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Dhu Nuwas

Yūsuf Dhū Nuwās, (Arabic: يوسف ذو نواس‎) (also Yūsuf As'ar Yath'ar (Saba'ic Y(w)s1f 's1'r Yṯ'r or Dunaan;,[1] Syriac Masruq; Greek Dounaas (Δουναας), was a Judaic warlord in Yemen between 517 to 525-27 AD.


  • Origins 1
  • His Rule 2
  • Sources and Names 3
  • Notes 4
  • External links 5


Nuwās probably reflects a local clan name which in popular tradition was twisted into a cognomen bearing the meaning of "the one with the curls". His real name has been conjectured to be Zura b.Ḥassān. In the form Yūsuf As'ar Yath'ar, Yūsuf is a borrowing from Hebrew, while the penultimate and last names are cognomens, respectively meaning perhaps he who takes vengeance and he who remains.[2]

One Syriac source appears to suggest that the mother of Dhū Nuwās may have been herself a Jew hailing from the Mesopotamian city of Nisibis.[3][4] If so, this would place her origins within the Sassanid imperial sphere, and would illuminate possible political reasons for his later actions against the Christians of Arabia, who were natural allies of the Byzantine Empire.[3] Many modern historians, though Christopher Haas is an exception, have argued that her son's conversion was a matter of tactical opportunism, since Judaism would have provided him with an ideological counterweight to the religion of his adversary, the Kingdom of Aksum, and also allowed him to curry favour with the Sassanid shahanshah.[5]

His Rule

Dhu Nuwas had been deposed from his throne, and an army from Aksum had installed a puppet ruler in his place around 519. Dhu Nuwas fled to a refuge in a mountainous region and bided his time until the foreign army withdrew. Three years later in the winter of 522 he apparently managed to stage a coup d'état and wrest back his throne from the usurper.[5]

His first move in staging his comeback was to take by storm the Aksumite garrison in the city of Zafar: the Ethiopian guard was put to the sword and a Christian church was torched. His next move was to seize the port city of Mukhawān, rid it of the opposition, install a new governorship and destroy its churches.[5] His third move was to lay siege to the predominantly Christian city of Najran. The inhabitants of Najran had lent armed support to Dhu Nuwas when he rebelled, but had closed the gates against him after learning of his massacre of the Ethiopian troops, who, like them, were Christians.[5] Dhu Nuwas undertook to extend to them an amnesty were they to change tack and allow the Himyarites to enter their enclave. Once they had taken possession of the city, however, they were asked to renounce their creed and convert to Judaism.[5] Almost a year after his return to power, sometime in late autumn, 523, numerous members of both the clergy and laity were massacred. Kaleb of Axum responded by dispatching an invasive force to the Himyarite kingdom, sometime around 525, which caught and executed Dhu Nuwas and put his followers to death.[5]

This episode of persecution has often been read as a gesture of political opportunism calculated to enlist support from the Sassanid empire, traditionally hostile to Christians, rather than as an example of religious zeal. Christopher Haas has challenged this view as counterintuitive, arguing that the Iranian empire lay far away and that to challenge the might of the nearby Aksumite Christian kingdom by murdering co-religionists over the sea would only invite defeat.[5] In this view, Dhu Nuwas's decision to compel conversion to Judaism on pain of death can only be explained in terms of his deep religious convictions: the Himyarite kingdom had been ruled earlier by the Tabbāi'a dynasty of Jewish converts sometime by the late fourth century.[5]

Some sources state that Dhu Nuwas was the successor of Rabī'ah ibn Mudhar, a member of the same dynasty; the archaeologist Alessandro de Maigret believes he was a usurper.[6] Nashwad bin Sa'īd al-Ḥimyarī stated that he killed his predecessor with a stiletto hidden in his sandal while his predecessor was seducing the handsome Yūsuf in his chambers.[7] If the contradictory and sometimes legendary accounts of the personality of Dhu Nuwas given by the Arabian writers can be trusted, he was not a Jew by birth, but embraced Judaism after ascending the throne, taking the name of "Joseph".[8] According to a number of medieval historians, who depend on the account of John of Ephesus, Dhū Nuwās announced that he would persecute the Christians living in his kingdom because Christian states persecuted his fellow co-religionists in their realms; a letter survives written by Simon, the bishop of Beth Arsham in 524 AD, recounting Dhū Nuwās' (where he is called Dimnon) persecution in Najran (modern al-Ukhdūd in Saudi Arabia).[9] The persecution is apparently described and condemned in the Qur'an (al-Buruj:4).

According to contemporary sources, after seizing the throne of the Ḥimyarites in ca. 518 or 523 Dhū Nuwās attacked the Aksumite (mainly Christian Ethiopians and Yemeni Arab Christians) garrison at Zafar, capturing them and burning their churches. He then moved against Najrān, a Christian and Aksumite stronghold. After accepting the city's capitulation, he massacred those inhabitants who would not renounce Christianity. Estimates of the death toll from this event range up to 20,000 in some sources.

Dhū Nuwās then proceeded to write a letter to the Roman Empire and al-Ḥīrha. He revealed the contents of the letter to the Roman ambassadors who were horrified by its contents. Word of the slaughter quickly spread throughout the Roman and Persian realms, and refugees from Najran even reached the court of the Roman emperor Justin I himself, begging him to avenge the martyred Christians.

The slaughter of the Axumite garrison in Zafar also provoked a response from Kaleb, King of Axum. Procopius reports that Kaleb (whom he calls Hellesthaeus), with the help of the Roman emperor Justinian, collected a fleet and crossed from Axum to Yemen where he defeated Dhū Nuwās about the year 520 or 525 (1.20). Kaleb then appointed his Christian South Arabian follower Sumuafa' Ashawa' (named Esimphaios by Procopius), to rule Yemen as his viceroy.

Arab tradition states that Dhū Nuwās committed suicide by riding his horse into the Red Sea. De Maigret reports that another South Arabian inscription from Husn al-Ghurāb may indicate that he was killed in battle fighting against Kaleb's army.[10] De Maigret also reports that in 1951 three inscriptions were found just north of al-Ukhdūd, which refer to a military campaign led by Dhū Nuwās (where he is called Yūsuf As'ar Yath'ar), and are dated to the year 633 of the Ḥimyarite era, equivalent to AD 518 or 523.[11]

Sources and Names

Dhū Nuwās is mentioned in a number of contemporary Old South Arabian, Syriac and Byzantine sources. Jacques Ryckmans, who deciphered the Old South Arabian inscriptions, writes in his La Persécution des Chrétiens Himyarites that Sarah'il Yaqbul-Yaz'an was both the tribal chief and the lieutenant of Yûsuf ’As’ar (the king) at the time of the military campaign, and that he was sent out by the king to take the city of Constantius II during the embassage to the land of the Ḥimyarites (i.e. Yemen) in circa 340 CE. This church was set on fire and razed to the ground, and its Abyssinian inhabitants killed. Later, foreigners (presumably Christians) living in Haḏramawt were also put to death before the king’s army advanced on to Najran in the far north and took it. Many later Jewish, Christian (such as the Book of the Ḥimyarites and the Kebra Negast) and Islamic sources (such as the Quran 85:4) also refer to his war with the Axumites. In the Old South Arabian inscriptions his name appears as Yūsuf As'ar Yath'ar ( Y(w)s1f 's1'r Yṯ'r ), and the Islamic tradition knows him better as Dhū Nuwās ( ذو نواس ). The Christian sources use various names, thus in the letter of his contemporary Simon of Beth Arsham he is called Dimnon,[12] and in the later Book of the Ḥimyarites his name is Mashrūq.


  1. ^ Vincent J O'Malley, C.M. (2001). Saints of Africa. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing. p. 142.  
  2. ^ Norbert Nebes, 'The Martyrs of Najrān and End of the Ḥimyar: On the Political History of South Arabia in the Early Sixth Century,' the Angelika Neuwirth, Nicolai Sinai, Michael Marx (eds.), The Qur'ān in Context: Historical and Literary Investigations Into the Qur'ānic Milieu, BRILL 2010 pp.27-60, p.43, n.70.
  3. ^ a b Jonathan Porter Berkey, The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800, Cambridge University Press, 2003 p.46.
  4. ^ 'Irfan Shahid, in the Introduction to his book, Martyrs of Najran (published in 1971), quotes from the Nestorian Chronicle from Saard (Séert) edited by Addai Scher (see: Patrologia Orientalis vol. IV, V and VII), compiled shortly after anno 1036 CE from extracts of old Syriac historical works no longer extant, saying: "…In later times there reigned over this country a Jewish king, whose name was Masrūq. His mother was a Jewess, of the inhabitants of Nisibis, who had been made a captive. Then one of the kings of Yaman had bought her and she had given birth to Masrūq and instructed him in Judaism. He reigned after his father and killed a number of the Christians. Bar Sāhde has told his history in his Chronicle."
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Christopher Haas, 'Geopolitics and Georgian Identity in Late Antiquity: The Dangerous World of Vakhtang Gorgasali,' in Tamar Nutsubidze, Cornelia B. Horn, Basil Lourié(eds.),Georgian Christian Thought and Its Cultural Context, BRILL pp.29-44, p.36-39.
  6. ^ Alessandro de Maigret, Arabia Felix, translated by Rebecca Thompson (London: Stacey International, 2002), p. 251.
  7. ^ Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Yemen, p.42
  8. ^ Dhu Nuwas, Zur'ah Yusuf ibn Tuban As'ad abi Karib - Jewish Encyclopedia (1906)
  9. ^ Simon's letter is part of Part III of The Chronicle of Zuqnin, translated by Amir Harrack (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1999), pp. 78-84.
  10. ^ de Maigret, Arabia Felix, p. 251.
  11. ^ de Maigret, Arabia Felix, p. 234.
  12. ^ Translation in: The Chronicle of Zuqnin. Translated from Syriac with notes and introduction by Amir Harrak (= Mediaeval sources in translation. 36). Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto 1999, S. 78-84. Band III, Seite 78-84

External links

  • Dhu Nuwas, Zur'ah Yusuf ibn Tuban As'ad abi Karib - 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article.
  • Jewish Warriors
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