Monday, December 31, 2012

Jews and Christians in Pre-Islamic Arabia

Archaeologists working at Zafar in The Yemen found a high relief stele depicting a crowned standing man of approximately the Early Christian period - which Paul Yule of Heidelberg believes shows an actual Christian sub-ruler of the region.


Buried Christian Empire Casts New Light on Early Islam - Speigel
This drawing shows the restored stele, and it may well have depicted a Christian king, but there are too many flaws with the theory as reported by Spiegel:
The commandment "Make yourself no graven image" has long been strictly followed in the Arab world. There are very few statues of the caliphs and ancient kings of the region. The pagan gods in the desert were usually worshipped in an "aniconic" way, that is, as beings without form.
Hmmm - this was a Jewish commandment, largely ignored outside Jerusalem, as is clear from both literary sources and archaeological evidence, including excavated synagogues.

Muslims, until they came into greater contact with the Byzantine Empire which was going through a period of Iconoclasm, were far from adverse to images. Qusayr ’Amra in Jordan has plenty of frescoes with figures, from a Jewish-influenced Zodiac to naked dancing girls (photos here, academic article here). The palace-fortress was built by the man who later became the Umayyad caliph Walid Ibn Yazid (Walid II), and it is far from unique (see the statues of naked women from another Umayyad palace Qasr al-Mshatta (below); ditto the ivories that once decorated furniture in the Abbasid palace at al-Humayma, etc)



One could pick the Spiegel article apart point by point, but ...

My first thought on seeing the Zafar stele was "Jewish" and a Jewish ring seal has also been found at Zafar - the name Yishak bar Hanina can be read around a Torah shrine - as have Hebrew inscriptions.

Zafar was a capital of the Himyarite Kingdom, and a port en route from the Roman Empire and Egypt to India and the East - so a few Jews were no big surprise, given many were merchants and traders. But a non-Biblical Jew depicted as a king?

A Himyarite king, Abu-Kariba Assad, converted to Judaism around AD 500, and most succeeding kings of this region of The Yemen were Jewish until they converted to Islam around the time of Mohammed. The king of Axum did intervene, as Yule notes, but he did not impose a Christian king - he removed one of the few pagan ones, who had murdered Christians in the region, circa AD 525.

The stele is very interesting, but the conclusions drawn so far are a little dramatic.

The Daily Mail went sensationally overboard with this headline, which I will try to answer: Was there a church in Mecca? Chiselled stonework with 'Christian figure' discovered at holy site in Yemen

Anyone who reads up on the basics of pre- and early Islamic Arabia knows that there were many Jewish tribes in the region. Some seem to have been converts, others Jews who left Israel as part of the Diaspora both in the Roman period and once the Empire converted to Christianity after which they were persecuted. Jews were welcomed in Arabia, and although under Islam they were encouraged to convert, not all were forced to - certainly far fewer than under various Christian rulers.

The image above shows Mohammed praying at the Ka'ba (see), which is now the most sacred site in Islam. 

Muslims see the Black Stone, the eastern cornerstone of the Ka'ba, as linked to Adam and Eve (who were Jewish before they became Muslim) - this images shows Mohammed lifting it to relocate.

Between Adam and Mohammed the history of the site is less certain, but it seems to have been a sanctuary to a variety of gods over the centuries. The Nabateans were very active in the area now covered by Saudi Arabia - although Petra is better known, Mada'in Saleh became their capital once that had been conquered by the Romans (Mada'in Saleh itself became a Roman fortress at some point, as attested by inscriptions from the time of Hadrian etc).


According to Muslims Mohammed destroyed the idols when he arrived at Mecca, as seen in this image (see) - but he didn't destroy the image of Mary and Jesus, since Jesus was a Prophet in Islamic theology. Although some claim that images are un-Islamic, most of the statements attributed to Mohammed and his followers are against depictions of false idols rather than images per se.

For our purposes today, the fact that there was an image of Mary and Jesus at Mecca suggests that there was Christian worship there.

Archaeologists have excavated several early Christian churches and religious complexes along the Gulf, including a possible Nestorian church at Jubail in Saudi Arabia (photos here).

So yes, there probably was a Christian church at Mecca.

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