The Secular Arab Holy Man in Late Antiquity


Greg Fisher

The past twenty years have witnessed intensive interest in the pre-Islamic period in Arabia.1 Our understanding of this formative period has been broadened by new archaeological and epigraphic discoveries; political and cultural studies of the relationship between the Arabs and the Roman, Persian, and Ḥimyarite states; detailed examinations of the origins of the Arabic script; and other fruitful lines of inquiry.2 Some of the most productive research has been carried out on the Arab tribal leaders of the fifth and sixth centuries who were allied with Rome, Persia, or Ḥimyar, and who appear regularly in Roman sources written in Greek and Syriac, as well as in a small clutch of Greek and Arabic inscriptions from Syria and Jordan.3 The study of these individuals has benefited from the application of anthropological theories, comparison with the Germanic peoples of the western Roman Empire, and other novel methodologies that afford a nuanced appreciation of the function and position of the tribal leader in the late antique east.

Modern anthropological studies emphasize the importance of mediation and brokerage as attributes of successful tribal leaders, particularly in defence of tribal norms and traditions when the tribe comes into contact with a powerful state.4 While mediation is key within the tribe itself to solve disputes and deal with all manner of problems, in the broader view, tribal leaders offer ‘external’ mediation by funneling resources (funding, manpower, goods) in both directions between the state and the tribe, and also in more abstract ways by acting as a pivot point between state and tribal actors whose strengths were not always equal. For the late antique period, Arab leaders such as the pro-Roman al-Ḥārith (527/8-569) or the pro-Persian al-Mundhir (504-554) traded the manpower of the tribe for a privileged position in the imperial court, as well as for funding and moral support.

The interior of the Basilica of St. Sergius at al-Ruṣāfa in Syria. Photo Greg Fisher

The interior of the Basilica of St. Sergius at al-Ruṣāfa in Syria. Photo credit: Greg Fisher.

Studies of Christian holy men in Late Antiquity, pioneered by Peter Brown, clearly evoke the mediatory functions of the successful tribal leader. Brown referred to such people as “the locus of the supernatural” – brokers between heaven and earth, standing half-way between potential converts and the Christian God.5 Robert Hoyland has identified Muslim holy men “crossing over” by talking with Christian monks and hermits, while the Prophet himself was, in Hoyland’s view, the ultimate “arbiter.”6 If holy men resembled tribal leaders, it was in part because they held a form of political leadership that blended easily with their religious authority. But what if tribal leaders could look like holy men?

In the sixth century, as religious disputes threatened to divide the Roman Empire, the leading dynasty amongst the pro-Roman Arabs was led successively by al-Ḥārith (527/8-569) and his son al-Mundhir (569-582).7 These two men emerged as powerful secular players in the arena of religious politics, achieving a position of influence as brokers for the so-called Miaphysite Christians who stood in opposition to the tenets of the Council of Chalcedon (451). Al-Ḥārith had initially assumed a position of political-military prominence as Rome’s preferred Arab leader in the rural borderlands that formed the frontier with Persia, one of the regions in which Miaphysitism was popular. Al-Ḥārith and his family bridged the divisions between the Chalcedonian urban center and the Miaphysite rural periphery, and were well placed to assist imperial authorities (who often preferred compromise over confrontation) and to protect the interests of the Miaphysites. While some Arab leaders became bishops – full-fledged members of the religious establishment – al-Ḥārith and al-Mundhir remained aloof from such appointments, even though their ecclesiastical credentials were impeccable. A recently discovered Greek inscription at a church in Amman, where al-Mundhir’s name is invoked in the apse mosaic, is just one indication of the public, high-profile position that he took in the region. Another is provided by the well-known inscription found at the city of al-Ruṣāfa/Sergiopolis in northern Syria, home to the shrine of the martyr St. Sergius, with whose cult al-Mundhir enjoyed a close relationship.

Illustration of a mosaic mentioning al-Mundhir from Tall al-ʿUmayri, southern Amman. Drawing credit: Aaron Styba.

Al-Ḥārith and al-Mundhir appear regularly in our sixth-century sources. They contributed and led militia forces for Rome’s wars, and became influential political actors at both the imperial and community levels. In exchange for supporting Rome with tribal manpower, they received official recognition and support as the primary Arab allies of the state, and both were awarded prestigious Roman titles and positions. Those searching for continuities between the Romano-Persian and Islamic phases in Near Eastern history occasionally point to al-Ḥārith and al-Mundhir as examples of powerful Arab leaders, avatars for what was to come as Arabs wrested political and military control from the Roman and Persian empires. But what is increasingly apparent is the importance of the religious function of men such as al-Ḥārith and his son. They held no formal position in any ecclesiastical hierarchy, but nonetheless wielded immense authority amongst the Miaphysite clergy. They were, in fact, tribal leaders who resembled holy men, particularly in their ability to broker all kinds of solutions for the problems that plagued the Christians of rural Syria and Jordan. As ‘secular holy men’, they were avatars of another sort of Arab leader – one who combined political and religious authority, and who possessed the vision to bridge the divide between the competing communities of the late antique east.


GREG FISHER earned a D.Phil. from Keble College, at the University of Oxford. He is Associate Professor in the College of the Humanities and the Department of History at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, where he teaches courses on Greek, Roman, and Persian history. He is the author of Between Empires: Arabs, Romans, and Sasanians in Late Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 2011), the editor of Arabs and Empires Before Islam (Oxford University Press, 2015), and, with J.H.F. Dijkstra, co-editor of Inside and Out: Interactions Between Rome and the Peoples on the Arabian and Egyptian Frontiers in Late Antiquity (Peeters, 2014). He is Co-Chair of the IQSA Qur’an and Late Antiquity Program Unit.




[1] This term encompasses the different ancient views of Arabia, including much of what is now Jordan, Syria, and Iraq as well as the Peninsula itself.

[2] See most recently Greg Fisher (ed.), Arabs and Empires Before Islam (Oxford University Press, 2015).

[3] In the organizational context elaborated by in J. Szuchman (ed.), Nomads, Tribes, and the State in the Ancient Near East (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[4] See essays by Salzman, Fisher, and Hoyland in J.H.F. Dijkstra and G. Fisher (eds.), Inside and Out: Interactions between Rome and the Peoples on the Arabian and Egyptian Frontiers in Late Antiquity (Leuven, 2014).

[5] Peter Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity”(Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971), 80-101), 100.

[6] Robert Hoyland, “Early Islam as a Late Antique Religion,” in Scott Fitzgerald Johnson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 2012, 1053-1077), 1058, 1064-1065.

[7] No relation to the pro-Persian Arab leader of the same name mentioned above.