“Like a donkey carrying books” – a Qur’anic response to a Rabbinic motif

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!

Bibliography

Mazuz, H., 2016. Tracing possible Jewish influence on an common Islamic commentary on Deuteronomium 33: 2. The journal of Jewish studies, 67(2), pp.291-304.

9 thoughts on ““Like a donkey carrying books” – a Qur’anic response to a Rabbinic motif

  1. 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.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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.

      Liked by 2 people

      • 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?)
        .

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      • No, unfortunately he does not. Actually, the explanation is very similar to what the Hadith says – but he substantiates it with very interesting evidence

        Liked by 3 people

  2. 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.

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    • 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.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. 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.

    Jazakallah kahir

    Like

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