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ʿAnan ben David


ʿANAN BEN DAVID (fl. Baghdad, second half of the eighth century ce), titular founder of the Karaites, a Jewish sect. According to a rabbinic-Jewish (Rabbinite) tradition cited first by the twelfth-century Karaite author Eliyyahu ben Avraham, ʿAnan was rejected for the position of exilarch (secular head of the Jewish community in Iraq and its representative before the Muslim caliph's court) on the ground of heretical tendencies. When the office went to his younger brother ananyah, ʿAnan's followers (styled Ananites, or ʿĀnānīyah in Arabic) declared him their own exilarch. Since this action amounted to open defiance of the caliph's customary right to confirm a newly elected exilarch, ʿAnan was cast into prison and faced execution. A Muslim fellow-prisoner (according to Jewish sources, Abū anīfah, the founder of the anafī school of Muslim jurisprudence) advised him to bribe his way before the caliph and then to plead that the Ananites were a religious denomination distinct from the Rabbinites and were therefore entitled to have their own exilarch. ʿAnan followed this advice, was acquitted, and was set free.

The historicity of this account is open to challenge, however. Opposition to postbiblical, or Talmudic, tradition (so-called oral law, distinct from written law in the Old Testament) and the cry "Back to the Bible!" antedated ʿAnan by several centuries, and for the period immediately before him, the names of some leaders of such antitraditionalist movements have been preserved. These movements were found mostly in the outlying provinces of the Muslim Empire, among Jewish communities apparently composed to a considerable degree of emigrants from metropolitan Iraq; they belonged to the poorer classes of artisans and farm laborers and felt themselves sorely oppressed by the rabbinic religious and secular bureaucracy, which overburdened them with special taxes imposed for its own maintenance.

What seems to be certain is that ʿAnan was a man of aristocratic Rabbinite descent and of considerable learning and that he was the first to lend these two prestigious qualifications to the contemporary sectarian leadership. He was also apparently the first to compose a comprehensive scholarly code of sectarian (nonrabbinic) law based formally only on the Bible. This was written in Aramaic, the language of much of the Talmud, but is known under the Hebrew title Sefer ha-mitsvot (Book of precepts). Only fragments of this work have been discovered so far. Containing concise formulations of law, but no polemics against rabbinic dogma or law, they reveal ʿAnan as a rigorous and ascetic teacher rather than an ambitious seeker after secular power.

That ʿAnan was influenced to some extent by earlier antitraditionalist teachings seems fairly certain, although this influence should not be exaggerated. He was a self-assured and independent thinker. Later Karaite scholars disagreed with him on many points of law and chided him for what they considered his excessive borrowing from rabbinic law. His predilection for the analogical method in deducing new rules from the biblical text may indicate some influence from Muslim jurisprudence.

Later accounts credit ʿAnan with a work on the transmigration of souls and state that he regarded Jesus and Muammad as inspired prophets sent to their respective nations, but these are not supported by any reliable evidence.

The Ananites, never numerous, were eventually absorbed by the Karaites. ʿAnan's direct male descendants bore the honorific title of prince (nasiʾ ) and were treated accordingly by the Karaites, but they apparently wielded little actual power and, with one or two exceptions, did not distinguish themselves as scholars.

See Also



Nemoy, Leon. "Al-Qirqisānī's Account of the Jewish Sects and Christianity." Hebrew Union College Annual 7 (1930): 317397. For al-Qirqisānī's summary of Ananite teachings, see pages 383386.

Nemoy, Leon. "Anan ben David: A Reappraisal of the Historical Data." In Semitic Studies in Memory of Immanuel Löw, edited by Alexander Scheiber, pp. 239248. Budapest, 1947. Reprinted in Karaite Studies, edited by Philip Birnbaum (New York, 1971).

Nemoy, Leon. Karaite Anthology. New Haven, 1952. See especially pages 320, 5152, and 395. Includes a list of published fragments of the Book of Precepts. The fragment published by Sokolov was reprinted by Zvi Harkavy, with English translation by Leon Nemoy, in the Jewish Quarterly Review 66 (October 1975): 109119.

Poznanski, Samuel. "Anan et ses écrits." Revue des études juives 44/45 (1902).

New Sources

Ben-Shammai, Haggai. "Between Ananites and Karaites: Observations on Early Medieval Jewish Sectarianism." In Studies in Muslim-Jewish Relations, edited by Ronald L. Nettler, vol. 1, pp. 1929. Chur, Switzerland, 1993.

Cook, Michael. "Anan and Islam: The Origins of Karaite Scripturalism." JSAI 9 (1987): 161182.

Margolies, Morris B. Twenty/Twenty: Jewish Visionaries through Two Thousand Years. Northvale, N.J., 2000.

Leon Nemoy (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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