During school days I learnt that Al-Akhtal, the poet of the Omayyad dynasty,
was Christian, and the story was told in the context of proving the tolerance of the Caliph, as in his lines of verse, AlAkhtal boasted that he entered upon the Caliph drunk, ‘dragging his tail’, as if he was, on the Prince of Believers, a prince. But besides this story, which left me and my classmates with a good doze of happiness at the time, I hardly heard of other names, not even what exactly was the poet as a Christian, and how did he practice his faith, and who were his folk.
And only after many, many years I started hearing about the poet’s tribe Taghleb, that was apparently a major tribe at the time, that was Christian and resisted joining the new expanding faith, and suffered for that in more than one way. Then I heard a famous saying, that had it not been for Islam, Taghleb would have ‘consumed the Arabs’!
With time I also learnt that the famous poet/King Umru’ Alqaiss was Christian too, so was the poet Omar Bin Kulthoom, author of the most famous Arab pre-islamic verse line of pride (a known branch of Arab poetry), that says ‘we filled the land (with armies) till it became too tight, and we filled the sea water with ships’, etc.. And the coincidence has it that he was from the same Taghleb tribe, whose main dwelling locality was non other than Musol, of present day Iraq, and recently in breaking news!!
Then it was only very recently that I learnt that the most renowned Man of generosity in Arab history Hatem Tay, was Christian too. Hatem Tay is the iconic symbol of Arab generosity, especially because he combined generosity with chivalry, and total self denial. Yet now I ask, why as an Arab Christian kid was I never told, why was I deprived of knowing all this, something which would have given me, and other Arab Christian kids like me, some pride in historical roots, that Arab Christians actually lack. And from all those names and many others I started learning of, to know that the most generous Arab ever was Christian would have been gratifying enough.
I, like almost everybody else, was left to believe that whatever existed in old Arab history, especially before Islam, was almost just ‘Jahili’, as that period was named. The term Jahiliyyah, derived from Jahl, or ignorance suggests that. But another more thorough explanation was frivolity or rashness, meant to describe the state of continuously feuding Arab tribes. But actually that period, despite the fact that futile feuding was a definite incurable social disorder, yet it also witnessed many great kingdoms, and unmatched poetic resourcefulness, probably the richest in all Arab history.
This none-withstanding, when in school we learnt the story of Hatem Tay, it never occurred to us to ask if he was Christian. Frankly we never thought anything Christian actually existed in the Arabian peninsula. And moreover, at that time, during years of heightened pan Arabism, to which faith anybody belonged, Hatem Tay included, was immaterial. It was enough that he was an example of selfless Arab generosity and chivalry. Not that we now really care much, but its just a feeling that being deprived of this knowledge, made the belonging of an Arab Christian, somehow cryptic. I wish we were told. I have no Arab Christian heroes in my memory.
And this deprivation, that now looks so inexplicable, we could blame on the majority, which usually has the upper hand in writing history, but might be also blamed on Christian establishments, churches included, who might have disregarded its value, and discarded it from the history of Christianity, just because the Christians of those times belonged to Christian sects that were categorized as heretic or disbelievers due to theological differences!! And maybe this is one of the unnoticed reasons that made Arab Christianity keep shrinking and becoming more frail. And I fear might be too late, as soon there might come a day when there would be no one to tell, about all those heroes, including alakhtal from Mosul.A translation of an article that appeared in Annahar
daily on Saturday August 9, 2014. Link to original article : http://newspaper.annahar.com/article/157038-%D9%84%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B0%D8%A7-%D9%84%D9%85-%D9%8A%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%B1%D9%86%D9%8A-%D8%A3%D8%AD%D8%AF
Illustration is an old Iraqi luster plate of the 10th century