“This is like the [situation] of the Isra’iliyyaat [stories related by the Jews]. It is permissible to be narrated as long as we know that it is not a lie, for encouraging or discouraging in what we know that Allah has ordered in our law [shar‘] or forbade in our law [shar‘].” [Ibn Taymiyyah]
The festival of light – Hannukah – is one of the most important of the Jewish calendar. Its origins lie in the 2nd century BC victory of the forces of Judah Maccabbee over their pagan Seleucid enemies. So the legend goes when the victorious Jewish insurgents recaptured the temple and attempted to re-consecrate it to the worship of the One God of Abraham (as) there was only enough purified oil to light the temple for one night yet miraculously it lasted a full eight thereby giving the priests enough time to prepare a fresh supply. In commemoration the sages ordained the festival of Hannukah (from the Hebrew “to dedicate”). In 2014 the festival ran from December 16th to the 24th and so as I write this article, it has just passed.
The story itself is to be found in the deuterocanonical (known to Protestants as “the Apocrypha”) book of the Bible, 1 Maccabbees. The narrative commences by making mention of the conquests of Alexander the Great, alluding to the founding of the Seleucid dynasty in the wake of his death. The story then begins in earnest with the ascent of Antiochus “the Illustrious” Epiphanes to the Seleucid throne and his preparations to assault the kingdom of Ptolemy of Egypt.
“In those days there went out of Israel wicked men, and they persuaded many, saying: Let us go, and make a covenant with the heathens that are round about us: for since we departed from them, many evils have befallen us. And the word seemed good in their eyes. And some of the people determined to do this, and went to the king: and he gave them license to do after the ordinances of the heathens. And they built a place of exercise in Jerusalem, according to the laws of the nations: And they made themselves prepuces, and departed from the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the heathens, and were sold to do evil.” [1 Maccabees 1:12-16]
So the story has as it’s starting point a description of Israelite obsequiousness towards the region’s heathen hegemon. Enamoured of his power and supposed majesty they attributed the pre-eminence of his kingdom to the supposed superiority of its heathen customs and laws. Resolving to forsake their divine covenant and its attendant prescriptions they hankered instead after the ungodly ways of pagans. In the holy city of Jerusalem they constructed a gymnasium where, as was the Hellenistic custom, men gathered in a state of nudity to exercise. Furthermore, ashamed of the mark of the Abrahamic covenant upon their bodies (i.e. circumcision), they attempted to cover it by use of a surgical procedure that reconstructed their foreskins (prepuces).
The story continues with Antiochus assaulting Egypt, putting Ptolemy to flight and his subsequent decision to conquer the Israelites:
“And he went up to Jerusalem with a great multitude. And he proudly entered into the sanctuary [of the temple], and took away the golden altar, and the candlestick of light, and all the vessels thereof, and the table of proposition, and the pouring vessels, and the vials, and the little mortars of gold, and the veil, and the crowns, and the golden ornament that was before the temple: and he broke them all in pieces…And he made a great slaughter of men, and spoke very proudly.” [Ibid 22-25]
Having desecrated the temple and slaughtered many, Antiochus retires away for a period of two years. The two year hiatus would prove, however, a mere lull in his tyranny:
“And after two full years the king sent the chief collector of his tributes to the cities of Juda, and he came to Jerusalem with a great multitude…And he fell upon the city suddenly, and struck it with a great slaughter, and destroyed much people in Israel…And they took the women captive, and the children, and the cattle they possessed…And they placed there a sinful nation, wicked men, and they fortified themselves therein: and they stored up armour, and victuals, and gathered together the spoils of Jerusalem;” [Ibid 32-36]
Having laid waste to Israel and profaned the focal point of its collective worship, the Temple, Antiochus seeks to consolidate his power by fortifying Jerusalem with his own armed followers. After making Jerusalem the sole preserve of gentiles and having completely desolated the Temple the unregenerate tyrant proceeds to the next phase of his plan – the eradication of all Judaic practises from the land:
“And king Antiochus wrote to all his kingdom, that all the people should be one: and every one should leave his own law. And all nations consented according to the word of king Antiochus. And many of Israel consented to his service, and they sacrificed to idols, and profaned the sabbath. And the king sent letters by the hands of messengers to Jerusalem, and to all the cities of Juda: that they should follow the law of the nations of the earth, And should forbid holocausts and sacrifices, and atonements to be made in the temple of God. And should prohibit the sabbath, and the festival days, to be celebrated. And he commanded the holy places to be profaned, and the holy people of Israel. And he commanded altars to be built, and temples, and idols, and swine’s flesh to be immolated, and unclean beasts. And that they should leave their children uncircumcised, and let their souls be defiled with all uncleannesses, and abominations, to the end that they should forget the law, and should change all the justifications of God. And that whosoever would not do according to the word of king Antiochus should be put to death.” [Ibid 43-52]
Having so ordered Antiochus proceeds to appoint rulers over the people to enforce his decree. Many of the people of Israel acquiesce and drive out those amongst the Israelites who remain constant upon the truth. The fate of those that remained while obstinately adhering to the Mosaic Law would be death:
“And every one with whom the books of the testament of the Lord were found, and whosoever observed the law of the Lord, they put to death, according to the edict of the king…Now the women that circumcised their children, were slain according to the commandment of king Antiochus. And they hanged the children about their necks in all their houses: and those that had circumcised them, they put to death. And many of the people of Israel determined with themselves, that they would not eat unclean things: and they chose rather to die than to be defiled with unclean meats. And they would not break the holy law of God, and they were put to death:” [Ibid 60-66]
Clearly the Israelites are in pretty dire straits and not helped by the fact that they are ridden with traitors who are all too ready to abandon the “regressive” laws of their forefathers and embrace the decrees of their heathen overlord. Is there not one amongst their chiefs who will preserve his honour and refuse to subjugate himself and his people to the slavery of disbelief? Fortunately there is!
“In those days arose Mathathias the son of John, the son of Simeon, a priest of the sons of Joarib, from Jerusalem, and he abode in the mountain of Modin. And he had five sons: John who was surnamed Gaddis: And Simon, who was surnamed Thasi: And Judas, who was called Machabeus” [1 Maccabees 2:1-4]
Mathathias bemoans the desecration of the temple by the gentile disbelievers and the slaughter of his people; lamenting that such a fate renders life itself futile and not worthy of continuance he rends his clothes and dons haircloth in an unctuous display of grief.
Presently the king’s emissary appears commanding obedience to the royal decree and demanding an idolatrous sacrifice as proof of compliance. Many of the local community make forward to comply but Mathathias and his sons remain obdurate, disdaining to abjure their holy covenant. The royal emissary and his cohorts exhort Mathathias as the local ruler and dignitary to render fealty to the king by being the first to make the required sacrifice. They attempt to suborn his compliance through flattery and by evincing him of the numerous benefits to be accrued thereof. All their blandishments are to no avail though. Mathathias is a true believer and proudly declaims:
“Although all nations obey king Antiochus, so as to depart every man from the service of the law of his fathers, and consent to his commandments: I and my sons, and my brethren will obey the law of our fathers. God be merciful unto us: it is not profitable for us to forsake the law, and the justices of God: We will not hearken to the words of king Antiochus, neither will we sacrifice, and transgress the commandments of our law, to go another way.” [Ibid 19-22]
As he finishes delivering his defiant rejoinder an Israelite appears on the scene ready to perform the sacrifice upon the local altar “according to the king’s commandment”. Suitably enraged Mathathias slays him and then proceeds to slay the king’s messenger as well, before pulling down the pagan altar. Calling upon all present who maintain zeal for the Law and who wish to abide by their covenant to follow him, he and his sons flee to the mountains, abandoning all their belongings in the city.
Naturally word of Mathathias’ defiance soon reaches Antiochus who prepares to send an army against the recalcitrant Israelites, now rusticating in the Judean wildernesses. His army eventually catches up with a company of these rebels on the Sabbath day. In accordance to their law the Israelites refuse to fight the king’s army on the holy day declaring: “We will not come forth, neither will we obey the king’s edict, to profane the sabbath day.” Upon being attacked they refuse to fight back instead preferring to die obeying the sacred law: “Saying: Let us all die in our innocency: and heaven and earth shall be witnesses for us, that you put us to death wrongfully.”
News of the slaughter grieves Mathathias and his companions who resolve to defend themselves from the attacks of Antiochus’ forces even should that mean violating the sanctity of the Sabbath. For the greater evil undoubtedly lies in allowing themselves and the law of God to be extirpated from the land.
Gathering an army of true believers Mathathias and his followers proceed to range across the country, laying waste to the altars of idolatry, slaying the sinners (those who had apostatised), and forcibly circumcising all the children they encounter.
As Mathathias’ time of passing draws nigh he offers some advice to his sons:
“Now therefore, O my sons, be ye zealous for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of your fathers. And call to remembrance the works of the fathers, which they have done in their generations: and you shall receive great glory, and an everlasting name. Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation, and it was reputed to him unto justice? Joseph in the time of his distress kept the commandment, and he was made lord of Egypt…David by his mercy obtained the throne of an everlasting kingdom. Elias, while he was full of zeal for the law, was taken up into heaven. Ananias and Azarias and Misael by believing, were delivered out of the flame. Daniel in his innocency was delivered out of the mouth of the lions. And thus consider through all generations: that none that trust in him fail in strength. And fear not the words of a sinful man, for his glory is dung, and worms: Today he is lifted up, and tomorrow he shall not be found, because he is returned into his earth; and his thought is come to nothing. You therefore, my sons, take courage, and behave manfully in the law: for by it you shall be glorious…Render to the Gentiles their reward [i.e. revenge], and take heed to the precepts of the law.” [Ibid 50-68]
Having initiated a rebellion in defence of the believers and the Mosaic Law, Mathathias passes away, handing the baton of revolt to his son Judas “Macabeus” [from the Hebrew for “Hammer”].
Judas proves to be as valiant a rebel leader as was his father and perhaps even more charismatic. The people of Israel rally to his side and he soon scores his first major victory; over a pagan commander by the name of Apollonius. The joy is short lived, however, as this provokes the ire and ambitions of the Syrian commander, Seron who hopes to make a name for himself by once and for all wiping out the troublesome Israelite rebel forces. Gathering a considerable host he marches upon the insurgents who witnessing the size of his army become fearful. Judas, however, is signally nonchalant and seeks to allay his companions’ trepidations:
“And Judas said: It is an easy matter for many to be shut up in the hands of a few: and there is no difference in the sight of the God of heaven to deliver with a great multitude, or with a small company: For the success of war is not in the multitude of the army, but strength cometh from heaven. They come against us with an insolent multitude, and with pride, to destroy us, and our wives, and our children, and to take our spoils. But we will fight for our lives and our laws: And the Lord himself will overthrow them before our face: but as for you, fear them not.” [1 Maccabees 3:18-22]
Thus saying Judas rushes the forces of Seron with reckless abandon and as sure as night must follow day, the pagan horde is scattered, its remnants chased down and completely exterminated. Victory is absolute. As a result of Seron’s rout “the fear of Judas and of his brethren, and the dread of them fell upon all the nations round about them.” Needless to say Antiochus is less than impressed and as a consequence he dedicates half of his treasury and half of his entire kingdom’s armed forces to eliminating Judas and his rebel band. Having already resolved to attack Persia he entrusts Lysias, a nobleman of royal lineage, to lead the assembled force against the Israelites with instructions “to destroy and root out the strength of Israel, and the remnant of Jerusalem, and to take away the memory of them from that place: And that he should settle strangers to dwell in all their coasts, and divide their land by lot.”
Lysias appoints three field commanders who, taking his army of 40,000 foot soldiers and 7,000 cavalry, advance into Israel, setting up camp on the plains near a place named Emmaus. Sensing the annihilation of the Israelites is nigh many merchants convene upon the camp hoping to purchase the portending war booty including, of course, numerous Israelite slave girls.
Judas and his companions, aware of “the orders the king had given to destroy the people and utterly abolish them”, hasten to convene an assembly in order to pray for God’s mercy and compassion. At Maspha they come together, fast, put on haircloth, anoint their heads with ashes and rend their garments. Their jeremiad to the Almighty first laments the profaning of the Temple and the desolation of Jerusalem before importuning His aid:
“And behold the nations are come together against us to destroy us: thou knowest what they intend against us. How shall we be able to stand before their face, unless thou, O God, help us?” [1 Maccabees 3:52-53]
Judas then exhorts his men to be brave and to fight valiantly in defence of their people and their religion, postulating that it is better to die in battle than to live and witness the defilement of their nation and its holy sanctuary. He ends with an acknowledgement that ultimately their fate is in the hands of God: “Nevertheless as it shall be the will of God in heaven so be it done.”
The next day the Seleucid commander, Gorgias, attempts a surprise attack with 5000 heavily armed, trained soldiers. Again Judas reminds the outnumbered, poorly equipped Israelites that victory lies in the hands of God, not men:
“Fear ye not their multitude, neither be ye afraid of their assault. Remember in what manner our fathers were saved in the Red Sea, when Pharaoh pursued them with a great army. And now let us cry to heaven: and the Lord will have mercy on us, and will remember the covenant of our fathers, and will destroy this army before our face this day: And all nations shall know that there is one that redeemeth and delivereth Israel.” [1 Maccabees 4:8-11]
The outcome of the encounter and the consequent outcome of the battle should come then as no great surprise. The victorious Israelite army proceeds to descend on Jerusalem, cleanse it of its defilements and re-consecrates the Temple to the worship of the One God. At this point the sparse amount of available oil miraculously burns for 8 days and so the festival of Hannukah is born.
This event doesn’t in fact mark the end of the Maccabean revolt. The war will rage for several more years. The Hellenized Jews will later appeal to the pagans for help against Judas and his faction of the religiously observant thereby initiating another bout of internecine warfare. Judas will be killed but eventually the Israelites win their complete freedom under the stewardship of his brother, Simon.
What relevance does the story of Hannukah have to the current day?
If the parallels between the situation in Palestine 2200 years ago and that of the contemporary Middle East aren’t already obvious allow me to elaborate a little. In both respective milieus we find the same stark division between those who prefer to hold fast to ancient religious precepts and their opponents who want to stamp out “regressive customs” in favour of the laws and customs of a materially more advanced civilisation. No doubt the Hellenized Jews were the “moderates” of their day while Mathathias, his sons and their followers were dubbed “extremists”.
The numinous, hortatory rhetoric of Mathathias and Judas finds its echo in the firebrand rhetoric of multitudes of modern day Islamist/Jihadist preachers. The same zeal to see God’s law supreme and to resist the encroachment of foreign influences underpins both. Indeed as Judas himself avers, death in defence of God’s law is preferable to a life of religious defilement. Mathathias’ slaying of the apostate Jew about to perform a pagan sacrifice is mirrored today in the killings of those Muslims deemed to have abjured their faith – usually as a result of their open opposition to the implementation of Shariah law.
The infrangible faith in God’s deliverance from the clutches of materially and numerically superior enemies is a defining feature of both the Maccabees and modern day Jihadists. Compare Judas’ words in the narrative above to the Qur’an:
‘But those who knew with certainty that they were to meet their Lord, said: “How often a small group overcame a mighty host by Allah’s Leave?”’ [TMQ 2:249]
[Interestingly enough the context of the above verse is the encounter of Saul and David with Goliath and the Philistine hosts.]
The invocation of the Israelites in the prelude to their encounter with Giorgas might just as well have been uttered by a Jihadist commander in late 2014 and it is the same inexorable belief that repentance from sins and reliance on God actuates victory on the battlefield that illuminates both discourses.
Personally I find the story of Hannukah immensely edifying. It serves as a pointed reminder that the struggles we face today to uphold God’s word were also faced by those who preceded us in faith. It is a reminder that the struggle between Haqq (Truth) and Batil (Falsehood) is an ancient one. But ultimately it is a reminder that Iman will always prevail over Kufr, according to the will of Allah.
“Allah has promised those who have believed among you and done righteous deeds that He will surely grant them succession [to authority] upon the earth just as He granted it to those before them and that He will surely establish for them [therein] their religion which He has preferred for them and that He will surely substitute for them, after their fear, security, [for] they worship Me, not associating anything with Me.” [TMQ 24:55]
May the peace and blessings of Allah (swt) be upon sayyidina Muhammad.