A Koranic passage which has bewildered many students, is that anent* the name of 'Uzair. It is the sole reference1 in the Koran to a personage whose identity is by no means certain, but is usually equated with that of the biblical Ezra. The Sura (IX) in which it is found is of the late Medina period, and the verse in question (30) reads: "The Jews say 'Uzair (Ezra?) is God's son: and the Christians say, the Messiah is God's son... How are they misguided!"

The interpretation of this may be taken in the expanded form found in Damir (Hayat al-Hayawan, trans. Jayakar, Vol. I. 553), as follows:-

"When 'Uzair claimed that God had sent him to the Jews to renew the Pentateuch they disbelieved saying, ‘God has not placed the Pentateuch in the memory of anyone after its being lost, unless he is His son,’ so they called him, 'Uzair ibn Allah."

The difficulty that presents itself is the fact that no historical evidence can be adduced to prove that any Jewish sect, however heterodox, ever subscribed to such a tenet. What grounds were there for the accusation? Was it a figment of Mohammed's own imagination? Rodwell frankly believes it was. Goldziher accepts it as "a malevolent metaphor for the great respect which was paid by the Jews to the memory of Ezra as the restorer of the Law and from which Ezra legends of apocryphal literature (II. Esdra, XXXIV, 37-49) originated2." But we are inclined to inquire, if it were "a malevolent metaphor," on whose side was the malevolence? Whence originated such an accusation? It is not probable that the Prophet uttered an indictment of this nature in a city like Medina where Jews abounded, without some foundation.

The Jewish post-biblical writings do not seem to yield any possible solution for this erroneous statement. The quotation from the Talmud (Sanhedrim, 21, 2) given by Geiger3 to the effect that Ezra would have been worthy of receiving the Law had Moses not preceded him, does not assist us in unraveling the puzzle. Lidzbarski4 favors the possibility of a Jewish sect in Arabia venerating Ezra to such a degree as to deify him; thus casting shame on their orthodox brethren.

All these views are held on the supposition that the text of the Koranic passage is reliable. Emendations, of course, on the other hand, have been proposed, but it always seems a precarious operation to have resort to conjectural alteration in order to elucidate a troublesome text. There are two such textual emendations which have been proposed and which are worthy of mention because of their ingenuity. The first is by Casanova5, who reads 'Uzail instead of 'Uzair, and equates with 'Azael, who, according to the Jewish Hagada, is the leader of the "sons of God" of Genesis VI:2, 4. The second is by J. Finkel6 who alters the diacritic points, substitutes z for r, and reads Aziz - "king" or "potentate". This emended text he connects with the verse in the Psalms (2:7): "The Lord said unto me, thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee."

In spite of such conjectures, however, Horovitz (op. cit. 167), considers that there is no reason to doubt the equation 'Uzair = Ezra. He himself in this treatment of the subject (op. cit. 127-128) suggests in conclusion that, "it is very probable that Mohammed received his information from a Jewish or Judeo-Christian sect who revered Ezra in similar manner as certain sects did Melchisdek (See Epiphan. Haeres, LV, 1-9)".

To conclude, if the equation 'Uzair = Ezra be valid, and there seems no reason to gainsay it, then Mohammed had either been misinformed, or had purposely invented this queer dogma. Certainly among the Jews, Ezra the Scribe, the second Moses, as leader of the men of the Great Synagogue played a most important part in the editing of the Jewish Scriptures and the re-establishment of Judaism in Zion after the Captivity, but so far as is known, no Jewish sect ever held such an extreme doctrine as is herein imputed to them by Mohammed. If the idea did not germinate in Mohammed's own mind, and since it is quite alien to Judaism, it is obviously a slanderous accusation made against the Jews by their protagonists. I would suggest therefore that perhaps the libelers were none other than their old enemies the Samaritans, who hated Ezra above all because he changed the sacred Law and its holy script. We do not readily associate the Samaritans with matters Islamic but in a very able article (in the Encyclopedia of Islam on the Samaritans) Dr. Gaster has demonstrated that Mohammed seems to have made several borrowing from Samaritan sources. May not this be another?

Let us look at the question through Samaritan eyes. Ezra had acted presumptuously. He had changed the old divine alphabetic character of the holy Books of the Law - a character still used and revered to this day by the rapidly dwindling Samaritan community - for the mercantile Aramaic script. He had acted in a dictatorial manner as if he were God Himself, or the very Son of God. The Samaritans, thoroughly shocked, accused the Jews of following Ezra7 and accepting his new edition of the sacred text. They not only accused the Jews of altering the sacred scriptures. Dr. Gaster (in his Schweich Lectures on the Samaritans) indeed proposes to find in this the origin of Mohammed's conception of the Tahrif, or the doctrine of the corruption of the Holy Bible by the People of the Book. For example, in Sura IV, 48: "Among the Jews are those who displace the words of the Scriptures." If Dr. Gaster's suggestion be correct, then Mohammed had found an ally against the Jews in the Samaritans. And if he found the accusations of the latter a useful weapon against the former in one instance, might he not do likewise in another instance, and that especially in the case of a personality like Ezra, whose name was the subject of controversy between the Jews and the Samaritans? Mohammed we know may have acquired his information from the Samaritans during his journeying to Syria, but on the other hand there might have been Samaritan off-shoots in Arabia, although no trace of such is discoverable in the historical records, unless a vestige be found in the feud of Sumair between the two Jewish tribes of Medina. That is highly problematical, and need not be stressed. But it is not at all unlikely that the source of Mohammed's indictment of the Jews is to be found amongst the Samaritans or amongst Arab tribesmen of Samaritan strain. If we found in Samaritan literature the opposite belief that Ezra (or Uzair) was the son of Satan, we would be well-nigh sure of having settled the matter. Unfortunately, access to Samaritan records is not possible at the moment for the present writer, and the argument from silence is not of substantial value.


Benha, Egypt


* anent = about; concerning; in respect [cf. this page; the web editor]

1 Moslem commentators and traditionists also find in Sura II. 261 a mention of 'Uzair in the story of the mysterious and nameless prophet of that verse, whose story is a prototype of that of Rip Van Winkle. For these legends see Sale's Koran translation and notes.

2 Jewish Encyclopedia, VI. 657.

3 In his famous Was hat Mohamed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen? (p. 194).

4 De propheticis, quae dicuntur, legendis Arabicus (Leipzig, 1893) p. 35 n. 3.

5 Journal Asiatique, CCIV, 360, as quoted by Horovitz: Koranische Untersuchungen, p. 167. At present I have been unable to verify this reference.

6 Moslem World, 1926, p. 306.

7 We know that the Samaritans actually circulated a false statement that the Jews kept an image of a small man in the Holy of Holies and worshiped it. Is there any connection between this and the name 'Uzair which is a diminutive form? May the imputed image have developed into "little Ezra"?

The Muslim World, vol. 20: 303-306, 1930.

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