Al-Aktal on “halal” food

While reading this post by Nassim Nicholas Taleb yesterday, I encountered the following interesting statement:

.. the 7th Century Christian Arab poet Al-Akhtal made a point to never eat halal meat, in his famous defiant poem boasting his Christianity: “I do not eat sacrificial flesh”

The article is talking about ways in which a minority can impose its values on a culture, and the context is the creeping way in which foodstuffs are made kosher or halal by manufacturers, simply for sales reasons.

But this is not important here. However I can quite imagine the quotation taking on a life of its own, and I’d like to track it down.

We do not tend to think of 7th century Arab poets who were a Christian.  I’d never heard of al-Akhtal.  So who was he?

Via a Google Books preview of an Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, I found this article by G.J.H. Van Gelder:[1]

al-Akhtal (c. 20- C. 92/ c.640-c.710)

Ghiyath ibn Ghawth al-Akhtal was one of the great poets of the Umayyad period. Although he was, like his tribe, Taghlib, a (monophysite) Christian, he was favoured by leading Umayyad statesmen such as Ziyad ibn Abihi and al-Hajjaj. and even became the most important court-poet of the caliph Abd al-Malik. He was probably born in Hira in Iraq. In his youth he was a close companion of caliph Yazid I, with whom he shared a taste for heavy drinking. The many passages on  wine and drinking in his poems make al-Akhtal an important early bacchic poet. His fame as a poet rests mainly on his panegyric and invective, which are often combined in his numerous poems supporting Umayyad policy and attacking its opponents – state politics being, to a large extent, tribal politics. His career is closely associated with that of his contemporaries al-Farazdaq and Jarir; siding with the former against the latter, he produced a series of flytings or naqa’id in which personal and tribal invective mix with politics. In his poetry, which serves as both political propaganda and literary entertainment, he builds on the diction, themes and forms of pre-Islamic poetry. The panegyric ode of al-Akhtal and his contemporaries acquired a classical status: it became a model for subsequent periods. Not yet affected by the characteristics of the ‘modern poets’ or muhdathun, its language and diction were accepted by philologists and critics as sources of ‘pure Arabic.’

Text editions

Naqa’id Jarir wa-al-Akhtal, Antun Salihani (ed.), Beirut (1922) (the recension incorrectly attributed to Abu Tammam). [Online here]
Shi’r al-Akhtal, Antun Salihani (Salhani) (ed.), Beirut (1891) [Online here]; with supplement, Beirut (1909); Fakhr al-Din Qabawa (ed.), Beirut, (1979).

Further reading

Abbot, Nabia, Studies in Arabic literary papyri, III: language and literature, Chicago (1972). passim.
Jayyusi, Salma K., ‘Umayyad Poetry’, in CHALUP, 387-413.
Kratchkovsky, L, ‘Der Wein in al-Aktal’s Gedichten’, in Festschrift G. Jacob, Leipzig  (1932), 146-64.
Lammens, H., ‘Le chantre des Omiades. Notes biographiques et litteraires sur le poete arabe chretien Aktal’, Journal Asiatique 9, vol. 4 (1894), 94-176, 193-241, 381-459.  [Online here].
Mattock, J., ‘A ba’iyya of al-Aktal in Praise of al-Walid b. ’Abd al-Malik’, Wagner Festschrift, 120-30.

Other materials can be found about Akhtal online, which repeat anecdotes of his role as a poet at the Damascus court of the Ummayad caliphs.  What I was unable to locate was any sign of English translations.  Nor was I able to find any source for the quotation (although I have tweeted an enquiry to the article author).

Let me end instead with an Academia article here by Suzanne Stetkevych which perhaps might illuminate the context in which Akhtal may have made his remark.[2]  The anecdote is by someone named al-Iṣbahānī, Kitāb al-Aghānī:

Al-Akhṭal came before ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān who asked him to recite for him. “My throat is dry,” responded the poet, “Order someone to bring me a drink.” “Bring him some water,” ordered the Caliph. “That’s for donkeys,” said al-Akhṭal, “and we have plenty of it.” “Then give him milk.” “I’ve long since been weaned!” “Then give him honey.” “That’s for the sick!” “Well, what do you want?” “Wine, O Commander of the Faithful!” “Have you ever known me to serve wine, you bastard?! If it weren’t for the inviolable bond between us, O what I would do to you!” So al-Akhṭal left and came upon one of ʿAbd al-Malik’s attendants. “Damn you,” he said to him, “the Commander of the Faithful ordered me to recite, but my voice was hoarse. Give me some wine!” So he did. Then al-Akhṭal said, “Match it with another!” So he did. “You have left the two of them fighting in my stomach, better give me a third!” So he did. “Now you’ve left me listing to one side, give me a fourth for balance.” The servant gave it to him, and al-Akhṭal went before ʿAbd al-Malik and recited:

Those that dwelt with you have left in haste
departing at evening or at dawn,
Alarmed and driven out by fate’s caprice
they head for distant lands.

When he finished the poem, ʿAbd al-Malik said to a servant boy, “Take him by the hand, boy, and help him out, heap robes of honor upon him, and reward him generously.” Then he proclaimed, “Every people has its poet, and the poet of the Banū Umayya is al-Akhṭal.”

The poem is in fact much longer than the single verse given, and endorses the Ummayads at length.  The “transgression” above is for asking the Muslim ruler for wine.  Indeed Akhtal was so visibly drunk by the end that he had to be helped out of the room!  But the importance  to an Arab ruler of being endorsed by an established poet was greater than any newly made-up rules about wine.

It is curious to note that there is no real interest in our society in making Arabic literature  accessible to us all.  A proper handbook of Arabic literature, like Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, but readable and brought up to date, would be a benison.  As it stands, who but specialists can even access this literature?

UPDATE: Well, well.  On p.116 of the Journal Asiatique article are the verses we seek.  The caliph Abd-al Malik was hardly very committed to Islam, but still made the effort.

One day, when Akhtal came to recite a brilliant panegyric, the prince asked, “Why don’t you become a Muslim?”

“I will,” said the poet, laughing, “so long as you grant me the use of wine and an exemption from Ramadan.”

Abd-al Malik, whose proposal was serious, took this ribaldry badly.  “Know,” he said, “that once you become a Muslim, if you neglect even one of the obligations of Islam, I’ll have you beheaded.”

Unfazed, Akhtal responded with these verses:

“No! I will never observe the fast of Ramadan, nor eat the flesh of sacrifices.
Never will I drive a young and robust camel towards the valley of Mecca in the time of pilgrimage.
Never will I cry out like a donkey, “Come! To prayer!”
But I will continue to drink the blessed liquor, and to prostrate myself at daybreak.”

“But,” said the Caliph, “what attraction has this wretched drink for you?”

“Sire,” replied Akhtal, “when I drink then I don’t worry about you any more than about the strap of my sandal.”

“Improvise some verses on this thought,” said the Caliph, decidedly in a bad mood, “or I will lift your head off from your shoulders!” The poet had to comply; but luckily in this matter he was not taken off-guard:

If my wish makes me take two goes to empty three cups of a generous vintage, I get up, dragging the folds of my robe as if I was your master, O Master of the Faithful.[3]

The first reference given is “Divan 156 and 154”.  This appears to be a publication “Divan of Akhtal”, published by the Catholic press at Beirut “last year”.  This is probably an Arabic publication of some kind; at any rate, beyond my ability to locate.  Is it perhaps the “Shi’r al-Akhtal” listed above?

Still good news to find even this much.

UPDATE: See the comments for more information.  I have just added a link to the other edition to the post.

UPDATE: A tweet from Dr Taleb advises me that his source was this online collection of Arabic poetry, and this page here.  This gives the verses:


ولست بصائم رمضانَ طوعاً ولَسْتُ بِآكِلٍ لحْمَ الأضاحي
ولست بقائم أبداً أنادي كمِثْلِ العَيرِ حيّ عَلى الفَلاحِ
ولكني سأشربها شمولاً وأسْجُدُ عِنْدَ مُنْبَلَجِ الصَّباحِ


  1. [1]Edited by Julie Scott Meisami, and Paul Starkey.  1998.  Vol. 1, p.67.  Impossibly expensive to buy, of course.
  2. [2]“Al-Akhtal at the Court of `Abd al-Malik: The Qasida and the Construction of Umayyad Authority”, in: Christians and Others in the Ummayad state, ed. A. Borrut &c., p.133.
  3. [3]Un jour que celui-ci venait de lui réciter un brillant panégyrique : « Pourquoi, lui dit le prince, ne te fais-tu pas musulman ? — J’accepte, répondit le poète en riant, si l’on m’accorde l’usage du vin et la dispense du Ramadan. » ‘Abdalmalik, dont la proposition avait été très sérieuse, prit mal la plaisanterie. «Sache-le bien, répliqua-t-il, une fois musulman , si tu négligeais une seule des obligations de l’islam, je te ferais trancher la tête ! » — Sans se laisser déconcerter, Ahtal répondit par ces vers :
    Non! jamais je n’observerai le jeune du Ramadan, ni ne mangerai la chair des victimes.
    Jamais je ne pousserai vers la vallée de la Mecque an temps du pèlerinage une jeune et robuste chamelle.
    Jamais je n’irai crier comme un âne : Allons ! à la prière !
    Mais je continuerai à boire la bienfaisante liqueur et me prosternerai au lever de l’aurore!
    «Mais, demanda le prince, quel attrait a donc pour toi cette maudite boisson? — Sire, répondit Ahtal, quand j’en ai bu, je ne me soucie pas plus de ta personne que des courroies de ma sandale. — Improvise des vers sur cette pensée, dit le calife décidément de mauvaise humeur, ou je te ferai sauter la tête des épaules! » Le poète dut s’exécuter; heureusement sur cette matière il n’était jamais pris au dépourvu : Si mon commensai me fait à deux reprises vider trois coupes d’un vin généreux, Je me lève, traînant les pans de ma robe, comme si j’étais ton maître, O maître des croyants.

The Annals of Eutychius of Alexandria (10th c. AD) – chapter 11 (part 3)

The story continues… sadly with very little historical value.

7.  Constantine made the necessary preparations and prepared to fight against Maxentius, King of the Romans.  He had prepared a large cross, placed it on top of a standard, and went against Maxentius, king of Rome.  Having heard that Constantine had moved to fight against him, Maxentius prepared to face him, and chose a bridge over the river in front of Rome as the place of battle. Then he came out with all his men, and fought against Constantine, who conquered and triumphed making a great slaughter of his men.  Maxentius tried to return into the city with the rest of the soldiers, but the bridge gave way and he drowned with all his men: the river was choked with drowned and killed men.  With golden crowns and every kind of music, the inhabitants of Rome poured out of the town to meet Constantine and celebrated the triumph with great jubilation.

On entering the city, [Constantine] ordered that the bodies of the Christian martyrs, and those who were crucified, should be buried.  All those who had fled, and those whom Maxentius had exiled, returned to their country and to their homes, and those who had seen them confiscated got them back.  The inhabitants of Rome made festival for seven days in honour of Constantine and the Cross, eating, drinking and rejoicing.  On hearing these things Maximian, called Galerius, was furious, gathered his troops and went out to fight against Constantine.  Hearing about this, Constantine also prepared his army and went to fight him. But when the men of Maximian saw the cross on the banner they fled: many were killed, others were taken prisoner and others begged to be spared.  Maximian fled away naked, and passed as a traveller, from place to place until he came to his city.  Here he called the priests of his gods, the magicians, the soothsayers that he loved so much, and whose recommendations he followed, and had them beheaded so that they would not fall into the hands of Constantine and serve him.  God sent down into the body of Maximian a devouring fire, so that his bowels were falling to pieces from the intense burning sensation that he had inside.  His eyes swelled to the point that they fell out, coming out of their sockets, and his flesh was burned so much as to break away from the bones, and he died the worst of deaths.

8. Constantine ruled all the territories of the Romans, in tranquility and peace. This was in forty-first year of the reign of Sabur, son of Hurmuz, king of the Persians.  Constantine was the son of Constantius, son of Wālantiyūs, son of Arsis, son of Decius, son of King Claudius, who lived in Rome at the time of the Apostles.  Constantine had a general whom he loved and preferred to the others, named Licinius.  He gave him his sister Constantina, entrusted him with the government and ordered him to honour the Christians, to love them and not to hurt any of them. When he came into his kingdom, Licinius returned to the worship of idols and ordered that the Christians should be put to death.  In his day found martyrdom the soldier Theodorus, Metropolitan of Barqah, and the Forty Martyrs, originating in the city of Sebastia of Cappadocia (20). Licinius had in Sebastia a lieutenant named Agricolaus. He had the Forty Martyrs brought outside the city of Cappadocia, and thrown naked into a pool of water, where on account of the excess cold, because of the snow, they died of frostbite.  Only one of them got out of the pool and headed for a tepidarium which was located at the shore of the lake to warm up, but the tepidarium collapsed on him, killing him instantly. The captain of the guard guarding the Forty then saw forty crowns of light coming down from heaven and resting on the heads of those martyrs, but one of these was suspended in the air.  The guard then stripped off his garments, and threw himself into the pool and believed in Christ, earning for himself the crown of light.  Then they took them out of the pool and loaded them on to a cart. There was, among them, a young man who had not yet died and was left aside.  His mother, who was standing beside them, had in fact picked him up to put him on the cart with the others, but would not release him because he was still alive. He expired on her shoulder and only then could she place him on the cart along with the martyrs. Then they took them out of the city of Sebastia and burned them. Informed of the fact, King Constantine wrote a letter to Licinius in which he rebuked him for what he had done.  But [Licinius] did not repent; indeed he gathered a large army and went to fight against Constantine who confronted him with his own soldiers in Bithynia.  [Licinius] was defeated; he was taken prisoner and was brought before Constantine who demoted him then to the city of Thessaloniki and designated him as his prefect.  Here he tried to gather a new army among the people of Thessaloniki with the intent to set out again against Constantine who, having heard about this, sent some of his men and killed him, cutting off his head.

The Annals of Eutychius of Alexandria (10th c. AD) – chapter 11 (part 2)

Once more Eutychius switches over again to the lost Sassanid Persian chronicle which he is interweaving with the Greek chronicles; and then back.  We are not told what became of Maximian: evidently the Sassanid chronicle did not say.

5.  As for Sabur, son of Hurmuz, king of the Persians, he grew up and become a young man, and, throughout his kingdom, order prevailed everywhere.  Hearing one day someone speak of Maximian, King of the Romans, and what he did to the Christians, he said to his men: “I want to go alone into the territory of the Romans so that I can see personally what is the condition of their kings, their armies and the streets of their countries.  When I have done this, I will return to my kingdom, filled with all the things that I have learned from them, and which I can use to attack them.”  But his men tried to dissuade him from the perils and the dangers which he might encounter.  He, however, did not accept their advice and, journeyed until he reached the heart of the territory of the Romans.  He continued for some time to wander from place to place when suddenly there came to him the news that a son of Maximian had offered a banquet, and that his father had given orders that the rabble and the poor should gather with him and sit with him at table, after the nobles had eaten their meal.  Sabur went there then, begging to be also present at the banquet.  As he sat at the table, there was carried to Maximian a glass of Sabur, on which was engraved the image of the Persian king.  The servants served drinks to the king and the nobles who were sat about, until the cup came into the hands of a sage, who could read the fate of men through the stars and had excellent knowledge of physiognomy. He looked carefully at the effigy – he had already happened to see the face of Sabur sitting among the other guests -, and he said: “I see a man among the guests who looks similar to the image on this cup.  If this man is not Sabur, there is nobody in the world like him.” King Maximilian said: “What do you mean?” He answered: “I see on this cup the image of Sabur, and that this man is he,” and so saying he took Sabur by the hand and led him before the king. The king then asked him who he was and Sabur said: “I am a poor Persian”. But being suspicious as he looked at him, Maximian suspected that he had not told the truth.  Therefore he persisted in his request, and Sabur said to them: “If you really want to know the truth, know then that I come from a state of Persia. My father committed a grave offense against our king who had him killed and  confiscated his goods. And since I had good reason to fear of my life, I have come here to you with the hope of obtaining protection in your country.  Having fallen into poverty and been made destitute, I have come here to you from famine, and extreme poverty”.  They took pity on him, and, thinking that he told the truth they decided to let him go.  But the sage opposed this, saying: “He is definitely Sabur. Put him to the test until you learn who he really is.”  Then King Maximian resorted to harsh measures, and threatened to kill him, but promised him safety provided that he revealed his true identity.  Sabur said: “It is strange that you can think that Sabur would prefer misery and hardship in your country, rather than occupy the place in his kingdom that is his.” But they did not believe his words.  Eventually he confessed that he was Sabur in person.  King Maximian then ordered him to be thrown into the belly of a statue in the shape of a cow, covered with cowhide, and he had him locked up, putting guards and custodians.  Maximian then marched against the land of the Persians, wrought carnage among their population, destroyed their city, cut down their trees and their palms, taking Sabur with him, wherever he went.  He continued so until he came to Gunday-Sabur (17) where leaders of Persia had fortified themselves.  He then built catapults and managed to destroy half the city without being able, however, to enter.  It was on that occasion that one night the keepers of Sabur relaxed their guard on the prisoner, forgetting to close the door, by which he brought food inside the statue.  It was the night of Ashan (18) (In another text [it says]: “It was the night of a party”).  There were around him, many residents of al-Ahwaz that the Romans had made prisoners.  Sabur heard their words and he understood their language. There were, nearby, wineskins full of oil and when night fell [Sabur] rose, called to a prisoner and said: “Get one of these skins and empty it out.” The prisoner did as he asked, and the strap with which he was held bound was all soaked.  He went out crawling like a reptile until he came to the gate of the city and gave a cry.  The sentries responded to his shout, and also he told them his name.  They recognized the voice and opened the gates of the city.

Great was the joy they felt for him, when he entered the city, and they raised their voices praising and glorifying God.  The men of Maximian awoke, and thought that reinforcements had arrived on the opposite side.  Sabur said to those who were in the fortress: “Get ready, and when you hear the sound of the nāqūs, attack”.  They did as he had told them, and broke out on the Romans, making great slaughter and seizing their property and all that they had accumulated.  Then Sabur penetrated the territory of the Romans, sowing death everywhere, and he destroyed many cities and picked up a huge booty.  On the lands of the Romans there then followed a severe famine and pestilence and plague, so that they were no longer able to bury the corpses because there were too many deaths.  So it was that the war of Sabur, the famine and the pestilence prevented the Romans from killing the Christians.

6.  As for Maxentius, king of Rome, he was the most wicked of the kings who had reigned before him and angered all who were in Rome, particularly the Christians, confiscating their property and killing men, women and children.  When the inhabitants of Rome heard about Constantine, of how he hated evil and loved good and that the people of his kingdom lived in peace and quiet, the leaders of the city of Rome wrote him a letter asking him to free them from the tyranny of Maxentius.  Reading their letter, Constantine was greatly worried and was perplexed, not knowing what to do.  As he was so full of thought, there appeared in the sky at noon, a cross of stars shining, around which was written “In this conquer”(19).  Then he came out and said to his men: “Did you see what I saw?” “Yes,” they answered, and at that time he embraced the Christian faith.  This happened six years after the death of his father Constantius.

The Annals of Eutychius of Alexandria (10th c. AD) – chapter 9 (part 3)

8.  At the time of Nero Caesar, there lived a sage named Andrūmākhus who prepared for king Nero a very effective theriac, called by the Arabs “Diryâq” (16).  King Nero was killed in Rome.  When he learned that the king had been killed, Vespasian lifted the siege of Jerusalem, returned to Caesarea and halted there.  After him [=Nero], there reigned Ghalyās (17) for seven months, and he was killed.  After him reigned Unūn (18) for three months and he was deposed.  After him reigned Nibtāliyūs (19) for eight months, and he was killed.  The empire of the Romans was violently shaken and the peoples revolted.  After violent strife and great trouble, all the generals, commanders and officials of the territories of Rome and the East were unanimous in designating as king Vespasian, who had besieged Jerusalem.  He left Caesarea and went to Rome.  He had already reached the outskirts of Rome, when the generals who were in the city rose up against a general named Artitin, who wanted to take possession of the kingdom, and killed him.  Then they came out from the city to meet Vespasian and put on his head the crown of the kingdom.  After he entered into the city and sat on the throne of the kingdom, Vespasian put to death every person who was dangerous and lawless in Rome, so that the Roman territory was once more stable and peaceful.  He had two sons: one was called Titus (20) and the other Domitian.  He sent Domitian with a large army against the barbarians and the nations:  he killed them, subdued them and wiped them out.  And he sent Titus, after giving him a large army, to Jerusalem.  He besieged it for two years, and all those who were in the city died from hunger, even coming to eat the flesh of corpses and the flesh of their children because of the great famine.

Eventually Titus conquered the city and killed all the men and women that were there.  His soldiers gutted pregnant women and killed little children by banging them against the rocks.  [Titus] destroyed the city and dedicated the Temple to the fire.  He then counted those who had been killed by his efforts, and counted three million.  The survivors fled either to Syria, Egypt or Ghor (21).

9. From the birth of Christ, our Lord, to when Titus destroyed Jerusalem, there passed 70 years;  from Alexander to when Titus destroyed Jerusalem, 389 years; from the Babylonian captivity to when Titus destroyed Jerusalem, 652 years; from the kingdom of David to when Titus destroyed Jerusalem, 1129 years; from the exodus of the children of Israel out of Egypt to when Titus destroyed Jerusalem, 1735 years; from Abraham to when Titus destroyed Jerusalem, 2242 years; by Fāliq when Titus destroyed Jerusalem, 2,783 years; from the flood to when Titus destroyed Jerusalem, 3314 years; from Adam to when Titus destroyed Jerusalem, 5570 years.

10. When the Christians, who fled away from the Jews and had crossed the Jordan and settled in those places, learned that Titus had destroyed the city and killed the Jews, they returned to Jerusalem, which was in ruins, and lived there and built a church and put at its head a second bishop named Simon, son of Cleophas.  This Cleophas was the brother of Joseph who had brought up Christ our Lord.  This happened in the fourth year of the reign of Vespasian.  Vespasian had ruled for twenty-six years old when he killed the king Trajan (22).  In the third year of his reign there was made patriarch of Rome Daklītiyūs (23).  He held the office for two years and died. In the fifth year of his reign was made [patriarch] Clement of Rome (24). He was a Kātib (25).  He held the office for nine years and died.  In the ninth year of his reign there was made patriarch of Alexandria Fīlftiyūs. He held the office for thirteen years and died. Vespasian reigned with power and authority for nine years and seven months and died.

11.  After him his son Titus reigned for three years and two and a half months and died (26).  After him reigned his brother Domitian for fifteen years (27).  He was so ruthless towards the Jews that not even one could be seen in his day.  He had proposed to kill all the kings and their children, so that there would be on earth no king but him.  He therefore killed the sons of the sons of kings and killed many kings.  He was then told that the Christians were saying that Christ was their king, and that his kingdom would last forever, and it was also learned that they formed a large army and were otherwise numerous.  Great was his indignation and he ordered the Christians to be put to death, if any of them were found in his realm.

12.  The Evangelist John was then at Nīshas (28).  Hearing this, he felt great fear, and fled to Ephesus. The king sent his men to Jerusalem, arrested the children of Judah, son of Joseph, one of the disciples, and they bound them and took them to Rome.  Having asked them about Christ and his kingdom, they then said to him: “His kingdom is a heavenly [kingdom], not of this world.  At the end of time he will come with great honour and glory, to judge the living and the dead, and give each one his own reward according to the deeds of each person.”(29).  Hearing them speak in this way, he felt great fear, let them go on their way and ordered that the Christians should no longer be persecuted.  In the second year of his reign Evaristus was made patriarch of Rome (30). He held the office for eight years and died.  In the tenth year of his reign Alexander was made patriarch of Rome (31).  He held the office for ten years and died.  In the fifteenth year of his reign Kurdiyūs was made patriarch of Alexandria (32).  He held the office for ten years and died.  In the fifteenth year of his reign Primus was made patriarch of Alexandria.  He held the office for twelve years and died.

13. The king Domitian Caesar died. After him there reigned in Rome Nerva Caesar, called Barastiyūs Caesar (33), for a year and five months and died.  After him there reigned in Rome Trajan Caesar, called Hadrian Caesar, for nineteen years (34).  This king procured for the Christians serious misfortunes, long affliction and great tribulations.  He put to death many martyrs, and at Rome he had Ignatius, Patriarch of Antioch, executed.  And he had killed Simon, son of Cleophas, Bishop of Jerusalem, on the cross, at the age of one hundred and twenty years (35).  He ordered that the Christians should be enslaved because in his opinion they had neither religion nor law (36).  Despite the seriousness of what the Christians were suffering, and the many killings suffered by them, the Romans showed their piety, and the ministers of the king, together with his generals, pleaded their case before him, asserting that they had a steadfast religion and a good law, and therefore that he should no longer continue to oppress them.  [The king] then gave the order not to persecute them, and desisted from harming them.

14.  At the time of King Trajan Caesar, John wrote his Gospel in Greek in an island called Patmos, in Asia, a territory under the jurisdiction of the Romans.  Also in his time lived a remarkable Roman philosopher named Commodus (37).  In the sixth year of his reign Judah was made bishop of Jerusalem.  He held the seat for seven years and died.  In the fourteenth year of his reign Zacchaeus was made bishop of Jerusalem.  He held the office for nine years and died.  In the sixth year of his reign Brūn was made patriarch of Antioch (38).  He held the office for twenty years and died.  In the fourth year of his reign Sixtus was made patriarch of Rome (39).  He held the office for ten years and died.  In the fourteenth year of his reign Telesphorus was made patriarch of Rome  (40).  He held the office for eleven years and died.  In the eleventh year of his reign Justus was made patriarch of Alexandria. He held the office for ten years and died.

The Annals of Eutychius of Alexandria (10th c. AD) – chapter 8, continued

The story continues… (and, accidentally, rather seasonably!)

2.  From the reign of Alexander to the end of the reign of Cleopatra there were 289 years.  While Caesar Augustus was returning to Rome from Egypt, Herod met him a second time, in ar-Ramlah (11), bringing many gifts.  Caesar Augustus gave him power over the whole territory of Judah, and its provinces, and over Galilee, placing on his head the royal crown.  Learning that Herod was in the Bayt al-Maqdis as king, the Jews refused to recognise him as their king.  So Herod came upon them and made great slaughter; he threw down the wall of the city and the temple, and took the books that Ezra had rewritten, with their lineages, and had them burned, so that no-one would know any longer from which tribe he originated or who his ancestors were (12).  Then he took all the furnishings and utensils of the priests, and sold them, and the vestments of the priests and placed his seal on them.  Then he started to sell the office of priest, so that, if anyone wanted to become a priest, he demanded a lot of money from them before the charge could be conferred upon them.  He administered the kingdom with cruelty and despotism.

3.  In the 40th year of his reign, Caesar Augustus issued an edict which ordered that the name of every man in his kingdom throughout the world should be registered, together with his wife.  This was an ancient custom, and he also took a census of the population of his kingdom.  So he sent his general, named Quirinius, to undertake the census of the population of Syria and Judaea (13).  In the 41st year of his reign there was announced, to the Lady Mary the virgin, pure and immaculate, [the nativity] of Christ, our Lord.  In the 42nd year of the reign of Caesar Augustus and the 33rd year of the reign of Herod, son of Antipater, in the land of Syria [in another text “of Israel”], was born Christ, our Lord, on the 25th December, or the 29th Kīhak.

 4.  From the end of the reign of Cleopatra, to the birth of Christ, our Lord, had passed 30 years; from the reign of Alexander to the birth of Christ, our Lord, 319 years; from the deportation by Bakhtanassar of the Jews to Bābil, to the birth of Christ, our Lord, 582 years; from the reign of David to the birth of Christ, our Lord,  1059 years; from the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt to the birth of Christ, our Lord, 1665 years; from Abraham to the birth of Christ, our Lord, 2172 years; from Fāliq to the birth of Christ, our Lord, 2713 years; from the flood to the birth of Christ, our Lord, 3244 years; from Adam to the birth of Christ, our Lord, 5500 years.

5.  In the 44th year of the reign of Caesar Augustus and the 35th of the reign of Herod, son of Antipater, there came from the east into the land of Judah three magi, astrologers, who asked where the great king had been born. Herod felt afraid, and the whole land of Judah was troubled.  Herod summoned the Magi, and asked them about what they had said.  They answered, “We saw a great star in the east, and we have learned that a great king was born.  We therefore come to worship him.  The star has gone before us and walked with us always, but just as we arrived here we lost sight of it.”  Herod then questioned the Jews, asking, “Where will the messiah be born?”  They told him, “In Bethlehem, of Judah.” (14)  Then Herod summoned the Magi secretly and sent word to them asking in what place and time the star had appeared to them.  They answered, “It appeared in the east, two years ago.” (15)  Then he said to them, “Go and look for this newborn king.  When you have found him, worship him, and then come back to me to let me know, so that I may go to worship him.” (16)  The Magi left Herod, and the star appeared and went before them until they came to Bethlehem, the place where Christ our Lord was, with the Lady Mart-Maryam, his mother.  They worshiped him, and offered him gifts of gold, myrrh and incense.  They were then told in a dream to return to their country by another path, and not to return to Herod.

To be continued…

A list of translations into Arabic of biblical texts from Graf’s GCAL

Seven years ago I placed online the table of contents to volume 2 of Graf’s GCAL,[1], which lists the original compositions in Arabic by Christian writers up to the 15th century.  I then promptly forgot all about it.

This evening I have been looking at volume 1.  This contains details of the translations into Arabic of Christian material from other languages.  I thought that it might be interesting to give what he says about biblical translations into Arabic.  Few know what exists, after all.

I include the page numbers from Graf, straggly though this makes the content, as it gives an idea of how much material there is under each section.

Complete bibles

Hunain ibn Ishaq         89
Melkite complete bible 89
Coptic complete bible 92
Polyglots of Paris and London 83
Propaganda edition 96
Raphael Tuki 97
Protestant editions 98
Dominican edition (Mosul) 99
Jesuit edition (Beirut)

A. Old Testament

1. Pentateuch translations……………………………101-108 —
by Gaon Saadia………………………………..101
from the Greek…………………………….103
from the Coptic………………………………103
from the Syriac………………………………104
by al-Harit ibn Sinan ibn Sinbat………………….107
from the Latin Vulgate……………………….108
of unknown origin…………………………..108

2. The other historical books…………………………108-114 —
Kings and Chronicles………………………………111
I and II Esdras………………………………..112
Tobit…………………………………………113 Judith…………………………………………113 Esther…………………………………………113 II Maccabees……………………………………114

3. Psalms…………………………………………..114-126 —
Oldest translation…………………………….114
Abu ‘l-Fath ‘Abdallah ibn al-Fadl………………….116
Coptic-Arabic Psalters……………………..119
Psalterium octaplum………………………………120
Roman edition (1614)…………………………121
Edition by Quzhaiya (1610)……………………..121
Other translations from Syriac…………..123
Mozarabic Psalter…………………………….124
Translations from Hebrew………………….124
Translations of unknown origin………………125

4. Job translations………………………………….126-127 —
from a syro-hexaplaric basis………………….126
by Pethion (Fatyun ibn Aiyub)……………………126
from the Syriac………………………………127
from the Coptic………………………………127
of unknown origin…………………………..127

5. Wisdom literature translations………… 127-131 —
from the Septuagint………………………………127
by al-Harit ibn Sinan ihn Sinbat………………….129
by Pethion……………………………………..130
of unknown origin…………………………..130

6. The Prophets translations……………131-137 —
by al-‘Alam……………………………………131
from the Septuagint……………………..133
from the Coptic………………………………133
from the Syriac………………………………134
from the Latin…………………………….136
of unknown origin…………………………..136

B. New Testament 138-185

2. Gospels translations…………………………….142-170 —
from Greek…………………………….142
from Syriac………………………………150
from Coptic………………………………155
in polished prose………………………………163
from Latin…………………………….167
of unknown origin…………………………..169

3. Acts translations…………………………..170-181 —
from Greek…………………………….170
from Syriac …………………………..172
from Coptic ……………………178
from Latin…………………………….179
of unknown origin…………………………..180

4. Revelation translations……………..182-184
from Greek ………………………..182
from Syriac………………………………182
from Coptic………………………………182
of unknown origin…………………………..184

5. Translations and editions of portions of the N.T. in vulgar Arabic dialects………………………………..194

Now that’s slightly more than 100 pages of detailed information.  And it ought to exist in English.  Really it should.

So … why doesn’t it?

  1. [1]Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Litteratur.  The contents may be found here.

170 Christian Arabic manuscripts from St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo now online!

They are here:

Blessedly, they have all been placed on!  So they are downloadable as PDF’s!!!  What an excellent decision!

The images are all from microfilms.  But at least we have them!

Mostly Arabic, some Coptic.  Lots of biblical mss, of course;

This one caught my eye:

COP 20-5 (Theology 30)

  • Principal Work: Catenae of the Fathers on the four gospels
  • Language: Arabic; Folios: 246; Date: 16/17th C

[View; Download;]

Could this be an Arabic version of the De Lagarde Coptic catena?

We could use more details at the bottom; it looks as if catalogue details will eventually appear.

A text describing different religions by Abu Qurra

One of the Syriac Christian writers who mention Persia is the 8th century writer Theodore Abu Qurra.  Quite by accident I have stumbled across a French translation of an interesting text by him on the different religions of his time.[1]  The abstract indicates its contents:

The Syriac Theodore Abū Qurra (c.750-c. 825), Melkite bishop of Harrân, has left many works. Among them, the Treatise (Mîmar) on the Existence of the Creator and the True Religion, in Arabic contains two outstanding chapters, translated and commented here.

First, a carefully organized account of religious in his time : Pagans (who will be called « Sabaens » later), Mazdaeans (of Zurvanite conviction), Samaritans, Jews, Christians, Manichaeans (who were practising specific interpretation of the canonical Gospels), Marcionites, Bardesanites, Muslims.

Second, a lenghty allegory which presents common points with the Hymn of the Pearl. Its expounding by the author aims at giving a definite clue to the discernment of the only true religion : God resembles man, and its up to human reason to judge in the matter.

The work is of course in Christian Arabic. 

The first part is really rather interesting.  Were there really still Marcionites and followers of Bardaisan in Syria ca. 800 AD, in the Abbassid period?

The work is preserved in a unique manuscript of the 17th century which is missing its opening section, ms. 373 of the monastery of the basilian monks at Deir al-Shir, wherever that is.  The manuscript contains five works by Abu Qurra, and our text is on folios 2-59.  The work was probably written around 780 AD, and has been edited Louis Cheikho in 1912, and again by Ignace Dick in 1982.

I grew up in the mountains, where I did not know what men there are.  But one day, prompted by a business matter concerning myself, I went down to the towns where men gather, and I saw them divided into different religions.

1.  One group, who follow the religion of the ancient pagans, called me to come among them.  They say that we should worship the seven stars, [i.e.] the sun, the moon, Saturn, Mars, Jupiter, Mercury and Venus, and the twelve signs of the zodiac, because these are the ones that create and govern all creatures and which give good fortune and happiness, or bad luck and distress, in this world.  Their prophet on this matter is the wise Hermes.

2.  I left these people and the Mazdaeans approached me, saying “Leave them, they talk wind.  Come to us, for our teaching is solid.”

They explained that their great god is called Zurvan, and Zurvan is Destiny.  Before the world was created, he sacrificed for a thousand years so that a child should be born to him, and his wife conceived a son called Ormazd.   After he had been conceived for 900 years, his father Zurvan doubted whether he had indeed been conceived, and that doubt engendered in the womb of his wife another child, i.e. the devil.  Zurvan learned this and said, “Whichever of children comes before me first, I shall give him the kingship.”  Ormazd, in his mother’s womb, had knowledge of this word and shared it with the devil.  The latter, when he knew this, pierced the womb of his mother, came out by his own effort, and presented himself to his father.  He was dark, black of face, and hideous.  His father asked him, “Who are you?”  He replied, “I am your son, the devil, born of your doubt.  Give me then the royalty that you promised.  Zurvan was sad, but as he did not want to go back on his word, he gave him royalty over the world for nine thousand years.

As for Ormazd, his mother gave birth to him at the end of a thousand years.  He seemed like a completely beautiful light.  He created the heaven and the earth and the different intermediary natures, in the beauty and brilliance in which this world is seen.  All the same, the latter was in darkness, without light.  Ormazd was sad, and sought counsel from the devil.  He advised him to marry his mother.  He did so and had relations with her.  [His mother] conceived and bore the sun, for light by day.  [The devil advised him] to marry his sister.  He did so, and had relations with her.  [His sister] conceived and gave birth; the moon, to illuminate the night.  Likewise the Mazdaeans, like their god Ormazd, marry their mothers, their sisters and their daughters, so that they shall have children like the sun and the moon.

Such are their gods.  In imitation of Ormazd, Madaeans are allowed to enjoy all the pleasures of the world, because that is why [Ormazd] created them.

Their prophet who, they say, brought this truth to them, is Zoroaster.

I wish I had time to do more of this text.  It is really rather interesting.  But … did Theodore Abu Qurra really meet all these groups; or is this a literary way to describe the contents of his reading?

  1. [1]Guy Monnot, Abu Qurra et la pluralite de religions, Revue de l’histoire des religions 208 (1991), 49-71, online here at  A PDF is here.