One of the themes of my last few posts is that the Qurʾān often interacts with Rabbinic, Biblical and Christian tradition in an informed way. Previously I looked at how the Qurʾān responds to the crucifixion of Jesus in light of Rabbinic texts. This post will give another example of the Qurʾān utilizing a Rabbinic motif to argue against the Prophet’s Jewish opponents.
“Like a donkey carrying books”
A rather harsh metaphor occurs in the Qurʾān for some of the Jewish opponents of the Prophet in Sūrah al-Jumuʿah:
مثل الذين حُمّلوا التورة ثم لم يحملوها كمثل الحمار يحمل اسفارا بئس مثل القوم الذين كذبوا بأياتِ اللهِ وللهُ لا يهدي القوم الظالمين
The example of those who were burdened with the Torah, but then did not carry it, is like an ass carrying books —evil is the example of the people which deny the signs of God, and God does not guide the wrongdoing people. [Qurʾān 62:5]
But why this rather specific polemical label? This mention of a donkey loaded with books is not a coincidence — infact, the Qurʾān is responding to a rather specific Rabbinic idea. In Sifrei Debarim, a midrashic compilation between the 3rd and 5th centuries, we see an peculiar Rabbinic analogy for the Jews and the gentiles:
משל לאחד ששילח את חמורו וכלבו לגורן והטעינו לחמור לתך שלש סאימ .היה החמור מהלך והכלב מלחית. פרק ממנו סאה ונתנו על החמור וכן שני וכן שלישי כך ישראל קבלו את התורה בפירושיה ובדקד וקיה. אף אותם שבע מצות שלא יכלו בני נח לעמוד בהם ופרקום באו ישראל וקבלומ
A man sent his ass and his dog to the granary, where fifteen seʾah [of grain] were loaded atop the ass and three seʾah on the dog. The ass walked and the dog strained to breathe, his tongue lolling. He cast aside one seʾah and placed it atop the ass and then did the same with the second and then the third. This is how Israel accepted the Torah, together with its commentaries and its minutiae. Even those seven commandments that the Noahides could not abide and cast aside, Israel came and accepted. Text and translation from Mazuz, see bibliography.
Here, an ‘ass carrying books’ metaphor has been used by the Rabbis in a way that seems to be a neutral or even positive designation for the Israelites— That they took upon all the commandments, even the most basic ones, that even the gentiles (here analogized through the dog) could not abide by.
The Qurʾān has taken this same Rabbinic metaphor and turned it around completely, changing it from a praise of the Israelites, into a critique of those who were given the Torah (ḥummilū al-tawrāh) but failed to abide by it (wa lam yaḥmilūhā), likening them to a ḥimār (the same word as the Rabbinic text above, ḥamōr). The Qurʾānic verse seems to say that though they were carrying these books, they did not appreciate them.
It is thus quite fitting that verse 62:5 follows a declaration that God has now decided to send a messenger to the ummiyīn (Q62:3)— the gentiles, which the Rabbinic passage explicitly says had failed to uphold God’s most basic commandments.
There are actually multiple instances of this sort of “polemical inversion” of Rabbinic (and other) idioms and ideas in the Qurʾān that, to me, makes it an intriguing text. Perhaps with enough frequency, it hints at iʿjāz. I hope in time I’ll be posting several more. I’d like to thank my friend Sharif for sharing this reference with me!
23 thoughts on ““Like a donkey carrying books” – a Qur’anic response to a Rabbinic motif”
Akhi I’ve been pondering for some time on the argument of typology and I don’t think it works. There are many ahadith where the Prophet SAW and the companions call Mother Mary as the daughter of Imran and them signifying their genuine belief in a biological attribution.
I think the argument of later Israelites adopting the names of their ancestors is apt.
If we argue on the basis of typology then we would risk believing that the Prophet SAW, in his ignorance, attributed something false to Allah SWT. Or that Allah SWT did not correct His Messenger that it was actually a typology.
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I agree with you. I wrote that post and I just don’t find it convincing.
Actually, there’s a better explanation that is more convincing than either the ‘error’ hypothesis and the ‘typology’ hypothesis – that lies in Arab naming conventions as attested to in early inscriptions, which rather coincidentally was also something jews did in the second temple period.
But I’m not allowed to share it lol 😂. It wasn’t my idea and deserves a proper article from the person who came up with it.
I will say though – the “error” explanation just doesn’t work even in secular Qur’anic studies, as patricia crone aptly explained in her 2016 article.
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Yeah the epithet, “sister of Aaron” can mean that Mary AS was actually from the priestly tribe of Aaron AS. This is supported by Jewish and Arabic idioms. You can read an explanation on this in Islamic-awareness.
Also according to biblical commentaries, the Israelites, in order to differentiate between tribes, would give names for themselves the names of their ancestors, prophets and pious figures. So Maryam AS being named after Miriam and Imran after Amran in the Qur’an would confirm an Israelite tradition.
This would definitely mean that Islam endorses a priestly Aaronic Messiah (I think this argument in itself deserves an article. Were there differing Jewish traditions on which tribe the Messiah should emerge?)
I would like to read his explanation. Does he own a website?
No, unfortunately he does not. Actually, the explanation is very similar to what the Hadith says – but he substantiates it with very interesting evidence
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I think the answer is a lot simpler.
The Quran tells us everything about Maryam (AS) was unique, including the fact she was a WOMAN being dedicated by her Mother to serve the Temple of Jerusalem at the time of the Rabbinic and priesthood was at the peak of its moral corruption. Essentially, she (AS) was from “the House of Aaron”, meaning the priesthood. Such was her piety, that Zechariah (AS), the chief Priest and Prophet, while serving the Temple and who was also related to her by blood as well, noticed her special nature that it even caused him (AS) to pray for his own offspring in such a young age and it was through this prayer John the Baptist (As) was born. He was completely aware of the degeneracy of the priesthood that his only hope was in his legacy being carried on by a son, even in his old age, when his wife was barren.
All these things are indicated in the Quran and the Quran basically makes the reader aware that the piety and responsibilities of this specific family was well-known, meaning to the Pharisees themselves. They were aware of Maryam (AS)’s status of not only being from a pious BIOLOGICAL family, but she also represented the SPIRITUAL family of the House of Aaron (AS) and that too, as a WOMAN.
This Maryam (As) must have been aware of the stigma she was about to bare when she (AS) was giving birth to Jesus (AS). Not only was she raised by pious parents, both mother and father, she was part of a priestly class and representing it as a FEMALE.
So when she returned with the sign of God, the Messenger Jesus (AS) her son, her assumption was obviously correct and the Israelites “astonished” at this “evident in chastity” pointed out this two-fold relationship of Maryam (AS):
1. Her biological roots, both her father and mother being pious
2. Her spiritual roots, being “a daughter of Aaron”, from the priestly class serving the Temple.
Anybody even cursorily familiar with the Torah and Israelite law understand Aaron was the chief Priest and through him this role was born.
Also, to point out, the Quran is clearly making it evident that all these events surrounding the rise of both Jesus (AS) and John the Baptist (AS) had very profound and major implications to the destiny of the Israelites as well as the warning from God Almighty regarding their disobedience. The Quran states that God preferred the family of Imran among the Israelites in the Surah, meaning it was the totality of all these signs including a woman being chosen to serve in the Temple and the virgin Birth as evident signs to the Israelites, that a severe judgment was about to descend.
Any cursory reading of the Gospels, whether the speeches of John the Baptist or Jesus clearly indicate the “priestly class”, aka HOUSE OF AARON were the primary addressees of this severe warning.
Apologies, I wrote “daughter of Aaron” instead of “Sister of Aaron” in my comment, the point still bring her being a “priestess” of the Temple, dedicated by her mother as per an oath. As I said, anybody even cursory familiar with Israelite tradition and the Torah laws know Aaron’s connection to the role the Temple once the commands for it were instituted during the time of Moses (AS).
It’s not very complicated to understand that the Israelites when they encountered the baby and the possibility of infidelity, they would not only have addressed her family piety, but the fact she was serving the Temple as well, exclaiming how could she do such a thing, in her circumstances.
In fact, it would be belie all common sense that they would have ignored this very specific priestess aspect when encountering the situation.
Reblogged this on The Quran and Bible Blog.
You make very confident claims that make it seem certain or likely that the Qur’an has this specific motif in mind, while insulting them with a donkey analogy is just common in Arabic rhetoric.
It’s all very speculative.
A donkey carrying the torah is a very specific motif… saying this is coincidence is not explanatory at all. The intertext is clear, and we have other examples of the Qur’an arguing with the Jews by quoting their own books back to them.
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I had a thought about this general idea of the Qur’an’s use of polemical inversion with the Jews. Do you think the story of Musa (as) and the ‘mysterious’ servant in Surah Kahf is effectively the epitome of this? It seems rather fitting that the Rabbis, who prided themselves on their knowledge and wisdom, would be engaged with here by having their own prophet being the one who is searching for knowledge and wisdom through another.
Also, would you also be so kind as to point me towards other uses of polemical inversion in the Qur’an?
Have just stumbled upon your blog, and like it a lot. Insha’Allah you continue the good work!
I have had the same thought actually – since the epilogue of the verse (law kana al-bahr midaadan li-rabbi…) is actually a direct inversion of a talmudic story about the knowledge of rabbis. It’s pretty cool.
We have an article coming out discussing the historicity of intertextual engagements in the Qur’an. It discusses further examples of polemical inversions. It’s probably your best bet since although there’s lot of examples of such inversions, nobody has really compiled them yet.
Amazing, I look forward to reading the article. Where will it be released, and when most likely?
It’s with a well known confessional journal, in a few months at least (long review process…)
Is this something you are likely to share on your blog, or provide a link for us to access from the journal? Or alternatively just let us know when it has been published in the journal?!
Yes, I’ll link to it once it has been published.
An interesting idea that came to me about the Qur’an is the remarkable way that it seems to engage with its different audiences based on what they hold to be most dear to them.
Allow me to demonstrate with examples for Jews, Christians and pagan Arabs:
1) We already discussed that for the Jews, and perhaps more specifically the Rabbis, what they hold most dear is their knowledge and wisdom. So what does the Qur’an do? It engages with them directly along these lines. I think even non-Muslims scholars can appreciate the creativity and brilliance of these polemical inversions.
2) For the Christians, it seems to me that the Qur’an’s engagement with them is through their theological concepts related to key ideas such as Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus as the Word of God, the Holy Spirit etc… For example, the Qur’an has no problem using these words, but it gives them new meanings, thereby removing the theological issues related to them (in the eyes of the Qur’an). For example, the Qur’an employs the usage of ‘Holy Spirit’ but gives it a new meaning as the angel Gabriel. It also calls Jesus God’s Word, but giving it a new meaning (interestingly I think this can give us a clue into what the Injil actually is, but will leave this for the time being). Using Al-Masih for Jesus is perhaps another example, especially in light of the fact that Mary is referred to as a sister of Aaron, who Moses asks God to ‘appoint’ as his support. That’s rather interesting because of course the Messiah in the Jewish context simply means someone who is anointed. Take 3:59 – the Qur’an affirms the similarity of Jesus and Adam, but again not in a way that Christians believe; they are similar in being created creatures of God.
I also remember in a video on Blogging Theology with Usman Sheikh, that he mentioned a paper he had written where he believes the Qur’an is engaging polemically with the Gospel of John, which again is traditionally one of, if not, the most loved/popular gospels by Christians. Of course, what makes all of this ironic is that for a long time, many people thought that the Qur’an simply ‘misunderstands’ all of these ideas.
3) Perhaps the most obvious example of the Qur’an engaging with audiences using what is significant to them is the pagan Arabs, for whom it is their poetry/literature (along with their ancestry/lineage which the Qur’an spends a lot of time addressing) that they hold most dear. So what does the Qur’an do? It engages with them on these literary lines, and of course has gone on to become a universally recognised masterpiece of literature.
What strikes me here is the brilliant way that the Qur’an is engaging with each community. It’s a masterpiece in dawah frankly – you must first understand your audience, engage with them on what they hold to be important, and show them that what they love most can be found in what you are offering. The Arabs loved literature – well then the Qur’an is a literary masterpiece. The Rabbis loved knowledge and wisdom, well then the Qur’an is an ocean of it (excuse my use of ocean here, as I was thinking of the polemical inversion of the seas in Surah Kahf that you mentioned!). The Christians love Jesus (excessively in the eyes of the Qur’an), well then the Qur’an contains so many details of Jesus’ miracles, along with his mother Mary of course (but with all the terms given new meanings to ensure ‘correct’ belief about God.)
I think what must be remembered though is that the Qur’an is not doing this for its own sake, and it is not seeking to antagonise its audience. It’s simply trying to get them to reflect and think deeply about what they’re hearing. Its seeking to guide them to correct belief about God, and to lead a life of good actions, centred around justice and mercy.
These are just some passing thoughts I had reflecting on your interesting article here. This concept of polemical inversion is quite neat, and helped me to see this (possible) connection.
I think you hit the nail on the head. There’s an article by Holger Zellentin titled “trialogical anthropology” which notes this exact tendency (with different examples, obviously).
Salaam Taha, (apologies for the late reply to this). Thank you for the reference to the paper, it was an excellent read. What are your general thoughts on Zellentin’s paper and the examples he provides? In light of his paper, are there other (notable) examples in the Qur’an that you think are trialogues?
I’m also wondering if your article has been published and available to read?
Asalamualaikum Wa Rahmatulahi Wa Barakatahu,
I was wondering if you knew the hebraic/biblicial background behing surah 2:58-59. Doe the word “hittatun” in arabic share a similar hebraic/aramaic cognate. Most quranic exegetes this is reffering to the conquest of jericho, but other than that not any specific evidence is provided.
Rabbi Ben Abrahamson @4:18, mentions that the seputigant translators dropped out the word for prostration,in their translation, though I’m not sure if this is what the qu’ran is alluding to.
I believe that it can be used to mean sin, but also occurs in the meankng of sin offering. There is a concept of korban ḥatat (a sin sacrifice).
Hope this helps.
I wonder for the interpretation of Surah 74.
In this surah, it told the future, that the man who enter Saqar is like the “donkeys frightened fleeing from a lion”.
What does it means?
The donkey is like a metaphor of the people who carrying the scripture but dont even read it and dont believe the upcoming messenger which is in the scripture? As you explained
And this verse said about lion
What lion means?
The lion of Judah?
Does the surah refer to messianic prophesy?
And what about the number 19 in this surah?
Is it gematria? Or something?
Surely, surah Al muddathir is full of question since Al Muddathir could be translated as “the hidden secret”
I came across your site recently, and found it excellent, Alhamdullillah.
That’s a very interesting analysis. I would think the following verse could indicate a same type of borrowed metaphor from this same applicable context, but in this case it isn’t inverted. This case per Amin Ahsan Islahi and Javed Ghamidi refer to the People of the Book, the Jews as a nation in particular.
And if We had pleased, We would certainly have exalted him thereby; but he clung to the earth and followed his low desire, so his parable is as the parable of the dog; if you attack him he lolls out his tongue; and if you leave him alone he lolls out his tongue; this is the parable of the people who reject Our communications; therefore relate the narrative that they may reflect.”
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