Ḥiwi Al-Balkhi

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ḤIWI AL-BALKHI (second half of ninth century, Ḥiwi, a misspelling of the Persian name Ḥayyawayh; al-Balkhi, of Balkh, in Khorasan, *Persia, now *Afghanistan), freethinker and radical Bible critic. Few details of Ḥiwi's life are known. His homeland was a meeting place of many religious streams – Rabbanite and *Karaite Judaism, Shi'ite *Islam in its various sectarian manifestations, Nestorian Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. It was the home of some of the greatest Islamic scientists and scholars of the first centuries of Islam. Ḥiwi was the author of a polemical work which contained 200 criticisms of the Bible. He belonged neither to the Rabbanites nor to the Karaites. In fact, both of these factions of Judaism condemned him. The work of Ḥiwi is no longer extant; its contents have to be reconstructed from the quotations by later Rabbanite and Karaite critics of his work. The language Ḥiwi wrote in is unknown, though it can be assumed he wrote in Arabic. From the polemical attacks against Ḥiwi, it can be ascertained that his main concern was to undermine the authority of the Bible. He censured the biblical concepts of God and the biblical commandments and stories. Modern scholars were only able to reconstruct approximately one-third of his 200 questions and criticisms. These questions can be subdivided into the following categories: God is unjust, without compassion, and favors evil; God is not omniscient; God is not omnipotent; God changes His mind, which is a sign that He is not consistent; God likes blood and sacrifices; the Bible is full of anthropomorphisms; God does not work miracles; the Bible admits the existence of many gods; the Bible contains contradictions; and many commandments and stories in the Bible lack reason. It is also evident that Ḥiwi did not believe in creatio ex nihilo and in free will. Ḥiwi, an eclectic, was not original in his ideas. Some of his criticisms can be traced to rabbinic sources, some to the works of the last defenders of Zoroastrianism, some to the works of Islamic heretics, and some to Christian heretics. The vehemence with which Ḥiwi was rebuked by Rabbanite and Karaite scholars alike testifies to the great influence of his writings upon his contemporaries and even later generations. *Saadiah Gaon, who succeeded in stemming the tide of Karaite Judaism in the Near East, felt – 60 years after the publication of Ḥiwi's work – the need to refute Ḥiwi's arguments in a special work, which he wrote in Hebrew rhyme. Fragments of Saadiah's refutation were preserved in the Cairo Genizah and were published by Israel Davidson in 1915. Two additional leafs were discovered and published by J.H. Schirmann in 1965. Ḥiwi's name would have been forgotten completely if Abraham *Ibn Ezra had not mentioned Ḥiwi's critical remarks in his commentary on the Pentateuch. Ḥiwi's name and work have been used in modern times for anti-religious propaganda by freethinkers, particularly in Soviet Russia.


I. Davidson, Saadia's Polemic Against Ḥiwi Al-Balkhi (1915); J. Rosenthal, Ḥiwi Al-Balkhi: A Comparative Study (1949); M. Gil, Ḥivi ha-Balkhi ha-Kofer me-Ḥurasan (1965); J.H. Schirmann, Shirim Ḥadashim min ha-Genizah (1965), 31–41; Fischel, in: HJ, 7 (1945), 29–50; M.S. Belenki (ed.), Kritika Iudeyskoy Religii (1962), 27–28, 399–403; Baron, Social 2, index.

[Judah M. Rosenthal]