Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Muslim Letters of Prester John

We have examined how Prester John sent letters to the Papacy and the Christian kingdoms of the West.

Equating Prester John with the historical king of Zabag known as the Mihraj, we have also seen how the latter king reached out to the kingdoms of Tibet, India and China, by sending gifts and supporting building projects abroad. Prester John, likewise, had proposed building projects in his message to Pope Alexander III.

The Mihraj was also in the habit of sending letters to the emperor of China, and the Sung Dynasty annals state that his kingdom used Chinese characters when sending such official correspondence. Two such letters are mentioned explicitely in the annals -- one in 1017 to the emperor and cast in "golden characters," and the other in 1080 from the king's daughter, in Chinese characters, addressed to the superintendent of trade. The latter however would not receive the letter but instead forwarded it to the emperor.

As discussed previously, in this author's opinion these overtures were part of the king's attraction policy that took on a special emphasis when Zabag's trade routes were infringed upon by expanding Muslim influence.

However, there may have been a time when the Mihraj also attempted to reach out to the Sunni Muslim juggernaut at the very beginning of the Umayyad Caliphate. S. Q. Fatimi has analyzed two letters from the "Mihraj" to the first Umayyad caliph Mu'awiyah in in 661 CE, and to the caliph Umar ibn abd al-Aziz (717-20). Fatimi marshals evidence to show that this king of "al-Hind" is, in fact, the ruler of Zabag. The very title "Mihraj" or "Mahraj" was used specifically in Muslim texts for the monarch of Zabag.

The first letter is recorded by al-Jahiz (783-869) in Kitab al-Hayawan. According to Jahiz, Abd al-Malik b. Umayr (822-3) saw the letter from the diwan (secretary) of Mu'awiyah and it was passed from him to Abu Ya'qub al-Thaqafi who relayed it to al-Haytham b. Adi, the source of al-Jahiz.

Unfortunately, Jahiz only records the greeting of the letter from the king of al-Hind "in whose stables are a thousand elephants, (and) whose palace is built of bright gold and silver, who is served by a thousand daughters of the kings, and who possesses two rivers, which irrigate aloes plants, to Mu'awiyah..."

The second letter is found in Al-Iqd al-Farid by Abd Rabbih (860-940) who gives as his source Nu'aym b. Hammad.

Nu'aym b. Hammad wrote: "the king of al-Hind sent, a letter to Umar b. Abd al-Aziz, which ran as follows: From the King of kings [Malik al-Amlak], who is the descendant of a thousand kings, in whose stables are a thousand elephants, and in whose territories are two rivers which irrigate plants of aloes, odoriferous herbs, nutmeg, and camphor, whose fragrance spreads the distance of twelve miles -- to the king of the Arabs, who does not associate other gods with God. I have sent to you a gift, which is not much of a gift but a greetings and I wish that you may send to me someone who might teach me Islam and instruct me in its Laws."

Similarities with Prester John's letter

Now we can immediately note some resemblances of these two letters with those sent centuries later by Prester John to the Christian emperors and kings.

First, there is the mention of the gift, which is not unusual in communication between kings. There is also the flowery, somewhat pompous, self-introduction of the king. In particular, the Mihraj uses the title "King of Kings" or Malik al-Amlak just as Prester John refers to himself as Rex Regnum "King of Kings." Both monarchs claim to have many elephants at their command, and there is also the mention from both the Mihraj and Prester John of a palace constructed with precious metals.

In Prester John's communication with Alexander III, he asks for instruction in the Catholic religion, and we see the same request, but this time with reference to Islam, in the second letter of the Mihraj.

Ibn Tighribirdi (1410-1470) gives another version of the second letter, on the authority of Ibn Asakir, in which he adds a sentence near the end: "I have sent you a present of musk, amber, incense and camphor, Please accept it, for I am your brother in Islam." This would imply that the Mihraj had accepted Islam, and Fatimi suggests that the king may have converted, but that the religion was latter rejected by his descendants. Another possibility, of course, is that Ibn Tighribirdi's late account uses unreliable sources. In either case, there is no evidence that Islam was practiced widely in Zabag at any point in its history.

However, we do see that the Mihraj follows a similar pattern of open patronage of multiple religions that we have suggested earlier was part of a long-standing royal policy of Zabag.

With reference to the "two rivers" mentioned in the Mihraj's letter, we note again the suggestion that one title for the king of the isles dating from ancient times was "Lord of the River." Fatimi, who holds that Zabag should be equated with Srivijaya, thinks that rivers mentioned are the Batanghari in Jambi and the Musi in Palembang.

The two rivers, in my view, would represent the primary drainage courses for the two sacred mountains, Pinatubo and Arayat. The Pampanga River, although it has its source further north, passes very close to Arayat and right through the town called Arayat, and thus was associated with that mountain. The river of Pinatubo could have been the Guagua River, but also the Masantol river which joins the Pampanga River in Masantol, where I have suggested the Zabag emporium was located. Visitors and merchants would have entered into the emporium by sailing up the Pampanga River and registering at the royal palace at Malauli before preceding further upstream.

In the Mihraj's letters, he mentions the spices of his kingdom including nutmeg, which was found only in the islands around and including Maluku (the Moluccas) and Mindanao. Nutmeg along with clove buds, which was found only in Maluku region, were traded mainly along the "Clove Route," which lead to the northwest along what the Chinese called the "Eastern Ship Route." I have suggested that this trade route was controlled primarily by the Mihraj.

The letters of the Mihraj can be viewed as early examples of a tradition of correspondence used by the king of Zabag to accomplish geopolitical goals. The timing of the letter coincided with the accounts of the Sayabiga, the natives of Zabag that I have suggested acted as agents of the Mihraj in latter times. However, the course of history would suggest that a "friendly" outcome was not achieved, and the kingdom of Zabag would later have to pursue other courses of action.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Fatimi, SQ. "Two Letters from Maharaja to the Khalifah", Islamic Studies (Karachi), 2, 1 (1963), 121-40.

Rost, Reinhold. Miscellaneous Papers Relating to Indo-China. London: Trübner & Co, 1886, 188-91.