The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam Sidney H. Griffith

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    The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam. By Sidney H. Griffith. Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modem World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008. xvi + 223 pp. $35.00 cloth.

The “shadow” referenced in the title of this volume on the “Arabophone” Christians of the Islamic world from the seventh to thirteenth centuries, Sidney H. Griffith informs his readers, possesses a double meaning. Certainly, Islam “overshadowed” the Syriac- and Arabic-speaking Christians who lived in the midst of Muslim societies, but it also provided them with a certain amount of “protective shade,” allowing them space for “the articulation of a new cultural expression of Christian doctrine” and a chance to “define their mature ecclesial identities” (4). This is a story, he argues, that has not been told frequently or thoroughly enough, leaving the vast majority of “westerners” ill-informed or simply unaware of the Christian Arabic culture and intellectual life that flourished under Islamic dominance. By drawing on neglected Christian Syriac and Arabic sources, Griffith seeks to advance the understanding of early Islam and such subaltern Eastern Christian denominations before their demographic decline into a negligible minority status. Beyond these scholarly goals, his purpose is avowedly ecumenical. While he has no illusions about the limits of premodern Muslim-Christian convivencia, Griffith still hopes that an understanding of how Eastern Christians lived among and debated with Muslims in the past might contribute to new forms of inter-religious dialogue between modem Muslims, Christians, and also Jews.
Synthesizing materials from his own previous articles and essays, Griffith begins with a discussion of Syriac apocalyptic literature, the “earliest genre in which Christians initially expressed their most sustained response to the religious challenge of Islam” (33). From there, he proceeds to examine Syriac and Arabic Christian theology from the late eighth to the tenth centuries, including its basic development, its different forms and genres, and its strategies for dealing with Muslim critiques of Christianity. Although he recognizes — in a play on Samuel Huntington — that there was a “clash of theologies” between Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims in the early Islamic period (157), Griffith illustrates throughout the complexities and nuances of Arab Christian theological literature, written both for internal consumption by Eastern Christian communities and for potential Muslim readers. Starting with the earliest known Arabic tract by an anonymous Christian theologian, On the Triune Nature of God, he analyzes how Arab Christians used their knowledge of the Qur’an and Islamic religious idioms to create a distinct form of Christian religious discourse. To defend the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, which were challenged by the Qur’an, Christian Syriac and Arabic treatises employed Islamic terms and concepts to apologize for their faith, using, for example, the “beautiful names” of God found in the Qur’an to discuss the different persons of the Trinity (a strategy pioneered by the famous eighth-century theologian John of Damascus, who wrote in Greek but lived among Muslims his entire life).
After something of a detour into the better known contributions of Arabicspeaking Christians to the development of classical Islamic philosophy, including their capacity as translators of Greek texts into Arabic, Griffith explores how the challenge of Islam contributed to the formation of self-identity among Eastern Christians, including Nestorians, Jacobites, Copts, Armenians, Melkites, Maronites, and Georgians. Although the origins of these distinct denominations mostly hearkened back to the Christological controversies of the later Roman Empire in the fifth and sixth centuries, Griffith stresses that they did not emerge as full-blown, distinct communities until the seventh and eighth centuries, shaped, in large part, by their experiences living in an increasingly Arabic-speaking, Islamic world. This same situation effectively isolated Eastern Christians living “in the shadow of the mosque” from the Greek and Latin Christian cultures of Byzantium and Western Europe, respectively. At one point, Griffith goes so far as to declare that the “estrangement” of those Eastern Christian churches from the Christians of the West might mark “the definitive moment in the historical transition in ecclesiastical history from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages” (130-131). The question of Christian self-definition also brings Griffith briefly to discuss Arabic Christian martyrologies that celebrated the “neomartyrs” of the early Islamic period, Christians who openly disparaged Islamic teachings and thereby triggered their own deaths. In this instance, he touches on the well-known ninth-century martyrs of Cordoba in Islamic Spain, a region that generally falls outside his area of concentration on the “Christians of the Orient” (3).
Despite the Christian-Muslim “clash” of theologies and episodes of martyrdom, at the close of his work Griffith accents the positive or at least less harmful contributions of Arab Christian theology and culture to a “community of discourse about religion between Muslims and Christians,” along with Jews and other religious minorities (158). At various points in his discussion, he asserts that the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries witnessed a hardening of attitudes among both Eastern Christians and Muslims, reducing the room for interfaith dialogue and creating an intensified animosity that would endure until the emergence of a new religious pluralism in the twentieth century. Stepping outside of his role as a dispassionate scholar, Griffith proclaims that the time has come to recapture that earlier mood found in the works of the first Christians who seriously engaged with Islam and its teachings — not a lost age of Christian-Muslim harmony by any stretch, but, as he interprets it, a considerably less acerbic time than much of the following thousand years.

Brett Edward Whalen
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam