Testimony #6: Thomas Artzruni and the Origins of Islam

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Testimony #6: Thomas Artzruni and the Origins of Islam

From Thomas Artzruni, II. 4 [14], composed at the beginning of the 10th century AD, based on early sources. Thomson’s translation in R. W. Thomson, Studies in Armenian Literature and Christianity, Variorum, 1994, X, p. 829-858, Muhammad and the origin of Islam in Armenian literary tradition. The orthography has been slightly modified and some of my notes added in braces {}.

{The following account presumes an angel communed with Muhammad, imparting to him the Revelation, and shows itself, accordingly, to be based on the testimony of one or more of those who corrupted the original Quran preserved by Ali, since that corruption included specifically the substitution of the Angel Gabriel for the prophet Sergius. Thomas Artzruni was not familiar, as Al Kindi was, with the process of the formation of the Quran, and, besides, had a greater animus against the Muslims than Al Kindi, because of the subjugation of his people by them, which clouded his judgment regarding the inspiration of Muhammad himself. The ultimate source of this account was probably Salman, one of the corrupters of the original Quran, given the centrality of Salman in the narrative. The accusation that Muhammad slew Sergius “secretly”, because he denied Sergius’ role in the Revelation and held to its angelic origin, is, of course, based likewise on the testimony of one or more of those who transferred the authorship of the Quran from Sergius to Gabriel. Whilst rejecting the more negative elements of this testimony, we note also the numerous very valuable historical details embedded in it, which prove it originated at an early stage in the corruption of the tradition, only a little later than the eye-witness accounts in Sebeos, and in an era when the Sinaitic milieu of the original Revelation was still taken for granted. These historical details include: 1) the location of what was later known as the city of “Medina” at the “city of Midian” destroyed by the Israelites in Numbers 31, viz. Areopolis or Moabite Rabbath (Er-Rabba) south of the Arnon River; 2) the location of Mecca at the city of Pharan in Wadi Feiran, Sinai, within the wider domain of Petra, Pharan being, indeed, in Muhammad’s era, the center of the kingdom of the Saracens; 3) the gathering of 12,000 Jews at, and their conquest of, the “city of Midian”, that is of Moabite Rabbath, Areopolis, in an obvious comparison with the 12,000 Israelites who took the cities of Midian in Numbers 31, and, thus, the implicit comparison of their subsequent campaign in Palestine with the Israelites’ invasion of Canaan, which similarly followed the Midianite war; 4) the true background of the flight of Muhammad from “Mecca to Medina”, viz. the flight of Muhammad from Pharan to Moabite Rabbath; 5) the subsequent success of Muhammad at “Medina” proved to be the alliance of Muhammad at Moabite Rabbath with the 12,000 Jews and their acceptance of him as a prophetic leader; 6) the seminal influence of Sergius Bahira on Muhammad; 7) the dating of the death of Sergius to the period following Muhammad’s initial successes in Palestine, and prior to the death of Muhammad himself.}

Thomas Artzruni, II. 4 (14) (composed beginning of 10th century AD):

How the wicked kingdom of the Persians came to an end and was succeeded by the even more wicked (kingdom) of the Ishmaelites

“In the time of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius the Persian kingdom reached its end. And at that time there came and gathered in the city of Edessa 12,000 men from all the tribes of Israel. As they had seen that the Persian army had left and abandoned the city, they entered (Edessa), closed the gates, fortified themselves therein, and began to rebel against Roman rule. But the emperor Heraclius commanded them to be besieged. The king’s brother Theodore and the host of the army wished to slaughter them, but the king commanded them to go from his territory. They took the desert road and went to Arabia to the sons of Ishmael, to the city called Madiam {Midian}, which Israel had destroyed on leaving Egypt in its war with Balak, king of Moab. {For the account see Numbers ch. 31.} And because the Persian power had become very weak, they fearlessly entered the city of Madiam and dwelt in it.

“They sent messengers to the sons of Ishmael, indicating their close relationship: “We are sons of Abraham, we and you, brothers. You must come to our help, and we shall take the land of our inheritance”. But although the latter were persuaded, yet there was a great division among them, because they were divided by the worship of idols according to each one’s desire.

“At that time there were some despotic brothers in the regions of Arabia Petraea in the place (called) P’aran {Pharan}, which is now called Mak’a {Mecca} warlike chieftains, worshipers of the temple of the Ammonites of the image called Samam and K’abar. It happened that one of them, called Abdla, died leaving a son of tender age called Mahmet {Muhammad}. His uncle Abutalib took and raised him until he reached puberty. On attaining a sufficient age he dwelt with a certain wealthy man from among their kin. He served him faithfully, pastured camels, and was the steward of his house. When some time had passed, the master of the house died. Seeing that Mahmet was a faithful man and very judicious in all worldly affairs, the wife (widow) married him and turned over to him all the supervision of the house and property. So he became a merchant by trade and skilled in commerce. He undertook distant journeys on mercantile business, to Egypt and the regions of Palestine. And while he was engaged in this business he happened to meet in the regions of Egypt a monk called Sargis Bhira, who had been a disciple of the mania of the Arians. {Thomas wrongly describes Sergius as an Arian, simply because he denied the particular Trinitarian theology of the Armenian sect Thomas belonged to. Sergius was a Nestorian, with idiosyncratic doctrines which led to his exclusion from his parent community.} Becoming acquainted with him and in the course of time becoming friendly, he taught (Mahmet) many things, especially concerning the old testaments and that God has by nature no Son. {This, again, reflects Thomas’ mistaken views as to Sergius’ beliefs.} He tried to persuade him to follow the former faith of the Israelites: “For if you accept this, I predict that you will become a great general and the leader of all your race”. He reminded him of God’s promise to Abraham and of the rites of circumcision and sacrifice and all the other things which it is not necessary to mention here in detail. On these the Ishmaelites speculate to the very end (i.e. the nth degree). It happened one day when he was departing from him that a strange voice, an inspiration fearsome and demonic, fell upon him and drove him out of his senses …. {Thomas inserts here an aside concerning the mother of Antichrist.} For when his traveling companions asked why he had lost his wits, he said: “Some fearsome angel’s voice fell on me and ordered me to go as a messenger to my nation, to show (them) God the Creator of heaven and earth, to take upon myself the title of leadership and to refute and destroy the false faith in idols”. Coming to P’aran he repeated these same words to his uncle called Abljehr. He said: “What is this new faith which is now being revealed by you? If you say any more you will be responsible for your own safety”. Grieved, he went to his own house, for he was continuously oppressed by the demon; perhaps God allowed him to suppose that his loss of reason (was caused) by an angel. And many of them believed him when he said he was a messenger of God.

“One day, when he was depressed from his uncle’s threats, Ali son of Abutalib came in and said to him: “For what reasons do you sit depressed?” He said: “I preach God the creator of heaven and earth, but they reject me with threats”. Now Ali was a valiant man. He said to him: “Arise, let us go out, for there are many men with us. Perhaps there may be some good solution to this matter.”

“When they had gone outside, Mahmet began to speak the same words publicly. There was a great outcry among them and such a dispute that many of them drew their swords. Mahmet’s side was defeated; many on both sides were wounded, and Mahmet and Ali fled with about forty men. They came to the city of Madiam which we mentioned above. On hearing the cause of their flight the Jews, like zealots for God and as sons of Abraham and mutual brothers, were emboldened to unity and to proclaim that his words were true. They joined him and made a pact, gave him a wife from their nation, and made ready to support him in whatever way his wishes might dictate. So one could say that it was by a command of God that this undertaking began. The Jews joined with the Ishmaelites, forming a large army. Attacking P’aran, they inflicted a great defeat on their opponents, killed Abljehr and many of the Ammonite and Moabite troops, destroyed the images of Samam in his temple, and dared say that the temple was the house of Abraham. They subjected all the inhabitants of the neighboring regions and wiped out by the sword all resistance.

“When Mahmet saw the success of this venture and the concord of the Jews, he proclaimed himself head and leader of them all. He appointed as his officers and generals Ali and Abubik’r and ‛Amr and Ut’man. He sent a message to Theodore, the brother of Heraclius, in that the Jews had cooperated:

““God promised this land to Abraham and his seed, and it was in their possession for a long time. And if God was disgusted with their wicked deeds and gave it into your hands, let the period you have held it suffice for you. Now we are the sons of Abraham and you know the promise made to Ishmael our father. Give to us our land peacefully, otherwise we shall take it by war and not only that (land) but also many others”. He (Theodore) wished to show it to the king, but Heraclius died in those same days. His son Constans did not agree to respond as he (Theodore) had wished, but simply ordered caution and not to wage war against them until he saw the outcome of events. But the army of Ishmael was vigorously straining for war. So wishing to defend the country (the Byzantines) went out against them. Leaving their horses, they opposed them on foot. The latter, having been at rest, attacked them. Exhausted by the weight of their arms, the great heat of the sun, the density of the sand which gave no support to the feet, and their tramping on foot, and distressed in every way, they fell into the hands of the enemy who slew them with their swords. Reaching the site of their camp, (the Muslims) seized a great amount of booty, and began fearlessly to spread over the land because they had no worries of any battle.

“Then the inhabitants of Jerusalem, seeing the perilous situation with no hope of help, took the divine holy symbol of the Lord with their church ornaments and brought them in flight to the imperial capital to Constans. And Ishmael ruled over all Judaea.

“Now the Arian monk whom we mentioned above, Mahmet’s teacher, on seeing his success rose up and went to Mahmet (to ask for) his kind favor, as if he had attained such things on being instructed by his teacher. But since (Mahmet) said he had a message from an angel and not from a man, he was very vexed at this and killed him secretly.

“At this very time there was a certain hermit in the regions of Persia who had a pupil called Salman. At the hour of his death the hermit gave him these instructions: “My son, on my death do not remain in this land lest you lose your faith among the infidels, but go to the regions of Egypt to dwell in the numerous company of brethren (monks) so that you may gain your soul”. When the hermit died, Salman intended to carry out his instructions. On his journey he happened to come to the city of Madiam; he had knowledge of the scriptures, though not a perfect one. When Mahmet saw him, he summoned him and attached him to him, and ordered him to write a book of laws for his nation by the hand of Abut’uraba the Ishmaelite; for he himself did not know writing or reading. Salman agreed to write for him and composed a fictitious book, some of it from accurate memory, other parts being imaginary sayings. But Mahmet himself, moved by a raving spirit, had him write perverse (things), of which we shall give brief extracts.

“He said that he was the Consoler whom the Lord Christ had promised to send to his disciples; he said he was equal to the Savior, his travelling companion — in the words of Isaiah: “riding one on a donkey, and the other on a camel”. All this he applied to himself. Instead of holy baptism (he prescribed) continual washings with water, and reckoned this was sufficient for purification. The heavenly gifts which the Lord has promised for the future, the ineffable and angelic renewal, he said were vast quantities of food and drink; should one wish to eat insatiably one would find them (already) prepared. And there would be continual and insatiable intercourse with women who remained virgins. It is too long to repeat all his impure sayings, for they are many and opposed to God. And all this he affirmed and set down for his nation, calling it the Quran.

“…. {Thomas inserts a diatribe against the Muslims.} All these evils he {Mahmet} accomplished, and even more laws than these he established for his nation in his multifarious wickedness. Having lived for twenty years in this fashion he died, and appointed Abubak’r to the leadership of the Arabs.”

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