The Biblical Haman And The Quranic Haman – OpEd


For centuries Catholic and especially Protestant missionaries have attacked the ‘historical’ errors in the Holy Qur’an, when compared with the Holy Bible. This approach has unfortunately also been followed, with less vitriol but equal self-righteousness, by many academic orientalists.  

Thus, the well known German orientalist, Theodor Nöldeke 1836-1930  published an article on Islam in the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1891 (reprinted several times since), stating: “The most ignorant Jew could never have mistaken Haman (the minister of Ahasuerus) for the minister of the Pharaoh.” The English scholar Charles Torrey believed that Prophet Muhammad drew upon rabbinic legends of the biblical Book of Esther. 

The Encyclopaedia Of Islam, under “Haman” says: Haman, name of the person whom the Kur’an associates with Pharaoh, because of a still unexplained confusion with the minister of King Ahasuerus in the Biblical book of Esther. This same claim is repeated again in the Encyclopaedia Of Islam under “Firʿawn”. It says: “As Pharaoh’s counsellor there appears a certain Haman who is responsible in particular for building a tower which will enable Pharaoh to reach the God of Moses… the narrative in Exodus is thus modified in two respects, by misplaced recollection of both the book of Esther and the story of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).

Unfortunately, academics who treat other religions academically, usually do not believe that other scriptures are actually Divinely inspired. Indeed, many academics do not even believe that their own sacred scriptures are Divinely inspired. 

Academics use the same kinds of explanation to understand a revealed religion that they would use to explain secular history and literature. As a rabbi I follow a different model, one I learned from prophet Muhammad. For example, the Mishnah (an early third century compilation of the oral Torah, states,  “Adam was created as an individual to teach you that anyone who destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes it to him as if he destroyed the whole world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)  And the Qur’an states,”one who kills a human being, unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land, would be as if he slew the whole people, and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people” (Qur’an 5:32)  

Academics explain the similarity of the two statements by assuming that since the Jewish statement is several centuries earlier than the Qur’an, Muhammad must have heard it from a Rabbi or other educated Jew in Medina. 

But I believe Prophet Muhammad is a Prophet of God who confirms the Torah of Prophet Moses. Prophet Muhammad has no need to learn this statement from another human being. Academics might reply that the statement is not found in the written Torah; it appears in the oral Torah written by the Rabbis in the Mishnah more than 10 centuries after Prophet Moses, and more than four centuries prior to Prophet Muhammad. 

But the Rabbis maintain that the Mishnah is part of the oral Torah that was passed down orally  from Moses through many generations; just as Ahadith have been passed down orally through many generations before being written down. Indeed, the Qur’an itself specifically introduces this statement as follows, “It is because of this that We ordained for the Children of Israel “one who kills a human being …”  (Qur’an 5:32) 

No prophet of God needs to be informed by another human what should be written in Holy Scripture. For believers God is the source of all Divine inspiration. There are several verses in the Qur’an that mention things from the oral Torah. My perspective is that Prophets and Holy Scriptures can not in reality oppose one another because they all come from one source. 

Prophets are all brothers; they have the same father (God) and different mothers (motherlands. mother tongues, nations, cultures and historical eras). (Muslim # 3443). Note that the Arabic word umm for mother, derives from the same root as the word ummah, i.e. a mother nation/tribe, a mother tongue, a motherland. 

All of these factors produce different rituals and legal systems, but their basic theology can differ only in small and unessential details. As the sage of Konya, Jalal al-Din al-Rumi says, “Ritual prayer might differ in every religion, but belief never changes.” (Fihi Mafih 49) Religions differ because the circumstances of each nation receiving them differ. Where sacred Scriptures differ they do not nullify each other; they only cast additional light on each other. My belief is based on an important Hadith of prophet Muhammad. 

A disciple of Muhammad named  Abu Huraira relates, “The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.”‘  (Bukhari Book 9  Volume 92  Hadith 460)

Following Prophet Muhammad’s teaching I also neither believe nor disbelieve the Qur’an. If I believed in the Qur’an, I would be a member of the Muslim Umma (community). But I cannot disbelieve in the Qur’an because I believe that Muhammad was a prophet; and I respect the Qur’an as a  revelation to a kindred people, in a kindred language. 

In fact, the people, the language and the theology are closer to my own people, language and theology than that of any other religion on earth. 

How does this perspective affect my understanding of your Qur’an and my Torah? Unlike those in the past who played the zero sum game, I do not seek some verse in the Qur’an I can dispute or object to. Indeed, this is what the Qur’an itself teaches. “For every community We have appointed a whole system of worship which they are to observe. So do not let them draw you into disputes concerning this matter.” (22:67)

One of the major differences between the Qur’an and the Torah is the Torah’s attention to details (names of people and places) and the Qur’an’s emphasess on universals. The Torah has long lists of geographical locations and genealogies that many people today, especially non-Jews, find boring. 

The Qur’an rarely identifies locations, and often omits the name of the people it does mention, for example the name of the prophet who appointed Talut to become the first king of Israel.(2:246) Indeed, Muslim commentators disagree about many of these details. Some say the prophet who appointed Talut king of Israel was Prophet Samuel and others think it was Joshua or Simeon.

Thus, I explain the appearance of Haman in the Qur’an as a very valuable teaching for all humans. 

The name Haman occurs six times in the Qur’an (28:6, 8, 38; 29:39; 40:24, 36). Haman is mentioned six times in the Qur’an: sura 28, verses 6, 8 and 38; sura 29, verse 39; and sura 40, verses 24 and 36. He was very close to the Pharaoh who, boastfully and mockingly said: “O Haman, build for me a tower that I may reach the roads… of the heavens and may look upon the God of Moses, though verily I think him (Moses) a liar.” (sura 40, verses 36-37)

However, the Haman in the Qur’an is much more than “close to the Pharaoh” This is what the Qur’an says about Haman: “Lo! Pharaoh exalted himself in the earth and made its people castes. A tribe among them he oppressed, killing their sons and sparing their women. Lo! he was of those who do corruption. And We desired to show favor unto those who were oppressed on the earth, and to make them examples and to make them the inheritors, and to establish them on the earth, and to show Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts that which they feared from them. 

“And We inspired the mother of Moses, saying: Suckle him and, when thou fearest for him, then cast him into the river and fear not nor grieve. Lo! We shall bring him back unto thee and shall make him (one) of Our messengers. And the family of Pharaoh took him up, that he might become for them an enemy and a sorrow, Lo! Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts were ever sinning.” Qur’an 28:4-8 Pickthall

Apart from singling out Haman as a sinner by name (Qur’an 28:8,), the most important aspect in this passage is that the “hosts” of Egypt are twice said to be the hosts of Pharaoh and Haman. These two are in command. The Arabic term translated “hosts” is junood, meaning the soldiers, the military, or even the armies in the plural. Egypt was the economic and military superpower of the day. Haman is not merely one of many advisors or ministers in Pharaoh’s imperial government. The fact that the armies of Egypt are Pharoah’s and Haman’s hosts, means Haman was the second man of Egypt, the vizier or chancellor or prime minister of the Pharaoh. In any case, he  had authority over the military.

“And verily We sent Moses with Our revelations and a clear warrant unto Pharaoh and Haman and Korah, but they said: A lying sorcerer! And when he brought them the Truth from Our presence, they said: Slay the sons of those who believe with him, and spare their women. But the plot of disbelievers is in naught but error. And Pharaoh said: Suffer me to kill Moses, and let him cry unto his Lord. Lo! I fear that he will alter your religion or that he will cause confusion in the land. Qur’an 40:23-26 Pickthall

Moses was specifically sent to the Pharaoh and Haman (and Korah1), in that sequence. This is a further indication that Haman is understood to be the second in command / authority in Egypt.

Moreover, Haman’s counsel is asked for in the question of how Egypt should respond to the challenge of Moses’ message. At least initially, this has nothing to do with constructing anything. 

Haman’s opinion is relevant in the matter of a religious challenge to the state, i.e. in matters of state security, as a challenge of the religion of the state is also a challenge to the stability of the state (at least in the understanding of Islam). He is named as being responsible (together with Pharaoh and Korah) for recommending genocide against the Israelites by killing their newborn boys. So, he is the top advisor of Pharaoh’s government, not just a military man.

Finally, Haman is connected with a building project in the Qur’an in these two passages:

“And Pharaoh said: O chiefs! I know not that ye have a god other than me, so kindle for me (a fire), O Haman, to bake the mud; and set up for me a lofty tower in order that I may survey the God of Moses; and lo! I deem him of the liars.” Qur’an 28:38 Pickthall

And Pharaoh said: O Haman! Build for me a tower that I may reach the roads, The roads of the heavens, and may look upon the God of Moses, though verily I think him a liar. Thus was the evil that he did made fair, seeming unto Pharaoh, and he was debarred from the (right) way. The plot of Pharaoh ended but in ruin. Qur’an 40:36-37 Pickthall

After Pharaoh is confronted by Moses, and resists his message, Pharaoh calls on Haman to get the tower built. He is Pharaoh’s right hand; he initiates or organizes whatever the Pharaoh wants to be done. Certainly, Haman would not personally “kindle the fire” (even though that is Pharaoh’s command to him) or “form the mud bricks” or “bake the mud” or “place brick upon brick” to build that tower. He would have had others to do that.

At first glance, among the six references to Haman in the Qur’an, S. 29:39 does not seem to contribute much to our understanding since it is merely a list of names of sinful people to whom Moses was sent. However, there is one detail that makes it not so irrelevant after all. Qur’an 29:39-40 states: And Korah, Pharaoh and Haman! Moses came unto them with clear proofs (of Allah’s Sovereignty), but they were boastful in the land. And they were not winners (in the race). So We took each one in his sin; of them was he on whom We sent a hurricane, and of them was he who was overtaken by the (Awful) Cry, and of them was he whom We caused the earth to swallow, and of them was he whom We drowned. It was not for Allah to wrong them, but they wronged themselves. (Pickthall)

“(Remember also) Qarun, Pharaoh, and Haman: there came to them Moses with Clear Signs, but they behaved with insolence on the earth; yet they could not overreach (Us). Each one of them We seized for his crime: of them, against some We sent a violent tornado (with showers of stones); some were caught by a (mighty) Blast; some We caused the earth to swallow up; and some We drowned (in the waters): It was not Allah Who injured (or oppressed) them: They injured (and oppressed) their own souls.” (Yusuf Ali)

The Quranic claim is that Haman (and Pharaoh and Korah) all died a sudden violent death. 

Finally, there is an additional aspect about Pharaoh’s command to build a tower. The Qur’an nowhere says that Haman began or completed the construction of a tower for Pharaoh. This may be an indication that Pharaoh’s command for the construction of a tower should be taken metaphorically, i.e. building a lofty place to reach the skies stood for Pharaoh’s haughtiness and insolence. If the Pharaoh was not serious when he asked for the construction of a tower, then his command only indicates his arrogance and mockery of Moses’ claims. Qur’an 28:39 strengthens this possibility.

Pharaoh said: “O Chiefs! no god do I know for you but myself: therefore, O Haman! light me a (kiln to bake bricks) out of clay, and build me a lofty palace, that I may mount up to the god of Moses: but as far as I am concerned, I think (Moses) is a liar!” And he was arrogant and insolent in the land, beyond reason, – He and his hosts: they thought that they would not have to return to Us” Qur’an  28:38-39 Yusuf Ali

The verse after the command continues to speak only about the arrogance and injustice of Pharaoh (and Haman?) but there is not even a hint that this building project was actually begun. However, if that command was only a statement of mockery without a genuine intention to have that tower built in reality, then there is no longer any necessity to assume that Haman was in any way skilled or knowledgeable in regard to construction work. In that case, Pharaoh could have given such a mock command to any one of his people, and that person understood it was not serious,

Academic scholars say that the Qur’an is not an accurate historical record of these events. But if a story is wrong (whether corrupted or confused), it is important to investigate also the question of how this confusion could have arisen or what could have been the factors leading to this particular (re)arrangement of the story.

What are possible reasons for the inclusion of Haman in the story of Moses and Pharaoh?

Perhaps the evil similarity between Pharaoh and Haman led Muhammad to group these two villains together either due to ignorance and confusion or deliberately for some literary purpose which we do not yet fully understand.

Pharaoh and Haman were two of the most dangerous figures in the history of the Jews. Both of these men attempted genocide against the Israelites. Pharaoh gave the command to kill all male newborn babies (cf. Exodus 1) and Haman plotted to have all Jews killed who were living in exile in Persia (cf. Esther 3). Their common trait of both having tried to exterminate the Israelites could have created the occasion of Muhammad overhearing Jews referring to both of these two evil men “in the same breath”.

Then there are a couple of possible “literary” reasons to place (evil) Haman at the side of (evil) Pharaoh. Haman serves as the (evil) equivalent or counter figure of the (good) chief named “Al-Aziz” in Surah 12, where we read the story of the (good) king of Egypt in the time of Joseph. (Interestingly, there is another contrasting element: the good chief Al-Aziz at the time of Moses has an evil wife making Joseph’s life difficult, while the evil Pharaoh at the time of Moses has a wife who believes in Moses and his message.)

Haman may have been inserted into the Qur’an so as to sharpen the similarities and contrasts between Pharaoh and Moses. As Aaron (Harun in Arabic) was Moses’ good assistant, Haman was placed at the side of Pharaoh as his evil assistant. Haman’s role is to support Pharaoh and Aaron’s mission is to support Moses. As an additional bonus, the names Haman and Harun sound somewhat similar.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

One thought on “The Biblical Haman And The Quranic Haman – OpEd

  • February 22, 2023 at 5:07 am

    Our Prophet Mohammed(Sallallahu Alihi Wasallam) said, “Every Prophet was sent with some Mozeja(Miracle) like, Moses divided Red Sea & Jesus walked on water. My Mozeja is Quran”. So, as Muslims we believe that Quran is a Miracle. For the last 14 Centuries Non-Muslims frantically tried to find out mistakes in Quran but they failed utterly because God had promised to preserve the integrity of Quran, Not a single Alphabet of Quran is changed in last 1400 years because God Himself had guaranteed that Quran will be preserved until the Day of Judgement. So, whether you believe or disbelieve in Quran, Quran will ultimately prevail on Mankind.


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