This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Monkey Business*

A favourite motif in the preaching of Islamicist clerics and teachers in recent years has been the assertion that the Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs. This theme is a familiar one in the rhetoric that issues from hotbeds of extremism from Teheran and Cairo to Mississauga and Vancouver. I have found that even Muslims who are uncomfortable with that sentiment are forced to concede that the statement originates in the authentic words of the Qur'an.

Nevertheless, a scan of the Muslim scripture reveals that no such passage is actually found there--at least not one that sweepingly equates all Jews, or even the ancestors of contemporary Jews, with those abhorrent creatures. However, the Qur'an does contain some noteworthy allusions to episodes in which specific groups of Jews were punished by being transformed into monkeys and swine.

The passages in question refer to events that occurred in the days of the Bible. As is well known, much of the Qur'an consists of retellings of stories from the Bible, often with embellishments that echo traditional Jewish or Christian interpretations. In the present instance, the Qur'an, speaking from a divine perspective, recalls how some Israelites violated the Sabbath, provoking the Almighty to announce that they would be transformed into apes, despised and rejected, to serve as an object lesson to future generations.

Perhaps this story is meant to be understood in light of one is recounted in another chapter of the Qur'an (7:63), where it speaks of a seaside town whose Jewish residents violated the Sabbath. They failed a test of their devotion when God tempted them with big fish that would appear in the waters only on their Sabbath day; but never on the other days of the week.

The literature of the Tafsir, Qur'anic exegesis, reveals a wide range of interpretations for this enigmatic story. Most of the Muslim interpreters situated the event in the days of King David. As to the identity of the town, various candidates were proposed, including Eilat, Midian and Tiberias.

Several commentators explained that the offense consisted in trapping fish on the Sabbath by means of a device that had been prepared in advance on Friday (a precursor of the modern Shabbat-clock). One Jewish faction permitted benefiting from such activity, while others forbade it. Though Islam itself does not command observance of the Sabbath or any other day of rest, the Qur'an is read here as siding with the stringent position on Jewish practice, and it describes how those Hebrews who consumed the fish were punished by God.

Husain bin al-Fadl explained that the stratagem had been devised by the devil himself in order to tempt the people into sin. A variant tradition, told by the commentator Ikrimah, had Satan convincing the Jews that there was no problem catching the fish on the Sabbath as long as they waited until another day before eating them.

In truth, this halakhic question was debated in the Talmud, and the ancient Jewish sages adopted the permissive position, that as long as a mechanism was put into operation before the onset of the Sabbath, it could be used to catch fish by itself on the holy day. The controversy flared up again in the medieval era, when the Karaite movement challenged the lenient rabbinic approach to the Torah's Sabbath regulations. Thus, the medieval Muslim commentaries might well be projecting onto the Qur'anic story disputes that were dividing their contemporary Jewish neighbours.

When confronted with instances of this kind in the Qur'an, where extraneous details are inserted into biblical narrative, the standard strategy of scholars is to seek out sources in the exegetical traditions of Jews or Christians. In this particular example, it is improbable that Christian preachers would have been interested in encouraging Sabbath observance. On the other hand, there is something quintessentially Jewish in a midrashic homily about how God castigates those who violate Israel's sacred day of rest.

Unfortunately, in all the vast stores of ancient rabbinic literature, no text has yet been discovered that corresponds to the Qur'an's motifs of Jews who caught fish on Saturday, or of their being transformed into swine and monkeys.

One scholar has suggested that the reference to monkeys was the result of a misreading of a similar Arabic word meaning vermin, and that the allusion was originally to the biblical story (Exodus 16) about the manna in the wilderness. The Israelites were exhorted that, since no manna would be sent on the Sabbath, they should collect double portions on Friday. Hence, they were not to go out to look for manna on Saturday, and they need not worry that the food would spoil or be infested with worms by being kept overnight. Notwithstanding the divine guarantees, there were faithless Israelites who were impelled to look for newly fallen manna on the Sabbath; this provoked God into condemning them for their lack of trust.

Based on this story in the Torah, it was suggested that a lost midrash had described the unfaithful Israelites as being punished, with poetic justice, by being mutated into worms or vermin; and that this allusion was later mistranslated into Arabic as a transformation into apes.

Though there exists no biblical or rabbinic text in which people were changed into monkeys or swine because of Sabbath transgressions, the Talmud (Sanh. 109a) does record at least one legend about humans who were changed into apes. In connection with the builders of the tower of Babel, Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar related that the contingent that proposed to wage war against Heaven were punished by being transformed into apes, ghosts, demons and night-spirits.

Though we may never be able to identify with certainty the source of the Qur'an's traditions about the ancient Hebrew Sabbath-violators, it seems quite clear that its original intent was not to condemn Jews as a nation; nor was it understood in that way by the majority of Muslim commentators. Quite the contrary, the spirit of the texts is so typically Jewish in its advocacy of strict Sabbath observance that it might easily have issued from the lips of a biblical prophet or a midrashic preacher.

Therefore, the most remarkable and disturbing aspect of this study is how current Islamicist clerics have distorted their own sources to fit their political agendas, and how widely those perversions have gained acceptance.

Hopefully, a scholarly airing out of the authentic texts and facts will help make monkeys of those preachers of hatred.


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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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