Ghassanids: A Major Arab Tribal Conversion to Early Christianity
Christian Ghassanid king al-Harith ibn Jabalah, who purportedly ruled in the 6th century AD, predating the Muslim conquest in the following century
By John Mason, Arab America/Contributing Writer
Some of the first Arab tribal converts to the then-new religion in the Middle East–Christianity–were called Ghassanids. They were descendants of an Arabian peninsula tribal grouping, the Kahlani Qahtani. They had moved northward out of what is present-day Yemen and settled in Transjordan and Syria. At first, they joined eastern Christian Byzantine Christianity. Today, the Ghassanids are seen as ancestors of some of today’s Syrian and Lebanese Christians, who live mainly in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Palestinians inside of Israel, as well as other Arab countries, Latin America and Arab Americans who immigrated to the U.S.
Ghassanid Early Christian History
An initial caveat on this subject is that there is not total agreement among Christians originating in the Levant, or present-day Syria and Lebanon, as to how “Arab” they are versus non-Arab.
In the third century AD, an Arab kingdom of the Ghassanids (in Arabic, Banu Ghassan or Sons of Ghassan) from south Arabia, now Yemen, immigrated to the area of today’s Lebanon-Syria. There they converted to Eastern Christianity under Byzantium, though they broke with its specific theology, discussed below. They became vassals or clients of the eastern Roman Empire. Most of them remained in present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. By the sixth century, the Ghassanids became part of what is known as Chalcedon, a grouping of eastern churches, including Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant.
An illustrative map showing the Ghassanids, who supposedly migrated from the lower Arabian Peninsula (near “Marib”) or present-day Yemen to the area of the Levant or Greater Syria around the 3d century
The Ghassanids adhered to the branch of Christianity whose professed belief was in Christ’s divinity and humanity as fully embodied in one person. This doctrinal position is known as Miaphysitism. It differs from monophysitism, which avers that Christ has only one, a divine nature, thus negating his human side. The first, the two natures of Christ, has his human nature being received from his mother, Mary, his divine nature from eternity or from God the Father. Thus, under Miaphysitism, Christ was divine and human, both at the same time.
While seemingly splitting hairs, these positions on the nature of Jesus were very important in establishing the early roots and branches of Christianity. The Council of Chalcedon settled the issue in 451 AD, asserting that Jesus Christ has, equally, at one and the same time, both a divine and human nature. The exact statement is that Jesus is “perfect both in a deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually a man.”
The Islamic Period
The Ghassanids were a powerful tribe, eventually forming a series of kingdoms aligned initially with the Byzantine Empire. They served as a buffer against incursions from the south, including Arabia, while at the same time securing their political and commercial interests in that region. They ruled in variously-named kingdoms, commencing around the early third century AD, continuing up to the Muslim invasion in the seventh century. Thirty-some kingdoms under the Ghassanids reigned during the period comprising the third-seventh centuries AD.
The entrée onto the scene of Islam in the 7th century changed the place of the Ghassanids in that part of the world. Their bond with a single Christianity was severed, some of them staying with the Byzantine Chalcedonian church, others identifying with different sects of that faith, and yet others keeping their Christian faith while taking the side of Muslim armies as a way of retaining pride in their Arab origins. In the end, all Christians in the region would have to coexist under the Arab Islamic Empire. Most Arab Christians had to pay the jizya tax required of non-Muslims as the cost of not converting to Islam and for protection under the Islamic empire. Those Christians who fought alongside the Muslim armies avoided having to pay that tax.
Ghassanid Christians believed Christ’s divinity and humanity was embodied in one person, while other Christians believed Christ has only one, a divine nature
The Ghassanids retained a certain level of independence, however, evidenced by the long list of successive kingdoms. These kingdoms served as a buffer against tribes from areas they themselves had come from, including Bedouin tribes. They fought along with other members of the Byzantine Empire against Persian and Arab invaders. Not unimportantly, Ghassanids were critical to guarding major trade routes in the region. However, during the 7th and subsequent centuries, they began to lose their identity as a political and tribal force as they became dispersed over the region.
Later and Recent Ghassanid History
As the Ghassanids and other Christians faded into the backdrop of Islamic rule, many were protected by their Muslim rulers. Some reports suggest that they even had a bit more religious freedom under early Muslim rulers than they had under the Eastern Orthodox Christian regime. As “People of the Book,” which include Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, Christians were afforded the right to practice their own religion, as well as the right to apply their own legal code for court settlements and sentences. Those Ghassanids who supported the Muslim armies did not necessarily convert to Islam, in part because they had maintained their status as nobility in control of parts of what is today’s Syria.
Today, some Christian and Muslim families in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine locate their roots in a Ghassanid tribal or dynastic base. More specifically, Christian residents in the city of Ramallah in Palestine cite their origin in the Arab tribe known historically as al-Ghassasinah. Several clans in the place of Jesus’ recognized birth, Bethlehem, claim a Ghassanid Christian origin. Many of them have emigrated to Latin and North America, Europe and other parts of the world, in part a result of Ottoman persecution of the 19th century, the formation of Israel in 1948, and other disruptions in the Arab-Israel region.
References: Historian Habib Giamatti, in al-Mossawer Magazine, Dar al-Hilal, Cairo, Egypt, February 1954; Frederick G. Peake, “A History Of Jordan And Its Tribes”, 1958; Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, updated, 2013.)
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.