Syrian Christian Writers In The World of Islam – Prof. Sidney H. Griffith

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Syrian Christian Writers
In The World of Islam
Disputes With Muslims in Syriac Christian Texts:
From Patriarch John (d. 648) to Bar Hebreus (d. 1286)
Prof. Sidney H. Griffith
Professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, Washington D. C.

The American Foundation for Syriac Studies
When the Muslims came to power in Mesopotamia (al-Jazirah and al-Iraq) in the heart of the territories of the Syriac-speaking Christian communities of the patriarchate of Antioch, and established at Basrah and Kufa the Arab communities that would be the centers of Islamic power in the vast territories of the former Persian empire, the stage was set for confrontations over religion to erupt between Christian and Muslim intellectuals. For Basrah and Kufa, together with Baghdad somewhat later, were to become intellectual centers of the first order in the academic awakening of Islam, especially during the first Abbasid century. And these metropolises were all within the territory of the Nestorian catholicos of Seleucia/Ctesiphon and the Jacobite metropolitan (later maphrian) of Tagrit, the two Christian regional hierarchs in the Syriac-speaking communities of the area with the most over-all influence. Within these ecclesiastical jurisdictions in the seventh century there were already in place those institutions of the scholarly life that could not but be both magnet and foil for the first generations of Muslim intellectuals in Iraq. Logic, science, philosophy, and religious dialectics all came to their first flowering in Arabic in this milieus. Altogether they posed the most comprehensive intellectual challenge to Christians since the days of Galen, Porphyry, Celsus, and the Roman emperor Julian. Responses to the Islamic challenge from the Christian communities who spoke Syriac appear in the surviving documents of a number of genres of writing. Historians chronicled the conquests and military occupation of the Arabs, and gave some accounts of the origins and basic tenets of Islam. Preachers, epistolographers and Bible commentators took such notice of the teachings of Islam as their own topics seemed to requires. Some writers composed apocalyptic treatises that tried to make sense of the hegemony of Islam from the perspective of the traditional Christian readings of the prophecies of Daniel. And some controversialists wrote apologetic and polemical tracts in Syriac that addressed themselves to arguments about religion between Christians and Muslims. This latter genre of writing is the subject of the present essay.
Dialogue with Muslims, at least as a literary form of Christian apologetics was not so popular a genre with Syriac writers as it was to become among Arabophone Christian scholars, who in tandem with the Muslim mutakallimun developed their own rather carefully constructed Ilm al-kalam in defense of Christian doctrines. Nevertheless, from just after the time of the Islamic conquest, up to the days of Gregory Abu’l-Faraj, Bar Hebraeu’ (d. 1286), after which Syriac virtually disappeared as a literary language, some Syriac writers did compose apologetical tracts in response to the challenge of Islam. Here we may give a brief account of the most important ones among those that have survived, several of which are still unpublished. Then we shall discuss the general features of the disputes with Muslims in these works, with a view to comparing them with similar texts in the other language communities of medieval Christianity in which disputes with Muslims also appear.
1. The Apologists and their Works
There are eight Syriac writers whose apologetical compositions will repay closer study for the purposes of the present essay. It will be helpful to introduce these texts, with a brief review of each one of them. But first a general statement is in order about the topics they discuss and the genres in which they appear. Since the topics in particular quickly became standard, one may mention them at the outset to avoid the necessity of repeating them times over. The real interest in each work is then to observe how the individual writer deals with the topics.
A. Topics and Genres
The topical agenda of the religious disputes with Muslims in Syriac are set under two basic headings: doctrinal claims and religious practices. In the area of doctrinal claims the writers are first of all concerned to provide a defense from scripture and from reason in favor of the veracity of the two basic Christian teachings the Qur’an seems manifestly to deny: the Trinity and the incarnation. Secondly, there are several doctrinal issues important to Christians that statements in the Qur’an or early Muslim teaching seem to compromise, or that early Muslim polemicists attacked. These are such matters as the integrity and the authenticity of the Old and the New Testaments as the Christian communities actually have them in hand; the Christian doctrine of the moral freedom of the will to choose good and to Avoid evil; the true significance and the real effects of Christian sacraments, Such as Baptism and the Eucharist. Also in the area of doctrinal issues are questions about Muhammad’s status as a prophet, and the position of the qur’an as a scripture, or book of revelations from God. Christians in the Syriac speaking world had to have ready to hand clear answers to queries Muslims on the latter two points, without lapsing into polemics or disrespectful language, and yet remain true to their own convictions. Public liturgical actions and other religious practices or ecclesiastical arrangements common among Christians that regularly appear as topics in the disputes are: the issue of the direction one should face to pray (al-qiblah); the Christian practice of venerating crosses and icons; marriage customs, such as monogamy versus polygamy; the matter of the several Christian denominations in the Islamic world, the Nestorians, the Jacobites, and the Melkites. Almost all of these topics find some place in most of the disputes under review here. It is clear from the mere list of them, and from the appearance of these same topics in all the works under discussion, that the disputed questions in these Syriac texts reflect the religious objections Muslims most commonly and most consistently voiced to Christians. The writers composed their apologies to assure their Christian readers that there were effective answers to these objections, and to supply them with replies they might use in their own arguments about religion with neighboring Muslims, or perhaps to support wavering Christians on the point of conversion to Islam. All the texts have about them the air of practical affairs. They supply ready answers rather than scholarly disquisitions on the subjects they discuss.
The literary forms of the dispute texts are basically two. First, there are accounts of dialogues or debates in which a Christian churchman responds to provocative questions put to him by a Muslim official, or alternatively there is a dialogue between a master and his pupil in which the latter poses the questions a Muslim might ask. Secondly, there are the letter-treatises or essays on the standard topics of controversy that a writer has composed in a more discursive style, usually in response to the request of someone else. The writer commonly introduces the composition in a preface that explains the circumstances that prompted him to write it. And from such a preface the modern researcher can sometimes glean useful historical information about relations between Christians and Muslims at a particular time and place. On the subject of the literary genres of the dispute texts, one of the most interesting questions concerns the historicity of the dialogues or debates the texts report. While the debate scenario is not of itself an unlikely Sitz im Leben for controversies between Muslim and Christian scholars, or even between a Christian religious leader and a Muslim official, one can hardly maintain that the Syriac texts are verbatim transcripts of such dialogues. The Syriac language itself precludes this possibility. Christians spoke Arabic, but one knows of no Muslims who learned Syriac for the purpose of arguing with Christians. Furthermore, the very likelihood of actual arguments about religion between Muslims and Christians, be they official or not, is the social circumstance that stands behind the popularity of the dialogue as a literary form. But even in those instances in which one does find grounds for upholding the historicity of a particular dialogue encounter, the report of it as a piece of Syriac religious literature came to have a life of its own that went well beyond the parameters of any likely historical conversation. The account of the debate was a piece of apologetic literature that in Syriac was intended for Christian eyes alone. The Christian spokesman does all the significant talking, while the Muslim partner asks leading questions.
Finally, one must note that there are no real polemics in the Syriac dispute texts under review here. The purpose of the writers was to commend the Christian faith, not to attack Islam. The coming of Muslim rule is often portrayed in Syriac texts, particularly histories, as due to sins in the Christian community. Some works explain distinctive Islamic teachings that are objectionable to Christians as due to the influences of Jews or errant Christian monks on Muhammad or the early Muslims. Other passages attempt to offer a positive assessment of Muhammad or the Qur’an, without admitting that the former is a prophet or God’s messenger or that the latter is divine revelation. But there is no advice given in the dispute texts on how the reader might discredit Islam.
B. Texts
1. Patriarch John and ‘Umayr ibn Sa’d al-Ansarz (c. 644)
The earliest Syriac dispute text is the one that gives an account of the interrogation of the Jacobite patriarch of Antioch John III (d.648) by the Muslim emir ‘Umber ibn Sa’d, in the environs of Homs on Sunday, 9 may 644. The emir questioned the patriarch about the one Gospel and the several communities of Christians, about the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and about how one determines the laws that govern behavior in the Christian community.
The account of this interrogation is preserved in a collection of Syriac documents assembled in a single manuscript under the date of 17 August 874. Otherwise, one hears nothing of it in Syriac sources until the 12th/13th century, when the west Syrian historians, Michael the Syrian and Bar Hebraeus among them, tell the story of the meeting. In the MS the account appears under the following heading, “The Letter of Mar John the Patriarch about the conversation he had with the emir of the Mhaggraye.” In fact the letter is by someone else who is reporting the conversation. He seems to speak in behalf of the patriarch’s Holy Synod.
The immediate occasion of the letter is the writer’s desire to allay the church’s anxiety about the patriarch’s summons to appear before the emir. The introductory paragraph says:
Because we know you are apprehensive and fearful for us, due to this business for the sake of which we were summoned to this district …we are informing you, beloved Sirs, that on the 9th of this month of Iyyor (May), on Sunday, we entered the presence of the illustrious commander, the emir, and the blessed father of the community was interrogated by him.
Then comes the account of the emir’s questions and the patriarch’s replies. There is nothing unexpected in the apologetic stance the patriarch adopts. But there are several interesting details in the account to repay the historian’s attention. For example, the text says that in addition to the patriarch’s entourage there were some Muslims present who were prepared to inspect the Greek and Syriac scriptures the patriarch had put forward in evidence to support his arguments. And the emir is said to have summoned a Jew to testify that these texts in no way distorted the Torah. Furthermore, the text notes that Christians from three Arab groups were present: Tanukh, Tayy, and people from ‘Aqul (Kufa, near Hira). Right after this notice the emir says: “I want you to do one of three things: either show me your own proper laws that are written in the Gospel and be governed by them, or submit to the law of Islam.”
Finally, the text mentions the Chalcedonians in the Syriac-speaking community, whom the writer claims were also praying for the patriarch, and who asked him to speak on behalf of the whole Christian community in the face of the threatening danger.
2. The Monk of Bet Hale and an Arab Notable (c. 720)
Scholars have long known of an account of a “Disputation against the Arabs” featuring a monk named Abraham of the monastery of Bet Hale answering the questions and objections of a Muslim Arab about Christian doctrines and practices. Until recently the text of the account has been inaccessible to the scholarly community. However, a microfilm copy of it was secured in the mid-seventies, and soon a scientific edition, translation and commentary on the text will appear under the direction of Prof. Han J. W. Drijvers of Groningen University, the Netherlands.
There are two uncertainties about the encounter the text reports, assuming the authenticity and the integrity of the text in the rather late manuscript copy of it that is available: the location of Bet Hale, and the date of the encounter. The present writer is inclined to the view that the most likely location is the site known as Dayr Mar ‘Ddi near Kufa and Hira in Iraq. For in the preface, the monk says that his Muslim dialogue partner was an Arab notable in the entourage of the emir Maslama. One thinks immediately of Maslama ibn ‘ Abd al- Malik, who was governor for a brief time in Iraq in the early 720’s, a circumstance that suggests both a place and a date for the encounter, both of which are plausible.
The topics of the dialogue are the standard ones for the most part, but the Text is very interesting because of its unique features. The writer shows an usual familiarity with Islam. He quotes the Qur’an and names several Surabs, although he seems to think the latter are separate from the Qur’an. He quotes a tradition from Muhammad that speaks favorably of monks and hermits. He knows the story of Bahira, whom the Christians call Sargis. There is an extended discussion of the Christian practice of venerating icons, Crosses and martyrs’ bones that is unusual in the surviving Syriac dispute Text. The author even explicitly mentions the icon of Christ in Edessa that Tradition claimed Jesus sent to king Abgar.
The circumstances of the dialogue that the author mentions in the preface are instructive. The Muslim notable was in the monastery for ten days Because of sickness. He was a man interested in religion, “learned in our Scriptures as well as in their Qur’an”, the author says. At first he spoke with The monks only through an interpreter, as was proper because of his high Position in government. And the monk reports that for his part, in discussions about religion with such people, his own custom was to prefer silence to Forth rightness. But in this discussion, honesty and love for the truth was to Prevail, the author says, and the dialogue went forward without the services of the interpreter. One supposes the conversation was in Arabic, although the Account of it is in Syriac.
The text is Christian apologetics pure and simple. In the preface the author says that he is responding to the request of a certain Father Jacob for an account of:
Our investigation into the apostolic faith at the instance of a son of Ishmael. And since it seems to me it would be profitable to you to bring it to the attention of your brethren, and because I know it will be useful to you, I am going to set it down in ‘ Question’ and ‘ Answer’ format.
The Arab notable then poses the questions, and the monk answers with long Explanations of Christian beliefs and practices. At the end, the Arab says, “I testify that were it not for the fear of the government and of shame before men, many would become Christians.”
3. Theodore bar Koni ( c. 792)
Theodore bar Koni’s Scholion is a summary presentation of Nestorian doctrine in the form of an extended commentary on the whole Christian Bible the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the full edition of the work there are eleven chapters, the first nine of which follow the order of the biblical books, presenting doctrine in the catechetical style of questions posed by a student and answered by a master. The same literary style appears in chapter 10, which is in fact a Christian response to objections to Christian doctrines and practices customarily posed by Muslims. Chapter 11 is an appendix to the Scholion, being a list of heresies and heresiarchs, along with brief statements of their teachings. Chapter 10 of the Scholion is an apology for Christianity in response to Islam. In the preface to the chapter the writer states his purpose quite clearly. He provides the following title:
An encounter (‘aru’ta) in question and answer against those who while pro- fessing to accept the Old Testament, and acknowledging the coming of Christ our Lord, are far removed from both of them, and who demand from us an apology (mappaqbruha) for our faith, not from all of the scriptures, but from those which they acknowledge.
The preface goes on to address the chapter to the same ‘Brother John’ to whom the whole Scholion is dedicated. The writer says that in the new chapter 10 he will employ the same literary form he used in the earlier chapters. He says of the new chapter that
Although it is a full refutation against the hanpi, and a ratification of the faith we are putting it in questions [and answers] according to our custom in the whole book; the student takes the part of the hanpi, and the teacher the part of the Christians.
One notices immediately that the author says that the disputation is a literary genre. He is not reporting an actual debate. He adopted this style, he explained earlier, to make things easier for beginning students. And this circumstantial detail calls attention to the fact that for the author of the Scholion a reasoned reply to the challenge of Islam was in his day a topic not to be missed in an introductory manual of theology. The dialogue style there fitted what one might call the writer’s pastoral purpose.
The topics under discussion in chapter 10 are the standard ones and I have studied them elsewhere. Here one might usefully call attention to the fact that Theodore bar Koni presents Islam’s challenge to Christians as being essentially a ‘beclouded notion’s about what the Bible means. The proper meaning of the scriptures and the estimation of the status of God’s messengers to mankind are in fact the terminus a quo of the disagreements between Muslims and Christians.
4. Patriarch Timothy I (780- 823)
The most well known Syriac dispute text is no doubt the one that contains Patriarch Timothy’s account of the replies he says he gave to the questions of the caliph al-Mahdi (775 -785) on the occasion of two consecutive audiences the patriarch had with the caliph. The questions all had to do with the standard topics of conversation between Muslims and Christians on religious matters. The caliph raises the standard Islamic objections to Christian doctrines and practices, and the patriarch provides suitable apologetic replies. In literary form, the patriarch’s Syriac text is a letter to an unnamed correspondent. The preface is in a florid style, and it is highly rhetorical, but not devoid of interest. In it Timothy voices some diffidence about the “vain labor” involved in such a composition, and he complains that he is carrying out the task of writing it, “not without difficulty, nor without unwillingness.”
What may have proved daunting to the patriarch was the knowledge that his best apologetic efforts would carry little conviction for Muslims, nor would they do much to prevent upwardly mobile Christians from converting to Islam, especially from within the Nestorian community. Several times in the report of the two sessions during which Timothy says he answered the caliph’s questions, the writer alludes to the Muslim’s desire for arguments from nature or from the scriptures, and his wariness of arguments based on reasoning processes, or of what one might call the logic-chopping rebuttals in debate style that were the apologists’ stock in trade.
Nevertheless, Timothy’s apologetical catechism was a success in the Christian community. Arabic versions of it were in wide circulation, and there was even a Syriac epitome of the report of the first session, in a simple question and answer format, that later came to be attributed to a certain Elias of Nisibis. Still, there is something contrived about the dialogue. One need not doubt that Patriarch Timothy was in fact queried by the caliph about the tenets of Christianity to notice at the same time that the patriarch’s account of his audience with al-Mahdi belongs to a familiar literary genre. It has an apologetical purpose that allows Timothy to relegate the caliph to the role of posing concise leading questions in the style of a disciple, while the patriarch answers them with a master’s more discursive reply. It was already a familiar didactical literary genre in Syriac religious texts.
Together with the dialogue with al-Mahdi one must consider other com- positions by Patriarch Timothy that also have the form of the epistolary treatise and that also answer the challenge of Islam. Of particular importance in this regard is Letter 40 in the collected works of the patriarch. Ostensibly it is an account of a discussion Timothy had with an Aristotelian philosopher at the caliph’s court about the definitions of logical terms and their proper deployment in Christian theology. In fact the letter is an exercise in kalam of a sort that any mutakallim, Muslim or Christian, would readily recognize if it were in Arabic. In the introduction Timothy describes the Muslims as the “new Jews” in a passage that also fairly well describes his apologetic purpose. He says,
In the days of Herod, Pilate, and the old Jews there was both defeat and victory, And truth and falsehood. So also, now, in the days of the present princes, in our own time, and in the days of the new Jews among us, there is the same struggle the same contest to distinguish falsehood and truth.
What makes Letter 40 especially important in the present context is its topical outline. Not only are there a number of the standard topics of religious controversy between Muslims and Christians, but here one notices that the conversation begins with a discussion of the modes of human knowledge in general, and then moves on to a disquisition on the terms one uses to express his knowledge about God. In short, what one would much later call theodicy and the theory of knowledge have become important issues in the Christian response to Islam. In this approach one sees the ground-work not only of the typical kalam treatise, but it reveals Patriarch Timothy as a thinker on the order of John of Damascus or Theodore bar Koni, who realize that the challenge of Islam requires a return to the basics. One sees here the apologetic origins of the summae theologiae in Christian literature.
A topic of particular importance to Timothy was the significance of J Jesus’ traditional title, ‘Servant’ (‘abda, al-‘abd). In Arabic, and in the Qur’an in particular, this title indicates Jesus’ full humanity, to the exclusion of any proper divinity (cf. az-Zuhruf (43):57- 61). Timothy was one of the few Christian apologists to address this issue. He devoted the bulk of his Letter 34 To it, explicating the several senses of the term ‘servant’, and explaining how Christian use the title in a way that is fully compatible with their affirmation Of Jesus’ divinity.
Patriarch Timothy’s letter-treatises are dispute texts for all practical purposes, But in fact only one person is really speaking -the author himself. This Is a feature of the Syriac dispute texts in general that is particularly evident in. Timothy’s ‘letters’. And it is a feature that nevertheless very well highlights The essentially dialectical character of apologetics, especially when there is no Personally identifiable dialogue partner (e. g., an Aristotelian philosopher). Even when the partner is identifiable (e. g., the caliph al- Mahdi) one realizes That the author’s voice is still paramount. The dialogue is not between individuals but between religious communities. The Syriac dispute texts are intended for the Christian participants in a much wider argument about religion than any given debate between scholars or churchmen and Muslim officials might indicate.
5. Nonnus of Nisibis d. c. 870).
Nonnus was a bilingual writer, with compositions in both Syriac and Arabic To this credit. He was an ecclesiastical controversialist in the service of the Monophysite community, whose characteristic teachings he energetically defended not only against Muslims, but against Melkites and Nestorians as well. The work in which he addressed himself to the intellectual challenge of Islam is a Syriac treatise that its modern editor calls simply “Le Traite Apologetique.” On internal, literary critical grounds, one must date the composition to a point between 850 and 870. A. Van Roy chose the narrower period between 858 and 862 as a more likely time frame within which Nonnus wrote the treatise, because during these years he was in prison in Samarra on orders of the caliph al-Mutawakkil (d. 862). This caliph’s relative intolerance for Christian controversialists, as well as for Muslim mutakallimun, is the circumstance that for Van Roey most likely explains both why Nonnus’ presumably Muslim interlocutor is anonymous, and why Nonnus adopts a notably conciliatory attitude toward Islam in the treatise.
Nonnus’ treatise is not in the literary form of a dialogue, in spite of certain epistolary conventions at the outset. Rather, the work is an apologetical essay on the themes of monotheism, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the doctrine of the incarnation. The Islamic milieu in which the writer operates becomes evident in his manifest references to Islam, and in light of the general concerns of Christian and Muslim mutakallimun of the period. By comparison to the Syriac dispute texts reviewed earlier, Nonnus’ essay is almost in the style of a standard kalam text, including the typical phraseology left over from more blatantly dialectical times, “If someone should say …, to him it Should be said”
The scope of the work is clearly stated in the title paragraph a later scribe Set at the beginning of the text in the unique Syriac manuscript that contains The work, a manuscript brought to Egypt by Moses of Nisibis in the year 932, Less than a century after its composition. The title paragraph says,
An essay of Nonnus …to a man who did not make known his name, who asked on what grounds do Christians prove to polytheists and renounces of the holy scriptures that God is one, not many, and on what grounds they say this one is three and at the same time one -that is, one is three and three is one, not one and three, or three and one. Also, whether they can prove that the incarnation of the Word God, one of the holy Trinity, follows divinely appropriately.
The title not only states the topics discussed in the treatise, but it also gives one a sense of the theological style. In fact, the doctrine of the incarnation is the principal topic. And it is in this connection that one finds the following statement referring to Islamic doctrine about Christ:
The recent Hanpe are much more fair minded than the others, for they too acknowledge that he was born of the virgin, she being utterly chaste ;’ that he is the word and the spirit of God.’ They add many more miracles, even that he is a creator, who created birds of clay,’ just as he was creator for Adam originally. They acknowledge that he has ascended into heaven and that he is ready to come into the world again. And as giving special honor, they do not accept the fact that he was crucified and died.’
One notices clear echoes of passages in the Qur’an in this quotation. Subsequently in the treatise Nonnus brings up other matters that are clear allusions to Islam. In one place, for example, he calls attention both to the Gospel’s affirmation that Jesus is God and to what the disciples called him in reference to his humanity, “a Nazarene (nasraya) and a man sent by God.” A little later Nonnus has more to say about Jesus’ name, “the Nazarene.” And here one is reminded of the Qur’an’s name for the Christians, who are more than a dozen times called “the Nazarenes” (an-Nazra > nasraye) in what seems to be an obvious reference to this name for Jesus. It seems likely that Nonnus had the Qur’an’s name for Christians in mind when he set out to explain the name, “the Nazarene.”
Finally, Nonnus caricatures the Qur’an’s description of paradise when he refers to the promises for the afterlife by which, he says, some adversaries seek to attract the allegiance of the simple minded, in contrast to the Gospel’s sober promises for the future life. The false promises, says Nonnus, are of
Rivers of fattening foods, along with time in bed, that do not satiate; a new creation of women whose birth is not from Adam and Eve -things known and acknowledged to incite carnal people.
In short, although Nonnus never explicitly addresses the Muslims in this apologetical treatise, the topics of the Islamic ilm al-kalam appear in it, and he occasionally alludes to the Qur’an or to Islamic teaching. The treatise is meant for the eyes of a Christian participant in the kalam.
6. Moshe bar Kepha (d. 903)
Moshe bar Kepha was an important figure in the life of the Monophysite community in Iraq in the ninth century, both as a Syriac writer and teacher, and as an ecclesiastical official. Although he did not write a dispute text against the Muslims, there has survived in the manuscripts attributed to him a work on free will and predestination that includes a chapter, full of arguments ” Against the Mhaggraye, who also take away freedom, and say that good or evil is prescribed for us by God.” In fact there is some doubt about the authenticity of this work attributed to Moshe bar Kepha. He lived at a time when scholarly churchmen devoted much of their effort to salvaging their intellectual and theological heritage by putting together large compilations of previously available texts. Scholars after his time engaged in the same activity. So it is not at all impossible that Moshe bar Kepha himself, or someone after his time, put together this collection of texts on free will, and it has come down to us under Moshe bar Kepha’s name by an accident of the processes of text transmission. What is important for present purposes is to take notice of the dispute text contained in it directed against the Muslims, here called Mhaggraye, a polemical name for Muslims, often found in Syriac texts.
Free will as a topic for debate between Christians and Muslims has not come up for discussion thus far in the Syriac dispute texts under review here. Nevertheless, the topic was an important one in kalam works, both Christian and Muslim, especially in the eighth and ninth centuries. What is notable about its appearance in the work attributed to Moshe bar Kepha is the evidence it provides for the conclusion that by his day Syriac-speaking churchmen were including the Muslims together with the ancient pagans, the Marcionites, and the Manichaeans, as adversaries of record in the matter of the traditional Christian doctrine of the moral freedom of the human act of will. One supposes, therefore, that by Moshe bar Kepha’s day the active argument with Muslims about free will was over, and the issue had become a text book topic, rather than a subject of live debate.
7. Dionysius bar Sallbi (d. 1171)
By far the longest and the fullest text in Syriac to do with disputation with Muslims is the one written by Dionysius bar Salibi, the scholarly monophysite bishop of Amida who was one of the three bright lights in the world of late Syriac letters, the other two being patriarch Michael the Syrian (d. 1199), Dionysius’ younger contemporary and Gregory bar Hebraeus (d. 1286), who flourished about a century later. Dionysius’ work is magisterial in both tone and scope. And his discussion of the Muslims, as extensive as it is, is included within a much larger review of the intellectual and religious adversaries of the Syrian Orthodox church. The treatise against the Muslims is a true dispute text in the sense that the author’s purpose is to acquaint the reader with the truth about Islam and to provide him with arguments deemed fit to reject Islamic challenges to the veracity of Christian doctrines and practices. All of the standard dispute topics are here, in summary form, as if the writer’s purpose was the comprehensive one of gathering into one place the best apologetic arguments of the past. In addition, Dionysius has much more to say about the Muslims, their history and their doctrines than any of the earlier dispute texts already reviewed. And the final third of his treatise consists of extensive quotations from the Qur’an in Syriac translation, with Bar Salibi’s comments on the side. In format Bar Salibi’s treatise against the Muslims is composed of thirty chapters, distributed consecutively within three general discourses (memre). Broadly speaking, the first discourse, in eight chapters, concerns the doctrine of the Trinity. The second discourse, comprising chapters nine to twenty- four, discusses the doctrine of the Incarnation and associated issues, including the Islamic claim that the scriptures foretell the prophecy of Muhammad. The third discourse, chapters twenty-five to thirty, includes the translations from the Qur’an, to which reference has already been made.
In style the. treatise follows the question and answer format already familiar from earlier dispute texts. However, Bar Salibi makes no pretense that his text reflects an actual dialogue, even a literary one. Rather, the questions, when they are not simple interrogative sentences, are designate simply as “their objections”, followed by “our answers”. Clearly the treatise is part of a manual of theology, and more specifically it is a portion of the manual’s heresiography. Nevertheless, there is some reference to actual dialogue in it, or to arguments about religion between Christians and Muslims, in that one of the questions in the third chapter asks, “With whom is disputation (buhana) appropriate ?” And the very next one asks, “About what might we dispute ?” The answers are instructive.
Dionysius bar Salibi says that it is appropriate to debate with Muslim mutakallimun. He puts it this way,
Our advice is that it is unproductive to converse with those among them who are not knowledgeable, but only with the articulate and the intelligent (mlile whakime). It is most productive to excuse oneself from meeting with the ‘legitimists’, because they are very wily and they think that God the \word is a creature, and the Holy Spirit too, just like Arius.
By invoking Arius’ name, Bar Salibi straightaway provides a known pIace in the Christian scheme of things for most Muslims. For by the ‘legitimists’ he means the abl as-sunnab, who by his day were in the majority. Suitable dialogue partners would therefore have been presumably only such people as academics, mu’tazili mutakallimun and philosophers. As for an appropriate topic for a disputation, Bar Salibi gives his answer by immediately launching into a defense of the doctrine of the Trinity on the basis of the Scriptures. And throughout his argument on this topic, as on other topics, he takes every opportunity to cite an apt quotation from the Qur’an.
What makes Dionysius bar Salibl’s dispute text distinctive, apart from its length and comprehensiveness, is the amount of information about Muslims it contains, about their history, about the Qur’an, and about the various schools of Islamic thought. This feature of the work makes it unique not only among Syriac dispute texts, but among Christian works on Islam in general from the medieval period.
8. Gregory bar Hebraeus (d. 1286)
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Bar Hebraeus in the history of Syriac literature, or in the history of the Syrian Orthodox Church. He was a polymath scholar who composed important works in both Syriac and Arabic. He was well known not only among his co-religionists, but he was known and respected among Muslim intellectuals as well. He did not compose a separate work that one could characterize as a disputation with Muslims. But there are several extended passages in works of his on broader themes that do in fact contain such dispute texts. For completeness’ sake, and because of Bar Hebraeus’ own personal importance, one might give a brief account of two of these dispute passages here.
Bar Hebraeus’ Candelabra of the Sanctuary is an encyclopaedic work of theology that amounts to a veritable Summa Theologiae. He composed it in 1264, the year in which he became the Maphrian of Tagrit, the titular head of the Syrian Orthodox churches in the east. It is in the Christological portion of this work, in the section that deals with the objections of the adversaries to the doctrine of the incarnation, that Bar Hebraeus takes up the objection of the Muslims (maslmane), who say,
The Messiah was expected, and the prophets in fact prophesied about him. But he was neither God nor the son of God. Rather, he was only God’s prophet and servant.
Following this accurate statement of Islamic beliefs about Christ, Bar Hebraeus goes on to list eight objections that Muslims customarily registered against the doctrine of the incarnation. Then he provides eight Christian rebuttals to the foregoing objections. Of them all, it is the eighth Islamic objection, and the Christian response, that are the most interesting. The Islamic objection concerns the Qur’an and its rejection of Christian doctrines, and it cites the evidentiary miracles that in the Islamic view should testify to the Qur’an’s veracity. The argument includes the Islamic doctrine of the inimitability of the Arabic diction in the Qur’an, coming as it does from the mouth of an illiterate man (dla yada sepra), that not even Arabic scholars could match. The objection then goes on to lay claim to Biblical prophecies about Muhammad that in the Islamic view should warrant his acceptance as a messenger of God. In his response, Bar Hebraeus cites Muslims themselves, naming the Shiites as a group, against the reality of any evidentiary miracles outside of the Qur’an, and he refers by name to the teachings of Muslim scholars such as Fahrad-Din ar-Razi, al-Gahis, and al-Ghazali to support his arguments. This is the only Syriac dispute text one knows, in which the writer shows first hand evidence of his familiarity with Islamic texts, other than the Qura’n.
Bar Hebraeus provided an epitome of these same arguments in a brief work, the Book of Light Rays, he composed some time later in his life as an abbreviation of the Candelabra. In it he adds to what he said earlier about the Qur’an and in the process he gives further evidence of his familiarity with the scholarship of Muslims. For in response to the Islamic claim that Christians have altered their scriptures to suppress any mention of Muhammad, Bar Hebraeus argues that while there have been no changes of sense in the transmission of the text of the Bible, the same cannot be said for the Qur’an. And he goes on to cite changes or additions to the text of the Qur’an that he found mentioned in the work of Ibn Mas’ud, the Muslim authority on the collection of the Qur’an, involving the activity of Zayd ibn Thabit, Muhammad’s amanuensis, when the text was first collected in writing.
Bar Hebraeus, therefore, comes the closest of all the writers of Syriac dispute texts to something like a real dialogue with Islam. But since the text are in Syriac it is clear they are for Christian eyes alone. Nevertheless, in the work there is a concern for scholarly objectivity that sets it apart from the earlier dispute texts, where the clear purpose was to help Christians achieve at least a rhetorical advantage in any argument about religion with Muslims.
11. The Significance of Syriac Dispute Texts
Eight writers are not many as the sole witnesses over a six hundred years period for a whole genre of Syriac literature -dispute texts against Muslims. One could extend the list somewhat by including reference to text in which Muslims are mentioned in passing, or where some of the broader topics common in the dispute texts are discussed without any apparent reference to Muslims. Nevertheless, the list would still be surprisingly short. And this relative paucity of texts calls one’s attention to the fact that in the world of mediaeval Islam, Syriac was not the only language in which even the Christians of the traditionally Syriac-speaking churches had to wage a campaign for the religious allegiance of peoples’ minds. For Syriac quickly became a minority language in a world in which Arabic was the idiom of almost all public discourse. And Arabic was in fact the language in whose terms even the very topics of the disputes were set. lt is significant that of the eight writers whose dispute texts are reviewed here, three of them also have Arabic works to their credit: Patriarch Timothy, Nonnus of Nisibis, and Gregory bar Hebraeus.
Many of the Christian mutakallimun whose Arabic works of Christian apologetics have survived also had their own intellectual roots in the Syriac- speaking world. These include not only Jacobites like Habib ibn Hidmah Abu Ra’itah, and Nestorians like ‘Ammar al-Basri, but even Melkites like Theodore Abu Qurrah. They realized that the real argument about religion in the territories of the caliphate was being conducted in Arabic. And the circumstance that provoked the composition of Christian apologetical works in Arabic was not only the doctrinal challenge of the Qur’an, but the sociological fact of the conversion of Christians to Islam. The fact of con- version was a circumstance that made it desirable for there to be an intellectually convincing presentation of Christian teaching in Arabic, with which to strengthen the waverers. For the waverers were, in the words of one Arabophone apologist of the ninth century, the munafiqin of the Christian community. Christian apologetic texts in Arabic were accessible to Christians and Muslims alike, not to mention the Arabophone Jews, who developed a kalam of their own at roughly the same time as the Christians did. And there is some evidence that Muslim mutakallimun took the trouble to answer the arguments of their Christian opposite numbers. But one function of the texts in Arabic was not so much to encourage interconfessional dialogue, but to draw the lines of disagreement more clearly. The same writer who spoke of the Christian munafiqin, was also adamantly opposed to Christians who tried to use Islamic religious phrases in a Christian way, or who modified Christian devotional behavior in response to Islamic criticism.
As for the dispute texts in Syriac, they necessarily served only the internal purposes of the Christian communities in the caliphate, being largely unintelligible to anyone else. In all of them it is Christian doctrine that the writers expound with a care for accuracy. Islamic positions are stated only for the purpose of eliciting a clear and convincing Christian reply. The writers do not attempt fairly to portray Islam, except as it challenges Christians. Nevertheless, the dominant mood of the dispute texts is a defensive one. There is virtually no attempt to falsify Islamic doctrines. Even in regard to topics such as the prophethood of Muhammad, or the status of the Qur’an as book of divine revelation, this is the case. And even Dionysius bar Salibi with his numerous translations of Qur’an passages, seems more bent on helping the Christian reader to understand the challenge of Islam, than he is in rejecting the Islamic scripture. There are no overt polemics here.
The case is otherwise with Greek and Latin tracts on Islam written by Christian churchmen. They are offensive in character, their propose is polemical, and their writers’ intentions are to discredit Islam. They often have a role to play in the wider theatre of military campaigns against the Muslims . The difference becomes clear when one compares the translations of qur’an passages done by Dionysius bar Salibi into Syriac, and those done by Niketas of Byzantium (c. 850) into Greek. The latter writer intends basically to ridicule the Qur’an, and to highlight those aspects of the work that Greek eyes can perceive only as barbaric. In Latin the first translations of the qur’an seem to have had basically a missionary purpose, and to help crusaders better understand their enemies. But here one wanders off into another subject.
Suffice it now to say that the Syriac dispute texts against Muslims are apologetic documents. And they are not the only response of Syriac-Speaking churchmen to the challenge of Islam. Rather, it seems to the present writer that this global religious challenge that is Islam is behind the appearance of comprehensive biblical commentaries and the summary presentations of philosophy and theology text books in Syriac during this same six hundred year period. But this too is a topic for another day.


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