Obscure Text, Illuminating Conversation: Reading the Martyrdom of 'Abd Al-Masih (Qays Al-Ghassani)

Article excerpt


My offering to this Festschrift in honor of Ralph Klein may be perceived by some readers as a bit obscure. It's a story about a nearly forgotten ninth-century martyr, preserved in the Arabic language in a few leaves of a tenth-century manuscript belonging to the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai. It is not a text on which one will preach or from which one will learn the fundamentals of Lutheran theology. One of my tasks, then, is to make an argument for how it fits into a volume dedicated to "Scholarship in the Service of the Church."

Let me hasten to assure Ralph, at least, that I am sharing a text that has been of some significance to my research and teaching. I first became acquainted with it more than twenty years ago, after Prof. Sidney Griffith of the Catholic University in America had published an edition and English translation in the Belgian journal Le Museon. (1) A few years later, when I was studying in Rome, I found a microfilm of the oldest manuscript witness (Sinai Arabic 542) at the Vatican Library; after studying the text, I prepared a new edition and translation. (2) Since my return from graduate work to full-time teaching in 1992 I have taught this text every year, whether in Arabic (in courses on "The Arabic Christian Heritage" in Cairo and elsewhere) or in English translation (in St. Paul and Chicago). In Cairo, many of my Arabic-speaking Protestant Christian students found texts like The Martyrdom of 'Abdal-Masih to be a revelation: Not only did Arabic-language Christian texts exist already in the ninth Christian century, but the students were able to read them! (3) In Cairo, one couldmake the argument that such texts served the local church simply by demonstrating that the Arabic language--usually associated with the Islamic tradition--had served as a language of Christian reflection and edification for more than a millennium. For a Christian to speak Arabic (rather than, say, Greek or Coptic) was not to be implicated in a kind of linguistic Fall; rather, it was to be part of a rich heritage of which a text such as The Martyrdom of 'Abd al-Masih is one tiny part. Read in English translation among North American students, however, such a text is shorn of its identity-affirming role.

Can it still function "in the service of the church"? Let the reader be the judge.

Introduction to the text

A common misconception about the Arab conquests, which began in earnest a very few years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632 and which quickly saw the Eastern Byzantine provinces and the whole of the Sasanid Persian empire incorporated into a new Arab-ruled polity, is that conversion to Islam was regularly coerced. In fact, processes of conversion to Islam among the Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians who found themselves in the new Islamic world order were generally peaceful and, at first, slow to make a demographic impact. However, economic and sociopolitical reasons for non-Muslims to convert to Islam accumulated during the first century and a half of Islamic rule, and by the ninth century, encouraged by the religious policies of the Abbasid rulers who had come to power in 750, a wave of conversions to Islam was underway. (4)

It is not by accident that there arose at about the same time an Arabic-language Christian literature, intended in large part to encourage Christians who had adopted the language of the Arabs to keep the faith of their Christian ancestors. Several literary genres are represented in this early Arabic Christian literature: translations of Scripture and other church books; apologetic texts that, even when ostensibly addressed to Muslims, probably served primarily as encouragement and emergency catechesis for Christians; and Arabic-language contributions to a library of apocalyptic texts (that explained current difficulties as the birth pangs of the End) and stories of saints and martyrs (that provided examples of sanctity, courage, and perseverance in the face of trials and tribulations) that had already been taking shape in Christian communities under Islamic rule in languages such as Greek, Syriac, and Coptic. …