"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Eastern Christianity and Islam (II)

As I noted before, we are seeing an upsurge in publications treating the encounter between Eastern Christianity and Islam. This is, in the main, a welcome development, though there is much work that remains to be done. One recent publication from Somerset Hall Press is a collection edited by George Papademetriou:

Two Traditions, One Space: Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Dialogue (2011), 339pp. 

This is a handsome book, well edited, that will prove especially useful to historians seeking an understanding of recent attempts at dialogue between Greek Orthodoxy and Islam. After a very brief foreword from the Ecumenical Patriarch, and another from a Muslim academic at Hartford Seminary, the book is introduced by the editor and then divided into three parts:

1) Historical, Philosophical, and Theological Encounters (with five essays)

2) Contemporary Dialogue (with five essays)

3) References (with a brief glossary of Islamic terminology and basic beliefs, and a chronology of recent dialogues with Islam initiated by the Ecumenical Patriarchate).

In the first section, we find the essay of George Papademetriou (professor emeritus from Holy Cross College in Brookline), "Saint Gregory Palamas: Three Dialogues with Muslims." This gives a helpful contextualization and analysis of Palamas, showing him a clever thinker who, as with Saint Paul, seems to have tried to be all things to all people, showing a subtle and pastoral understanding of the importance of using different dialogical methods with different audiences in different contexts--without, however, being disingenuous.

The highlight of this section is Radko Popov's essay ''Speaking His Mind in a Multi-Cultural and Multi-Religious Society: John of Damascus and His Knowledge of Islam in Chapter 101 ('The Heresy of the Ishmaelites') of His Work Concerning Heresy." This is an important and welcome essay that provides a very lucid and serene contextualization and analysis of the Damascene's thought. Popov begins by noting that ''perhaps what is most striking about his writing is how firmly and strongly John of Damascus critiqued Islam while he was living under tolerant rulers" (109). John, born c. AD 680, was raised in Damascus, which had been conquered by Arab Muslims roughly a half-century before--conquered, I would add, but not yet "Islamized," a much longer process of cultural conversion not yet in place, and that may go some way to explaining how it is he could write relatively unharassed. The Damascene's life shows that early encounters between Christians and Muslims in Syria saw the latter, however uneasily, often greatly reliant upon the skills of the former, a process Sidney Griffith has outlined in his superlative study The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam.

John, of course, is very sharp in places in his critique of Islam, and there are four areas in which he criticizes Islam. He begins by seeing it as the ''forerunner of the Anti-Christ," and finding its theology to be little more than a variant of Arianism. More subtly, however, he undertakes an analysis of the ''Christology'' of the Quran, showing its flaws, and of the Islamic critique of the Triune God. Those who fail to see the Son and Spirit as also God, John says, are ''mutilators.'' After these two more explicitly theological critiques, he makes two ''moral'' arguments: Islam is a false religion because it permits such immoral practices as polygamy and divorce; and Mohammad is a false prophet because he does not conform to biblical type--why no miracles, and why so much bloody and murderous violence? 

John comes up again in the first essay in the next section, an essay that I think is the highlight of the entire collection: "Byzantine and Contemporary Greek Orthodox Approaches to Islam" by Anastasios Yannoulatos, the archbishop of Tirana and primate of Albania. The author divides these approaches into five phases. The first, beginning precisely with people like John of Damascus and running until the mid-ninth century, was polemical and dismissive. (John calls Islamic teachings ''worthy of laughter.'')  The second phase, from the ninth to fourteenth centuries, takes Islam more seriously because of the potent political threat it represented. Texts in this period, including Niketas Choniates' Refutation of the Book Forged by the Arab Mohammed, are aggressively polemical. The third phase, by contrast, is much calmer and consists of ''mild criticism and objective evaluation of Islam.'' In this phase we see people like Palamas offering their careful reflections, along with those of the Emperor Manuel II Paleologos (d. 1425) and the Ecumenical Patriarch Gennadios Scholarios, whose On the Only Way for the Salvation of Mankind was translated into Turkish-Arabic, and who also wrote a Confession of Faith. The fourth phase Yannoulatos characterizes as one of ''silence'' and non-dialogue, especially in the Balkans in the late Ottoman period. Fifth and finally we have the modern phase, of the last several decades, in which dialogues have taken place, especially between academics. In sum, Yannoulatos notes, ''it is best to speak of a dialogue between some Christians and some Muslims" (162; his emphasis). The author concludes with five important points that, he says, are the distinctive contributions of Eastern Christianity to the dialogue, five areas of fundamental theology which could only be overlooked at risk of doing violence to the very nature of Orthodoxy.

There is also, in this section of the book, a suggestive essay by Samira Awad Melki, "The Jesus Prayer and Dhikr: a Potential Contribution to Christian-Muslim Dialogue." His arguments here have been developed at greater length by others in the book edited by James Cutsinger, Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East.

The remaining essays in Two Traditions, One Space: Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Dialogue are really just chronologies of the dialogues between Islam and Greek Orthodoxy (the Slavic experience, both East and South)
is entirely ignored in this book) in general, and the dialogues in particular hosted or influenced by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. These would be good for historians looking for such an overview, but there is little substance to them beyond the strictly chronological.

If there are lacuna to this volume, one of them was just noted: the title would suggest that more than merely Greek or Grecophone Orthodoxy is treated here, but it is not. Relations between Orthodoxy and Islam in a Slavic (or Romanian, or Armenian, etc)context are not treated. In addition, nothing is made at all of the plight of far too many Orthodox Christians in places like Egypt; and the whole nasty phenomenon of dhimmitude is not mentioned at all. What would have been especially helpful (though clearly impolitic) would be a dialogue on the views and role of violence in the persons of Mohammad and Jesus, or as treated in Islamic and Christian scriptures. So too a dialogue on the role of religious minorities--Muslims in modern Greece, for example, or relations between Greeks and Arabs in Jerusalem. Still, one cannot treat everything in one volume, and so the better thing would have been to use a more refined title indicating that this book is concerned with Greek Orthodoxy, which is no small thing. To the extent that it is, Two Traditions, One Space: Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Dialogue is a welcome contribution, and it belongs on every bibliography treating the encounter, both historic and current, between Orthodoxy and Islam in that particular part of the world.

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