Arab Christianity in the Classical Islamic World

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In 750 the Umayyad dynasty was overthrown and was replaced by the 'Abbasid dynasty. With its original power base in Khurasan in the east of Persia, this was different in character from the Umayyads, owing more to Persian influence, though asserting its claim to be more Muslim. Within a few years the caliph al-Mansur (r. 754-75) had built a new capital on the river Tigris at Baghdad and inaugurated a dynasty that lasted, at least in name, until the coming of the Mongols in the thirteenth century. The concentration of power maintained by caliphs in the first centuries of the new rule had a profound effect on all aspects of life within the empire: Arabic became the lingua franca with surprising speed, and the progress of learning in a multitude of disciplines involved followers of all faiths in an amalgam of intellectual activity from which emerged a distinctive Islamic culture. The contribution of Christians to this development and their engagement with it led to the appearance of new forms of thinking and a religious literature in Arabic for the first time, at least as far as can presently be told.

The position of Christians in early 'Abbasid society was, at least in appearance, privileged. A document written by the Muslim rationalist theologian and Arabic stylist Abu 'Uthman al-Jahiz (d. 868) in the mid-ninth century gives an intriguing insight into the freedoms they enjoyed, and is worth quoting at length,

They are secretaries and servants to kings, physicians to nobles, perfumers and moneychangers. We know that they ride highly bred horses, and dromedary camels, play polo . . . wear fashionable silk garments, and have attendants to serve them. They call themselves Hasan, Husayn, 'Abbas, Fadl and 'All, and employ also their forenames. There remains only for them to call themselves Muhammad, and employ the forename Abu al-Oasim. For this very fact they are liked by the Muslims! Moreover, many of the Christians fail to wear their belts, while others hide their girdles beneath their outer garments. Many of their nobles refrain out of sheer pride from paying tribute. They return to Muslims insult for insult and blow for blow. Why indeed should the Christians not do so and even more, when our judges, or at least the majority of them, consider the blood of a patriarch or bishop as equivalent to the blood of Ja'far, 'All, 'Abbas and Hamza? (al-Jahiz in Finkel 1927: 328-9)

This gives a vivid summary of a group moving in society with few external constraints, flouting the regulations that governed it, and regarding itself as an elite. Al-Jahiz was writing a diatribe that was intended for fellow Muslims to read, so it is possible that he exaggerated the situation and even misrepresented details. But his account can still be used, although with some caution.

The first point of information it gives is that Christians occupied senior professional positions in 'Abbasid Baghdad. Like John of Damascus a century earlier, they were secretaries in the caliphal service, and there is evidence that in such positions some swayed government policy in favour of particular monasteries. They were also financiers and, maybe surprisingly, physicians to Muslim nobles. Indeed, the Bakhtishuc family of the School of Jundishapur retained this position for years, a virtual Christian dynasty maintaining the Muslim rulers in health. The practice of fathers being succeeded by sons in the same position was commonplace among Christian professionals at this time, presumably reflecting modes of education and maybe a reluctance to allow precious learning and skills to be divulged willy-nilly. It certainly permitted Christians to retain status as purveyors of 'Greek learning' at this time, and it earned them the admiration and envy of Muslims and others.

In the eighth and ninth centuries Christians also performed for Muslim rulers and nobles the important task of translating works from Greek, sometimes via Syriac, into Arabic. This was another cause of admiration and praise, and it made available the ancient learning in philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and other disciplines to monolingual Muslims. Individuals such as the Nestorians Hunayn Ibn Ishaq and his son Ishaq Ibn Hunayn were courted for their abilities and offered payment in gold.

Al-Jahiz clearly recognizes the senior positions that Christians with these accomplishments enjoyed, and in doing so he clearly acknowledges the pluralist nature of urban society at this time, though the assumption underlying his remark is that Muslims dictate the overall terms and Arabic is the currency of communication.

His following remarks, however, hint at something darker. The series of points he makes about Christians pursuing aristocratic lifestyles, including sports and fashionable clothes, and adopting Muslim names show both the relative freedom they appear to have experienced in Muslim society and also a seeming desire on their part to be like the majority of their neighbours, an understandable reaction by a separate minority that felt its difference keenly. There may even be a hint of this group purposely exploiting its privileged position to show its open distaste for the regulations that in principle applied to it. Thus, they concealed the distinctive marks of dress they were required to show, and refused to pay the jizya, the most obvious token of their subservience to Muslim rule. Were they wanting to assimilate and obliterate marks of distinction, or were they trying to assert their identity by showing the power they possessed to ignore the age-old stipulations that established the relationship between Muslims and the Ahl al-dhimma? It is impossible to say, but it does seem justifiable to infer that at least in this case there were Christians who held positions close to the elite of Muslim society in the ninth century, but were sorely aware they were not fully accepted as part of that society.

The fact that al-Jahiz can refer to regulations from the Pact of 'Umar, such as the undertaking by the scriptural clients not to dress like Muslims but to mark themselves out as different, not to use Muslim names, and not to retaliate when struck (in fact, these Christians either flout the regulations in systematic manner, or are portrayed as such for polemical effect), indicates that this continued to govern the place of the Ahl al-dhimma, as it would do so for centuries after. But his careful documenting of Christian indifference shows that it cannot have been enforced in any systematic fashion. The conclusion to which this diatribe points is that Christians moved within

'Abbasid Muslim society with some freedom and status, but rarely felt entirely part of that society.

This paradoxical relationship is typified in the experiences of one of the greatest patriarchs of the Church of the East, the Catholicos Timothy I (c.728-823), who led the church for forty years from his consecration in 780. His letters show he was involved with missionaries in regions he names as Persia, Assyria, India, China and Tibet, and in one he writes with some real feeling for the wives of men who remain in remote places for long years, offering to ask his missionary priests in these places to find them. He evidently functioned as the leader of a vast church that stretched the length of the Silk Road, with all the prestige and influence that involved.

Timothy also enjoyed some status in his own city. As Patriarch of the Church of the East he was recognized by the Muslim authorities as leader of all Christians throughout the Islamic Empire. And he was given access to the caliph's immediate presence. On one occasion in 781 he was invited by the caliph al-Mahdi to join in a debate stretching over two days on the differences between Christianity and Islam. 'Debate' is maybe not the appropriate term because even in Timothy's own Syriac account (the exchange was conducted in Arabic, and is recorded in a letter to one of his friends) it is clear that he is on the defensive against questions of a discomforting and even hostile nature from al-Mahdi that required considerable ingenuity and diplomacy to answer. Obviously, he could not say anything to insult Islam, but equally he could not betray his own Christian position. It seems that while the caliph took him seriously enough to devote time and attention to inquiring about the integrity of his beliefs, he was regarded as someone outside the circle of the court who could be subjected to the indignity of searching questions.

The difficulty of Timothy's position, and also his own skill in debate, is demonstrated by the best known of the many answers he gave on matters of Christian doctrine and attitudes towards Islam:

Our gracious and wise king said to me: 'What do you say about Muhammad?' And I replied to his majesty: 'Muhammad is worthy of all praise by all reasonable people, O my sovereign. He walked in the path of the prophets and trod in the track of the lovers of God. All the prophets taught the doctrine of one God, and since Muhammad taught the doctrine of the unity of God, he walked, therefore, in the path of the prophets.' (Timothy in Mingana 1928: 197)

Evidently the caliph was satisfied with this because he did not press Timothy but moved on to other topics, presumably concluding that the Christian accepted the belief that Muh. ammad was a prophet like those before him. But a Christian could also have felt satisfied, since he would have understood the patriarch to suggest that Muh. ammad was only copying what the biblical prophets had done, with nothing original of his own.

It is quite clear from al-Mahdi's insistent interrogation in this meeting that he was fully aware of the differences in belief between Muslims and Christians, many of his questions being based upon what the Our'an teaches about this, and that he thought that Christians could not presume upon the soundness of their beliefs but had to make a case for the rationality and coherence of what they taught. His attitude only reflected what the great majority of Muslims accepted. But, still on the equivocal nature of the relationship between followers of the two faiths, this disagreement and disdain did not stop leading members of society and the general populace from visiting churches and monasteries, the continuing presence of which around and within Baghdad speaks eloquently of tolerance on the part of rulers. In a repetition, or possibly continuation, of a practice followed by the pagan Lakhmid ruling house in ffira, 'Abbasid caliphs themselves would visit and sometimes spend periods in monasteries, presumably to enjoy the quiet and beauty of their gardens, to witness the spectacle of their liturgy on feast days, and even to sample the wine they produced. From the tenth century a distinct genre of diyyarat (from dayr, 'monastery') literature sprang up among Muslim authors to document the location of monasteries and give descriptions of their character and advantages.

It is clear that Christians and Muslims were intimately connected socially and professionally in early 'Abbasid society. But they were also connected intellectually. For not only did Christian translators provide the raw information from which Muslims developed their own distinctive forms of philosophy, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and so on, but they also provided a stimulus that in significant ways led to the emergence of Muslim religious self-identity.

It has long been debated among scholars of early Islamic intellectual history whether the emergence of thinking of a theological nature (the term 'theology' only loosely approximates to the discipline called 'ilm al-kalam, 'science of debate') is dependent upon discussions among Christians that were current at the time. Differences over the relationship between divine omnipotence and human moral responsibility in Umayyad times, and over the most apt characterization of God as possessing attributes which were formally discrete from his essence at about the same time, have been put down to the direct influence of Christian debates over free will and the Trinity. Whether or not this is true is open to question.

What seems definite is that Islamic religious thinkers in late Umayyad and early 'Abbasid times appear to have defined the character of Islam in part by contrast with Christianity and other faiths. While it is difficult to be categorical about this because the vast majority of works on religious topics from this time have not survived, it can be asserted with confidence from the evidence contained in later works that most Muslim scholars at this time wrote works against Christianity and other faiths. And it can be deduced from the relatively few polemics which survive that their purpose was not only to discredit the beliefs of the other but also to employ those beliefs to demonstrate the rational coherence of Islam. These works typically did this by identifying and refuting those doctrines that were in direct contravention to the key doctrines of Islam. Thus, in the case of Christianity they restricted themselves to the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation (identified as the uniting of the divine and human natures in Christ), and reduced the one to a simple tritheism (echoing the qur'anic criticism of calling God 'three' or 'the third of three') which could be shown to be internally incoherent, and the other to a mingling of the divine and human, with the irrational consequences of such a claim. The result is that such doctrines are shown to be unsustainable, with the obvious outcome that the only rational possibility is Islam.

Works of this kind, although appearing to be anti-Christian polemics, have as much claim to be apologetics for Islam itself. They use key doctrines of the other faith as examples of error in those aspects that most closely concern Islam, without much concern for the faith as a whole or for other key elements within it. This trend reaches an extreme point in the tenth century when the first extant synthetic treatises of Islamic religious thinking were composed. In these the treatments of doctrines from other faiths usually occur at various points as appendices to expositions of their Islamic equivalents, where by exhibiting their own logical disarray they point up the integrity of what Muslims are enjoined to believe as the only viable possibility. In such compendiums of Muslim doctrine, Christianity, together with other faiths, becomes nothing more than a cautionary case of what is wrong in believing, and so an example that helps Muslims to know what is correct belief.

Despite this rather rough handling in polemical and theological works, Muslims in the early 'Abbasid period evidently knew a considerable amount about Christianity and its major beliefs and practices. Many surviving texts contain extensive details of doctrines such as the Trinity and two natures of Christ, while a few know about the atonement. They also know about Christian veneration of the cross and the main outlines of eucharistic services, as well as some of the contents of Christian scripture. Some Muslims evidently went to great lengths to inform themselves, and were able to distinguish between the Christologies of the major denominations, which they called Melkites, Jacobites and Nestorians. And a few had some idea of the earlier sects, including Arians, Marcionites and Sabellians, as well as proof texts Christians employed to support their doctrines. The immediate origin of this information is usually difficult to identify, though the details preserved by many early authors point to written sources, now for the most part untraceable, rather than oral reports from converts or Christians themselves.

This information, which suggests some interest in and acquaintance with Arab Christianity, did not, however, appear to influence Muslim attitudes in favour of the legitimacy of Christianity. The general estimation was that it was rationally confused in its doctrines because these were derived from a corrupted scriptural origin. Making use of the hints given in the Our'an about alterations to the scriptures of the People of the Book, Muslim controversialists habitually demonstrated or assumed that the Gospels and other biblical books could not be trusted, either because they were misinterpreted by their possessors or because their texts themselves were distorted. This accusation of tahrif, corruption of scripture, was a commonplace from an early date, and it generated a vivid tradition of debate, with Muslims tending to argue that the original Injil, the single Gospel text that had been revealed by God to Jesus for his community, had been lost or intentionally misplaced, and had been replaced by a number of reconstructions written by followers, from which four were chosen. This history could explain why Christians held wrong beliefs and doctrines, and why they persisted in wrong practices such as eating pork and failing to circumcise their sons. Such individuals as St Paul or the emperor Constantine were periodically implicated as wilful culprits into misleading the church into these nefarious ways.

An instructive sidelight on to Muslim assumptions about the Arab character of Christianity in the 'Abbasid centuries is cast by some of the accusations of tahrif. One favourite was to connect Jesus' prediction in Our'an 61: 6 of Ahmad, 'the greatly praised one', who would come after him with the Paraclete verses in the Gospel of John, and argue that the original form here was not Parakletosbut Periklutos, 'renowned', 'famous'.

There is an obvious overlap in meaning between the emendation to the term in John and the qur'anic term in Jesus' prediction, though the substitution only works in Arabic where short vowels are not usually written and the two forms would therefore be virtually identical. One Muslim argued in a similar way that the resurrected Jesus' instruction to Mary Magdalene in John 20: 17 to pass on to his disciples was not 'I go to my Father and your Father', but 'I go to my Lord and your Lord', because the forms of these two words in Arabic (Father, ab, and Lord, rabb) were close enough for the change to be due to scribal error.

It is maybe understandable that Muslims should take this kind of view because by about 800 Christians had begun to employ Arabic as their language of everyday conversation and in specifically religious contexts as well. While John of Damascus before 750 could write in Greek and be understood by a local audience in Palestine, translations of biblical and other key texts into Arabic were already being made at about this time in monasteries around Jerusalem. And by the early ninth century there were theologians writing, and more significantly thinking, in Arabic and employing arguments identical to those being found in current usage among Muslims. The most famous in these first generations of Arab Christian theologians were Theodore Abu Ourra (d. c.830), Melkite Bishop of Harran, Hablb Ibn Khidma Abu Raita (d. c.835) the Jacobite, and cAmmar al-Basri (fl. 820) the Nestorian. The surviving works of each of these authors show that they were attempting to explain their theology to Muslims in terms and concepts which their audience would understand, and were responding to arguments levelled at their beliefs with answers expressly framed for thinkers who based their ideas on the Our'an. It is not an exaggeration to say that for a few generations in the ninth century an original form of Christianity developed in Arabic within the context of Islamic theological discourse.

Of course, this development was a practical necessity as Christians started to be confronted with questions about their faith from the qur'anic array of teachings which Muslims had available. But besides the necessities of apologetic, it is possible that Christians who were freed from the pressures of Byzantine conformity and its overriding influence developed their own native forms of thinking in a new language and intellectual grammar which they shared with Muslim counterparts. As they thought out the implications of their faith in a new context, they produced theologies that at the same time looked back to patristic antecedents and looked around to the intellectual tools and formulations that were immediately available.

Although parts of the Bible were translated into Arabic earlier, it seems likely from the available evidence that systematic translations of whole books were not accomplished until the middle of the ninth century. If there were Arabic-speaking Christian communities from much earlier times, this seems a rather late date, and as has been mentioned above some scholars suggest on circumstantial grounds that there must have been earlier translations. But not only is there no surviving copy from an earlier time, but there is a substantial lack of corroborative references as well. So it would appear that only at this time at the end of the first 'Abbasid century was there an obvious need for Arabic versions of the scriptures, presumably as fewer and fewer Christians were able to understand them in any other language. This was certainly the case among Coptic Christians, for whom from the tenth century onwards Arabic increasingly became the language of religious writing and of worship alongside Bohairic.

Through the centuries of the 'Abbasid period the course of Arab Christianity increasingly became involved with Islam. The pressures of Islamic culture with its multiple attractions to induce minorities to conform, the ascendancy of Islamic religious thought and philosophy offering convincing rationalizations of the workings of the world and stern arguments against cherished beliefs, and the inbuilt social disparity of Christians in wider society all combined to set the churches on the defensive. How rapidly Christians converted to Islam is impossible to say, but as time goes on the confidence and sense of superiority that can be seen in such theologians as John of Damascus and Timothy I become scarce.

This is not to say that Christians within the Islamic empire necessarily felt beleaguered. The example of Yahya Ibn 'Adi in the tenth century counters any such assumption. An Iraqi Jacobite Christian, he studied under a Nestorian and also the philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabl, and went on to become a leading figure in philosophy and theology in Baghdad. He wrote against Christians of other denominations, and also refuted Muslim theologians and philosophers of earlier times. And he left one of the most influential treatises on morals in the Islamic world, the Tahdhib al-akhlaq, The Refinement of Morals. He does not appear to have felt hampered in any serious way by being a Christian, though maybe the fact that major works in his theological output are not original compositions but painstaking responses to arguments put by Muslims a century earlier, and that his book on morals has so little obvious Christian character that it has often been attributed to Muslim authors, suggests that he was more aware of the all-embracing presence of Islam and the requirement to defend and conform than of verve and vigour in his own faith.

Of course, this inference can only be supposition, though it is maybe supported somewhat later by the work of a Melkite theologian, Paul of Antioch, who was Bishop of Sidon some time before the thirteenth century, probably late in the twelfth. His Arabic Letter to a Muslim Friend is both original and courageous, for it claims to detect in the verses of the Our'an both support for the major doctrines of Christianity and actual articulations of these doctrines themselves. Outwardly a polite and reasoned treatise, in its unspoken intention it carries devastating criticisms of Islam. For the implication of what it maintains is that the true meaning of the Islamic revelation in its support for Christianity can only be discerned and identified with the help of Christian scripture. In other words, the Our'an is a partial attestation to biblical truth and it depends on it.

Paul goes further. The conceit of his letter is that he has asked European experts about Islam and why they have not accepted the faith, to which they reply that the Our'an itself proclaims it is an Arabic scripture and intended for Arabs, and they support their contention with copious quotations. What Paul implies here is that Islam is not a universal faith come to supersede Christianity or any other faith, but a local teaching intended for the desert Arabs. And Muhammad is a local preacher, indeed sent by God, but directed only to Arabia and nowhere else. It is as though he came to bring his people to a rudimentary form of monotheism from the polytheism of their old ways.

Although such systematic views are not articulated openly in this letter, they are the unavoidable message of what it contains. They appear to be the fruit of a meditation on Islam by an Arab Christian who cannot reject this later religious phenomenon as mere charlatanism, as does John of Damascus four or so centuries earlier, and concludes that it is indeed God-sent, but with only a specific geographical relevance. Here is to be seen a continuing liveliness in Christian thinking, and indeed an anticipation of what in later centuries would be termed an inclusivist attitude towards the plurality of religions, but also a deep preoccupation with the reality of Islam, an apologetic concern to vindicate Arab Christianity in the evident difficulties it faces, and an attempt to show how the later faith has not in fact replaced the earlier but is instead dependent upon it.

This letter clearly appealed to Arab Christians (for whom it was presumably intended as a boost to faith) because it circulated among them for maybe a century before it was edited by an unknown scholar in Cyprus at the beginning of the fourteenth century and confidently sent to two Muslim scholars with the invitation to approve its arguments and acknowledge the authenticity of Christianity. Needless to say, it failed, though one cannot help noting its vivacity and boldness in identifying a relationship between Christianity and Islam in which both are part of God's dispensation, though the later faith is no rival to the earlier.

Paul may well have written his letter against the background of the crusades, and the fourteenth-century Cypriot editor certainly did. It is perhaps a mark of the degree of assimilation reached by Arab Christians who lived along the route of the crusading armies (though the ignorance of the invaders is not to be underestimated) that they were rarely distinguished in any major way from Muslims, and suffered many of the same degradations and massacres at the crusaders' hands.

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