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Obscure text, illuminating conversation: reading The Martyrdom of 'Abd al-Masih (Qays al-Ghassani).


My offering to this Festschrift in honor of Ralph Klein may be perceived by some readers as a bit obscure. It's a story about a nearly forgotten ninth-century martyr, preserved in the Arabic language in a few leaves of a tenth-century manuscript belonging to the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai. It is not a text on which one will preach or from which one will learn the fundamentals of Lutheran theology. One of my tasks, then, is to make an argument for how it fits into a volume dedicated to "Scholarship in the Service of the Church."

Let me hasten to assure Ralph, at least, that I am sharing a text that has been of some significance to my research and teaching. I first became acquainted with it more than twenty years ago, after Prof. Sidney Griffith of the Catholic University in America had published an edition and English translation in the Belgian journal Le Museon. (1) A few years later, when I was studying in Rome, I found a microfilm of the oldest manuscript witness (Sinai Arabic 542) at the Vatican Library; after studying the text, I prepared a new edition and translation. (2) Since my return from graduate work to full-time teaching in 1992 I have taught this text every year, whether in Arabic (in courses on "The Arabic Christian Heritage" in Cairo and elsewhere) or in English translation (in St. Paul and Chicago). In Cairo, many of my Arabic-speaking Protestant Christian students found texts like The Martyrdom of 'Abdal-Masih to be a revelation: Not only did Arabic-language Christian texts exist already in the ninth Christian century, but the students were able to read them! (3) In Cairo, one couldmake the argument that such texts served the local church simply by demonstrating that the Arabic language--usually associated with the Islamic tradition--had served as a language of Christian reflection and edification for more than a millennium. For a Christian to speak Arabic (rather than, say, Greek or Coptic) was not to be implicated in a kind of linguistic Fall; rather, it was to be part of a rich heritage of which a text such as The Martyrdom of 'Abd al-Masih is one tiny part. Read in English translation among North American students, however, such a text is shorn of its identity-affirming role.

Can it still function "in the service of the church"? Let the reader be the judge.

Introduction to the text

A common misconception about the Arab conquests, which began in earnest a very few years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632 and which quickly saw the Eastern Byzantine provinces and the whole of the Sasanid Persian empire incorporated into a new Arab-ruled polity, is that conversion to Islam was regularly coerced. In fact, processes of conversion to Islam among the Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians who found themselves in the new Islamic world order were generally peaceful and, at first, slow to make a demographic impact. However, economic and sociopolitical reasons for non-Muslims to convert to Islam accumulated during the first century and a half of Islamic rule, and by the ninth century, encouraged by the religious policies of the Abbasid rulers who had come to power in 750, a wave of conversions to Islam was underway. (4)

It is not by accident that there arose at about the same time an Arabic-language Christian literature, intended in large part to encourage Christians who had adopted the language of the Arabs to keep the faith of their Christian ancestors. Several literary genres are represented in this early Arabic Christian literature: translations of Scripture and other church books; apologetic texts that, even when ostensibly addressed to Muslims, probably served primarily as encouragement and emergency catechesis for Christians; and Arabic-language contributions to a library of apocalyptic texts (that explained current difficulties as the birth pangs of the End) and stories of saints and martyrs (that provided examples of sanctity, courage, and perseverance in the face of trials and tribulations) that had already been taking shape in Christian communities under Islamic rule in languages such as Greek, Syriac, and Coptic. (5)

One particular set of texts, written and preserved in a variety of languages, concerns the neo-martyrs--that is, Christians who were put to death by Muslim authorities for the crimes of apostasy or invective preaching against Islam. (6) It is worth noting that many of these neo-martyrs brought their martyrdom upon themselves. Peter of Capitolias was a priest who, determined to attain the crown of martyrdom, carried his invective against Islam all the way to the caliph himself, who. in exasperation, granted him his desire. Rawh al-Qurashi was an Arab Muslim convert to Christianity who, immediately after his baptism, returned to his home and family in the garb of a monk, and was promptly imprisoned and eventually beheaded. The Christians who told their stories saw these people as heroes of the faith rather than as suicides, and included their feast days in their liturgical calendars.

The story that I present below provides something of a contrast to the stories of voluntary martyrs. Here is my translation of the Arabic text. (7)

The Martyrdom of 'Abd al-Masih, Superior of Mount Sinai (Qays al Ghassani)

1 In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God.

2 This is the martyrdom of our father. Saint'Abd al-Masih, the superior of Mount Sinai, who was martyred at al-Ramlah.

3 There was a man of the Christians of Najran (8) called Qays ibn Rabi ' (9) ibn Yazid al-Ghassani, from the elite of the Christian Arabs. He was exemplary in worship, and understood his prerogatives and obligations. Once when he was twenty years old he went out, intending to pray in Jerusalem, with some Muslims of the folk of Najran who were resolved on going raiding. While he was in their company they continually beguiled him and sought his stumbling, with the result that he went raiding with them.

4 He was the most skillful of people in shooting an arrow, the best of creatures in striking with a sword or in stabbing with a lance. Ignorance, youth, and evil company so carried him away that he entered with the raiders into Byzantine territory. He participated in the jihad with them: he fought, killed, plundered, burned, and trampled every taboo as they did. And he prayed with them. (10) He surpassed them in the severity of his rage and in the hardness of his heart against the Byzantines. He continued in this way for thirteen years, given to raiding every year.

5 When these years had passed, he went out to one of the cities of Syria to pass the winter there. He entered Baalbek at midday, and upon his horse went directly to the church. As he entered, he saw a priest sitting at the door of the church, reading from the Gospel. He sat at his side in order to listen to him, and said to him, "What are you reading. O priest?" The priest responded and said, "I am reading in the Gospel." And he said to him, "Translate for me what you are reading." And he translated for him, saying, "Whoever loves mother or brother or anything more than me, is not worthy of me." (11)

6 As soon as he had read this [Qays] began to weep, remembering what he had been, and what he had become. When his weeping grew in intensity the priest said to him, "Young man, what is your trouble?" al-Ghassani said to him, "Do not reprove me for my weeping. I was once among the adherents of this Gospel, but today I am among its enemies. Listen to my story, until I have made it known to you."

7 When he had made his account known to the priest, the priest said to him, "What prevents you, if you are remorseful, from returning and repenting?" al-Ghassam said to him, "The matter is exceedingly great. I know things about myself that the mountains and the two earths [?] cannot bear." The priest said to him, "Have you not heard the Gospel say. 'That which humans cannot endure is easy for God? (12) It also says that 'God rejoices more in the return of one sinner than in a hundred righteous'. (13) Yes, my beloved brother, know that God is swifter to us than we are to Him! You have read the Gospel, as you mentioned to me. Remember the thief, (14) and the Prodigal Son!" (15)

8 The young man arose and prayed in the church, unsheathed his weapon, threw it before the altar, and pledged to God that he would not return to any aspect of his former life. The priest performed for him the usmun (16) for the forgiveness of sins. Then he went out, sold his horse and his weapon, and distributed the proceeds to the poor. The priest celebrated the mass and communed him. Then [Qays] exchanged the peace with him and went out, heading for Jerusalem.

9 When he arrived, he put on the black garb [of a monk] and went in to the patri-arch, Anba John, (17) and made his story known to him. The patriarch consoled him and strengthened him, took joy in him and prayed over him, and sent him to the laura of Sabas, (18) to the superior of the monastery, that he might make him a monk. He went there and became a monk, and [the superior] put him in the care of a spiritual master. He remained there for five years.

10 After that he went out and performed a circuit of the monasteries in the vicinity of Jerusalem. And after that he went out to Mount Sinai, (19) and resided there also for a number of years, in strict devotion and in the service of the monks and solicitude for them, so that he came to go regularly to Aylah (20) because of the kharaj tax on the estate of Qasr al-Tur, (21) as well as the kharaj tax on the Christians of Pharan and Raitho. (22) Because of what the monks saw of his solicitude, they appointed him steward (23) over them. He continued in this for five years.

11. After that he conceived a desire to make his affair known. (24) Thus he went out to al-Ramlah, (25) and with him two virtuous monks who had given themselves to him to accompany and serve him. He wrote a letter as follows: "I am Qays ibn Rabi ibn Yazid al-Ghassani al-Najrani. My story is thus-and-such. I have become a Christian and a monk, out of my own longing and my desire for Christianity. I am lodging in the church. If you want me, seek me there."

12 He threw the letter into the communal mosque in al-Ramlah. Then he went with the two monks and sat in the lower church, St. Kyriakos.

13 When [the Muslims] had read the letter in the mosque they raised a din, and a group of them went out until they reached the lower church. They made the rounds of the church, inside and out, from top to bottom, while he was seated [there] with the two monks. They did not see him because God blinded them to him. He got up and walked in front of them so that they would see him, but [still] they did not see him! They went to the upper church to seek him, and then returned to the lower. They were unable to seize him--despite the fact that they were jostling him--because God had blinded them to him. The two monks said to him, "Our father, God has not desired to make your affair known to them. If He had known that you were to undergo [martyrdom] (26) today, He would have made you known to them. Therefore, if God did not desire that, do not resist the command of God!"

14 He remained in al-Ramlah for three days, then departed for Edessa, (27) then returned to Mount Sinai.

15 They found that the superior of the monastery had died, and the monks sought to make him superior over the Mount. (His [new] name upon becoming a monk was 'Abd al-Masih. (28)) And he dwelt as superior over Mount Sinai for seven years.

16 It happened that the official in charge of the kharaj tax treated the Mount unjustly. (The kharaj in those days used to go to Palestine. (29)) Therefore ['Abd al - Masih] went out with a group of monks, bound for al - Ramlah. When they reached a place called Ghadyan, they discovered companies of pilgrims coming from their pilgrim age. (30) As a company was passing them by, a man who was part of it saw ['Abd alMasih] and recognized him, for behold, he was one of his companions from the years that he had participated in raiding! He clung to him and said, "Are you not Qays alGhassani?" He said to him, "I do not know what you are saying."

17 But the man shouted and raised a clamor, and the members of his company gathered at his shouting. He said to the people, "This monk was with me for years in the raids, and used to lead us in prayer. He is a man of the Arabs, and was my companion. He once received a wound at the top of his shoulder. Search him, and if you do not findit as I have said, then I am a liar!"

18 They stripped him of his cloak and robe, and found the scar as he had said to them. So they bound him with the cords of the beasts, and joined him to his companion monks, who were three in number. They undid his bonds and at night pleaded with him to flee, saying to him, "We will remain with them, to do with us what they will, and offer ourselves in your stead." He answered them saying, "It is more fitting that I be your ransom, by myself."

19 When they drew near to al-Ramlah, that accursed one mounted his beast and went ahead of them into al-Ramlah. He gathered a crowd, went in to the governor, and informed him of what had happened in the case of the monk. [The governor] directed a cavalry unit to accompany him, until they encountered [the monk] en route, escorted him into al-Ramlah, and brought him in to the governor.

20 The governor said to him, "Be ashamed of yourself! For you are a man of high birth and dignity!" 'Abd al-Masih replied, "Shame from Christ my God is more compelling than shame from you! Do what you like."

21 And [the governor] sought [people] to bear witness against him, and a group of people bore witness to what they did not know. Then he imprisoned him for three days. After that he brought him out and offered him Islam, but ['Abd al-Masih] did not accept it from him, and [his] response offended [the governor's] hearing. At that he went into a rage, and ordered that he be beheaded. (31) And indeed they carried it out. Then [the governor] ordered that [his body] be concealed from the Christians and burned. So they carried it until they reached a well at Balighah, which had been laid waste. They threw his body into it, cast upon it great quantities of wood, and kindled a fire in it so that the wood was consumed. They set a guard over it so that the Christians would not steal [his remains].

22 When nine months had passed, monks from Mount Sinai came out and talked with groups of the people of al-Ramlah concerning him. [The people of al-Ramlah] were extremely anxious about this, fearing both the sultan and the depth of the well (because it was about thirty fathoms deep). But ten strong young men decided to run the risk [of recovering the body]. They prepared rope and a large basket, went to the lower church, and spent the night there until the people were sleeping. Then they took candles and fire and departed, and with them the monks. They tied one monk with the basket at the end of the rope, and lowered him [into the well], fire and candles in his hand. When he reached the bottom he lit the candles and searched, to the depth of his knee, the ashes from the wood that they had cast upon him. The first thing that appeared of ['Abd al-Masih] was his skull, which shone like snow. Then he brought out the rest of his body: the fire had not burned it, and had not caused it any damage at all. [The monk] rejoiced exceedingly at that, and great was his wonder. He took one of his arms and hid it, and likewise took some of his bones, then put the rest into the basket and called to them to pull it up.

23 When they had pulled it up, all those who were above snatched at [his remains] and fled to the lower church. Three of them remained behind, and brought up the monk. When they had brought him up, they went to St. Kyriakos and found [their companions] wrangling over [the remains]. The monk who had been below continually resisted them until he was able to take hishead, and they left him the arm that he had taken in the well. Then they buried ['Abdal-Masih] in the diakonikon, except for the forearm and thigh, which they held back in order to bring [the martyr] out to the people that they might receive a blessing through him. And the monks departed for the Mount with his head, and there they celebrated his feast.

24 His martyrdom was on the ninth day of March. Therefore let us sing praise to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, to the age of ages. Amen.

Brief commentary

In my experience, there are a number of issues that students regularly raise when they read this text, and about which they are happy to have a conversation.

First, there is the conversion scene (#5-8), in which we note the courage of the priest (who undertakes to do pastoral care with a terrifying stranger) and the beauty of his preaching: his eloquent statement "God is swifter to us than we are to God" (#7) is one of the most beautiful sentences I have found in texts of this sort. Furthermore--and perhaps most surprisingly for anyone who knows the history of conflict in the early Church over what to do with Christians who had lapsed under persecution and later desired to return to the community--we note the ease with which the penitent Qays is accepted back into the Christian fold. As my Arabic-speaking students sometimes put it, "The gate of repentance is open!"

Second, there is the strange episode in the middle of the story (#11-13), when Qays, now the monk 'Abd al-Masih, "conceived a desire to make his affair known"--that is, to join the glorious ranks of the voluntary martyrs. However, his attempt was foiled when God blinded the eyes of the crowd that turned out to seize the monk who was doing his best to make himself conspicuous! We are reminded of the mysterious ways of God and perhaps offered a gentle critique of the voluntary martyrdoms that were often celebrated in churches under Islamic rule. This story, by way of contrast, suggests that taking one's martyrdom into one's own hands is an act of human hubris--and that God has hilarious ways of deflating our pride.

Third, Arabic-speaking students seldom missed the similarity of 'Abd al-Masih's denial "I do not know what you are saying" (#16) to that of Christ's disciple Peter (Matthew 26:70, [omicron][upsilon][kappa] [omicron][iota][delta][alpha] [tau][iota] [lambda][member of][gamma][member of]S). How are these words to be understood? As a betrayal in a moment of weakness? Further reflection may see a clue to understanding the monk's words in the names that are used. The monk's erstwhile companion had asked, "Are you not Qays al-Ghassani?" For the one who had died to his former life and been reborn as the monk 'Abd al-Masih (#15), a simple Yes in response to the question was not a possibility. If this observation is correct, however, it emphasizes again the hubris of the monk's earlier attempt to take his martyrdom into his own hands: by writing "I am Qays ibn Rabi ibn Yazid al-Ghassani al-Najrani" (#11) he was making an elaborate claim to an identity to which he had supposedly died.

Fourth, when 'Abd al-Masih came to see martyrdom as God's will for him, he accepted it with steadfastness (#20-21)--and refused to choose martyrdom for anyone else, despite the willingness of his loyal friends (#18).

Fifth, there is the final comedy of the human wrangling over the relics (#22-23). In my experience of teaching this text, it has been important not to allow this passage to enable a session of Protestant self-congratulation over against churches that value relics but rather to take it as an oppor-tunity to examine the history of the cult of the saints--and to think about the various ways in which all Christians seek down-to-earth assurance of the presence and power of God.

All of these observations offer entry points into wider church historical conversations: about apostasy and repentance, voluntary martyrdom, monastic vocation, the "law of apostasy" in Islam, and the cult of the saints. More than that, they can lead to conversation about deep theological matters: the grace of God, human pride, death to self and the world, courage in the face of adversity, and the earthly places/means where assurance of God's presence is (and is not) to be sought.

Yet another aspect of this text deserves discussion in a world and in communities that Christians share with Muslims. A clear aim of this ninth-century martyrdom text is to persuade Christians to remain in the Christian fold and to welcome those who had departed but who desired to return. Although the text is not as blatantly polemical as some Arabic Christian texts from around the same period, the reader may have noticed that it does not portray its Muslim characters at all sympathetically. The background of the text is a Christian-Muslim confrontation rather than a fruitful Christian-Muslim encounter or a competition in goodness. (32) While the text is helpful for understanding the survival strategies of a community under threat, it gives little positive guidance for members of communities who wish to reach out to those beyond their boundaries in the hope of creative and mutually instructive dialogue. Of course, throughout the history of the church and down to the present day, strategies of identity preservation and communal edification have been in tension with those of apologia and outreach. Here, too, is an important area for conversation--opened up by a little story about events of 1,150 years ago.


The Martyrdom of 'Abd al-Masih offers a variety of opportunities for conversation about things that matter. Texts from ill-known corners of the Christian tradition--or the lesser-known parts of Scripture--can do that. Few people know that better than Ralph Klein.

(1.) Sidney H. Griffith, "The Arabic Account of 'Abd al-Masih an-Nagrani al-Ghassani," Le Museon 98 (1985): 331-74.

(2.) I eventually published some minor corrections to Griffith's edition in my study, "The Martyrdom of 'Abd al-Masih, Superior of Mount Sinai (Qays al-Ghassani), in Syrian Christians under Islam: The First Thousand Years, ed. David Thomas (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 107-29, here 107-8. My full English translation appears here for the first time.

(3.) Arabic is a conservative language, anchored by the vocabulary and grammar of the Qur'an, understood by Muslims to be the very word of God in clear Arabic speech. One consequence of this is that educated Arabic speakers are often able to read simple medieval texts without a great deal of difficulty.

(4.) A seminal study is Richard W. Bulliet, Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period: An Essay in Quantitative History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).

(5.) An accessible, well-written, and reasonably priced introduction to all this material is Sidney H. Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008).

(6.) On these martyrdoms, see Griffith. Church, 147-55, or Robert G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1997), chap. 9, "Martyrologies."

(7.) Translation of the Arabic text in Sinai Arabic 542 (10th c), ff. 65 (r)-67 (r) The title is added, as are paragraph numbers and words appearing within square brackets.

(8.) A renowned center of Christianity in South Arabia (now the Yemen). With the Islamization of the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century the Christians of Najran were dispersed; some settled in Syria and made common cause with the Christian Arab Ghassanids, hence the nisbah (an adjectival name referring to a person's tribe, home or profession) "al-Ghassani" (= "the Ghassanid"). The point being stressed here is that the man is an Arab, not an Arabized Syrian.

(9.) The manuscript here gives "Rabi' ibn Qays," but the text later makes clear that the man's first name is Qays. See paragraphs 11 and 16.

(10.) That is. he participated in ritual prayer as a Muslim.

(11.) Cf. Matthew 10:37 and Luke 14:26.

(12.) Cf. Luke 18:27.

(13.) Luke 15:7.

(14.) Luke 23:39-43.

(15.) al-ibn al-shatir, not "the clever son" (as in contemporary Arabic) but "the son who withdrew from his family" (Luke 15:11-32).

(16.) From Greek hagiosmon?

(17.) Probably John VI. patriarch from 839 to 843.

(18.) For the famous Palestinian monastery of Mar Saba, see Yizhar Hirschfeld, The Judean Desert Monasteries in the Byzantine Period (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), and Joseph Patrich, Sabas, Leader of Palestinian Monasticism (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks. 1995).

(19.) For the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai, see, for example, George H. Forsyth and Kurt Weitzmann, The Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai: The Church and Fortress of Justinian (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1973).

(20.) The ancient Red Sea port city, today 'Aqabah, Jordan. The name "Aylah" is preserved by the nearby Israeli town of Eilat. Apparently in the mid-ninth century there was a tax office in Aylah.

(21.) That is, the agricultural land in the vicinity of Mount Sinai (al-Tur, "the Mount").

(22.) Other Christian centers in the Sinai peninsula.

(23.) uqnum = Greek oikonomos.

(24.) That is, he wanted to make a public profession of his reconversion to Christianity.

(25.) A city built early in the eighth century to serve as the provincial capital of Palestine, located near (and replacing) the ancient city of Ludd=Lod=Lydda/Diospolis, famous in the Christian period for its shrine of St. George.

(26.) The word used in the text, tasbur "have patience," appears to reflect the Greek hypomeno, frequently used in the context of martyrdom.

(27.) Now Urfa in Turkey, Edessa was a major center of Syriac-language Mesopotamian Christianity. While at the time of this story Edessa was best known for its Jacobite (anti-Chalcedonian miaphysite) community, there was also a Melkite (Chalcedonian) community there.

(28.) 'Abd al-Masih is Arabic for "servant of Christ," Christodoulos in Greek.

(29.) Once Ahmad ibn Tulun had come to power in Egypt (868-883), the kharaj tax of Sinai would undoubtedly have gone there rather than to Palestine.

(30.) That is, Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca.

(31.) On apostasy as a capital offense in Islam, see Antoine Fattal, Le statut legal des non-musulmans en pays d'Islam (Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1958), 163-68.

(32.) For this phrase, cf. Surat al-Maidah (5) 48.

Mark N. Swanson

Harold S. Vogelaar Professor of Christian-Muslim Studies and Interfaith Relations, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
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Date:Oct 1, 2008
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