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  Early Islam from Contemporary Syriac Sources - 25.6.2008

 

The diverse Syriac Christians had varying opinions about the Mhaggraye. However, their common description of the Mhaggraye warrants attention and consideration. In this paper, except for comparative hints, I will avoid the Byzantine Christian sources because Byzantine Christians were attacked and lost their land to the conquering Muslims. Having the Byzantine faced this experience, their written reaction about the Muslim were not so objective. Additionally, I will avoid the Arabic, Islamic sources not simply because they were the victors who could write in justification of their conquests, but in actual fact because there is no contemporary Arabic writing concerning the events in the seventh century. Arabic chronologies and other writings are not available before the late eighth century. Thus, I will limit myself to the Syriac writers, who were neither declared enemies nor outward friends of the new conquerors.

The Diverse Syriac Christians

By the seventh century, the Syriac Christians were ecclesiastically divided into four main groups. There were Chalcedonians or Melkites: monotheletes and dyothelete; non-Chalcedonians: Jacobites, and Nestorians. The Syriac, Chalcedonian Christians, who had been at something of an advantage under the Byzantine rule because of their ecclesiastical affiliation with the dominant Byzantine emperor,[2] grieved their loss and expressed anger at the invasion. The non -Chalcedonian Christians, however, lost no advantage and were saved of religious and doctrinal persecution- the “Jacobites” had been oppressed by the Byzantines, and the “Nestorians” had undergone persecution by the Persian Zoroastrians. Thus, they viewed the advance of Mhaggraye from the standpoint of their own ecclesiastical affiliations, their relations with the previous political authorities, and their relations with the new people.

Historical Orientation

The Syriac writers well knew the Arabs in various aspects and many appellations: Arabaye, Tayyaye, Sons of Hagar and Ishmaelite. Upon the advance of the Arabs, however, additional new names were employed, like Tayyaye of Muhammad, but mostly Mhaggraye. The unprecedented name, Mhaggraye, is provocative because it provides the greatest evidence for their selfidentification as immigrants (muhajerun). In other words, the name Immigrants (muhajerun) implies that the Arabs had arrived to stake a claim on, occupy, and then inherit, the land. The Syriac writers, reporting and repeating what they were hearing rather than inventing a historical event, merely Syriacized this native Arabic name.

An early circulated story among the Syriac writers, also shared with contemporary Sebeos’ History,[3] enhance the impression of the Christian writers that the Arabs had come with the intention to stay. The story relates that upon his visit to Palestine, Muhammad admired the Jewish monotheism and the fertility of their land, which “had been given to them (Jews) as a result of their belief in one God.” The story continues that when Muhammad returned to his tribesmen, he set this belief before them, saying: “if you listen to me, abandon these vain gods and confess the one God, then to you too will God give a land flowing with milk and honey.”[4]

Evidently, the Syriac writers employed “secular” or “political” terms to address the leaders of Mhagrayye. Conventionally, they called the Arab caliphs Kings (melke), the governors as princes (amire), rulers (shalite, or rishe, or rishane).[5] In a clearly ethnical approach to the Mhaggraye as a group, John of Phenek writes, "among them (Arabs), there are many Christians, some of whom are from the heretics, others from us."[6] Concerning Muhammad, for the most part, he was described as “the first king of the Mhaggraye,” but occasionally he was called Guide (Mhaddyana) or Teacher (Teraa),[7] or Leader (mdabrana).[8] Thus, at that time, Christians regarded the Arabs in ethnic and politic rather than in religious terms.

The Invasion as God’s Punishment

All the diverse four groups agreed in principle on one basic precept: that the invasion was sent by God Himself in punishment for their sins. Moreover, they blamed one another for having brought down God’s anger. John of Phenek (690s) viewed the Mhaggraye as a people sent by God to punish Christians on account of heresies,[9] but also their own laxity of faith.[10] John elaborated that “God called the Arabs from the end of the earth, to destroy through them a sinful kingdom and to humiliate through them the proud spirit of the Persians.”[11] The Jacobite writings reported that because of the wickedness of the Romans, the God of vengeance sent the Ishmaelites from the land of the South to effect through them our deliverance.[12] A Chalcedonian, monothelite author of the Syriac “Life of Maximus” attributes the sweeping invasion of the Arabs (Tayyaye) to all lands and islands because of God’s wrath on the account of the wickedness of Maximus and his followers (dyothelites).[13] Conversely, the Dyothelete Anastasios considers the Arab victories as God’s punishment for Constans II’s promonothelite policy.[14] On Christmas Eve of 634, one year after the conquest of Palestine, the Melkite Patriarch, Sophronius of Jerusalem exhorted his congregation to repent so that God’s punishment may be removed, namely, the occupation of the Ishmaelites (Arabs). He continued, “through repentance, we shall blunt the Ishmaelite sword and break the Hagarene bow, and see Bethlehem again.”[15]

The common assumption among all Syriac groups that the advance of Mhaggraye was a divine act of punishment conveys that they all expected a quick end, or some kind of closure, of the Mhaggraye’s role. This was not merely conjecture on their part. In fact, all sources that dated to the end of the seventh century elaborated on the “First and Second Civil Wars” among Arab political and tribal factions as a sign of their total destruction.[16]

Mhaggraye’s Religious Orientation

Unlike the Byzantines, the Syriac writers were the first people ever to report about and eventually engage with the Mhaggraye on religious matters. In the earliest Syriac document dated to 644, the author refers to Mhaggraye as having accepted the Torah—not the Gospels—just as the Jews and Samaritans.[17] Moreover, the document describes Jews standing by the Emir of Mhaggraye in order to scrutinize the sayings of Christians.[18] Although a good portion of the discussion between the Emir of Mhaggraye was about the scriptures, none of them referred to the Quran; a possible indication that the Quran was not yet in circulation. One of the earliest Syriac apocalypses in Islamic times, pseudonymously attributed to Ephrem, referred to Mhaggraye in religious terms as “the offspring of Hagar, handmaid of Sarah, who holds the covenant of Abraham, the husband of Sarah and Hagar.”[19] The Brief Chronicle sees nothing unusual for the Arabs (Tayyaye) to worship at the Dome (: ܩܘܒܬܐqubta) of Abraham—a reference to al-Kaaba since they had been doing from the ancient days to pay homage to the father of the head of their nation / community (i.e., Ishmael).[20] Moreover, the Brief Chronicle argues that the Arabs (Tayyaye) changed the name of the city of Yathreb to Midina after the name of the fourth son of Abraham Midian.[21] Directly, John of Phenek describes the Mhaggraye’s beliefs as worshippers of One God in accordance with the old Law (Old Testament).[22] John continues that the Mhaggraye held the instructions of Muhammad, who became their instructor (Taraa/ mhadyana); and they were inflicting the death penalty on any persons violating Muhammad’s instructions.[23] Later chronicles associated the building of the Dome of the Rock on the site of the temple of Solomon with the eschatological rebuilding of the temple, by the Jews.[24] None of the Syriac sources declared Mhaggraye as Jews, but all viewed them as having a monotheistic belief following a Jewish precedent.

Conclusion

Although the Syriac writers did not intend to write the history of early Islam per se, everything they wrote concerning Islam is vital because they shed light on several historical events. In addition, religiously speaking, the Syriac writers believed early Muslims (Mhaggraye) to be the descendant of Abraham through Ishmael and Hagar, people confessing the One God, who brought them to the region to punish the heretics, and to cause the faithful to repent. In other words, they were seen as a people with a divine task, but they were also to be banished upon the completion of that task. However, there is no clear indication that the Syriac writers recognized the birth of a new religion called Islam since it is certainly never named as such.



[1] P. Crone, "The First-Century concept of Higra," Arabica: Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 3 (1994) 352-87.

[2] It was because of their affiliation with the ecclesiastical tradition of the emperor (Chalcedonian), their fellow Syriac rivals called them : ܡܠܟ̈ܝܐmelkites, which means followers of the king.

[3] Sebeos’ History (tr. R. Bedrosian; New York: Sources of the Armenian Tradition, 1985).

[4] Cf. Sebeos’ History (tr. R. Bedrosian; New York: Sources of the Armenian Tradition, 1985) xxx,123; Bar Hebraeus, 97; MS 2: 403 = 4:405; Chr. 1234, 227-8. Syriac writers are drawing on Dionysius of Tellmahre).

[5] All these terms were used by Syriac writers even before Islam. Iohannis Ephesini, Historiae Ecclesiasticae III (ed. E. Brook; Parisiis: E Typographeo Reipublicae, 1935) 80,181, 217, 221, 224; Ahudemmeh 25. In the seventh century, see Isho`yahb, Isho`yahb Patriarchae III Liber Epistularum (ed. and tr. R. Duval; CSCO, Scr. Syr II, Vol. 63/ 64) 226.

[6] A. Mingana, Sources Syriaques, 147*.

[7] A. Mingana, Sources Syriaques (Leipzig: Harrassowitz, 1908) 146*.

[8] Chronica Minora (ed. I. Guidi; CSCO, Scr. Syri 1) 30, 26 (tr.).

[9] Most probably, he meant the Jacobites and the Chalcedonians.

[10] His own, “the Nestorians,” A. Mingana, Sources Syriaques (Vol. 1; Leizig: Harrassowitz, 1908) 145*, 148* (text), 174*, 177* (tr.).

[11] Mingana, 141*-142*.

[12] Chr. 1234, 236-7; MS 2: 412-3 = 4: 410.

[13] S. Brock, “An Early Syriac Life of Mazimus the Confessor,” Analecta Bollandiana 91 (1973) 312-313 (text), 318 (tr.).

[14] Patrologia Graeca 89, col. 1156; W. Kaegi, “Initial Byzantine Reactions to the Arab Conquest,” Church History 38 (1969) 142.

[15] H. Usener (ed.), “Weihnachtspredigt des Sophronios,” Rheinisches Museum fur Philologie 41 (1886) 515.

[16] Ps.-Ephrem; Ps-Methedios; John the Lesser; John of Phenek; for text and translation of John of Phenke see book XV, A. Mingana, Sources Syriaques (Vol. 1, Letpzig: 1907) 143* - 179*; also see S. Brock, “North Mesopotamia in the Late Seventh Century: Book XV of John of Penkaye’s Ris Melle,” Studies in Syriac Christianity (London: Variorum, 1992) 51-75; on the historical background of the Arab Civil Wars, see G. R. Hawting, The First Dynasty of Islm: The Umayyad Caliphate AD 661-750 (London: 1989) 51-53.

[17] Abdul-Massih Saadi, “The Letter of John of Sedreh: A New Perspective on Nascent Islam,” Karmo 1.1 (1998) 18-31 [Arabic and Syriac], 1.2 (1999) 46-64 [English]. Theodore Bar Koni (d. 792) sees them as "believing as the Jews." Addai Scher, Theodorus Bar Koni Liber Scholiorum (CSCO, Vols. 55 and 69; Paris: 1910 and 1912) 235. Michael the Syrian wrote: "Muhammad attached himself to the faith of the Jews, because it pleased him." (Mc ‡‚x„J A[JÐO[J œ[JNˆc y~k KhTg). See Michael the Syrian, Chronique de Michel Le Syrien ed. J.-B. Chabot IV (Paris: Cultrue et Civilisation, 1963) 405; See also The Anonymous Chronicle 819 A.D. ed. Chabot CSCO Syri ser III, 14 (Paris: 1920) 227 – 8.

[18] Saadi, Vol. 1.2, 52.

[19] E. Beck, Des Heiligen Ephraemdes Syrers Sermones III (CSCO, 320, Scrip. Syri Vol. 138) 61.

[20] Chronica Minora (ed. I. Guidi; CSCO, 1, Scr. Syri 1) 38, tr. 31.

[21] Chronica Minora (ed. I. Guidi; CSCO, 1, Scr. Syri 1) 38, tr. 31. Biblical reference can be seen in Gen. 25:2.

[22] A. Mingana, Sources Syriaques, 146*.

[23] Mingana, Sources Syriaques, 146*.

[24] MS 2:431 = 4:421; Chr. 1234, 260; [SEBEOS SECTION 31].

Abdul-Massih Saadi, Ph. d.

   

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