Christian community of Najran

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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 Christianity[edit]

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.

Economic, political and religious center[edit]

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 Jews and Christians[edit]

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 prosletyzers. 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.[who?] 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.

Book of Himyarites[edit]

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:[1]

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."

Letter of Simeon of Beth Arsham[edit]

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."[2]

Martyrs of Najran[edit]

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.[3]

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.

Church in Najran[edit]

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'bat Najran. (Note that several other shrines in Arabia were also called Ka'aba meaning square like building). 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.

Najran pact[edit]

In the tenth year of the Hijrah, 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.[4]

Resistance to the rise of Islam[edit]

They were ordered by Umar ibn al-Khattab to vacate the city and emigrate out of the Arabian peninsula, or accept a money payment.[5] 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.

However, the historicity of these events is not absolutely reliably established.[5] 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.[5] Some sources also state that the Christian community of Najran still had considerable political weight in the late ninth century.[5]

Najran accord of 897[edit]

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.[6]

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.[7] The last evidence of the presence of Christianity in Northern Yemen of which Najran used to belong to, dates back to the 13th century.[7]

Disappearance of the Christian community[edit]

Eventually the Old Najran which was Christian disappeared, and is now represented by Al-Ukhdood, a desolate village, while another the Najran which is Islamic, has now appeared in its vicinity.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harvey & Brock 1998, p. p.117
  2. ^ Walker 2006, p. 226
  3. ^ 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)."
  4. ^ Khan 1980, p. 247
  5. ^ a b c d Goddard 2000, pp. 42–43
  6. ^ Dobson 2000, p. 90
  7. ^ a b Grabar, Brown & Bowersock 1999, p. 753
  8. ^ Frankfurter 1998, p. 388