Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Ariel David writing at Haaretz reports on Haifa University marine archeologists who have been investigating a shipwreck that sank off the coast of early Muslim-ruled Palestine sometime between 648 and 740 A.D. The find provides some evidence for the economic robustness of this era, and for strong connections between the Christian and Muslim worlds that had been doubted by some historians.
The earlier date is only 16 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and falls in the reign of the third Commander of the Faithful, `Uthman b. `Affan.
The later range of possible dates stretch into the Umayyad kingdom (traditionally dated 661-750), when the early Muslim empire was ruled from Damascus.
David reports that the archeologists view their discoveries as upending myths about this era. They find evidence that the small 8-man crew was made up of a mixture of Christians and Muslims, who clearly worked closely with one another.
- “Clues to their identity have been left in the dozens of inscriptions painted or carved both on the amphorae of the cargo and the timbers of the ship itself. These writings include Greek and Arabic letters, as well as Christian crosses and Muslim invocations, such as bismillah – “in the name of God.”
The archeologists believe that the Arabic invocations to God and the Christian crosses and Greek phrases were carved by the crew in hopes of protecting the ship.
David quotes Deborah Cvikel, a professor of nautical archaeology at the University of Haifa, the leader of the excavation, as saying of these mixed religious symbols,
- “One of the biggest takeaways from this shipwreck is that, in the past as in the present, normal people are more connected and united in working together than the history books would have you believe, based on geopolitical narratives of wars and battles . . .These are just regular people trying to make a living, selling things that they bought along the way.”
So I would go further. The find is support for the Donner thesis that early Islam was ecumenical. University of Chicago Professor Fred Donner argued in his 2010 Muhammad and the Believers that in the time of the Prophet and for some decades afterward, the community of Muhammad was made up not only of believers in the Qur’an but also of Christians and Jews who accepted the Prophet’s political and ethical leadership while keeping their own religious beliefs.
I accepted the Donner thesis in my own 2018 book:
There is a lot of textual evidence for the Donner thesis in the Islamic scripture, the Qur’an, and in documents we think are early, such as the Constitution of Medina and some reports about the four Commanders of the Faithful, later termed caliphs, who ruled after Muhammad’s death and about the first decades of the Umayyad kingdom.
Finnish scholar of early Islam, Ilkke Lindstedt found that the rock inscriptions from the first Muslim century also give some support to the notion of an ecumenical identity early on that only hardened later.
Israeli archeologists from Hebrew University working in Tiberias also found evidence of ecumenical Muslim rule in the 600s, such that the Christian cathedral continued to be the largest religious edifice in the city until the mid-800s.
There are also Syriac witnesses to this ecumenism from writers such as Yohannan (John) bar Penkaye, a monk in what is now northern Iraq writing in the late 600s.
He complained that Christians in the era of Mu’awiya, the first Umayyad king, were affected by the tolerance of the state in ways of which he disapproved, blasting his coreligionists for “trade with unbelievers, union with the perverse, relationships with heretics, friendship with the Jews.”
Bar Penkaye explained of Muslim rule,
- “A man among them named Mu`awiya, took the reins of government of the two empires: Persian and Roman. Justice flourished under his reign, and a great peace was established in the countries that were under his government, and allowed everyone to live as they wished. They had received, as I said, from the man who was their guide, an order in favor of the Christians and the monks.”
He was referring to passages in the Qur’an that praised Christians and their holy men.
He said of freedom of conscience under the early Umayyads,
- “From every man they required only the tribute, and left him free to hold any belief, and there were even some Christians among them: some belonged to the heretics and others to us. While Mu`awiya reigned there was such a great peace in the world as was never heard of, according to our fathers and our fathers’ fathers.”
That is, the Muslim rulers in the second half of the seventh century did not care what religious beliefs people held as long as they were loyal subjects and paid their taxes. The Muslims were a small minority, even if they were the ruling stratum, and so in their Western regions they needed Christian bureaucrats and even soldiers. Bar Penkaye a follower of the Church of the East, some members of which in that period had a somewhat Nestorian tendency. He said that some of his fellow members were with the Umayyads, presumably serving in the government, while Chalcedonian Christians worked with the Muslims, as well.
Bar Penkaye’s description is supported by an inscription published by Younis al-Shdaifat, Ahmad Al-Jallad, Zeyad al-Salameen, and Rafe Harahsheh. It says, “May God be mindful of Yazīd-w the king.” The inscription spells “God” in Arabic as al-Ilah, ‘the God’ which is how the Christians of greater Syria seem to have written it in that era, whereas the Muslims wrote Allah, with the two ‘l’s elided together. The inscription has a cross near the words. So the authors conclude that it was likely written by a Christian soldier in the service of Yazid I, the second Umayyad king (r. 680-683). And, this Christian soldier was loyal to the Muslim king.
So the finding that Christians and Muslims worked alongside each other and carved religious graffiti from their own religion into their ship should not be surprising.
David also quotes the archeologists as being impressed with the variety and origin of the goods being transported, apparently between Egypt, the Levant and Cyprus, though they find it possible that the ship also traded to Malta, a Christian-ruled island. The old notion of a seventh-century Dark Ages once Islam took over the southern half of the old Roman Empire, which had been put forward by the Belgian economic historian Henri Pirenne, has long since been refuted. This shipwreck further disproves Pirenne’s thesis, which never had any proof to back it up.