Haman among the Pyramidses
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Haman among the Pyramids *

Hopefully, our understanding of the Jewish past has by now transcended what the great historian Salo Baron dubbed “the lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” as little more than a ceaseless tale of persecutions and victimizations. Nevertheless, some of the dates in our festival cycle do promote such a perspective, to the point where the assorted villains who strove to harm us become interchangeable and are hard to tell apart without a program.

Apparently this confusion is not limited to Jews. The Muslim and Jewish narratives diverge in their depictions of the wicked Haman.

For us, of course, the arch-villain was was active during the Persian era when his personal feud with the Jewish courtier Mordecai impelled him to plot the massacre of all the Jews in the empire of Ahasuerus. In the Qur’an, on the other hand, there is no mention of Mordecai, Esther or of the Purim story. And yet Haman is mentioned in a much earlier historical setting, in the company of the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites. In fact, in its version of the Exodus story the Qur’an routinely depicts Haman as Pharaoh’s [Fir‘awn] constant companion.

In one passage, Moses is sent to teach correct religious beliefs to Pharaoh, Haman and Korach [Ḳarun], but they all dismiss the Hebrew prophet as a sorcerer and charlatan.

The plot becomes even more entangled when Pharaoh commands Haman to erect a giant tower that would allow him to behold Moses’s God, or at least show Moses up for a fraud. Of course this detail sounds suspiciously like the biblical account of the tower of Babel that took place centuries earlier and in a location far from Egypt.

In a manner reminiscent of Jewish midrash, Muslim interpreters expanded the brief passages in the Qur’an in order to make the stories more vivid and to elicit religious and moral lessons. Among the most important authors to deal with the episode were the tenth-century chronicler and geographer Al-Muṭahhar ibn Ṭahir al-Maḳdisi; Al-Kisa’i, the eleventh-century author of a volume of tales about the prophets; and the eminent Iranian polymath Abu Rayḥan al-Biruni. While these elaborations vary widely in their details, there are certain motifs that are shared by the diverse accounts.

Haman’s vile personality was closely tied to that of his crony, Pharaoh. Al-Kisa’i told how the future monarch had risen from humble origins and was ruined by gambling. However, he devised a scheme to recoup his losses by stationing himself at the entrance to a cemetery and extorting payment from grieving families for the privilege of burying their loved ones. When he tried to employ this tactic on the reigning king, he was almost executed, but managed to buy his way to freedom. Later, he assassinated the king and usurped the exalted Egyptian throne with its global empire.

This new Pharaoh was easily able to inspire the allegiances of the most depraved elements, from Satan down to assorted sorcerers. Prominent among his supporters was the arch-fiend Haman. Al-Maḳdisi knew of a tradition that Haman and Pharaoh (both of whom were of Iranian origin) had become very wealthy by introducing watermelon seeds to Egypt—and (as in Al-Kisa’i’s account) by forcing people to pay for the use of cemeteries.

However, al-Biruni, a student of comparative religion who was explaining the Jewish festival of Purim, situated the story of Haman’s rise in Tustar, Iran, and in the company of King Ahasuerus. According to al-Biruni, Ahasuerus appointed Haman his chief minister because he was so impressed by his unscrupulous financial savvy.

Al-Biruni recounts that the Israelite elders also yielded to the villains’ demands to be idolized; however, Pharaoh realized that the priests, under threat of torture, were insincere in their prostrations, so he set about executing them nonetheless. At this point Pharaoh observed to Haman that his demise would ultimately come from among the Israelite ranks. This is reminiscent of the warning issued to the biblical Haman by his wife and advisors: “If Mordecai be of the seed of the Jews, before whom thou hast begun to fall, thou shalt not prevail against him, but shalt surely fall before him.” Hoping to avert that scenario, Pharaoh ordered Haman to appoint Amram, Moses’ father, as Prime Minister. In this way Haman was now made subordinate to a Hebrew superior, echoing a theme from the Bible’s story about Haman and Mordecai.

There is no question that the Muslim stories, when compared with their biblical counterparts, have their chronology and geography jumbled. Nevertheless, several of the elements that were added to the Islamic narrative, including items related to both Pharaoh and Haman, bear striking resemblances to details that may be found in the Bible or its midrashic elaborations.

Take, for example, the traditions about Haman’s involvement in building the tower. This sounds vaguely reminiscent of the Bible’s statement about Haman building “a gallows fifty cubits high,” a device that would become the instrument of his own downfall.

So too, the Muslim traditions about the villains’ squalid origins and squandered fortunes echo stories about Haman in the Midrash and Talmud. One Jewish story claimed that Haman had once followed the ignoble profession of a barber. Another rabbinic tale described how Mordecai and Haman had once served as generals responsible for suppressing a war in India. Haman had carelessly squandered his budget (though not, as far as I know, by gambling) and was forced to borrow from the fiscally prudent Mordecai, but only after signing a document stating that he was selling himself to the Jew as a slave.

Although Jewish sources do not depict Haman and Korah as contemporaries, a midrashic tradition equates them typologically as persons of immense wealth who used their riches for evil purposes.

Although I am not aware of any Jewish texts that link Haman or Pharaoh to the gouging of funeral costs, it is not hard to discern in this motif a satirical allusion to the ancient Pharaohs’ well-known obsession with exorbitant pyramids, mummies and other extravagant ways of honouring the dead.

Haman’s and Pharaoh’s insistence on people bowing to their leader is of course consistent with Haman’s behaviour in the book of Esther, which the rabbis also construed as a command to be worshipped. Some of the rabbis were not quite certain that the majority of Jews in Shushan were as resolute as Mordecai in their resistance to idolatry.

As we learn from the words of the medieval Qur’an commentators, Muslims in earlier times were not particularly troubled by discrepancies between their version of Haman’s life and that of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Presumably, they believed that their revelation was the accurate one and that errors had crept into the biblical texts. In recent years, however, there has been a more pronounced tendency to argue that the Haman mentioned in the Qur’an was a completely different villain, an Egyptian specialist in monumental construction projects.

It is reassuring nonetheless to be reminded that the Islamic scripture and tradition share our abhorrence for the nefarious Haman, a quintessential enemy of the Jewish people.


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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, March 7, 2014, p. 12.
  • For further reading:
    • Geiger, Abraham. Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen? 2nd revised edition. Osnabrück: Biblio Verlag, 1971.
    • Ginzberg, Louis. Legends of the Jews. Edited by Paul Radin. Translated by Henrietta Szold. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003.
    • Khalidi, Tarif. “Muʿtazilite Historiography: Maqdisī’s Kitāb Al-Badʾ Waʾl-Taʾrīkh.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 35, no. 1 (1976): 1–12.
    • Reynolds, Gabriel Said. The Qur’an and Its Biblical Subtext. Routledge Studies in the Qur’an 10. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.
    • Schwarzbaum, Haim. Biblical and Extra-Biblical Legends in Islamic Folk-Literature. Beiträge zur Sprach- und Kulturgeschichte des Orients Bd. 30. Walldorf-Hessen: Verlag für Orientkunde Dr. H. Vorndran, 1982.
    • Silverstein, Adam. “Hāmān’s Transition from Jāhiliyya to Isl&#ispan> 34 (2008): 285–308.
    • Syed, Sher M. “Hāmān in the Light of the Qur’an.” Hamdard Islamicus 7, no. 4 (1984): 83–92.