"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).

Friday, July 22, 2011

Interview with David Bertaina

The historian David Bertaina,
whose recent book Christian and Muslim Dialogues: The Religious Uses of a Literary Form in the Early Islamic Middle East I mentioned earlier this month, has agreed to an interview about that new book of his and his other scholarly endeavors.

AD: Please tell us about your background:

DB: I am an assistant professor of comparative religion in the History Department at the University of Illinois at Springfield.  I obtained my doctorate in Semitic Languages and Literatures from The Catholic University of America in 2007.  My areas of research include the intellectual, social and religious history of the late antique and medieval Middle East. 

I write on medieval encounters between Muslims and Christians, especially in Arabic and Syriac dialogue literature and the how these texts framed the construction of identity.  This year I published Christian and Muslim Dialogues: The Religious Uses of a Literary Form in the Early Islamic Middle East.  I have taught courses on Christian-Muslim Encounters, Islamic History, Islamic Historiography, Eastern Christianity, Late Antiquity, Early Christian Historiography, Judaism-Christianity-Islam, World Religions, Introduction to Islam, and Historical Methods. 

Tell us why you wrote this book:

The book started as an outgrowth of my doctoral work. I was working on a single account, a ninth-century debate between Melkite bishop Theodore Abu Qurra and Muslim dialectical theologians in the presence of the caliph al-Ma’mun. As I studied more of the dialogue literature (sometimes called disputations), I found a number of important similarities between Christian and Muslim texts and was struck by the religious uses of the stories to dramatize what are essentially theological narratives. I wanted to publish something that would make more of these stories accessible.

For whom was the book written—did you have a particular audience in mind?

Ideally, the book would be accessible to undergraduates as well as specialists. It was difficult to balance these competing audiences in the narrative, and I think someone who is familiar with the medieval Middle East will have a much easier time with the book. At the same time, I deliberately left out special characters and always translated Arabic words into English. One of the problems in our field is the tendency to use the original Arabic word because the English word doesn’t convey the exact same meaning. My intention was to describe these stories of dialogue in a way that someone could understand the narrative even if they don’t have knowledge of Syriac or Arabic.

What about your own background led you to the writing of this book?

I applied to graduate school with the plan to focus on the Arab Christian tradition, with a special focus on the medieval ‘Melkites’ (from which both the Antiochian Orthodox Church and the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church derive their origins). I was a member of an Eastern Catholic community in the San Francisco Bay Area, and my interests were primarily in liturgy and Orthodox-Catholic ecumenism. Then 9/11 happened, and my esoteric field suddenly became much more interesting for the wider populace. I was working at Ohlone College in Fremont, CA, at the time, which was called ‘little Kabul’ because of the large Afghani Muslim population there.  My experiences related to inter-religious dialogue, both positive and negative, really encouraged me to look at the Melkites not in an isolated manner, but within the wider field of the Islamic world. After going to work on my PhD and dissertation, I shifted my focus toward Arab Christian interactions with Muslims. The book is the fruit borne of those stories.

Were there any surprises you discovered in your writing?

One of my surprises was that Arabic-speaking Christians possessed detailed knowledge of and appreciation for the Qur’an. Even when they would critique Muslims, they would make sure to use qur’anic idioms, or quote from an oral tradition. Medieval Arab Christian authors were not only more biblically literate than most people today, but they were also more aware of Islamic texts, traditions, and legends than western Christian communities, medieval or modern.

Are there similar books out there, and if so, how is yours different?

There is a significant amount of literature devoted to these medieval Christian-Muslim texts. However, most of the writing is in Arabic, or found in journals published in the Middle East, or in articles that are inaccessible to non-specialists. One exception is the work by Sidney Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam (2008). My book stands out from others because it seeks to follow a thread from the Qur’an until the Crusades in which Christians and Muslims both used a literary framework to communicate their theological messages and their perceptions of the other community. My approach limits the potential list of Arabic sources and the ramifications of my conclusions, but it allows for comparisons of Christian and Muslim dialogue. 

Sum up briefly the main themes/ideas/insights of the book

Most histories talk about Eastern Christians until the rise of Islam, and then they magically disappear from the narratives. With the exception of Byzantine Christianity, the rest of the Christian groups are ignored by historians and theologians (though not liturgists, thankfully). Christian and Muslim Dialogues reminds readers that Christians did not disappear in the first century of Islamic rule. Instead, we can see a lively dialogue taking place between communities in the Middle East. Most importantly, the book reveals how dialogues were used for Christological debate, exegesis of the Bible, conversion, competing historiographies, theological education, hagiography, and reinterpreting the Bible and the Qur’an. The stories of dialogue retold in the book act as a guide for these themes. They show that Arab Christians incorporated the realities of religious pluralism into their communities, but not at the expense of claims to objective truth. In today’s climate of inter-religious dialogue, the assumption that religious pluralism negates claims to truth is one of the great dangers for participants. The inheritance of modernity has made western culture generally distrustful of medieval claims to truth, but I think that these encounters teach us that dialogue can take place without falling into a latent relativism.

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