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Testimony #2: “Sebeos” on the Origin of Islam

From “External References to Islam”

A chronicle ascribed to Sebeos, Bishop of the Bagratunis (written in the 660s, i.e. within a single generation of Muhammad himself, and, according to the author, based on eye-witness accounts.)

[From the book (pp. 124-125):] “There has been much controversy over the authorship of this work. Its first modern commentator tried to identify it with the History of Heraclius referred to by five medieval historians and attributed to a bishop Sebeos, presumably the ‘lord Sebeos, bishop of the House of Bagratunis,’ who attended the Council of Dwin in 645 and witnessed its canons. This was for a long time generally accepted until the researches of Abgarian, who pointed out that the three surviving excerpts from Sebeos’ composition are not found in, or even contradict, our anonymous chronicle. So the two must be considered distinct documents, the one by Sebeos having been lost bar the excerpts .... Unlike the question of authorship, studies on dating and reliability have not been forthcoming, and a few comments are therefore necessary. There are indications that Sebeos [the anonymous chronicler] lived through many of the events that he relates: he maintains that the account of the Arab conquests derives from fugitives ‘who had been eyewitnesses thereof’ and, speaking of happenings in 652, declares that the Armenian faith has prevailed ‘until now.’ Gero considers that Sebeos’ notice on the launching of a fleet by Muawiya to attack Constantinople must refer to ‘the great siege in 674-78.’ But the text describes a single assault rather than a long siege, and the event is clearly to be identified with that reported by a mid-eighth-century Syriac source. Both emphasize that a great force of ships was readied and that the expedition took place in the thirteenth year of Constans (654). Sebeos concludes with Muawiya’s ascendancy in the first Arab civil war (656-61), and the above points would suggest that the author was writing very soon after this date.”

“[The following is from chapter 30 of Bedrosian’s translation:]

External References to Islam

“I shall discuss the [line of the] son of Abraham: not the one [born] of a free [woman], but the one born of a serving maid, about whom the quotation from Scripture was fully and truthfully fulfilled, “His hands will be at everyone, and everyone will have their hands at him” [Genesis 16. 11,12]. Twelve peoples [representing] all the tribes of the Jews assembled at the city of Edessa. When they saw that the Iranian troops had departed leaving the city in peace, they [122] closed the gates and fortified themselves. They refused entry to troops of the Roman lordship. Thus Heraclius, emperor of the Byzantines, gave the order to besiege it. When [the Jews] realized that they could not militarily resist him, they promised to make peace. Opening the city gates, they went before him, and [Heraclius] ordered that they should go and stay in their own place. So they departed, taking the road through the desert to Tachkastan {= land of the Arabs} to the sons of Ishmael. [The Jews] called [the Arabs] to their aid and familiarized them with the relationship they had through the books of the [Old] Testament. Although [the Arabs] were convinced of their close relationship, they were unable to get a consensus from their multitude, for they were divided from each other by religion. In that period a certain one of them, a man of the sons of Ishmael named Muhammad, became prominent [t’ankangar]. A sermon about the Way of Truth, supposedly at God’s command, was revealed to them, and [Muhammad] taught them to recognize the God of Abraham, especially since he was informed and knowledgeable about Mosaic history. Because the command had [g104] come from on High, he ordered them all to assemble together and to unite in faith. Abandonning the reverence of vain things, they turned toward the living God, who had appeared to their fatherAbraham. Muhammad legislated that they were not to [123] eat carrion, not to drink wine, not to speak falsehoods, and not to commit adultery. He said: “God promised that country to Abraham and to his son after him, for eternity. And what had been promised was fulfilled during that time when [God] loved Israel. Now, however, you are the sons of Abraham, and God shall fulfill the promise made to Abraham and his son on you. Only love the God of Abraham, and go and take the country which God gave to your father Abraham. No one can successfully resist you in war, since God is with you.”

“Then all of them assembled together, from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt [The text is corrupt here. The citation is from Genesis 25.18 {Shur is the area inhabited by Ishmaelites immediately to the east of the Nile Delta bordering Sinai}, and they set out from the P’arhan desert {the Paran desert is the desert area stretching from Wadi Feiran (“Paran”) at the foot of Mount Serbal in western Sinai to Petra between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Akaba in the east} [being] twelve tribes [moving] in the order [of precedence] of the Houses of the patriarchs of their tribe. They were divided into 12,000 men, of which the sons of Israel were in their own tribes, 1,000 to a tribe, to lead them to the country of Israel. They traveled army by army in the order [of precedence] of each patriarchy: Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah [Genesis 25. 13-16]. These are the peoples of Ishmael. They reached Moabite Rabbath, at the borders of [124] Ruben’s [land]. The Byzantine army was encamped in Arabia. [The Arabs] fell upon them suddenly, struck them with the sword and put to flight emperor Heraclius’ brother, T’eodos. Then they turned and encamped in Arabia.

“All the remnants of the sons of Israel then assembled [g105] and united, becoming a large force. After this they dispatched a message to the Byzantine emperor, saying: “God gave that country as the inherited property [i kaluats zharhangut’ean] of Abraham and of his sons after him. We are the sons of Abraham. It is too much that you hold our country. Leave in peace, and we shall demand from you what you have seized, plus interest [tokosiwk’ pahanjests’uk’ i ken zkalealn]”. The emperor rejected this. He did not provide a fitting response to the message but rather said: “The country is mine. Your inheritance is the desert [k’oy vichak zharhangut’ean anapatn]. So go in peace to your country”. And [Heraclius] started organizing brigades, as many as 70,000 [troops] giving them as a general, a certain one of his faithful eunuchs. He ordered that they were to go to Arabia, stipulating that they were not to engage them [125] in war, but rather to keep on the alert until he could assemble his other troops and send them to help.

“Now [the Byzantines] reached the Jordan and crossed into Arabia. Leaving their campsite on the riverbank, [the Byzantines] went on foot to attack [the Arabs’] camp. [The Arabs], however, had placed part of their army in ambuscades here and there, lodging the multitude in dwellings around the camp. Then they drove in herds of camels which they penned around the camp and the tents, tying them at the foot with rope. Such was the fortification of their camp. The beasts were fatigued from the journey, and so [the Byzantines] were able to cut through the camp fortification, and started to kill [the Arabs]. But suddenly the men in the ambuscades sprung from their places and fell upon them. Awe of the Lord came over the Byzantine troops, and they turned in flight before them. But they were unable to flee because of the quicksand which buried them to the legs. There was great anxiety caused by the heat of the sun and the enemy’s sword was upon them. All the generals fell and perished. More than 2,000 men were slain. A few survivors fled to the place of refuge.

“[The Arabs] crossed the Jordan and encamped at Jericho. Then dread of them came over the inhabitants of the country, and all of them submitted [g106]. That night the Jerusalemites took [126] the Cross of the Lord and all the vessels of the churches of God, and fled with them by boat to the palace at Constantinople. [The Jerusalemites] requested an oath [from the Arabs] and then submitted. The emperor of the Byzantines was no longer able to assemble his troops against them. [The Arabs] divided their army into three parts. One part went to Egypt, taking [territory] as far as Alexandria. The second part went north [to war] against the Byzantine empire. In the twinkling of an eye they had seized [territory stretching] from the Farthest Sea to the shores of the great Euphrates river, as well as Edessa and all the cities of Mesopotamia, on the other side of the [Euphrates] river. The third part [of the Arab army] was sent to the east, against the kingdom of Iran. In that period the kingdom of Iran grew weaker, and their army was divided into three parts. Then the Ishmaelite troops who were gathered in the east, went and besieged Ctesiphon, since the king of Iran resided there. Troops from the land of Media [zawr ashxarhin Marats’], some 80,000 armed men under their general Rostom assembled and went against [the Arabs] in battle. Then [the Arabs] left the city and crossed to the other side of [127] the Tigris river. [The Iranians] also crossed the river, pursuing them. And they did not stop until they reached their borders, at the village called Hert’ichan. [The Iranians] continued to pursue them, [eventually] going and encamping in the plain. Present were Mushegh Mamikonean, son of Dawit’, the general of Armenia with 3,000 armed men, and also prince Grigor, lord of Siwnik’, with 1,000 men. [The Iranian and Arab armies] attacked each other, and the Iranian forces fled before them. But [the Arabs] pursued them, putting them to the sword. All the principal naxarars died, as did general Rostom. They killed Mushegh and two of his sister’s sons, as well as Grigor, the lord of Siwnik’, along with one son. Some [of the Iranian troops] escaped and fled back to their own land. The remnants of the Iranian forces assembled in Atrpatakan at one spot and made Xorhoxazat their general.

“Then they hurried to Ctesiphon and took the treasury of the [g107] kingdom, the inhabitants of the cities, and their king, and then hurried to get back to Atrpatakan. But as soon as they had departed and gone some distance, the Ishmaelite army unexpectedly came upon them. Horrified, [the Iranians] abandoned the treasury and the inhabitants of the city, and fled. Their king also fled, winding up with the southern troops. Now [the Arabs] took the entire treasury and returned to Ctesiphon, taking the inhabitants of the cities along too. [128] And they pillaged the entire country.

“The venerable Heraclius ended his life in good old age. He reigned for 30 years [610-40/41]. [Heraclius] made his son Constantine swear to have clemency upon all those transgressors whom he had ordered exiled. He made him vow to send each back to his place, and to bring back the aspet, his wife and son, and to establish him in his former rank [i kargn arhajin; perhaps, “in the foremost rank”]. “Should he want to go to his land, as I have sworn may my oath not be false release him, and let him go in peace”.

“Heraclius died and his son Constantine ruled. But no one was chosen as general of the land of Armenia [och’ ok’ entrets’aw zawravar yashxarhin Hayots’], since the princes were disunited and quit each other’s presence. The corruptive army [of the Arabs] arose from Asorestan and came through the valley route to the land of Taron. They took [Taron], Bznunik’ and Aghiovit and then, going to the Berkri valley via Ordspu and Gogovit, poured into Ayrarat. None of the Armenian troops was able to carry the bad news to the awan of Dwin. There were, however, three of the princes who went and gathered the dispersed troops: T’eodoros Vahewuni, [129] Xach’ean Arhaweghean, and Shapuh Amatuni. They fled to Dwin, reached the Metsamor bridge, crossed it, destroyed it, and then they went to take the bad news to the awan. All the people of the land had assembled in the fortress, and they had come in harvest time for the vineyards.

“T’eodoros went to the city of Naxchawan. The enemy Busha reached Metsamawr bridge but was unable to cross over. [g108] However, [the Arabs] had as a guide Vardik, prince of Mokk’, who was called Aknik [“Little Eyes”]. Crossing the Metsamawr bridge, they raided the entire country. They accumulated a very great amount of loot and captives, then came and encamped by the edge of the Xosrakert forest. On the fifth day [of the Arabs’ sojourn], on a Friday, the 30th of the month of Tre [= the fourth month in the Armenian calendar, November], they came against the city [of Dwin] and it was betrayed into their hands. For they set fires here and there, and drove away the guards on the wall by smoke and by shooting arrows. They then erected ladders, scaled the wall and, once inside, opened the city gates. The army of the enemy poured inside and put most of the city to the sword. Then, taking the loot and booty of the city, they departed and encamped at their same campsite. After passing some days there, they arose and departed by the same route they had come. They had a multitude of captives with them, some [130] 35,000 souls. Now the prince of Armenia, the lord of Rshtunik’, who had been concealed in an ambuscade in the district of Gogovit, went against [the Arabs] with few troops. But he was unable to resist, and so fled before them. [The Arabs] pursued [Rshtunik’s troops] killing many of them. Then they went to Asorestan. This occurred in the days of kat’oghikos Ezr.

“As a result of that battle, an order came from the emperor [granting] the military command [zawravarut’eann] and the dignity of patrician to T’eodoros, lord of Rshtunik’. All this took place as a result of kat’oghikos Nerses who succeeded Ezr on the kat’oghikosal throne.

“When the sons of Ishmael had arisen and issued from the desert of Sinai, their king Amrh {Omar} did not accompany them. But when [the Arabs] had militarily routed both kingdoms, seizing from Egypt to the great Taurus mountain, from the Western Sea [the Atlantic Ocean] to Media and Xuzhastan, they then emerged with the royal army [and went] to the [g109] natural borders of the holdings of Ishmael. Then the [Arab] [131] king gave an order to assemble boats and many sailors and to navigate southwardly, going east to Pars, to Sagastan, to Sind, to Srman, to the land of Turan and to Makuran as far as the borders of India. The troops swiftly prepared and implemented the command. They burned every country, taking loot and booty. They then turned and made expeditions on the waves of the sea, and reached their own places.

“We heard this [account] from men [who had returned] from captivity in Xuzhastan Tachkastan, who themselves had been eye-witnesses to the events described and narrated them to us.

[The following is from chapter 31 of Bedrosian’s translation:]

“Now I shall speak about the plot of the Jewish rebels, who, finding support from the Hagarenes for a short time, planned to [re]build the temple of Solomon. Locating the place called the holy of holies, they constructed [the temple with a pedestal, to serve as their place of prayer. But the Ishmaelites envied [the Jews], expelled them from the place, and named the same building their own place of prayer. [The Jews] built a temple for their worship, elsewhere. It [132] was then that they came up with an evil plan: they wanted to fill Jerusalem with blood from end to end, and to exterminate all the Christians of Jerusalem.

“Now it happened that there was a certain grandee Ishmaelite who went to worship in their private place of prayer [i teghi aghawt’its’ iwreants’ miayn]. He encountered three of the principal Jewish men, who had just slaughtered two pigs and taken and put them [in the Muslim] place of prayer. Blood [g110] was running down the walls and on the floor of the building. As soon as the man saw them, he stopped and said something or other to them. They replied and departed. The man at once went inside to pray. He saw the wicked [sight], and quickly turned to catch the men. When he was unable to find them, he was silent and went to his place Then many [Muslims] entered the place and saw the evil, and they spread a lament throughout the city. The Jews told the prince that the Christians had desecrated their place of prayer. The prince issued an order and all the Christians were gathered together. Just as they wanted to put them to the sword, the man came and addressed them: “Why shed so much blood in vain? Order all the Jews to assemble and I shall point out the guilty ones”. As soon as they were all assembled and [the man] walked among them, he recognized the three men whom he had previously [133] encountered. Seizing them, [the Arabs] tried them with great severity [datets’in agahin datestanawk’] until they disclosed the plot. And because their prince was among the Jews present, he ordered [Ew zi ishxan nots’a er i hreits’ anti, hramaveats’... The subject probably is the Arab, not Jewish, prince] that six of the principals involved in the plot be killed. He permitted the other [Jews] to return to their places.

Further chapters speak of more conquests of the Ishmaelites (Arabs) and the first Arab civil war (in chapter 38 {relating to the period of civil war immediately before the reign of Muawwiya}: “....Then God sent discord into the army of the sons of Ishmael. Their unity dissolved, they clashed with each other and divided into four parts. One part was in the Indian area. Another was that army which held Asorestan and the northern areas. Another was the one in Egypt and in the T’etal region. Another was in the Tachik area and at the place called Askarawn. They began fighting with each other and destroyed each other with endless killings. Now the troops who were in Egypt united with those in the [182] Tachik area and they killed their king and took the multitude of treasures as loot [g152]. They enthroned another king and returned to their places.

“Now when their prince Mu’awiya, who was in Asorestan and was second to their king, saw what had happened, he united his troops and he too went to the desert. He killed the king whom they enthroned, battling with and severely destroying the troops in the Tachik area. He then returned to Asorestan in triumph. Now the army which was in Egypt united with the Byzantine emperor, made peace and was incorporated. The multitude of the troops, some 15,000 people, believed in Christ and were baptized. But the bloodshed of countless multitudes increased and intensified among the Ishmaelite armies. They engaged in frantic battles and killed each other. Nor were they able to stop even somewhat from wielding swords, taking captives and intense battles on land and sea, until Mu’awiya grew strong and conquered all of them. He subdued them, ruled as king over the property of the sons of Ishmael and made peace with everyone [g153].”