Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

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

Occurrences of the name Haman in the Qur’an

Masud Masihiyyen

In the previous article I have discussed the possible reasons causing the exclusion of Esther’s story from the Islamic scripture. As we also saw before, this particular omission did not make crucial the exclusion of Esther’s and Mordecai’s main enemy named Haman, the antagonist of the story of Esther in the Bible, from the Qur’an. In a sense, Haman managed to make his way into Muhammad’s scripture and appeared in Moses’ story in association with Pharaoh and his zeal to kill the Children of Israel. In this article I shall examine the Qur’an verses in which the name Haman occurs and demonstrate how these peculiar occurrences are linked to the assimilation of Esther’s story by Muhammad and/or the writer of the Qur’an to the Biblical story of Exodus.

In total there are six references to the name Haman in the entire Qur’an: Surah 28:6, Surah 28:8, Surah 28:38, Surah 29:39, Surah 40:24, Surah 40:36. These six occurrences can be grouped into three pairs, for they appear in the form of duplicates or as pairs that are both thematically and structurally related:

  • Surah 28:6 and Surah 28:8
  • Surah 29:39 and Surah 40:24
  • Surah 28:38 and Surah 40:36

Haman in Surah 28:6 and Surah 28:8

Surah 28, which is called Qasas in Arabic and literally means Narration, gives the most organized and ordered story of the events occurring in Moses’ life from the time of his infancy up to the period of the revelation to him. When the traditional chronological order of the Qur’an chapters is taken into account, Surah 28 also seems to be the first chapter in which the name Haman makes two uncanny appearances:

And to establish them in the earth, and to show Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts that which they feared from them. (Surah 28:6 Pickthall)

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 28:8 Pickthall)

It must also be noted that the narration of Moses’ story in Surah 28 begins with a reference to Pharaoh and his evil deeds with regard to corruption and oppression:

Truly Pharaoh elated himself in the land and broke up its people into sections, depressing a small group among them: their sons he slew, but he kept alive their females: for he was indeed a maker of mischief. (Surah 28:4 Yusuf Ali)

This verse is thematically hooked to the particular reference to Pharaoh, Haman, and their hosts in verse 6. Although it is not explicitly stated in verse 6 who Haman was, it is not difficult to understand three remarkable points with the help of the formulations in Surah 28:6 and Surah 28:8:

  1. Haman was a significant figure that was very close to Pharaoh to the extent that he was first mentioned in a pair with Pharaoh and directly associated with the hosts of Egypt in the same way as the main Egyptian ruler. This at least means that Haman was Pharaoh’s viceroy or held a similar remarkable office in administration.
  2. Haman was directly attached to the period Moses’ infancy and the manslaughter conducted by Pharaoh at that time on all male Israelites.
  3. Haman was Pharaoh’s partner not only in administration, but also in terms of evil and oppression. Moses’ adoption by Pharaoh’s family was a wise plan determined by God for not only Pharaoh’s, but also Haman’s punishment in return for his evil deeds.

This first pair of verses referring to Haman in association with Pharaoh in the Qur’an were most likely derived from Haman’s misplacement into Moses’ story due to the existence of a few parallel elements between the threats targeting the Israelites in Egypt at the time of Moses’ birth and those targeting the Israelite captives in Persia at the time of Mordecai. In both cases we have a mighty ruler who hates the Israelites and devises plots to kill them. Haman came to represent the second enemy of the nation of Israel after Pharaoh mostly in terms of the feeling of hatred and plans of genocide. When Esther’s story was not incorporated into the Islamic scripture, Haman was introduced as the second enemy of the Israelites together with Pharaoh, the first and foremost enemy. Consequently, Haman was transformed in the Qur’an into Pharaoh’s viceroy.

In addition to this basic motive, a number of other factors may have contributed to Haman’s accidental insertion into Moses’ story and thus given birth to Surah 28:6 and Surah 28:8. A possibility is that Muhammad and/or the author of the Qur’an became familiar with the fact that Haman was a descendant of Agag, the King of the Amalekites. Even this racial affiliation was related to and exhibited the hatred and enmity that the Amalekites felt towards the Israelites. It was the Amalekites who had tried to exterminate the Israelites while they were wandering in the wilderness right after their Exodus and freedom from Pharaoh (Exodus 17:8).

Further, in the non-canonical Jewish literature Esther’s and Mordecai’s story is sometimes narrated with an allusion to the Passover, the celebration of which was instituted by Moses at the time of Pharaoh’s punishment through the death of all Egyptian firstborns. This final plague compelled Pharaoh and the Egyptians to let the Israelites leave the country. In the Haggada (Legends of the Jews) the three-day fast declared by Esther for the Israelites’ rescue from Haman’s plots is said to have coincided with the celebration of the Passover:

Yielding at last to the arguments of Mordecai, Esther was prepared to risk life in this world, in order to secure life in the world to come. She made only one request of her uncle. He was to have the Jews spend three days in prayer and fasting in her behalf, that she might find favor in the eyes of the king. At first Mordecai was opposed to the proclamation of a fast, because it was Passover time, and the law prohibits fasting on the holidays. But he finally assented to Esther's reasoning: "Of what avail are the holidays, if there is no Israel to celebrate them, and without Israel, there would not be even a Torah. Therefore it is advisable to transgress on law, that God may have mercy upon us." (Legends of the Jews, Esther) 

This temporal parallelism between Esther’s story and the Passover may have made Haman’s transfer to Moses’ story easier and reasonable.

Again, in the Legends of the Jews Mordecai’s period is compared to Moses’ on the basis of the Passover celebrations. More to the point, the account depicts Mordecai as the new Moses in that the Israelites in Persia are claimed to have accused Mordecai of provoking Haman through his haughty acts. In short, Mordecai is blamed by his own folk for causing trouble:

The night during which Haman erected the cross for Mordecai was the first night of Passover, the very night in which miracles without number had ever been done for the Fathers and for Israel. But this time the night of joy was changed into a night of mourning and a night of fears. Wherever there were Jews, they passed the night in weeping and lamenting. The greatest terrors it held for Mordecai, because his own people accused him of having provoked their misfortunes by his haughty behavior toward Haman. (Legends of the Jews, Esther) 

Moses and Aaron were similarly accused by the Israelites at the time Moses defied Pharaoh in Egypt:

The Israelite foremen saw that they were in trouble when they were told, “You must not reduce the daily quota of your bricks.” When they went out from Pharaoh, they encountered Moses and Aaron standing there to meet them, and they said to them, “May the Lord look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the opinion of Pharaoh and his servants, so that you have given them an excuse to kill us!” (Exodus 5:19-21 Net Bible)

According to the same non-canonical source, Esther also deliberately acted as a female counterpart of Moses in her struggle against Haman, the analogy being based on Haman’s descent from the Amalekites:

After the banquet, the king repeated his question, and again made the asseveration, that he would fulfill all her wishes at whatever cost, barring only the restoration of the Temple. Esther, however, was not yet ready; she preferred to wait another day before taking up the conflict with Haman. She had before her eyes the example of Moses, who also craved a day's preparation before going out against Amalek, the ancestor of Haman. (Legends of the Jews, Esther) 

Even the petition put forward by Esther herself for the incorporation of her story into the Jewish Bible was directly linked to Moses and his war with the Amalekites:

Esther addressed another petition to the sages. She begged that the book containing her history should be incorporated in the Holy Scriptures. Because they shrank from adding anything to the triple Canon, consisting of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa, they again refused, and again they had to yield to Esther's argument. She quoted the words from Exodus, "Write this for a memorial in a book," spoken by Moses to Joshua, after the battle of Rephidim with the Amalekites. They saw that it was the will of God to immortalize the warfare waged with the Amalekite Haman. (Legends of the Jews, Esther) 

The struggle between the protagonists and the antagonist in Esther’s story is also regarded as a continuity of the former war between the Israelites and the Amalekites at Moses’ time. This is why Mordecai’s instructions to Esther aim to remind her of Israel’s similar history:

Do not imagine that thou alone canst escape, of all the Jews. For the sin of thy great grandfather Saul do we now suffer. If he had obeyed the words of Samuel, the wicked Haman had not descended from him who was of the family of Amalek. If Saul had slain Agag, the son of Hamadatha had not bought us for ten thousand silver talents; the Lord would not have delivered Israel into the hands of the wicked. Yet Moses prayed to the Lord for Israel, and Joshua discomforted Amalek; so arise thou, and pray before thy Father in heaven, and he who did execute justice on Amalek will now do the same to his wicked seed. From three oppressors of Israel does Haman draw his life-blood. First, Amalek, who was the first to fight against Israel, and who was defeated by Joshua. Next, Sisera, who laid a hand of iron upon our ancestors and met his punishment through a woman, Ja’el. Lastly, Goliath, who defied the camp of Israel and was laid low by the son of Jesse. Therefore, let not thy prayers cease, for God has ever listened to the breathings of a contrite heart, and for the sake of our ancestors He will show us favour. They were delivered from their enemies when all seemed hopeless. Pray, therefore, and imagine not that thou alone, of all thy people, shall be able to find safety." (The Talmud, Selections, Part IV. The Book of Esther) 

Above all, the Talmud explains at length Haman’s efforts to persuade the King of Persia to conduct genocide on all the Jews living in his kingdom. According to this account, the King of Persia at first objected to carry out Haman’s plan, saying that the nation of Israel was still protected by God:

Ahasuerus answered: "We are not able to do this thing. Their God has not deserted them, and they have prevailed over people greater and stronger than ourselves. We cannot accept thy advice in this matter." Still Haman persisted from time to time to pour complaints against the Jews in the ears of the king, and to urge their complete destruction. Finally Ahasuerus said, "As thou hast troubled me so much about this thing I will call together my officers, counsellors, and wise men, and ask their opinion." (The Talmud, Selections, Part IV. The Book of Esther) 

King Ahasuerus’ wise men also agreed with him that it would not be wise and possible to slaughter the Jews. While developing their argument, they remarkably referred to the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt and considered Pharaoh the primary figure representing Israel’s enemies’ failure:

When these sages were called before him the king put the question to them, and asked: "Now what is your advice, shall this nation be destroyed or not?" And the wise men answered unanimously, and said: "Should Israel be stricken from existence the world itself would no longer be; for through the merit of Israel and the law given to them the world exists. Are the people not called near to God (relatives)? 'Unto the children of Israel, a people near to Him.' Not alone this, they are also called children of the Lord, as it is written, 'Ye are the children of the Lord your God' (Dent. 14: r). Who can escape that raises a hand against his children? Pharaoh was punished for his conduct towards them; how shall we escape?" (The Talmud, Selections, Part IV. The Book of Esther) 

In response to King’s advice, Haman presented his counter argument and finally managed to persuade the King to massacre all the Jews in the kingdom. The strength of his argument stemmed from a contrast between Israel’s protection by God at the time of the Exodus and Israel’s abandonment by God at the time of the exile:

Then Haman arose and replied to these words: "The God who caused the death of Pharaoh and his hosts has grown old and feeble; his power leas departed from him. Did not Nebuchednezzar destroy his temple and send his people into exile? Why did he not prevent that if he was all-powerful?" By such arguments as these Haman altered the opinions and advice of the sages, and the letters ordering the massacre which he desired were prepared according to his command. (The Talmud, Selections, Part IV. The Book of Esther) 

Obviously, Haman was crafty enough to highlight the radical twist in Israel’s relation to God. It sufficed him to talk of the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the deportation of the Jews by Nebuchednezzar. In other words, Haman thought that the Babylonian King’s conduct towards Jews in comparatively recent times would perfectly prove his basic allegation that the God of Israel stopped protecting Israel.

More, blasphemous Haman said that Israel’s God became old and weak. He presented Nebuchednezzar’s triumph as a sign of God’s loss of power. It was also significant that Haman associated at least the former might of Israel’s God directly with Pharaoh’s and his hosts’ death in the sea, failing to deny the Exodus. However, his remedy was embodied in the replacement of failed Pharaoh with triumphant Nebuchednezzar, for only through this contrast could he show that God would not be able to protect His nation (Israel) anymore and the attempt to murder the Jews would therefore contain no risk of failure or punishment.

As I discussed at length in the previous article, the author of the Qur’an did not care the least about the Jewish exile or the arguments related to it by Israel’s enemies. This was one of the factors that most likely resulted in the omission of Esther’s story from the Islamic scripture. Haman, Israel’s second main enemy in Jewish history, on the other hand, was transferred to Moses’ story when he was identified as oppressive and arrogant Pharaoh’s right arm in administration. King Ahasuerus’ assimilation to Pharaoh due to the similarities between Pharaoh’s and Haman’s hostile plans targeting the Israelites thus became smooth because the Qur’an lacked a reference to the period of the Jewish captives in Persia.

Accordingly, when it became impossible for the writer of the Qur’an to affiliate Haman with the time of the Jewish deportation by Nebuchednezzar, the contrast constructed by Haman between Pharaoh the Babylonian King lost its meaning and was transformed into a similarity between Pharaoh and Haman with regard to the oppression of the Israelites. Consequently, in sharp contrast to Haman’s blasphemous statement in the Talmud that the God of Israel lost His power after causing Pharaoh’s and his hosts’ death, the writer of Surah 28 claimed that God became triumphant and punished not only Pharaoh and his hosts, but also Haman.

In the light of this comparison between the Talmud and the Qur’an, it is possible to say that Haman’s inclusion into the two sentences referring to Pharaoh and his hosts in Surah 28 is not without a significant reason. Equally, the occurrence of the name Haman right between the word Pharaoh and the word hosts and Haman’s relevant affiliation with both Pharaoh and the hosts (Surah 28:6 and Surah 28:8), the very pair representing Israel’s God’s triumph mentioned in the Talmud, cannot probably be a mere coincidence. These two verses may actually point out a latent link to Haman’s arrogant statements regarding Pharaoh’s death in the Talmud.

Haman in Surah 29:39 and Surah 40:24

The distinctive characteristic of these two verses is that the pair of Pharaoh and Haman (Surah 28:6 and Surah 28:8) is turned into a triplet through Qarun’s (Biblical Korah) inclusion:

(Remember also) Qarun, Pharaoh, and Haman: there came to them Moses with Clear Signs, but they behaved with insolence on the earth; yet they could not overreach (Us). (Surah 29:39 Yusuf Ali)

To Pharaoh, Haman, and Qarun; but they called (him) "a sorcerer telling lies!"...  (Surah 40:24 Yusuf Ali)

In both of these verses Moses is said to have been sent to Pharaoh, Haman, and Qarun. Although the idea of Moses’ mission to Pharaoh and Haman is compatible with Haman’s occurrence along with Pharaoh in the story of Moses’ infancy in Surah 28, nothing of the sort can be said about Qarun, which is later understood to be the name assigned to Biblical Korah by Muhammad and/or the writer of the Qur’an.

The reason for the perversion of the Biblical name Korah into the Quranic name Qarun may have resulted from the wish to emphasize the Biblical connection between Korah and Aaron. According to the Bible, Korah was also a Levite (Numbers 16:1) and the primary reason for his rebellion to Moses was his jealousy of and rivalry with Aaron (Numbers 16:11). The author of the Qur’an naively thought that he would be able to express this connection by changing only the initial letter of the name Harun (Aaron in Arabic) to produce the rhyming name Qarun. However, he forgot to explain how Qarun was related to Harun and why these two characters were asserted to bear similar names. Thus, he oddly concealed from the reader his reason for the invention of the name Qarun and its ascription to Korah.

What enables us to know that the writer of the Qur’an had in his mind Biblical Korah when he talked of Qarun is the only account given about him in Surah 28:76-82. This particular narrative reflects the Talmudic influence on the Quranic author in regard to Korah’s designation, in addition to reiterating some Biblical teachings concerning Korah in the Bible.1

There is another interesting point regarding the occurrence of the name Qarun in the Islamic scripture. We are surprised to see that this figure appears four times in total in the Qur’an, and in two of these occurrences he is forced into a triplet with Pharaoh and Haman (Surah 29:39 and Surah 40:24). The remaining two verses are embedded into the single Quranic account about him in Surah 28 (verses 76 and 79). Even though he is not directly associated with Pharaoh and Haman in this chapter, we cannot look over the fact that he was not totally separated from them either. This is because Qarun and his story occur for the first time in Surah 28, which is mysteriously Moses’ most organized story and the first chapter in which we encounter the pair of Pharaoh and Haman (verses 6 and 8). This may be a clue indicating that in the Quranic author’s mind Qarun already had some vague association with Pharaoh and Haman, and this association was made obvious when the triplet of Pharaoh, Haman, and Qarun was constructed in the two subsequent chapters (Surah 40 and 29).

Some scholars argued that the reference to Qarun particularly in Surah 40:24 may have pointed at Muhammad’s familiarity with the Talmudic teaching that Korah served Pharaoh and thus lived in his palace:

Haman and Korah are mentioned as counselors of Pharaoh and persecutors of the Israelites. The latter is alluded to in this capacity by the Rabbis, who say "Korah was the chief steward over Pharaoh's house." (Source)

Geiger’s argument is apparently based on the Quranic claim in Surah 29:39 and Surah 40:24 that Moses was sent to Pharaoh, Haman, and Qarun (Korah). However, the reading of all the accounts about Pharaoh and Haman do not support this kind of an interpretation and conclusion. This is basically because there is no verse in the Qur’an that refers to Qarun’s presence in Pharaoh’s house or royal court. We primarily have the pair of Pharaoh and Haman, and the teaching that Haman was very close to Pharaoh and was a prevalent figure in his palace is attested by Surah 28:38 and Surah 40:36 in addition to Surah 28:6 and Surah 28:8. On the other hand, the first and last account about Qarun in the Qur’an does not implicitly or explicitly affiliate him with Pharaoh’s administration. Similarly, we never hear Pharaoh address Qarun and ask his assistance when Moses goes to confront him.2  This is why it is likely that the weird idea in Surah 29:39 and Surah 40:24 that Moses was sent to Pharaoh, Haman, and Qarun, who denied and mocked him, stemmed from Qarun’s mistaken addition into the pair of Pharaoh and Haman due to an assimilation.

We cannot find a reference in the entire Qur’an to the rebellion and punishment of Dathan, Abiram, and Korah during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus (Numbers 16:1-35). Instead, this Biblical triplet consisting of the three rebellious Israelites confronting Moses in the wilderness was probably replaced with the new Quranic triplet of Pharaoh, Haman, and Qarun. The reason underlying this assimilation was certainly a number of similarities between these two triplets. In the Bible, Dathan, Abiram, and Korah represented the rebellious and arrogant Israelites that opposed Moses in the wilderness and were subsequently punished by God. The author of the Qur’an presented Pharaoh and Haman as Moses’ haughty and rebellious enemies. They similarly denied and mocked Moses and were subsequently punished.

A closer examination of the accounts in the Qur’an with those in the Bible shows that Qarun (Korah) was later included into the pair of Pharaoh and Haman. Thus, he was similar to them, but was also singled out. Likewise, the Bible talked of Dathan and Abiram as a pair, and the triplet of Dathan, Abiram, and Korah was constituted through Korah’s addition. The author of the Qur’an probably tended to modify the Biblical pair of Dathan and Abiram into the new pair of Pharaoh and Haman in the first place. These words even seem to have a phonological similarity. Haman sounds like Dathan whilst Abiram like Fir’awn (Pharaoh in Arabic).3

Korah’s addition in the form of Qarun into the already existing pair of Pharaoh and Haman in the Islamic scripture thus appears to be a case of assimilation within assimilation, for Pharaoh’s accidental coupling with Haman in Surah 28 owes its existence to Haman’s transfer from Esther’s story into Moses’ story and King Ahasuerus’ relevant replacement with Pharaoh. Further, Korah’s presentation as the third person of the new Quranic triplet (Pharaoh, Haman and Qarun) may have its roots also in the similarity between Haman and Korah with regard to wealth and the parallelism established between riches and arrogance. According to the Bible, Haman boasted of his wealth and power while making plans to get Mordecai killed:

But when Haman saw Mordecai at the king’s gate, and he did not rise nor tremble in his presence, Haman was filled with rage toward Mordecai. But Haman restrained himself and went on to his home. He then sent for his friends to join him, along with his wife. Haman then recounted to them his fabulous wealth, his many sons, and how the king had magnified him and exalted him over the king’s other officials and servants. (Esther 5:9-11).

More significantly, Haman’s wealth is implied in his speech to King Ahasuerus at the time of his suggestion for the massacre of the Jews. He offers a bribe by relying on his wealth to conduct genocide on the Jews living in Persia:

If the king is so inclined, let an edict be issued to destroy them. I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to be conveyed to the king’s treasuries for the officials who carry out this business.” (Esther 3:9)

The NET Bible provides the following footnote on the quantity of the money offered by Haman:

The enormity of the monetary sum referred to here can be grasped by comparing this amount (10,000 talents of silver) to the annual income of the empire, which according to Herodotus (Histories 3.95) was 14,500 Euboic talents. In other words Haman is offering the king a bribe equal to two-thirds of the royal income. Doubtless this huge sum of money was to come (in large measure) from the anticipated confiscation of Jewish property and assets once the Jews had been destroyed. (Footnote 23)

Additionally, the rabbinical literature considers Haman and Korah two richest figures in the world, laying emphasis on the fact that their wealth did not save them from destruction:

Korah is represented as the possessor of extraordinary wealth, he having discovered one of the treasures which Joseph had hidden in Egypt. The keys of Korah's treasuries alone formed a load for three hundred mules (Pes. 119a; Sanh. 110a). He and Haman were the two richest men in the world, and both perished on account of their rapacity, and because their riches were not the gift of Heaven (Num. R. xxii. 7; comp. Ex. R. li. 1). (Jewish Encyclopedia)

Interestingly, in the Qur’an it is written that Moses prayed and asked God to destroy Pharaoh’s and his officials’ wealth:

Moses prayed: "Our Lord! Thou hast indeed bestowed on Pharaoh and his chiefs splendour and wealth in the life of the present, and so, Our Lord, they mislead (men) from Thy Path. Deface, our Lord, the features of their wealth, and send hardness to their hearts, so they will not believe until they see the grievous penalty." (Surah 10:88 Yusuf Ali)

A quick comparison between Surah 10 and Surah 40 illustrates how the writer of the Qur’an changed his previous formulation when he added Qarun (Korah) into Moses’ story as well as into the pair of Pharaoh and Haman:

Then after them sent We Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh and his chiefs with Our Signs. But they were arrogant: they were a people in sin. When the Truth did come to them from Us, they said: "This is indeed evident sorcery!" (Surah 10:75-76 Yusuf Ali)

Of old We sent Moses, with Our Signs and an authority manifest, to Pharaoh, Haman, and Qarun; but they called (him) "a sorcerer telling lies!"... (Surah 40:23-24 Yusuf Ali)

The difference is not limited to the replacement of the phrase Pharaoh and his chiefs in Surah 10 with the triplet of Pharaoh, Haman, and Qarun in Surah 40, but is also based on Aaron’s disappearance from the latter. When this triplet occurs for the second and last time in the Qur’an, we see that Aaron is once more dropped:

(Remember also) Qarun, Pharaoh, and Haman: there came to them Moses with Clear Signs, but they behaved with insolence on the earth; yet they could not overreach (Us). (Surah 29:39 Yusuf Ali)

This similarity in structure and Aaron’s disappearance could be because of a hasty copying and does not affect the meaning of the verse drastically. Nonetheless, this particular verse identifies Pharaoh, Haman, and Qarun as haughty (insolent) figures, supporting the theory that Qarun’s attachment to the pair of Pharaoh and Haman resulted from the assimilation of Dathan’s and Abiram’s Biblical stories. In the light of this possibility the appearance of only Moses’ name in this verse gains meaning and significance since according to the Biblical narrative, it was Moses who went to Dathan, Abiram, and Korah and gave them instructions:

Then Moses got up and went to Dathan and Abiram; and the elders of Israel went after him. (Numbers 16:25)

When Moses heard it he fell down with his face to the ground. Then he said to Korah and to all his company, “In the morning the Lord will make known who are his, and who is holy. He will cause that person to approach him; the person he has chosen he will cause to approach him. (Numbers 16:4-5)

In short, Moses was confronted by Dathan, Abiram, and Korah during Israel’s days in the wilderness. The author of the Qur’an changed the time of this rebellion to Moses’ meeting with Pharaoh and said that Moses was sent to insolent and rebellious Pharaoh, Haman, and Qarun. It is no wonder that in Surah 29 the reference to the new Quranic triplet implied these haughty figures’ punishment by God with the help of the statement that “they could not overreach Us”. The author immediately elaborated on this verse when he devised the following:

Each one of them We seized for his crime: of them, against some We sent a violent tornado (with showers of stones); some were caught by a (mighty) Blast; some We caused the earth to swallow up; and some We drowned (in the waters): It was not Allah Who injured (or oppressed) them: They injured (and oppressed) their own souls. (Surah 29:40 Yusuf Ali)

Four groups of people are reckoned in this verse with four different means of divine punishment. It is highly probable that the people against whom was sent a tornado correspond to the People of Ad and those who were caught by a mighty blast correspond to the People of Thamud:

(Remember also) the 'Ad and the Thamud (people): clearly will appear to you from (the traces) of their buildings (their fate): the Evil One made their deeds alluring to them, and kept them back from the Path, though they were gifted with intelligence and skill. (Surah 29:38 Yusuf Ali)

It is not difficult to guess that the person who was swallowed up by the earth is Qarun, about whose end the same claim is held in Surah 28:81. Finally, the remaining people who are claimed to have been drowned in waters are definitely the pair of Pharaoh and Haman. Some Islamic commentaries also teach that Pharaoh and Haman drowned in waters. For example, we read the following in Ibn Kathir’s commentary:

(and of them were some whom We drowned.) This refers to Fir`awn, his minister Haman and their troops, all of whom were drowned in a single morning, not one of them escaped. (Source)

It is worthy of note that the reading of Surah 29:39 together with Surah 29:40 also answers the question why only in this verse did the name Qarun precede the names Pharaoh and Haman. Since the type of Qarun’s punishment was reckoned before that of Pharaoh’s and Haman’s in verse 40, the author of this Surah applied this same order to the triplet in verse 39.4 Again, Surah 29:39 is significant in that it once more demonstrates Qarun’s later insertion into the crucial and pre-determined pair of Pharaoh and Haman.

Undoubtedly, the author of the Qur’an contradicted both the Bible and the Jewish tradition with regard to Haman’s end. In sharp contrast to the contention in Surah 29:40 that Pharaoh and Haman drowned together in the waters, the Bible plainly and firmly teaches that Haman was hanged:

Harbona, one of the king’s eunuchs, said, “Indeed, there is the gallows that Haman made for Mordecai, who spoke out in the king’s behalf. It stands near Haman’s home and is seventy-five feet high.” The king said, “Hang him on it!” So they hanged Haman on the very gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. The king’s rage then abated. (Esther 7:9-10)

Haman had prepared gallows to kill Mordecai by having him hanged, listening to the suggestion made by his wife and his friends:

Haman’s wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, “Have a gallows seventy-five feet high built, and in the morning tell the king that Mordecai should be hanged on it. Then go with the king to the banquet contented.” (Esther 5:14)

This teaching is repeated and embellished in the Talmud, where it is again Haman’s wife who thinks that Haman must hang Mordecai because all the other types of execution will be ineffective:

"Thou canst never prevail against Mordecai by means which have already been brought to bear against his people," said Zeresh to Haman. "Thou canst not kill him with a knife or sword, for Isaac was delivered from the same; neither canst thou drown him, for Moses and the people of Israel walked safely through the sea. Fire will not burn him, for with Chananyah and his comrades it failed; wild beasts will not tear him, for Daniel was rescued from the lions' fangs; neither will a dungeon contain him, for Joseph walked to honour through a prison's gates. Even if we deprive him of sight we can not prevail against him, for Samson was made blind, and yet destroyed thousands of the Philistines. There is but one way left us; we must hang him." (The Talmud, Selections, Part IV. The Book of Esther) 

Strikingly, Haman’s wife refers to Moses’ and Israelites’ safe walk through the Sea while explaining why Haman should not try drowning Mordecai. According to her, the best and only way of getting rid of Mordecai will be by hanging him on the gallows. She talks about the means of execution and eliminates drowning in association with Moses. The author of Surah 29:40, however, reckons the different types of punishment applied to sinful and arrogant figures/communities and claims not only that Haman lived in Moses’ time, but also that he perished along with Pharaoh. Ironically, drowning in the waters together with Pharaoh was the best type of execution for the peculiar Haman of the Qur’an: first, he was Pharaoh’s contemporary and his vizier, second he formed a couple with Pharaoh to the extent that he shared the same end with him.

Haman in Surah 28:38 and Surah 40:36

Haman makes two more occurrences in the Qur’an. We see that Pharaoh addresses Haman and asks him to make a lofty tower right after Moses goes to his presence and invites him to belief in the one true God:

And Pharaoh said: O chiefs! I know not that ye have a god other than me, so kindle for me (a fire), O Haman, to bake the mud; and set up for me a lofty tower in order that I may survey the God of Moses; and lo! I deem him of the liars. (Surah 28:38 Pickthall)

Interestingly, this verse claims that Pharaoh regarded himself as the only god of his chiefs. This teaching contradicts not only the Biblical data that talk of Egypt’s many gods5 (Exodus 12:12), but also with the teaching given in Surah 7:127 that Pharaoh worshipped many deities.6 This is not the only problem of this verse though. Pharaoh’s statements and instructions for the construction of a huge building exhibit his zeal to defy and mock Moses because of his faith, but the particular way by which this zeal is expressed possesses odd similarities with the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). In the Bible the construction of a lofty building reaching the heavens is ascribed to the generations that follow the period of Noah and the deluge whereas in the Qur’an this plot is ascribed to Pharaoh, whose aim is said to be looking for Moses’ God in the skies and proving him a liar in case Moses’ God cannot be found there. In short, it will not be wrong that Surah 28:38 constitutes another great example of assimilation within assimilation through Haman’s occurrence: Haman’s role as Pharaoh’s vizier resulted in his direct association with the Biblical narrative about the Tower of Babel.

This double assimilation is maintained in Surah 40:36, which seems to be a repetition of Surah 28:38 with slight modifications in sentence structure:

And Pharaoh said: O Haman! Build for me a tower that haply I may reach the roads (Surah 40:36 Pickthall)

Strangely, this verse seems split as its remaining part occurs in the following verse:

The roads of the heavens, and may look upon the God of Moses, though verily I think him a liar. Thus was the evil that he did made fairseeming unto Pharaoh, and he was debarred from the (right) way. The plot of Pharaoh ended but in ruin. (Surah 40:37 Pickthall)

It is probable that there was a problem with the transmission of this verse, the problem most likely stemming from the transfer of Surah 28:38 to the narrative about Moses and Pharaoh in Surah 40. In this latter chapter the sudden emergence of an unidentified figure that is claimed to be a cryptic Egyptian believer (Surah 40:28) and his sermon-like statements disrupt the flow of the dialogue between Pharaoh and Moses and give the impression that Pharaoh’s call to Haman for the construction of a tower was still in response to Moses’ sayings although it was uttered right after this Egyptian’s speech. In any case the important thing is that Pharaoh asks Haman to build a lofty edifice because he believes this to be the only means of seeing Moses’ God.

While debunking the great Haman Hoax fabricated by modern Muslim propagandists, Jochen Katz also dealt with the particular assertion that Haman was actually the head of the stone quarries under Pharaoh’s command (*). Harun Yahya still propagates this unsubstantiated and rebutted claim on his website under the section of the (so-called) historical miracles of the Qur’an:

Through the decoding of hieroglyph, an important piece of knowledge was revealed: The name "Haman" was indeed mentioned in Egyptian inscriptions. This name was referred to in a monument in the Hof Museum in Vienna. This same inscription also indicated the close relationship between Haman and the Pharaoh.

In the dictionary of People in the New Kingdom, that was prepared based on the entire collection of inscriptions, Haman is said to be "the head of stone quarry workers."

The result revealed a very important truth: Unlike the false assertion of the opponents of the Qur'an, Haman was a person who lived in Egypt at the time of the Prophet Musa (as). He had been close to the Pharaoh and had been involved in construction work, just as imparted in the Qur'an. (Source)

Some Islamic writers and websites, however, decided to change their arguments when they saw that resorting to lies and legends about the discovery of the name Haman in ancient Egyptian writings was no more helpful. For instance, the Islamic Awareness team have recently stopped relying on Maurice Bucaille’s false claims and replaced their former article with a new one.7

Obviously, Maurice Bucaille and some Muslim propagandists walking in his footsteps fabricated a hoax about the occurrence of the name Haman in ancient Egyptian writings due to their desperation and exasperation caused by the Christian polemicists’ attack on Surah 28:38 and the other instances where Haman is mistakenly made to form a couple with Pharaoh. Consequently, they hastened to identify the Haman of the Qur’an as the master of construction in Egypt solely because in Surah 28:38 and Surah 40:36 Pharaoh instructed Haman to build a tower.

Nevertheless, this kind of an argument cannot be supported with the help of the Qur’an since Surah 28:38 appears to be related to Surah 28:6 and Surah 28:8, which talk of Haman as the person in charge of the Egyptian armies. It is ridiculous to presume that Haman was fundamentally “the head of stone quarry workers” and this resulted in his designation as Pharaoh’s partner with regard to the administration of Egypt, but it is all the more logical to conclude that Pharaoh addressed only Haman with his personal name in Surah 28:38 and asked him alone to construct a lofty tower because Haman was his vizier and constituted a pair with him as in every instance where the name Haman occurs in the Islamic scripture. More to the point, Pharaoh’s instruction to Haman was meaningful and remarkable because it came out of his desire to defy and mock Moses. Thus, Haman’s association with the construction of the lofty tower was a natural outcome of Haman’s enmity towards Moses along with Pharaoh. Consequently, it was only Haman who collaborated with Pharaoh when it was crucial to confront Moses through the construction of a huge building.

Besides, there is no evidence in the entire Qur’an to show that Haman was primarily the master of construction in Egypt. If that had been the case, we would most likely not hear his name in the Islamic scripture in the same way as we cannot hear the names of Pharaoh’s other officials. In that case Pharaoh would have summoned the master of construction to his palace as he summoned the wizards only when they were needed (Surah 26:36-37).

Finally, the Jewish tradition designates King Ahasuerus’ vizier Haman also as an astrologer because he observed the stars to determine the exact day of the Jewish massacre:

Haman was also an astrologer, and when he was about to fix the time for the massacre of the Jews he first cast lots to ascertain which was the most auspicious day of the week for that purpose. Each day, however, proved to be under some influence favorable to the Jews. He then sought to fix the month, but found that the same was true of each month; thus, Nisan was favorable to the Jews because of the Passover sacrifice; Iyyar, because of the small Passover. But when he arrived at Adar he found that its zodiacal sign was Pisces, and he said, "Now I shall be able to swallow them as fish which swallow one another" (Esth. R. vii.; Targ. Sheni iii.). (Jewish Encyclopedia

This additional expertise ascribed to Haman in Judaism is weirdly compatible with the idea in Surah 28:38 that Pharaoh asked Haman to construct a lofty edifice for the purpose of observation in the sky. We cannot know for sure though if this detail played a role in Haman’s affiliation with Pharaoh’s observations and search concerning Moses’ God in the skies. We can only say that it is not unreasonable to regard Pharaoh’s call to Haman in Surah 28:38 and Surah 40:36 as a result of Haman’s familiarity with lofty towers and their use as places of observation.

Despite these plausible parallelisms, Haman’s incorporation into Pharaoh’s mistaken connection to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel most probably resulted from the misinterpretation and assimilation of the accounts in the Torah. In the next article I shall analyze how and why the pair of Pharaoh and Haman were thematically linked to the Tower of Babel in Surah 28:38 after a thorough examination of the original account in the Bible.

Continue with Part 2.


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


1 For a comprehensive analysis of the similarities between what is taught about Korah in both the Bible and the Talmud and what is said about Qarun in the Qur’an, see my article named The Anatomy of the Qur’an’s Mistakes.

2 Compare this with Pharaoh’s call to Haman for the construction of a lofty tower in Surah 28:38 and Surah 40:36.

3 The Greek version of the name Abiram is given as Aviron in the Septuagint. This Greek form sounds more similar to the Arabic word for Pharaoh.

4 Needless to say, the current place of Qarun’s name in this verse (before Pharaoh and Haman) is chronologically faulty and misleading. Qarun (Korah) was swallowed by the earth not before, but long after Pharaoh was drowned!

5 We see in the killing of all the firstborns of the Egyptians at the time of the Passover God’s judgment on Egypt’s false deities.

6 For a comprehensive analysis of this particular Quranic discrepancy see this article.

7 We suggest reading Andrew Vargo’s article on the Islamic Awareness’ new tactics (*).

Articles by Masud Masihiyyen
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