February 20, 2019

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Muslim legend of Jews turning into apes and pigs: an anti-Talmud story?


Arab Youm recently went into the famous story of how Jews were turned into apes and pigs according to Islamic legend.

The Quran (2:65) refers obliquely to the story:

 And well ye knew those amongst you who transgressed in the matter of the Sabbath: We said to them: “Be ye apes, despised and rejected.”

It is interpreted like this:

This Ayah means, O Jews! Remember that Allah sent His torment on the village that disobeyed Him and broke their pledge and their covenant to observe the sanctity of the Sabbath. They began using deceitful means to avoid honoring the Sabbath by placing nets, ropes and artificial pools of water for the purpose of fishing before the Sabbath. When the fish came in abundance on Saturday as usual, they were caught in the ropes and nets for the rest of Saturday. During the night, the Jews collected the fish after the Sabbath ended. When they did that, Allah changed them from humans into monkeys, the animals having the form closest to humans. Their evil deeds and deceit appeared lawful on the surface, but they were in reality wicked. This is why their punishment was compatible with their crime. This story is explained in detail in Surat Al-A`raf, where Allah said (7:163),

(And ask them (O Muhammad ) about the town that was by the sea; when they transgressed in the matter of the Sabbath (i.e. Saturday): when their fish came to them openly on the Sabbath day, and did not come to them on the day they had no Sabbath. Thus We made a trial of them, for they used to rebel (disobey Allah).)(7:163)

In his Tafsir, Al-`Awfi reported from Ibn `Abbas that he said,

(We said to them: “Be you monkeys, despised and rejected”) means, “Allah changed their bodies into those of monkeys and swines. The young people turned into monkeys while the old people turned into swine.” Shayban An-Nahwi reported that Qatadah commented on,

(We said to them: “Be you monkeys, despised and rejected”), “These people were turned into howling monkeys with tails, after being men and women.”

In short, the story goes, Jews went around the spirit of the Sabbath law by putting nets to catch fish on Saturday even though they were doing no work, and they were punished by being turned into monkeys and pigs, according to this Islamic legend.

However, the question of whether a Jew can set up nets before the Sabbath and catch fish that way is discussed in the Talmud, in a Mishna in Shabbat 17b:

ב”ש אומרים אין פורסין מצודות חיה ועופות ודגים אלא כדי שיצודו מבעוד יום וב”ה מתירין
 Beit Shammai say: One may spread traps for an animal and birds and fish only if there is sufficient time remaining in the day for them to be trapped in them while it is still day, and Beit Hillel permit doing so even if there is not sufficient time remaining in the day.

Beit Shammai nearly always rules more strictly than Beit Hillel – and Beit Hillel nearly always is the one whose arguments win in Jewish law.

The Islamic story gets Jewish law exactly wrong. Placing the nets is acceptable in Jewish law as interpreted by the Talmud.

The early Islamists knew the Talmud, as is evidenced from the many Talmudic legends that made it into the Quran.

So this story is indeed an antisemitic story, but it goes beyond that – it is apparently an attack on the Talmudic system of jurisprudence, where lenient opinions are often accepted as mainstream. Islamic scholars were seemingly aghast at the idea of “loopholes” in Jewish law provided by the Talmud, and this story is a way for them to assert themselves morally superior not only to Jews, but specifically to the Jews who follow Talmudic law – which is what all normative Jews follow.

When Muslims complain about “Talmudic rituals” today, it might not be a recent phenomenon. It is possible that Muslims felt threatened by the Talmud from  their beginnings, which came after the Talmud was completed. They sometimes try to justify Mohammed as a successor prophet to the Biblical prophets, but the Talmud would contradict that idea, so it could be that the Muslim antipathy to the Talmud is quite old indeed, and this story is merely one early example of it.

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