James of Edessa (d.708) – letter on the genealogy of the Virgin Mary now online

The Syriac scholar bishop James of Edessa, who continued the Chronicle of Eusebius and introduced Greek vowels into West Syriac, has left us a number of letters in a 10th century manuscript in the British Library, ms. Additional 12172.  Several of these were published by Francois Nau in the Revue de l’Orient Chretien between 1900 and 1903, together with a French translation.  One of these is the letter to John the Stylite on the genealogy of the Virgin Mary.

A correspondant wrote to me about this.  Since a lot of people seem not to know French, I have run Nau’s translation across into English and uploaded the result here.  The output makes no claim to scholarship.  It’s only merit is that it exists, and so makes James’ thought accessible to the 2bn people for whom English is a first or second language.

I’m not sure that many people care about patristic statements about the genealogy of the Virgin Mary.  These are usually based on material obtained from the apocrypha, of no historical value.  In fact James is too good a scholar to do this.  He attacks the practice, and advises his correspondent instead to use logic and reason.

But the real interest of the text is elsewhere.  James died in 708 AD, which means that he lived in the first century of Moslem rule.  His statements about what early Moslems thought about the Virgin Mary, and about Christ, are therefore of considerable interest to those attempting to look behind the statements of Moslem writers, which tend to rely on sources which are themselves later than this.

My correspondent was assembling a collection of early non-Moslem sources on the history of Islam.  He came across mention of the text in a revisionist history by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism, Cambridge, 1977.  The book itself is now very hard to find and very expensive to buy, but thankfully someone has created a PDF which I found on the web.

On page 11 it makes the following statement:

The most interesting attestation of this recognition occurs in a letter of Jacob of Edessa (d.c. 708) on the genealogy of the Virgin: 17

“That the messiah is of Davidic descent, everyone professes, the Jews, the Mahgraye and the Christians … That the messiah is, in the flesh, of Davidic descent … is thus professed by all of them, Jews, Mahgraye and Christians, and regarded by them as something fundamental … The Mahgraye too … all confess firmly that he [Jesus] is the true messiah who was to come and who was foretold by the prophets; on this subject they have no dispute with us, but rather with the Jews. They reproachfully maintain against them … that the messiah was to be born of David, and further that this messiah who has come was born of Mary. This is firmly professed by the Mahgraye, and not one of them will dispute it, for they say always and to everyone that Jesus son of Mary is in truth the messiah.”

Nau’s translation confirms all this, although Crone and Cook translated directly from the Syriac, as their preface makes plain.

Regular readers will know that I am not in favour of revisionism as a general rule, as it often seems to be contrived for non-scholarly purposes.  On the other hand we have to ask whether Cambridge University Press would dare to publish such a book today.  Somehow I have my doubts; and this may provoke some to adopt the ideas contained in it, merely to push back against the censors.  But let’s keep a balance.   Let’s not fall into the pitfall of endorsing nonsense, merely because the object of the attack is one that we are instructed may not be discussed except in terms of warmest approval.  Rubbish is rubbish, even when condemned by a censor. 

I hope the translation of James will be of use, either way, to others.

Did Amr ibn al-As refuse to pray in a church in Jerusalem in case the Moslems seized it?

Anglican Samizdat tells the story of a US church offering to share its building with a Moslem group.  This reminded me of a story about the Moslem conquest of Jerusalem, which I find in various places on the web such as here.

The gates of the city were now opened. Omar went straight to Al-Masjid-i-Aqsa. Here he said his prayer .

Next he visited the biggest Christian church of the city. He was in the church when the time for the afternoon prayer came.

“You may say your prayers in the church,” said the Bishop.

“No,” replied Omar, “if I do so, the Muslims may one day make this an excuse for taking over the church from you.”

So he said his prayers on the steps of the church. Even then, he gave the Bishop a writing. It said that the steps were never to be used for congregational prayers nor was the Adhan [ call to prayer ] to be said there.

This story can be found, unreferenced, in all sorts of places online in various forms.  But none of them give a reference!  And that is always a worrying sign.

A Wikipedia article references Gibbon (vol. 6, p.321 of the 1862 edition, which I find is online here). 

When he came within sight of Jerusalem, the caliph cried with a loud voice, ” God is victorious: ” O Lord, give us an easy conquest!” and, pitching his tent of coarse hair, calmly seated himself on the ground. After signing the capitulation, he entered the city without fear or precaution, and courteously discoursed with the patriarch concerning its religious antiquities. Sophronius bowed before his new master, and secretly muttered, in the words of Daniel, ” The abomination of desolation ” is in the holy place.” At the hour of prayer they stood together in the church of the Resurrection; but the caliph refused to perform his devotions, and contented himself with praying on the steps of the church of Constantine. To the patriarch he disclosed his prudent and honourable motive. ” Had I yielded,” said Omar, ” to your request, the Moslems of a future age would have infringed the treaty under colour of imitating my example.” By his command the ground of the temple of Solomon was prepared for the foundation of a mosch; and, during a residence of ten days, he regulated the present and future state of his Syrian conquests.

That book gives no reference for the remarks of Omar, tho.

A Google books hunt for the same subject brings up Sulayman Bashir, Studies in early Islamic tradition, p.78,  here, who references the 10th century Arabic Christian writer Eutychius, Annals, “II, 17-19”.  Glancing at the Italian translation of this (p.336), I find that it does indeed say something of the sort.  Gibbon had access to Eutychius, in Pococke’s Latin version, so that is probably his source.  So what does Eutychius say?

7.  `Umar ibn al-Khattab then wrote to `Amr ibn al-`As to go with his army into Palestine, saying among other things: “I have appointed as governor of Damascus Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan, Sarhabil (75) Hasan ibn as governor of the territory of Jordan, and Abu `Ubayd ibn al-Garrah as governor of Homs.” `Amr ibn al-`As departed then for Palestine, Sarhabil (75) into the territories of Jordan, and Abu `Ubayd ibn al-Garrah to Ba`albik (77).

/The people of Ba`albik / said: “We have no objection to make a treaty of friendship with you in the same way as the people of Damascus have done.” He gave them his promise in writing and left for Homs. The inhabitants of Aleppo and all the /other/ cities asked him for the same promise in writing. Then came the news to the Muslims of the arrival of `Umar ibn al-Khattab. Abu `Ubayd ibn al-Garrah left the command of his men to `Iyas ibn Ghanm (78); Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan left with Mu`awiya ibn Abf Sufyan, `Amr ibn al-`As and his son `Abd Allah, and they met with `Umar ibn al-Khattab. Then they all went to Jerusalem (79) and besieged it.

Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem, then went to `Umar ibn al-Khattab. `Umar ibn al-Khattab granted him his protection, and wrote them a letter which stated that: “In the name of God, the gracious and merciful. From `Umar ibn al-Khattab to the inhabitants of the city of Aelia (80). He granted them a guarantee of their persons, their children, their property and their churches because this /last/ are not to be destroyed nor reduced to places of residence” and swore this in the name of Allah.

When the gate of the city was opened and he entered with his men, `Umar went to sit in the courtyard of the Church of the Resurrection. When it was time for prayer, he said to the patriarch Sophronius: “I would like to pray.”

The patriarch replied: “O prince of believers, pray where you are.”

“I will not pray here,” said `Umar.

Then the patriarch introduced him to the Church of Constantine and commanded a mat to be spread in the middle of the church. But `Umar said: “No, I will not pray here either.”

`Umar came out and walked to the steps that led up to the door of the church of St. Constantine, on the eastern side. He prayed alone on the steps, then sat down and told the patriarch Sophronius: “Do you know, O patriarch, why I have not prayed in the church?”

The Patriarch replied: “I do not really know, O prince of the believers.”

“If I had prayed in the church,” replied ‘Umar, “you would have been removed and you would have lost possession, because on my departure the Muslims would have taken it saying in chorus: ‘Here `Umar prayed.’  Let me take a sheet of paper and you write a ‘charter’ (81).”

`Umar then wrote a ‘charter’ requiring that no Muslim should pray on the steps, not one nor many, and that no ritual prayer should be held there or the muezzin go up there. He wrote a ‘charter’ and gave it to the patriarch. Then `Umar said:

“I am a debtor for the lives and property that I have given. Come, give me a place where a mosque can be built. “

The Patriarch said: “Give the prince of the believers a place where he can raise a temple where the king of the Romans has not been able to build. This place is the rock upon which God spoke to Jacob and Jacob called the “gate of heaven” (82); the children of Israel called it “Sancta Sactorum” and it is at the center of the earth. It was previously the temple of the children of Israel, who have always magnified it, and every time they prayed anywhere they turned their faces toward it. This place I will give you, provided you write me a ‘charter’ that no other mosque will be built in Jerusalem than this.”

It’s worth remembering that this is written three centuries later.   I don’t know what sources Eutychius had, but the whole thing sounds to me a little like a self-serving legend, designed to protect the Christians from Moslem attacks in that difficult period which precipitated the Crusades.

But who knows?  It would be interesting to know what Moslem sources say.

Printing banned by Islam?

Was there a ban on printing in Islam? I saw the following claim online here:

Printing was banned by Islamic authorities because they believed the Koran would be dishonoured by appearing out of a machine. As a result, Arabs did not acquire printing presses until the 18th century.

UPDATE: Geoff Carter in the comments has been tracking it down.  There is some substance to this.  The urls given refer to an article by Muhsin Mahdi, From the manuscript age to the age of printed books, in The Book in the Islamic World, ed. G.N.Atiyeh, State University of New York Press (1995), pp.1-16.  This is not a study, as far as I can see, but rather a series of questions.  So we still haven’t reached bottom of this one.

UPDATE 2: Searching Google books, I found this link, J.G.Taylor, Indonesia, Yale (2004), p.68 in support:

Although the printing press reached Muslim lands from Europe in 1492, Muslim kings banned setting Arabic into type until the early nineteenth century.

No footnotes, tho.   A little light comes from the Quarterly Review, p.475:

An attempt of the same kind had been made by Achmet III., so early as the year 1727: the oulemas gave their consent, but it was rendered nugatory, by excepting the Koran, for a reason, as Mr. Walsh observes, ‘ characteristic of the people—they said it would be an act of impiety if the word of God should be squeezed and pressed together; but the true cause was, that great numbers of themselves earned a considerable income by transcribing those books, which would be at once destroyed, if suffered to be printed.’ As Turks read nothing else but the Koran, the printing-office was soon discontinued. Its renewal by Selim had no better success; it languished and declined on the death of its patron, ‘ who fell a victim to the rage of the Janissaries, for attempting to innovate upon their ancient and venerable ignorance.’

This tends to suggest that any ban originated with the Ottomans, and, as with so much in that miserable state, under a pretence of piety sought to financially benefit certain individuals.  Once the Koran began to be printed, Karpat remarks in The politicization of Islam, p. 231, entrepreneurs quickly issued defective Korans as fast as possible, for profit.

However I have just seen a reference to a specific ban on the Koran in 1727.

In Chambers Edinburgh Journal p. 44, (1848) I find the following:

The Sultan Bajazet II. issued a decree in 1483 forbidding the use of printed books by the Turks, under penalty of death. This decree was afterwards confirmed by his son Selim I. in 1515, and implicitly obeyed by the Mohammedans, with equal ignorance and fanaticism, until the eighteenth century, when, in the reign of Achmet III., Seid-Effendi, who had accompanied his father, the ambassador, to the court of Louis XV. in 1720, was so much struck with the advantages of printing, that he determined his own country should participate in them. For the attainment of this object he employed the services of a Hungarian renegade, who was subsequently surnamed Basmadjy—’ the Printer.’ A memorial was drawn up, by means of which the grand vizier, Ibrahim Pacha, an enlightened protector of literature, obtained a favourable edict from the sultan. But fearful of wounding the religious scruples of his subjects, and of alarming the numerous class of copyists, Achmet forbade the printing of the Koran, the oral laws of the Prophet, the commentaries on these works, and books on jurisprudence—leaving to the industry of the printers philosophical, medical, astronomical, geographical, historical, and other scientific works. The renegade was placed at the head of the new establishment, but the national character was against him ; and notwithstanding his activity, at the time of his death, which happened in 1746, he had not been able to print more than sixteen works. The first was a Turkish and Arabic dictionary, 2 vols. folio, of which the impression was completed in 1729; the price was fixed at thirty- five piastres, by order of the sultan. In the following year a Turkish grammar appeared, a copy of which, with each leaf of a different colour, is still in existence.

Again, no references. 

UPDATE: (12th May 2009)

A most interesting paper by John-Paul Ghobrial addresses the lack of proper references for this story. I have written to the author asking for some more details.

The sources given for the ban in this paper are two:

Nicolas de Nicolay, The navigations, peregrinations and voyages, made into Turkie by Nicholas Nicholay Daulphinois, Lord of Arfeuile. conteining sundry singularities which the author hath there seene and observed;devided into foure books, with threescore figures, naturally set forth as well of men as women, according to the diversitie of nations., T. Washington trans. (London, 1585). p.130.

…Maranes [Marranos] of late banished and driven out of Spaine & Portugale, who to the great detriment and damage of the Christianitie, have taught the Turkes diverse inventions, craftes and engines of warre, as to make artillerie, harquebuses, gunnepouder, shot, and other munitions: they have also there set up printing, not before seene in those countries, by the which in faire characters they put in light divers bookes in divers languages, as Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, and the Hebrewe toungue, being to them natural, but are not permitted to print the Turkie or Arabian tongue.’

The other is “Busbecq”in 1560.   This turns out to be The Life and Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq By Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, tr. Charles Thornton Forster, Francis Henry Blackburne Daniell. Published by C. K. Paul, 1881.  Volume 1  is online here, and on p. 255 we find this text:

No nation in the world has shown greater readiness than the Turks to avail themselves of the useful inventions of foreigners, as is proved by their employment of cannons and mortars, and many other things invented by Christians. They cannot, however, be induced as yet to use printing, or to establish public clocks, because they think that the Scriptures, that is, their sacred books – would no longer be scriptures if they were printed, and that, if public clocks were introduced, the authority of their muezzins and their ancient rites would be thereby impaired.

John-Paul Ghobrial suggests that the first reference refers not to a general ban on printing, but to restrictions on dhimmis (=you and me) in an Islamic state doing so in the language of the ruling Moslems. But of course that may or may not be so.