the fact that Mordecai had saved King Ahasuerus’ life by disclosing the plot of his eunuchs was not remembered until King Ahasuerus one night decided to check the chronicles and found out Mordecai’s service (Esther 6:1-10). In other words, Joseph was honored and promoted when Pharaoh had a dream whereas Mordecai was honored and promoted when King Ahasuerus could not sleep and wanted to see the daily chronicles. This was a natural contrast because what made Joseph prevalent was his ability to interpret dreams.

However, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (Septuagint) reveals another intricate similarity between Joseph and Mordecai on the basis of dream interpretation: according to the account occurring only in the Septuagint, Mordecai had a dream that predicted the danger awaiting the Jews in Persia, the struggle between Haman and himself, and the subsequent Jewish triumph:

Now he was of the number of the captives, whom Nabuchodonosor king of Babylon had carried away from Jerusalem with Jechonias king of Juda: And this was his dream: Behold there were voices, and tumults, and thunders, and earthquakes, and a disturbance upon the earth. And behold two great dragons came forth ready to fight one against another. And at their cry all nations were stirred up to fight against the nation of the just. And that was a day of darkness and danger, of tribulation and distress, and great fear upon the earth. And the nation of the just was troubled fearing their own evils, and was prepared for death. And they cried to God: and as they were crying, a little fountain grew into a very great river, and abounded into many waters. The light and the sun rose up, and the humble were exalted, and they devoured the glorious. (Esther chapter11 Septuagint)

More interestingly, after the Jewish triumph Mordecai comprehended the meaning of his vision and explained how it found fulfillment in the things that had occurred to Haman and the Jews:

Then Mardocheus said, God hath done these things. For I remember a dream which I saw concerning these matters, and nothing thereof hath failed. A little fountain became a river, and there was light, and the sun, and much water: this river is Esther, whom the king married, and made queen: And the two dragons are I and Aman. And the nations were those that were assembled to destroy the name of the Jews: And my nation is this Israel, which cried to God, and were saved: for the Lord hath saved his people, and the Lord hath delivered us from all those evils, and God hath wrought signs and great wonders, which have not been done among the Gentiles. (Esther chapter 10:4-9) (Source)

It is not far from possibility that this particular similarity concerning Joseph’s and Mordecai’s interpretation of dreams influenced the writer of the Qur’an and motivated him to devise the following verse:

And he placed his parents on the dais and they fell down before him prostrate, and he said: O my father! This is the interpretation of my dream of old. My Lord hath made it true, and He hath shown me kindness, since He took me out of the prison and hath brought you from the desert after Satan had made strife between me and my brethren. Lo! my Lord is tender unto whom He will. He is the Knower, the Wise. (Surah 12:100 Pickthall)

This teaching is missing from the Torah, and some critics of the Qur’an consider it contrary to Joseph’s depiction in the Bible. For instance, in his comprehensive commentary on Surah 12 with regard to the verse above E. M. Wherry said:

This is the interpretation. That Joseph made this statement is contrary to the Bible. The proud, self-satisfied spirit here attributed to Joseph is in entire keeping with the morality of Islam, but a travesty of the Bible account of Joseph. (Source)

The occurrence of this detail in the Qur’an thus strengthens the theory that the parallelisms between Mordecai and Joseph in the Jewish Bible may have impelled the writer of Surah 12 to transfer an element from the Greek version of Esther’s story and adapt it to Joseph. Besides, the emphasis laid on Joseph’s brothers’ plot at the end of Joseph’s story in Surah 12 reminds us of the reference to the lots drawn by plotting Haman at the end of the Greek version of Esther’s story. In both writings a flashback is placed after the heroic figure’s (Joseph’s in the Qur’an versus Mordecai’s in Esther) interpretation of his dream and concerns the scheme devised by the antagonist (Joseph’s brothers in the Qur’an and Haman in Esther). To compare:

This is of the tidings of the Unseen which We inspire in thee (Muhammad). Thou wast not present with them when they fixed their plan and they were scheming. (Surah 12:102 Pickthall)

Therefore hath he made two lots, one for the people of God, and another for all the Gentiles. And these two lots came at the hour, and time, and day of judgment, before God among all nations. (Esther chapter 10:10-11) (Source)

These odd connections may also account for the baffling parallelisms between Joseph’s and Moses’ stories in the Islamic scripture. These analogies are so exaggerated that Joseph is claimed to have been adopted by Potiphar whilst the person who adopted Moses is asserted to be Pharaoh’s wife rather than daughter. A meticulous analysis of these two narratives displays that the main theme linking Joseph’s and Moses’ stories was the operation of God’s Wisdom in the most mysterious ways.12 Consequently, the writer of Surah 12 contended that Joseph was admitted into the Egyptian King’s place through adoption because this served God’s predetermined plans to establish him in the land:

And he of Egypt who purchased him said unto his wife: Receive him honourably. Perchance he may prove useful to us or we may adopt him as a son. Thus we established Joseph in the land that We might teach him the interpretation of events. And Allah was predominant in His career, but most of mankind know not. (Surah 12:21 Pickthall)

Similarly, Moses was adopted by Pharaoh’s wife because God wanted to establish the Children of Israel in the land and punish Pharaoh, their main foe:

And We desired to show favour unto those who were oppressed in the earth, and to make them examples and to make them the inheritors, And to establish them in the earth, and to show Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts that which they feared from them. … And the family of Pharaoh took him up, that he might become for them an enemy and a sorrow, Lo! Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts were ever sinning. (Surah 28:5-6, 8 Pickthall)

If we compare these with Esther’s story in the Bible, we also see that Mordecai interpreted Esther’s admission into King Ahasuerus’ palace in a similar manner by highlighting the possibility that Esther was chosen because her presence and role were destined to prevent Haman from destroying the Jews living in the Persian Empire:

When Esther’s reply was conveyed to Mordecai, he said to take back this answer to Esther: “Don’t imagine that because you are part of the king’s household you will be the one Jew who will escape. If you keep quiet at this time, liberation and protection for the Jews will appear from another source, while you and your father’s household perish. It may very well be that you have achieved royal status for such a time as this!” (Esther 4:12-14)

Mordecai’s advice to Esther became effective and Esther became courageous enough to reveal her identity for the sake of defending her nation at the expense of her own life. This motif makes Esther a female counterpart of the Biblical Moses, whose efforts to protect the Israelites had incurred Pharaoh’s rage and almost cost him his life. Muhammad, on the other hand, was probably aware of these analogies, but chose to assimilate Mordecai into Joseph’s and Esther into Moses’ story, deeming it unnecessary to deal with the thematically similar narratives of the era following the Jews’ deportation to Babylon.

Hero and Heroine in Moses’ story

Muhammad’s peculiar version of Moses’ story has some uncanny ties to Mordecai’s and Esther’s story in the Bible, which implies that the author of the Qur’an embellished the narratives in Surah 28 and Surah 40 with the insertion of a male and female heroic figure in accordance with Mordecai’s presentation as a Jewish hero and Esther’s portrayal as a Jewish heroine. However, the comparison of these heroic figures in the Bible and Qur’an demonstrates that the integration process of the two Jewish figures involved distortion and replacement.

According to the Bible, Mordecai and Esther were heroic because they became pioneers in the rescue of God’s nation despite Haman’s plots. Although they lived under the pagan rule in Persia, they did not forget about their affiliation with God’s elected nation Israel and risked their lives by revealing their ethnic identity. Muhammad also adopted this general theme when he transferred Haman from Esther’s story and transformed him into Pharaoh’s vizier in Surah 28, but applied to it two major and related alterations.

First, he attached more significance to Moses’ rescue from his enemies, namely, from Pharaoh and Haman (Surah 28:8), than the rescue of the Israelites from the same evil figures. In the Book of Esther what mattered most was the rescue of the nation of God from extermination. The lives of all the Jews in the Persian Empire were at stake. Accordingly, Mordecai and Esther, two Israelites, contributed to the redemption of the nation. In the Qur’an, however, Pharaoh and Haman were primarily Moses’ enemies and the two heroic figures of the Qur’an came onto the scene when Moses’ life was in danger. Thus, the theme of national rescue in the Book of Esther was replaced with a pious person’s rescue in the Qur’an.13

Second, in Muhammad’s mind the two heroic figures that helped and rescued Moses from danger and death despite Pharaoh’s and Haman’s enmity were not Jews, but Egyptians. This sort of a switch enabled Muhammad to convey a more theological sense to Moses’ story in the Qur’an in that the two Egyptians were implied to be Muslim believers rather than pagans. What they had to disclose at the risk of their lives when Moses was in danger was asserted to be their different faith rather than ethnicity.

Despite the differences stemming from Muhammad’s distortion, the two heroic figures in Moses’ story in the Qur’an bore an essential similarity to Esther and Mordecai: they all had, in one way or another, access to the King’s palace due to some sort of affiliation or familiarity with the ruler. As what enabled Esther and Mordecai to prevent the extermination of the Jews happened to be their presence and role in the King’s palace in the Bible, two Egyptian figures did their best to save Moses from death with the help of their affiliation with Pharaoh and presence in his palace.

Esther replaced with Pharaoh’s wife Asiyah

The amazing parallelisms between Joseph and Moses had driven the writer of the Qur’an to mistakenly conclude that the theme of adoption was present in both figures’ stories and that Moses was adopted by Pharaoh’s wife rather than daughter because Joseph had been allegedly adopted by the Egyptian vizier and his wife (compare Surah 12:21 and Surah 28:9). Ironically, this hasty and faulty conclusion made it easier for the author of Surah 28 to replace Heroine Esther with Pharaoh’s wife: in both cases a prevalent female figure with the help of her presence and role in the royal palace acted as a savior. As Esther became the Persian King’s wife and saved her nation from Haman’s evil plots of murder, the author of the Qur’an claimed that Pharaoh’s wife suggested adopting Moses and thus saved him from death. More to the point, Moses was taken into the royal palace and saved by Pharaoh’s wife when all the male children of the Israelites were being murdered:

And the family of Pharaoh took him up, that he might become for them an enemy and a sorrow, Lo! Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts were ever sinning. And the wife of Pharaoh said: (He will be) a consolation for me and for thee. Kill him not. Peradventure he may be of use to us, or we may choose him for a son. And they perceived not. (Surah 28:8-9 Pickthall)

Evidently, Moses’ rescue by Pharaoh’s wife is related in association with Pharaoh’s and Haman’s evil deeds. The occurrence of the name Haman in this particular context reminds us of Esther’s story and is by no means coincidental. Besides, Pharaoh’s wife’s designation as a heroine is taken one step further in Surah 66:11 with more emphasis on her faith and her prayer for rescue from Pharaoh. Islamic tradition also recounts her martyrdom, which again binds her heroic conduct to her supposedly Islamic faith (*). This contrast between Esther and Pharaoh’s wife is quite natural since the Book of Esther does not identify King Ahasuerus as an evil king that persecuted the Jews on the account of their faith.

Mordecai replaced with the mysterious figure in Surah 40

If Esther’s equivalent in Moses’ story in the Qur’an is Pharaoh’s wife, Mordecai’s equivalent turns out to be the unnamed male figure that is asserted to be from Pharaoh’s family and hide his faith until Pharaoh threatens to murder Moses:

And Pharaoh said, "Let me alone, that I may kill Moses; and let him call upon his Lord: I fear lest he change your religion, or cause disorder to shew itself in the land." And Moses said, "I take refuge with my Lord and your Lord from every proud one who believeth not in the day of reckoning." And a man of the family of Pharaoh, who was a believer, but hid his faith, said, "Will ye slay a man because he saith my Lord is God, when he hath already come to you with proofs of his mission from your Lord? and if he be a liar, on him will be his lie: but if he be a man of truth, part at least of what he threateneth will fall upon you. Truly God guideth not him who is a transgressor, a liar. (Surah 40:26-28 Rodwell)

Apparently, this heroic figure takes risk and reveals his faith only when Moses’ life is in danger. This unnamed believer’s speech is also linked to Surah 40:25, where Pharaoh, Haman and Qarun (Korah) are alleged to ask for the murder of the male Israelites:

And verily We sent Moses with Our revelations and a clear warrant unto Pharaoh and Haman and Korah, but they said: A lying sorcerer! And when he brought them the Truth from Our presence, they said: Slay the sons of those who believe with him, and spare their women. But the plot of disbelievers is in naught but error. (Surah 40:23-25 Pickthall)

The unbiblical, erroneous, and weird argument here that the males of the Children of Israel encountered another threat of murder when Moses was a grown up man in the same way as when he was a baby (Surah 28:4) may have emerged from the connection of Moses’ narrative in the Qur’an with Esther’s story in the Bible. In that case, it is not unreasonable to interpret these verses as a duplicate of Surah 28:4 and 9 with the help of a reference to Haman and a heroic figure attempting to save Moses’ life. Thus, the author of the Qur’an probably meant that Pharaoh planned to conduct genocide on the male Israelites twice: first, when Moses entered the palace as a baby and second, when he entered the same place as a grown up man and messenger. In the first case Moses was rescued with the help of Pharaoh’s wife, thus, a female member of Pharaoh’s family. In the second case Moses was rescued with the help of a believing man, thus, a male member of Pharaoh’s family.

Additionally, this unnamed believer acts as a wise man and addresses both Pharaoh and his people (Egyptians) with a long sermon (Surah 40:28-35). During this long preaching he also refers to Joseph’s period and identifies him as a messenger sent to Egypt. Interestingly, this is the only place in the Qur’an where Egypt of Moses’ time is explicitly linked to Egypt of Joseph’s time:

And verily Joseph brought you of old clear proofs, yet ye ceased not to be in doubt concerning what he brought you till, when he died, ye said: Allah will not send any messenger after him. Thus Allah deceiveth him who is a prodigal, a doubter. (Surah 40:34 Pickthall)

The brave believer’s speech is strikingly interrupted by Pharaoh’s call to Haman:

And Pharaoh said: O Haman! Build for me a tower that haply I may reach the roads, "The ways and means of (reaching) the heavens, and that I may mount up to the god of Moses: But as far as I am concerned, I think (Moses) is a liar!" Thus was made alluring, in Pharaoh's eyes, the evil of his deeds, and he was hindered from the Path; and the plot of Pharaoh led to nothing but perdition (for him). (Surah 40:36-37 Yusuf Ali)

After Pharaoh’s defying statement and call, the heroic figure resumes preaching and formulates solemn warnings to his people (Surah 40:38-44). It is noteworthy indeed that in the verses that interrupt this long sermon Pharaoh speaks to Haman and wants him to construct a lofty tower, for these references to Haman remind us of Esther’s story and enable us to see the latent connection between this unnamed figure in Surah 40 and Mordecai in the Book of Esther. Finally, the author of the Qur’an concludes this narrative by asserting that this unnamed hero was protected by God from harm:

Then God saved him from (every) ill that they plotted (against him), but the burnt of the Penalty encompassed on all sides the People of Pharaoh (Surah 40:45 Yusuf Ali)

This particular verse recalls to mind the contrast between Mordecai’s and his enemies’ destiny in the Bible. Although Haman plotted to kill Mordecai and even erected gallows to hang him, he himself was hanged along with his sons and all of Mordecai’s adversaries were doomed.

Bafflingly, there is another unnamed figure that can be considered an additional hero in the Quranic version of Moses’ story. This man appears in the narrative in Surah 28 and functions as an informant running to Moses from the other end of the city and advising him to escape:

And there came a man, running, from the furthest end of the City. He said: "O Moses! the Chiefs are taking counsel together about thee, to slay thee: so get thee away, for I do give thee sincere advice." (Surah 28:20 Yusuf Ali)

It is obvious that this certain figure helps Moses know about the Egyptians’ decision to kill him and thus indirectly saves his life. Nothing is said in the Qur’an about the identity of this person, who makes efforts to reach Moses in the quickest way possible and notify him, but in some traditional commentaries he is claimed to be of Pharaoh’s people. For instance:

And a man, who was the [only] believer among Pharaoh’s kinsfolk, came from the outskirts of the city, hastening, walking fast, via a route quicker than theirs. He said, ‘O Moses, lo! the council, of Pharaoh’s folk, are conspiring, discussing [the means], to slay you. So leave, the city. Truly I am speaking to you in good faith’, in bidding you to leave. (Tafsir al-Jalalayn)

While reckoning the believers among the Egyptians, Ibn Kathir also reported that this man was from Pharaoh’s family:

The well-known view is that this believing man was a Coptic (Egyptian) from the family of Fir`awn. As-Suddi said, he was a cousin (son of the paternal uncle) of Fir`awn. And it was said that he was the one who was saved along with Musa, peace be upon him. Ibn Jurayj reported that Ibn `Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, said "No one from among the family of Fir`awn believed apart from this man, the wife of Fir`awn, and the one who said, ("O Musa! Verily, the chiefs are taking counsel together about you, to kill you.'')'' (28:20) This was narrated by Ibn Abi Hatim. (Source)

Interestingly, Ibn Kathir’s commentary numbers three believers, overtly distinguishing the man in Surah 28:20 from the man in Surah 40:28 even though both became believers despite being from Pharaoh’s family and both helped Moses when Pharaoh attempted to slay him. In sharp contrast to the view presented by Ibn Kathir above, Ibn Abbas taught that the man in Surah 28:20 and in Surah 40:28 was one and same. He even assigned to the same heroic figure the name Ezekiel:14

(And a man) Ezekiel (came from the uttermost part) and it is said from the centre (of the city, running. He said: O Moses! Lo! the chiefs) the family of the man killed (take counsel against thee) they agreed (to slay thee; therefore escape) from the city. (Lo! I am of those who give thee good advice) I am of those who feel pity for you. (Commentary on Surah 28:20)

(And a believing man) Ezekiel (of Pharaoh's family) who was Pharaoh's cousin, (who hid his faith) from Pharaoh and his folk; it is also said that this means: a believing man, Ezekiel, who hid his faith from Pharaoh's family … (Commentary on Surah 40:28)

This discrepancy between traditional commentaries may have arisen from the failure to understand the analogy between the helper in Surah 28:20 and the one in Surah 40:28. Ibn Abbas concluded on the basis of the parallelisms between these verses that these two men were identical whereas Ibn Kathir reported a view that tended to distinguish them. Still, the occurrence of a male hero in Surah 28 along with the designation of Pharaoh’s wife as a heroine saving baby Moses’ life is not surprising. The author of this narrative may have wanted to construct a gender-based pair of heroic Egyptian figures in Moses’ fundamental story in Surah 28 and inserted the same male hero into Surah 40 while recounting Pharaoh’s new plot to slay Moses in his court. If this theory is true, the man in Surah 28:20 turns out to be analogous to Mordecai in that in Esther’s story Mordecai was the first person to know about Haman’s plans (Esther 4:1). Therefore, he sent words to Esther and gave her advice to prevent the massacre of the Jews (Esther 4:8).

Nonetheless, it is crucial to highlight the perplexing similarity between the two following verses in the Qur’an:

Then there came running, from the farthest part of the City, a man, saying, "O my people! Obey the apostles. (Surah 36:20 Yusuf Ali)

Wajaa min aqsa almadeenati rajulun yasAAa qala ya qawmi ittabiAAoo almursaleena (Arabic transliteration)

And there came a man, running, from the furthest end of the City. He said: "O Moses! the Chiefs are taking counsel together about thee, to slay thee: so get thee away, for I do give thee sincere advice." (Surah 28:20 Yusuf Ali)

Wajaa rajulun min aqsa almadeenati yasAAa qala ya moosa inna almalaa ya/tamiroona bika liyaqtulooka faokhruj innee laka mina alnnasiheena (Arabic transliteration)

In both accounts when the lives of the protagonists (Moses in Surah 28 and two unnamed apostles in Surah 36) are in danger, a mysterious figure appears by running from the farthest end of the city to give some advice. In Surah 36:20 the man addresses his people and asks them to obey the apostles whilst in Surah 28:20 the man addresses Moses and advises him to escape from Pharaoh’s plots of murder. Moreover, the figure in Surah 36:20 suddenly shows up right after his folk threaten to kill the apostles sent to them:

They said: "Our Lord doth know that we have been sent on a mission to you: "And our duty is only to proclaim the clear Message." The (people) said: "for us, we augur an evil omen from you: if ye desist not, we will certainly stone you. And a grievous punishment indeed will be inflicted on you by us." They said: "Your evil omens are with yourselves: (deem ye this an evil omen). If ye are admonished? Nay, but ye are a people transgressing all bounds!" Then there came running, from the farthest part of the City, a man, saying, "O my people! Obey the apostles. (Surah 36:16-20 Yusuf Ali)

This account is connected not only to Surah 28:20, but also to Surah 40:28 because in the latter the male believer reveals his faith right after Pharaoh threatens to slay Moses. More to the point, the man in Surah 36:20 delivers a sermon to his folk and invites them to faith in God and his apostles (verses 21-25), reminding us of the believing Egyptian’s sermon in Surah 40. Finally, the contrast between the believer and his pagan folk in Surah 36 is stressed at the end of this account, which again parallels the contrast presented at the end of the man’s speech in Surah 40. To compare:

It was said: "Enter thou the Garden." He said: "Ah me! Would that my People knew (what I know)! – (Surah 36:26 Yusuf Ali)

Then God saved him from (every) ill that they plotted (against him), but the burnt of the Penalty encompassed on all sides the People of Pharaoh. In front of the Fire will they be brought, morning and evening: And (the sentence will be) on the Day that Judgment will be established: "Cast ye the People of Pharaoh into the severest Penalty!" (Surah 40:45-46 Yusuf Ali)

In the light of this comparative study, it is reasonable to suggest that the author of Surah 28 adapted the account about the running believer from Surah 36 15 and divided it into two parts since Pharaoh attempted to slay Moses twice when he was a grown up man. This strengthens the theory and the traditional interpretation in a prominent Islamic commentary that the helping believer in Surah 28:20 was actually meant to be identical with the believing hero in Surah 40:28.

Contrasts: King versus Pharaoh

Despite the similarities, an interesting contrast arises from the comparison of Surah 12 with Surah 28. Although the Bible overtly talks of two distinct Pharaohs and stresses the contrast between their attitude to the Children of Israel (Exodus 1:8), the Qur’an oddly identifies the Pharaoh of Joseph’s period as “the king”, never using the title “Pharaoh” while referring to him. Many Muslim polemicists have made a mountain out of this molehill by insisting that the distinctive usage in the Qur’an aimed at the revelation and correction of a biblical error regarding the anachronistic use of a historical title: (1), (2).

This faulty conclusion stems from the ignorance of the fact that the Quranic author’s replacement of the title “Pharaoh” in Joseph’s narrative with the title “the king” does not suffice to prove the assertion put forward by Muslim polemicists, for there is nothing in the Qur’an to point out the reason underlying this peculiar difference in wording. Binding it to the proper use of historical titles for Egyptian rulers is based on a false dilemma since it dismisses the possibility that the writer of Surah 12 had other motives making him prefer the phrase “the king” to the word “Pharaoh”.

Second, the author of the Qur’an seems to recognize but one Pharaoh in human history as the word “Pharaoh” occurs throughout the Qur’an only in reference to the arrogant and rebellious ruler of the Egyptians. This gives birth to the question if the writer of the Islamic scripture was ever aware of the fact that “Pharaoh” was a title rather than a personal name. As if trying to prove otherwise, he never used the word “Pharaoh” interchangeably with the phrase “the king”. Even in Surah 28:4-6, which appear to be the equivalent of the account in Exodus 1, the phrase “the king” cannot be found. More strikingly, the narratives about Pharaoh and Moses in the Qur’an give the impression that there was one single Pharaoh as long as Moses was alive (*).

Third, Muslim polemicists cannot answer the question why not only the word “Pharaoh” but also the name Potiphar is missing from Joseph’s story in the Qur’an. Although they can hastily contend that the replacement of the first with the phrase “the king” is related to the proper use of the title “Pharaoh” in Egypt, they cannot provide a similar comment for the omission of the name “Potiphar” and its replacement with the phrase “el Aziz”, which means “viceroy” and is ascribed also to Joseph in the course of the story (Surah 12:78). Thus, it is more likely that the author of Surah 12 regarded also the word “Pharaoh” as a personal name in the same way as Potiphar and replaced these two with titles in Arabic.

Finally, it is also plausible that the writer of Surah 12 wished to reserve the word “Pharaoh” as a personal name for Moses’ and the Israelites’ main enemy. Similarly, he used the name Haman as a personal name of Pharaoh’s vizier for the first time in Surah 28:6 along with the word “Pharaoh”. With the help of this word choice he may have aimed to establish a contrast between Surah 12 and Surah 28 by distinguishing the unnamed king of Egypt and his unnamed vizier from Pharaoh and Haman.

After discussing the possible reasons underlying the story of Esther’s omission from the Islamic scripture, in the next section of this article I shall list and analyze the occurrences of the name Haman in the Qur’an in support of the fact that Haman’s insertion into Moses’ story by the Quranic writer was a gross historical blunder that resulted from a chain of confusions and erroneous conclusions.

Continue with Part B.


[First published: 18 May 2012]
[Last updated: 18 May 2012]


1 For instance, we cannot find in the Qur’an a detailed narrative of the events happening at the time of Christ’s crucifixion. The author of the Qur’an denied this historic incident in a late chapter of the post-migration period (Surah 4:156-158), but could not provide a detailed explanation for his objection to Christ’s crucifixion or for the means of its prevention. His failure was most likely dependent on his inaccessibility to the canonical or apocryphal writings relating Jesus’ passion and death.

2 The NET Bible presents the following commentary on the name Mordecai: Mordecai is a pagan name that reflects the name of the Babylonian deity Marduk. Probably many Jews of the period had two names, one for secular use and the other for use especially within the Jewish community. Mordecai’s Jewish name is not recorded in the biblical text (Footnote 9). The probable root of the name Esther is similarly explained through a footnote along with information on the alternate Jewish name ascribed to Esther: Hadassah is a Jewish name that probably means “myrtle”; the name Esther probably derives from the Persian word for “star,” although some scholars derive it from the name of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. Esther is not the only biblical character for whom two different names were used. Daniel (renamed Belteshazzar) and his three friends Hananiah (renamed Shadrach), Mishael (renamed Meshach), and Azariah (renamed Abednego) were also given different names by their captors (Footnote 13).

3 The Septuagint names the king Artaxerxes, which is a stronger clue to the identity of the Persian king in question.

4 According to the author of the Qur’an, there was one Haman in history and he lived in Moses’ era!

5 We suggest reading Andrew Vargo’s rebuttals to such claims in his thorough article about Haman: (1), (2).

6 This sudden declaration for fasting makes the Book of Esther similar to the Book of Jonah with the difference that in the former it is the Jews who repent and fast to avoid their destruction by Haman’s plots whereas in the latter it is the people of Nineveh who repent and fast to avoid their annihilation by Jonah’s God. While relating Jonah’s story, the author of the Qur’an did not talk of fasting as a sign of repentance saving the people of Nineveh from destruction. Still, we are told in the Qur’an that Allah inspired Moses and Aaron to establish regular prayers right when they wanted to be saved from the disbelieving folk (Surah 10:87) This could be due to the connection established by the writer of the Qur’an between Esther’s and Moses’ story through Haman’s mistaken transfer.

7 Abram is transformed into Abraham in Genesis 17:5 whilst Sarai into Sarah in Genesis 17:15; Luz was transformed into Bethel in Genesis 28:19; etc.

8 This Quranic account contains a number of problems. See this article.

9 Whether Muhammad deliberately severed Elijah’s ties with Israel because he had a different purpose in mind is the subject of a separate article.

10 It is possible that the number of the palm trees in Exodus 15:27 similarly held a symbolic relevance either to the number of the people that were directly descended from Jacob (Exodus 1:5) or with the number of the elders of Israel (Exodus 24:9). However, the writer of Surah 2 skipped the particular reference to the seventy palm trees, focusing only on the wells and turning them into twelve springs that allegedly gushed forth when Moses hit the rock with his staff.

11 For a thorough comparative analysis of Pseudo-Matthew 20 and Surah 19:23-26 see my first article on Jesus' Ministry and Miracles in the Qur'an.

12 For further information see my article Adoption by Adaption.

13 This is nothing unexpected since Muhammad was certainly not pleased with the idea of praising the Jewish nation. Even when he transferred some motifs from Esther’s story to Joseph’s narrative in Surah 12 and assigned to Joseph what had been originally said by Mordecai in the Bible about the fulfillment of his dream, he was able to leave out the reference to the Jewish nation’s rescue. As a result, in contrast to Mordecai, who praised God because He saved the Jews, Joseph in Surah 12 praised God because He saved and honored a pious servant of His.

14 It is weird indeed that some Muslim commentators gave this Egyptian a Jewish name!

15 According to the traditional chronological order of the Qur’an, Surah 36 preceded Surah 28.

Articles by Masud Masihiyyen
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