Posted by: sean | October 10, 2008

Camels and the Qur’an

I’m an enormous fan of Borges. While I can’t say that I’ve read many of his poems, his essays and short stories have been an enormous influence on me. I’ve always been fond of what Borges had to say about local color, camels and the Qu’ran:

A few days ago, I discovered a curious confirmation of the way in which what is truly native can and often does dispense with local color; I found this confirmation in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon observes that in the Arab book par excellence, in the Koran, there are no camels; I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this lack of camels would suffice to prove that it is Arab. It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were particularly Arab; they were, for him, a part of reality, and he had no reason to single them out, while the first thing a forger, a tourist, or an Arab nationalist would do is bring on the camels, whole caravans of camels on every page; but Mohammed, as an Arab, was unconcerned; he knew he could be Arab without camels. I believe that we Argentines can be like Mohammed; we can believe in the possibility of being Argentine without abounding in local color.

But an infinitely erudite and reasonable man informed me recently that the Qur’an does, in fact, mention camels – at least twice (6:144 and 22:36).  I looked up the Qur’an in my copy of Gibbon, and I couldn’t find the quote Borges mentions, but I only have the first three volumes of six, so maybe it’s in the second half. Even if the main point still makes sense, the anecdote is much less interesting to me if there are actually camels in the Qur’an. This, I suppose, is what I get for relying on tertiary sources.

However, in looking for camels in Muhammad Asad’s translation of the Qur’an, I came across his note to verse 7:41, which is translated as

Verily, unto those who give the lie to Our messages and scorn them in their pride, the gates of heaven shall not be opened; and they shall not enter paradise any more than a twisted rope can pass through a needle’s eye

by Asad and as

For those who reject Our Signs and turn away from them in disdain, the gates of heaven will not be opened, and they will not enter Paradise until their pride and arrogance are so humbled and reduced that they can pass through the eye of a needle

by Asad’s colleague Muhammad Zafrulla Khan. Asad’s annotation reads as such:

Lit., “until (åattä) a twisted rope passes through a needle’s eye”; since this phrase is meant to express an impossibility, the rendering of åattä as “any more than” seems to be appropriate here. As for the word jamal occurring in this sentence, there is hardly any doubt that its translation, in this context, as “camel” is erroneous. As pointed out by Zamakhsharï (and confirmed by other classical commentators, including Räzï), Ibn ªAbbäs used to read the word in the spelling jummal, which signifies “a thick rope” or “a twisted cable”; and the same reading is attributed to ªAlï ibn Abï Öälib (Täj al-ªArüs). It is to be noted that there are also several other dialectical spellings of this word, namely, jumal, juml, jumul, and, finally, jamal (as in the generally-accepted version of the Qur°än) – all of them signifying “a thick, twisted rope” (Jawharï), and all of them used in this sense by some of the Prophet’s Companions or their immediate successors (täbiªün). Ibn ªAbbäs is also quoted by Zamakhsharï as having said that God could not have coined so inappropriate a metaphor as “a camel passing through a needle’s eye” – meaning that there is no relationship whatsoever between a camel and a needle’s eye whereas, on the other hand, there is a definite relationship between the latter and a rope (which, after all, is but an extremely thick thread). On all accounts, therefore, the rendering of jamal as “a twisted rope” is, in this context, infinitely preferable to that of “a camel.” The fact that the latter rendering occurs in a somewhat similar phrase in the Greek version of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew xix 24, Mark x 25, and Luke xviii 25) does not affect this contention. One should remember that the Gospels were originally composed in Aramaic, the language of Palestine at the time of Jesus, and that those Aramaic texts are now lost. It is more than probable that, owing to the customary absence of vowel signs in Aramaic writing, the Greek translator misunderstood the consonant spelling g-m-l (corresponding to the Arabic j-m-l), and took it to mean “a camel”: a mistake repeated since, with regard to the above Qur°än-verse, by many Muslims and all non-Muslim orientalists as well.

Of course the idea of the camel passing through the eye of the needle and the difficulties of a rich man entering heaven are brought up in the gospels of Matthew (19:24), Mark (10:25) and Luke (18:25). I did some aimless digging around on the internet today, and I saw many explanations for the remark, including the one mentioned by Asad and a mixup in the Greek (kamilos for camel and kamêlos for rope or cord), but I have to say that I find the traditional translation the best. That is to say that I’d have to respectfully disagree with Asad when he finds his twisted rope “infinitely preferable” to a camel. And as for Zamakhsharï, who believes that God could never have spoken such an inappropriate metaphor, I’m afraid that personally, I’d be much more inclined to believe in a god whose lyricism could evoke a camel gazing at the empty and forbidding eye of a needle rather than a god whose metaphors are much more mundane and workaday. But maybe that’s just me.



  1. Dear Sean,

    PS: Your sentiments conform to the scholarly consensus on the verse, while Asad is in a very small minority. Indeed, Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, Hilali-Khan, Shakir, Sher Ali, Khalifa, Arberry, Palmer, Rodwell, and Sale all translate the word as “camel”.

    I find it very strange that Asad went with the “rope” reading, because it is a minority opinion in the classical exegetical tradition. Zamakhshari mentions the Ibn Abbas opinion, but it is not clear that he necessarily agrees with it, and Razi surely does not (because he glosses “jamal” under its common meaning, and then goes on to provide the minority opinion, as is his wont.)

    All this does not invalidate the sentiment of the Borges quote, by the way!

    Cheers, QN

  2. Fascinating story, Sean.
    Did you try Google Books for the second half of Gibbon?

    Personally, I could never quite digest the “camel through the needle’s eye” image from the bible. I suppose it goes with my taste for mundane gods.

    Pleased to meet you, by the way.

  3. There’s more on the whole camel/eye of a needle debate here

  4. QN: Thanks for the support and erudite ammunition.

    Ms Tee: I lazily checked a couple of editions online but couldn’t find anything. I’m inclined to trust Borges at least on his reading of Gibbon, or at least I’m not inclined to wade through the thousands of pages it would take to quibble with him. And by the by, the pleasure is all mine.

    David: Yeah, I think I came across that page while I was looking around on the internets, although I can’t attest to its bona fides.

  5. Christians use “camel through the needle’s eye”. The needle’s eye was a narrow gate in Jerusalem.

  6. Depending on which translation you use, there are nearly two dozen mentions of camels in the Qur’an. Gibbon was only talking about the mention of camel milk in his footnote. I recently read this misinterpretation in Marcel Theroux’s novel, The Paperchase.

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