Asad Rustum on St. John of Damascus
Now this is a first for me, but David, a loyal reader of this blog and author of the blog Flow of Consciousness, has posted this with the express wishes that I re-post it. What follows is a translation from Arabic by Fr. Charles Baz of a piece by Dr. Asad Rustum about St. John of Damascus. Dr. Rustum, the official historian of the Church of Antioch in his day, also wrote a book entitled كنيسة مدينة الله انطاكية العظمى that is still the best (and almost only) scholarly history of the Church of Antioch in all periods. Someone should really organize a translation of it!
Saint John of Damascus the Gold-Streaming
Ο Αγιος Ιωάννης του Δαμασκηνου Ο Χρυσορρόας
القديس يوحنا الدمشقي دفـّاق الذهب
The present historical work is an analysis prepared by the official historian of the Apostolic Church of Antioch, Dr. Asad Rustum (1879-1965) of blessed memory. The analysis presented—to whom all credit is due—is entirely the work and copyright of Dr. Rustum, published in Lebanon in Arabic over half a century ago. Due to its rare existence, the need for presenting it in English for Western readers cannot be undermined, especially to students of history and theology who may find it beneficial. Since there are several extant Vitae/Synaxaria concerning our Saint, consequently, some of these disagree among themselves on certain historical facts. A vita belongs to the field of hagiology which can be influenced by local customs and traditions, hence the probable cause of some variations among the different Vitae. Our Saint lived during a tumultuous period in Church history, a period which experienced the early rise of Islam, and, Iconoclasm. Only a solid historical presentation of our Saint, such as the one rendered by Dr. Rustum, can vilify the errors and speak plainly to us, especially today, when these two issues are again confronting Christianity. The defense of Orthodoxy, as rendered by Saint John of Damascus, was valid in the Eighth Century, and due to the current circumstances, it should be valid today as well. Any errors in translation are strictly mine, and I beg the reader’s forgiveness. It is to God that we owe our knowledge and our existence.
The Suffering of the Melkites (الملكيّين) under the Umayyads (الأمويين)
This is a difficult epoch during which the Jacobites (اليعاقبة) took advantage of the ongoing wars between the Byzantines and the Umayyads (Muslims, as they were called at the time), in that they pointed to Muslims that the Byzantine Christians of the Middle East were indeed Melkites—King=Melek in Semitic, hence, Melekites/Melkites=Subjects of the Emperor—and they charged them with spying on behalf of the Byzantine Empire. As a result, the Umayyads persecuted the so-called Byzantine Melkites and prevented them from appointing Patriarchs in the Apostolic Thrones of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Previously, it was stated that the following Patriarchs of Antioch (Macedonius, Georgios I, and Makarios) ruled the Apostolic Throne of Antioch from as far as Constantinople. This preventive measure which was imposed by the Umayyads affected four Patriarchs of Antioch, namely: Theophanes I (681-687), Stephanos III (687-690), Georgios II (690-695), and Alexandros II (695-702). It is probable, although not concretely evident, that the last two of these Patriarchs returned to Antioch (1). Ironically, during this period as well, the Jacobite Patriarchs also ruled their throne while they were placed far from Antioch, in places like Diar Bekir and Malatia. Interestingly, one of the Jacobite Patriarchs, namely, Elias, won the favor of the Umayyads and was granted their permission to build a church in Antioch, yet nonetheless he was prevented from dwelling in that city.
The Umayyads and Christians
The Umayyads were in a thirsty pursuit of money for three reasons: First, in order to invent factions [i.e. through bribery]; second, like any dynasty, in order to enjoy the earthly life; and third, in order to fund their ongoing wars. They increased their existing taxation on non-Muslims which came in two forms: Al-Jizya and Al-Khirraj (2). Their pursuit for revenue was so dire that they even enforced Al-Jizya on already converted Muslims. Some of the Christians, seeing that conversion to Islam would neither spare them Al-Jizya nor violence, they resorted to Monasticism. Having noticed that such actions were a possible aversion to taxation, the Umayyads consequently enforced Al-Jizya on monks. The Umayyads’ thirst for tax money was so great that they even imposed it on the dead, by making survivors pay on behalf of their departed relatives (3). Yet in spite of these documented and strange attempts—which, according to Dr. Rustum, ought not to be used as grounds for generalizations—the Umayyads nonetheless were sympathetic to certain Christians of the Imperial Church. Among those who saw favor in the eyes of the Umayyads was Mansour the son of Sargon/Sergius who the father of Saint John of Damascus. It is also documented that the Umayyads favored some Christian physicians as well. It has been said that the Umayyad Khalif Abd El-Melek Ibn Marwan (الخليفة عبد الملك ابن مروان) entrusted a Nestorian Christian physician, named Sarhon, to look after him, and, he also entrusted Athanasius of Al-Raha (الرّها) to be the mentor of his nephew Abd El-Aziz. It has been also said that Abd El-Melek peacefully attempted to invite Christians to be converted to Islam, without imposing on them any pressure or compulsion (4).
In A.D. 683, the Umayad Khalif Yazid Ibn Mouawiya (يزيد ابن معاوية) died, and his immediate successors were weak. Meanwhile, due to the military victories of the Byzantines under Emperor Constantine IV, the Byzantines eventually succeeded in imposing annual monetary dues/taxation on the Umayyads. On 7 July 685, Abd El-Melek Ibn Marwan, the third successor of Yazid, agreed to this system in a treaty (5). On 1 September 685, Emperor Constantine IV died, and was succeeded by Justinian II who later objected to this treaty, due to the following development of events:
A disagreement arose between Abd El-Melek and Justinian II regarding a certain imprint on paper money. At the time, the Byzantines imported paper from Egypt which was later processed as currency. The Copts had a custom of imprinting either the name of Christ or a symbol of the Trinity on any paper originating from Egypt. During this period, still, the currency exchanged in Muslim territories was either Byzantine Dinarii or Persian coins. That being the case, this custom upset Abd El-Melek who demanded to replace the Coptic Christian symbols with the following Islamic quote: “Say there is but one God” (قل هو الله الأحد). Further, he flagrantly entitled every correspondence with the Byzantines by adding this quote, and finally, he demanded from the Byzantines to include the name of the Prophet (Mohammed) to be imprinted on the currency that was used. The response of Justinian II to Abd El-Melek’s demands was reflective of the Emperor’s young age [he was only sixteen when crowned emperor], who said: “You have committed countless abominations, and yet, you expect us to acquiesce? It would be more expedient to keep the current imprints on money unchanged, or else, should we mention your Prophet, we will not spare you from any humiliation.” The response of Justinian II angered Abd El-Melek who saw it as a threat against Muslims. Acting upon the recommendation of one of his advisors, Abd El-Melek printed Islamic money which made its debut in A.D. 692. In order to further aggravate the Byzantines, he sent his annual dues in the newly printed Islamic money. Having noticed that this money was void of the usual depictions of Byzantine Emperors, Justinian II was angered exceedingly, especially when he noticed Islamic statements imprinted on the money, such as: “He [i.e. God] sent him [i.e. Mohammed] with deliverance and the true religion in order to manifest him to all religions” (أرسله بالهدى ودين الحق ليظهره على الدين كله). Justinian II saw this act as a challenge by the Muslims, and naturally, he rejected this currency, and in A.D. 693 he sent his armies to the borders of Muslim territories (6). Thus, Abd El-Melek brought down the crosses (7) and Patriarch Alexandros II of Antioch was circumstantially martyred along with a company of the faithful. This atrocity resulted in the vacancy of the Throne of Antioch for forty years (8).
In A.D. 705 Abd El-Melek died and was succeeded by his son Al-Waleed (705-715), a cunning and ruthless leader, who followed in the violent footsteps of his father and killed all of the Byzantine war prisoners. Further, and unlike his father, he pressured the Christians to convert to Islam. His personal ambition reached the Damascus Cathedral: “He gathered the Christians and offered them money for the Cathedral, and when they objected, he converted it into a mosque” (9). Whereas Al-Waleed’s brother and successor, Suleiman (715-717), continued in the footsteps of his predecessor and brother, yet Suleiman’s successor, Umar ibn Abd El-Aziz (717-720) sought to establish what was right. Instead, he offered promises and assurances to Christians to return the Cathedral to them. The Muslims of Damascus hated this motive, and remarked: “Ought we to turn back our mosque after we had worshipped and prayed in it?” And so, they approached the Christians and asked them to surrender all of the churches of Al-Ghouta (الغوطة) [a large fertile region surrounding the city of Damascus] if the Christians desired to have the Cathedral of Saint John [the Forerunner] returned to them, but the Christians rejected (10). Finally, Umar resorted to enforce the treaty of his mother’s grandfather, Khalif Umar Ibn Al-Khattab (الخليفة عمر ابنالخطاب).
The Family of Saint John of Damascus
Regarding the background of our Saint’s family, not a whole lot is solidly known or well-documented. According to primary sources, the notion that the family was Byzantine [i.e. Greek, ethnically], as stated by the German scholar Von Kremer, cannot be fully supported (11). Furthermore, while we may partially conclude with Father Isaac Al-Armali that the family was probably Arab or Aramaic, living in their country, yet, we cannot agree that the family shared much of the culture of the Jacobites, for Saint John distanced himself from the Jacobite monasteries and chose to be a monk, along with some of his relatives, in the Orthodox Monastery of Saint Sabba in Palestine. The argument postulated by Ibn Al-Batriq Eutychius (ابن البطريق أفتيخيوس) through John’s father’s request to Khaled to grant safety “to him, to his family, to those with them, and, to the people of Damascus except the Byzantines” cannot establish as grounds that Mansour (John’s grandfather) was a Jacobite Syriac based on this request (12). It is more likely that the term “Byzantines” in this quote more referred to race and not religion (13). Finally, according to Al-Talamhari (التلمحري), who died in 845, Sergius the son of Mansour the famous Damascene scribe, was Chalcedonian and not Jacobite (14)—Clarification: John’s secular name was Mansour, and his grandfather was also named Mansour, thus, our Saint’s secular name in Arabic was Mansour, the son of Sergius, the son of Mansour.
Mansour’s family lived in Damascus, it was a highly regarded family at the time, and it busied itself with administrative positions during the reign of Mauricius (582-602). According to Eutychius (previously mentioned), Mansour held an important and high position in the treasury administration of Mauricius, and he may have been Mauricius’ minister in this task over the province of Lebanon’s Phoenicia, knowing that at the time Damascus was the most important city of the region. Emperor Heraclius kept Mansour in this position even after the Persians’ conquest of Syria (15). It was Mansour (John’s grandfather) who negotiated with the Muslims, on behalf of the Christians of Damascus, who assumed the rule of the city after the Byzantines had deserted it, and the Muslims agreed to his request. Thus, Mansour succeeded in keeping his administrative position under the Muslims, the same position he had had under the Byzantines. The claim that “Sergius son of Mansour” converted to Islam, as postulated by Ibn Asaker and Ibn Shaker (ابن عساكر وابن شاكر) is false, because their statements are unsubstantiated, and their theories are concocted (16). According to Theophanes the Monk, who wrote between 810 and 814, Sergius’ attachment to the Christian faith was unshaken, and he described him as “a Perfect Christian” (17).
In 644, as Uthman Ben Affan (عثمان بن عفان) became Khalif, Mouawiya (معاوية) entered the scene of history as a powerful leader, and desired to take over the entire of Syria. Once Mouawiya became an Umayyad Khalif in Damascus, he sought the assistance of Christians in times of peace and war in order to accomplish his goal. Thus, he maintained the important political and administrative position of the Mansour family in Damascus (18). He probably had done so due to the services already rendered by Mansour (John’s grandfather) during the early days of Islamic conquests and the successive need of the conquerors for trustworthy administrators, and probably also, due to the fact that Mouawiya feared the possible greed on the part of new Muslim administrators and their lack of honesty when it came to fulfilling their tax obligations (19). In all cases, Sergius proved trustworthy with Mouawiya, in that he was a loyal and diligent financial advisor, and he excelled in his services. When Mouawiya was on his deathbed, he beseeched Sergius to carry on his duties until the former’s son, Yazid, had returned from his military conquest in Asia Minor (20). The historical record shows that Yazid maintained Sergius’ post, and so did Mouawiya II (21). Later on, as Abd El-Melek wanted to do away with the Greek financial record system, and exchange them with a new Arabic system of records, Sergius objected. Thus, Abd El-Melek appointed Abd El-Melek Suleiman Ibn Saad (عبد الملك سليمان ابن سعد) to undertake this responsibility who eventually became “the first Muslim charged with the financial records” (22).
Sergius had two sons, one of them was John the Gold-Streaming, who is also known as Mansour by Muslim historians, and another son unknown by name who was the father of Stephen the Seba’ite. Stephen was also a monk in the Monastery of Saint Sabba. Stephen also had a cousin, Gregorios, who also became a monk in the same monastery and was known as a hymnologist. In the ninth century, two Patriarchs of Jerusalem ascended the Throne from this family, namely, Sergius (842-858) and Elia III (879-907) (23).
The Birth and Development of Saint John of Damascus
Our Saint was born in the city of Damascus, and to this city he was traced in belonging, hence his name. Whereas his title of Gold-Streaming is from the Greek Χρυσορρόας, yet this title was first applied to the Damascus River which watered Al-Ghouta region surrounding the city. It was Theophanes who was first in calling our Saint the Gold-Streaming (24). Historically, John was known by different names among different sources in cultures: In Greek sources, he is known as John; in Coptic sources, he is known as John the son of Mansour; in the history of Ibn Al-Ibri (ابن العبري) he is called Quraini son Mansour (قوريني ابن منصور); and in the Arabic “Book of Songs” (كتاب الأغاني) he is called Son of Sargon (ابن سرجون) (25). As far as the date of his birth is concerned, its accuracy is highly debated. According to the composers of the different Vitae, two general dates are assumed, and they are A.D. 670 and 680. Father Nasrallah dates our Saint’s birth at 655, and probably his is the most accurate (26).
John had the luxury of growing up in a house well-known for its wealth, nobility, and education. Damascus, like any other city in the region of the time, enjoyed the privilege of having elite schools. Yet Sergius, instead of placing his sons in an elite school, preferred entrusting them to a private mentor for education. He thus searched for a worthy mentor who would instruct his sons, John and Cosmas his half-brother—Cosmas was adopted by Sergius. It happened that there was a certain Sicilian monk who was previously captured by Muslim pirates and arrived in Damascus. When Sergius observed that other monks, also captives from the same ship as this Cosmas, venerated him and asked for his blessing, Sergius had compassion on him. As Sergius approached him and conversed with him, he saw in Cosmas the mentor candidate he had been searching for. Thus, Sergius took Cosmas to the Khalif and beseeched the latter to have him released, and his wish was granted. Then Sergius took Cosmas the monk to be the mentor of his two sons. Cosmas the Monk was intelligent in the fields of science, literature, and the arts. He educated Sergius’ two sons in the Greek language and literature, as well as in science, philosophy, and music. Upon observing in his protégés a zeal for theology, he took upon himself instructing them in the field. Once the two sons of Sergius completed their instruction, the monk left them and headed for Saint Sabba Monastery. He was later elevated and consecrated the Bishop of Maiuma on the coast of Gaza (27). There is one modern source (28) which disputes the validity of this story; yet, Dr. Rustum sees in this objection nothing but a devious smear tactic. The author concurs, instead, with the findings of Father Nasrallah since the manner of the events depicted are very familiar with some of the recorded histories of the seventh and eighth centuries (29).
(TO BE CONTINUED)
(1) Mansi, XI, Col. 988
(2) Al-Jizya (الجزية) was a personal tax paid by each non-Muslim subject living within a Muslim territory, while Al-Khirraj (الخراج) was property tax paid by the same
(3) Barhebraeus, Chron., I, 298
(4) Lammens, H., Les Chantres de Omiades, 116
(5) Brooks, E. W., Successors of Heraclius, Cam. Med. Hist. II, 400-406
(6) Cedrenus, Historium Compendium, I, 772; Zonoras, XIV, 229-231; Theophanes, Chron. a., 6186
(7) Theophanes, Chron. a., 6186
(8) Constantius, Patriarchs of Antioch, Neale, J. M., 168
(9) Arabic—Conquest of the Nations, by Balathri, p. 125فتوح البلدن للبلاذري
(10) Ibid. p. 125
(11) Kremer, A. Von, Culturgeschichte des Orientes, II, 408
(12) Arabic—The Melkites, by Father Isaac Al-Armali, p. 32الملكيون للأب إسحقالأرملي
(13) Arabic—The Family of Saint John of Damascus, by Father Joseph Nasrallah, pp. 38-39 أسرة يوحنا الدمشقي للأب يوسف نصر الله
(14) Arabic—“Greek Literature” by Father Isaac Al-Armali in Al-Masarrah Magazine, 1921, p. 409آداب اللغة اليونانية للأب إسحق أرملي في مجلة المسرة
(15) Eutychius, Annales, 26
(16) Arabic—History of Damascus by Ibn Asaker, Vol. 6, p. 71, and, Springs of History, by Ibn Shaker, pp.376-377تاريخ دمشق لابن عساكر وعيون التواريخ لابن شاكر
(17) Thephanes, Chron. a. 6182
(18) Arabic—The Book of Ministers by Jahshiari, p. 24, and The Family of John of Damascus by Father Nasrallah, p. 47كتاب الوزراء للجهشياري، وأسرة يوحناالدمشقي للأب نصرالله
(19) Lammens, H., Etudes Sur le Règne de Moawia, 11-12
(20) Lammens, H., Le Califat de Yazid, 108
(21) Arabic—Al-Tanbeeh wal Eshraf, by Al-Mas’oudy, p. 397التنبيه والإشرافللمسعودي
(22) Arabic—History of Damascus, by Ibn Asaker, No. 21 p. 246تاريخ دمشق لابنعساكر (الظاهرية)
(23) Arabic—The Family of John of Damascus by Father Nasrallah, p. 62أسرةيوحنا الدمشقي للأب نصرالله
(24) Theophanes, Chron., a. 6221
(25) Graf, G., Gesch. der Christ. Arab. Lit., I 377, 378
(26) Nasrallah, J., Saint Jean de Damas, 58-59
(27) Arabic—The Life of Saint John of Damascus, by Michael the Monk, pp. 12-15 سيرة يوحنا الدمشقي للراهب ميخائيل (طبعة الخوري قسطنطين باشا)
(28) Echos d’orient, 1925, 140
(29) Nasrallah. J., op. cit., 61