Some sources state that he was the successor of Rabī'ah ibn Mudhar, a member of the same dynasty; the archeologist Alessandro de Maigret believes he was a usurper. Nashwad bin Sa'īd al-Ḥimyarī stated that he killed his predecessor with a stiletto hidden in his sandal while his predecessor was seducing the handsome Yūsuf in his chambers. If the contradictory and sometimes legendary accounts of the personality of Dhu Nuwas given by the Arabian writers can be trusted, he was not a Jew by birth, but embraced Judaism after ascending the throne, taking the name of "Joseph". According to a number of medieval historians, who depend on the account of John of Ephesus, Dhū Nuwās, announced that he would persecute the Christians living in his kingdom because Christian states persecuted his fellow co-religionists in their realms; a letter survives written by Simon, the bishop of Beth Arsham in 524 AD, recounting Dhū Nuwās' (where he is called Dimnon) persecution in Najran (modern al-Ukhdūd in Saudi Arabia). The persecution is apparently described and condemned in the Qur'an (al-Buruj:4).
According to the contemporary sources, after seizing the throne of the Ḥimyarites, in ca. 518 or 523 Dhū Nuwās attacked the Aksumite (mainly Christian Ethiopians and Yemeni Arab Christians) a garrison at Zafar, capturing them and burning their churches. He then moved against Najrān, a Christian and Aksumite stronghold. After accepting the city's capitulation, he massacred those inhabitants who would not renounce Christianity. Estimates of the death toll from this event range up to 20,000 in some sources.
Dhū Nuwās then proceeded to write a letter to the Lakhmid king Al-Mundhir III ibn al-Nu'man of al-Ḥīrah and King Kavadh I of Persia, informing them of his deed and encouraging them to do likewise to the Christians under their dominion. Al-Mundhir received this letter in January 519 as he was receiving an embassy from Constantinople seeking to forge a peace between the Roman Empire and al-Ḥīrha. He revealed the contents of the letter to the Roman ambassadors who were horrified at its contents. Word of the slaughter quickly spread throughout the Roman and Persian realms, and refugees from Najran even reached the court of the Roman emperor Justin I himself, begging him to avenge the martyred Christians.
The slaughter of the Axumite garrison in Zafar also provoked a response from Kaleb, King of Axum. Procopius reports that Kaleb (whom he calls Hellesthaeus) with the help of Justinian, the Roman Emperor, collected a fleet and crossed from Axum to Yemen, where he defeated Dhū Nuwās about the year 520 or 525 (1.20). Kaleb then appointed his Christian South Arabian follower Sumuafa' Ashawa' (named Esimphaios by Procopius), to rule Yemen as his viceroy.
Arab tradition states that Dhū Nuwās committed suicide by riding his horse into the Red Sea. De Maigret reports that another South Arabian inscription from Husn al-Ghurāb may indicate that he was killed in battle fighting against Kaleb's army. De Maigret also reports that in 1951, three inscriptions were found just north of al-Ukhdūd, which refer to a military campaign led by Dhū Nuwās (where he is called Yūsuf As'ar Yath'ar), and are dated to the year 633 of the Ḥimyarite era, equivalent to AD 518 or 523.
Sources and Names
Dhū Nuwās is mentioned in a number of contemporary Old South Arabian, Syriac and Byzantine sources. Many later Jewish, Christian (such as the Book of the Ḥimyarites and the Kebra Negast) and Islamic sources (such as the Quran 85:4) also refer to his war with the Axumites. In the Old South Arabian inscriptions his name appears as Yūsuf As'ar Yath'ar ( Y(w)s1f 's1'r Yṯ'r ), and the Islamic tradition knows him better as Dhū Nuwās ( ذو نواس ). The Christian sources use various names, thus in the letter of his contemporary Simon of Beth Arsham he is called Dimnon, and in the later Book of the Ḥimyarites his name is Mashrūq.
- Vincent J O'Malley, C.M. (2001). Saints of Africa. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing. p. 142. ISBN 0-87973-373-X. "The leader of the displaced people, himself known as Dho Nuwas (often transliterated as Dunaan), ..."
- Alessandro de Maigret, Arabia Felix, translated by Rebecca Thompson (London: Stacey International, 2002), p. 251.
- Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Yemen, p.42
- Dhu Nuwas, Zur'ah Yusuf ibn Tuban As'ad abi Karib - Jewish Encyclopedia (1906)
- Simon's letter is part of Part III of The Chronicle of Zuqnin, translated by Amir Harrack (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1999), pp. 78-84.
- de Maigret, Arabia Felix, p. 251.
- de Maigret, Arabia Felix, p. 234.
- Translation in: The Chronicle of Zuqnin. Translated from Syriac with notes and introduction by Amir Harrak (= Mediaeval sources in translation. 36). Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto 1999, S. 78-84. Band III, Seite 78-84