Sixth century

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echoes in Arabic poetry and prose of the celebration of the liturgy among the pre-

Islamic Arabs, and garnered many references. Terms for liturgical chanting that 

he culled from pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, such as 

rajjaʿa, haynama, zamzama, 

sabbaḥa, and jaʾara, speak for themselves.50 The development of sacred songs 

among the pre-Islamic Arabs has to be sought principally in the three urban cen-

ters of Arab Christianity, Ḥīra, Najrān, and Jābiya. And it is to the last, Jābiya and 

its Ghassānids, and to the Arab federates in general, that the discussion must turn.


Sacred song must have flourished among the federates of Byzantium,51 espe-

cially the Ghassānids. They were devoted to their Monophysite faith, and they 

lived in an Oriens that witnessed in Emesa the birth of Romanus the Melode (dis-

cussed above). In the following century, Damascus witnessed the birth of John of 

Damascus, the last of the Church Fathers in the Orient and a distinguished hym-

nographer himself, who perfected the 

kanon.52 So, the sacred song heard in feder-

ate churches and monasteries must have been influenced greatly by the explosion of 

hymnography in Byzantium in these times.


Extant contemporary sources on the Ghassānids are silent on their sacred 

song and the possible contribution of their poets to hymnography.53 The sole 


47  Ephesians 5:18–19; Colossians 3:16.


48 See 

BAFOC, 435–43; BAFIC, 422–29.


49  See the present writer in “The Authenticity of Pre-Islamic Poetry: The Linguistic Dimension,” 

al-Abḥāth 44 (1996), 11.


50  See L. Cheikho, 

al-Nasrāniyya wa Ādābuha bayna ʿArab al-Jāhiliyya (Beirut, 1923), II, 359–60. 


51  Even as early as the fourth century, when the federate Arab queen warred against the Arian 

emperor Valens in defense of the Nicene Creed and victory poems celebrated her victory; see 


274–77, 440–42, 444–46.


52  On the Arab origin of John of Damascus, see the present writer in “The Arab Christian 

Tradition,” in 

Christianity: A History in the Middle East, ed. H. Badr (Beirut, 2005), 231–32 and note 

19, citing Fr. J. Naṣrallah, 

Saint Jean de Damas: Son époque, sa vie, son oeuvre (Harissa, Lebanon, 1950).


53  Hymns sung in Ghassānid churches may have been translated from Syriac or Greek or may have 

been original compositions by their own poets, such as those written in the nineteenth century, when 


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

reference to hymns is represented in a faint and distant echo in a single verse of the 

poet Ḥassān, where he refers to the chanting of prayers in the monastery of Fīq 

in the Golan Heights or in Dayr al-Khammān in the Bathaniyya/Bāshān.54 Later 

Arabic sources, however, on the Ghassānids’ relatives, the Arabs of Najrān, pre-

serve some evidence relevant to Christian Arab hymnography in the sixth century. 

It comes from the invaluable work of the Yamamite historian al-Hamdānī (d. 945) 

and deserves a detailed examination.55


In his invaluable 

Ṣifat Jazīrat al-ʿArab, Hamdānī records certain unique fea-

tures of South Arabia, including “The places of mourning over the dead”; he lists 

seven of them.56 He reports that in one of these places, Khaywān, the practice was 

that a deceased notable is lamented until another of the same rank dies, and then 

mourning is addressed to the latter. He further says that women sing in light verse 

to express their grief and while so doing they cry aloud. The men, however, mourn 

in tunes that are sung responsively with those of the women.57


It seems likely that this practice and style of mourning are related to the mar-

tyrdoms of Najrān in the sixth century. Hamdānī says this practice is unique to 

South Arabia, which is where those martyrdoms took place. They were unique 

both in when they took place—after the Peace of the Church in a.d. 313, which 

ended the persecution of Christian martyrs—and in their number.58


Hamdānī’s discussion thus appears to represent a remarkable survival of a 

Christian rite of the distant past, involving principally the Ḥārithids of Najrān. 

These owed the Ghassānids of Oriens, their relatives, the Monophysite version of 

their faith and liturgy, about which the sources on the Ghassānids themselves say 

almost nothing. In view of all these considerations, a detailed analysis of this pas-

sage in Hamdānī is called for; such analysis strengthens the conclusion that it does 

indeed strongly evoke the martyrdoms of Najrān, which continued to resonate 

through the centuries to the time of Hamdānī in the tenth.


1. It was very natural for the Arabs of South Arabia, especially of Najrān, 

where most of the persecutions and the martyrdoms occurred,59 to lament their 

the Bible was translated anew into Arabic by the Protestant missionaries in Lebanon associated with the 

American University in Beirut (see hymnals of the period). See Part III, Chapter 7, note 45. 


54  See Ḥassān, 

Dīwān, I, 116, verse 1; 256, line 7 (on prayers).


55  For al-Ḥasān al-Hamdānī, see O. Löfgren, “Hamdani,” 

EI2, III, 124–25. 


56  Al-Ḥasān al-Hamdānī, 

Ṣifat Jazīrat al-ʿArab, ed. M. al-Akwaʿ (Riyadh, 1974), 344–65.


57  Ibid., 365. I dealt with this passage briefly in “Byzantium in South Arabia,” 

DOP 33 (1979), 73. 

Since then I have come to the conclusion that this practice and style of mourning are related to the  

martyrdoms of Najrān. 



The Book of the Himyarites, ed. A. Moberg (Lund, 1924), cxvi–cxvii, cxxi–cxxii. These pages enu-

merate only the 300 martyrs of Najrān. 


59  That Najrān bore the brunt of the persecutions and the martyrdoms is clear from a look at the 

table of contents of the 

Book of the Himyarites, ci–civ.


Music and Song

dead. Lamenting and elegizing the dead was part of the Arab mores, and 


elegies, were a highly developed subdivision of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, which 

produced some of the best elegies in the entire corpus of that poetry.60 The Arabs 

of Najrān had their own school of poets,61 and they surely would not have deprived 

their own dead of threnodies in the aftermath of the war of religion that raged in 

that region in the sixth century.62 After these martyrdoms, South Arabia became 

a sort of a holy land because the martyrs’ blood was spilled in many and various 

parts of the country, but Najrān became the center of Arab Christian pilgrimage. 

Reflecting the memory of the martyrs in the liturgy was consonant with lamenting 

the dead 

more Arabico, and so this unique expression of mourning in South Arabia 

represents the confluence of the two currents—the Arab and the Christian.63


2. The toponyms enumerated in the Hamdānī passage point in the same 

direction, and some of them can be checked with the primary document for South 


The Book of the Ḥimyarites. The Book makes clear that the three main 

centers of the persecutions were Najrān, Maʾrib, and Hajaren (in Ḥaḍramawt).64 

Hamdānī mentions five cities: Najrān, Khaywān, Saʿda, al-Jawf, and Maʾrib. So, 

two of the toponyms that appear in the 

Book are also named by Hamdānī. The 

Book, however, does not necessarily include all the places that witnessed the mar-

tyrdoms; it focuses on the three main centers, ranging from Najrān in the north, 

to Maʾrib in the middle, and to Hajaren in the southeast. Around these three cen-

ters may be grouped the others mentioned by Hamdānī, such as Khaywān and 


60  The Andalusian author Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih devoted almost a hundred pages to 

marathi and con-

solations in his classic work, 

al-ʿIqd al-Farīd, ed. A. Amīn, A. I. Abyārī, and A. Hārūn (Beirut, 1982), 

III,228–311. These elegies belong mostly to the Islamic period, but they continue an Arabic tradition 

that went back to pre-Islamic times (and some pre-Islamic elegies are included). The standard work 

on mourning among the Arabs now is N. M. El-Cheikh, “Mourning and the Role of the Nāʾiḥa,” in 

Identidades Marginales, ed. C. de la Puente (Madrid, 2003), 395–412. 


61  For this 

dīwān, collected by al-Sukkari and al-Āmidi, see N. al-Asad, Maṣādir al-Shiʿr al-Jāhili 

(1956; reprint, Beirut, 1988), 543, 546. One of the poets of the school of Najrān, ʿAbd Yagūth, elegized 

himself before his death in a poem that he recited; it is one of the most famous elegies in the history of 

Arabic poetry (see Iṣfahānī, 

al-Aghānī, XVI, 328). ʿAbd Yagūth and his poetry elicited the admiration of 



z, that ninth-century connoisseur of Arabic poetry; see his 

al-Bayān wa al-Tabyīn, ed. ʿA. Hārūn 

(Cairo, 1961), II, 268; IV, 45. As ʿAbd Yaguth elegized himself, so did Ruhm/Ruhayma, the most promi-

nent woman martyr of Najrān; what she said has been preserved in Syriac (see 

Martyrs, 57–58).


62  Especially as others in various parts of Christendom mourned and remembered the martyrs of 

Najrān; they include Jacob of Sarūj, who wrote a letter of consolation after the first persecution; the 

anonymous writer of the 

laudes Nagranae in the Martyrium Arethae; and John Psaltes, who wrote a 

hymn on the martyrs. For the letter of Jacob of Sarūj and the Hymn of Ioannes Psaltes, see R. Schröter, 

“Trostschreiben Jacob’s von Sarūg an die himyaritischen Christen,” 

Zeitschrift der Deutschen 

Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 31 (1877), 306–405. On the Laudes Nagranae, see Martyrs, 211–12. 


63  Islam discouraged mourning but the practice has survived in various parts of the Muslim world. 

Its most outstanding example is the mourning that continues in Shiʾite communities throughout the 

Muslim world over Ḥusayn the son of ʿAli, who fell at the battle of Karbalāʾ in a.d. 680. 


64 See 

The Book of the Himyarites, ci–civ.


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

Saʿda in the orbit of Najrān, and others as well in the region of Madḥij.65 But 

Najrān remains the primary focus. Perhaps the practice of mourning initiated for 

these sixth-century martyrs spread in later Islamic times to become the mode of 

remembering Islamic figures who died or were killed in the neighboring regions. 

Christian monuments became Muslim ones in South Arabia; one example is the 

monastery or Church of St. Sergius in Tarīm (Ḥaḍramawt), which became the 

mosque of Sarjīs.66


3. In addition to listing toponyms that point in the direction of the sixth-

century martyrs, the passage gives a detailed description of how both the women 

and the men of these places in South Arabia customarily expressed their mourning 

through the 

responsive singing of tunes, luḥūn. This style in singing, the tarjiʿāt in 

Arabic, certainly brings to mind the antiphonal singing in the church during the 

celebration of the liturgy, when a choir of men sings 

alternately with a choir of boys 

or women; this practice is definitely not an Arab custom and suggests Christian 

influence. South Arabia in its entirety became a very Muslim country in the ninth 

century, and the presence of such a Christian element surely points to a period, the 

sixth century, when the country had been Christian; at the same time, the promi-

nence given to mourning suggests the most important event in the Christian his-

tory of the region, namely, the martyrdoms at Najrān.67 


Hamdānī discusses the mourning, the 

niyāḥa, in general in these locales, and 

says that women mourn in light verse,

 shiʿr khafīf, to tunes that they themselves 

compose. Then follows a statement that could suggest some responsive singing 

among the women, who also lament aloud, 



That mourning was performed in Arabia by women was not surprising, 

as they perform this function in many societies; the Near East even witnessed 


65  For these toponyms, see A. Jamme, 

Sabaean Inscriptions from Maḥram Bilqīs (Mārib) (Baltimore, 

1962), Plate G. The region of the Madḥij group, one of these seven toponyms, was near Najrān, since 

some genealogists believed that the Ḥārithids of Najrān belong to Madḥij. The name of a village in the 

region of Najrān, al-Aṭhār (plural of 

ṭāhir), “the pure ones,” which suggests a place associated with the 

martyrs, is described as being a part of the land of Khathʿam

, arḍ Khathʿam; see Bakri, Muʿ jam (Cairo, 

1951), II, 562. 


66  On Masjid Sarjīs, see Shahîd, “Byzantium in South Arabia,” 84–87. Since writing that article, 

which discussed whether the Arabic Sarjīs represents George or Sergius, I have concluded that it is more 

likely to be Sergius and that this demonstrates the influence of the Byzantinized Ghassānids: St. Sergius 

was their saint and the saint of the army of the Orient.


67  It is not clear why Khaywān in particular is singled out for this extraordinary style in mourn-

ing. However, the practice reflects the importance of mourning as a way of keeping the memory of the 

deceased alive in the consciousness of the townsfolk, which in turn could go back to the special venera-

tion for martyrs, who had given their most precious lives for their ideals. 


68  Hamdānī uses the verb 

yatakhālasnahu, “they steal, pilfer [the light verse] among themselves,” 

and his meaning is somewhat obscure. The root 

kh-l-s, used in the tafāʿala form, endows the derivative 

with reciprocity, suggesting that each female mourner who composes some verses jealously guards them 

as her own, but cannot help her colleagues’ hearing and using them. 


Music and Song

professional female mourners, hired by the bereaved to sing and sometimes to cry 

for their dead.69 It is noteworthy, however, that in South Arabia they mourned over 

the dead in metrical compositions. This is consonant with the fact that some ele-

gies in Arabic—and some of the best—were composed by women; the most famous 

female elegist in this pre-Islamic period was al-Khansāʾ.70 It is also noteworthy that 

the women of South Arabia set these elegiac verses to music.


After mentioning the female mourners, Hamdānī states that the men have 

their own tunes, different from those of the women, which are used in wonderfully 

responsive singing that involved both the men and the women.71 The description 

confirms the argument for the 

antiphonal nature of mourning in these locations. 


Hamdānī’s last statement on male mourners refers to them as 

mawāli, that is, 

non-Arabs who were affiliated with an Arab group and so became their clients.72 

Their involvement suggests foreign influence in this style of mourning. The con-

tinuation of the practice by these non-Arab mourners in Islamic times is indeed 

a remarkable instance of the persistence of a heritage rooted in the distant past, 

echoes of which are, apparently, audible in present-day Yaman.73


Antiphonal singing came from abroad, and in the context of sixth-century 

Christian Arabia could only have come from the region of Christian cultural dom-

inance—namely, Byzantium in the north, which was mediated to South Arabia 

principally through the Ghassānids. An explicit statement on Byzantine influence 

in Najrān comes from Iṣfahānī; in 

Kitāb al-Aghānī, he describes the visit of the 

pre-Islamic poet al-Aʿshā to Najrān and its rulers, who would entertain him 


alia with al-ghināʾ al-Rūmi, Rhomaic Byzantine singing.74 Though this song was 

undoubtedly not sacred but secular,75 it does document the Byzantine influence. If 

this secular song penetrated South Arabia, 

a fortiori sacred song did too, since this 

was the century of the flowering of Christianity in South Arabia. Evidence for the 

prevalence of such song is provided by the Laws of St. Gregentius. This draconian 

code, said to have been imposed on South Arabia by a bishop sent from Byzantium, 

prohibited all sorts of secular entertainment and instead recommended religious 


69  The Arabs did not equate all expressions of grief, declaring that “the grief of the mourning bereaved 

mother is different from that of the hired mourner”; see Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih, 

al-ʿIqd al-Farīd, II, 228.


70  Al-Khansāʾ belonged to the pre-Islamic period but lived long enough to convert to Islam; on her, 

see Sezgin, 

GAS, II, 311–14. 


71  The statements end in Arabic: 

wa li al-rijāl min al-mawāli luḥūn ghayr dhālika ʿajībat al-tarājīʿ 

bayn al-rijāl wa al-nisāʾ; Hamdānī, Ṣifat Jazīrat al-ʿArab, 365.


72 For 

mawāli, see P. Crone, “Mawāli,” EI2, VI, 874–87. 


73  According to the twentieth-century editor of Hamdānī, M. al-Akwaʿ; see 

Ṣifat Jazīrat al-ʿArab, 

365 note 2.


74  See al-Asad, 

al-Qiyān, 133.


75  The music was of two kinds, as noted above—Ḥanafi and Ḥimyari—but little is known about 

them; see Farmer, 

A History of Arabian Music, 3, 15, and see above, note 43. 


byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

entertainment—psalmody and hymnography.76 It clearly illustrates the influence 

of the Byzantine north, which dispatched a bishop to Christianize the country 

after military victory was achieved.


To the victory of Christianity in South Arabia, Byzantium contributed 

much, and in the years that followed it continued to contribute to the arts of peace, 

both secular and religious,77 often through the Ghassānids. It is, therefore, natu-

ral to assume that in addition to the secular Rhomaic song explicitly referred to by 

Iṣfahānī, sacred song, supported by the Laws of Gregentius, also penetrated Najrān 

and South Arabia in general, a conclusion drawn by inference from examination of 

the passage in Hamdānī’s 

Ṣifat Jazīrat al-ʿArab.


The Ghassānids were not only a professional military group but also enthu-

siastic Monophysites. Their patron saint was none other than Sergius, the soldier 

who had died as a martyr some three centuries before. Death on the battlefield was 

a fate they faced and expected, and their reaction to it was shaped by both Arab 

and Christian influences. This may be illustrated by a recollection of some of the 

events in their history, and more specifically by the career of the famous Arethas. 


1. At the battle of Qinnasrīn, Arethas’ son, Jabala, was killed. His father bur-

ied him in a 

martyrion in Qinnasrīn/Chalcis.78 Elegies no doubt were written and 

recited on that occasion as was customary on the death of warriors in pre-Islamic 

Arabia, perhaps in this case compounded with Christian sentiments and prayers 

for the dead.


2. Such must have been the case when the redoubtable warrior Arethas him-

self died in a.d. 569. Decades after his death, Labīd, one of the poets of the so-

called Suspended Odes, could still refer to it simply by mentioning “the Day of 

Jalliq,” where he apparently died and was buried.79 His death must have inspired 

elegies as his life did panegyrics, and they were probably set to music and sung.80 

ʿAlqama’s celebrated panegyric on him was sung to the Ghassānid king by the  

poet himself.81


3. Even more revealing is a verse in the panegyric of Ḥassān, written in the 

Islamic period after the fall of the dynasty: it refers to the Ghassānids as sitting or 


76  The code suppresses such performances as those of zither players, lyre players, and dancers and 

imposes punishments on them, and it recommends psalmody; see section 35 of the code in PG LXXXVI, 

cols. 600–661 (it again recommends psalmody in section 38, col. 661). For an English translation,  

see Gregentios, 

Life and Works, 430, 431.


77  See Shahîd, “Byzantium in South Arabia.” 


78 See 

BASIC I.1, 241.


79 Labīd, 

Dīwān, ed. I. ʿAbbās (Kuwait, 1962), 266, verses 49–52; for a discussion of this remem-

brance of the death of Arethas, see 

BASIC II.1, 278–80.


80  See Abū Naṣr al-Fārābi, 

Kitāb al-Mūsīqī al-Kabīr, 73.


81  See al-Aʿlam al-Shantamarī, 

Dīwān ʿAlqama al-Faḥl, ed. D. al-Khaṭīb and I. Ṣaqqāl (Aleppo, 

1969), 33–49. 


Music and Song

going around the tomb of Arethas, son of Māriya.82 The verse attracted the atten-

tion of the medieval scholiasts, who were not as well informed on the Ghassānids 

as they were on the Lakhmids.83 Though Ḥassān did not become the poet laure-

ate of the Ghassānids until some two or three decades after Arethas’ death and 

his burial in Jalliq or Jābiya, the poet could still speak of the Ghassānids around 

his tomb. Recognizing that the deceased might be mourned long after his burial 

(a practice observed in Najrān by Hamdānī) helps us to understand this verse. 

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