Himyar, modern Yemen during the 6th Century was an area where Christianity, Judaism and paganism competed for religious allegiance and where Ethiopia, Persia and the eastern Roman Empire competed for political advantage. The kingdom of Abyssinia– Axum – had a presence on the Arabian coast from the 3rd century. In the early 300s, they invaded Himyar in the Yemeni region, holding it until 378. Between 320-360, Axum became Christian under King Ezanes. During the 6th Century Christianity had become fairly widespread in Yemen but encountered strong opposition from the region’s long-established Jewish community and from local nationalists. In 521 A.D. the Christian Ma’adikarib Ya’fur became king and, supported by the Aksumites, began a series of military expeditions against the Central Arabian tribes in order to reinforce his power and prepare a war against the Lakhmids of al-Hira (or Nasrids, Northern Arabian vassals of the Sasanians). After his death, the Judaist Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar ascended to the throne, mortal enemy of the Aksumites and their Christian allies. In 523 Yusuf Asar Dhu Nuwas (518-525) (also known as Masruq) King of the Himyar and a recent convert to Judaism, (it is believed his mother was a Jewish slave girl) began removing foreign influences from his realm and some Roman and Axumite merchants were killed. Whether he planned to establish an explicitly Jewish state is debatable — many of his followers were pagan or Nestorian — but most of his enemies were Christian, and his war to establish Himyar’s full independence from Axum took on a distinctly religious character and into confluct with the regions Christians and Axumite.
The king of Axum, Ela Atzheba (Ela-Asbeha) also known as Elesboas (in Malalas), Hellesthaeus (in Procopius) and sometimes as Kaleb which was his Christian name, sent an army to Yemen to punish Dhu-Nuwas driving him in to the hills, but once Ela-Asbeha’s army retired he regains his kingdom and in retaliation Churches are burned and Arab Christian civilians are massacred, most famously at Nagran; In October of 523 believing the Najran Christians collaborated with the Axumites Dhu-Nuwas tears down all their churches and burns alive those who refuse to apostatize. These martyrs are commemorated in the liturgies of the Greek, Latin and Oriental Churches. Dhu Nuwas is said to have justified such atrocities by referring to the horrendous persecution of Jews in the Roman Empire.
It appears that a Christian from Najran escaped and brought news of the massacre to Ela Atzheba along with a half-burnt copy of the Gospel. Ela-Asbeha outraged by the actions of Dhu Nuwas was determined to return to Yemen and had the troops with which to intervene but no ship transports; he got in touch with Byzantine emperor Justin I through the patriarch of Alexandria, Timothy III. It should be noted that Ela Atzheba was of Orthodox Tewahedo and Timothy Coptic Orthodox Christian faiths whereas Justin was a devout Chalcedonian, nevertheless Justin offered the use of 60 ships for the Ethiopian army (Although his support was provided officially to protect the persecuted Christians of Yemen, it is probably more likely that it was an attempt to control one of the passages of goods from India destined to Byzantium.). The campaigns which Caleb (Ela Atzheba) led in person and under the spiritual guidance of the celebrated Axumite monk Pantaleon were eventually victorious in a great battle on the seashore at Zabid, where Dhu Nuwas himself fell in the surf. Once Dhu-Nuwas was dead South Arabia was turned into a province of the Axumite monarchy.
News of the Ethiopian emperor’s rescue of the Christians of Himyar spread throughout the Orthodox world, and Caleb (who eventually abdicated his throne to become a monk, sending his gold crown to be kept near the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem) is venerated as a saint not only in the Ethiopian Church but also, as St. Ellasbaan (i.e. Ella Asbeha), by the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics. South Arabia, however, remained a restless province, and Caleb soon granted it de facto independence under the Christian prince Abraha who between 535-570 was the most powerful man in Yemen. In, the year of Muhammad’s birth, Abraha’s army elephant corps attacked Mecca, giving that famous year the name “Year of the Elephant” in Arab history. Another Islamic echo of the wars of Caleb may be in Sura 85 of the Koran, which describes how those who burn the Saints burn themselves; this is thought by many commentators to refer to Dhu Nuwas and the Martyrs of Nagran.
The Axumite viceroy, Abraha invasion of Mecca, is eventual stopped by pestilence which wipes out his army. Still, by 575 he was enough of a threat that Mecca had to ask Persia for assistance, at which point they lost their independence to Persian dominance. Around this time Abu Morra Sayf b. Dhu Yazan of the royal Himyarite house asked for an external intervention to overthrow the Christian/Aksumites. The Byzantines and the Lakhmids refused to send their troops but not the Persians bringing about the first encounter between Persia and Africa during the reign of Khusru (Khosrow) I when he expelled the Christian Aksumites (or Abyssinians) from Yemen in c. 570 A.D. According to al-Tabari, Khosrow I Anoshirvan armed eight ships with eight hundred released Daylamite prisoners, leaded by a certain Vahrez [Exactly as for many other Sasanian names, it is not clear if this was a personal name or a high-rank title, and with this army he defeated ‘Abraha’s son Masruq. Sayf b. Dhu Yazan was proclaimed chief of the reign, now a Sasanian protectorate known as Samaran, but after few years he died during a revolt that probably happened between 575 and 578. Vahrez intervened once more but this time with a more numerous army.
November 25, 523 – Crucial Day in History
A historical look at the birth of Islam
If I were a theologian, my idea of Valhalla would be something like a villa in Languedoc, an endless supply of red, a smoke (I assume that won’t be a problem in the afterlife) and a good history book.
Among my favourite authors is Tom Holland, whose previous publications Rubicon, Persian Fire and Millennium have accompanied me on those increasingly rare periods of relaxation abroad.
Holland writes about antiquity with great flair and authority, capturing the sense of struggle, anxiety and desperation that often overshadowed great men and great civilisations as they battled for supremacy (and anyone who doubts Steven Pinker’s thesis that we are all getting nicer and less violent should study ancient history more closely).
Holland’s latest, In the Shadow of the Sword, takes a look at a period of antiquity, the 6th and 7th centuries, that has fallen to the very back of the western mind, largely because for our ancestors the light of civilisation had gone out (or had not yet been switched on); in the eastern Mediterranean and Near East, however, the Roman Empire continued much as normal, although now centred in Constantinople and speaking Greek. During this period the Romans battled for supremacy with the Persian Empire, occasionally fighting ferociously in Mesopotamia or Syria but more often in a state of uneasy truce.
But Holland’s latest book is interesting in a different way, for as Charles Moore noted on Monday, it delves into a seriously controversial area – the birth of Islam.
The Near East at the time was a fascinating hodge-podge of different faiths; Holland opens the narrative with the story of Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar, an Arab king who defeated the Christians in the Najran region by the Red Sea – the twist being that Yath’ar was not Muslim but Jewish, and there were communities of both living in Arabia at the time.
And sometimes the dividing line between the faiths was unclear. Further north in modern-day Iraq, where Jews had lived for a millennium and Christians for several centuries, there were Jews who still prayed to Jesus and Christians who practised Jewish rites. Iran itself was Zoroastrian, the world’s oldest major religion: although today rather tiny (Freddie Mercury is perhaps the only Zoroastrian many of us could name) it was to influence Islam heavily, as Holland points out. Another even smaller group, the Samaritans (so small in number that they’ve been forced to marry out for genetic reasons) were still a significant force at this time, before their strength was broken by two failed uprisings.
Further out in the wilds of Arabia there were all sorts of pagans, some of who worshipped cubes (which seems to have been a particular thing with Arabs at the time).
And it was out of this wilderness that came one of the world’s great religions, whose followers would in a short space of time conquer an empire from Spain to central Asia, and whose scholars would form a coherent religion that has flourished to this day.
And yet from a historical point of view the study of Islam and its founder is problematic. The oldest biographies of Mohammed, in the form we have them, date back to more than two centuries after his death, and despite the diligent work of Al-Bukhari, who is said to have collected 600,000 supposed sayings of the prophet and dismissed all but 7,225, the religion is as vulnerable to higher criticism as Judaism and Christianity.
That criticism, which began with historians such as Edward Gibbon and accelerated in 1863 when Ernest Renan published a biography of Jesus that treated his subject as a man, leading one critic to describe it as a “new crucifixion of Our Lord”, has been irreversible.
Yet while in the 18th century Muslim jurists concluded that the “gate of interpretation” was closed because all there was to learn had been learned, by the late 19th century Western scholars such as Ignác Goldziher also began to ask questions about Islam, especially about the hadiths, the collection of sayings that made up the Sunna, or Islamic law – a question that Muslim scholars had asked a thousand years before (concluding that many were fakes).
And in the past four decades Islam has come under a far more rigorous microscope. In 1950 the German professor Joseph Schacht wrote that: “We must abandon the gratuitous assumptions that there existed originally an authentic core of information going back to the time of the Prophet.”
Instead, as Holland concludes, many of the inventions of Islam already existed at the time it arose. It seems unlikely that Mecca, so biographers of Mohammed say, was a pagan city, devoid of any Jewish or Christian presence, in a great desert. This would indeed make the rise of fully-fledged monotheism there, complete with references to Abraham, Moses and Jesus, a miracle. As Holland writes:
A ‘brave’ telling of the Koran’s human stories
Well, this pivotal historical time should not be considered ‘brave’, particularly, when most of these narratives are accepted and acknowledged as historical facts among Ethiopian theologians and historians.
The “Telegraph’s” Charles Moore reviews “In the Shadow of the Sword” by Tom Holland (Little, Brown)
Most of the attention given to this book so far has, rightly, been favourable. But it has skirted round the key point. Tom Holland is attempting to show that much of what Muslims believe about the Koran is incorrect. Since their belief is rigorously literal – they hold that the Koran is the uncreated word of God recited (the word Koran means “recitation”) directly through the mouth of Mohammed – any Muslim who accepted Holland’s evidence would have to reconsider many aspects of his faith.
This painful process of textual inquiry into scripture has been well known to Christians since the 19th century, when the Bible came under similar scrutiny. It has caused anguish, but many have been able to reconcile their faith with the discoveries of scholarship. No such process has taken place in Islam. Indeed, the suppression of questioning has actually got worse. Until 1924, for example, seven different versions of the text were considered canonical, so areas of doubt were implicitly acknowledged. Now there is only one normative text, and it is inconsistent in many particulars, but Muslims dare not say so. Holland is being brave.
Before any zealot starts threatening him, it is worth saying something about his motive. Holland has clearly not written with an animus against Islam. He does permit himself some amusing acerbities – such as why people started to teach that Mohammed used a toothbrush – but this is not a polemical work promoting Judaism, Christianity or atheism against Islam, or saying that Muslims are liars. It is a work of history, trying to tell the truth, as modern historians understand that fraught concept.
Historical truth is closely related to the idea of context, and therefore clashes with the Muslim view that the Koran came, as Holland puts it, like “lightning from a clear blue sky”. The right context, he argues, is not a lonely revelation in desert obscurity. It is the period in which the Persian and Roman empires came to an end.
To Holland, it is significant that no biographies of Mohammed survive from before the ninth century (he is believed to have died in 632), and that the stories of his life became more detailed the longer the elapse of time from his death. The Koran itself says very little about the Prophet – he is mentioned only four times – so almost everything that Muslims believe about him comes from poor, later evidence. As Holland says, it is rather as if we were to study the two world wars without any eyewitness accounts at all.
Soure: The Telegraph