On The Incoherence of Some Orientalists and Their False Charges Against Our Learned Men and Their Refutation – BIOGRAPHIES OF SYRIAN SCHOLARS AND WRITERS – Mor Ignatius Aphram Barsoum – Translated : By Dr. Matti Moosa

Posted by on May 19, 2018 in Articles, Library | Comments Off on On The Incoherence of Some Orientalists and Their False Charges Against Our Learned Men and Their Refutation – BIOGRAPHIES OF SYRIAN SCHOLARS AND WRITERS – Mor Ignatius Aphram Barsoum – Translated : By Dr. Matti Moosa

On The Incoherence of Some Orientalists and Their False Charges Against Our Learned Men and Their Refutation
Although we recognize the excellence of Orientalists, their industry, effort and adroitness in studying our Syriac sciences and literature as well as the manuscripts which they edited or translated into their living languages, we find it imperative to allude to the incoherence of some of them and their false charges against our learned men or against historical facts connected with our dear country. They were motivated either by pride in their learning and skill, or vanity, or for extremism in their modern principles and their attempt to subjugate the learned men of ancient times to modern criteria, an unfair practice. Or, they do so for negligence in investigations or even still out of great prejudice toward the Orthodox Syrians. As learned men, they should avoid such prejudice. Following are some examples:
1. William Wright, the Englishman, claimed that:
the literature of Syria is, on the whole, not an attractive one. As Renan (the French atheist and free thinker) said, ‘The Syrians shone neither in war, nor in the arts, nor in science.’ There was no al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, nor Ibn Rushd, in the cloisters of Edessa, Ken-neshre, or Nisibis. The Syrian church never produced men who rose to the level of a Eusebius, a Gregory Nazianzen, a Basil and a Chrysostom, and that their historians John of Ephesus, Tall Mahri and Bar Hebraeus are humble chroniclers.3
We refute this allegation by stating that when the Syrians became Christians they did not have a kingdom to defend and for which they would write select speeches or compose fiery poems. If by art Wright and Renan meant architecture, our surviving ancient churches stand as a testimony for the Syrians’ skill in architecture. Of course, Renan and Wright have not seen the monasteries of Qartamin, Salh, Mar Behnam and the churches of Hah, Arnas and Kafarze, particularly the two churches of Edessa considered by the geographers and historians as two of the wonders of the World.4 They did not see the churches in Baghdad which were adorned with wonderful pictures and ornaments and which became the attractions of visitors from far-away countries.5 Neither did they see the Monastery of Mar Barsoum in Malatya (Melitene) for whose building and decoration the patriarchs, especially Michael the Great, spent a great deal of effort.6 And could these two men realize the condition of the twenty thousand of our churches which survived until 12367 let alone the churches we had in our golden age?8 And if they meant by art the mastery of pictorial art, they failed to know about the precious gold and silver objects and the magnificent embroidered vestments described by the priest Aaron of Arzenjan about 1364 and which is only a small part of that great legacy. How could they forget the splendid ornaments and pictures which enhanced the value of the copies of our Gospels? Or how could they overlook the calligraphy of our manuscript which they saw and which have achieved a universal record in perfection and beauty? If they mean by art, sculpture in which the Romans and the Italians alone have excelled, then, the Syrians as well as other nations such as the English and the French, are to blame for not taking it up.
Wright’s claim that our histories are of little substance and benefit is refuted by the consensus of the Orientalists who studied and published these histories and stated that their writers have preceded the Christian historians of ancient and medieval times, and that they are most comprehensive and beneficial for the historian. These histories, consisting of no fewer than seventeen volumes, have added new chapters to world history and corrected old mistakes.9 Indeed, Wright himself has not read the histories of Michael the Great and the anonymous Edessene. Even the writer to whom he attributed the history of Talmahri was written by a monk from the Zuqnin Monastery.10 And if this is what Wright thinks of our histories, why does he regret the loss of the histories of Jacob of Edessa and Moses bar Kipha? Furthermore, could he show us what histories are better and more comprehensive than ours? Have European historians of various nationalities written before later times? Is there anything found in their histories until the Crusades except insignificant subject matter?
Wright’s claim that our Church did not produce the likes of Eusebius and other writers whom he mentioned is to be refuted by the opinions of authoritative critics. These critics said that although Eusebius’s fame derives from his history, yet he was neither a great historian nor a genius; he was a proficient and thorough compiler. His history, they say, is weak and his style is aesthetically poor.11 Furthermore, we recognize that Gregory Nazianzen derives his fame from his charming discourses and wonderful poetry. And Basilius is famous because of his theological writings, letters and discourses of skillful composition. Although these two writers have excellence reserved to geniuses alone, yet they were not the only ones in the world whom no one could emulate. Indeed, the writings of Ephraim, Jacob of Saruj, Philoxenus of Mabug, Jacob of Edessa, Moses bar Kipha and Bar Hebraeus, not only equal their writings but even surpass them except for the writings of Chrysostom, the prince of orators in Christendom. I do not know whether Wright had the chance to read the superb homilies of Ephraim in order to see whether they would fascinate him. We do not want to argue with him over the writings of Severus of Antioch in Greek although they reached the world in our tongue (Syriac) and astonished eminent speculative thinkers. Regarding philosophy, how could Wright designate the excellence of Sergius of Ras Ayn and the philosophers of the Monastery of Qinnesrin like Severus Sabukht, Jacob of Edessa and George, bishop of the Arabs, to whose thorough commentaries Renan himself has directed the attention of writers,12 let alone Bar Hebraeus whose book, The Cream of Wisdom, Wright did not see because no copy of it was available in all the European libraries at that time.
On the other hand, it was not easy for the Syrians in the fourth century to get to the schools of Caesarea, Cappadocia, Alexandria and Athens. But when the circumstances were more propitious, from the end of the sixth to the end of the ninth centuries, during which they built great monasteries and exhausted their efforts for the attainment of philosophy, the masterpieces of Greek learned men became available to them. They studied them and were even sought for their proficiency in philosophy. How could Wright then deny their genius? Finally, if we did not have the like of the eminent learned men whom he mentioned, did the rest of the Christian nation have men like them? It is proved that the opponent who did not thoroughly study the writings of our people has produced only a feeble and unsuccessful opinion which is rejected by European historians themselves.
2. You have already seen what we have related about Chabot’s opinions.13 While Chabot denied the creativity of Bar Hebraeus we find that he himself has become a slave of uncreativity by imitating those writers who preceded him, like Duval. However, Baumstark and Sprengling hold a different opinion of Bar Hebraeus. Part of Chabot’s incoherence is his claim that Syrian poets after the ninth century became greatly absorbed in using strange and ornamental usages in their language to vie with the Arabic language. This, he maintains, spoiled their poetry, which thus lost charm and lofty thinking.14 This opinion does not apply to the Western Syrians with the exception of Jacob of Bartulli and except for the composers of verse in the middle of the fifteenth century as we have previously stated.15 Prior to Jacob of Bartulli our verse composers excelled in composing most beautiful poems. What led Chabot to this erroneous impression is his unawareness of the odes of Bar Qiqi, Bar Sabuni, and his overlooking of the odes of Timothy of Karkar, Bar Andrew and Abu Nasr of Bartulli and others. One of his arbitrary opinions is his doubt about the discourses of Moses bar Kipha although they were preserved in a manuscript available in his time. As a learned man, it would have been more appropriate for him to avoid sectarian backbiting,16 ingratitude,16 and the slightest mistakes.18
3. Most of the Orientalists including Anton Baumstark, the German, claim that the story of the martyr Behnam is fictitious. They even denied the existence of some saints or their stories. Their pretext is that no manuscripts about them have survived. This is the utmost arbitrariness since these Orientalists have become certain of the loss of many manuscripts. Furthermore, ecclesiastical histories no matter how detailed, were not able to include the biographies of the multitudes of the select men of God in the far-flung countries of the East. The just critic should not expect the biographers of these saints to be proficient in the science of criticism, for he who attempts such a thing is in fact seeking the impossible. And how many a historical event was doubted by some of them, but later was proved to be authentic by a newly discovered old manuscript which forces the Orientalist to affirm its authenticity. If for some selfish purpose or lack of subject matter or inadequate learning a writer or a parasitical scribe interpolated a story which does not correspond with the true condition or time of its central figure, it should not be used as a pretext to deny the whole story. For it should not be difficult for the prudent and intelligent writer to sift out the interpolations made by ignorant writers or scribes and realize that what remains of the original should be invulnerable. Moreover, the science of criticism is not the invention of contemporary European writers nor it is completely theirs. If you resort to some of the letters of Jacob of Edessa and George, bishop of the Arabs, you will find in them scientific criticism and thorough examination of ancient events since the beginning of Christianity. We do not boast if we stated that four years after comprehensive study of our language, we obviously realized many historical facts in the manuscripts which we had read before the Orientalists produced their opinions about them.
4. Part of the incoherence of the French priest Francios Nau is that he thought that John of Ephesus exaggerated his praise of the heroism of the captives and martyr virgins who preferred to drown in the river Khabur than fall into the hands of the infidel Magi, for adherence to their religion and for the protection of their virginity, both of which deserve to be protected by precious life. Nau has falsely and shamelessly described the writer (John of Ephesus) as a “semi-savage monk,”19 claiming that he has exalted suicide. But Nau has blindly overlooked Basilius and St. John Chrysostom’s exaltation of the martyrs of religion and virginity Proedeci and Domnina of Antioch and their daughters. Is it not proper for John of Ephesus to have found an example in the martyrdom of these women?
5. Henri Pognon has unjustly accused Michael the Great of prattle and lack of understanding.20 Indeed, it is a silly accusation, demonstrating the arrogance and error of the writer. Elaboration in the writing of history is commendable and is not considered prattling except by a raving chatterbox. The history of Michael the Great, for whose publication learned men have vied and for whose printing the Art University of Paris spent a substantial amount of money, is a rare treasure not to be denigrated by the few events copied by the author from weak sources and from which other histories are not free. No one can criticize this history whose author is an eminent church dignitary, unless he is of little understanding. But Pognon, in his shortsightedness, has imagined that there was a discrepancy in Michael’s list of bishops. His pretext is that the author has neglected to mention eight out of twenty-eight bishops who attended his consecration as patriarch in 1166. In fact, four of these bishops were ordained by maphrians of the East and the rest are not known. These four bishops are Basil, John, Ignatius and Iyawannis, Bishops of Edessa, Mar Gabriel’s Monastery, Albira and Barummana, respectively.21 His claim is refuted by the fact that Basil is bar Shumanna, bishop of Kaysum, who was transferred to Edessa, and the fact that Yuhanna (John) is the bishop of Tur Abdin mentioned in the Basibrina Book of Life by his nephew Gabriel, Pognon should have called him the bishop of Qartamin. Furthermore, Ignatius is bishop of Tal Arsanius, which then included the adjacent diocese of Albira, Iyawannis was bishop of Sibaberk and was ordained in 1135. After his diocese was annexed to that of Edessa in 1155,22 he was given the diocese of Barummana. All of these bishops were listed as the bishop under the Patriarchs Yuhanna XI and Athanasius VII. Moreover, we have collated the list of bishops with the copy at Cambridge and with our comments which we derived from the oldest manuscripts and did not add to it except for five bishops. And what is this number in comparison with nine hundred-fifty bishops? This is sufficient to prove the falsehood of Pognon’s assertions. What makes him look even more deficient in the science of history is his claim:
1) that Mar Gabriel’s Monastery was called the “Umar” Monastery because its abbot obtained a decree from the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab, authorizing him to be in charge of the Christians in that country.23 In fact, the Caliph Umar did not travel beyond Damascus, Gabriel did not leave Tur Abdin, and these two men did not meet at all. Moreover, the right word is Umr, meaning a monastery in both Arabic and Syriac, and not Umar.
2) Pognon claimed that the monastery of the Pillar, renovated by Musa ibn Hamdan in 1257, is at al-Raqqa, that the village of Dirah Iliyya is the village of Inhil in Tur Abdin and that the Maphrian Dioscorus is an Arab.24 The truth is that the monastery is that of St. Michael in Mardin, that the village Dirah Iliyya is very near to that city and that Maphrian Dioscorus belongs to the village Arbo in Tur Abdin.
3) A copy of the Book of Life fell into Pognon’s hand, but he could not know its name. However, he drew from it an historical event about the pillage of Mar Gabriel’s Monastery by the Turks or the Persians in 1100. But he became suspicious about this incident because Ibn al-Athir did not mention it.25 As if Ibn al-Athir covered in his history everything that befell the East particularly the affairs of the Christians and their monasteries. When were Muslim historians concerned about the affairs of the Christians?26
6. Some Orientalists like the French Rubens Duval in his book La Histoire d’Edessa and Jerome Labourt in his book Le christianisme dans l’empire Perse sous la dynasti Sassanids, have been criticized for denying the Christianization of the city of Edessa before the fourth century. Apparently, they found in the Doctrine of Addai interpolations made by some scribes which made them quick to deny the truth about the conversion of Edessa to Christianity. Labourt has even maliciously denigrated the historical integrity of Bar Hebraeus while he has fearlessly declared his bias against the opponents of his own doctrine.27
7. At the beginning the Orientalists made many mistakes. For example, they confused Isaac with Balai, and considered Daniel of Salh an eighth-century learned man and David bar Bulus (Paul) a thirteenth-century writer, and incorrectly determined their affairs and dates. Most of them imitated Assemani even in his harsh defamation of our learned men.28 Furthermore, the priest Jabrail (Gabriel) Qirdahi, who in his Liber Thesaurus provided hodgepodge biographies which he fabricated and garnished in his younger days, did not even think of correcting his mistakes later.29 Baumstark’s misunderstanding of the term Siluba has already been mentioned.30 In fact, Siluba was a term used by Western Syrian writers, but it was neglected later.31 Like Baumstark, Mingana made this same mistake.32 He also misunderstood the meaning of the term Notar taro, meaning the head of a diocese, a term which has been used in this context by our later transcribers. But Baumstark translated it as the doorkeeper.33 Some Orientalists maintained that the term Tubana which occurred in the Lives of the Eastern Ascetics means “Tubawi” that is blessed, while in reality Tubana means ascetic, the same as Turaya which occurred in the poems of St. Ephraim. There it means an ascetic and not mountain man, because many ascetics lived in cells in the mountains.
It should also be remembered that some Orientalists cannot read two pages of Syriac let alone write it, as we have found out ourselves. They do study it in a mechanical manner and with great patience and for this reason their translations could not be free from incongruous terms which disagree with the original.34 It is obvious that the acquisition of the right meaning and the savoring of it are not afforded except to the natives and foreigners who are well-versed in the language. It is not afforded to those who carry dictionaries under their arms which they consult in order to obtain the right meaning while they are not sure of what is wrong and what is right. We have not mentioned this to magnify the mistakes of Orientalists but to show that they do have weaknesses. Therefore, they have no right to be dogmatic on everything that comes to their mind, wrongly imagining that they are infallible. It is true that deliberation and moderation is the principle of scholars who possess independent judgment.
What is appropriate to mention here is that some contemporary European writers attempted in their historical or religious writings to gain fame by defaming eminent (Syrian) writers. They are motivated by prejudice and vindictiveness against these Syrian learned men whose only fault is that they are not of their own theological doctrine. But they praise their contemporary European opponents, either out of flattery or out of fear of their adverse reaction. This is sheer hypocrisy. After all, what is the use of knowledge if it does not refine man to the point where he would refrain from profaning that which is sacred to other people. Above all they claim that they belong to an age which has achieved a great degree of refinement and civilization. Yet how ill their deeds and how false their words. For every just person of good taste knows that dignitaries and learned men, particularly the proficient among them, have an esteemed position for their virtue and for their role in enlightening the path for other people. Without these learned men we would, in many respects, be in complete darkness. On the other hand, we found a group of Orientalists who are moderate, like Brooks, Hayes, Springling, Graham and Mingana (at the end of his life) and Gustav Bardi.
May God have compassion on those who tell the truth and benefit people with their knowledge, using authentic evidence to support their views. This is more appropriate for them, more efficient in preventing shortcomings and achieving one’s goal. May God enlighten us to acquire beneficial religious and secular knowledge. We pray Him to keep us away from faults and errors, and to guide the thoughtless and the irresponsible to the right path. He is defending enough for us. We render Him deep gratitude as we finish this treatise.