This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Meeting in Mecca*

The polygamous households of our biblical forebears were not always blessed with domestic harmony.

For example, the relationship between our matriarch Sarah and her servant Hagar, whom she had given to Abraham as a concubine, was a source of particularly intense strife. The Torah relates (Genesis 16:6) that Sarah treated Hagar so harshly that the latter was compelled to flee into the desert to escape her mistress's wrath.

It took the intervention of an angel to persuade the pregnant Hagar that she should return home, and that her suffering would eventually be rewarded by the birth of a son, Ishmael.

The scene of the encounter between Hagar and the angel is identified by the Torah as "a fountain in the road to Shur." It is further stated that this fountain was situated "between Kadesh and Bered." All these names point to a location in the Sinai desert, somewhere near the Egyptian border.

It is therefore quite astonishing that Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, whose commentaries are normally distinguished by their scrupulous adherence to the textual facts, was impelled to add that Hagar's well is the scene of an annual pilgrimage by Ishmael's descendents, to whom it is known as the Zamzam.

The Zamzam spring is of course a well-known sacred site in Islam, an important station in the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that is a central pillar of Muslim devotion. It is indeed customary for the pilgrims to drink from the waters of the Zamzam spring, which they identify as the same well that appeared to Hagar and Ishmael when they were banished to the desert by Sarah, following Isaac's birth (Genesis 21).

While the agreement between the Jewish and Muslim traditions is intriguing, there is an obvious difficulty that arises from Ibn Ezra's interpretation: Mecca, the site of the Zamzam spring, is located in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, and not in the Sinai, where the Bible seems to situate it.

The attempt to harmonize the conflicting stories requires Ibn Ezra taking to take extreme liberties with the geographical data.

Actually, Ibn Ezra was not the first Jewish scholar who attempted to relocate Hagar to Arabia. He was evidently preceded in this matter by Rav Sa'adia Ga'on, the tenth-century rabbinical leader whose Arabic translation of the Bible enjoyed unchallenged authority and popularity among the Jews of Muslim lands.

When he came to translate the passage that speaks of the appearance of the angel to Hagar on the road to Shur, Sa'adia rendered the word "Shur" by an Arabic phrase that means "at the rock of the Hijaz."

The Hijaz is the district of Arabia that contains Mecca. The Arabic word that Sa'adiah uses for "rock"--hajr--is the same one that is standardly used to designate the black rock that is housed in Islam's holiest shrine, the Ka'abah at Mecca.

Other occurrences of "Shur" in the Torah were left untranslated by Sa'adia, or identified vaguely as a place in the Sinai. However, in this particular episode, it seems as if he chose to defy the plain meaning of the biblical story in order to create a connection to the Muslim tradition.

A similar tendency to unearth biblical references to Islam and its prophet is discernible in some earlier Jewish texts as well. The pseudipigraphic midrash entitled Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer paints Ishmael as a sort of prototype of Muhammad, and inserts an story involving Abraham's encounters with Ishmael's two wives, who are named Aisha and Fatima. The tradition about Ishmael's wives was also incorporated into one of the popular Aramaic translations of the Torah.

Undoubtedly, the authors of these works, as well as their targeted audiences, were aware that Islam's prophet had a wife named Aisha and a daughter named Fatima.

None of these deeply Jewish works can be suspected of assimilationist or heretical tendencies, nor were they concerned with currying the favour of a Muslim readership. Quite the contrary, Sa'adiah Ga'on and Abraham Ibn Ezra were both renowned for their uncompromising application of rigorous scholarly standards in their commentaries. It is therefore especially puzzling why in this exceptional case they deviated from their usual patterns of philological precision.

One possible explanation that comes to mind is that their interpretations might not have been proposed deliberately, but were simply inadvertent reflections of the versions of the story that were current in the popular culture of the time.

As a minority living in a civilization that was predominantly Muslim, it should not surprise us that even devout and knowledgeable Jews would sometimes read their Bible through Muslim spectacles.

This state of affairs might be compared to the influence that our own popular culture frequently exerts on how we envisage biblical events and personalities. How many of us habitually imagine that the ancient Israelites spoke the English of the King James Bible, or that Moses resembled Charlton Heston? It sometimes requires a determined effort to dissociate ourselves from these widespread preconceptions.

We should also consider the likelihood that the medieval Jewish exegetes looked to these Muslim traditions as confirmations of their own religious and historical claims.

The argument would go as follows: If the contemporary Arabs, who presumably had no direct acquaintance with the traditions of the Hebrew Bible, nevertheless subscribed to similar accounts about Hagar and Ishmael and the ancestry of the Ishmaelites, it was plausible to suppose that those accounts had been faithfully preserved among the Arab tribes over the generations since biblical times.

As an independent corroboration of Jewish historical tradition, this Arab tradition could be conveniently cited in interfaith disputations, as irrefutable proof for the veracity of the Bible and of Judaism.

This argument could function as a very useful refutation of Islamic accusations that the Jews had tampered with the original text of their revelation.

When approached in this manner, the Jewish case could be argued more effectively by stressing the common features of the Jewish and Muslim accounts, than by accentuating the differences between them.

However we choose to explain its origins, there is no denying the existence of a Jewish exegetical tradition that set Hagar and Ishmael off on the road to Mecca.


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A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

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