The Encounter of Eastern Christianity and Early Islam

Posted by on Mar 1, 2018 in Library | Comments Off on The Encounter of Eastern Christianity and Early Islam

    In her lucid introduction to the Encounter of Eastern Christianity with Early Islam, Emmanouela Grypeou describes the work as the product of a 2003 workshop at the University of Erfurt, the goal of which was to investigate how conflicts in the sixth/early seventh century between Byzantium and local Christian communities in the eastern Mediterranean affected the rise of Islam in that region. In fact, the papers in the Encounter of Eastern Christianity with Early Islam range well beyond this topic. They address historical controversies regarding the rise of Islam and the Byzantine reaction thereto, various responses to Islam’s rise in Syriac, Coptic, Greek, and Arabic Christian literature, and Christian (and, to a lesser extent, Islamic) theological developments encouraged by the dynamic of religious competition in the Islamic world. It is perhaps regrettable that the papers are not grouped into coherent sections, but nevertheless they are generally well written and thought-provoking, and the volume as a whole is excellent.
    In the opening article “Islam and Oriens Christianus: Makka 610-622 AD” Iran Shahid argues trenchantly that there was a significant Ethiopian Christian presence in Muhammad’s Mecca. He even speculates (p. 15), in light of the seafaring vocabulary in the Qur’an, that the Prophet himself travelled to Ethiopia. Shahid also notes that some early Arabic poets, including ‘Adi b. Zayd and Umayya b. Abi 1-Salt, were Christians, and from there argues that a robust Arab Christianity also existed in the Prophet’s milieu, and indeed was a fundamental influence on the rise of Islam (a line of argument that goes back to C. Huart’s 1904 article “Une nouvelle source du Coran”).
    Daniel Sahas turns to the tradition of the patriarch Sophronius’s surrender of Jerusalem to the caliph ‘Umar. He notes that the more famous elements thereof, such as ‘Umar’s refusal to pray in the Anastasis, appear only with Eutychius (Sa’id b. Batriq; d. 940). Still, Sahas insists that there must be an historical basis to this tradition. However, this tradition seems to match too well the interests of a threatened Christian community; a more sophisticated reading thereof leads to an image not of Muslim-Christian harmony, but of disharmony. Such sophistication is seen in “Copts and the Islam of the Seventh Century” by Harald Suermann, who shows that Coptic sources do not vindicate the stubborn notion that non-Chalcedonian communities welcomed the Muslims as liberators from Byzantine oppression. In early texts such as the Panegyric of the Three Holy Children of Babylon, the Muslims are themselves the oppressors. Later in the volume Jan J. van Ginkel makes a similar point in regard to the Syrian Orthodox literature on the conquests: “There does not seem to be a specifically Syrian Orthodox identity in the account of the conquest, but rather a Christian identity, which has suffered through war and plunder” (pp. 182-83).
    David Olster and Walter Kaegi address different elements of the Byzantine reaction to the rise of Islam. In “Ideological Transformation of the Evolution of Imperial Presentation in the Wake of Islam’s Victory,” Olster argues that the trauma of Byzantium’s defeats led the emperors to seek legitimacy in the religious importance of their position. While Heraclius (r. 610-41) took the title “faithful in Christ,” Constantine IV (r. 668-85) portrayed himself as suffering like Christ in his struggles with Islam, and even described himself as a co-ruler with Christ (p. 59). Kaegi argues that Constans II (r. 641-68) sought to imitate his grandfather Heraclius by personally leading Byzantine forces into battle. However, Constans could not defend Anatolia (or indeed Sicily and Italy) as Heraclius had done, so we might think of him as a “failed Heraclius” (p. 92).
    In “Amid in the Seventh Century Syriac Life of Theodute,” Andrew Palmer offers an irreverent, humorous, and insightful analysis of a pious Syrian Orthodox biography of Theodute, a seventh-century monk. At the center of this analysis is Palmer’s description of Theodute’s context in northern Mesopotamia, where the Islamic presence was hardly felt despite Arab suzerainty, and the real threat (both politically and religiously) came from the Chalcedonian Christians in Byzantine-controlled areas. Martin Tamcke, for his part, is concerned with an East Syrian (“Nestorian”) text, the Hymn on the Katholikoi of the East, written in a much later period, probably under the Mongols in the late thirteenth/early fourteenth century, by Giwargis Warda. Tamcke illustrates Warda’s meticulous care to provide something approaching a universal history (albeit in the form of a hymn) by mentioning all of the Katholikoi between Isho’yahb II (r. 628-46) to Timothy II (r. 1318-32), even those about whom he knew almost nothing at all.
    In “Political Power and Right Religion in the East Syrian Disputation between a Monk of Bet Hale and an Arab Notable,” Gerrit Reinink analyzes a Christian apology, written in the guise of a Muslim-Christian dispute, that has been recently studied by Sidney Griffith. Reinink focuses on the author’s Christian interpretation of Islamic political dominance. Political power, the author argues, hardly validates Islam, for many states still more powerful than the Islamic empire have long since disappeared. The dominance of Islam is in truth God’s way of chastising Christians for their sinfulness and encouraging them to put their hope in divine matters.
    The matter at hand shifts abruptly in the following article, David Cook’s “New Testament Citations in the Hadith Literature and the Question of Early Gospel Translations into Arabic.” Here Cook takes up an old topic (championed by Anton Baumstark and later Irfan Shahid), namely, the quest for a pre-Islamic translation of the Bible in Arabic. He seeks to do so in light of the New Testament material to be found in the hadith (a topic studied by Miguel Asín Palacios and recently Tarif Khalidi). Cook draws the reader’s attention to ingenious Muslim versions of Gospel material (in one, the parable of the workers hired through the day [Mt 20:1-16] is applied to Jews, Christians, and Muslims), and includes a helpful collection of such traditions at the end of his article.
    Muriel Debié introduces a Syriac text, Revelations and Testimonies about Our Lord’s Dispensation, written in the early Islamic period. Like Pseudo-Methodius, Revelations is an apocalyptic text with apologetical concerns that reflects the pressures of Islamic rule. Yet Revelations shows a distinct concern for a typological reading of the Old Testament, a strategy meant to show that humanity’s history is directed towards its savior, Jesus Christ. Mark Swanson’s ingeniously titled “Folly to the Hunafa’: The Crucifixion in Early Christian-Muslim Controversy” begins with his observation that an early Arabic translation of the Gospel uses hunafa’ to translate the references in 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 to the “Greeks” who find the doctrine of the Crucifixion to be foolish. In an Islamic context this translation is a provocative allusion to Muslims. Muslims understood haniflhunafa’ to mean “monotheist” or even “Muslim,” but Arabic-speaking Christians generally thought of this word in light of its Syriac cognate hanpalhanpe, meaning “gentile” and/or “pagan.” With this introduction Swanson proceeds to analyze the defense of Christian doctrine on the Crucifixion in three texts, one Coptic (History of the Patriarchs), one Arabic (On the Triune Nature of God), and one Syriac (The Debate of the Patriarch Timothy and the Caliph al-Mahdi).
    For his part David Thomas is concerned with both Christian apology and early Islamic polemic in his “Christian Theologians and New Questions.” In his analysis of De Haeresibus of John of Damascus (d. 749), the Radd ‘ala l-nasara of the Zaydi al-Qasim b. Ibrahim (d. 246/860), and the Radd ‘ala 1-thalath firaq min al-nasara of Abu ‘sa al-Warraq (d. ca. 250/864), Thomas shows insightfully how the context of sectarian controversy in the early Islamic world exerted a shaping influence on both Christian and Islamic theology. In particular, he demonstrates how the nature of disputation encouraged Muslim thinkers to conclude “that the Islamic revelation agrees with rational truth” (p. 262).
    Finally, Sidney Griffith brings to light an important early Chalcedonian, or “Melkite,” Arabic apologetical text even as he reflects more broadly on the origins of Christian theology in Arabic. He shows that the very identity of the Melkites is connected to the rise of Arabic Christian literature in the Church in Jerusalem, which, if doctrinally in agreement with Byzantium (hence its members were thought of as partisans of the emperor), was the first in the Islamic world to adopt Arabic. Remarkably, this leads Melkite texts, such as that presented here by Griffith, to show an interest in the Arabic Qur’an, as their authors seek to defend Christian doctrine in an Islamic context.
    Thus there is much of value in the Encounter of Eastern Christianity with Early Islam (although this hardly justifies its ludicrous price). A number of its essays are distinguished by sober, scholarly candor. Their authors challenge standard notions not with sensationalism but rather in deference to the results of their research. Their work offers an exemplary approach for scholars working in the controversial fields of Islamic origins and Muslim-Christian relations.

The Encounter of Eastern Christianity and