Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Was Haman the high-priest of Amun?

Examining a proposed solution to a historical problem in the Qur'an

Andrew Vargo


In his paper, "Historicity of Haman as Mentioned in the Qur'an" (Islamic Quarterly, 1980, Volume XXIV, pp. 48-59), Sher Mohammad Syed attempts to partially rescue Muhammad's Qur'an from a rather comical and completely inaccurate amalgamation of Bible stories. The Qur'an mixes a number of Biblical characters and themes including a man named Haman [from the Book of Esther] with the story of the Tower of Babel [from Genesis] with the story of Moses [from Exodus]. Syed will attempt to prove the historicity of the character of Haman.

Identification of Haman

Syed was unable to find any historical evidence for the existence of a man named Haman in ancient Egypt, so he needs to make some up. Syed begins his sophistry by citing a passage from Sir Flinder Petrie's book "Religious Life in Ancient Egypt" [1924, Archibald Constable & Co., page 21]:

a. "The dispersion of the worship of Amen is noted above as pointing to its coming through the Oases; and there seems no reason to question that the primitive Oases worship of Ammon or Hammon, was the origin on the one hand of the Egyptian Aman or Amun, and on the other of the Carthaginian Baal Haman."

Syed attempts a "slight of hand" in the next paragraph:

b. Impersonation or incarnation of the god Amon (which is the same as Haman is clear from "a" above) is also a well established fact. ...

The attempt to link the Carthaginian Ba'al-Hamon [sometimes called Ba'al-Hammon, Ba'al Khamon, or Baal-Ammon] to Haman creates a huge problem of chronology.

Ba'al-Hamon was the chief god of Carthage. He was the deity of sky and vegetation and was depicted as a bearded older man with curled ram's horns. According to Roman legend, Phoenician Carthage was founded in 814 B.C. by colonists from Tyre under the leadership of Elissa, also known as Queen Dido. However, the New Kingdom, which is associated with the Exodus, ended in 1070 B.C. — 250 years before the founding of Phoenician Carthage.

Syed continues the construction of his argument:

... That the high priest of Amon used to personate the god Amon is clear from the following quotation:—

"Possibly the combination arose from priests wearing the heads of animals when personating the god, as the high priest wore the ram's skin when personating Amon".

This quotation came from Professor W.M. Flinders Petrie's book, The Religion of Ancient Egypt, page 30.

A number of issues need to be raised concerning this quotation:

1. Petrie is discussing the origins of Egyptian gods which are part animal and part human.

2. Petrie does not equate Amon with Haman. The name Haman appears nowhere in Petrie's book.

3. Petrie does not say that people called the priest by the name of "Amon" during, let alone after, the religious ceremonies in which the priest personated this god. In fact, Petrie says (on pages 47-48):

The supremacy of Amon was for some centuries an article of political faith, and many other gods were merged in him, and only survived as aspects of the great god of all. The queens were the high priestesses of the god, and he was the divine father of their children; the kings being only incarnations of Amon in the relation to the queens.

So, if the king was the father of the queen's children, could anyone imagine that a priest, who performed a ceremony personating Amon, would have the same title as the king?

4. Petrie writes (on page 47) that Amon began as a local god of Karnak – which is in upper Egypt. Petrie also adds:

The Theban kingdom of the twelfth dynasty spread his fame, the great kings of the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasty ascribed their victories to Amon, his high priest became a political power which absorbed the state after the twentieth dynasty, and the importance of the god only ceased with the fall of his city. The original attributes and the origin of the name Amon are unknown; but he became combined with Ra, the sun-god, and as Amon-Ra he was ‘king of the gods’, and ‘lord of the thrones of the world.’

So, if we assume for the sake of argument that the priests were addressed as Amon [something that Petrie never claimed], and that Amon = Haman [also not an argument made by Petrie], then how many "Hamans" lived in Egypt during nearly 13 centuries – from the 12th Dynasty [which began around 1991 B.C.] to the fall of Thebes [in 667 B.C. – as mentioned in Nahum 3:8]? How many "Hamans" should have existed at one time, each serving the many temples in Upper Egypt? Which of these numerous "Hamans" was the "Haman" of Muhammad's Qur'anic tale? Even more interesting and striking: why is there not even one inscription from all of these centuries mentioning any of these many possible "Hamans"? Why is there no evidence testifying that any human being was ever called Haman in Egyptian history?

Also, if we assume that Amon = Haman, then would not "Haman's" title be Haman-Ra in the New Kingdom? However, as in the case of "Haman", we have to ask again: Why has there not been any inscription found that contains the name or title "Haman-Ra"?

Syed continues:

By way of elaboration, it may be added that according to the creed of ancient Egyptians, it was customary for the priest and priestesses to personify or personate their gods and goddesses, as will be clear from the following quotations:—

This was true at various points in Egyptian history. In fact, the Smithsonian has a sarcophagus of a priestess of Amon-Ra. However, we need to look closely at Syed's quotes, and the claims that he makes based on these quotes.

Syed quotes Sir Wallace Budge's "Egyptian Religion" [Bell Publishing Company, New York, 1959, pages 105-106]:

a. "This chapter may be fittingly ended by a few extracts from the Songs of Isis and Nephthys which were sung in the temple of Amen-Ra at Thebes by two priestesses who personified the two goddesses".

There is no evidence that these priestesses were called Isis or Nephthys inside of the Temple or outside of their roles played in the Temple ceremony. Can Syed point to any document showing that a priest, or priestess, was addressed by the name of a god in every day life? Syed has so far utterly failed to do so. The Haman of the Quran was clearly not in the middle of a Temple role playing ceremony. The Haman of the Qur'an is depicted as being in the court of the Pharaoh, usually in a meeting of the council of the Pharaoh.

Syed continues by snipping a quote from Professor Jaroslav Cerny's "Ancient Egyptian Religion" [Hutchinson's University Library, London, 1952, page 100]:

b. "After the end of the Old Kingdom a vast wave of democratization passed through Egyptian religious and funerary ideas and conceptions, and all those privileges which had formerly been the prerogative of the King were now transferred to other mortals, every dead person was now identified with Osiris, and his son or any officiant performing the rites in his stead was regarded as Horus."

However, once again, there is no evidence presented that the officiant, while regarded as Horus, was called Horus during, or after, performing these religious duties.

Syed triumphantly concludes:

c. It should be borne in mind that just as Pharaoh was the generic name of the kings of ancient Egypt but not the proper name of any particular king, so Amon or Haman was the generic title of the high priests when personating the god Amon. (Italics emphasis mine)

NONE of the references cited by Syed makes Amon equal to Haman. None of the references cited by Syed claim that the priest was actually called Amon – either during or after the religious ceremonies. In particular, we still do not have even one reference documenting the name or title "Haman" for any human being in Egyptian history. Syed's conclusion is based on mere wishful thinking without any basis in the references he cited.

He then continues with this section heading:

Sacerdotal and Political Status of Haman (Amon)

In this section, Syed attempts to link the High Priests of Amon to the time of Moses, Pharaoh and the Exodus but fails to mention the time period that his quotations refer to. The High Priests of Amon wielded immense power and influence in Egypt from 1080 B.C. to 943 B.C.  Most Muslim apologists date the Exodus story, and Haman, to the time of Ramesses II or Merneptah – who reigned from 1279-1213 B.C. and 1213-1203 B.C. respectively – over two centuries before the rise of these High Priests! Incidentally, none of these Priests had a name that is even remotely close to the name Haman.

Please notice how Syed once again claims (in the section title) that Amon = Haman, a connection that none of the sources cited in this paper makes.

The identity of Haman having been established, it is appropriate to examine what independent and impartial authorities have stated as to his status, titles, and functions which substantiates his description in the Qur'an. That Amon (or Haman) was a very powerful and influential god whose high priest, personating him as indicated above, wielded great power will be clear from a perusal of the following extracts from the works of world famous historians and archaeologists:—

Syed never "established" the identity of Haman. He continues with his first source in this section, A history of Egypt: from the earliest times to the Persian conquest by James Henry Breasted:

a. "He was regarded by the people as their great protector and no higher praise could be preferred to Amon when addressed by a worshipper that to call him ‘the Poor man's vizier’ who does not accept the bribe of the guilty".

b. "The High Priest (of Amon) appears as “Viceroy of Kush” Already ... Amon had gained possession of the Nubian gold-country; the High Priest has now gone a step further and seized the whole of the great province of the Upper Nile. The same inscription calls him also ‘Overseer of the double granary,’ who ... was the most important fiscal officer in the State, next to the chief treasurer himself. There is now nothing left in the way of authority and power for the High Priest to absorb; he is commander of all the armies, viceroy of Kush, holds the treasury in his hands, and executes the buildings of the gods".

This passage refers to the High Priest of Amon. There are a number of problems with Syed's use of this source:

1. Nowhere in this does Breasted call Amon Haman. Haman is not mentioned in the entire book.

2. Breasted does not say that the High Priest of Amon was called Amon, let alone Haman.

3. In fact, Breasted gives the names of several High Priests of Amon: Hrihor (page 513), Ramsesnakht (page 508), Hapuseneb (page 272), and Yewepet (page 531).

4. Syed leaves out a very important section of Breasted's text which destroys the argument that he is attempting to make:

A letter written to his Nubian viceroy in the seventeenth year show that he still retained some voice there up to the time at least; but the door (Fig. 183), bearing the two reliefs just mentioned, show him deprived of his authority there also, for it bears an inscription of Hrihor, still dated under Ramses XII (the year is unfortunately broken out), in which the High Priest appears as “viceroy of Kush.” Already at the close of the Nineteenth Dynasty we recall that Amon had gained possession of the Nubian gold-country; the High Priest has now gone a step further and seized the whole of the great province of the Upper Nile.

Reading Breasted’s quote in the context in which it was written, it is obvious, from the Priest’s connection to Ramesses XII, that these events occurred after the Exodus. Ramesses II reigned from 1279-1213 BC and Merneptah from 1213-1203BC. Hrihor was proclaimed as the first ruling High Priest of Amun in 1080 B.C. under Ramesses XI. The 19th Dynasty “closed” around the 1190’s BC, nearly a century before these Priests came to power in the Upper Nile – which is now northern Sudan.

Syed's next selection is from Georg Steindorff's The Religion of the Ancient Egyptians:

c. "Thus the ‘first Prophet’ of the high priest of Amon, was at the same time the ‘Great Superintendent of Works’ and in this capacity was required to take under his charge the extensive building operations connected with the temple, and ‘to provide splendor in his sanctuary’. ...

As with the other works cited by Syed, Steindorff makes no connection between Amon and Haman. He also does not claim that the high priests were addressed as Amon and, as in the case of Breasted's book, omits portions of the reference which destroy his argument.

Steindorff discusses a Priest of Amon at Thebes who lived during the reign of Ramesses II named Bekenkhons (page 97). Bekenkhons left us with an extensive autobiography which begins with his training, as a youth, in the military stables of the King. At age 16, he became a "simple Priest" who worked his way up in the priestly ranks in Thebes. He makes no mention of building anything.

Also notice that this reference tells us that the high priest was in charge of the building operations of the temple but no mention is made that he was also responsible for the building operations of the state. Moreover, would the construction of a lofty tower really be his responsibility, or rather the responsibility of military engineers?

Syed ends this section with a quotation from Sir Flinders Petrie’s Religious Life in Ancient Egypt, which ends:

“… There was practically no independent king after Ramessu III the rest of the family were increasingly in the hands of a dominant hereditary priesthood, which was the wealthiest in the land.”

Once again, we have a chronic chronology problem. Ramesses III came after Ramesses II – reigning from 1186-1155 BC. Is Syed suggesting that the Exodus took place after the reign of Ramesses III?

If this is the case, then we have a new set of problems. The Quran clearly depicts Pharaoh as the absolute ruler of Egypt who gives commands to Haman. Pharaoh is clearly the ruler of the land of Egypt according to the Qur'anic account, not Haman. So, Syed's appeal to the status of the high priests of Amun later in Egyptian history is completely irrelevant to this discussion for two reasons:

First, because the rise of the high priests of Amun occured far too late in Egyptian history to be connected to the Exodus.

Second, the status accorded to the high priests of Amun contradicts the relationship between Haman and the Pharaoh as depicted in the Qur'an.

Creed of the Ladder to the Sky

After failing to establish the historicity of Muhammad's Qur'anic tale of Haman, Syed now turns to the issue of Pharaoh commanding Haman to build a "lofty" tower so that he could see if Allah existed. Syed claims – and "Islamic Awareness" echoes – that:

The idea of the Pharaoh going up the ladder to reach the sky to see the God of Moses, is in consonance with the mythology of ancient Egypt. "The ladder leading to the sky was originally an element of the Solar faith."

This quote comes from Professor Breasted's Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt. So, is Muhammad's tale of Pharaoh's lofty tower really in consonance with [sound like] the mythology of ancient Egypt, or is Muhammad's tale nothing more than partial plagiarism of the story of the Tower of Babel found in Genesis?

When this passage from Professor Breasted is read in context, we find that it is in no way consonant with the Qur'an.

In the Qur'anic tale, a living Pharaoh orders Haman to build a lofty tower so that he can see God.

According to Breasted, the dead King – after being purified – is called to a staircase, not a tower, to ascend to the god. The King did not build this staircase, nor did he order the staircase to be built – as did the Pharaoh of the Qur'an.

Muhammad's Qur'an tells us in Sura 28:38:

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!"

While Genesis 11:3-4 states:

They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth."

Clearly the Qur'an's tale is far more consonant with the story of the Tower of Babel, found in Genesis, than ancient Egyptian religion.

Syed continues:

"The desire to ascend to the gods in the sky" was an article of ancient Egyptian religion.

This quote comes from Sir Flinders Petrie's Religious Life in Ancient Egypt, which says [pages on 208-209]:

The sky-goddess, Nut, was besought to guard the dead that came to her. The desire to ascend to the gods in the sky was expressed by wanting the ladder to go up, an image naturally adopted by a people accustomed to go up ladders to their homes ...

Clearly, this has nothing to do with the Qur'an's tale of a living Pharaoh [instead of a dead person] ordering his subjects to build a tower [instead of the gods providing a ladder for the dead] so that he can see the God of Moses [rather than the gods of ancient Egypt].

Syed now shifts gears:

A critical reader would naturally ask the questions: Were mud bricks made and burnt in Egypt in those remote times? It is a well-known fact, borne out by archaeological research, that mud bricks and baked brick were manufactured in those remotes ages in Egypt and Babylon.

A critical reader would first notice that Syed is attempting to link ancient Babylon, where people did make burnt bricks, with ancient Egypt, where people made mud bricks that were dried in the sun. With only a few minor exceptions kiln baked bricks did not appear in Egypt until the Roman era – long after the events supposedly described in the Qur'an. The Egyptians knew about kilns and banking bricks, however fuel was far too scarce, and therefore expensive, to use in monumental architecture.

Syed now attempts to insert his agenda in the Book of Exodus:

When Moses accompanied by Aaron (Harun) confronted the Pharaoh with the divine message, he (the Pharaoh) dismissed them with the sharp phrase – "Get you unto you burdens" implying thereby that "they ought to be at work at the kilns or in the brick fields."

This quote comes from George Rawlinson's Moses: His Life and Times which was published in 1887, not exactly a reference to the most recent scholarship.

The main problem here is that the Biblical passage in Exodus, to which Syed refers, says absolutely nothing about kilns.


Sher Mohammad Syed has attempted in this paper to established the historicity of the Qur'an's tale of a man named Haman, who supposedly served in the Court of Pharaoh during the Hebrew captivity in Egypt. Instead of looking for archeological or historical evidence to support the existence of the Qur'an's Haman, Syed "quote-mines" a number of books and applies some semantic "slight of hand". For examply, he attempts to morph Amun into Haman by appealing to the Carthagian deity Ba'al-Hamon in spite of the fact that Carthage was founded some 400 years after the Exodus! Syed also throws in a number of other issues, such as the Creed of the Ladder to the Sky and the issue of kiln-baked bricks, in order to bolster the historicity of the Qur'anic account.

Muslims have spent a great amount of time, and have spilled much ink attempting to establish the possibility that a man named Haman, or something close to the name Haman, existed at some time over the many centuries of Egyptian history. However, finding such a man [which Muslims have thus far failed to accomplish] would not solve the problem. The Bible mentions a man named Haman, who was a Persian noble and vizier of the Persian King Ahasuerus. According to the Qur'an, Haman was an adviser and builder for the Pharaoh of ancient Egypt during the time of Moses. In spite of the living in different countries at different times, both the Biblical and Qur'anic Hamans follow a very similar narrative. In both the Bible and the Qur'an, Haman is an evil character who plans to destroy the children of Israel. Haman built a tall structure – a gallows in the Bible [Esther 5:14], and a tower in the Qur'an [Surah 40:36].

Adding to this problem are Islamic historical accounts which also suggest parallels between the Biblical Haman of Persia and the Qur'anic Haman of Egypt. For example, Ibn Ishaq related that Moses was waiting at Pharaoh's gate saying "something strange" according to The History of al-Tabari, vol. III, (page 54), just as Mordecai waited outside of the King's gate in Esther 2:19-21 and in chapter 3, where Mordecai refused to bow to Haman.

The structure which Pharaoh commands the Qur'anic Haman to build is not what the Haman of the Bible built [gallows] but was strikingly similar to the Tower of Babel described in Genesis. Both structures were made from burnt bricks for the purpose of ascending to the heavens – in spite of the fact that fired bricks were not commonly used in ancient Egypt. According to the Qur'an, Phraraoh ordered Haman to bake bricks to build a lofty tower in order that he may see God. This sounds very similar to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The building of Pharaoh's lofty tower in the Qur'an was an attempt of defiance towards both Moses and his God. Likewise, according to Josephus [Antiquities I 4, § 2] the Tower of Babel was an act of defiance against Abraham and his God. According to Tabari [Volume III, page 54], when Pharaoh's lofty tower was completed, he [Pharaoh] climbed to the top and shot an arrow towards heaven. This arrow came back covered with blood. The Sefer ha-Yashar also mentions a similar incident, only in the story of the Tower of Babel.

The Qur'anic tale of Haman also throws in a man named Korah [Qarun] for good measure. Korah was, apparently, a wealthy Israelite who opposed Moses [Surah 28:76]. However, according to the Bible, Korah was the son of Izhar, and the great-grandson of Levi [Exodus 6:21, Numbers 16:1-33].

The Qur'an tells us in Surah 28:76:

Qarun was doubtless, of the people of Moses; but he acted insolently towards them: such were the treasures We had bestowed on him that their very keys would have been a burden to a body of strong men, behold, his people said to him: "Exult not, for God loveth not those who exult (in riches).

The Qur'an's account of Korah is somewhat similar to the Talmud's account in Sanhedrin [110a]:

"Rabbi Levi said: The keys of Korah's treasure house were a load for three hundred white mules, though all the keys and locks were of leather."

Pesachim [119a]:

"... such were the treasures We had bestowed on him, that their very keys would have been a burden to a body of strong men."

Moreover, a very distinctive aspect is the death of Korah: He was swallowed up by the earth [Numbers 16:28-33] just as Qarun was swallowed by the earth [Surah 28:81]. For a detailed discussion on Korah see the article The Anatomy of the Qur'an’s Mistakes.

In the final analysis, Syed has not proven the existence of the Qur'an's Haman. In fact, based on the sources that he cited, even the possibility of the existence of a Haman – at any point of time in Egyptian history – cannot be established. Clearly, Muhammad borrowed the character of the wicked Haman from the Book of Esther. Syed's attack on the historicity of this book does not bolster his claims for the Qur'an. After all, the Book of Esther contains history's first account of an evil man named Haman, who sought to destroy the Children of Israel. If this book is untrue, then Muhammad borrowed a character who not only did not exist in ancient Persian [or Egypt], but probably never existed at all!

Muslims desperately desire to cling to the fantasy that the Qur'an is a pure revelation that does not borrow from, what Muslims believe are, the "corrupted" Scriptures of the Jews and Christians. It is undeniable to any open-minded reader that the Qur'an's tale of Haman and Pharaoh mixes together a number of Biblical themes from the Book of Esther, Genesis, and Exodus. All of the main elements of the Qur'anic narrative are contained within the Old Testament. The circumstantial evidence strongly supports the theory that Muhammad concocted his little tale based on several different stories from the Bible. The corroborating evidence is the numerous verses in the Qur'an where Muhammad is accused of reciting "tales of the ancients". Neither Muhammad, nor Sher Mohammad Syed provide any evidence to defend these alleged "revelations" from the accusation!