When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam

When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam

by Michael Philip Penn

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ISBN-13: 9780520960572
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/21/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Michael Philip Penn is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Religion at Mount Holyoke College and the author of Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians in the Early Muslim World and Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church.

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When Christians First Met Muslims

A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam

By Michael Philip Penn


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96057-2


Account ad 637

Most likely Miaphysite

Most likely ca. 637 C.E.

Probably the earliest, clearly the most dramatic, and arguably the most frustratingly incomplete of early Syriac references to the rise of Islam was likely written in 637. At that time, an anonymous author used a blank page in the front of his Bible to jot down a brief commemoration of the events he had just seen. Like most ancient books, at some point this one lost its cover, leaving the note unprotected. As a result, the opening page has been substantially damaged, and the ink is often unreadable. Nevertheless, this five-by-nine-inch piece of parchment with poorly preserved jottings constitutes the world's oldest surviving artifact to mention Muhammad and likely refers to the most important battle of the Islamic conquests.


British Library Additional 14,461 contains a Syriac translation of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. On paleographic grounds, William Wright dated the original manuscript to the sixth century. The Gospel of Matthew begins on the codex's second page and thus left the first page blank. On this flyleaf appears the brief Account ad 637. Because of its fragmentary state of preservation, several scholars have produced editions of the text, including Theodor Nöldeke in 1875 and Ernest Walter Brooks in 1904. In 1993, Andrew Palmer published a partially transliterated version based on notes made by Sebastian Brock.


British Library Additional 14,461 appears to be a Miaphysite Bible, and the scribblings on its flyleaf most likely came from a Miaphysite. The note refers to a battle that took place near the town of Gabitha in August of the year ——seven (the first two numbers are not fully preserved but most likely were nine and four). The year 947 in the Seleucid calendar that most Syriac Christians used corresponds to 636 C.E. Indeed, in August 636, just south of Gabitha, Arab troops decisively defeated Byzantine forces in an engagement more commonly known as the Battle of Yarmuk. The author claims to have been an eyewitness to some of the events he describes, and at one point he explicitly uses the first person to state that "we saw...." By the seventh century, Syriac Christians already had a tradition of using the opening blank pages in a Bible for writing commemorative notices. The combination of biblical flyleaf and messy handwriting lends credence to the text's authorial claims. Because the last line of partially preserved text refers to the year following the battle near Gabitha, most modern scholars date the note's composition to circa 637.

* * *

Because of its extremely poor state of preservation, the Account ad 637 remains quite fragmentary. Below are two translations of the same text. The first more stringently reflects the manuscript's current state. This translation includes only those words that remain clear in the manuscript or are very easily reconstructed.

... Muhammad ... [p]riest, Mar Elijah ... and they came ... and ... and from ... strong ... month ... and the Romans ... And in January... of Emesa received assurances for their lives. Many villages were destroyed through the killing by ... Muhammad and many people were killed. And captives ... from the Galilee to Bet ... Those Arabs camped by ... we saw ... everywhe[re] ... and the ... that they ... and ... them. On the tw[enty-si]xth of May, ... went ... from Emesa. The Romans pursued them ... on the tenth ... the Romans fled from Damascus ... many, about ten thousand. The following [ye]ar, the Romans came. On the twentieth of August in the year n[ine hundred and forty-]seven [636 C.E.] there assembled in Gabitha ... the Romans and many people were ki[lled], from the R[omans] about fifty thousand ... In the year nine hundred and for[ty-] ...

This second translation of the same text attempts to fill in a few of the lacunae. It includes in braces those words that other scholars have conjectured as likely to have been in the document prior to its decay.

... Muhammad ... priest, Mar Elijah ... and they came ... and ... and from ... strong ... month ... and the Romans {fled} ... And in January {the people} of Emesa received assurances for their lives. Many villages were destroyed through the killing by {the Arabs of} Muhammad and many people were killed. And captives {were taken} from the Galilee to Bet ... Those Arabs camped by {Damascus}. We saw ... everywhere ... and the {olive oil} that they {had brought} and ... them. On the twenty-sixth of May, {the sacellarius} went ... from Emesa. The Romans pursued them ... On the tenth {of August} ... the Romans fled from Damascus ... many, about ten thousand. The following year, the Romans came. On the twentieth of August in the year nine hundred and forty-seven [636 C.E.] there assembled in Gabitha ... the Romans and many people were killed, from the Romans about fifty thousand ... In the year nine hundred and forty-{eight} ...


Chronicle ad 640


ca. 640 C.E.

The Chronicle ad 640 is a lengthy Miaphysite text that starts with the birth of Adam and continues to the opening years of the Islamic conquests. It does not present these events in anything close to chronological order, even though it often refers to specific years or indictions, fifteen-year periods that Byzantine chroniclers often used. Its rapid transitions between disparate lists of disasters, bishops, biblical characters, ecclesiastical councils, topography, and military campaigns have led some scholars to characterize its author as completely insane and others to hypothesize an ingenious method to his madness. Regardless of their view on how he organized the Chronicle ad 640, most scholars have been impressed with the author's knowledge of the early seventh century. For example, in regard to the Byzantine-Persian wars, Byzantine and Armenian sources corroborate the majority of the early seventh-century battles and dates that the Chronicle ad 640 lists.

This makes it particularly unfortunate that the author devoted only a few sentences to the Arabs and their conquests. Nevertheless, because these lines come from a man whom most scholars believe was contemporary with the events he described, they remain especially valuable. Most see the Chronicle's reference to a battle near Gaza as an allusion to the Battle of Dathin, the earliest military clash between Arab and Byzantine forces. Several scholars also cite the Chronicle ad 640 as the first non-Muslim reference to explicitly speak of Muhammad by name (although, in truth, the Chronicle ad 637 is arguably a better candidate). It is also notable what the chronicler omits. Despite a reference to military battles and civilian casualties, the author provides no explicitly religious explanation for these events. Unlike in later texts, here the conquests are neither a punishment for Christian sin nor a harbinger of the world's imminent end. So too the dearth of space the author dedicates to discussing the Arabs suggests that at least some of their contemporaries did not yet see the Islamic conquests as a world-changing event.


The Chronicle ad 640 appears in a unique copy preserved in British Library Additional 14,643. The codex has lost ten of its first eleven folios but afterward remains complete. The extant text of the Chronicle ad 640 takes up the first fifty-six of these sixty surviving folios. It is followed by a short caliph list now known as the Chronicle ad 724. The manuscript's last pages contain a brief colophon in the handwriting of the original scribe and some hymns added by a later hand. On paleographic grounds, William Wright estimated that this manuscript was written in the mid-eighth century. Ernest Walter Brooks published an edition of the text in 1904.


Several details enable a fairly secure dating of this Chronicle, especially its entries that speak of the Islamic conquests. Its last dated entry is from about 635/36. The only allusion to a time later than that is a brief reference to the emperor Heraclius's having reigned for thirty years. This would correspond to 640. The author also ends a list of Byzantine emperors with Heraclius but does not mention his death, which occurred in 641, nor the accession of any subsequent emperors. This all suggests that Heraclius was still alive when the Chronicle was written and points to a composition date around 640.

Most scholars believe that the scribe who produced British Library Additional 14,643 copied down an already completed chronicle and then simply added an eighth-century caliph list immediately afterward. According to this view, what is now called the Chronicle ad 640 represents a fairly unified, almost completely preserved single-author work, all of which is securely dated to the mid-seventh century. Recently, however, James Howard-Johnston has argued for a more complicated transmission history. He suggests that, far from simply copying down an earlier work, the mid-eighth-century scribe of BL Add. 14,643 composed a new one (what we erroneously call the Chronicle ad 640) from five different sources, only one of which was written around 640. For this reason, Howard-Johnston refers to the work found in BL Add. 14,643 not as the Chronicle ad 640 but rather as the Chronicle ad 724. If he is correct, this would have important implications for the overall structure and literary history of the Chronicle. Fortunately, the text's brief references to the Islamic conquests occur in the section of the work that all modern scholars, including Howard-Johnston, date to circa 640.

As several parts of the Chronicle defend an explicitly Miaphysite Christology and view of history, the theological affiliation of its author is quite obvious. In the section translated below, the author makes a brief reference to the death of the doorkeeper Simon, the brother of Thomas the priest. Because Simon plays no other role in the narrative, many suggest that the Chronicle's author is none other than this Thomas. As a result, the Chronicle is sometimes called the Chronicle of Thomas the Presbyter.

* * *

In the year 945 [634 C.E.], the seventh indiction, on Friday, February the fourth, at the ninth hour, there was a battle between the Romans and the Arabs of Muhammad in Palestine, twelve miles east of Gaza. The Romans fled. They abandoned the patrician Bryrdn, and the Arabs killed him. About [[148]] four thousand poor villagers from Palestine—Christians, Jews, and Samaritans—were killed, and the Arabs destroyed the whole region.

In the year 947 [635/36 C.E.], the ninth indiction, the Arabs invaded all Syria and went down to Persia and conquered it. They ascended the mountain of Mardin, and the Arabs killed many monks in Qedar and Bnata. The blessed Simon, the doorkeeper of Qedar, the brother of Thomas the priest, died there.




East Syrian

ca. 650 C.E.

Isho'yahb III (d. 659) had an impeccable ecclesiastical lineage. Born to a noble family in Abiabene, he became a monk under the first abbot of the famous East Syrian monastery of Bet 'Abe, then progressed through the successively more prestigious offices of bishop, metropolitan, and catholicos, the head of the East Syrian church, which he became in the last decade of his life. During his ecclesiastical career, Isho'yahb wrote numerous epistles detailing the day-to-day operation of the Church of the East in the first decades of Islam. None of the 106 of his surviving letters focus solely on Islam. But three include passages that are particularly important for witnessing some of the earliest interactions between Christians and Muslims.

Letter 48B concentrates on intra-Christian rivalry between monks under Isho'yahb's jurisdiction and Miaphysites ("those who attributed suffering and death to God"). Here Isho'yahb chastises the East Syrian monks for showing insufficient zeal. He argues that the Hagarene Arabs did not innately favor Miaphysites and, in any cases when they did, with a little effort could be persuaded to support the East Syrian cause instead. This letter presents the earliest example of a larger trend among Syriac writings. When Syriac Christians spoke of dealings with their conquerors, the authors' main concern was rarely Christianity's encounter with another religion. Instead, the discussion often focused on how to get their conquerors to support one branch of Christianity over another. This letter is also important because of its terminology. It includes the earliest surviving employment of the word Hagarenes (mhaggraye), which eventually became one of the most common that Syriac authors used to speak of Muslims. In this case Isho'yahb uses the word to specify that he is speaking not of Arabs in general but rather of those Arabs who are also Hagarenes. Some scholars have suggested that the passage's progression of usages, from Arab to Hagarene Arabs to simply Hagarenes, reflects Isho'yahb's attempt to introduce his audience to a relatively new term.

In Letter 14C Isho'yahb does not use the term Hagarene but rather speaks of "Arabs to whom at this time God has given control over the world." The letter as a whole, however, does not focus on Muslims at all. Rather, Isho'yahb addressed his Letter 14C to Simeon, the metropolitan bishop of Rev Ardashir, who was attempting to secede from the catholicos's authority. In response, Isho'yahb sent a sharp reprimand, including a lengthy list of the alleged shortcomings of Christians under Simeon's jurisdiction. Of particular note are Isho'yahb's allegations that most of Simeon's congregations were apostatizing. Isho'yahb stresses that such apostasy is inexcusable. According to him, the Arabs were generally supportive of Christians and allowed them to keep their faith. Simeon's congregants were deserting Christianinty simply to avoid the Arabs' demand for half their possessions. Modern scholars have frequently cited this passage for diametrically opposed reasons. In general they emphasize either the beginning, to illustrate Muslim authorities' general benevolence toward Christianity, or the conclusion, to illustrate Muslim discrimination against Christians, in this case a 50 percent poll tax (otherwise unattested) on non-Muslims. The often unacknowledged difficulty of either interpretation is Isho'yahb's own agenda. The goal of his letter was not an accurate description of Christianity in the Persian Gulf (a topic about which he may have had at best indirect knowledge). Rather, he wanted to portray his subordinate bishop and personal nemesis in as negative a light as possible.

In Letter 15C Isho'yahb is again on the offensive, in this case writing against the bishops of Bet Qatraye, who were also questioning his authority. As one of his arguments for the necessity of centralized control, he presents himself as an important intercessor between Christians and their Arab rulers. In this context, he provides one of the earliest surviving references to Christians under Islam paying a poll tax.

Isho'yahb's discussions of Muslims are brief and, given their polemical context, difficult to assess. Nevertheless, written less than two decades after the Islamic conquests, his Letters remain essential witnesses for how the first generation of Christians under Islamic rule were experiencing and interpreting its early days.


The oldest extant copy of Isho'yahb's Letters appears in Vatican Syriac 157, which has been dated to the tenth century on paleographic grounds. The letters are also found in a number of more modern manuscripts, including Chaldean Patriarchate 112 (1696), Mardin 78 (1868), Leeds Syriac 4.1 (1888), Alqosh 172 (1894), Baghdad Chaldean Monastery Syriac 515 (1894), Baghdad Chaldean Monastery Syriac 516 (1901), Baghdad Chaldean Monastery Syriac 517 (1902), Paris Syriac 336 (1896), and Vatican Syriac 493 (1909). In 1905 Rubens Duval published an edition of the Letters based on Vatican Syriac 157 and Paris Syriac 336.


No one has contested the attribution of these letters to Isho'yahb III. Traditionally they have been divided into those written when Isho'yahb was the bishop of Nineveh-Mosul (628–ca. 637), when he was the metropolitan of Erbil (ca. 637–649), and when he was catholicos (649–659). The heading of Letter 48B claims that he wrote this epistle while bishop of Nineveh (and hence in the mid-to-late 630s). Most recent scholars, however, suggest that a later scribe misordered several of the letters, including 48B, which they say belongs to the period when Isho'yahb was a metropolitan or catholicos. As both their headings and their contents indicate, Isho'yahb clearly wrote Letters 14C and 15C in the last decade of his life, while he was catholicos.


Excerpted from When Christians First Met Muslims by Michael Philip Penn. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Year 630


Account ad 637
Chronicle ad 640
Letters, Isho'yahb III 
Apocalypse of Pseudo-Ephrem
Khuzistan Chronicle
Maronite Chronicle
Syriac Life of Maximus the Confessor
Canons, George I 
Colophon of British Library Additional 14,666
Letter, Athanasius of Balad
Book of Main Points, John bar Penkaye
Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius
Edessene Apocalypse
Exegesis of the Pericopes of the Gospel, Hnanisho' I
Life of Theodute
Colophon of British Library Additional 14,448
Apocalypse of John the Little
Chronicle ad 705
Letters, Jacob of Edessa
Chronicle, Jacob of Edessa
Scholia, Jacob of Edessa
Against the Armenians, Jacob of Edessa
Kamed Inscriptions
Chronicle of Disasters
Chronicle ad 724
Disputation of John and the Emir
Exegetical Homilies, Mar Abba II
Disputation of Bet Hale


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