It is well-known that our understanding of the Hebrew Bible may benefit from recourse to extra-Biblical materials. Canaanite, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and ancient Iranian cultures, for instance, have all been deemed productive stomping-grounds for those seeking to contextualize individual words, verses, passages or other aspects of the Bible. The idea that every text has a context applies to the Bible, too. But it is equally clear that the Hebrew Bible is a pre-Islamic text. Even the latest books of the biblical canon predate the rise of Islam by close to a millennium. And while some Orientalists turned to (post-Islamic) desert nomads to gain insights into ancient Israelite tribal norms, they did so knowing full well that their findings were at best inferential. Despite this, in my view, there is much to be gained – even for an understanding of the Bible’s texts and contexts – by turning to Muslim sources, particularly those written by Muslims about a thousand years ago.
After all, the Hebrew Bible is, geographically, Middle Eastern. Virtually all the lands mentioned in the Bible – Egypt, Syria, the Holy Land, Arabia, Iraq, Iran – have, over the past fourteen centuries, been largely populated and ruled by Muslims. And yet, for a variety of reasons, the primary focus of scholarship has been on the Jewish and Christian exegetical traditions from ‘Western’ cultures. In recent decades, progress has been made towards a more inclusive coverage of biblical interpretation, including studies of Eastern Christianities and Judeo-Arabic materials (both rabbanite and Qaraite) that relate to the Bible and its interpretation. While this has yielded important and impressive results, little attention has been paid to Muslim sources in this context.
There are corners of the Hebrew Bible that might particularly benefit from turning to Muslim sources, including those books – such as Esther – that deal with ancient Iran. In many ways uniquely amongst Muslim societies, the Iranians have proudly preserved their pre-Islamic heritage over the millennia. Iranians have retained both the Persian language and a robust cultural memory, especially as it pertains to pre-Islamic Iranian history. Such records, famously recollected in the Shahnama (or ‘Book of Kings’, to name the most famous work of the sort), describe a pre-Alexander Jewish Queen; an ancient rivalry with a nation whose leading general was called ‘Homan’; a regicidal plot by two courtiers (foiled by a third, relatively minor functionary); six-month-long banquets; as well as other details that ring familiar to readers of Esther.
Even disregarding the overlap between the Iranian and biblical traditions in this case, tracing biblical reception history – particularly amongst Iranian-Muslims – presents us with a variety of Muslim views of the Esther story over the centuries. Esther is obviously a ‘Jewish’ story but it is also deemed by many local Muslims to be an ‘Iranian’ story, as it concerns relations between Jews in the ancient Persian Empire and their non-Jewish neighbors and context. Iranian Muslims are aware that the presence of Jews in Iran is ancient and that their influence has been considerable – even today, the antipathy between the ‘Jewish’ and ‘Iranian’ states often conceals the fact that Jews have lived continuously in Iran from some two and a half millennia, where they at times played important roles in the region’s history. (There are Jewish members of the Iranian parliament today, who represent the country’s 20,000 or so Jewish citizens).
Accordingly, for some Iranians, Esther is a source of pride, a success-story about the integration of Jews in Iranian society, where a Jewess became the queen and a Jew became the vizier. The tomb of Mordecai and Esther in Hamadan continues to be a popular pilgrimage site for both Jews and Muslims, and in 2008, the Iranian government promoted it to the status of a ‘national heritage site’. This approach to Esther sits in uncomfortable tension with the dénouement of the story, in which over 75,000 non-Jews in the Persian Empire (the Bible itself supplies the numbers) were murdered indiscriminately. Whether it is deemed a high point or a low point in Iranian history, Esther is still part of that history.
Naturally, Esther’s reception has not been uniform throughout the Muslim world. During the early reign of the Abbasid caliphs (750- circa 1000), the center of Muslim intellectual activity was focused geographically on Iraq, with Iranian scholars (writing in Arabic) dominating cultural production. In subsequent centuries, as the Abbasid caliphate fragmented into semi-autonomous dynasties, intellectuals in Iran revived Persian as a court language and drew on local sources and traditions to retell Esther and describe Purim celebrations in such places as tenth-century Afghanistan. Some of the works from this period shed light on both the Muslim reception of the Esther story – a topic worthy in its own right – but also, and more surprisingly, on pre-Islamic interpretations of Esther that have not survived elsewhere. In the broadest of strokes, Jews and Christians appear to have left their mark on the writings of Muslim authors, for which reason some ancient ideas, which were originally circulating by and amongst these communities but are no longer extant in their original form, found their way into Muslim sources and are retrievable nowadays only by recourse to such materials.
One example of this phenomenon comes from the leading historian and Quranic exegete al-Tabari (838-923). As his name suggests, al-Tabari was a native of the Tabaristan region of Iran and his coverage of the Esther story features in his description of Ahashwerosh’s reign. Amongst other details, he relates a relatively early, detailed version of the midrash that Haman sold himself as a slave to Mordecai. Al-Tabari’s version of this midrash bridges the sparse narrative provided in ancient Greek versions of Esther and in the Babylonian Talmud, with the fleshed-out narrative found in the 13th century German midrashic compilation Yalqut Shim‘oni. The vignette he relates can stand alone, of course, but as a missing link in a midrashic chain it is doubly significant.
Another example of Muslim sources inadvertently reflecting pre-Islamic ideas pertains to Haman’s epithet, ‘Bougaios’, given in the Greek versions of Esther. The precise meaning of this epithet is unclear and has divided scholars. Already A. Augustin Calmet (d. 1757) proposed that it refers to the fourth-century BCE Persian courtier, Bagoas, infamous for a series of successful (and one failed) regicidal attempts. There is much overlap between descriptions of Bagoas and Haman’s career, which convinced Calmet that the epithet ‘Bougaios’ was used to related Haman to Bagoas in some way. Although this theory was recently revived by the Biblicist Karen Jobes, other options have gained more support, not least because there is no evidence that ancient Jewish or Christian exegetes connected Haman with Bagoas. In this case, too, Muslim authors provide the missing link: Already in the ninth century, Muslim traditions about ‘Haman’ related that he acquired power and wealth by extorting bribes from those who wished to bury their dead. The Arabic word for ‘corpses’ (nawawis) in these texts is almost identical to the word for ‘sacred writings’ (nawamis). Interestingly, Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BCE, tells us that Bagoas was known to have confiscated sacred writings from Egyptian priests, only returning them on the payment of a bribes. It would appear, therefore, that there was in fact an ancient Jewish or Christian conflation of “Haman Bougaios” with Bagoas, evidence for which may only be found in Muslim materials from over a millennium ago.
There are numerous other points of interest that emerge from an interrogation of pre-Modern Muslim discussions of Esther, only one of which will be mentioned here for lack of space. There is evidence that Persian Muslims and Jews shared notions about the story that united them on the one hand and distinguished them from their coreligionists elsewhere on the other. Ideas about Abraham’s biography, for instance, are so different amongst Jews and Muslims to the east of the Euphrates River, that it came to be thought that Abraham and Haman lived in the same place (Shushan), at the same time (during the construction of the Tower of Babel), and had a mother with the same extremely rare name (Amthelai). It was a short step from there to confusing ‘Haran’ (Abraham’s brother in the Bible) with ‘Haman’, a confusion that surfaces in highly influential publications in Iran, where Haman is said to have been Abraham’s brother. The fact that Haran is reported to have died in a fiery furnace, and Haman’s effigy is burned in popular Purim ceremonies, cemented the association between the two figures. While this is, historically, an error, this mistake reveals the many ways of processing biblical materials and reconciling them with extra-biblical ones found in Muslim traditions. It also teaches us that perhaps Iranian traditions about an Iranian story are worthy of our attention for their unique perspectives, and that it is an oversimplification to speak in neat terms of Jewish, Christian, or Muslim views on a biblical topic.
Prof. Adam J. Silverstein, Bar Ilan University, author of Veiling Esther, Unveiling Her Story: The Reception of a Biblical Book in Islamic Lands, Oxford, 2018.