Arab Christianity under Islam

As what can be thought in many ways to be a response to the religious and social milieu in which it came into being, the Our'an contains numerous comments on Christians and their beliefs. It addresses them directly as Nasara, a term that is usually understood as a reference to the followers of 'the Nazarite', and is also accepted as referring to them indirectly in the term Ahl al-kitab, 'People of the Book', which refers to communities in pre-Islamic times that had been given a revealed scripture by God and so shared a lineage with bearers of the Our'an.

In some verses Christians are ranked at almost the same level as Muslims, and assured that they are accorded salvation (2: 62, 3: 55), and in one often-quoted verse they are placed next to Muslims themselves:

And you will find the most vehement of mankind in hostility to those who believe are the Jews and the idolaters. And you will find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe are those who say: 'We are Christians'. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud. (5: 82)

This verse appears to link the sense of communion between the two communities of believers with the quality of humility demonstrated by Christians, presumably a palpable characteristic that Muhammad and others witnessed for themselves.

Other verses balance such comments of approval with criticism and hostility, remarking that Christians show exclusivity in their attitudes (2: 111, 2: 120, 5: 18, etc.) and are pointedly inimical towards Muslims (3: 65, 4: 153, 5: 59, all addressed to the People of the Book). Furthermore, they mislead people into false beliefs (2: 109, 3: 69), and teach wrong things (4: 171, 5: 77), and have abandoned God's promise and ended in internal strife:

And with those who say, 'Lo, we are Christians', we made a covenant, but they forgot a part of what they were admonished about. Therefore we have stirred up enmity and hatred among them till the Day of Resurrection, when God will inform them of their handiwork. (5: 14)

Elsewhere, the Our'an gives content to this complaint by detailing Christians' inflated claims about Jesus, that he was God and Son of God (4: 171, 9: 30, etc.), and that the godhead is therefore plural:

O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of God aught but the truth. Jesus Christ the son of Mary was a Messenger of God, and his word which he bestowed on Mary, and a spirit from him: so believe in God and his messengers. Say not 'Three', desist. For God is one God: glory be to him. (4: 171)

And it also suggests that the scriptures given to the People of the Book have not been handed down intact. It accuses them of concealing what is contained in their scripture (2: 140, 3: 71, 5: 15, 6: 91), of mispronouncing it in order to distort its meaning (3: 78), and of corrupting it by changing 'the words from their times and places' (4: 46, 5: 41). There is no amplification of what is intended here, and some scholars see these comments as referring only to isolated individuals among the Jewish tribes of Madina scurrilously setting out to trick Muhammad. But in the later Islamic tradition these verses were used as the basis for increasingly elaborate critiques of the integrity of the Bible.

It can be seen from these references that a lively debate is conducted in the Our'an between the beliefs that were being enunciated by Muh. ammad and the analogous though identifiably different beliefs of Christians and Jews. And there is evident competition for the true account of what is commonly accepted as a history of God's communication with created humanity. Thus, Abraham is severed from his intimate ties with the Jews and Christians, and identified as a Muslim:

Abraham was not a Jew or a Christian, but he was an upright man (hanTf) who had surrendered (muslim), and he was not of the idolaters. (3: 67)

And above all Jesus is portrayed as a prophet from God, and no more than human.

The Our'an goes into considerable detail about who Jesus was and what he did, in its characteristically allusive style seeming to assume prior knowledge of what it refers to. It is as though it is drawing upon an ample stock of information and addressing a particularly problematic point. It describes the annunciation of his birth to Mary in two places and at some length (3: 42-7, 19:16-35), though emphatically stating that the miracle of his virgin birth in no way implies divinity for him but is entirely due to the power of God:

It does not befit God that he should betake to himself a son. Glory be to him! When he decrees a thing, he says to it only: 'Be', and it is. (19: 35, cf. 3: 47)

It calls him a word and spirit from God (4: 171 quoted above, 3: 45), a sign and a mercy from God (19: 21), it details his miracles of healing and resuscitation (3: 49, 5: 110), and it says that he was supported by what it calls the Holy Spirit (2: 87, 2: 253). Thus he was an elect messenger of God to a particular community, bringing them the Gospel (InjTl) from God (3: 48, 5: 46), and calling disciples to help him (3: 52). But it also insists that he was no more than human, created like Adam (3: 59), eating human food (5: 75), and a servant of God (19: 30). And it also details (61: 6) that he foretold the coming of a messenger after him, 'whose name is the Praised One' (ahmad, derived from the same trilateral root h-m-d as Muhammad), denied being divine (5: 116-17) and, most devastatingly, was not crucified but was instead raised up to God out of the clutches of the Jews (4: 157-8). In such remarks can be detected a revision of Christian claims about Jesus to bring them into line with the dominant qur'anic discourse about the transcendence of God, his distinctiveness from all other beings, who are his creatures, and his communicating with humankind through messengers who bring his revealed utterances and are protected from harm (though not oppression and persecution) by God himself. In the context of such a discourse, Jesus emerges as a signally superior human messenger, but definitely not divine despite all the unique features that attach to him. Strangely enough, his curious respite from crucifixion in accordance with God's frustration of the Jews' scheming to kill his messenger is paralleled elsewhere by references that suggest he does die (3: 55, 5: 117), though these have been given an escha-tological colour in the Islamic exegetical tradition.

All these teachings provided warrants for the Muslims' attitude towards Christians as they brought the client populations under their rule and sought ways to treat them socially and to comprehend the intellectual and religious differences that separated them from themselves. They were also guided by statements about Christians attributed to the Prophet, his HHadith, which exerted almost as much force in practical terms as the Our'an itself. Among the many thousands of statements that were accepted as incontrovertibly attributable to him appear such strictures as: Jews and Christians should be excluded from Arabia; followers of the cross will go to hell; on his return at the end of the world Jesus will smash the cross to pieces.

A further detail that gave Muslims a precedent for their treatment of Christians is recorded in the earliest biography of Muhammad, which was written just over a century after his death. This recounts how a deputation of Christians from Najran in southern Arabia came to visit him in Madina in his latter years when he was becoming increasingly successful as a leader among the Arabs. They discussed matters of faith, and the invitation to come to a common agreement was revealed from God (Our'an, 3: 64). When they departed, they agreed to pay tribute to the Muslims, and they were later regarded as having accepted the formal protection of the Prophet. This, together with the important injunction in the late passage Our'an 9: 29 to fight against those People of the Book who do not do or believe what Islam teaches 'until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low', provide a basis for treatment of Christians and others in the emerging Islamic state.

Raiding parties from Madina were sent north into the margins of Byzantine territory even in the latter years of Muhammad's life. Under his immediate successors, the Rightly-Guided Caliphs who ruled in Madina between 632 when he died and 661, these raids turned into invading armies that captured Egypt and North Africa, much of the Middle East, and the majority of Persia. By 715, when the Umayyads, the first dynasty of Islam, was ruling from Damascus, the empire extended from Spain in the west to the Indian Ocean, and from Central Asia in the north to the fringes of the Sahara. It took in all the former Byzantine provinces south of the Taurus Mountains and some of Anatolia beyond, and vast populations of Christians who inhabited the lands within the former imperial boundaries, as well as those who had settled in the western parts of the former Sassanian Empire along the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. Churches, monasteries with their schools, towns and cities all came under Muslim rule.

By and large, it appears that life for these new subjects did not change a great deal at first. There certainly were killings, but nothing that amounts to premeditated massacring or a policy to eradicate anyone who stood up to the new masters. In the case of many cities, in fact, the Muslim warriors refrained from pillage and kept themselves apart in their own encampments outside. Later Islamic history often typifies the takeover of particular cities in terms of a surrender agreement between the Christian inhabitants and the Muslim leaders, with suitable concessions included, and then relative freedom to continue as before. There may be considerable truth in the accounts that suggest greater leniency and restraint than was common for invading armies at the time, but Muslim historians' relations of these early times betray clear tensions over different religious sensitivities and practices: the second caliph, 'Umar Ibn al Khattab (r. 634-44) found it necessary to place under his protection crosses on public buildings and gave personal guarantees that they would not be violated, while his generals in Syria and along the southern Euphrates stipulated that crosses might only be carried in public procession on one day a year, and then outside Muslim areas of towns. 'Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705) and other Umayyad caliphs later had crosses on public display destroyed, and replaced the image of the cross on coins with a simple pillar (the founder of the dynasty Mu'awiya (r. 661-80) first attempted this but found people did not accept the coins). This ubiquitous Christian symbol understandably irked people whose scripture denied the historicity of the crucifixion, and the necessity for caliphs to take steps to preserve images or to remove them shows how important it was to favour one or other part of the population.

That the Umayyads considered Christianity an abiding problem and even a threat is evidenced by the fact that when the caliph 'Abd al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem to commemorate the miraculous Night Journey of the Prophet from Mecca to Jerusalem and from there through the heavens, he had Our'an verses that emphasize the oneness of God and deny Christian beliefs inscribed on prominent exterior and interior features. It was as though he was triumphantly admonishing his stubborn subjects.

By the early eighth century, Greek- and Arabic-speaking Christians and other communities who were recognized as People of the Book were in principle governed by a set of regulations that Muslims attributed to the second caliph 'Umar, and knew as the Pact of 'Umar. Whether they go back to him in any detailed form, and exactly what their form was in this early period, cannot be known for sure. But they certainly included the jizya, the poll-tax that is referred to in Our'an 9: 29, the kharaj, a tax on land, and restrictions on church buildings and personal dress. Their governing principle was that the state would offer client communities protection, and they in return would observe the regulations and in addition would not bear arms. Thus they became Ahl al-dhimma, 'People of Protection', or simply Dhimmis.

It is known that the caliph 'Umar II (r. 717-20), who is remembered for his piety, reinforced these dhimmi measures, but for the most part little is heard about unrest between faiths in Umayyad times. The career of the Chalcedonian Greek-speaking theologian John of Damascus (c.660-c.750) is indicative, though maybe not typical, of how Christians fared at this time. The son and grandson of senior state officials in Damascus - his grandfather had handed over the keys of the city to the Muslims after the Byzantine governor had fled - he worked for many years in the caliphal chancery, all the time remaining a Christian and employing Greek for writing. Sometime in the early years of the eighth century he retired from public life and became a monk in the monastery of Mar Sabas east of Jerusalem, and there proceeded to set down the first substantial reflections on Islam that are known from a Christian author. They appear as Chapter 100 in his On Heresies, which forms part of his major compendium The Fount of Wisdom. What is striking about this reflection is that it reveals some knowledge of the teachings about Jesus in the Our'an, but also a measure of mistaken-ness about other teachings in the scripture, and that it refers to Muh. ammad in derogatory terms as a man fired with self-interest who learnt the contents of the Our'an from a heretical monk, and passed it off as his own. Clearly, in John's eyes the Our'an contained nothing to inspire or attract and could be dismissed as a sub-Christian forgery; Arabic was not a language to learn; and Islam, the faith founded by a merchant living on the desert margin, contained nothing to detain a cultured Christian who lived within the intellectual ambit of Byzantium, at least in his mind if no longer in reality.

There is more than a hint of superiority in what John writes in this chapter, disdain for a faith that seems a parasitical form of Christianity, and confidence that arguments raised by its followers against the earlier beliefs can be soundly beaten down. But it has been argued that The Fount of Wisdom in general can be witnessed as a definite adjustment to the new reality. For in another part of this work, On Christian Doctrine, John provides a sustained statement of his own Chalcedonian beliefs, which can be read as an attempt to specify the distinctiveness of this form of Christianity and to distinguish it from others, explicitly from the competing forms of Christian belief that had suddenly acquired an equal status with the 'emperor's' form, which was known as just that, 'Melkite' (from malik, 'king'), and implicitly from Islam. The stream of works from authors of the various denominations against the beliefs of others can be seen as part of the same process, to express what is true of a particular Christian tradition in order to establish identity, guard against apostasy, and maybe inform Muslim rulers of the difference between them and others in order to gain better treatment. This is not expressed openly, but it fully explains the great number of statements of faith written within the denominations and the polemics written against them. The advent of Islam may have helped to establish firm doctrinal differences for the first time.

Christians in this early period were not slow to realize that the presence of Arabs in their midst was not like earlier incursions of raids or expeditions but something more permanent, which demanded an explanation. And they understandably turned to the Bible. Many were fully cognizant of the fact that Muslims were continuators of the teachings of Abraham, and the historian Sebeos, writing in about 660, recognized Muhammad as a learned man who knew the law of Moses. But Muslims were definitely a threat to the Church, and others saw them as forerunners of the last days and invoked biblical predictions such as Daniel's vision of the four beasts (Daniel 7: 2-8) to interpret the events they had set off.

Given the success of the Arab Muslims in capturing such an expanse of territory so rapidly, and the added fact that non-Muslims were faced with new taxes under the new polity, it is understandable that there should be conversions from Christianity to Islam in these first generations of Islamic rule. An eloquent testimony to what was happening in the early eighth century and the practical consequences is given in the caliph 'Umar II's demand that his governors should not prevent Christians from converting. Clearly, the provincial rulers took a pragmatic view that envisaged the loss of tax income if conversions proceeded, while the pious caliph saw only the spiritual gains if they went ahead.

It is impossible to say on what scale conversions took place in these early years of Islam, though however they proceeded they are not necessarily a sign of a faith in decline. John of Damascus in his crisp dismissal of Islam and its claims to legitimacy maybe typifies the intellectual and cultural confidence of Greek-speaking Chalcedonian Arab Christians in Syria and around. And elsewhere the Church of the East was intently engaged in the missions it had conducted throughout Asia for many years. Missionaries had been active in Arabia before Islam, and had also directed their steps into Siberia and further east. In 635, three years after the death of Muhammad, a group of monks, among whom a certain Alopen is named, took the books of the 'luminous religion' as far as China. These missionary activities went on for hundreds of years and the bishoprics that were founded continued to receive consecrated incumbents, a sign of a church that remained vigorous rather than collapsing in apocalyptic inactivity.

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