Twice last year we were blessed with very important books by Michael Philip Penn treating the tremendously significant but insufficiently understood Syriac encounters with early Islam. What follows is not so much a full review as an an aide-mémoire containing some notes on both of them considered singly and together.
Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians and the Early Muslim World (U Pennsylvania Press, 2015), by Michael Philip Penn, opens by noting the many problems that we today have in understanding these encounters. First, we tend to interpret them through a prejudicial lens of "class of civilizations," sometimes seeing antagonisms where there are none. Second, we rely too much on Greek and Latin texts when the first encounters took place in neither language, but instead in Syriac, which language retains the largest single body of (largely untranslated) documents about the Muslim-Christian encounter. It is Penn's burden in this book to bring those documents from, as he says, the periphery to the centre of the encounter, changing our understanding of it thereby.
An additional benefit of these documents comes from their contemporaneous nature, recording stories of early Islamic life and so filling in well-known gaps in Arab history, which lags at least a century behind Qur'anic texts and thus contains little that is reliable of the first generation after Mohammad.
Additionally, Penn notes that early Syriac sources record interactions with Muslims that are more positive than we may imagine, though there is no uniformity here, either positive or negative. Instead we have "fuzzy boundaries and categorical ambiguity" (4). We also have an array of texts in different genres, ranging from short marginal notes to lengthy treatises. One thing that becomes clear from this body of literature is that Islam and Syriac Christianity were too entangled for each to see the other as clearly separate and "other." This entanglement was not a temporary blip or short-lived, either, Penn suggests, but remained for several generations after they first met. The differentiation was gradual and messy, and would remain fluid for much longer than most realize.
Additionally, when Islam encounters Christianity in its Syriac forms, it does not encounter a unified Christianity, for we live, of course, in the aftermath of Chalcedon, and Syria was on the frontlines of the Christological divisions. Further contextual divisions occur in the same period as a result of the many conflicts between Byzantium and the Persians.
Penn notes that one of the first books to begin, however incompletely, to draw on Syriac sources was the controversial 1977 study of Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World. Since then other scholars--e.g., Barbara Roggema, Gerrit Reinink, Andrew Palmer, and of course Sidney Griffith--have drawn on some Syriac sources or made them available in translation.
But the virtue of this book stems, in part, from its bringing together much of this literature in one place rather than confining it to specialized articles in scholarly journals.
Its additional virtues come from undermining (once more....) the oft-repeated nonsense about how non-Chalcedonian Eastern Christians "welcomed" Muslim invaders to save them from their perfidious "friends" in the "imperial" (Chalcedonian) Church. Others have shown this to be false, but Penn provides perhaps the most comprehensive take-down of this tenacious lie.
Early Syriac treatments of Islam (the earliest treated here dates to the 630s, the latest to the 860s) tended to regard the latter less as a totally extraneous tradition, and more as a strange variant of the former. This would change over time, leaving us with a picture that fits nobody's contemporary narrative. Instead, what we see is a series of "complex, heavily negotiated interactions occurring in a rapidly changing and highly permeable environment." It is important, Penn notes in the conclusion, that this history be much better understood if only to correct commonplaces today that would see Muslim-Christian relations, especially in Syria, condemned to a narrative of endless antagonism and violence based on a partial picture of the past.
Such a picture is best illustrated by viewing some of the various documents Penn draws on, and so it makes sense that last year at the same time he also published just such a collection of source material: When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam.
This is a collection of 28 texts that vary widely in genre, as well as chronology, context, and "confessional" nature. As such, it offers us a portrait of the Syriac-Muslim encounter that is not neat and does not conform to the two widely available hermeneutics today--that of relentless intolerance, violence, and dhimmitude; or that of hand-holding hippies avant la lettre who lived in endless peace and harmony. The value of such a collection consists not just in upending today's prejudices, but also in making available some of the oldest, most immediate records of the earliest encounters with Islam. In doing so, it helps us escape the hegemony of Western texts, both Byzantine and Latin.
After a brief prologue, this second book's introduction immediately zeroes in on the year 630 as pivotal not just for Muslim-Christian relations, but for the history of the region and so of the world. Penn also focuses briefly on the history of scholarship connected with the region, and with Islam, noting how often it has been shaped by the presuppositions of those scholars coming from the West with their own agendas.
Penn also pays tribute to those earlier scholars who attempted, often piecemeal, to do what he is attempting to do more widely here, including the collection of Andrew Palmer from 1993, The Seventh Century in the West Syrian Chronicles.
Additionally, he mentions Robert Hoyland's Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam.
Hoyland is the author of another recent book, In God's Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire, about which more another day.