"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).

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Eastern Christianity and Islam (IV): The Syriac Churches

Syria is of course much in the news today because of on-going political instability and unrest in this year of the so-called Arab Spring. Relations between Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Syria are rather more complicated than simplistic media narratives would have us believe, and many Christians in the country are on the side of the government in the current unrest, fearing (with good reason) that the alternatives are much worse. An Antiochian Orthodox priest from Texas, Joseph Huneycutt, who recently visited Syria to find out what Christian-Muslim relations are really like today, has written up a six-part series on his visit that is informative in this regard. If and when Noriko Sato's oft-delayed book Orthodox Christians in Syria (Durham Modern Middle East and Islamic World Series) is published, we may have further details--though the situation is so fluid that the danger of any book being published is that it can instantly end up out being out of date.

We are, however, seeing an increasing number of scholarly studies of Christian-Muslim relations in Syria in historical perspective; I noted a few of them earlier in this series. The focus on Syria reminds us that it was in every sense of the word on the forefront of Arab Muslim conquests in the seventh century.

Now another welcome collection has recently been published: Dietmar W. Winkler, ed., Syriac Churches Encountering Islam: Past Experiences and Future Perspectives (Pro Oriente Studies in the Syriac Tradition) (Gorgias Press, 2010), xii+253pp.

There are, I want to stress, riches in this book that others could and should benefit from. These riches, alas, are heavily obscured thanks to the fact that many of the contributors wrote in a language obviously not native to them and the book was "edited" by an Austrian. Why a publisher would allow such an arrangement is a mystery; but the greater mystery is why this book was not copy-edited in any form by a competent anglophone. I should be hugely embarrassed as an editor and publisher to put into print a book (especially one so steeply priced as this) whose nearly every page is positively scrofulous with errors, the worst being Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim's chapter, "The Syrian Churches During the Umayyad Era," which, a mere seventeen pages in length, has, by my count, 144 (one-hundred-and-forty-four) errors in it. Line after line, paragraph after paragraph, page after page: they are all so filled with errors as to render much of his text incomprehensible. Errors of spelling, grammar, style, formatting, and fact fill every page; but my favorite has to be the howler repeated regularly by the author in his reference to "St. Simeon the Stylist [sic]." Ah--so the mystery is at last revealed: atop his pillar (στυλος), one finds a hairdressing shop tended by St. Simeon the Stylite! I should certainly find the prospect of working in a beauty salon an extreme askesis indeed, but this is not what Simeon endured.

Joseph Yacoub's article "Christian Minorities in the Countries of the Middle East: a Glimpse to the Present Situation and Future Prospects" was obviously written (based on the dated material he cites) at least five, and like more, years ago now. He does not inspire confidence in the reader when, at the outset, he purports to introduce the different Christians in the Middle East, and says that "in Jordan, there are Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics (Melkites), and Eastern Christians of the Latin rite" (173). What is that last phrase supposed to mean? On the next page he seems to compound the problem by claiming that, among others, "the oriental Christians are....the Latins and the Protestants," also a bizarre categorization. He ends his introduction by saying "this paper will focus on Syriac Christianity" but on the very next line he dives into "Iraq: a decimated Christianity" and spends the next twenty-six pages (more than half the chapter) attacking the American invasion of Iraq ("the crusade launched by George W. Bush" and supported by "Christian fundamentalists in the entourage of George Bush" with ostensible ideological support, and financial backing, from the nefarious "National Association of Evangelicals" which, in case we miss the point, is "linked to the Republican party"). This screed proceeds with all the de haut en bas attitude sometimes attributed to French academics in the popular imagination. It is sloppy, dripping with condescension, and wildly off target. When he finally turns to Christians in Syria and, even more briefly, Turkey, he says nothing that has not been better said, with much greater and more current detail, elsewhere.

Syria reappears in "Culture and Coexistence in Syria" by Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, but this short article (barely six pages in length) is also riddled with errors, and one's confidence, already very shaky after the previous encounter earlier in the book with this author, is destroyed at the outset by the author's absurd and utterly unprecedented claim that "Historically, the See of Antioch was the first See in Christendom" (222). The hairdressing Simeon shows up again at least once here.

Dietmar Winkler's article "Christian Responses to Islam in the Umayyad Period" is a marked by many typos, but it tells an extremely important story and reinforces Griffith's point (noted below) that no Christian rejoiced in the Arab-Muslim invasion. Those who claim this are almost invariably people who have no facility in the original texts, and instead repeat received myths that no serious historian accepts. Indeed, Winkler makes it clear that "the fact that within a century of the death of Muhammad (632) Islam had spread across much of the known world was for many Christians inexplicable, frightening, and theologically incomprehensible" (72).

The one chapter on Islam in India deals with "Christian-Muslim Relationships on the Malabar Coast" by Baby Varghese. The jist of his article--which is too short, and unaccountably ends in 1964, with no mention of anything that has happened since then--is that relations between the Thomas Christians of Kerala (and other Syriac-derived Christian groups) and the Muslims who later arrived there were decent until Portuguese Christians (Roman Catholics) begin showing up at the end of the fifteenth century. Then the Portuguese, in their religio-cultural chauvinism, began buggering things up for everybody, treating both the native Christians and Muslims with violent hostility and contempt.

The highlight of this book has to be Sidney Griffith's article, "The Syriac-Speaking Churches and the Muslims in the Medinan Era of Muhammad and the Four Caliphs." Anyone who knows Griffith's work knows he is rightly recognized today as one of the world's leading scholars of the ancient encounter between Christians and Muslims, especially in Syria. This has been demonstrated in over three decades' worth of scholarship in many places, including perhaps most notably The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam

With his customary lucidity, care, and command of the sources, Griffith first demonstrates just how influential Syriac Christianity was on the composition of the Quran: "the Qur'an itself is the best witness to the Christian presence in Muhammad's world"(17), not least because of the "Syriacisms in the Arabic diction" and by "how much of the Qur'an's eschatology echoes that of the classical Syriac writers" (19).

Griffth then turns to Christian reactions to Islam, which of course were varied depending on place and time. Often a common initial reaction was that the "scourge of the Saracens" was sent by God to chastise the Christians and bring them back to repentance and holiness. At no point did any Christian ever understand the invasion to be a good thing, still less something to be welcomed with open arms. This absurd myth, repeated as recently as a few weeks ago as I noted on here, is debunked once again by Griffith, who shows that the idea of Coptic welcome of invasion stems from a notoriously misquoted and misunderstood letter from Isho'yabh III (d. 659), patriarch of the "Church of the East." When read in context, that letter, on "closer inspection reveals that the writers were not so much voicing a welcome for what we recognize in hindsight as the onset of the Islamic conquest as they were invidiously comparing even Arab rule, which they disdained, to the oppressive conduct of their previous governors....[T]he Christians of all denominations unanimously regarded the conquest as a disaster"(28).

Mar Julius Mikhael Al-Jamil's article "The Personal Status of Christians in the Ottoman Empire" is a short treatment of the infamous millet system and the ritual of firman or berat, the investiture of (initially) Greek, Armenian, and Jewish leaders as the ethnarchs heading up their respective communities--a list later much expanded to include other ethno-religious communities given such arrangements under pressure from Western (especially French) powers at the sunset of the Ottoman Empire. This topic has been treated elsewhere at greater length and with more detail than one finds here.

Karam Risk's article "Christians Build a State--Lebanon" ends the book. It is a mere nine pages, and therefore treats Lebanese history with extreme brevity, ending with a paean to Lebanon whose "future remains radiant and luminous."

In the end, the intent of this collection was noble indeed. It brings together some fascinating material still not well known today, and in fact still often wildly (sometimes intentionally) misrepresented and misunderstood. But the execution of too many articles, and of the book as a whole, leaves much to be desired. This is greatly to be regretted because we desperately need good scholarship today more than ever. The search continues.

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