Sixth century


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influence of the School of Edessa. The Ghassānid monks were even closer to Ephrem 

and Syriac Christianity than were the Armenians. Their archphylarchs and kings, 

such as Arethas, were active in the Syriac Monophysite church, and he remained a 

close friend of, and co-worker with, the chief Syriac hierarch of that church, Jacob 

Baradaeus, for some thirty years. These years witnessed the Arab Monophysite 

renaissance under the joint leadership of the archphylarch Arethas and the arch-

hierarch Theodore. Although the extant sources are scanty and uninformative on 

cultural achievements in the Ghassānid monasteries, they surely resembled those of 

the Syriac monasteries, on which the sources are more informative.7 

 

Against this background of the educational function of the Syriac monas-



teries in Oriens, that of the Ghassānid may now be set. This educational func-

tion must have been considerable, as an examination of the Arab monasteries of 

this pre-Islamic period—especially in the eastern part of the Fertile Crescent, in 

Ḥīra, and in Lakhmid territory—will make clear. Its importance is reflected in 

the number of monasteries that survived well into Islamic times and in the many 

volumes written on them, of which only 



Kitāb al-Diyārāt of al-Shabūshti is  

still extant.8

 

More illuminating about intellectual life in these monasteries is information 



provided by Hishām on those of Ḥīra. In addition to authoring a monograph on its 

monasteries, 



Kitāb al-Diyārāt, Hishām made clear that the monasteries were the 

repositories of books, documents, and inscriptions on the history of Ḥīra and the 

pre-Islamic Arabs, on the basis of which he was able to reconstruct that history.9 In 

 

6  On the impact of the Syriac monastery in Armenia and, more pertinently to the Ghassānids in 



Syria, see Vööbus, 

Early Monasticism, 393, 425. The mission of Syriac monasticism in Armenia (353–59) 

may offer insight into activities in Arab monasteries in Ghassānid Oriens. Vööbus refers to translations 

made by Armenian monks of Syriac literature into Armenian, and likewise monks in the Ghassānid 

monasteries must have translated texts into Arabic, heightening the Syriac influence on the last stage of 

the development of the Arabic script in pre-Islamic times (discussed in Chapter 5, below). 

 

7  One of the pursuits in these Syriac monasteries was the writing of histories of saints and their 



own founders (ibid., 401). Ghassānid monks probably wrote histories of the Najrān martyrs, especially 

Saints Arethas and Ruhm; the founders of the monasteries included Ghassānid kings.

 

8  See al-Shābushti, 



Kitāb al-Diyārāt, ed. G. ʿAwwād (Baghdad, 1966). The other book on monas-

teries, Iṣfahānī’s 



Kitāb al-Diyārāt, ed. J. al-ʿAtiyya (London, 1991), has been reconstructed from extant 

fragments.

 

9  On Hishām and the 



kutub/asfār of Ḥīra, see BAFOC, 349–66, especially 355–57. Some relevant 

293

The Monastery as a Cultural Center

turn, the distinguished German scholar Theodor Nöldeke used Hishām to work 

out the history of the Sasanids and of Lakhmid-Sasanid relations.10

 

Because the later Muslim historians Ṭabarī and Balādurī were primarily 



interested in the Lakhmids, owing to their Persian connection, they wrote next to 

nothing on the monasteries of Ghassānid Oriens. The Muslim historian al-Dahabī 

(d. 1348) enumerated in his monumental 

Tārīkh al-Islam (The History of Islam

what he called “the genres of history,” 



funūn al-tārīkh. One of the forty-nine genres 

was 


tārīkh al-ruhbān wa uli al-ṣawāmiʿ, “the history of monks and those of the 

monasteries.”11 This history no doubt included valuable information on monks 

and their activities. It is noteworthy that the Muslim historian was interested not 

in the churches and their priests but in monasteries and in monks, a sure sign that 

it was the 

dayr, the monastery, that was the cultural center of Christianity.

 

Despite the lack of resources for reconstructing the cultural life of the 



Ghassānid monastery in Oriens, it is possible to reach some significant conclusions 

based on the following observations.

 

The Ghassānids were the rivals of the Lakhmids, and each tried to outdo the 



other in various areas. One of these areas of healthy competition was the cultural 

work of the monks, which in the monasteries of Ḥīra resulted in 



kutub and asfār 

(books and tomes);12 the natural presumption is that the same result obtained in 

the monasteries of the Lakhmids’ rivals—the Ghassānids.

 

This presumption is especially strong in view of the fact that the Ghassānids, 



unlike most of the Lakhmids,13 were enthusiastic Christians who sponsored 

monastic institutions. One would therefore expect their monks to engage in the 

same intellectual pursuits with at least as much intensity. 

 Around 


a.d. 540 a special bishop, Theodore, was consecrated as the bishop 

of the resuscitated Monophysite Ghassānid church, a role he performed for at least 

thirty years. Before his elevation to the episcopate he had been a monk, and one 

might reasonably speculate that he was responsible for founding many or most of 

material is also provided in F. Rosenthal, “On the Semitic Root S/Š –P.R and Arabic 

Safar, ‘Travel,’” 

Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 24 (2000), 4–21, especially 7–9, 13–14.

 

10  See the copious notes and appendices in T. Nöldeke, trans., 



Geschichte der Perser und Araber zur 

Zeit der Sasaniden (1879; reprint, Graz, 1973). Ṭabarī’s work is now available with an English trans-

lation and copious annotation by C. E. Bosworth; see 



The History of Tabari, vol. 1, The Sāsānids, the 

Byzantines, the Lakhmids, and Yemen (Albany, 1999).

 

11  On al-Dahabī and his work, see 



BASIC II.1, 158–59.

 

12  For the 



kutub and asfār of the Hīra monasteries, see note 9, above; on sifr (singular of asfār), 

see Ibn Man

˙

zūr, 


Lisān al-ʿArab (Beirut, 1979), III, 295, and An Arabic-English Lexicon, ed. E. W. Lane 

(London, 1972), Part I, book 4, 1971. 

 

13  Christianity penetrated the Lakhmid royal house in the second half of the sixth century. Hind, 



the wife of the famous Mundir (son of Nuʿmān), was a devout Christian; her son, King ʿAmr, was accord-

ing to her inscription also Christian (Yāqūt, 



Muʿ jam al-Buldan [Beirut, 1956], II, 542) and so was the 

last Lakhmid, al-Nuʿmān. 



294

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

the 137 monasteries whose archimandrites wrote a letter to the Ghassānid king 

Arethas in 569.14

 

After the reestablishment of Monophysitism around a.d. 540, that church 



experienced a feverish burst of cultural rebuilding, manifested both concretely, in 

the monasteries that sprang up in the Provincia Arabia, and theologically, in seri-

ous discussions and often controversies, culminating in the Tritheistic heresy of 

Eugenius and Conon.15 In these controversies, the Ghassānid phylarch played a 

major role, and his own troops were also involved.16 It is natural to suppose that the 

monks of these newly restored monasteries were highly involved in these theologi-

cal disputes and related matters. They would have reflected upon them, discussed 

them in the quiet of their monasteries, and written about them.

 

As has been maintained in all the 



BASIC volumes, the Ghassānids were 

strongly aware of their Arab identity; they were responsible for Arabizing the limi-

trophe in Oriens. In this identification, their attachment to the Arabic language 

was the dominant factor. And in Ghassānid monasteries, with their Arab monks, 

Arabic was used in whatever pursuits, literary and theological, they undertook. So 

the discussion of the cultural life of the Ghassānid monastery, based on the obser-

vations just made, will focus on the following elements (explored in Chapter 5): 

(1) The employment of the Arabic language in discussions of the theological ques-

tions that rocked the Monophysite church and involved the royal house of the 

Ghassānids and its troops, and the engagement of Arab monks in literary pursuits 

such as translation work, like that of their Aramaic brethren, who were translating 

so actively from Greek into Syriac in this period. (2) The impetus that the monks 

gave to the development of the Arabic script, now in its final stages of emancipa-

tion from the old Nabataean script; it was influenced by Syriac, from which the 

Arab monks must have made some translations.

Religious Studies and Pursuits

Previous volumes of this series have identified the strictly Arab Ghassānid monas-

teries. One of them was actually called “the Monastery of the Ghassānids,”17 and 

the natural presumption is that its inhabitants were Arabs who took the monastic 

garb. Some Ghassānid soldiers, after their victory in the battle of Chalcis in a.d. 

554, chose to stay with St. Symeon in the religious life, believing that he had come 

to their rescue during the battle.18

 

The pursuits of these Arab monks at the Monastery of the Ghassānids and 



 

14  On Theodore, see 



BASIC I.2, 755, 771, 778; BASIC II.1, 176–83.

 

15 See 



BASIC I.2, 805–38.

 

16  Ibid., 818.



 

17 See 


BASIC II.1, 183; on Ghassānid monasteries, more generally, see 183–94.

 

18 See 



BASIC I.1, 247; BASIC I.2, 778–79.

295

The Monastery as a Cultural Center

other Ghassānid monasteries are not stated explicitly in any of the sources, but a 

number of activities seem plausible.

 

The resuscitation of their church by their own king, Arethas, and the contro-



versies that raged in the next thirty years or so between them and the Chalcedonians, 

as well as within the Monophysite church itself,19 must have been major concerns of 

these Arab monks. Surely the new Arab Monophysite church needed a liturgy for 

conducting its service, reflecting the new situation in which the church found itself. 

The monasteries would have prepared one for the Arab worshippers.

 

Portions of the Bible must have been included in the liturgy, and thus, as pre-



vious volumes maintained, the Gospel and the Psalms must already have been avail-

able in Arabic.20 But it is not impossible that a new translation of these books of the 

Bible was undertaken during this renaissance of the Monophysite church.21 That 

the Ghassānids had an Arabic version of the Gospel is confirmed by the 



Dīwān of 

al-Nābigha. In a celebrated ode he refers to their 



majallat (scroll),22 which medi-

eval commentators rightly understood to be the



 injīl, the Gospel. Whether this 

was an old Arabic version available to the Ghassānids or a new one created after 

a.d. 540 by an industrious monk is not clear.23

 

Literary and intellectual activities must have been pursued in the Ghassānid 



monastery, especially during the supremacy of a highly literate dynasty under the 

long secular and ecclesiastical leadership of Arethas and Theodore. This was the 

period when Greek thought was conveyed to the Semitic world through its trans-

lation into Syriac, the culturally dominant language among the Semitic peoples. 

Whatever translations the Arab monks in Ghassānid monasteries might have 

undertaken, they were done from Syriac, the lingua franca of 



Oriens Christianus, 

a matter of considerable importance in determining what was translated; but as 

none of these texts has survived, the translations are now more important for their 

influence on the development of the Arabic script and for what can be deduced 

about the route that its development took.

 

The Arab monks undoubtedly were aware of the intense theological con-



troversies convulsing the church. As noted above, the Ghassānid phylarch was 

 

19 See 



BASIC I.2, 925–35. 

 

20 See 



BAFOC, 435–43; BAFIC, 422–29.

 

21  Translations of the Bible have been frequently undertaken. The translation of the Gospel from 



Syriac into Arabic in the early Umayyad period was done at the special request of ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ, who 

wanted a new version that was free from what Islam did not accept about Christ; for the encounter 

between ʿAmr and the Syriac Patriarch John I, see F. Nau, “Un colloque du Patriarche Jean avec l’émir 

des Agaréens,” 



Journal Asiatique, ser. 11, 5 (1915), 257–79.

 

22 See 



Dīwān al-Nābigha al-Dubyānī, ed. M. Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 1977), 47, verse 24.

 

23  The question of whether an Arabic version of the Bible in its entirety existed in this pre-Islamic 



period is still 

sub judice. I shall attend to it in a future monograph, treating this verse in al-Nābigha—

particularly the tantalizing phrase 



dhāt al-ilāh (literally, “of God,” “divine”)in great detail

296

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

involved in these; indeed, at the conference on the Tritheistic movement in 

Constantinople in 569, Arethas presided and used theological language.24 The 

Ghassānid king knew Syriac and Greek since he had to deal with the central gov-

ernment in Constantinople and with the hierarchs of Monophysitism who were 

Syriac-speaking. It seems likely that the Arab monks of the Ghassānid monaster-

ies were engaged in writing on the theological controversies for the benefit both 

of the royal house and of the rank and file of the Ghassānid army. In addition, the 

same verse of al-Nābigha that provides evidence of an Arabic Ghassānid Gospel, as 

already discussed, suggests even more strongly the existence of theological Arabic. 

The poet describes their religion, 



dīn, as qawīm, “straight,”25 clearly a technical 

term reflecting the theological self-image of the Ghassānids. Nöldeke was the first 

to note that the use of 

qawīm in this verse was not a literary locution but an Arabic 

substitute for a technical theological Greek term, ὀρθός. So, in his Latin annota-

tion of al-Nābigha’s ode, he translated the poet’s statement on their 

dīn as qawīm: 

Religio eorum est ὀρθόδοξος.26 Surely this was the term used by the Monophysite 

Ghassānids themselves to describe their “straight” orthodox faith, and the chances 

are good that it was coined by monks of one of the libraries of the Ghassānid 

monasteries.

 

The existence of an Arabic Ghassānid Gospel and some Arabic theologi-



cal texts has been predicated on the basis of two lexemes in contemporary Arabic 

poetry, 


majallat and qawīm, but the evidence provided by al-Nābigha’s verse gains 

weight when set against the historical background of 



foederati whose ordinary sol-

diers as well as rulers were enthusiastic Christians. The existence of both is much 

easier to prove in the areas of Ḥīra and Najrān, for which sources are available, but 

in a chapter that aims at assessing the 



Ghassānid cultural contribution, the support 

from al-Nābigha is crucial.

 

24  Arethas spoke of 



Trinitas Deorum; see  Documenta ad Origines Monophysitarum Illustrandas, 

ed. J. B. Chabot, CSCO, Scriptores Syri, ser. 2, vol. 37 (Louvain, 1933), 137. In an earlier conference 

held in Constantinople, he also used the theological term 

quaternitas in his dialogue with Ephraim; see 

Chronique de Michel le Syrien, Patriarche jacobite d’Antioche (1166–1199), ed. and trans. J. B. Chabot 

(Paris, 1899), II, 246–47, discussed in 



BASIC I.2, 748–50.

 

25  See al-Nābigha, 



Dīwān, 47, verse 24.

 

26 



Delectus Veterum Carminarum Arabicarum, ed. T. Nöldeke (1890; reprint, Wiesbaden, 1961), 96 

note 22.


V

The Arabic Script

T

he Arabic script is one of the major writing systems of the world, now sacred 



to more than a billion inhabitants of this globe—the Muslims. It became the 

Islamic art par excellence since Islam, like Judaism, rejects representational art; and 

so to a great extent the artistic talents of Islam’s adherents were channeled into per-

fecting it as a major art form, with the result that it is considered one of the most 

beautiful forms of writing in existence.1 The roots of this script, however, go back 

to pre-Islamic times. This chapter examines the role of the Ghassānids in its devel-

opment, and explores the possibility that its calligraphic expression, too, may be 

rooted in pre-Islamic times and reflect Ghassānid involvement. 

The Development of the Naskhi Style

It is generally recognized that the main center of the development of Arabic script 

was Ḥīra, in Lakhmid territory; the style there derived from a Syriac parent script, 

the Estrangela, which gave Arabic its Satranjīli, later known as Kūfic.2 The western 

part of the Fertile Crescent also shared in this development of the Arabic script. In 

fact the 



extant Arabic inscriptions of pre-Islamic times were found not in the east-

ern part of the Fertile Crescent but in Oriens.3 The earliest and the most impor-

tant Arabic inscription of pre-Islamic times, the Namāra inscription of a.d. 328, 

written in the Nabataean script, belonged to Oriens.4 Inscriptions from the sixth 

century are written in a different style, in an Arabic script now differentiated from 

the Nabataean.5

 

1  See S. Ory, “Calligraphy,” in 



Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, ed. J. D. McAuliffe (Leiden, 2001),  

I, 278–85.

 

2  On the development of the Arabic script, see A. Grohmann, 



Arabische Paläographie (Vienna, 

1971), II, 7–33; J. Sourdel-Thomine, “Khaṭṭ,” 



EI2, IV, 1113–22; and B. Gründler, “Arabic Script,” in 

Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, I, 135–44.

 

3  See Grohmann, 



Arabische Paläographie, II, 16–17.

 

4  This inscription, the epitaph of Imruʾ al-Qays, is discussed in 



BAFOC, 31–61, and a facsimile of 

it is that volume’s frontispiece. See also 



BALA I, 1–68.

 

5  These are the Zabad, Usays, and Ḥarrān inscriptions; see 



BASIC I.1, 117–24, 325–31.

298

byzantium and the arabs in the sixth century

 

Although no inscriptions have so far been discovered for the fifth century, 



it was obviously a period of development for the Arabic script. These changes 

occurred during the supremacy of the Salīḥids, the 



foederati of the fifth century.6 

The distinguished Austrian papyrologist and epigrapher Adolf Grohmann has 

suggested that the style of the Arabic script, later called 

Naskhi, was developed 

in the western part of the Fertile Crescent.7 The volume on the Salīḥids, taking 

up Grohmann’s fruitful suggestions, explained the role of these 

foederati in bridg-

ing the gap between the Namāra inscription of the fourth century and the newly 

developed Arabic of the sixth-century inscriptions, while these present volumes on 

the Ghassānids of the sixth century have prepared the way for understanding the 

final federate development of this script.

 

The two most important surviving sixth-century inscriptions are Ghassānid. 



One is secular: the Usays inscription of 529, written by Ibn al-Mughīra, a mili-

tary commander detailed by the Ghassānid king Arethas to take charge of a fort. 

The other is contextually ecclesiastical, though written by a Ghassānid phylarch; it 

was carved in a church dedicated to St. John in Ḥarrān in Trachonitis.8 The two 

inscriptions evidence the involvement of the Ghassānids in the development of 

this Arabic script, involvement that is explained by two main factors. First, sixth-

century Oriens contained energetic kings and bishops who were aware of their 

Arab identity; especially influential were Arethas and Theodore, who controlled 

federate Oriens between 540 and 570. Even more relevant to the development 

of the script is the spread of monasticism and the proliferation of monasteries in 

the Oriens of the Ghassānids. The same monks who were actively producing texts 

must have been chiefly responsible for the final development in pre-Islamic Arabic 

script, the style that later came to be called the 

Naskhi.

 

These monks in Ghassānid monasteries who were involved in the study of 



ecclesiastical literature and in translation possessed texts written in Syriac, the 

prestigious lingua franca of Semitic 



Oriens Christianus. It is natural to suppose 

that when these Arab monks expressed themselves in Arabic, they were influ-

enced by the much more developed Syriac script—the script of the Peshitta, of 

St. Ephrem’s oeuvre, and of other Syriac texts. The likelihood of this influence 

strengthens the argument that this style of the Arabic script developed in Oriens 

not from Nabataean but from the Syriac version of Aramaic.9

 

6 See 


BAFIC, 415–19.

 

7  For the views of Grohmann, see 






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