Mecca before Islam: 4) Narsai’s homily

The fourth in a series on pre-Islamic sources adduced for Mecca.
Previous: 3) Dabanegoris regio
Next: 5) The Samaritan Asatir
.

l-mā Qdešāyē aḥyānē ’nūn da-bnay Hāgār
“Are the Qadeshis brothers with the sons of Hagar?”
—Narsai of Nisibis

 

In a recent article, I claimed that “in the centuries before Islam, none of our Late Antique sources refers to Mecca, nor to Muḥammad’s tribe, the Quraysh.” Almost immediately after this was published, someone got in touch to ask about a possible exception: a book from 1914 claimed to have found the Quraysh in a Syriac source from the 5th century. If true, this would be very early indeed. Let’s revisit the purported source.

***

Narsai was a Christian scholar who died around the year 500. He taught exegesis – biblical interpretation – in what is now southeastern Turkey, at the School of Edessa and then the School of Nisibis. He wrote extensively, and at least 81 of his homilies (memrē) have survived. One of these was a bleak essay On the Evil of the Age. Humanity is awash with sin, says Narsai, and quite unable to reckon with its own depravity. At least the demons know what they have done; but even as our crops fail and our buildings collapse around us, we fail to understand and make amends. We are thrice exiled – flung from Eden, purged by the Flood and scattered from Babel – and as we tumble into decadence, kings and commoners fall into beggary and starvation. In life we are beaten and subjugated, and death is no escape: we are forever captive to our sins.

The last pages of this homily focus on a recent spate of attacks in Narsai’s home region. During Late Antiquity the Sasanians and their Roman neighbours both supported client states along the Arabian frontier, but when Kawad I came to the throne in 488, the Arabians rebelled and launched a series of raids into Iraq, taking slaves and booty. Narsai bitterly condemns them; but there is a larger point he wants to make. According to legend, the peoples of Arabia were descended from Abraham and his concubine Hagar, through their son Ishmael. According to Narsai, the raids in Iraq led people to curse the ‘sons of Hagar’, the ‘Ishmaelites’, and to wish that Abraham had never touched Hagar.

This was a mistake, in Narsai’s view, because Abraham is not to blame for his descendants’ cruelty. Some people are inclined to evil, but others are inclined to good; it is not lineage but inclination (yaṣrā) that divides us. To illustrate the point, he brings up two other groups whose violence had wounded the region: the Qadeshis (Qdešāyē) and the Tamuris (Ṭmūrāyē). We know a little about these groups thanks to the Chronicle of pseudo-Joshua, composed in Edessa shortly after Narsai’s death. Not only the Arabians rebelled during Kawad’s reign, says the Chronicle (tr. Trombley & Watt):

All the Qadishaye who were under his rule also rebelled against him, seeking to enter Nisibis and establish one of their own as king in it; their assault against (the city) lasted for a considerable time. And the Tamuraye who live in Persian territory also rebelled against him when they saw that he was giving nothing to them. Their confidence rested on the high mountains where they lived, from which they would descend to rob and plunder the surrounding villages and merchants, both travelling and native, and then return back up.

If the Chronicle is right that the Tamuris hailed from the Iranian mountains, they may have spoken an Iranian language. The Qadeshis, whom Narsai also calls the “people of Qadesh”, are more enigmatic. Other historians have said that Kawad had deliberately settled them near Nisibis before the revolt, but I have not been able to find their source for this; in any case, we don’t seem to know what language they spoke or where they came from. Narsai was probably working in the town of Nisibis when the Qadeshis laid siege, and unsurprisingly, his angriest comments are reserved for them: more savage than beasts, more destructive than all the peoples of the North and the South. Still, evil people have their purpose, he concludes: they serve to punish our own iniquities, and in the grisly process, we are forced to confront our sins.

Narsai’s larger point, though, is that these two groups rival the Arabians for violence and plundering, and yet they share no lineage with the Arabians. He asks rhetorically:

l-mā Qdešāyē aḥyānē ’nūn da-bnay Hāgār
d-bazūhy l-‘ālmā beztā d-‘ālbā l-de-’šma‘lāyē
l-mā men Abrām drā yūbālā da-Ṭmūrāyē
d-‘abdūh l-Ātūr emā d-malkē ayk ṣādītā

Are the Qadeshis brothers with the sons of Hagar?
They looted the world more thoroughly than the Ishmaelites.
Does the lineage of the Tamuris run from Abraham?
They made Aššur, Mother of Kings, like a wasteland.

The answer to both questions is no; clearly, evil is neither unique nor even particular to those who trace their lineage to Abraham:

lā kīt ne‘dūl lā l-abāhē w-lā la-bnayā
elā l-yaṣrā d-fāreš tartēn ṭābtā w-bīštā
l-yaṣrā bīšā da-bnay Hāgār ne‘dūl kulšā‘
w-yatīrā’īt l-‘amā da-Qdeš ḥayūtānāyē

Let us not then blame fathers and sons,
But the inclination that divides these two things, good and evil;
Let us ever blame the evil inclination of the sons of Hagar,
And especially the beastly people of Qadesh.

***

The homily On the Evil of the Time was first published by Alphonse Mingana in 1905. Then in 1914, together with Agnes Smith Lewis, he co-wrote a book about some early Qur’an manuscripts. In the Introduction, they cite Narsai’s homily as evidence that the Quraysh were mixed up in Syrian affairs long before Muhammad. They quote some of Narsai’s barbed comments against the ‘sons of Hagar’, and then cut to the last couple of lines above, which they translate so:

Let us always blame the foul inclination of the sons of Hagar,
and especially the people (tribe of) uraish who are like animals.

Their translation is very similar to mine, except that they have ‘corrected’ Qadesh to Quraysh; so Qdeš is now read as Qreš and Qdešāyē as Qrešāyē. Graphically, the change is very small indeed: in Syriac the difference between d (ܕ) and r (ܪ) is the placement of a single dot. On this reading, Narsai is railing against the ‘sons of Hagar’ in general and one Hagarene tribe in particular, the Quraysh. In classical Islamic lore, the Quraysh were descended from Abraham and Ishmael, who had founded the Ka‘bah at Mecca. Writing in the early twentieth century, Mingana and Smith Lewis may not have known that the Qadesh are attested in other sources; faced with a meaningless name that looked very much like a meaningful one, they took an educated risk.

But as we have seen, their ‘correction’ actually makes less sense of the text. Narsai’s point is that the Qadesh are not sons of Hagar, but they are no less prone to evil, because evil is a matter of inclination, not lineage. We should also recognise that the Arabic historical tradition, which in other respects is fascinated by Mecca and the Quraysh, has nothing to say about the siege of Nisibis. Such an ambitious foreign campaign might have inspired some poetry or legends of heroism. All that binds the Quraysh to Narsai’s homily is a misplaced dot.

***

I would like to extend special thanks to Prof. Lucas Van Rompay, who was kind enough to share his translation-in-progress of Narsai. It will eventually be published in a Complete Translation of Narsai’s works, with multiple contributors (see below). We shall all be richer for it. For now, the translations in this post are mine.

 

Sources

Narsai (Syriac): Alphonse Mingana (ed.), Narsai Doctoris Syri Homiliae et Carmina (Mosul: Fraternity of Preachers, 1905), vol. 1, 100–117.

Narsai (Syriac): Eshai Shimun (ed.), Homilies of Mar Narsai (San Francisco: Patriarchal Press, 1970), vol. 2, 654–79.

Narsai (English): Lucas Van Rompay (tr.) in Aaron M. Butts, Kristian S. Heal and Robert A. Kitchen (eds.), Narsai: A Complete Translation (Brigham Young University Press, forthcoming).

Frank R. Trombley and John W. Watt (trs.), Chronicle of Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite (Liverpool University Press, 2011), 19–20.

Alphonse Mingana and Agnes Smith Lewis (eds.), Leaves from Three Ancient Qurâns (Cambridge University Press, 1914), xiii.

 

Further reading

Lucas Van Rompay s.v. “Narsai” in Brock et al. (eds.), Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage (Piscataway: Beth Mardutho, 2011), 303–4, reproduced here.

There is a highly useful bibliographical entry on Narsai at syri.ac.

Ian D. Morris

Ian D. Morris

Historian and occasional human, powered by tea and cat videos.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *