The Earliest Traces of Arab Christianity

In his Letter to the Galatians, St Paul mentions that after his conversion experience he 'did not consult immediately with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but went away to Arabia and returned again to Damascus' (1: 16-17). It is attractive, and not entirely implausible, to imagine that he went to friendly fellow believers in the hinterland east of Damascus, or even went there to preach before any of his great missionary journeys. But this brief mention cannot support such inferences; the spread of the faith to Arabia cannot safely be documented at this early stage, and not with any assurance until the third century. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, there was a bishop of Bostra on the north-south trade route east of the Jordan in the middle of this century, and also synods convened in his see and further south in Arabia Petraea at about the same time (Ecclesiastical History 6: 20, 37). Eusebius also suggests that the Emperor Philip the Arab (r. 244-59) was a Christian, most explicitly when he describes how the emperor wished to take part in the Easter vigil in Antioch in 244 but was barred until he had confessed his sins (Ecclesiastical History 6: 34). Some scholars accept the reliability of the historian's evidence, but others discount it as a rumour that is countered by other attestations to Philip's pagan beliefs (it is maybe an esteem-building retrojection analogous to later stories preserved by Christians under Islamic rule of the conversion of caliphs such as the 'Abbasid al-Ma'mun (r. 813-33) and the Fatimid al-Mu'izz (r. 969-75).

These references to Arabian bishops in the third century are complemented by mention of their successors in the fourth century attending major church councils. One of the later versions of the lists of the Council of Nicaea in 325 includes among other bishops from Arabia a certain Pamphilus of the Tayenoi, possibly the bishop of the empire's Arab confederates whom authors referred to by this generic form of the name of the Tayy tribe. Fifty years later, one of the bishops who attended the Synod of Antioch in 363 was Theotinus of the Arabs. And in the latter decades of the century Moses, who was an ethnic Arab, worked as bishop among the Arab confederates in Syria and was instrumental in reconciling them with the empire after they had revolted.

These references to third- and fourth-century bishops are brief, and some are equivocal. But they nevertheless point to what is anyway the likely fact that there was a Christian presence among the Arabs on the fringes of the Roman Empire this early, and that it included some degree of ecclesiastical organization. The actual tribes among whom these bishops would have been active are not named in the sources, but it is not unlikely that one of these would have been the Tanukhids, whose territory lay between the Euphrates and the major Christian See of Antioch. They and other such tribal confederations as the Ghassanids, Lakhmids and Salihids occupied the territory between the Roman and Sassanian Empires to the north of the Arabian peninsula proper. They acted as important buffers between the two states, and their allegiance was keenly courted through the long centuries of warfare in which the respective imperial frontiers were repeatedly pushed east and west. Throughout the fourth century, and after it, these tribes were converted to Christianity, with the Lakhmids following the teaching of the Church of the East, and the Ghassanids adopting Miaphysitism. The Lakhmids, with their centre at Hira near the southern Euphrates, were influenced by Christianity as early as the mid-fourth century, though since their allegiance was to the Persians their ruling house never followed the majority of the people into allegiance to the Church of the East. Ironically, under their pagan rule Hira became a town of churches and monasteries, and the home of well-known Christian poets.

The Ghassanids had their main centre at Jabiya in the Byzantine province of Arabia, and then a later establishment at the important nomad shrine of St Sergius (martyred under Diocletian) further north near the Euphrates at Sergiopolis (Rusafa), where their ruler al-Mundhir built an impressive audience hall in the later sixth century. They were staunch followers of Miaphysite teachings. Their leader H. airith Ibn Jabala was instrumental in having Jacob Baradeus and Theodore consecrated bishops over his territory in 542, with the consequence that Miaphysitism took firm hold in this part of the empire, and the Syrian Miaphysites became known as Jacobites.

This tribe had migrated to this area in the early fourth century and started as clients of the Sallhids, who had converted to Christianity during the reign of the Emperor Valens (r. 364-78) under the influence of monks and priests who had lived among them. One of their leaders was remembered in later times as the founder of the Monastery of Dayr Dawud, which still continues in northern Syria. They remained allies of the Byzantines throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, but they were gradually displaced by the Ghassanids, who were recognized in their stead as leaders of the Arabian tribes by the Emperor Justinian. They disappeared from history after the advent of Islam.

The different denominational allegiances of these tribes reflect the doctrinal disagreements that racked the Roman Empire in the fourth century and afterwards. The Christological controversies that the major councils of the fifth century failed to resolve split Christians irrevocably into the three divisions of Chalcedonians, Diophysites and Miaphysites, and imperial efforts to quell rivalries and hostilities between them had the effect of driving them further apart, both in terms of the doctrinal positions they held and, in the case of the Diophysites, the areas they inhabited. When the School of Edessa was closed in 489 it was reopened in Nisibis in the Persian Empire, and influenced the hierarchy of that area to adhere to the Antiochene Diophysite Christology, with local Christians following their leaders in the form of faith they held.

In the Arabian peninsula itself Christian presence at this time is attested in the early centuries by the existence of communities of believers and bishoprics along the eastern and southern coasts. The names of bishops belonging to the Church of the East and also references to monasteries are recorded along the Arabian Gulf from as early as the fourth and as late as the thirteenth centuries, and along the coast of Hadramawt and Yemen until the ninth century. Christian missionaries were active in parts of the interior from an early date, and the town of Najran in the northern Yemen was particularly known for its Miaphysite population. In 520 a number of Christians there were killed by the Jewish king Dhu Nuwas, an event that, according to Muslim tradition, is recalled in the Our'an, 85: 4-8. News of this prompted the Byzantine emperor to encourage the Miaphysite Ethiopians to invade, and from 525 until 570, when the Persians captured this area, there was Christian rule and a Miaphysite hierarchy. A ruler from this period who is well known in Islamic tradition is Abraha, who made himself king in about 530. He built a cathedral at San'a, supposedly as an alternative religious centre to the then pagan Ka'ba at Mecca, and sent an expedition against this town in revenge for the assassination of a Hijazi ally. It failed, and its overthrow has always been linked with the reference in Chapter 105 of the Our'an to the divine intervention against the 'owners of the elephant' that caused flocks of birds to rain pebbles on them. The birth of Muhammad is usually linked with 'the year of the elephant'.

Further north in the Hijaz the presence of Christianity in these centuries is difficult to plot with accuracy. The tribes of 'Udhra, Judham, Bahra' and some of the Banu Kalb north of Madlna were converted sometime before the coming of Islam, and it has been suggested that several monasteries were established in their territories. If this could be established beyond doubt, it might prove extremely significant for explaining the knowledge of Christianity possessed by Muh. ammad and his Muslim followers, but nothing can be ascertained beyond inference.

The Our'an, which is almost universally dated to the early seventh century (between 610 and 632 if the accepted Muslim chronology is taken as a guide), and the earliest strata of Islamic history yield significant if isolated details about Arab Christianity in the Hijaz and further north at this time. The Our'an itself comments throughout on stories that have obvious biblical antecedents, though the relationship between the forms in the two scriptures is rarely direct, and differences of detail are the subject of vigorous debate. And there is certainly one instance of a relationship between two brief accounts in the Our'an (3: 49 and 5: 110) of Jesus creating birds from clay, breathing into them and causing them to fly, and the same incident recorded in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. In addition, it shows awareness of the key doctrines of the Trinity and divinity of Christ, though in forms that permit criticisms of them as distortions of monotheistic beliefs, the Trinity by suggesting that God is one of three (4: 171, 5: 73, 5: 116), and the divinity of Christ by suggesting that Jesus is a second God (e.g., 9: 30-1). And it furthermore refers to features of institutional Christianity, such as priests and monks (5: 82-3), monasticism (57: 27) and churches, 'with men in them celebrating his glory night and morning, men who are not distracted by commerce or profit from remembering God, keeping up the prayer, and paying the prescribed alms, fearing a day when hearts and minds will turn over' (24: 36-7), as well as corrupt practices among the clergy (9: 34) and maybe internal church divisions (13: 36). All this is suggestive of a rich Christian context in which the Our'an originated and to which it reacts by applying its criterion of strict transcendent monotheism.

The channels by which Muh. ammad may have come to know about Christian beliefs are equally difficult to detect. The Muslim tradition itself preserves some details, such as that his first wife's cousin, Waraqa Ibn Nawfal, was a Christian and thus able to interpret his first experience of prophethood in terms that conformed to biblical precedents, that he knew a Christian named Jabr who kept a market stall in Mecca, and most redolently that he met and was recognized by a Christian monk while on a caravan journey as a boy (Ibn Ishaq 1955: 79-81, 83, 95-7). This incident was amplified in both Christian and Muslim versions in later centuries, the Muslim portraying the monk, who is usually named Bahlra (cf. the Syriac title bhira, 'reverend') or Sarjis/Sergius, as performing a similar role to his relative Waraqa in recognizing Muh. ammad as prophet in fulfilment of earlier expectations, and the Christian portraying him as a heretic who taught Muh. ammad the distorted forms of Christianity that appear in the Our'an. In connection with this, it is maybe significant that the Muslim tradition links Muhammad's relationship with the Christian Jabr to an accusation levelled against the Prophet in the Our'an: 'And we [God] know well that they say: Only a man teaches him [Muhammad]. The speech of him at whom they falsely hint is outlandish, and this is clear Arabic speech' (16: 103). Clearly, some of Muhammad's opponents thought that he was taught versions of biblical stories by a human teacher rather than God, as Muslim doctrine holds. And here, as well as in the Bahlra story, there may lurk the remnant of a link between the accounts in the Our'an of events paralleled in the Bible and Arab Christian sources from which they derived.

These scant items do little more than stir speculation about the nature of the information that may lie behind the Our'an (of course, the question does not arise in Islam because the Our'an in almost universally accepted as the speech of God himself and therefore free from literary dependence). And they raise the question about the form in which Christian teachings may have circulated among Arabs in the sixth and early seventh centuries, and particularly whether the Bible or any substantial parts of it had been translated into Arabic by this time and could be heard and understood by an Arab audience.

If Christianity had spread among the Arabs from the fourth century and there were bishoprics established, with churches and cathedrals, then it is not unreasonable to imagine that there would have been a liturgy in Arabic and also an Arabic Bible to meet the spiritual needs of believers. Some scholars contend that the circumstantial evidence is strong enough to indicate that there probably were a liturgy and translation of the Bible in Arabic by this time, but this evidence is never sufficient to expel all doubts. There is nothing, as far as can presently be concluded with certainty, that provides evidence for Arabic translations until well into the Muslim era; according to an uncorroborated report by Michael the Syrian (Chabot 1899-1924, II: 431-2) the first Arabic translation of the Gospels was made in the seventh century. And so it must be inferred that Christians followed liturgy in the languages in which it had been received, Greek or Syriac, and depended on oral forms of biblical stories (the occurrence in the Our'an of many Syriac loan words, including the form 'Isa al-MasIh from Isho' Mshlha for Jesus Christ, would seem to suggest that there was little, if any, native religious vocabulary among Christians at this time). This is one of the most perplexing problems relating to Arab Christianity in this period, together with the immediate background from which the Our'an emerged.

The evidence for Christianity among the Arabs suggests, therefore, that while the faith was evident among leading tribes and along major coastal trading routes, where senior clergy were established and active, it may not in the three centuries following the peace of the Church have evolved into a church or churches that enjoyed institutional and intellectual independence from the main centres within the Byzantine world. The evidence forbids any firm conclusions, though maybe it points to Christianity more in a missionary than natively established form. The one exception will be the Church of the East, which by the end of the fifth century had asserted its independence of Constantinople and set up its own patriarchate, and had begun to engage in vigorous missionary work to the east into Asia and south into Arabia. These are signs that it possessed a definite sense of identity as a church in its own right.

The Muslim tradition that the Ka'ba in Mecca, at this time a pagan shrine, housed a representation of the Virgin and Child among its more than three hundred images of Arabian divinities is maybe indicative of the precarious nature of Christianity in this and possibly other parts of the Arab world in the early seventh century as it competed among the multiple forms of religion in circulation.

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