The Armenian and Byzantine Foundations of the Concept of Jihad

The Armenian and Byzantine Foundations of the Concept of Jihad

By J. David Frendo

Byzantine Studies, Vol. 13:2 (1986)

Byzantine warfare depicted in the Radzivill Chronicle

Introduction: In the course of an excursus dealing with the Persian Wars of Justin II and Tiberius I Constantine, Theophylact Simocatta, the historian of the reign of Maurice, relates, in accordance with the time-honored traditions of ancient historiography and with the current rhetorical practice of his day, what purport to be if not the actual words at least the sentiments most appropriate to the contents and occasion of a speech delivered by the Roman General, Justinian the son of Germanus to his men just before the battle of Melitene in 575.  The rhetorical excesses which characterize Theophylact’s style and perhaps commended him to his contemporaries may perhaps also account for the scant attention which the altogether novel  and truly remarkable ideas expressed in this speech have so far received.  What those ideas were I shall endeavor to make clear by first translating and then commenting on the passage in question.  After that I propose to draw the reader’s attention to certain broad but significant similarities between these ideas and the concept of Jihad as initially expressed and enunciated in the pages of the Qur’an.

First the speech:

This day, Romans, will be the start of great blessings for you, if you hearken to my words. Arm your souls in defense of the body: let your hearts do battle on behalf of your hands. let each man brave danger on behalf of his fellow, and you are safe. Fellow philosophers (I say “philosophers” rather than “soldiers” advisedly, for yours alone is the constant rehearsal of death), make it plain to the barbarians that your mettle is immortal. Put your souls beyond the reach of fear. Resolve to strike or be struck down, receiving the blows of the enemy as though your bodies were a part not of you but of somebody else. Let the enemy bear witness, as they fall, to your valor: let their corpses tell the tale of your trophies. Comrades, joint sharers with us of the pain and the fame of war, close combat is the supreme test of courage  and cowardice, and the supreme arbiter of souls; for either it exposes once and for all the effeminacy of cowards, or it shall today proclaim with wreaths and splendid triumphs of manhood of the brave…

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