Nobody seems to know who Habib al-Najjâr was. However, his name has been given to a mosque situated in the central part of Antakya.
Originally this mosque may have been a church and perhaps previously a pagan temple. In ancient times, its location was close to the Cherubim Gate, the western gate of Antioch. Some members of the local churches believe that it originally was the Church of John the Baptist. Whatever the case, in a side chamber to the present mosque there are two sarcophagi, one with the name of the prophet Jonah and one with the name of John the Baptist on it.
It is somehow a riddle what connection the prophet Jonah should have had to Antioch. When it comes to John the Baptist, however, things are easier to explain.
The first place designated as the burial place of the body John was in Sebaste, a small city close to Nablus on the West Bank in Palestine. The saying goes that eventually his bones were taken to Alexandria in Egypt.
It will be remembered, however, that John was decapitated. What became of his head is a lot more obscure. Today the head of John the Baptist is kept in the Topkapı Museum in Istanbul, in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, in Church of Saint Sylvester in Capite in Rome, in the Residenz Museum in Munich and a couple of other places, so why not in Antioch? (To readers who would like to know how things like this are possible, I will recommend the book with the title Baudolino by Umberto Eco.)
If we leave the side chamber in the Habib-i Neccar Mosque and descend by the stairway to the crypt under the mosque, things get even more interesting. In a small room there are two sarcophagi, one with the name of Habib-i Neccar (Ottoman for Habib al-Najjâr) and one with the name of Sham’un al-Safa. If we proceed one flight of stairs down to the crypt under this crypt, we find two more sarcophagi with the same names on them. Who are the persons with these names?
According to Muslim tradition, Habib-i Neccar was the man mentioned in the Qur’an (Sura 36).[i] This man had been sent by God, but was put to death in a certain city (ﻗﺭﻳﺔ). The city is supposed to be Antioch (ancient Antakya). A problem with this interpretation is that the word ﻗﺭﻳﺔ (qarya) according to the dictionary Al-Mawrid has the meaning of “village, small town, hamlet.”[ii] Ancient Antioch can hardly be called a hamlet. It was, in fact, one of the three most important cities in the Roman Empire. Some Muslims claim that the incident described took place in the first century. During the first four centuries of the Christian era, Antioch had about 250.000 inhabitants. It was no “small town.”
Some have tried to identify Habib-i Neccar with the Christian prophet Agabus from the first century. According to “several hagiographic texts,” Agabus suffered martyrdom, but Antioch is not mentioned in this connection.[iii] It should be remembered that there is no mention of any persecution of Christians in Antioch until the one ordered by Trajan in the beginning of the second century.
Sham’un al-Safa is even more evasive. The epithet al-Safa (ﺍﻠﺻﺎﻓﻰ) carries the meaning of somebody who is sincere, loyal or devoted,[iv] but the fact that the place of his coffin is regarded by Sunni Muslims as a shrine already indicate that he – by them, at least – is venerated for his devotion and religious loyalty. But who was he?
The name Sham’un is neither Arabic nor Turkish. The word is Hebrew (or Aramaic) and was originally pronounced Shim’on while its Arabic equivalent is Sam’an. This has made some Muslims , especial some with Shiite, Ismaili and Nusayri background, believe that Sham’un al-Safa is Simon Peter, the apostle of Jesus.[v]
This automatically makes us ask two questions: How did the apostle Peter end up in a mosque in the centre of Antakya without the knowledge of the local Christians? And what is he doing in a Sunni mosque when it is Shiite related groups, as the Ismailis and the local Nusayris, who regard him as important? Would you not have expected to find his tomb in one of the shrines (ziyaret) of the Nusayri Alawites?
In answering the first question, it should be kept in mind that there is a very old tradition of Peter visiting Antioch (Antakya). In his letter to the Galatians the apostle Paul describes a controversy he had with the apostle Peter in Antioch (chapter 2 verses 11-13, KJV): "But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation."
However, Peter did not stay in Antioch. According to the Bible, he later on wrote a letter from "Babylon" which may refer to Babylon in Mesopotamia or Babylon in Egypt.[vi] According to Catholic tradition, he died in Rome and was buried there.[vii] To our knowledge there is no tradition that places the tomb of the apostle Peter in Antioch.
So what is the coffin of Sham’un al-Safa doing in the crypt of a Sunni mosque? We do not know. Whoever he may have been, his name indicates that he was not a Muslim.
When you read Turkish books about Antakya (as for example Uysal Yenipınar, Antiocheia (İzmir: Etki Yayınları, 2010), you get the impression that the Habib-i Neccar Mosque was first built in 638 by Abu Ubayda Ibn Jarrâh who had conquered the city from the Byzantines. It is not likely, however, that Abu Ubayda chose an empty spot for his project. The usual procedure in antiquity was that Christians converted pagan shrines into churches and the Muslim later turned these into mosques. The spot where the mosque is located was within the walls of the original Seleucid city and close to the centre of the Byzantine city taken by Abu Ubayda. There was hardly any empty plot of land there.
Thıs leads us to believe that the mosque was originally a church, and perhaps the local Christians are right when the claim that it was the Church of John the Baptist. That would also explain why a sarcophagus with his name on is kept there. If this is the case, we may also draw the conclusion that some ancient Christian saint is hiding behind the name of Sham’un al-Safa.
Sham’un was very likely a common name among the Aramaic speaking Antiochenes. We know at least two local stylites with that name. The first is Symeon the Stylite the Older, who eventually moved up to the plateau between Antioch and Aleppo where he sat on his pillar until his death. He was buried in Antioch.[viii] The second is Symeon the Stylite the Younger who had grown up in the quarter just beside the church that was later on turned into the Mosque of Habib-i Neccar.[ix] This Symeon was not buried in Antioch, but besides his pillar on the "Miraculous Mountain" at Samandağ. What happened to his bones later on, nobody knows. [x]
[i] Marmaduke Pickthall, trans. The Glorious Qur’an (Istanbul: Çağrı Yayınları, 1999), 440 – 442.
[ii] Rohi Baalbaki, Al-Mawrid (Beirut: Dar al-Ilm lilmalayin, 2005) 858.
[iii] G. Vajda, “Habib al-Nadjdjâr,” The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. 3 (London: Luzac & Co., 1986), 12.
[iv] Baalbaki, Al-Mawrid, 686.
[v] "The Ismailis view history as a progressive cycle, which advances through seven major cycles, each inaugurated by a natiq (speaking prophet; pl. nutaqa’) or ulu’l-‘azm (endowed with resolution) who brings revelation and promulgates law in its external form. Adam, (Adam), Nuh (Noah), Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), ‘Isa (Jesus), and Muhammad were the six nutaqa’. Each succeeding natiq abrogates the law of his predecessor and brings a new law. Natiq is followed by asas (foundation), or samit (one who remains silent) who promulgates the batin through ta’wil, Shith (Seth), Sam (Shem), Isma‘il (Ishmail) or Ishaq (Isaac), Harun (Aaron), Yusha‘ (Joshua) the son of Nun, Sham‘un al-Safa (Simon Peter), and ‘Ali were the six usus of the aforementioned six nutaqa’." – Ismail K. Poonawala, "Ismaili Literature in Persian and Arabic" (The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2008), 4, 5, accessed August 4, 2011, http://www.iis.ac.uk/WebAssets/Medium/News/Ismaili%20Literature%20in%20Persian%20and%20Arabic.pdf. See also http://www.ismaili.co.uk/cyclical-time-and-sacred-history-in-medieval-ismaili-thought.shtml and http://www.shiastudies.com/library/english/00-noor/wig/018-Stories_of_Prophets/isa2.htm, accessed August 3, 2011. Henry Corbin, Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis (London: Kegan Paul International, (no date)), 96, accessed August 3, 2011, http://www.amiscorbin.com/textes/anglais/Corbin%20Cyclical%20Time.pdf
[vi] Wikipedia, "Babylon Fortress," accessed August 4, 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylon_Fortress.
[vii] New Advent, "St. Peter, prince of the Apostles," accessed August 4, 2011, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11744a.htm#IV
[viii] Glanville Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria from Seleucus to the Arab Conquest (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 481.
[ix] Ibid., 553-555.
[x] M. Grazia Zambon, Domenico Bertogli & Oriano Granella, Antioch on the Orontes … where the disciples were first called Christians … (Parma: Edizioni Eteria (no date)), 97.