"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).

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Eastern Christianity and the Encounter with Islam (1)

Timothy Becker has a good, though brief, article "Orthodoxy and Islam" in John McGuckin, ed., The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity on which
I have commented previously. It is a good article though it largely confines itself to relations in the Ottoman Empire. It does not deal much in the contemporary period, nor does it have much to say about other Eastern Christian countries that did not fall under Ottoman suzerainty.

Orthodox-Muslim relations remain an under-studied area in which we need more scholars working. I teach courses on the encounter between Eastern Christians and Muslims and keep a close eye on texts that might be suitable especially for undergraduates with no background in either religious tradition. There have been some recent studies, not all of them entirely reliable. Better ones include the edited collection Byzantine Christianity and Islam: Historical and Pastoral Reflections. One outstanding work remains that of Sidney Griffith: The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam. Griffith's work, however, remains largely above most undergraduates today.

The need for further study of Eastern Christian-Muslim is all the more acute today given the turmoil in countries such as Syria and Egypt. How will relations between Copts and Muslims be in the post-Mubarak era? It is anything but clear, and observers have many reasons to be anxious. Though several recent books have been devoted to Coptic life in Egypt, and attention was focused on the country in January of this year, we need continued study of relations not only to continue to draw attention to one of the longest persecuted Christian churches in the world but also, of course, to describe the fate of Copts in the months and years ahead. Too many Christians in North America remain deplorably ignorant about the plight of their co-religionists in other parts of the world--perhaps especially the Islamic world--and this must change.

Relations in Syria also remain precarious, as, indeed, does the entire country. Eastern Christians have generally had an easier time of it in Syria, though here too reliable, accurate, on-the-ground information about Christian-Muslim relations has been difficult to obtain. As Emma Loosley put it in her article "Christianity and Islam in Syria: Island of Religious Tolerance?" "Syria remains remarkably mysterious" because "so little is generally known about Syria" (162). Loosley's article appeared in an excellent volume (which I reviewed earlier) she edited with Anthony O'Mahony: Christian Responses to Islam: Muslim-Christian Relations in the Modern World.

Apart from Loosley's article, we are only now starting to see scholarly treatments of relations between Syriac Christians and Muslims. Recent volumes include Dietmar Winkler, ed., Syriac Churches Encountering Islam: Past Experiences and Future Perspectives (noted here).

Loosley and O'Mahony also collaborated on editing another fine and important collection (discussed here) that treats Syrian realities:  Eastern Christianity in the Modern Middle East.

I am looking forward to Noriko Sato's volume (if and when it is ever published, having been so often delayed): Orthodox Christians in Syria (Durham Modern Middle East and Islamic World Series)

And now we have a new volume, from Somerset Hall Press, that may shed further light on Orthodox-Muslim relations:

George Papademetriou, ed., Two Traditions, One Space: Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Dialogue (Somerset Hall Press, 2010), 350 pp. 

About this volume, the publisher tells us:

"For centuries Orthodox Christians and Muslims have co-existed in close proximity to each other. This volume gathers scholarly studies about their historic connections, as well as contemporary efforts at dialogue that promote understanding between adherents of these two world religions."

I very much look forward to reading this and to seeing it reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. 

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