‘Abd al-Rahman III, Orosius’ Historiae Contra Paganos, and the Byzantine Embassy to Cordoba in the Tenth Century
Around 956, when the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba was at its peak, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (r. 913–959) sent an important embassy to the Andalusī caliph al-Nāṣir li-Dīn illāh ‘Abd al-Raḥman III (r. 912–961). The embassy sought to formalize diplomatic and economic relations between Islamic Spain and the Byzantine Empire, whose shared interests in opposing the Abbasids in Baghdad provided a common ground for the establishment of an alliance (directed primarily against the Fatimids in North Africa and Sicily).
In order to demonstrate his desire to cement a friendship with the Umayyads in Iberia, Constantine sent three particularly interesting gifts along with the embassy. The first was a number of expert artisans and architects who specialized in glass and tile work. They would be the ones who would help with the construction of the dome of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, which remains as magnificent a sight as ever.
The second gift was one of the pharmacological treatises of Pedanius Dioscorides (d. 90 A.D.), the Περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς (known as the De Materia Medica in Latin), which was promptly translated into Arabic and became one of the most important works of Greek science and medicine in the Islamic West and, indeed, Western Europe. Dioscorides’ treatise was the most influential work on pharmacopeia until the 19th century.
While the translation of Greek works into Arabic (and their subsequent translation into Latin) during the Middle Ages is known to all, the role of the Byzantines in this process of exchange and transfer of knowledge is often forgotten.
The third gift is the one which has received the least attention, probably because its significance has been the least understood. ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III was presented with the monumental historical work of the Roman historian Orosius (d. 418), known as the Historiae contra paganos or “Histories against the Pagans.”
Orosius was a native-born Spaniard, having been born in Bracara Augusta (modern-day Braga), the capital of the Roman province of Hispania Gallaecia. He was a well-traveled individual, having visited the Roman East and North Africa. The Historiae was a universalist history with a providential character, contrasting the Christian present with the pagan past. It was composed following a request by Orosius’ mentor, St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), for a universal history which would complement his own De Civita Dei (“City of God”). The work sought to demonstrate the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire as a major advancement and civilization development. The author had a clear objective: that the Christians be defended from the non-Christian Roman’s accusations that the arrival of the Germanic tribes and the subsequent sack of Rome in 410 occurred because the Christians had forsaken the city’s traditional pantheon of gods. It can be read in English translation here (https://sites.google.com/site/demontortoise2000/).
Although the work is clearly universalist in outlook and scope, Orosius devotes particular attention to events within Iberia, which he clearly considered to be one of the more important parts of the Roman world. One of the defining characteristics of the Historiae is its clearly defined historical methodology, which places it firmly within the tradition of classical Greco-Roman historiography. Among the sources which Orosius relied upon were the Old Testament, New Testament, Caesar, Livy, Junianus Justinus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Florus, and Eusebius. The work has been considered a monument of Roman historiography and it has exercised a major influence upon all future historians. Even the great Muslim historian Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) relied upon Orosius’ Historiae when he wrote his own universal history; throughout his work, Ibn Khaldūn refers to Orosius as “هروشيوش مؤرخ الروم”. Significantly, the particular translation which Ibn Khaldūn consulted was probably the one which was commissioned in Cordoba at the command of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III and his son, al-Ḥakam II (r. 961–976). In Christian Europe, Orosius’ work was considered to be one of the main works of classical historiography from Spain right up until the time of the Reformation (and beyond).
The significance of the gift of Orosius’ Historiae cannot have been lost on ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III, a native-born Spanish monarch whose mother was Galician and whose paternal grandmother was the Basque princess Iñiga Fortúnez (d. 891). His roots to the various cultures and ethnicities of Spain—Berber, Arab, Galician, and Basque—were therefore well established. As such, a monumental work written by one of the most eminent historians of Roman Spain was quite fitting. One can see the gift as a symbolic complement to his power, which extended across the Iberian peninsula.
The Historiae provided the caliph with a document that enabled him to contextualize his own dynastic rule within the broader historical frame of Iberian history in antiquity and late antiquity. It also reassured him that divine providence was the guiding force of historical change, reinforcing his own claims to religio-political authority and sense of being blessed by God for having granted him dominion.
Quapropter homo, qui secundum Deum, non secundum hominem vivit, oportet ut sit amator boni; unde fit consequens ut malum oderit. Et quoniam nemo natura, sed quisquis malus est, vitio malus est: perfectum odium debet malis, qui secundum Deum vivit, ut nec propter vitium oderit hominem nec amet vitium propter hominem, sed oderit vitium, amet hominem. Sanato enim vitio totum quod amare, nihil autem quod debeat odisse remanebit.
“For this reason, the man who lives by God’s standards and not by man’s, must be a lover of the good, and it follows that he must hate what is evil. Further, since no one is evil by nature, but anyone who is evil is evil because of a perversion of nature, the man who lives by God’s standards has a duty of “perfect hatred” (Psalms 139:22) towards those who are evil; that is to say, he should not hate the person because of the sin, nor should he love the sin because of the person. He should hate the sin, but love the man. And when the sin ceases to exist there will remain only that which he ought to love, nothing that he should hate.”
–St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), City of God, 14.6
لَّا يَنْهَاكُمُ اللَّهُ عَنِ الَّذِينَ لَمْ يُقَاتِلُوكُمْ فِي الدِّينِ وَلَمْ يُخْرِجُوكُم مِّن دِيَارِكُمْ أَن تَبَرُّوهُمْ وَتُقْسِطُوا إِلَيْهِمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُقْسِطِينَ
“God does not forbid you from befriending those who do not fight you because of religion, and do not evict you from your homes. You may befriend/act kindly towards them and be equitable /just towards them. God loves the equitable.”
The Arabic words used in this verse are birr (بَرُّ), and qist (قْسِطِ). The word birr does not mean simply kindness in the sense of a passing gesture, but evokes a meaning more akin to reverence, devotion, charity, honor, righteousness, and probity. The word qist also does not mean simply equity in the legal sense, but conveys a sense of justice, fairness, righteousness, and fair-mindedness. Imām Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qarāfī (d. 1285), a Mālikī jurist who lived in thirteenth-century Egypt, interpreted this verse as follows:
This righteousness (birr) consists in being gentle with those who are oppressed/weak (mustad’afun) among the non-Muslims: in helping their needy; in feeding their hungry; in clothing their destitute; in speaking to them with kindness and compassion rather than striking fear into them or humiliating them; in bearing with their harm, in exercising benevolence with courage, in showing no fear, in praying for guidance for them as well as for their prosperity. This attitude furthermore consists in seeking their welfare in all matters ; in their religion and affairs of this world, in abstaining from slandering them should somebody attempt to harm them ; in protecting their honor as well as all their rights and interests ; in supporting them against aggressors ; in ensuring the fulfillment of all their rights.
Ja’far ibn Abi Ṭālib (A.S.) was one of the most distinguished Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (S) and a member of his family (the Ahl al-Bayt), being the older brother of the fourth rightly-guided caliph ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib (d. 661). Ja’far was raised by his uncle, al-‘Abbās, until he was a young man. Then he married Asmā’ bint Umays, a sister of Maymunah who was later to become a wife of the Prophet. After his marriage, Ja’far went to live on his own. He and his wife were among the earliest converts Islam. He became a Muslim at the hands of Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq (may God be pleased with him), who was himself the earliest adult male convert to Islam. Like all other members of the early Muslim community, he suffered immense persecution at the hands of the Quraysh in Mecca. He was personally appointed by the Prophet to lead a small group of believers on the first migration to Abyssinia, where he delivered a beautiful oration in the court of the Ethiopian king in which he underscored the oppression faced by the believers in Mecca, as well as the shared love of Christ (A.S.) which both Muslims and Christians had in common:
“O King, we were a people in a state of ignorance and immorality, worshiping idols and eating the flesh of dead animals, committing all sorts of abomination and shameful deeds, breaking the ties of kinship, treating guests badly, and the strong among us exploited the weak. We remained in this state until God sent us a Prophet, one of our own people, whose lineage, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and integrity were well-known to us.
He called us to worship God alone, and to renounce the stones and the idols which we and our ancestors used to worship. He commanded us to speak the truth, to honor our promises, to be kind to our relations, to be helpful to our neighbors, to cease all forbidden acts, to abstain from bloodshed, to avoid obscenities and false witness, and not to appropriate an orphan’s property nor slander chaste women. He ordered us to worship God alone and not to associate anything with him, to maintain regular prayers, to give alms, and fast in the month of Ramadan.
We believed in him and what he brought to us from God, and we follow him in what he has asked us to do and we keep away from what he forbade us from. Thereupon, O King, our people attacked us, visited the severest punishment on us, to make us renounce our religion and take us back to the old immorality and the worship of idols. They oppressed us, made life intolerable for us, and obstructed us from observing our religion. So we left for your country, choosing you before anyone else, desiring your protection and hoping to live in Justice and in peace in your midst.”
The Negus was impressed and was eager to hear more. He asked Ja‘far, “Do you have with you something of what your Prophet brought concerning God?” “Yes,” replied Ja‘far.
“Then read it to me,” requested the Negus. Ja‘far, in his rich, melodious voice, recited for him the first portion of Chapter 19 (Surah Maryam) of the Qur’an which deals with the story of Jesus and his mother Mary.
On hearing the words of the Quran, the Negus was moved to tears. To the Muslims, he said: “The message of your Prophet and that of Jesus are like two beams of light which emanate from the same lamp…” He then permitted the Muslims to seek refuge and dwell in Abyssinia as long as they desired. Ja’far was the effective leader of the Muslims who lived in Abyssinia (where the stayed for over a decade) and, upon his return to the Arabian Peninsula was honored by the Prophet above many of the other Companions. He was considered to be among the closest Companions of the Prophet and his name is often mentioned alongside that of Abū Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthmān, ‘Alī, Bilāl, Salmān al-Farisī, al-Zubayr ibn ‘Awwām, Abu Dharr and many other senior members of the Muslim community.
In the seventh year of the Hijrah, around 628, Ja’far and his family left Abyssinia with a group of Muslims and headed for Medina. When they arrived the Prophet was just returning from the successful conquest of the fortress of Khaybar. He was so overjoyed at meeting Ja’far that he said: “I do not know what fills me with more happiness, the conquest of Khaybar or the coming of Ja’far.”
Muslims in general and the poor among them especially were just as happy with the return of Ja’far as the Prophet was. Ja’far quickly became known as a person who was much concerned for the welfare of the poor and indigent. For this he was nicknamed, “the Father of the Poor”. Abū Hurayra said of him:
“The best of men towards us indigent folk was Ja’far ibn Abi Talib. He would pass by us on his way home and give us whatever food he had. Even if his own food had run out, he would send us what he could”
Ja’far’s stay in Medina was not long. At the beginning of the eighth year of the Hijrah, around 629, the Prophet mobilized an army to confront Byzantine forces in Syria because one of his emissaries who had gone in peace had been killed by a Byzantine governor. He appointed Zayd ibn al-Ḥāritha as commander of the army and gave the following instructions:
“If Zayd is wounded or killed, Ja’far ibn Abī Ṭālib is to take over the command. If Ja’far is killed or wounded, then your commander would be ‘Abd Allāh ibn Rawāḥa. If ‘Abd Allāh ibn Rawāḥa is killed, then let the Muslims choose for themselves a commander.”
The Prophet had never given such instructions to an army before and the Muslims took this as an indication that he expected the battle to be tough and that they would even suffer major losses. When the Muslim army reached Mu’ta, a small village situated among hills in Jordan, they discovered that the Byzantines had amassed a hundred thousand men backed up by a massive number of Christian (Ghassanid) Arabs from the tribes of Lakhm, Judham, Qudah and others. The Muslim army only numbered thirty thousand. Despite the great odds against them, the Muslim forces engaged the Byzantines in battle. Zayd ibn al-Hāritha, the beloved companion of the Prophet, was among the first to fall. Ja’far ibn Abī Ṭālib then assumed command. Mounted on his horse, he penetrated deep into the Byzantine ranks. As he spurred his horse on, he called out:
“How wonderful is Paradise as it draws near!
How pleasant and cool is its drink!
Punishment for the Byzantines is not far away!”
Ja’far continued to fight vigorously but was eventually slain. The third in command, ‘Abd Allāh ibn Rawāḥa, also fell. Khālid ibn al-Walīd, the inveterate fighter who had recently accepted Islam, was then chosen as the commander. He made a tactical withdrawal, redeployed the Muslims and renewed the attack from several directions. Eventually, the bulk of the Byzantine forces fled in disarray.
The news of the death of his three commanders reached the Prophet in Medina. The pain and grief he felt was intense. He went to Ja’far’s house and met his wife Asma’. She was getting ready to receive her absent husband. She had prepared dough and bathed and clothed the children. Asma’ said:
”When the Messenger of God approached us, I saw a veil of sadness shrouding his noble face and I became very apprehensive. But I did not dare ask him about Ja’far for fear that I would hear some unpleasant news. He greeted and asked, ‘Where are Ja’far’s children?’ I called them for him and they came and crowded around him happily, each one wanting to claim him for himself. He leaned over and hugged them while tears flowed from his eyes.
‘O Messenger of God,’ I asked, ‘Why do you cry? Have you heard anything about Ja’far and his two companions?’
‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘They have attained martyrdom.’ ”
Ja‘far (A.S.) was mourned by all the Companions and he continues to be beloved by all Muslims and his tomb–located in Kerak in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan–remains an important holy site to this day, visited by pilgrims from all across the Muslim world. May God sanctify his soul.
[This summary was my own adaptation of Ja’far’s biography as found in Maqātil al-Ṭālibiyyīn (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 2005), pp. 25-34, by Abū Faraj al-Isfahānī (d. 967)]
Formerly there were those who said: You believe things that are incomprehensible, inconsistent, impossible because we have commanded you to believe them; go then and do what is injust because we command it. Such people show admirable reasoning. Truly, whoever can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.
Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois: Vous croyez des choses incompréhensibles, contradictoires, impossibles, parce que nous vous l’avons ordonné; faites donc des choses injustes parce que nous vous l’ordonnons. Ces gens-là raisonnaient à merveille. Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde est en droit de vous rendre injuste. Si vous n’opposez point aux ordres de croire l’impossible l’intelligence que Dieu a mise dans votre esprit, vous ne devez point opposer aux ordres de malfaire la justice que Dieu a mise dans votre coeur. Une faculté de votre âme étant une fois tyrannisée, toutes les autres facultés doivent l’être également. Et c’est là ce qui a produit tous les crimes religieux dont la terre a été inondée.
–François-Marie Arouet ‘Voltaire’ (d. 1778), ‘Questions sur les miracles’ (1765)
“As for mutilated philosophy: the counterfeit philosopher, the vain philosopher, or the false philosopher is the one who sets out to study the theoretical sciences without being prepared for them. For he who sets out to inquire ought to be innately equipped for the theoretical sciences that is, fulfill the conditions prescribed by Plato in the Republic: he should excel in comprehending and conceiving that which is essential. He should by natural disposition disdain the appetites, the dinar, and like. He should be high-minded and avoid what is disgraceful in people. He should be pious, yield easily to goodness and justice, and be stubborn in yielding to evil and injustice. And he should be strongly determined in favor of the right thing”—Abū Naṣr Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Farābī (d. 950), “The Attainment of Happiness,” in Medieval Political Philosophy: A Sourcebook, eds. Ralph Lerner and Muhsin Mahdi (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1961), p. 80.
One of the most famous pieces of Andalusi poetry is the Ratha’ al-Andalus (“Lament for al-Andalus”)–written in the late thirteenth century by Abu Baqa’ al-Rundi (d. 1285)–which laments the fall of various towns and cities in the Iberian peninsula to the Castilian and Aragonese conquerors between 1220 and 1248. In the poem, al-Rundi mourns the fall of Muslim civilization in Andalusia and decries the atrocities committed against the conquered Muslim population, devoting particular attention to the oppression and subjugation of his compatriots. In many ways, his poem is also a major critique of the Muslim powers of the day for their failure to act to prevent the tragedy. Although there is much that can be said about the poem in its historical context, it is to the present which I hope to draw attention.
Al-Rundi refers to the city of Seville–the effective capital of al-Andalus after Cordoba–as Homs, which was one of the ways in which the Arabs residing in Islamic Spain referred to the city. It is said that they named it Homs because the city reminded them of the illustrious beauty of Homs in Syria. Today, Homs tragically lies in ruins after being bombarded and destroyed by the ruthless Baathist regime in Syria. As I write this, Homs and Aleppo provinces in Syria are being subjected to unspeakable atrocities by the Baathist regime and its allies. I hope that the words of Abu Baqa’ al-Rundi will be appreciated and their relevance to the tragic reality of Homs and Aleppo will be understood upon reading the poem:
وأين حمصُ وما تحويه من نزهٍ * ونهرها العذب فياض وملآنُ
قواعدٌ كنَّ أركانَ البلاد فما * عسى البقاء إذا لم تبقى أركان
تبكي الحنيفيةَ البيضاءَ من أسفٍ * كما بكى لفراق الإلف هيمانُ
حتى المحاريبُ تبكي وهي جامدةٌ * حتى المنابرُ ترثي وهي عيدانُ
يا غافلاً وله في الدهرِ موعظةٌ * إن كنت في سِنَةٍ فالدهر يقظانُ
وماشيًا مرحًا يلهيه موطنهُ * أبعد حمصٍ تَغرُّ المرءَ أوطانُ
تلك المصيبةُ أنْسَتْ ما تقدَّمها * وما لها مع طولَ الدهرِ نسيانُ
كم يستغيث بنا المستضعفون وهم * قتلى وأسرى فما يهتز إنسان
لماذا التقاطع في الإسلام بينكمُ * وأنتمْ يا عباد الله إخوانُ
ألا نفوسٌ أبيَّاتٌ لها هممٌ * أما على الخيرِ أنصارٌ وأعوانُ
يا من لذلةِ قومٍ بعدَ عزِّهُمُ * أحال حالهمْ جورُ وطغيانُ
بالأمس كانوا ملوكًا في منازلهم * واليومَ هم في بلاد الضدِّ عبدانُ
فلو تراهم حيارى لا دليل لهمْ * عليهمُ من ثيابِ الذلِ ألوانُ
ولو رأيتَ بكاهُم عندَ بيعهمُ * لهالكَ الأمرُ واستهوتكَ أحزانُ
يا ربَّ أمٍّ وطفلٍ حيلَ بينهما * كما تفرقَ أرواحٌ وأبدانُ
وطفلةٍ مثل حسنِ الشمسِ * إذ طلعت كأنما ياقوتٌ ومرجانُ
يقودُها العلجُ للمكروه مكرهةً * والعينُ باكيةُ والقلبُ حيرانُ
لمثل هذا يذوبُ القلبُ من كمدٍ * إن كان في القلب إسلامٌ وإيمانُ
–ابو بقاء الرندي “رثاء الأندلس”
Where is Homs and the righteousness it contains, as well as its sweet river overflowing and brimming full?
It was among the capitals which were the pillars of the land, yet when the pillars are gone, it may no longer endure!
The tap of the white ablution fount weeps in despair, like a passionate lover weeping at the departure of the beloved,
Even the prayer niches weep though they are solid; even the pulpits mourn though they are wooden!
O you who remain heedless though you have a warning in Fate: if you are asleep, Fate is always awake!
And you who walk forth cheerfully while your homeland diverts you [from cares], can a homeland beguile any man after [the loss of] Homs?
This misfortune has caused those that preceded it to be forgotten, nor can it ever be forgotten for the length of all time!
How often have the weak, who were being killed and captured while no man stirred, asked our help?
What means this severing of the bonds of Islam on your behalf, when you, O worshipers of God, are [our] brethren?
Are there no heroic souls with lofty ambitions; are there no helpers and defenders of righteousness?
O, who will redress the humiliation of a people who were once powerful, a people whose condition injustice and tyrants have changed?
Yesterday they were kings in their own homes, but today they are slaves in the land of the tyrant!
Thus, were you to see them perplexed, with no one to guide them, wearing the cloth of shame in its different shades,
And were you to behold their weeping when they are sold, the matter would strike fear into your heart, and sorrow would seize you.
Alas, many a mother and child have been parted as souls and bodies are separated!
And many a maiden fair as the sun when it rises, as though she were rubies and pearls,
Is led off to abomination by a barbarian against her will, while her eye is in tears and her heart is stunned.
The heart melts with sorrow at such [sights], if there is any Islam or belief in that heart!
Homs (February 2013)