Pre-Islamic Christianity in the Arabian Peninsula.

According to tradition, Christianity was brought to the Persian province of Fars (Syriac: Beth Parsaye, ܒܝܬ ܦܪܣܝܐ) by Persian merchants exposed to the teaching of the apostle Addai in Roman Edessa. This tradition, which rejected a significant role for the apostle Mari, widely credited with the evangelisation of the Mesopotamian provinces of the Church of the East, reflects a deep division within the Church of the East in the Sassanian period between its Syrian and Persian converts. The patriarchs of Seleucia-Ctesiphon frequently found it difficult to exert authority over the ecclesiastical province of Fars.[1]

A number of dioceses in Fars and northern Arabia (Syriac: Beth Qatraye, ܒܝܬ ܩܛܪܝܐ) existed by the beginning of the fifth century, but they were not grouped into a metropolitan province in 410. After establishing five metropolitan provinces in Mesopotamia, Canon XXI of the synod of Isaac merely provided that 'the bishops of the more remote dioceses of Fars, of the Islands, of Beth Madaye, of Beth Raziqaye and of the country of Abrashahr must accept the definition established in this council at a later date'.[2]

There were at least eight dioceses in Fars and the islands of the Persian Gulf in the fifth century, and probably eleven or more by the end of the Sassanian period. In Fars the diocese of Rev Ardashir is first mentioned in 420, the dioceses of Ardashir Khurrah (Shiraf), Darabgard, Istakhr and Kazrun (Shapur or Bih Shapur) in 424, and a diocese of Qish in 540. On the Arabian shore of the Persian Gulf dioceses are first mentioned for Dairin and Mashmahig (Bahrain) in 410 and for Beth Mazunaye (Oman) in 424. By 540 the bishop of Rev Ardashir had become a metropolitan, responsible for the dioceses of both Fars and Arabia. A fourth Arabian diocese, Hagar, is first mentioned in 576. A fifth diocese, Hatta (previously part of the diocese of Hagar), is first mentioned in the acts of a regional synod held on the Persian Gulf island of Dairin in 676 by the patriarch Giwargis to determine the episcopal succession in Beth Qatraye, but may have been created before the Arab conquest.

After the Arab conquest Fars and northern Arabia (Beth Qatraye) were marked out for a thoroughgoing process of islamicisation, and Christianity declined more rapidly in these regions than in any other part of the former Sassanian empire. The last-known bishop of the metropolitan see of Rev Ardashir was ʿAbdishoʿ, who was present at the enthronement of the patriarch ʿAbdishoʿ III in 1138. In 890 Eliya of Damascus listed the suffragan sees of Fars, in order of seniority, as Shiraz, Istakhr, Shapur (probably to be identified with Bih Shapur, i.e. Kazrun), Karman, Darabgard, Shiraf (Ardashir Khurrah), Marmadit, and the island of Soqotra. Only two bishops are known from the mainland dioceses: Melek of Darabgard, who was deposed in the 560s, and Gabriel of Bih Shapur, who was present at the enthronement of ʿAbdishoʿ I in 963. Fars was spared by the Mongols for its timely submission in the 1220s, but by then there seem to have been few Christians left, although an East Syrian community (probably without bishops) survived at Hormuz. This community is last mentioned in the sixteenth century.

Of the northern Arabian dioceses, Mashmahig is last mentioned around 650, and Dairin, Oman (Beth Mazunaye), Hagar and Hatta in 676.Soqotra remained an isolated outpost of Christianity in the Arabian sea, and its bishop attended the enthronement of the patriarch Yahballaha III in 1281. Marco Polo visited the island in the 1280s, and claimed that it had an East Syrian archbishop, with a suffragan bishop on the nearby 'Island of Males'. Thomas of Marga mentions that Yemen and Sanaʿa had a bishop named Peter during the reign of the patriarch Abraham II (837–50), who had earlier served in China. This diocese is not mentioned again.

Dioceses in Fars & Arabia(Beth Parsaye, ܒܝܬ ܦܪܣܝܐ) )

The bishop Mari of Rev Ardashir flourished around 450. He was the recipient of a celebrated letter from the bishop Ibas of Edessa, and is known to have written a commentary on the letters of Acacius of Amid, a commentary on the book of Daniel and a treatise against the magi of Nisibis.[3] The metropolitan Thomas of Fars, 'bishop metropolitan of Beth Qatraye', was among the signatories of the acts of the synod of Dairin in 676.[4]

Dioceses of Beth Qatraye (ܒܝܬ ܩܛܪܝܐ) and Arabia.

The diocese of Mashmahig(Bahrain)

Bahrain has been inhabited by humans since ancient times and has even been proposed as the site of the Biblical Garden of Eden. Its strategic location in the Persian Gulf has brought rule and influence from the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, and finally the Arabs, under whom the island became Muslim. The Middle-Persian/Pahlavi the island was known as the Mishmahig, meaning "ewe-fish". Mishmahig or Mashmahig is attested to in the Babylonian Talmud as a port where pearls are found (c. 250 and 550). In Nastorian sources Mashmahig is mentioned for the first time in the year 410, when Batai, bishop of Mashmahig, was excommunicated by Mar Isaac, and Elias was put in his place. According to Nestorian sources, Mashmahig seems always to have been a centre of heresy and revolt. While Bahrain was never incorporated into the Roman Empire, it did become a centre of Christianity (Larsen, p107): Nestorian church records show that Bahrain was the seat of two of the five Nestorian bishoprics existing on the Arabian side of the Gulf at the time of the arrival of Islam. It is uncertain when the two bishoprics were dissolved though they are known to have survived until 835. Nestorian Christianity left its traces in Muharraq, and Christian names, like the village of Dair (ie parish), Samahij (used to be the name of a bishop) remain until today. Muharraq was also the centre of the worship for the cult of Awal , and between the end of Tylos era and the arrival of Islam, Bahrain was known by this term (Larsen, p108).

The bishop Batai of Mashmahig, who had already been censured on a previous occasion for an unknown misdemeanour, was again censured and deposed at the synod of Isaac in 410, and the bishop Eliya of Mashmahig was among the signatories of the acts of the synod. [5]

The diocese of Beth Mazunaye (Oman).

The name given in Nestorian ecclesiastical sources to the area of the UAE and Oman, called Mazun in Sasanian and some early Islamic geographical sources. Bet Mazunaye was probably evangelised in the mid-fourth century, perhaps by a monk called Jonah. In 424 the region's bishop, named Yohannon, participated in a synod held in Iraq at which the independence of the Nestorian church from its parent church in Antioch (Syria) was proclaimed and ratified. Bishops from Bet Mazunaye are later recorded at synods held in Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the Sasanian capital in Iraq, in 544, 576 and 676. By this time, however, the Nestorian Christians of Bet Mazunaye had begun converting to Islam and the acts of the synods of the Nestorian church make no more mention of bishops from the region. Archaeological evidence of Nestorian Christianity in the Emirates has been found on Sir banu Yas where the remains of a monastery have been excavated.The bishop Yohannan of 'Mazun' was among the signatories of the acts of the synod of Dadishoʿ in 424.[6]The bishop Samuel of 'Mazun' was among the signatories of the acts of the synod of Ezekiel in 576.[7]The bishop Stephen 'of the Mazunaye' was among the signatories of the acts of the synod of Dairin in 676.[8]

The diocese of Dairin (Saudi Arabia)

The bishop Paul was consecrated by the patriarch Isaac in 410 for 'the islands of Ardai and Toduru', probably Dairin.[9]In 586 the patriarch Ishoʿyahb I (582–95) wrote a collection of twenty-two canons for the use of the bishop Yaʿqob of Dairin.[10]The bishop Ishoʿyahb of Dairin was among the signatories of the acts of the synod of Dairin in 676.[11]

The diocese of Hagar

The bishop Pusaï of Hagar was among the signatories of the acts of the synod of Dairin in 676.[12]

The diocese of Hatta(United Arab Emirates)

The bishop Shahin of Hatta was among the signatories of the acts of the synod of Dairin in 676.[13]

The diocese of Soqotra

The patriarch Sabrishoʿ III consecrated an unnamed bishop for Soqotra shortly after his consecration in 1063/4.[14]The bishop Quriaqos of Soqotra was present at the consecration of the patriarch Yahballaha III in 1281.[15]

The diocese of Sanaa(Yemen )

The monk Peter of the monastery of Beth ʿAbe was bishop of Yemen and Sanaʿa during the reign of the patriarch Abraham II (837–50). Peter was a disciple of his fellow-monk David, who was consecrated metropolitan of Beth Sinaye (China) during the reign of Timothy I (780–823), and seems to have accompanied David to China as a bishop before his appointment as bishop of Yemen and Sanaʿa.[16]

Built by monks, nurtured by pilgrims from India: A fifth Century Monastery at Sir Bani Yas island in Abu Dhabi.

In 2010 a 1,400-year-old monastery in the United Arab Emirates that is the only pre-Islamic Christian site in the region has opened to the public.The site at Sir Bani Yas island in Abu Dhabi dates back to around 600AD. It was built by a community of 30 to 40 monks and is understood to have been established by pilgrims travelling from India.The remains, which also include a church, chapel and tower, were unearthed in 1992 during an archaeological study. [17]

Project director Dr Joseph Elders told UAE-based newspaper The National: Opening the site to visitors marks an exciting development for the island as we seek to discover and share more about the past lives and human stories that have played their part in creating its fascinating history.''Twenty years ago, we had no idea that Christians came this far south and east in the Arabian Gulf.'This shows that Christianity had penetrated far further than we thought before... We don't have many monasteries from this period.'[17]

Christianity spread through the Gulf between the years 50 and 350, with the monastery's inhabitants probably being members of the Nestorian Church.Dr Elders added that the site may have been significant because of who founded it.He said his team had only unearthed one skeleton during their dig; however it appeared that the whole church may have been built around the body.It is thought that the man, possibly a holy man or local saint, may also have been the reason why pilgrims visited the island - with a separate room for visitors to leave gifts.They have also found rooms within the monastery decorated with plaster crosses which led into a chapel, while a main settlement room housed the monks and also had a niche for holy water and a brazier for cooking.Archaeologists also found evidence of pottery that would have been used to prepare food with artefacts include bowls, jars and glass vessels discovered across the area.Despite the site being more than 1,000 years old, the earliest evidence of humans on Sir Bani Yas dates to around 7,500 years ago, with locations from both the Stone and Bronze ages found.The settlement that has opened is thought to have remained occupied until around 750 - even though by that stage Islam had begun to spread through the Gulf states.Dr Elders continued: 'The small Sir Bani Yas Island settlement continued to operate even after the spread of Islam throughout the Gulf. That is a testament to the open-mindedness of the time.'That the monastery continued for at least a century after the arrival of Islam shows that tolerance of the Muslims quite close to their heartland.''We know that there are stories of everyone living in harmony.'[17]

Located 170 km west of Abu Dhabi, Sir Bani Yas is an island that has been mentioned in European sources since 1590 when the Venetian jeweller Gasparo Balbi listed ‘Sirbeniast’ as an island around which pearls were found. It was described in some detail during the 1820s and 1850s by British naval officers surveying the lower Gulf waters, but in the past two decades it was completely transformed by the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan through a programme of tree planting coupled with the introduction of gazelle, oryx, llama, rhea, giraffe, ostrich and various other species of both birds and animals.The island has been investigated by the Abu Dhabi Islands archaeological Survey (Adias), which was established in 1991 and has recorded the presence of over 36 archaeological sites. Of these, by far the most important is that of a Church of the East monastery and church dating to the sixth-seventh centuries AD. Stucco decoration includes fragments of Nestorian crosses and vine-and-scroll patterns. [18]

Named after Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople (mod. Istanbul) from 428 to 431, the Nestorians were a Christian sect that arrived in the Emirates in the mid-fourth century, speculated to have been brought by a monk named Jonah who established a monastery, possibly identifiable with the Nestorian establishment excavated on Sir Bani Yas island. The monastery was reportedly located on a “black island,” south of Bet Qatraye, i.e. Qatar and eastern Saudi Arabia.[18]

Jubail Church-4th Century East Syrian Church in Saudi Arabia

Much of the world knows Petra, the ancient ruin in modern-day Jordan that is celebrated in poetry as the rose-red city, 'half as old as time,' which provided the climactic backdrop for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.But far fewer know Madain Saleh, a similarly spectacular treasure built by the same civilization, the Nabateans.That's because it's in Saudi Arabia, where conservatives are deeply hostile to pagan, Jewish and Christian sites that predate the founding of Islam in the 7th century.But now, in a quiet but notable change of course, the kingdom has opened up an archaeology boom by allowing Saudi and foreign archaeologists to explore cities and trade routes long lost in the desert.The sensitivities run deep. Archaeologists are cautioned not to talk about pre-Islamic finds outside scholarly literature. Few ancient treasures are on display, and no Christian or Jewish relics. A 4th or 5th century church in eastern Saudi Arabia has been fenced off ever since its accidental discovery 20 years ago and its exact whereabouts kept secret.

Bordering the Arabian Gulf and containing the towns of Dhahran, Al-Khobar, Dammam, Qatif, Hofuf and Jubail, the Eastern Province of Suadi Arabia is where oil was first discovered in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s.Near Jubail are the ruins of what was unearthed in the mid-1980s by a group of people attempting to dig their vehicle out of the sand. The ruins are known as the Jubail Church and are acknowledged by the Saudi government, who will not issue permits to visit it because 'the site is being excavated.' In any case, the original ruins contained four stone crosses, which later went missing, though the marks where the crosses were are still visible. The ruins are thought to date from the 4th century, which make them older than any known church in Europe. Not much else is known but speculation is that it was in some way connected to one of the five Assyrian Church of the East bishoprics which are known to have existed in this area of the Gulf in the 4th century.The photographs taken by Robert and Patricia McWhorter during 1986 shortly after the ruins were partially excavated and protected by the Saudi Department of Antiquities.

The Lost world of Socotra: The Mysterious Island of St Thomas Christians.

Socotra is an island off of the coast of east Africa that is governed by Yemen. For centuries all the inhabitants of the islands of Socotra belonged the Ancient Church of the East, which was known as the Nestorian Church. The Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of the East was a missionary church that founded Christian communities in Mongolia, China, while Western Europe was sleeping through its 'Dark Ages'. The Church of the East thrived for centuries in these lands yet most of its churches were eradicated by Islamic warriors, leaving only the churches of India and a community in the original Assyrian homeland of the region of modern Iraq and Iran. One of the longest lasting churches established by east Syrian missionaries, that eventually also fell victim to the Muslim Jihad, was the Nestorian Church of the Island of Socotra which endured for over a thousand years.A local tradition in the island holds that the inhabitants were converted to Christianity by Thomas the Apostle in AD 50. In the 10th century, the Arab geographer Abu Muhammad al-Hasan al-Hamdani stated that in his time most of the inhabitants were Christians. Socotra is also mentioned in The Travels of Marco Polo, according to which "the inhabitants are baptised Christians and have an 'archbishop'" who, it is further explained, "has nothing to do with the roman church, but is subject to an archbishop who lives at Baghdad". They were Nestorians but also practiced ancient magic rituals despite the warnings of their archbishop.

In 1507, a fleet commanded by Tristão da Cunha with Afonso de Albuquerque landed an occupying force at the then capital of Suq. Their objective was a Portuguese base to stop Arab commerce from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, and to liberate the presumed friendly Christians from Islamic rule. Here they started to build a fortress. However, they were not welcomed as enthusiastically as they had expected and abandoned the island four years later. The island was also come across by Somali sailors. Saint Thomas is held by tradition to be the founder of the churches in Assyria, Chaldea , Babylonia, India and Socotra. On his way to India Thomas was ship wrecked on the isle of Socotra and he used the wreckage of the ship to build a church.The Socotran Christians were called Thomas Christians and belonged to the East syrian "Nestorian" Church of the East. (The Syriac Christians of India also call themselves Thomas Christians.) St. Francis Xavier notes that the people of Socotra, with whom he visited during a sojourn on their island, "... are devotees of the Apostle St. Thomas and claim to be descendants of the Christians he converted in that part of the world." Several archeologists, anthropologists and historians working on the Island of Socotra have noted the ministry of St. Thomas among the Socotrans.

G. W. B. Huntingford notes that”The inhabitants seem always to have been a mixed people. Some of them at one period were Christians, converted it was said by St. Thomas in AD 52 while on his way to India. Abu Zaid Hassan, an Arab geographer of the 10th century, said that in his time most of the inhabitants of Socotra were Christian... but by the beginning of the 16th century Christianity had almost disappeared. leaving little trace but stone crosses at which Alvares said the people worshipped...However, a group of people was found here by St. Francis Xavier in 1542, claiming to be descended from the converts made by St. Thomas.

Travelers Accounts of the Christian community of Socotra.

Cosmas the Indian Voyager, called Indicopluestes, was a Nestorian Christian from Alexandria in Egypt. He was a merchant and traveled widely. He wrote a twelve volume work recounting his travels entitled Tropographis Indica Christiania , which translated is A Christian Topography of the Whole World. He wrote this work in 536 AD recollecting his journeys he made throughout the Indian Ocean, in Ethiopia and the coasts of India in 522 AD. He describes the Assyrian Church firmly established and growing throughout the world saying; We foun d the church...very widely diffused, and the whole world filled with the doctrine of Christ, which is being day by day propagated, and the gospel preached over the whole earth. This I have seen with my own eyes in many places and have heard narrated by others. I, as a witness of the truth can relate...18 Cosmas goes on to mention the Assyrian churches in Sri Lanka and Kerela, India. He then continues, "...and in the place called Kalliana (Quilan) there is a bishop usually ordained in Persia, as well as in the isle of Dioscoris (Socotra) in the same Indian Sea...You will find priests ordained in Persia sent there, there are also a number of Christians."19 So by the early 500s we have an account by a member of the Church of the east establishing the fact that by that time 'Nestorian' Christianity had been firmly established on the Island of Socotra.

The famous Venetian traveler Marco Polo (1254-1324) accuses the Socotrans of having the supernatural ability to control the weather and to cause shipwrecks. He wrote of Socotra saying: The inhabitants [of Socotra] are baptized Christians and have and archbishop.. is subject to an archbishop who lives at Baghdad [meaning the Patriarch of the Church of the East]. The archbishop of Baghdad sends out the archbishop of this island; and he also sends out many others to different parts of the world, just as the Pope does...I give you my word that the Christians of this island are the most expert enchanters in the world. It is true that the archbishop does not approve of these enchantments and rebukes them for the practice. But this has no effect, because they say that their forefathers did these things of old and they are resolved to go on doing them. And the archbishop cannot override their resolve.

As one Portuguese ship's writer had noted in the sixteenth century, “The Socotrans call themselves Christians but lack instruction and baptism, so that they have nothing but the name of Christians..."

At this time the Socotrans still revered the cross, placing it on altars and hanging it round their necks. Every village had a minister who repeated prayers and phonetically in a forgotten tounge [probably Edessa Syriac], scattering incense. Words like "Alleluia" often occurred and instead of ringing bells they shook wooden rattles.

A century later a Carmelite friar, P. Vincenzo, observed the last vestiges of Christianity on Socotra.The people, though they still professed Christianity, had no real knowledge and practiced a strange jumble of rites-they sacrificed to the moon, abominated wine and pork, circumcised, regarded the Cross with ignorant reverence and carried it before them in processions. They assembled in their low, dark, dirty churches three times a day and three time a night. They burned incense, and anointed their altars with butter. Placing a Cross and candle on top of them. Witchcraft was practiced, and the people often committed suicide in old age. Each family had a cave in which it buried its dead. They were all strictly monogamous.In 1800 the fanatical and puritanical south Arabian tribe, the Wahabees, attacked Socotra, destroyed tombs, churches, and graveyards on the coast around Hadibo, and terrified the Bedouin into formally accepting the Mohammedan faith.There are remains of churches and shrines and there are several inscriptions bearing the cross.Wahabi fanaticism brought to the people of Socotra, as it has in many other places, a great decline. Many structures bearing Christian symbolism have been defaced. Ruins that have been confirmed to be the remains of churches have been excavated by archeologists. Several inscriptions of crosses have been preserved. B. Huntingford notes that, the inhabitants seem always to have been a mixed people. Some of them at one period were Christians, converted it was said by St. Thomas in AD 52 while on his way to India. . but by the beginning of the 16 th century Christianity had almost disappeared. leaving little trace but stone crosses at which Alvares said the people worshipped...However, a group of people was found here by St. Francis Xavier in 1542, claiming to be descended from the converts made by St. Thomas.

Christian community of Najran(Saudi Arabia)

The existence of a Christian community in Najran is attested by several historical sources of the Arabic peninsula, where it recorded as having been created in the 5th century CE or perhaps a century earlier. According to the Arab Muslim historian, Ibn Ishaq, Najran was the first place where Christianity took root in South Arabia.Prior to the rise of Christianity, the people of Najran were polytheists and worshipped a tall date-palm tree, for which also they had an annual festival when they hung upon it the finest garments they could find, and female ornaments. Then they would come and dance around it the whole day. During this period, they had a Chief named Abdullah ibn ath-Thamir who became the first Najranite to embrace Christianity. A pious Christian builder and bricklayer named Phemion settled among them and led them to his religion and its religious laws, which they adopted.Before the advent of Islam, Najran was an oasis, with a large Christian population and the seat of a Bishopric. It sheltered an oligarchy of Christian merchants which were as rich as any in Edessa or Alexandria. It had been an important stop on the spice route from Hadhramaut. Najran had been an important centre of Christianity in South Arabia and the focus of international intrigues in which economics, politics, and religion were all entangled.

Conflict between Christians and Jews

The highlight of Christian presence in South Arabia caused a severe clash between Jews and Christians. Various Christian sources reveal that the arrival and spread of Christianity in South Arabia, particularly Najran, was bitterly opposed by the local Jews which would later have serious implications on both sides. The Jews of Najran were in contact with their co-religionists in Palestine and were seemingly effective proselytizers. The existence of Judaism in Southern Arabia also preceded the existence of Christianity by several centuries and dated back to the destruction of the Second temple in 70 CE.

The Christians of Najran later came into conflict with the Jewish rulers of Yemen, which ended in their being massacred in 524 by the Himyarite king, Yusuf As'ar Dhu Nuwas. The Najranite Christians, like other Southern Arabian Christian communities, had close connections with the ecclesiastical authorities in Byzantium and Abyssinia. They were identified by virtue of their religion as "pro-Axumite" and "pro-Byzantine".Dhu Nuwas hoped to create, in the rich lands of Southern Arabia, a "Davidic" kingship which was independent of the Christian powers. He also considered Najran to be a Byzantine base that controlled the Red Sea trade route and did harm to the economic situation of Himyar.

When Dhu Nuwas invaded, he called upon its people to abandon Christianity and embrace Judaism. When they refused, he had them thrown into burning ditches alive. Estimates of the death toll from this event range up to 20,000 in some sources.Some sources say that Dus Dhu Tha'laban from the Saba tribe was the only man able to escape the massacre of Najran, who fled to Constantinople to seek help and promptly reported everything. This brought about the wrath of emperor of Byzantium, Justin I who, as protector of Christianity encouraged his ally, the Abyssinian king Ella-Asbeha of Aksum, to invade the country, kill Dhu-Nuwas, and annex Himyar in 525.However, according to the "Book of Himyarites", the instigation to action was not caused by a request from Constantinople but, more plausibly, the arrival at the court of the Abyssinian king of a refugee from Najran by the name of Umayya. Later, an army of 7,000 men led by Abraha al-Ashram, the Christian viceroy of the Negus of Abyssinia defeated Dhu Nuwas's forces and restored Christian rule in Najran.

In his 524 C.E letter describing the Najran persecutions in detail, the West-Syrian debater Simeon, the bishop of Beth Arsham describes how female martyrs rushed in to join "our parents and brothers and sisters who have died for the sake of Christ our lord".

In one exchange, reminiscent of the Acts of Marta and her father Pusai, a freeborn woman of Najran named Habsa bint Hayyan taunts Dhu Nuwas with the memory of her father:[19]

Habsa told him, "I am the daughter of Hayyan, of the family of Hayyan, the teacher by whose hand our lord sowed Christianity in this land. My father is Hayyan who once burned your synagogues". Masruq the Crucifier (Dhu Nuwas), said to her, "So, you have the same ideas as your father? I suppose you too would be ready to burn our synagogues just as your father did." Habsa told him, "No! I am not going to burn it down because i am prepared to follow quickly this path of martyrdom in the footsteps of my brothers in Christ. But we have confidence in the justice of Jesus Christ our Lord and our God, that he will swiftly bring an end to your rule and make it disappear from amongst mankind: he will bring low your pride and your life, and he will uproot your synagogues from our lands, and build there holy churches. Christianity will increase and rule here, through the grace of our Lord and through the prayers of our parents and brothers and sisters who have died for the sake of Christ our Lord. Whereas you and all who belong to your people will become a byword that will cause future generations to wonder, because of all that you, a godless and merciless man, have wrought upon the holy churches and upon those who worship Christ God."

Simeon of Beth Arsham's Second letter preserves yet another memorably gruesome episode. After seeing her Christian kinsmen burned alive, Ruhm, a great noblewoman of Najran, brings her daughter before the Himyarite king and instructs him: "Cut off our heads, so that we may go join our brothers and my daughter's father." The executioners comply, slaughtering her daughter and granddaughter before Ruhm's eyes and forcing her to drink her blood. The king then asks, "How does your daughter's blood taste to you?" The martyr replies, "Like a pure spotless offering: that is what it tasted like in my mouth and in my soul.[20]

The martyrs of Najran

The martyrs of Najran are remembered in the Christian calendars and are even mentioned in the Surat al-Buruj of the Q'uran 85:4-8, where the persecutions are condemned and the steadfast believers are praised:

...slain were the men of the pit (Al-Ukhdood), the fire abounding in fuel, when they were seated over it, and were themselves witnesses of what they did with the believers. They took revenge on them because they believed in God the All-mighty, the All-laudable...

The stories of the Najran deaths spread quickly to other Christian realms, where they were recounted in terms of heroic martyrdom for the cause of Christ. Their martyrdom led to Najran becoming a major pilgrimage centre that, for a time, rivaled Mecca to the north. The leader of the Arabs of Najran who was executed during the period of persection, Al-Harith, was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as St. Aretas.[21]

The Martyrdom of the Christians of Najran is celebrated in the Roman Calendar on the 24 October; in the Jacobite Menologies on 31 December; in the Arabic Feasts of the Melkites on 2 October; in the Armenian Synaxarium on the 20 October, and in the Ethiopian Senkesar on November 22.

The bishops of Najran, who were probably Nestorians, came to the great fairs of Mina and Ukaz, and preached Christianity, each seated on a camel as in a pulpit. The Church of Najran was called the Ka'aba-e-Najran. (Note that several other shrines in Arabia were also called Ka'aba). The Ka'aba Najran at Jabal Taslal drew worshippers for some 40 years during the pre-Islamic era. The Arabian sources single out Khath'am, as a Christian tribe which used to perform the pilgrimage to the Christian Ka'aba of Najran. When Najran was occupied by Dhu Nuwas, the Ka'aba Najran was burned together with the bones of its martyrs and some 2,000 live Christians within it.

In the tenth year of the Hirah, a delegation of fourteen Christian Chiefs from Najran; among them Abdul Masih of Bani Kinda, their chief, and Abdul Harith, bishop of Bani Harith, came to Medina to make a treaty with the Islamic prophet Muhammad, and were permitted by him to pray in his mosque, which they did turning towards the east.[22]

Later, they undertook a religious discussion with the prophet, which was inconclusive but ended with signing a treaty between the two parties. Muhammad concluded a treaty with their Chiefs and Bishops, which on payment of a tribute of 2000 pieces of cloth, valued at 40 dirhams each, secured them in the undisturbed profession of their ancestral faith. Throughout the rebellion they remained loyal to their engagements, and Abu Bakr renewed the treaty. According to the treaty, the people of Najran like the Christians of the Banu Taghlib tribe were exempted from paying the Jizya required of all non Muslims. The peace agreement also stipulated that the town supply 30 sets of armor, 30 horses and 30 camels for operations along the Gulf coast or in Yemen.[23]

A part of the Najran Treaty between the Prophet Muhammad and the Christians of Najran reads as follows:[24]

This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.

No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them.

If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.

Their Churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (of Muslims) is to disobey this covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).

Resistance to the Rise of Islam

However, in time they resisted the preachings of Islam; and as a penalty, they were forcibly expelled from the town of their forefathers.[25] They were ordered by Umar ibn al-Khattab to vacate the city and emigrate out of the Arabian peninsula, or accept a money payment.[25] Some migrated to Syria; but the greater part settled in the vicinity of Al-Kufa in predominantly Christian Southern Iraq, where the colony of Al-Najraniyyah long maintained the memory of their expatriation. The Jews of Najran were expelled with the Christians and went with them as their followers.[25]

However, the historicity of these events is not absolutely reliably established.[25] It appears that the orders of Umar were not fully carried out and might have applied only to Christians living in Najran itself, not to those settled round about. This is because there is some evidence of a continuing Christian presence in Najran for at least 200 years after the expulsion.[25] Some sources also state that the Christian community of Najran still had considerable political weight in the late ninth century.[25]According to a Yemeni Arab source, the first Zaydite Imam of Yemen, al-Hadi Ila l-Haqq Yahya ibn al-Hussain (897-911) concluded an accord with the Christians and the Jews of the oasis on 897, at the time of the foundation of the Zaydite principality.[26]A second Yemeni source alludes to the Christians of Najran in muharram 390 (999-1000). The oasis was still one third Christian and one third Jewish, according to the testimony of the Persian traveller, Ibn al-Mujawir.[27] The last evidence of the presence of Christianity in Northern Yemen of which Najran used to belong to, dates back to the 13th century.[9]According to other accounts, the Christians of Najran were deported to Mesopotamia by the Caliph Umar, on the grounds that no non-Muslims should inhabit the Arabian peninsula.[28]

Eventually the Old Najran which was Christian disappeared, and is now represented by Al-Ukhdood, a desolate village, while another Najran which is Islamic, has now appeared in its vicinity.[29]

Muslim Sect Sees Struggle Through Christian Lens(NAJRAN JOURNAL- Published: October 20, 2010)

NAJRAN, Saudi Arabia — Among the ruins on the edge of this ancient oasis city are deep trenches littered with bones. That, local people say, is all that remains of one of the great atrocities of antiquity, when thousands of Christians were herded into pits here and burned to death by a Jewish tyrant after they refused to renounce their faith.

The massacre, which took place in about A.D. 523, is partly shadowed by myth and largely unknown to the outside world. But it has become central to the identity of the people now living here, who mostly belong to the minority Ismaili sect of Islam. The Ismailis, widely reviled as heretics by Sunni Muslims both here and abroad, see the oppressed Christians of ancient Najran as their literal and figurative ancestors in a continuing struggle for recognition by the Saudi state.“This story means so much to us,” said Ali al-Hattab, a 31-year-old hospital worker and graduate student. “Our life and our struggle today comes from those martyrs who gave their lives for their beliefs.”The Saudi government does not take kindly to this analogy. Part of the site where the Christians are said to have been killed — including charred remnants from the fires — was buried and paved over years ago. In a small museum next to the ruins that is dedicated to the city’s ancient history, there is only one brief reference to the massacre. In part, this is a reflection of the deep hostility among Saudi conservatives toward any artifacts that predate the birth of Islam in the seventh century.

Najran, a fertile valley on Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen, was the last territory to be conquered by King Abdulaziz al-Saud, the country’s founder. He promised to respect the faith and customs of Najran — which had been an independent sheikdom — after bringing it into the kingdom in 1933. But Ismailis say his successors failed to follow through, denying them government jobs and pressuring them to convert to Wahhabism, the hard-line school of Sunni Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia.A drive down Najran’s main street conveys some of this: it is lined with government-built Sunni mosques, even though Ismailis are the majority of the town’s 500,000 people (the Saudi census does not include sects, so it is impossible to know the true proportions).The government has naturalized Sunnis from Yemen in an effort to alter the sectarian balance, Mr. Hattab and many other Ismailis say. Saudi officials have often publicly maligned Ismailis as infidels. The Shiites of eastern Saudi Arabia have long faced similar discrimination, but because they are more numerous, their situation is better known.Ten years ago, these tensions erupted into violence. A demonstration outside the governor’s residence in April 2000 led to a gun battle in which two Ismaili men were killed and, according to some government accounts, one police officer. Hundreds of Ismaili men were arrested over the following weeks, and more than 90 were tried in secret; some say they were tortured, according to a 2008 report by Human Rights Watch.Many Ismailis say the situation has improved since last year, when King Abdullah appointed his son Mishal bin-Abdullah governor of the province. Public attacks on the Ismaili faith have ceased, and the state has made significant investments in the city, building a large new university, renovating the airport and improving the roads.

Oldest Christian church in Arabian Island called Ka’aba-e-Najran(Najran Christians) by Arab World, Haj had been performed around it for years in the year prior to Mohamed , is being unearthed as heritage. Now, the Saudi government has also allowed tourists there, from all over the world.

But most Ismailis seem anxious about their status and unsure if King Abdullah, who is 86 years old, can continue to protect them from discrimination by the hard-liners who wield a powerful influence in the Saudi government and clerical establishment. Few Ismailis are willing to talk openly about the issue.Those who do so have sometimes been punished. In 2006, at one of the “National Dialogue” sessions convened by King Abdullah to encourage debate and tolerance, a Najrani woman named Fatima al-Tisan bravely spoke up about the way Ismailis feel disenfranchised. Soon afterward, she was fired from her government job at the Education Ministry in Najran.The story of the Christians’ massacre — known here as “al ukhdood,” or the trenches — remains a powerful metaphor for most Ismailis, and it comes up constantly in conversation here.When asked what it meant to him, one prominent tribal sheik held up his finger and said sternly, “I am an Ismaili, and if the government said, ‘We will cut you into pieces if you don’t become a Sunni,’ I would refuse.” He asked not to be named, saying he wanted to maintain good relations with the government.Part of the massacre’s significance comes from a passage in the Koran that is said to refer to it: “Slain were the men of the pit, the fire fed with fuel, when they were seated by it, and were witnesses of what they did with the believers! They took revenge on them because they believed in God the almighty.”Historians offer a somewhat different account of what happened here, though the facts remain sketchy. A Jewish king named Dhu Nuwas did kill a large number of Christians in Najran in 523, a century before the birth of Islam. But the notion that they died because they refused to renounce Christianity appears to be mythical, said Christian Robin, a French archaeologist. And the claim that they were burned to death en masse — with its eerie Holocaust overtones — also appears to be untrue, Mr. Robin added; most were killed by sword. Nor is it clear that the Koranic passage refers to what happened here.At the scene, on the edge of modern-day Najran, the old citadel’s stone foundations lie open to the sun and rain. Some have curious symbols and letters carved into them: a pair of entwined snakes, camels, a horse. It is impossible to know whether the papery bone fragments embedded in layers of stone and soil are related to the massacre, as local people say, or not.

But Najranis will brook no doubt about the story. They say it has been handed on from father to son ever since it happened.“These were among the first people to die for their beliefs,” said Salem al-Yami, a retired military officer here. “We believe that makes Najran a sacred city.”

The Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus (Arabic: جامع بني أمية الكبير, transliteration Ğām' Banī 'Umayya al-Kabīr) or formerly the Basilica of Saint John the Baptist (Greek: Βασιλική του Αγίου Ιωάννη του Βαπτιστή, transliteration Vasilikí tou Agíou Ioánni tou Vaptistí), located in the old city of Damascus, is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world. It is considered the fourth-holiest place in Islam. After the Arab conquest of Damascus in 634, the mosque was built over a Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist since the time of the Roman emperor Constantine I.


[1] Harrak, page number to be supplied

[2] Chabot, 273

[3] Wright, 51 and 59

[4] Chabot, 482

[5]Chabot, 273 and 275

[6]Chabot, 285

[7] Chabot, 368

[8] Chabot, 482

[9] Chabot, 473

[10] Chronicle of Seert, ii. 119

[11] Chabot, 482

[12] Chabot, 482

[13] Chabot, 482

[14] Mari, 125 (Arabic), 110 (Latin)

[15] Sliba, 124 (Arabic)

[16] Wallis Budge, Book of Governors, 448

[17] DAILY MAIL REPORTER updated at 8:46 AM on 13th December 2010.


[19] Harvey & Brock 1998, p. p.117

[20]Walker 2006, p. 226

[21]Holtzclaw 1980, p. 120"Najran, in Yemen, was the scene, in 523, of a massacre of Ethiopians and other Christians by Jews and Arabs. A leader among the victims was the chief of the Banu Harith, St. Aretas (see: Elesbaan)."

[22]Khan 1980, p. 247

[23]Nicolle 1994, p. 40

[24]Sakeenah 2010, p. p.41

[25]Goddard 2000, pp. 42–43

[26]Dobson 2000, p. 90

[27]Grabar, Brown & Bowersock 1999, p. 753

[28] Hitti 1970, p. 61

[29]Frankfurter 1998, p. 226

No comments:

Post a Comment