Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam

By Thomas Sizgorich | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
“This Is a Very Filthy Question,
and No One Should Discuss It”:
The Messy World of Ibn Ḥanbal

ONE DAY IN the eighth century, we are told, a monk bishop was walking down a road in the region of Margā, in Mesopotamia. He came upon a camel herder, facing the east, singing a complicated hymn. Amazed, he approached the man to ask him where he had learned the hymn. The man answered him in Arabic, however, pretending not to understand his question. When the monk cast himself onto the ground and vowed not to rise until he got some answers, the man said in Arabic, “Get up, monk. What is there between you and me? Go in peace from my place.” The monk would not relent, however, and finally the camel herder agreed to tell his tale.

He said he had been a Nestorian bishop forty years before but had been captured by a raiding party of Muslims and had been given the duty of tending camels. When the monk heard this, he immediately offered to raise money to pay for the former bishop’s freedom. The camel herder told the monk not to bother, he found his way of life satisfactory, and, he added, if he had wanted to run off or buy his freedom at any time in the previous forty years, he had had plenty of chances. His contentment had in part to do with the relationship he enjoyed with the Muslims who owned him. “For forty years I have been as thou seest me, and our Lord hath protected me from all evil, and [the Arabs] have accounted me as one of their elders and as one of

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