Christian community of Najran

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The existence of a Christian community in Najran is attested by several historical sources of the Arabian 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, it appears from indications in the Qur'an it would appear that the Jews to the West of the Himyarite kingdom, in western Arabia, maintained some form of rabbinical organisation, possibly connected to late antique Judaism, and were not wholly cut off from their brethren elsewhere in the Middle East.[1] One source speaks of rabbis from Tiberias itself enjoying the hospitality of Dhu Nuwas's court.[2] The apparent conversion of local Himyarite rulers to Judaism, or some form of a Judaic monotheism,[2] as early as the late fourth century under the Tabbāi'a dynasty,[3] is indirect evidence that suggests that effective Jewish proselytization was active in the region.[1]

The Christians of Najran were divided into two sects. One drew on a variety of Nestorianism[citation needed], which a local merchant had acquired during a sojourn in al-Hira, and took back to Najran sometime during the reign of the Sassanid ruler Yazdegerd II. The other was a form of anti-Chalcedonianism.[4] had suffered an earlier, but brief, stint of persecution with the advent of the new dynasty under the Himyarite ruler Shurihbi'īl Yakkuf (c.468-480).[2] The Jewish faith had strong roots within the Himyarite kingdom when Dhu Nuwas rose to power, and not only in Zafar but Najran also, it seems that several synagogues had been built.[2]

Najran was an oasis, with a large population of Christian Arabs, and a significant community of Jews,[4] unlike most Ṣayhadic people of that zone, had only come under the authority of the Himyarite kingdom in the early fifth century, more or less around the time that a local merchant, one Hayyān by name, had visited Constantinople and underwent conversion at al-Hīra, near Mecca, during a later journey. On his return to his native town, he began to proseyltise on behalf of the new religion.[2]

It was also the seat of a Bishopric[citation needed]. It sheltered an oligarchy of Christian merchants which were as rich as any in Edessa or Alexandria[citation needed]. 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.

Persecution of Christians[edit]

Commercial reasons probably induced Christians to explore the possibilities in the area at an early period but the first attested Christian mission dates to that of Theophilos the Indian, a Christian of the Arian persuasion, who was active during the reign of Constantius II, and who was reported to have converted the Himyarites around 354/5.[5]

In the first quarter of the 6th century, a variety of records refer to a tragic episode in which a local king, Yusuf As'ar Dhu Nuwas, who had converted to Judaism and subjected the local Christian community to persecution, reportedly in retribution for the burning of a synagogue.[1] The events comprised episodes involving a massacre of Ethiopians in a Yemen garrison, the destruction of churches, punitive expeditions in a number of regions, and attempts to constrain communities to undergo conversion to Judaism. The most celebrated episode concerns the martyrdom of the Christian denizens in the great oasis of Najrān, culminating in the execution of Arethas,[6] an incident alluded to in the Qur'an, in Sura 85:4-8, where however the Christians are described as Believers martyred for their faith[7] These circumstances have a geopolitical dimension as well, in that there are indications that these Jewish communities had connections with the Iranian Sassanid kingdom, while the Christians, though Monophysites, were linked to Byzantine interests.[1]

After coming to the throne through a coup d'état, Dhu Nuwas launched a campaign which swept away an Aksumite garrison in Zafar, where a church was put to the torch, and then invaded the Tihāma coastal lowlands where a partially Christianized population dwelt, and where he took over key centres as far as the Bab el-Mandeb.He sent one of his generals, a Jewish prince, north to Najran in order to impose an economic blockade on the oasis by cutting off the trade route to Qaryat al-Faw in eastern Arabia.[8] The Christians of Najran were 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".[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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[who?] 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.[citation needed]

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:[9]

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."[10]

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.[11]

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 Miaphysites, 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.[12]

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.[13] 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.[13] 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.[13] Some sources also state that the Christian community of Najran still had considerable political weight in the late ninth century.[13]

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.[14]

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.[15] The last evidence of the presence of Christianity in Northern Yemen of which Najran used to belong to, dates back to the 13th century.[15]

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.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Jonathan Porter Berkey, The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800, Cambridge University Press, 2003 p.46.
  2. ^ a b c d e Christopher Haas, 'Geopolitics and Georgian Identity in Late Antiquity: The Dangerous World of Vakhtang Gorgasali,' in Tamar Nutsubidze, Cornelia B. Horn, Basil Lourié(eds.),Georgian Christian Thought and Its Cultural Context, BRILL pp.29-44, p.36.:'inscriptions with divine epithets having clear affinities to Judaism indicate that the Himyarite king, Malkīkarib Yuha'min (c.375.400) along with his son and successor, Abīkarib As'ad (c.400-445), embraced, if not Judaism, then a Judaistic monotheist religion.'
  3. ^ Christopher Haas, 'Geopolitics and Georgian Identity in Late Antiquity: The Dangerous World of Vakhtang Gorgasali,' in Tamar Nutsubidze, Cornelia B. Horn, Basil Lourié(eds.),Georgian Christian Thought and Its Cultural Context, BRILL pp.29-44, p.36.
  4. ^ a b Christian Julien Robin,'Arabia and Ethiopia,'in Scott Johnson (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity, Oxford University Press 2012 pp.247-333.p.282
  5. ^ J. Spencer Trimingham,Islam in Ethiopia, Routledge (2004) 2013 p.40 n.4.
  6. ^ Joëlle Beaucamp, Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet, Christian Julien Robin, La persécution des chrétiens de Nagrân et la chronologie himyarite, ARAM 11:1, 1999 PP.15-83, p.15.
  7. ^ Philip Wood, The Chronicle of Seert: Christian Historical Imagination in Late Antique Iraq, Oxford University Press 2013 p.251.
  8. ^ Norbert Nebes, 'The Martyrs of Najrān and End of the Ḥimyar: On the Political History of South Arabia in the Early Sixth Century,' the Angelika Neuwirth, Nicolai Sinai, Michael Marx (eds.), The Qur'ān in Context: Historical and Literary Investigations Into the Qur'ānic Milieu, BRILL 2010 pp.27-60, p.45.
  9. ^ Harvey & Brock 1998, p. p.117
  10. ^ Walker 2006, p. 226
  11. ^ 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)."
  12. ^ Khan 1980, p. 247
  13. ^ a b c d Goddard 2000, pp. 42–43
  14. ^ Dobson 2000, p. 90
  15. ^ a b Grabar, Brown & Bowersock 1999, p. 753
  16. ^ Frankfurter 1998, p. 388


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