WHEN ARABIA WAS “ HAPPY ”
THE first Book of Kings mentions that a thousand years before the adoration of the three Wise Men at the Crib, King Solomon received the visit of the Queen of Sheba. « She arrived in Jerusalem with a very imposing suite, with camels loaded with aromatics, a great deal of gold and precious stones. » (1 Kg 10.2)
The Ancients called the Kingdom of Sheba, the southern part of the Arab peninsula Arabia Felix, « Happy Arabia » because of the verdant valleys that the Marib dam irrigated and fertilised by channelling the flow of seasonal rainwater. These valleys have been occupied and cultivated since the most remote times, and were very soon organised into relatively complex states. Modern archaeology is rediscovering their rich millennial past, with its religious expectation illustrated by the Queen of Sheba’s admiration for « Solomon’s great wisdom ».
that links Zafar and Najran, in Arabia Felix.
We knew that from the first century of our era, Himyar had gradually supplanted and annexed the rival kingdoms of « Sheba, Hadramout and Yemenat » achieving the political unity « of these Arabs in both mountain and plain », as can be read on inscriptions. And Theodore the Reader’s Ecclesiastical History also mentioned that the Himyarites converted to Christianity at the time of Emperor Anastasius (491-518). But the contributions of the archaeological research of the last decade have completely renewed our knowledge of Christian Arabia, from Hadramaout to the Taurus, from the gulf of Oman to Lebanon and the Sinai.
Fr. Piccirillo talks about this subject in a magnificently illustrated book that gathers together abundant documentation (L’Arabie chrétienne, Milan, 2002; the French adaptation is published by Ed. Mangès).
« Excavations have shown that the greater part of the Roman province of Arabia was occupied by Arab populations perfectly integrated into the new Christian society, a fact that ancient literary sources did not allow to be suspected. We can think that, one day, archaeological research will complete our knowledge of the Christian presence in the Arabian peninsula with new discoveries. » (p. 27)
Let us summarise this knowledge before comparing it with that of our scientific exegesis of the Koran. Undertaken forty years ago under the direction of Fr. Georges de Nantes, our master and our Father, it is far from being finished, but, already, it throws a remarkable light on archaeological results, and receives new insights from them.
I. THE ARABS AND THE GOOD NEWS
In the Gospel, everything began « at Bethany, on the far side of the Jordan, where John was baptising » (Jn 1.28; cf. Resurrection no 13, January 2002). In other words : in the Trans-Jordan… that is to say, in Arabia ! And it is once again « on the far side of the Jordan » that Jesus looked for a refuge to escape from those who wanted to arrest Him in Jerusalem, and where He found a well-disposed people (Jn 10.40-42). After having proclaimed His intention to “ bring His sheep out ” of the porch of the Temple of Jerusalem, He acts according to His word by “ going out ” Himself. He makes a pilgrimage to this blessed place where the Jews had heard the Father’s voice on the day of His baptism even better than the Hebrews camped at the foot of Sinai in the time of Moses.
It is in these regions that the Good News was spread by the Jews coming on pilgrimage for the feast of Pentecost. Saint Luke’s account attests that on the day of the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the Apostles, Jews from Arabia were present in Jerusalem : « Jews and proselytes alike, Cretans and Arabs, we hear them preaching in our own language about the marvels of God ! » (Ac 2.11) Where did these “ Arabs ” come from, from which region of the oikouménè, the inhabited world ? For sure, they came from « the far side of the Jordan ». « Cretans and Arabs »… One might just as well say : « from the West and the East », Crete being to the west of Jerusalem, and Arabia to the east… It is hard to be more specific since the “ Arabs ”, whom Strabo still calls Skenites (« those who live under the tent »), were defined by their mode of life, nomadism, which, by definition, excludes a stationary domicile. The Arabs were spread over an area that included the whole territory of Syria, as well as the eastern desert up to the Euphrates, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Sinai peninsula, the Kingdom of the Nabataeans and Arabia Felix.
The “ Good News ” that came from Jerusalem then spread to the East through the Perea region, located east of the Jordan and occupied by Jewish communities of Essenian allegiance, as the Dead Sea scrolls have shown. After his conversion on the Road to Damascus and his baptism received from Ananias, it is first in “ Arabia ” that Saul of Tarsus, who had become Christian, spent several years (Ga 1.17). Once again, the question can be asked : to what does this single mention of Arabia in the New Testament refer ? Probably the territory that was unified by the Nabataean kings and that will give birth to the Roman province of Arabia under the Emperor Trajan in 106 AD. Its capital was Petra.
When Saint Paul came back to Damascus, in the year AD 38 or 39 , King Aretas’ governor who reigned in Petra ordered his arrest, but Paul was able to escape by letting himself be lowered down the wall in a basket (2 Co 11.32-33).
Less than thirty years later, in 66, at the time of the first Jewish revolt, the Christians of Jerusalem took refuge in Pella, in the Decapolis, on the far side of the Jordan. This is how, from Mesopotamia and Syria where the Gospel had been spread by the voices of the apostles Peter and Paul themselves, Christianity progressively spread through the cities and the countryside of the future Roman province of Arabia.
From there, missionaries also evangelised the territories of the Arabian peninsula that had escaped Roman conquest. By following the caravan trails, they succeeded in crossing the whole peninsula. Some who had come from the province of Arabia reached the southern coast of the peninsula and the Ethiopian coast ; others who had started in Iraq reached the ports of the northern coast, Bahrain Island and the Gulf of Oman, before sailing on the ocean towards the East Indies.
Emperor Trajan’s founding of the Roman province of Arabia, after the annexation of the allied Kingdom of the Nabataeans of Petra (AD 106), was a masterpiece : neither violence nor terrorism played the slightest role in it. « Two indications also make us think that the Romans annexed the Kingdom of the Nabataeans without violence, Fr. Piccirillo wrote. First, the agnomen Arabicus was not added to Emperor Trajan’s official titles ; agnomina celebrate victories, like those of Germanicus, Dacicus, Parthicus. Moreover, on coins that commemorated the annexation in 111 by representing the personification of the new province accompanied by a camel or an ostrich, the inscription reads Arabia Adquisita, and not Arabia Capta, a formula reserved for a province conquered by force, as is attested by the expression Judaea Capta, applied to Judea after its conquest. »
During the first two centuries that followed the annexation, Arabia’s defence was provided by the garrison of Bosra. The troops had at their disposal a network of camps and fortifications spread throughout the whole province, particularly along the Via Nova Traiana that linked the port of Aila on the Red Sea, where merchandise arrived from the East, and the city of Bosra, the new province’s administrative capital. The Koran preserved the memory of these “ forts ” (burûjin; IV, 78). Literally, the Arabic word is the transcription of the Greek purgos, in Latin burgus, « tower », a military term introduced by Romans in Syria and North Arabia.
Within the territory that was placed under the governor’s jurisdiction, infantry and cavalry detachments, equipped with horses or camels, were responsible for patrolling the most distant regions in order to guarantee the security of the oases and maintain peace everywhere, among desert tribes and within inhabited and cultivated lands.
Nomads encountered ancient Auara, whose ruins were excavated in 1993 between Petra and Hegra, on the north-south route of the Nabataean trails : « At the northeast end of the site, there is a typical Roman castrum, with a reservoir, protruding towers, and a gate on each of the four exterior walls. » (John Peter Olson, Un poste-clé au cœur du désert, Le monde de la Bible, no 88, 1994, p. 39)
The defence system organised by Diocletian ensured two centuries of peace and prosperity for the province of Arabia. During the Byzantine period (313-636), population growth and the settling of once nomadic tribes encouraged the development of cities (p. 54).
TOWARD A CHRISTIAN ARABIA
From the first centuries of the Christian era, Arab tribes were converted through contact with Christian monks and assisted Roman colonisation, so that during the second and third centuries AD, the Roman province of Arabia reached a peek that allowed it to vie with the Empire’s richest provinces.
The fourth century saw « the emergence of a “ Church of Saracens ” led by its own bishop » (Françoise Thelamon, Pagans and Christians in the IVth Century, Études augustiniennes, 1981, p. 123). Mauvia, their legendary queen, chose herself a monk living in the midst of her people to become a bishop, whose name was Moses, an orthodox Nicean, « endowed with a vigorous personality and who really seemed determined not to accept any compromise » with Arianism (ibid., p. 138).
Mecca does not yet exist, except in the imagination of subsequent Muslim “ logographers ”. Vidal de la Blache, in a paper for the Academy of Inscriptions and Literature (meeting of 6 November 1896), drew up the map of the Routes of commerce in the Geography of Ptolemy : Mecca, traditionally said to be an important stopping place along the « incense route », is absent from this map (reproduced p. 271 in our Volume 2). We therefore had to rectify the map drawn up by the late Georges Duby, where this historian did not shrink from adding “ Mecca ” to the route of trails that later on would link it to Yathrib (the future “ Medina ”) to the north, to Taif to the south, and to the Red Sea (in Historic Atlas, Larousse, 1991). Fr. Piccirillo has come round to our views ; page 10 of his work ; he draws up a map that follows our layout of the caravan routes : Mecca is conspicuous by its absence.
In the beginning of the fifth century, during the reign of the Emperor Arcadius (395-408), the most significant episode was the conversion of a Saracen chief and his tribe after a monk’s miraculous intervention, as Sozomenreported :
« “ Not a long time before the current reign (of Valens, whom Sozomen had just mentioned, or of Theodosius II, who was reigning at the time of Sozomen ?), the Saracens began to become Christian. They shared the faith in Christ thanks to frequent contact with the priests and monks who lived in the vicinity and who meditated in the surrounding deserts, leading a good life and working miracles. It is also said that, at that time, a whole tribe turned to Christianity because its phylarch, Zokomos, had been baptised. He had no son and he went to see a monk to whom he was attracted because of his reputation, and revealed his sorrow to him. It is indeed very important for Saracens to have a son, and I know that it is likewise among all the barbarians. This monk, after having recommended to him to have confidence, encouraged him and sent him back home, after having promised him that he would have a son if he had faith in Christ. Since God realised the promise and granted him a son, Zokomos was initiated and led his people down the same path. It is said that, since that day, this tribe became happy and had plenty of men, and that it instilled fear in the Persians and in the other Saracens ” (HE VI, 38).
« Besides the part that the monks played in the conversion of Arabs, a frequent subject in the Lives of Christian ascetics of Antiquity, the account recalls the fact that Zokomos and his tribe put themselves at the disposal of the Romans in order to defend the Empire’s borders against the Persians and other tribes. It is as if the political alliance with Rome went hand in hand with the Christianisation of the tribe placed at the head of the confederation. » (Piccirillo, op. cit., p. 195)
« The writings of Theodoret of Cyr, who was eyewitness of these facts, described the role that Saint Simeon Stylites had in the conversion of those whom the theologian bishop called the Ismaelites, using a biblical term, used by the Koran and the Moslem tradition, that makes Ismael, and through him, Abraham, the ancestor of the Arabs. The Bishop of Cyr also wrote a text on the Arabs’ nature, who were no longer barbarians and Saracens, but members of the Church and auxiliaries of the Christian empire : “ With regard to our neighbours, the nomads, – I am referring to the Ismaelites who live in the desert and who do not have the slightest knowledge of Greek letters – they have a sharp and penetrating intelligence, and they have judgement that is capable of discerning truth and refuting what is false. ” » (ibid., p. 196)
In 473, the Emperor Leo I agreed that Armokesos, the chief of a Christian Arab tribe, occupy the customhouse of Jotabe, at the mouth of the Gulf of Araba, 185 km away from Aila. During the reign of Justin I, the Byzantines armed the Christians of Ethiopia so that they could intervene within Sabean territory, at the south of the Arabic peninsula, where some tribes who converted to Judaism were persecuting the Christians.
As for Justinian, he entered into an alliance with the Arabian confederation of the Banu Ghasans or Ghassanids, who were converted to Christianity. He put the phylarch Aretas, the son of Jabala, at the head of the federated Arabs and entrusted to the phylarch Abu Karib, the brother of Aretas, the territories that were located to the south of Arabia.
Also, in the sixth century, the Christianised province of Arabia enjoyed the favour of the emperors of Byzantium. While increasing trade encouraged an unprecedented settling and urbanisation process that will never have its equivalent afterwards, the wealth that inhabitants amassed allowed them to finance the construction of new churches decorated with mosaics. The population’s massive adherence to the Christian religion was, moreover, the reason for its prosperity. The conversion of the Arab tribes established relations of confidence between them and the Roman authorities.
II. MUSLIM TRADITION BROUGHT INTO QUESTION
Recent archaeological discoveries provide a contribution to the ecclesiastical history of the province that throws light on the origins and the beginnings of Islam, starting with the Jewish persecutions, of which the Christians of Yemen were the victims in the sixth century (below, pp. 7-8), until the period of the Umayyads and the Abbasids, in the eight century. Inscriptions allow us to identify the bishops, attesting to the survival of Christian churches after the Muslim conquest. The absence of a true rupture between the Byzantine period and the period known as the Muslim period, attested to by both literary sources and archaeological remains, constitutes a tremendous riddle for modern researchers still convinced of the historical truth of the Muslim conquest, which a Danish researcher did not shrink from calling The Invisible Conquest (cf. Piccrillo, op. cit.,p. 226).
But for us who have applied to the Koran the critical method used to study the Bible and who, following Father Lammens (cf. the preface to our Volume I, pp. XVIII-XV), have recognised the incontestably legendary character of the « Muslim tradition », the fact is in no way surprising when it is compared to our exegetical discoveries.
A CONQUEST OR A PILGRIMAGE ?
The context of the beginning of the Koran is that of a pilgrimage similar to those whose traces archaeologists find at Jerusalem, at Mount Nebo, and in Arabia. For Christians of the region, as for pilgrims come from far away, writes Fr. Piccirillo, « the Biblical Lands were the place where they could relive, through recollection and prayer, the Old Testament accounts relating to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and to the Prophets, beginning with Moses. At the same time they identified themselves with the people of God wandering in the desert, whose heirs in the faith they felt they were » (Piccirillo, p. 81).
So it is that the author of the Koran declares Mount Scopus to be the « gate of God ». From this hill situated north of Jerusalem, one has a view of the Holy City as from an observatory (Sura II, 158; cf. our translation of the Koran, volume I, pp. 159-160). From there, the Arabs, « the children of Ismael », entered in 614 into the Holy City in order to « restore the foundations (’al-qawâ cida) of the Temple » which the Jews, « the children of Israël », had failed to do three hundred years earlier (II, 127).
We have a short anonymous account that shows that the patriarch Sophronius became indignant at seeing a deacon of his clergy, a skilful marble mason, giving his remunerated assistance to the builders. During the reign of ’Muawiya, Anastasius the Sinaite, a Cypriot who had become a monk at Sinai, passing through Jerusalem, was present during the important works that took place on the esplanade, opposite the Mount of Olives and echoed, in order to oppose it, the rumour that was spreading : the Arabs were rebuilding the Temple of God. Now, they succeeded, since today the octagonal edifice called the “ Dome of the Rock ”, dating from the reign of Abd al-Malik (685-705), dominates the whole of Jerusalem, and the gigantic esplanade built by Herod became the sanctuary of Islam.
We have understood : the author of the Koran was not an ordinary pilgrim, but he made himself out to be like a new Joshua. He entered into the Promised Land at the head of his people after having made the pilgrimage to the « sources of Moses » (cf. II, 60) in the valley situated to the north of Mount Nebo. It was there that the pilgrims rested before undertaking the ascent towards the shrine built at the top of the mountain that Moses climbed in order to contemplate the Holy Land before dying (Dt 34.1-6). Archaeological excavations by the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum that have been taking place since 1933, and which have never been interrupted since, have revealed that monks occupied the site from the first decades of the fifth century to the second half of the eighth century. They were the first and the last inhabitants of the most well-known sanctuary of Arabia in Christian Antiquity.
The Koran has retained the imperishable souvenir of the immense admiration that the children of Ismael had for Christian monks, who formed what he called « a people standing up » ( ’ummatun qâ’imatun) standing up to « recite God’s verses during the night » (III, 113).
As the Hebrew people crossed the Sea of Reeds in order to leave Egypt and then crossed the Jordan to enter into the Promised Land, as Jesus crossed the Cedron brook to enter into His glory, lastly, as Christians receive grace by being immersed into the water race » (darrat) of the children of Ismael is invited by God Himself, speaking through the mouth of the author, to cross a « torrent » (sabîlan) « until you be cleansed », he says, (tagtasilû; IV, 43) as in a new baptism.
This « torrent » is once again the Jordan, in which the children of Ismael, under the leadership of their new Joshua, will receive the anointing that will make them into other « christs » in place of « Christians ». They committed an inexpiable crime : that of « mixing up » a son with God. For “ the God ” does not have a son… (IV, 171; V, 72).
The children of Israel yearn to « inherit a vineyard » (II, 266). Representations of vines and hunting scenes are plentiful in the mosaics of the sanctuaries. They are so present in the mind of the author of the Koran that he associates them in a common reprobation. (V, 90-96)
Let the children of Ismael abstain from wine and strong drink, and not take part in those funeral meals that degenerate into « brawls » (’al-cadâwata) and into « abuse » (wa-l-bagdâ’a) : this is how the author presents the Eucharistic meal of Christians (V, 90-92) ! It is true that Saint Paul judged likewise (1 Co 11.17-22). But it was because he knew of abuses that he learned from reports, and his concern was to correct them, not to suppress them. But forbidding all use of wine, as the author of the Koran does (II, 219), means the pure and simple abolition of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, even if the occasion or the pretext is provided by the cult of Bacchus, omnipresent in the mosaics of the Byzantine residences of Trans-Jordan.
As for game (sayid) killed in hunting, it is forbidden to a « consecrated » people (V, 93; cf. V, 1) unless « killed by your own hands and at the point of your spear » (V, 94; see below), ! In Trans-Jordan mosaics, scenes of grape harvest and hunting alternate in vine motifs, as in the verses of Sura V. One would think that the author of the Koran had these decorations in mind or before his eyes. The connection is all the more obvious because he continues : « Seafood is permitted » What “ sea ” is meant ? Certainly not the Dead sea, which the mosaic of the map discovered at Madaba, to the east of the Dead sea, shows putting to flight the fish of the Jordan. On the other hand, the mosaic of Holy Apostles church, constructed in 578 at Madaba, represents the sea under the figure of a woman brandishing an oar like a standard, and coming out of the tide amid leaping fish (Piccirillo, op. cit., pp. 154 and 165).
These contacts between the author of the Koran and the Christian communities of Arabia are already impressive. But there is more.
« Arabia haeresium ferax ! » Arabia is a seat of heresy, wrote Theodoret of Cyr in the fifth century. During the first centuries of the Christian era, the Trans-Jordan territory was in reality home to a great number of sects that strayed more or less from orthodoxy and a catalogue of which Epiphanius of Salamis undertook to draw up.
However, the literary sources of that time attest to the presence of bishops, archimandrites, priests, monks and the faithful of Monophysite confession, illustrating the vitality of a faith that archaeological sources represent, rather, as orthodox. Inscriptions, depicted on the mosaic pavings of churches constructed between the fifth and the eighth centuries, are professions of faith in God, the holy and consubstantial Trinity, Lord of all things, He who made Heaven and earth. It is with His assistance, by His grace, according to His will and His providence that churches are built and good works carried through to their completion : « The Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the only God, is our God, our Saviour, and enjoys the same divine attributes. King, creator and demiurge, he is the wisdom of God, the Lord God of the Blessed Virgin and of all the saints, the honour of Christian people, God with us. »
Judging by the inscriptions, the Christians of the province of Arabia had a very great devotion towards the Blessed Virgin : she is Theotokos, Mother of God, holy and Immaculate Sovereign, to whom « the soul and purified actions » must be addressed, as is recalled in the inscription of the church that was dedicated to Her in the centre of Madaba.
The faithful vie with one another to embellish their churches, from the great urban basilicas to village churches and monastery chapels.
Now, our translation of the Koran demonstrates that it is the worship given to the « Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the only God » that the author of the Koran disputes as well as the cult of His divine Mother. Or rather, the idea that Christians have : « Long ago they apostatised, those who said : “ Behold the God, He, the Christ, son of Mary, whereas Christ said : O sons of Israel, serve the God, my Master and your Master ! ” » (V, 72)
« Mary » (maryama) is the only woman’s name present in the Koran. The reason for this preferential treatment can be found in the intention – it shows through each time it is a question of « Christ » (masîhu) – to reduce His divinity to nothing. The name « son of Mary » (’ibn maryama) is intended to supersede the name of « Son of the Most High » (Lk 1.32). Here, the author asserts that Christ Himself never claimed to be the Son of God. On the contrary, he considered « the God » (Allah) as his Master : « my Master and your Master » (rabbi wa-rabbakum; III, 51). The author is familiar with the fourth Gospel, and he deliberately changes the words of Jesus, saying : « my Father and your Father » (Jn 20.17).
Allah is not a proper noun but a common noun : ’ilâh proceeded by the definite article ’al. By contraction, ’al-’ilâh becomes ’allâh : « the God ». The biblical name Elohîm, however, is used twice (III, 26; V, 144))
The antitrinitarian polemic shows through everywhere, beginning with Sura I, in which God receives the most beautiful of names – merciful, master, king – but never that of Father. For “ the God ” has no « child » (waladan). The author attacks the Gospel accounts in which the procession of the Son is « celebrated » by God the Father (II, 116); this is an allusion to the theophanies at the baptism of Christ and at His transfiguration : « This is my Son, the Beloved ; my favour rests on Him. » (Mt 3.13; cf. 17.5; 2 P 1.17)
The name « Christ Jesus, son of Mary » (IV, 171) is opposed to the way of naming Him current among Christians, « Jesus Christ, Son of God » (Mk 1.1). Like Saint Paul, the author also calls Him « the Christ » (’al-masîhu), but « the Christ » only, depriving Him of His kingship as Son of David and, therefore, of His “ messiahship ” itself. For « kingship over the Heavens and the earth and what they contain belongs to God » (V, 17, 18, 40 and 120) and not to « the Christ, son of Mary » (V, 17), nor to those who claim to be « the sons of God and his favourite ones », Jews or Christians (V, 18).
This is why the name « Messiah » (masîhu) linked to that of « Jesus » to form a compound name preceded by the article (’al-masîhu cîsâ ) is deprived of all its messianic signification. « The Christ Jesus, son of Mary » is never said to be the « son of David ». How could He be, since His Mother « Mary » (maryam), is passed off as the « daughter of Amran » and ends up deliberatly confused with Myriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron ?
Thus the historical gap of thirty generations between the two “ Mary’s ”, all the straining towards the future in expectation of the King-Messiah is eliminated. The driving force of Sacred History is distroyed, to the benefit of a chronology in which Jesus comes immediately after Moses (II, 136; III, 84), as a nephew succeeds his uncle !
And this is not all : not only is « Jesus, son of Mary » deprived of His divinity and His messianic kingship, but He even loses all historical consistency. « Even so, admits Father Jomier, His figure remains very vague and it would be quite difficult to represent Him if one relied only on the Koran. » Father Abd-el-Jalil makes the same remark (quoted in our appendix devoted to Jesus in the Koran, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 227)
Schism came later on. In a recent study, G. R. Hawting, a professor at the University of London, explained that the polytheists and idolaters taken to task in the Koran would in fact be monotheists, present in Arabia for a long time. Why did it take thirteen centuries to make this fabulous discovery, when it is spelled out plainly in the Koran itself ! The cult paid by Christians to the crucifix, to Jesus « raised up » is called idolatry (’al-jibt ; IV, 51 ). The term, used only once in the Koran, was coined by the author from gâbah, « to be raised up », to designate Christ « raised up » on the Cross, the object of the Christian faith. Being familiar with the word of Saint Paul : « We are preaching a crucified Christ : to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the gentiles foolishness » (1 Co 1.23), the author of the Sura IV wants to challenge both the « obstacle » and the « foolishness ». He therefore eliminates the Cross of Christ, by denying the fact, purely and simply : « They did not kill nor crucify him, but he did indeed come back to them. » (IV, 157)
As for the saints, especially Mary, the Mother of Jesus : « Do not be mislead into idolising (a woman) “ among women ” » (IV, 129; Lk 1, 42), he orders. Perhaps the author mistakes her for the goddess Aphrodite, « one of the masterpieces of the mosaicists of Madaba » preserved under the interior vestibule of the church of the Virgin. This church in Madaba was made out of a stately home of the Byzantine era that had been decorated with a representation of the heroes of Euripides’ tragedy : Hippolytus. Preserved since their creation in the middle of the sixth century, these mosaics have no reason to envy the Renaissance that will flourish in Italy a thousand years later. « These motifs of classical inspiration, the Franciscan archaeologist writes, are not so much vestiges of pagan beliefs as they are a witness to the culture spread by Justinian throughout the Empire. » The actors of the tragedy are figured on earth and in the sky. A panel presents the heavenly personages in question : Aphrodite, sitting on a throne next to Adonis, her large bust unclothed, explains the author’s recommendation : « Those whom you have married, reprimand them and cover them ! » (IV, 34).
THE VIRGIN MEDIATRIX
According to the first principle of the French school of exegesis, taking pains to explain the Bible by the Bible, Georges de Nantes, made it a rule to explain « the Koran by the Koran », and not by posterior logographers : « The only reliable document is the Koran, he wrote. The Koran must be studied and then it must be explained how and why legends were born of it », and not the opposite, like Koran scholars of the West who tag along after the inventors of the aforementioned legends, in flagrant contravention of the most elementary requirements of positive and critical scientific methodology.
Let us take an example.
Ka’ba (Qaaba) refers to a sanctuary situated at Mecca, in the middle of the court of the great mosque. The entire question is to find out what this word designates in Sura V. It appears for the first time in verse 6, and offers a most remarkable detail in the ritual purification already prescribed in verse 43 of the Sura IV by establishing a complete bath, from the head to the feet, « right to the sole » (’ilâ l-ka’bayni).
« Rub the head and the feet right to their soles with ointment. » It would be more exact to translate « right to the base », since the Greek word kubos, « cube », of which the Arab word is the transposition, designates the foundation stones of a house. This is why the word is used to designate certain sanctuaries that are cubic in form. Our exegesis of Sura V has lead us to identify two sanctuaries of this sort. The first is situated at Petra, where dwelt the « Lord of the Ka’ba », bâliga l-ka’bati (V, 95). The second one is at the city gates of Jerusalem, « the gates of God » (V, 2), where « the God has consecrated the Ka’ba, the Sacred House, rebuilt for the people » (V, 97). Later it will reoccur a fourth and last time, in the plural, with the sense of « virgins » (kawâ’iba; LXXVIII, 33). Whence the question : is the Ka’ba a « House » or a « Virgin » ?
To tell the truth, the meaning of « virgin » is already ancient since St. Epiphanius mentions, in the fourth century, a cult celebrated in « the Arab language » (arabikè dialektô) at Petra, in the night of December 25,, in honour of the Virgin (Parthenon) and of her son Dousares. The name of the Virgin, in Arab (arabisti) is Chaabou. Dousares means « the only son of the Lord » (monogenè tou despotou).
But then, what connection is there between the « cube » and the « Virgin » ? Scholars have imagined everything, going as far as to make God a son of the stone, like Fr. Jean Starcky, the great specialist of Petra, seeking to explain how the « quadrangular sacred stone » carrying the god Dousares « became his mother » ! But recent archaeological developments give us the explanation : St. Epiphanius is the witness to an extremely ancient Christian influence on the religious cults in pre-Islamic Arabia. Consequently, how can we be surprised that the Mother of the Son of God is His throne ? Is She not the seat of Wisdom ?
But this Virgin is also the personification of « Jerusalem, the Holy City, coming down out of Heaven from God. It had all the glory of God » (Ap 21.10). Now, this city forms a cube : « Equal in length, and in breadth, and equal in height. » (Ap 21.16) Not only that, it happens that in the century of Islam’s birth, a monument stood along the road that leads from the house of the Virgin in Holy Zion, the place of Her « dormition », to Her « tomb » in Gethsemani. This monument was given the Greek name of kubos in a homily attributed to St. Germanus of Constantinople (634-733).
The holy patriarch refers to the places of the Dormition and of the Assumption of Mary : « It is on the route followed by the funeral cortege, along the descent to the valley of Josaphat. The monument is in the form of a cube (kubos) because of a foolhardy Jew who was immediately punished by the amputation of his two hands for the hideous crime he committed against the venerable body ; there is in the middle of this cube the venerated column that reproduces the prodigy wrought, the healing of this formerly impious Jew. » This question is developed in the appendix of our translation of the Koran, Vol. III, under the title : The Ka’ba (pp. 299-306). According to our hypothesis, Sura V reveals that, far from destroying it, nascent Islam took “ this memorial ” to be the symbol of the « House of Abraham » that it wanted to « restore » (V, 97)
Contrary to what is generally believed, the reference to Abraham is not a source of reconciliation among the « three monotheist religions ». It is better suited to maintaining the war between the children of Isaac, the child of the promise, and those of Ismael, the archer, who lived in the desert, according to what is written : « The boy (Ismael) grew up and made his home in the desert, and he became an archer. » (Gn 21, 20) Like the « soldiers » of the Third Secret of Fatima…
Alternatively, the Daughter of Abraham, She, the Ka’ba, personifiying, she alone, the « Virgin » and the « House » of Israel, calls us all together, whoever we may be, Christians, Jews and Muslims, so as to lead us to the « gates of Heaven » (cf. V, 2) by the way of her Immaculate Heart. How can we not express our gratitude to our Father, for his perspicacity and the tenacity with which he has kept us at the task, by his enlightened and continual encouragements, of forging a providential and scientific instrument, in view of the conversion of the Muslims, for the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
THE TESTIMONY OF SHED BLOOD
MANY are unaware that Yemen had been officially Christian during forty years, from 529-530 to 570-575, after having been exposed to a violent persecution from Jews. In 512, a Jewish king succeeded the Christian king of Himyar, intent on freeing himself from the Ethiopian protectorate and from the alliance with the Byzantium Empire. In 523, he started persecuting the Christians present within his territory, beginning with his capital, Zafar.
« After having promised a safe-conduct to Ethiopian Christians, he put three hundred of them to death, among whom was the archpriest Ababut. The massacre, which took place during the night, ended in the burning of the church in which two hundred of the faithful perished. The edict that broadened the persecution to the entire kingdom punished with death all those who dared to protect Christians. The first illustrious victims were the priests of Hadramaout : Mar Elia, his mother and his brother ; Mar Toma, whose left hand had already been cut off to punish him for having confessed Christ ; Mar Wail and Mar Toma from Najran who happened to be in the region were also martyred. » (Piccirillo, op. cit. pp. 21-22).
The Martyrs of Najran
The Jewish king then turned against the oasis of Najran. A first army having come up against the resistance of the inhabitants, he himself took the direction of more numerous forces and besieged the city. In vain. He them promised to spare the lives of the besieged who would surrender :
« And when he realised that he would be unable to bring them into subjection through warfare, relates the Syriac source, he sent Jewish priests from Tiberias with the Torah of Moses and a letter of oath with the seal of the Jewish king. He swore on the Torah, the Tables of Moses, the Arc and by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, that no harm would come to them if they voluntarily handed over the city and if they came out of it to present themselves before him. The inhabitants of Najran believed in his oath and three hundred of them, accompanied by their leaders, went out to meet him. He received them with kindness and cordiality and, once again, he promised them, in person, what he had promised them by letter, repeating to them that no harm would be done to them, that he would not ask them to renounce their Christianity, and he broke bread with them. And when, the following day, they came to find him, he gave orders to divide them among his chiefs, fifty per chief. In secret, he had ordered each chief to look after the men that came to him and, after having broken bread, to tie their hands and feet, and take their arms.
« When this had been done and when he was sure that all their chiefs had been bound, he immediately sent Jews and pagans to capture the Christians of the city, asking them to show to them all the bones of the martyrs and those of Mar Bulos, the bishop who had been consecrated the first Bishop of Najran (…) who had won the crown of martyrdom by being stoned to death, like Stephen, the first martyr, by the Jews of Tiberias in the city of Zafar, the royal city of the Himyarites. At the same time as they burned with fire the bones of Mar Bulos, , , they burned those of the other bishop who had been consecrated the second Bishop of Najran (…). The Jews brought all the bones together in the church and piled them up in the middle of the building ; and then they brought the priests, the deacons, the subdeacons, the readers, the sons of the covenant and the daughters of the covenant (the monks and the nuns), and the laity, men and women ; and they filled the entire church, from one side to the other, with about two thousand Christians (…). Then they brought wood and surrounded the exterior of the building and set fire to the interior and they burned it with everything inside (…).
« And when the church and everything inside had been burnt, the same day, the King brought before him, bound, all the chiefs and the freeborn men.
« And he said to them :
– Why did you attempt to rebel against me, why did you not hand over the city to me, why have you placed your confidence in this son of… in this old idiot, Harith bar-Kaab, whom you have chosen as your leader ?
« Then, he had Harith stripped and said to him :
– Look at yourself naked before those who consider you as their leader, so that you can be dishonoured in your old age.
« But Harith answered him :
– Truly, if the garment that I wear were to become visible to you, you would not speak to me in this manner. But since you do not see it, you think that I am naked. To tell the truth, I say to you that my soul, just now, has become great in my eyes and I do not feel shamed by the nakedness of my body. For, Christ knows that I am better than you inwardly and outwardly, that my body is stronger than yours and that my arm is more powerful than your arm. I have no spearhead or sword wounds on my back, but only on my chest ; for I have never shown my back in combat as a coward would. With the help of Christ, I was victorious in many battles, and it is I who killed in battle the brother of him who is seated at your right and who is your paternal cousin.
« The King said to him :
– Thus you counted on Him to revolt against me. I am going to give you a piece of advice to save your old age. Deny Christ, the liar and His Cross, and your life will be spared ; failing this, you will die an excruciating death, you and your companions and all those who will not deny Christ and His Cross.
« And Harith said to him :
– Remember the oaths that you took in the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and on the Torah and the Tables and the Ark.
« The King replied :
– Let that be, and deny Christ and the Cross.
« The old man replied :
– To tell you the truth, I am afflicted for all the Christian companions who were with me in the city, because I advised them, but they did not listen to me. For I was ready to wage battle against you and fight against you for the salvation of the people of Christ, and you would have killed me or I would have killed you, and I was hopeful that, thanks to Christ, my Lord, I would defeat you ; but my companions did not allow me to do it. I also thought of leading only my family and my slaves, and go out to meet you, but my Christian companions closed the gates of the city and did not allow me to do it. It is I who told them to remain in the city and not to open the gates, for I had confidence in Christ, my Lord, and I knew that the city would not be captured by you, since it lacked nothing, but in this as well, my companions did not listen to me. And when you sent your word, your oaths, I advised them not to believe you, saying to them that you are a liar, and that no trust can be placed in you, but my companions did not let themselves be convinced. And now, you tell me to deny Christ, my God, and to become Jewish. Perhaps I will not live any longer, and you want to take me away from Christ, my God, in my old age. Truly, you have never acted as a king, for a king who deceives is not a king. I have seen many kings, but never lying kings. As far as I am concerned, I will remain firm and I will not be a liar by breaking the promises that I have made to Christ.
« Christians celebrate with pride the old sheikh and his companions, religious and lay people, men, women, and children, who knew how to die as Christians with the pride of the Arabs. » (ibid., pp. 22-24)
Brother Bruno of Jesus-Mary
He is risen ! n° 10, June 2003 p. 3