Who was Habib-i Neccar? Honestly, I do not know. As mentioned earlier, the Muslims tend to identify him with a person mentioned in the Yasîn sura in the Qur’an. There we read:
And there came from the uttermost part of the city a man running. He cried: O my people! Follow those who have been sent! “Obey those who ask no reward of you (for themselves), and who have themselves received guidance. “It would not be reasonable in me if I did not serve Him Who created me, and to Whom ye shall (all) be brought back. “Shall I take (other) gods besides Him? If (God) Most Gracious should intend some adversity for me, of no use whatever will be their intercession for me, nor can they deliver me. “I would indeed, if I were to do so, be in manifest error. “For me, I have faith in the Lord of you (all): listen, then, to me!” It was said: “Enter thou the Garden.” He said: “Ah me! Would that my people knew (what I know)!- “For that my Lord has granted me forgiveness and has enrolled me among those held in honour!” — Qur’an, sura 36, Ya Sîn, verses 20-27. [i]
The explanation is as follows:
HABIB AL-NADJDJAR (the carpenter), legendary character who gave his name to the sanctuary below mount Silpius at Antakiya [q.v.] where his tomb is reputed to be. He is not mentioned in the Kur’an; nevertheless Muslim tradition finds him there, in sura XXXVI, 12 ff., under the description of the man who was put to death in a city (karya) not otherwise specified, having urged its inhabitants not to reject the three apostles who had come to proclaim the divine message to them. According to Muslim tradition the “city” was Antioch and the anonymous believer was called Habib. According to al-Tabari he was not a carpenter but a silk-worker, yet the epithet of nadjdjar is applied to him by all the other ancient sources (al-Mascudi, Mutahhar [ps.-Balkhi], Balcami, al-Thaclabi) and by more recent authors. He was stoned or trampled to death by his executioners. More recent legends, such as the one preserved by al-Dimashki (Cosmographie, ed. Mehren, 206), embroider the story of his martyrdom with strange new details (walking about with his severed head in his hand). There is nothing to prove that Habib was the Agabus of Acts, xi, 28 and xxi, 10-11, for although the latter suffered martyrdom according to several hagiographic texts (Synaxaire de Constantinople, in H. Delehaye, Propylaeum ad Ada sanctorum Nouembris, col. 591, cf. 783 f. and Synaxaire arabe Jacobite, ed. R. Basset, PO, xi/5, 788 f.), it is not stated that this was at Antioch, but either at Jerusalem or in some place not specified The prehistory of the Muslim legend is not therefore entirely clear. [ii]
As stated in an earlier post, it is extremely unlikely that the Christians in Antioch met with any persecution until the turn of the first century. In fact, the Christians fled to Antioch from Jerusalem to avoid persecution. [iii]
The only Christian martyr with the name Habib I have been able to find is a certain Habib from Edessa (Urfa or Şanlıurfa). He was executed by burning during the persecution of Diocletian towards the end of the third century or the beginning of the fourth (“the year six hundred and twenty of the kingdom of Alexander the Macedonian”). [iv]
Interestingly he was buried with an earlier martyr named Shamuna: “And they pulled and drew him out of the fire, throwing over him fine linen cloths and choice ointments and spices. And they snatched away some of the pieces of wood [which had been put] for his burning, and the bretheren and some persons of the laity bore him away. And they prepared him for interment, and buried him by Guria and Shamuna the martyrs, in the same grave in which they were laid, on the hill which is called Baith Allah Cucla …” [v]
About Shamuna and his friend Guria we read:
“So he, taking the saints out at night by the Roman gate, when the citizens were buried in profound slumber, conveyed them to Mount Bethelabicla on the north of the city. On their arrival at that place, having alighted from the carriage with joy of heart and great firmness of mind, they requested the halberdier and those who were under his orders to give them time to pray; and it was granted. For, just as if their tortures and their blood were not enough to plead for them, they still by reason of their humility deemed it necessary to pray. So they raised their eyes to heaven and prayed earnestly, concluding with the words: God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, receive in peace our spirits to Yourself. Then Shamuna, turning to the halberdier, said: Perform that which you have been commanded. So he kneeled down along with Guria, and they were beheaded, on the 15th of November. This is the account of what happened to the martyrs.” [vi]
It will be remembered that two of the coffins kept in the Habib-i Neccar Mosque in Antakya have the names of Habib and Sham’un on them. Might they be identical with the two Edessan martyrs?
If they are, their remains must at some point of time have been moved from Edessa (Urfa) to Antioch (Antakya).
We know that the remains of martyrs became an object of veneration under and after the persecution at the time of Diocletian. We also know that members Catholic and Orthodox churches found it important to keep these relics at a safe place.
When the Muslim Arabs conquered Mesopotamia in AD 639, Edessa came under their rule. The Arabs, however, did not interfere much with their Christian subjects. They regarded them as ahl ul-kitâb [people of the book (the Bible)] and let them pay a special tax called jizyah. They also took over some of the churches and converted them into mosques.
It seems that the church members in Edessa were allowed to keep some of their relics. In AD 944 the Byzantine Emperor abstained from capturing the city in return for a piece of cloth on which there said to be imprint of the face of Jesus. (It was called the Holy Mandylion and had been declared a fake by Pope Gelasius in 494.) This somehow illustrates how important relics were to people in the early Middle Ages.
Later, after half a century under Crusader control, the city was again lost to the Muslims. This happened in 1144, and this time it seems that the new overlords we not as tolerant as the Arabs had been. Whether some of the Christians in the city decided to leave for Antioch, still on Crusader hands, we do not know. If they did, some of them may have decided not to leave their objects of veneration in the hands of the Muslims.
Perhaps we shall never know.
It would be interesting, however, to know if the corpse in the coffin of Habib in the Mosque of Habib-i Neccar exhibits traces of burning and whether the corpse in the coffin of Sham’un originally was beheaded.
[i] Quoted from Wikipedia, “Habib the Carpenter,” accessed October 9, 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habib_the_Carpenter#cite_note-10
[ii] G. Vajda, “Habîb al-Nadjdjâr,” The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Volume III (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1986), 12.
[iii] The Bible book of Acts, chapter 11 verses 19, 20.
[iv] “The Martyrdom of Habib the Deacon,” The Saint Pachomius Ortodox Library, accessed October 9, 2011, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/habib.asp.
[vi] “Martyrdom of Shamuna, Guria and Habib,” New Advent, accessed October 9, 2011, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0858.htm.
See also: Suraiya Faroqhi, “Al-Ruhâ,” The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Volume VIII (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), 589 – 593.