The Coptic, Melkite, Nestorian and Jacobite communities possessed distinctive features, which set them apart from the other Orthodox churches studied in this volume. The first - and not the least important - was their establishment in countries which were under Muslim - and not Christian - rule. This was in complete contrast to the situation existing in the Byzantine Empire and in the kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia to the north, or in Nubia and Ethiopia to the south. A consequence of this was their juridically inferior status, known in Arabic as dhimma. This guaranteed members of the community rights of protection for themselves and their property, but in other ways discriminated against them. Their place in society cannot, however, just be reduced to a matter of juridical status, since there were marked variations according to time, place, social setting and reigning dynasty. In the first centuries of Islam Christianity, originally the dominant faith in most of the lands conquered by the Arabs, remained a majority faith, but by the eleventh century this was no longer so. Its progressive decline produced a new cultural outlook characterised by a reaffirmation of identity, which might require, depending on circumstance, accommodation with Islam or alliance with foreign powers.i Another distinctive feature of these Christian communities was their heterogeneity, which stemmed from the fact that there was no good reason for any Muslim power to impose on them one ecclesiastical obedience rather than i R. W Bulliet, 'Process and statusin conversion and continuity', in Conversionandcontinuity: indigenous Christian communities in Islamic lands (8th-i8th centuries), ed. M. Gervers and R. J. Bikhazi [Papers in Mediaeval Studies 9] (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, i990), i-i2, where he presents conversion as 'a process, which changed both Christian and Islamic communities' (p. 5), with the former remaining 'in many respects members of a single society' (p. 7) This 'Muslim-Christian matrix has displayed four "states"' (pp. 7-8): the first two correspond to a period when the Muslims were politically, but not numerically, dominant, while the last two were characterised by the divisions and rivalries among Muslim powers, the external threat from non-Islamic forces, and a 'greater social differentiation'.
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