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When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam
When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam
Michael Philip Penn
University of California Press, 2015
280 pp., 34.94

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Philip Jenkins


Among the Hagarenes

Early Christian-Muslim encounters.

At the start of the 7th century, Christianity was making slow advances across much of Western Europe. Anglo-Saxon England was just receiving the faith, which had as yet made few inroads into most of the Germanic world. The Frankish lands were notionally Christian, but in a political environment so savage and chaotic that it made Game of Thrones seem as polite and domestic as Downton Abbey. For any objective observer, there was no doubt that the faith's spiritual and theological centers lay far to the east, in the surviving Roman Empire based in Constantinople, and in the Christian cultures that flourished in Persian realms. If the Christian world had a center of gravity, it was located not far from Antioch, in western Syria. The church's core languages of thought and debate were Greek, Coptic, and Syriac, with Latin an optional extra.

That was the world, then, that from the 630s experienced the sudden shock of the Arab conquests and the eruption of Islam. That point needs emphasizing because we so often view Christian history through the eyes of Europeans and specifically Latins, who would eventually dominate the church. It is easy, then, to think of the Islamic conquest as affecting the distant fringes of the "Christian world" rather than, as we now see, its heart and center.

Within a century, an Islamic empire ruled from the shores of the Atlantic deep into Central Asia, with Muslim élites a tiny minority ruling over Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. The literate and cultured Christians of the eastern lands were thus on the front lines of this epochal transformation, which they struggled to fit into their schemes of historical interpretation, their salvation history. As Michael Phillip Penn remarks, "For those interested in the history of early Christianity, ignoring the post-630s churches in the Middle East meant ignoring almost half of that period's Christians." (I would suggest well over half.) But any attempt to overcome that major blind spot means dealing with sources in the Syriac language, which until recently were severely neglected.

An accomplished scholar, Penn has done a real service to historians of Christianity by publishing these two linked books. Envisioning Islam describes and analyzes the response to the newcomers, drawing heavily on strictly contemporary Syriac documents of many kinds—letters, sermons, legal tracts, and pseudo-scriptures. When Christians First Met Muslims offers a selection of those documents in translation, allowing non-specialists to form their own judgments about the materials. Incidentally, these books might usefully be read alongside another recent collection of translated sources edited by Samuel Noble and Alexander Treiger, The Orthodox Church in the Arab World, 700-1700 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2014).

Taken together, Penn's two books offer such a wealth of fascinating materials that they demand multiple readings and much rethinking. The most helpful summary might be to say what these sources do not reveal. Contrary to some expectations about interfaith encounter, we do not see a simplistic story of brutal Muslim jihadis massacring and persecuting Christian subjects, offering a stark choice of "the Qur'an or the sword."

War being what it was during that era, conquest unquestionably involved a great deal of slaughter, plunder, and slave-raiding, but the establishment of empire brought an uneasy peace. Eastern Christians, moreover, were no strangers to living as the subjects of hostile regimes, and of unbelievers. Across the eastern Christian world, the Roman Empire had savagely persecuted those large majorities of the population who held to non-approved forms of faith and Christology, including Miaphysites and Nestorians. Depending on the circumstances at any given time, Persia's Zoroastrian regime might be more or less favorable to Christian subjects, but those believers were always viewed as outsiders. Islamic rule, then, was nothing new or startling.

Penn challenges the oft-cited view that most non-Chalcedonian Christians actually welcomed the overthrow of Roman power as such. Even if they loathed the current Roman regime, they still lived in hope that someday, a true Christian who followed their own creed would once again wear the Roman purple, and this New Constantine would establish God's justice.

In the short term though, the Arab conquest was not necessarily a cataclysm, partly because it need not be permanent. Parts of the Roman Empire had after all fallen under foreign conquerors before, notably in the time of Persian victories around 614, and those aggressors had been duly evicted. Nor was there anything too new or startling about Arab tribes penetrating the Roman borders. Through the 7th century, Christians fitted the conquerors into a broadly Old Testament worldview in which alien conquerors figured as God's agents in rebuking and chastening his disobedient people. If Muslims were not liberators, at least they had their role in the divine scheme. Only as the centuries passed by did Christians realize that the Muslim Empire was a truly new historical phenomenon, which was not simply going to evaporate in a few decades. Far from being a transient scourge, Muslim power was the new normal.

Throughout these books, Penn stresses the complexities of the Christian-Muslim interactions, which were often startlingly favorable and even friendly. No, he does not venture to the opposite extreme of stereotyping, in creating a myth of eastern convivencia recalling the conditions that supposedly existed in Muslim Spain. But he does cite many Christian stories in which Muslim characters emerge as honorable and decent, even if they are depicted as a little violent and slow-witted. Most Syriac chronicles, moreover, are happy to praise at least some Muslim rulers for supplying justice and good government. Christians served in Muslim courts and libraries, and they were counselors and diplomats.

Such élite contacts, though, are only part of the story. "Syriac Christians ate with Muslims, married Muslims, bequeathed money to Muslim heirs, taught Muslim children, and were soldiers in Muslim armies …. Muslims visited Syriac monasteries, billeted troops in Christians' houses, haggled for Christians' oxen, funded Christian monasteries, intervened in ecclesiastical elections, bought grain from a monastery, intermarried, deposited money with a monk, and publicly joined Christians to petition God for rain." In Penn's view, "Syriac texts reflect a more substantial and long-lasting overlap between Christianity and Islam than the standard narrative allows." This in itself challenges conventional assumptions about a supposed "clash of civilizations."

A modern reader might well puzzle over such relationships, but we must recall that religious boundaries were nothing like as fixed in this age, when Muslims were still in the process of defining their identities in relation to other faiths. Scholars still debate exactly how Muhammad's earliest followers viewed themselves. Were they a reform movement within the broader Judaeo-Christian world, perhaps part of a broad monotheist front united against pagans and fire-worshipers? Or was Islam indeed a new prophetic manifestation of a primeval faith, which both Jews and Christians had betrayed? Yet even if Christians and Jews had erred, they assuredly remained within the camp of the People of the Book, who are so lauded within the pages of the Qur'an.

If Muslims themselves were still developing their faith, it is scarcely surprising that Christian observers really did not know how to classify their new rulers. One of the commonest early terms applied to the conquerors was Hagarenes, which reflected the Arab claim to descent from Abraham's concubine Hagar, the mother of Ishmael. That had the advantage of placing the Arabs in a known historical and genealogical context, but significantly, the word was ethnic rather than religious in content. The same was true of such other ethno-linguistic labels as Arab (tayyaye), Ishmaelite, and Saracen. Even as late as 750, Syriac Christians had no clearly religious term to denote Muslims. For Penn, that slowness does not mean that Christian commentators were obtuse or uninterested, but rather that the religious boundaries separating Muslims and Christians were just too porous and hard to delineate. The invaders, then, were classified as Arab barbarians rather than as Islamic believers.

If you did not know that the newcomers actually had their own religious claims, you would not realize it from many of these Christian accounts. One of Penn's most interesting sections shows Christians very gradually realizing just what Muhammad meant to his followers. Their approach must strike us as supercilious. First, they knew, he was a leader who taught monotheism and enforced laws, making him an admirable bringer of order to people who had once been polytheistic bandits. Later, with some bemusement, Christians appreciated that Arabs even thought him a prophet. Only gradually do we see the recognition of Muhammad's role as we know it today. The more the Muslims exalted their founder, the better it behooved Christians to pay duly pious regard to his claims, so far as they could without abandoning their own beliefs.

At least initially, Christian hesitation to see Islam as a rival new religion made them slow to develop polemical defenses against its tenets. At a time when we might think that Christians would be circling the rhetorical wagons against the powerful new faith, clergy in fact remained as focused as ever on their ancient debates, chiefly against rival forms of Christology. Acknowledging Islam for what it truly was took them at least two centuries.

Among their many other lessons, the documents deployed by Penn tell us much about how Christians historically have used scriptural genres to explore and present their ideas. Several of the major sources that he translates are apocalypses, which present themselves as visionary revelations of the End Times vouchsafed to early sages and fathers like Methodius and Ephrem. In reality, they are detailed commentaries on specific events within the Muslim-ruled world of the 7th and 8th centuries, with the assumption that these wars and disasters will inevitably spark God's final judgment. However bad things became for faithful Christians, they were to look forward to the coming of a great "King of the Greeks," a New Constantine, whose reign would usher in God's rule on Earth.

At first glance, we might think that the authors were using this subterfuge in order to evade censorship, and that might have been part of the goal. But we should not underestimate how thoroughly immersed monks and clergy were in biblical language and thought. They easily and naturally tended to create pseudo-scriptures in order to discuss such weighty matters. Not only did the Book of Revelation never go out of style for early and medieval Christians, but it always needed updating and adapting in light of changing circumstances.

Both of Penn's books can be heartily recommended to anyone interested in Christian history in general, and by no means only to students of the Christian-Muslim encounter. I would make just one comment, which is certainly not a criticism. Penn has done a superb job of reading and interpreting these Syriac sources, but that was only one of the areas of cultural and religious conquest in that era, the others being Coptic Egypt and Latin/Gothic Spain. Is there a polymath out there who might tackle a comparative study of all three?

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author most recently of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels, coming this fall from Basic Books.

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