Mecca before Islam: 5) The Samaritan Asatir

The fifth in a series on pre-Islamic sources adduced for Mecca.
Previous: 4) Narsai’s homily

 

w-kul bnayū d-Neba’ot mlakūm-nahr Meṣrēm ‘ad nahr Frāt wa-bnū Makah
“All the sons of Nebaioth reigned… from the river of
Egypt to the river Euphrates, and they built Mecca…”
—The Samaritan Asāṭīr

 

Commenters on this blog and elsewhere have told me that Mecca is named in a Samaritan text from the third century BCE. I looked into this matter a while ago, but I have been reluctant to write about it, because the most important research on this source for a long time was a pair of Hebrew articles by Ze’ev Ben-Ḥayyim, and my Hebrew was not good enough to read his arguments properly. It is only now that I have encountered a doctoral dissertation on the same source by Christophe Bonnard, mercifully written in French, that I feel I can give an adequate run-down of the issues.

The first edition came out in 1927. It was put together by Moses Gaster, a British rabbi and Orientalist, from manuscripts acquired in Nablus. Gaster believed that the Asāṭīr was archaic, reflecting an early stage in Samaritan thought and literature, which the Samaritans of his time could no longer fully interpret. He drew attention to certain absences from the narrative, such as the Maccabean Revolt and the fall of the Second Temple, which ought to have found inclusion in a later text, in Gaster’s opinion; and he argued that the “pure Aramaic” of the Asāṭīr belonged to the period before that language went into decline. All told, Gaster proffered a date of no later than 200 BCE. If this dating were correct, the Asāṭīr would be a remarkably early case of biblical exegesis, centuries before the familiar midrashic texts of Late Antiquity.

Gaster’s dating is however untenable. The Asāṭīr must be considerably later than he thought. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are times when the text is knowingly archaic, influenced by much earlier Samaritan writings; but elsewhere the language echoes Late Antique exegesis (midrashim) and even medieval liturgy (piyyuṭim). On close examination, there are several calques and loanwords from Arabic, suggesting that the authors lived sometime under Muslim rule; this is no “pure Aramaic”. In fact there is reason to believe the Asāṭīr was in conversation with Muslim as well as Jewish scholarship. Besides Mecca, there are other place-names in the text that reflect the knowledge circulated by Arabic geographers; and a few of the legends have parallels in Muslim tradition, but not in the earliest Samaritan writings.

It is altogether impossible to see the Asāṭīr as a pre-Islamic work. No secure date has been proposed, but specialists – most notably Ze’ev Ben-Ḥayyim and Christophe Bonnard – propose a range from the late tenth century to the end of the eleventh. The Asāṭīr is therefore not a pre-Islamic reference to Mecca. Still, Mecca’s place in the text is rather interesting. It appears at the start of chapter 8:

After the death of Abraham, Ishmael reigned for 27 years. All the sons of Nebaioth reigned for a year in the days of Ishmael, and then another 30 years after his death, from the river of Egypt to the river of the Euphrates, and they built Mecca; therefore it is said, “as you head toward Aššur…”.

This passage is elaborating on Genesis 25, which reports that Abraham had many sons, including Ishmael; and Ishmael had many sons, of whom the first-born was Nebaioth (v. 13). The Ishmaelites then settled “from Hawilah as far as Shur, which is before Egypt, as you head toward Aššur” (v. 18). Evidently, the Asāṭīr is trying to make sense of biblical geography: while Genesis lays out a territory roughly between Egypt and Iraq, the Asāṭīr puts definitive borders along the Nile and the Euphrates. This was the Ishmaelite homeland.

The Ishmaelites have long been associated with Islam, and before that, with Arabia. In Late Antiquity it was widely held that the peoples of Arabia were descended from Ishmael; and in Muslim legend, it was Abraham and Ishmael who founded the Ka‘bah at Mecca. This legend was well known: it is abundantly attested in Jewish and Christian sources from very early in the history of Islam. By the tenth century, Samaritan scholars under Muslim rule must have known that Mecca was associated with Ishmael. In this light, the Asāṭīr’s decision to namedrop Mecca seems a little more rational: having sketched out the borders of Ishmaelite territory, it draws attention to the Ishmaelite holy city. The same line of reasoning may have led to Mecca’s inclusion in a later Samaritan Arabic translation of Genesis 25: in this rendition, the Ishmaelites settled “from Zawīlah to Mosul around about Egypt as you head toward Mecca (’ilā ’an tajī’a ’ilā Makkah)” (Zewi, p. 278).

On top of this, however, there may be something else going on; something much, much weirder. As we have seen, when the Asāṭīr mentions Mecca, it immediately quotes Genesis 25: “as you head toward Aššur”. The word for “as you head toward” is written in Hebrew as B’KH (באכה), which a Jewish scholar might pronounce bo’akah; but a Samaritan scholar, trained in a different dialect, would pronounce it more like bākāh. And bākāh sounds a bit like the Arabic name Bakkah, a name that appears in the Qur’an (3:96) as the site of the “first temple founded for the people”, and which Muslim thinkers quickly identified with Mecca.

Yes, this is a coincidence, and not a very impressive one; but for medieval scholars, the punning association between bākāh and Bakkah may have been too good to ignore. The connection is made explicit in a commentary on the Asāṭīr, of uncertain date, which was composed in a Samaritan dialect of Arabic. Unfortunately this text has only been published in a Hebrew translation, commissioned by Gaster and written by a Samaritan scribe. We therefore cannot be certain about the original Arabic wording. Nevertheless, the text as we have received it is highly suggestive (Gaster, p. *23):

…after the death of our master Abraham, peace be upon him, Ishmael reigned for 27 years. All the sons of Ishmael from the seed of his firstborn, Nebaioth, reigned for a year in the days of Ishmael, and then another 30 years after his death, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river of the Euphrates, and they built B’KH; therefore it is said in the Book of Genesis chapter 25 verse 18, “as you head toward Aššur…”.

Of course B’KH is not an Arabic word, so it seems fair to assume that this is meant to translate the Arabic word Bakkah in the original manuscript. If so, the punning association between bākāh and Bakkah is more obvious in this commentary than in the Asāṭīr itself. Gaster’s collection of Samaritan manuscripts is now held at the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester; hopefully one day I can make it over there and consult this original manuscript to confirm whether or not it does use the word Bakkah. This is, however, of no relevance to the study of Mecca before Islam: the Asāṭīr and its later Arabic commentary were composed under Muslim rule, responding to Muslim ideas.

 

Sources

Moses Gaster (ed. and tr.), The Asatir: The Samaritan Book of the Secrets of Moses (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1927).

Ze’ev Ben-Ḥayyim, “Sefer Asaṭir, ‘am targum wa-pirush”, Tarbiẓ 14 (1943) 104–125, 174–190; 15 (1944) 71–87, 128.

Christophe Bonnard (doctoral dissertation), Asfår Asāṭīr, le “Livre des Légendes”, une réécriture araméenne du Pentateuque samaritain: présentation, édition critique, traduction et commentaire philologique, commentaire comparative (University of Strasbourg, 2015).

Tamar Zewi, The Samaritan Version of Saadya Gaon’s Translation of the Pentateuch (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2015).

Ian D. Morris

Ian D. Morris

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

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