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The Arabic Letters of the Byzantine Emperor Leo III to the Caliph ‘Umar Ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz: An Edition, Translation and Commentary
By Seonyoung Kim
PhD Dissertation, the Catholic University of America, 2017
Abstract: This study explores the tradition of the epistolary exchange between the two famous figures, the Byzantine emperor Leo III and the ‘Umayyad caliph, ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz. Several Christian and Muslim authors have over the centuries provided accounts of the tradition that ‘Umar sent a letter to Leo to inquire about Christian doctrines and practices and that Leo replied to him.
In addition to these accounts, copies of letter purporting to have been written by Leo and ‘Umar have come down to us in the manuscript tradition in Arabic, Armenian, Latin and Aljamiado. There have been studies concerning the authorship and provenance of these letters.
This study continues the scholarly discussion on this tradition based on the newly available manuscript, which contains two letters in Arabic attributed to Leo. The manuscript is among so-called ‘new finds’ in the library of St. Catherine Monastery at Mt. Sinai. This study presents the first edition of these Arabic texts, with English translation and commentary. Based on the examination of the new source, this study sheds new light on the correspondence between Leo and ‘Umar.
The content and style of the Arabic letters of Leo show that they were written by an anonymous Christian author living in the second half of the eighth century. These texts seem to have been composed by a Melkite author, probably living either in the monastery of Mar Sabas or Mar Chariton in Judean desert. They show how the Christian author wrote the defense of Christian doctrines and practices such as divinity of Christ, the Eucharist and the veneration of the cross. Arabic was a new language for Christian writers in this era; the author used many expressions found in the Qur’ān. The purpose of the composition of these texts is to provide Christian audiences with ready replies to objections to their faith coming from Muslim polemicists, in order to encourage them to keep their Christian faith.
Additionally, a close analysis of the first Arabic letter of Leo in comparison with the Latin version of the letter ascribed to Leo shows that both letters are from the same earlier text, written in Arabic. This anti-Muslim polemical text was not only read by Christians in the East, but also known to the Christian in the West through Latin translation.