Dhū Nuwās, (Arabic: ذو نواس) or Yūsuf Ibn Sharhabeel (Arabic: يوسف بن شرحبيل) Syriac Masruq; Greek Dounaas (Δουναας), was a Judaic warlord in Yemen between 517 to 525-27 CE, who came to renown on account of his military exploits against people of other religions living in his kingdom.
Ibn Hisham's "Sirat Rasul Allah", better known in English as "the Life of Muhammad," describes the exploits of Yūsuf Dhū-Nuwas. The reason for the dual name, Dhū-Nuwas, has been explained as meaning that the king was known by the appellation, "lord of the forelock," insofar that he was a Jew who grew out his side-locks; nuwas meaning, "forelock" or "side lock." The historicity of this king is affirmed by Philostorgius and by Procopius (the Persian War), the latter of whom writes that in 525, the armies of the Christian Kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia invaded Yemen at the request of the Byzantine Emperor, Justin I, to take control of the Jewish kingdom in Ḥimyar, then under the leadership of Yūsuf Dhū Nuwās, who rose to power in 522. Ibn Hisham explains the same sequel of events under the name of "Yūsuf Dhū Nuwās." Indeed, with this invasion, the Ḥimyarites were smitten, and as such the supremacy of the Jewish religion in the Kingdom of Ḥimyar, as well as in all of Yemen, came to an abrupt end.
Imrū al-Qays, the famous Yemeni poet from the same period, laments the death of two great men of Yemen, one of whom being Dhu Nuwas, in his poem entitled, taqūl lī bint al-kinda lammā ‘azafat, whom he regards as the last of the Himyarite kings:
- "Art thou not saddened how fate has become an ugly beast, / the betrayer of its generation, he that swalloweth up people? It has removed Dhū-Nuwās from the fortresses / who once ruled in the strongholds and over men / [An armored knight, who hurriedly broke the ends of the earth / and led his hordes of horse unto her uttermost parts And has shut up a dam in the place of the sunrise / for Gog and Magog that are (as tall as) mountains!]"
One Syriac source appears to suggest that the mother of Dhū Nuwās may have been herself a Jew hailing from the Mesopotamian city of Nisibis. If so, this would place her origins within the Sassanid imperial sphere, and would illuminate possible political reasons for his later actions against the Christians of Arabia, who were natural allies of the Byzantine Empire. Many modern historians, though Christopher Haas is an exception, have argued that her son's conversion was a matter of tactical opportunism, since Judaism would have provided him with an ideological counterweight to the religion of his adversary, the Kingdom of Aksum, and also allowed him to curry favour with the Sassanid shahanshah.
According to Ibn Ishaq, the king of Himyar named Dhu Nuwas had burned the Christians in Najran, and an invading army from Aksum (Habashah) occupied Yemen. Dhu Nuwas decided to kill himself by drowning himself in the sea. Arab tradition states that Dhū Nuwās committed suicide by riding his horse into the Red Sea. The Himyarite kingdom is said to have been ruled prior to Dhu-Nuwas by the Du Yazan dynasty of Jewish converts, as early as the late fourth century.
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 CE, recounting Dimnon (who is probably Dhū Nuwās') persecution in Najran in Saudi Arabia.
Based on other contemporary sources, after seizing the throne of the Ḥimyarites in ca. 518 or 523 Dhū Nuwās attacked the Aksumite (mainly Christian Ethiopians at Najrān, capturing them and burning their churches. After accepting the city's capitulation, he massacred those inhabitants who would not renounce Christianity.
According to the Arab historians, 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 by 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.
Sources and Names
The name Yūsuf ’As’ar Yath’ar (believed to be Joseph Dhū-Nuwas) appears in an old South Arabian inscription. Related inscriptions from the same period were also deciphered by Jamme and Ryckmans, showing that in the ensuing wars with his non-Jewish subjects, the combined war booty (excluding deaths) from campaigns waged against the Abyssinians in Ẓafār, the fighters in ’Ašʻarān, Rakbān, Farasān, Muḥwān (Mocha), and the fighters and military units in Najran, amounted to 12,500 war trophies, 11,000 captives and 290,000 camels and bovines and sheep.
According to ‘Irfan Shahid’s Martyrs of Najran – New Documents, Dhu-Nuwas sent an army of some 120,000 soldiers to lay siege to the city of Najran, which siege lasted for six months, and the city taken and burnt on the 15th day of the seventh month (i.e. the lunar month Tishri). The city had revolted against the king and they refused to deliver it up unto the king. About three-hundred of the city’s inhabitants surrendered to the king’s forces, under the assurances of an oath that no harm would come to them, and these were later bound, while those remaining in the city were burnt alive within their church. The death toll in this account is said to have reached about two-thousand. However, in the Sabaean inscriptions describing these events, it is reported that by the month Dhu-Madra'an (between July and September) there were “1000 killed, 1500 prisoners [taken] and 10,000 head of cattle.”
Jacques Ryckmans, who deciphered the Sabaean inscriptions, writes in his La Persécution des Chrétiens Himyarites, that Sarah'il Yaqbul-Yaz'an was both the tribal chief and the lieutenant of Yûsuf ’As’ar (the king) at the time of the military campaign, and that he was sent out by the king to take the city of Najran, while the king watched for a possible Abyssinian/Ethiopian incursion along the coastal plains of Yemen near Mokhā (al-Moḫâ) and the strait known as Bāb al-Mandab. It is to be noted that the Ethiopian church in Ẓafâr, which had been built by the king of Yemen some years earlier, and another church built by him in Aden (see: Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, Epitome of Book III, chapter 4), had been seen by Constantius II during the embassage to the land of the Ḥimyarites (i.e. Yemen) in circa 340 CE. This church was set on fire and razed to the ground, and its Abyssinian inhabitants killed. Later, foreigners (presumably Christians) living in Haḏramawt were also put to death before the king’s army advanced to Najran in the far north and took it.
King Yusuf Asar Yathar, described in an inscription as "king of all nations," had led the major tribes of Yemen (Hamedan, Madh'hij, Kindah, Murad) and successfully defeated the Abyssinian forces in Ẓafâr, Mokhā and Najran.
Najran inscription (518 CE): 
- God who have the heavens and the earth bless king Yusuf Asar Yathar, king of all nations and bless the Aqials (tribal leaders)
- Lhi 'ath Erkhm and Shmef' Ashwa' and Shrah Ashwa' and Sharhabeel As'ad Bani Sharhabeel Ekml masters of Al-Ezneen and Al-Jdneen
- Who they stand with their master, King Yusuf Asar Yathar, when he burned the church and killed the Habashah (Abyssinians) in Dhofar and On Ash'aris war rakban and knights
- And Al-Mocha and war on the Habashah in Najran and camping there on anticipation of the arrival of the Habashah and fortified and stationed in the Bab al-Mandab
- The king has succeeded in these battles in the killing of 12,500 and capturing 11,090
- Booty two hundred thousand sheep and cows and this inscription was written by Sharhabeel Dhi Yazan when he camped in Najran
- With the tribe of Hamedan and their Arabs the finest Yazaniin fighters and the Arabs (Bedouins) of Kinda and Murad and Madh'hij and the Aqials allies who camp with the king
- On the sea from the side of Habashah (Abyssinia) and all who mentioned in this Musnad they fought and took booty and camped in this mission
- And they returned in the history of thirteen and Rahman (god) bless Sharhabeel Ekml and helped the rest from Bni Lhi't
- Lhi't Erkhm Ibn Shmef' and Mrthd Emjd Ibn Shrah-El Yazan masters in the history of Thmdthran
- Year 633 and the lord of heaven save this Musnad with his trength from every vandal and aggressor
- Al-Rahman Aliyyy (god) will save this Musnad from every vandal aggressor and advance the name Rahman and praise to him.
Surat al-Fil (The Elephant) alludes to the Christian Abyssinian fate in Arabia and their military campaign against Mecca in the year 570 of the Christian Abyssinians era. Abrahah, the Christian conqueror of the Yemen (which at that time partially was ruled by the Abyssinians), built church at Sana'a, hoping thus to divert the annual Arabian pilgrimage from the Meccan sanctuary, the Kabah, to the new church. When this hope remained unfulfilled, he determined to destroy the Kabah; and so he set out against Mecca at the head of a large army, which included a number of war elephants as well. Abrahah's army was totally destroyed on its march - according to the Koran by stones of fire (حجارة سجيل).
- The Complete History, written by Ali ibn al-Athir, page 19 (وقال ابن عباس: كان بنجران ملك من ملوك حمير يقال له ذو نواس واسمه يوسف بن شرحبيل)
- The entire poem is brought down only in a-Ṭūsī's version of the dīwān (concerning which, see the words of the editors of Imrū al-Qays, Dīwān imrī al-qays wa-mulḥaqātuh bi-šarḥ abī sa‘īd al-sukkarī, ed. Abū Suwaylim & al-Šawābika, Muḥammad, UAE 2000, p. 105–110), while the two stanzas which are shown here in brackets have been taken from al-‘Iqd al-ṯamīn (ibid., p. 714, n. 1). The two stanzas have also been included in an abridged version of the poem, Imrū al-Qays, Dīwān imrī al-qays, Ed. al-Ayyūbī, Yāsīn, Beirut 1998, p. 472–473.
- Jonathan Porter Berkey, The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800, Cambridge University Press, 2003 p.46.
- 'Irfan Shahid, in the Introduction to his book, Martyrs of Najran (published in 1971), quotes from the Nestorian Chronicle from Saard (Séert) edited by Addai Scher (see: Patrologia Orientalis vol. IV, V and VII), compiled shortly after anno 1036 CE from extracts of old Syriac historical works no longer extant, saying: "…In later times there reigned over this country a Jewish king, whose name was Masrūq. His mother was a Jewess, of the inhabitants of Nisibis, who had been made a captive. Then one of the kings of Yaman had bought her and she had given birth to Masrūq and instructed him in Judaism. He reigned after his father and killed a number of the Christians. Bar Sāhde has told his history in his Chronicle."
- 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.36-39.
- 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.
- Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (vol. 3), Philadelphia 1957, pp. 67–68.
- A. Jamme, W.F., Sabaean and Ḥasaean Inscriptions from Saudi Arabia, Instituto di Studi del Vicino Oriente: Università di Roma, Rome 1966, p. 40.
- Jacques Ryckmans, La persécution des chrétiens himyarites au sixième siècle, Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Inst. in het Nabije Oosten, 1956 pp. 1–24; A. Jamme, W.F., Sabaean and Ḥasaean Inscriptions from Saudi Arabia, Instituto di Studi del Vicino Oriente: Università di Roma, Rome 1966, p. 40
- Jacques Ryckmans, La persécution des chrétiens himyarites au sixième siècle, Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut in het Nabije Oosten: Istanbul 1956, p. 14 (French)
- Bi'r Ḥimā Inscription: 1 2 3 4
- The Message of The Qur'an The Hundred-Fifth Surah Al-Fil (The Elephant) Note#2