Translating Words, Interpreting Events

The Importance of ‘Witnesses’: Newly Translated Georgian Christian Martyrdoms Expose Islamic Jihad Continuity

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By Ralph Sidway

Orthodox icon of the 100,000 Georgians beheaded in Tbilisi for refusing to deny Christ and embrace Islam

In the Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions, the lives of saints and the examples of martyrs and confessors are a rich source of theology. These are ones who “completed this life in faith,” and so their “witness” (the literal translation of the Greek word, “martyr”) bears considerable weight in the Church’s memory. In the mind of the Orthodox Church, martyrs and confessors present a “living word” to the faithful, one which can become especially relevant during times of crisis and persecution.

The sharing of the lives of martyrs is meant to encourage and embolden the faithful to persevere, in ways that didactics or polemics cannot. Indeed, this is one of the primary reasons for collecting and publishing the lives of martyrs under the Muslim Ottomans given by St Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain.

In our day, we can also learn much from the lives of martyrs about the application of Islamic law, in various times and places, where it deals with non-Muslims. And we can certainly learn about the responses of Christians to jihad, the dhimma contract, and Muslim practices such as taqiyya and kitman. The past decade or two has seen more and more lives of saints and martyrs being translated into English from formerly very obscure traditions, and we turn now to the Georgian Orthodox Church for this interesting narrative.

Commemorated today [April 10, when this article was written] are the Martyrs of the Kvabtakhevi Monastery. Presented as something of a prologue to the specific events of the martyrdoms and destruction of the monastery itself, is a fascinating account of how the shrewd King Bagrat V sought to outwit the fierce Muslim warlord, Timur:

In the 14th century, during the reign of King Bagrat V (1360-1394), Timur (Tamerlane) invaded Georgia seven times. His troops inflicted irreparable damage on the country, seizing centuries-old treasures and razing ancient churches and monasteries.

Timur”s armies ravaged Kartli, then took the king, queen, and the entire royal court captive and sent them to Karabakh (in present-day Azerbaijan). Later Timur attempted to entice King Bagrat to renounce the Christian Faith in exchange for permission to return to the throne and for the release of the other Georgian prisoners.

For some time Timur was unable to subjugate King Bagrat, but in the end, being powerless and isolated from his kinsmen, the king began to falter. He devised a sly scheme: to confess Islam before the enemy, but to remain a Christian at heart.

Here we see an amazing scene: a Christian monarch, under extreme duress, employing in its classical form the Muslim practice of taqiyya, which may be defined as “deception” or “dissimulation.” As Muhammad is recorded saying, “War is deceit” (Bukhari 52:269). Here are a few passages which help convey the nuances of this form of deception:

[A] problem concerning law and order [with respect to Muslims in dar al-harb] arises from an ancient Islamic legal principle — that of taqiyya, a word the root meaning of which is “to remain faithful” but which in effect means “dissimulation.” It has full Quranic authority (3:28, 16:106, and 40:28) and allows the Muslim to conform outwardly to the requirements of un-Islamic or non-Islamic government, while inwardly “remaining faithful” to whatever he conceives to be proper Islam, while waiting for the tide to turn. (Hiskett, Some to Mecca Turn to Pray, 101.)

Historically, examples of taqiyya include permission to renounce Islam itself in order to save one’s neck or ingratiate oneself with an enemy. It is not hard to see that the implications of taqiyya are insidious in the extreme: they essentially render negotiated settlement — and, indeed, all veracious communication between dar al-Islam and dar al-harb — impossible. It should not, however, be surprising that a party to a war should seek to mislead the other about its means and intentions. (Gregory Davis, Islam 101.)

Islamic teaching permits deceits, ruses, and dispensations. For an in depth examination, read about the doctrines of taqiyya, tawriya, and taysir.  Then there is Islam’s overarching idea of niyya (or “intention”), best captured by the famous Muslim axiom, “necessity makes permissible the prohibited.” According to this teaching, the intentions behind Muslim actions determine whether said actions are permissible or not. (Raymond Ibrahim, The Threat of Islamic Betrayal.)

This deception works all too well, as we see in the continuing narrative:

Satisfied with King Bagrat’s decision to “convert to Islam,” Timur permitted the king to return to the throne of Kartli. At the request of King Bagrat, Timur sent twelve thousand troops with him to complete Georgia’s forcible conversion to Islam.

King Bagrat then magnifies his deception, seeking to deliver a serious blow to Timur’s war-making capability by setting up a surprise attack on the unsuspecting troops:

When they were approaching the village of Khunani in southeastern Georgia, Bagrat secretly informed his son Giorgi of everything that had happened and called upon him and his army to massacre the invaders.

The news of Bagrat’s betrayal and the ruin of his army infuriated Timur, and he called for immediate revenge. At their leader’s command, his followers destroyed everything in their path, set fire to cities and villages, devastated churches, and thus forced their way through to Kvabtakhevi Monastery.

The deception, although successful in the short term, seems to have been the provocation for Timur’s unleashing of a medieval “nuke and pave” strategy, to destroy the rebellious Georgians, teach them a lesson, and decisively secure the Georgian territory.

Monastics and laymen alike were gathered in Kvabtakhevi when the enemy came thundering in. Having forced open the gate, the attackers burst into the monastery, then plundered and seized all its treasures. They captured the young and strong, carrying them away. The old and infirm were put to the sword.

As the greatest humiliation, they mocked the clergy and monastics by strapping them with sleigh bells and jumping and dancing around them.

Already drunk on the blood they had shed, the barbarians posed an ultimatum to those who remained: to renounce Christ and live or to be driven into the church and burned alive.

Here we see the classic elements of Islamic jihad — taking captives, plundering and pillage, slaughter of innocents, and humiliation of enemies — as exemplified by Muhammad himself in his battles and razzias. (Because this account is posted on a Christian website, we may safely assume accounts of raping and taking young women and girls captive as sex slaves has been edited out for a PG-13 audience, but such practices are codified in Islamic law and practice per Qur’an 4:3 and Muhammad’s example.) And of course, we see here the classic Islamic choice offered to the “People of the Book”: deny Christ, convert to Islam and live, or else be killed (per Qur’an 9:29). (Noticeably absent is the “third choice” of the dhimma contract, paying the jizya and submitting to Islamic rule.)

The narrative proceeds now to the martyrdom account itself:

Faced with these terms, the faithful cried out: “Go ahead and burn our flesh—in the Heavenly Kingdom our souls will burn with a divine flame more radiant than the sun!” And in their exceeding humility, the martyrs requested that their martyrdom not be put on display: “We ask only that you not commit this sin before the eyes of men and angels. The Lord alone knows the sincerity of our will and comforts us in our righteous afflictions!”

Having been driven like beasts into the church, the martyrs raised up a final prayer to God: “In the multitude of Thy mercy shall I go into Thy house; I shall worship toward Thy holy temple in fear of Thee. O Lord, guide me in the way of Thy righteousness; because of mine enemies, make straight my way before Thee (Ps. 5:6-7) that with a pure mind I may glorify Thee forever…”

This passage from the Psalms is used as a prayer by Orthodox Christians whenever they enter an Orthodox house of worship, whether cathedral, church, or a small chapel. That this is specifically referenced in this martyrdom account magnifies exponentially the import of this prayer for us who do not (yet) face direct persecution.

The executioners hauled in more and more wood, until the flames enveloping the church blazed as high as the heavens and the echo of crackling timber resounded through the mountains. Ensnared in a ring of fire, the blissful martyrs chanted psalms as they gave up their spirits to the Lord.

The massacre at Kvabtakhevi took place in 1386. The imprints of the martyrs’ charred bodies remain on the floor of the church to this day. (Source: OCA.org)

Again, King Bagrat’s deception only “seemed” to be the provocation for Timur’s vengeful slaughter of the Georgian monastics and laity in the monastery fire. I emphasize this cause as only being apparent, based both on immediate historical context (Timur had already invaded Georgia seven times before this campaign), and on Islamic precedence and longstanding historical continuity.

Indeed, in 1226, a Muslim jihad campaign under the Khwarezmid Sultan Jalal al-Din beheaded 100,000 Georgians in Tbilisi for refusing to deny Christ and embrace Islam:

[After the bloody and terrifying invasion,] the sultan ordered that the icons of the Theotokos [Greek for “Mother of God”, the theological title for the Virgin Mary used in Eastern Orthodoxy since the late first century, and proclaimed as dogma at the Third Ecumenical Council, held in Ephesus, 431AD] and our Savior be carried out of Sioni Cathedral and placed at the center of the bridge across the Mtkvari River. The invaders goaded the people to the bridge, ordering them to cross it and spit on the holy icons. Those who betrayed the Christian Faith and mocked the icons were spared their lives, while the Orthodox confessors were beheaded.

One hundred thousand Georgians sacrificed their lives to venerate the holy icons. One hundred thousand severed heads and headless bodies were carried by the bloody current down the Mtkvari River. (Lives of the Georgian Saints, Archpriest Zakaria Machidatze, St Herman of Alaska Press, Platina CA, pp 403, 404.)

(Such mass beheadings should sound familiar to the reader, as Muhammad is reported in the Sira or his biography to have personally beheaded over 700 men and boys — who had already surrendered — of the Banu Qurayza tribe[1], thus setting the example for future Islamic genocidal campaigns and Islamic punishments through to our own day.)

Considered in this context, King Bagrat’s resorting to deception might not be judged an unreasonable one. No doubt the Tbilisi genocide, having taken place barely more than a hundred and fifty years earlier, must have been at the forefront of Bagrat’s mind. And the legendary Timur and his savage armies would certainly have found other sufficient motivation to conduct their bloody jihad. As King and Defender of his peoples, Bagrat had few options open to him. It is very interesting, therefore, that he chose a tactic which so perfectly comports with Islamic practice and doctrine.

Significantly, the Orthodox account of the Martyrs of the Kvabtakhevi Monastery does not judge King Bagrat on this point, neither for using deception (it seems to approve of his attempt), nor for the outcome, the slaughter of the monks and faithful. As we could illustrate from numerous battles waged against Muslim invaders from the seventh to the nineteenth centuries, Christians have employed a wide spectrum of tactics and strategies, even including communal self-sacrifice, as in the epic Battle of Kosovo in June 1389. Great-Martyr Tsar Lazar of Serbia, and his army, prepared for battle by worshipping at the Divine Liturgy and receiving Holy Communion, after which they chanted, “For the glorious Cross and golden freedom,” and the stirring motto of St. Sava of Serbia, “Give up everything for Christ, but Christ for nothing!”

Now, the question is, as Islamic supremacism morphs into ever more diverse and subtle forms and methods, will our response be one of situational “whack-a-mole”, or might we fashion a consistent, coherent 21st century strategy for the defense of Western culture, values and freedoms? Or, will we continue, not to deceive the enemy, but to deceive ourselves that Islam is a “religion of peace”?

Ralph Sidway is an Orthodox Christian researcher and writer, and author of Facing Islam: What the Ancient Church has to say about the Religion of Muhammad.  He operates the Facing Islam blog.



[1] Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, trans. by A. Guillaume, New York, 1980, pp 463-464.

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  • jason argon

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