"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, June 11, 2011

Dispatches from the Muslim-Christian Front

While much of the West has spent the last ten years especially trying to "understand Islam," many Eastern Christians have been in the position of interacting with Islam and trying to live under it for 1400 years--an experience most in the West still know nothing about. Given this renewed desire to figure out what Islam is and who Muslims are, we are drowning under introductory texts today. Some are good; many are tendentious and tedious apologias; and some are such relentlessly, risibly stupid books that they are fit only for burning. In general, the better books are written by scholars who know what they are talking about--people such as Bernard Lewis or Sidney Griffith. Most books written by journalists display all the shallowness and lazy tropes one comes to expect from them.

A happy exception to this is Eliza Griswold, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), xii+317pp.

Griswold's title refers to the tenth parallel north of the earth's equator. It runs from Nigeria in west Africa across the rest of that continent through such countries as Sudan and Ethiopia; across the bottom tip of India; and through to the Philippines.

Griswold attempts to argue that this line is the real dividing line between Islam and Christianity. While she goes some way towards amassing evidence to demonstrate her argument, I am not convinced by her thesis in part because it is far too simplistic and in part because it ignores vast swaths of the earth where Muslim-Christian encounters have gone on for centuries and continue to do so today. A little more humility and historical perspective could have been demonstrated by the simple expedient of changing the definite article in the subtitle to the indefinite: "the tenth parallel as a fault line between Muslims and Christians." In addition, even while being aware of Eastern Christians in, e.g., Egypt or especially Ethiopia--the largest Orthodox Church on the African continent--she treats them superficially and too briefly.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating book and it shows journalism at its best: she resists that too-common temptation to impose an ideological hermeneutic on what she sees. Instead, commendably, she gets out of the way as much as she can, and lets the characters tell their stories in the diverse places in which she has traveled extensively, especially Nigeria, Sudan, and Somalia in Africa; and Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines in Asia. She has a gift for the vivid detail that allows the reader almost to feel alongside her in the dust and heat of Nigeria or elsewhere on her fascinating journeys.

She notes, usually only in passing, the complexity and messiness of some of the history she encounters in, e.g., Egypt, especially in the aftermath of the Christological controversies surrounding the Council of Chalcedon. Muslim-Christian encounters there are, as I have noted before, not as neat and straightforward as many would have us believe. Griswold only touches on some of those encounters, including the relegation of Copts to the status of dhimmi. Still, this is a very interesting book written with a very engaging style.

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