"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, May 9, 2014

The Orthodox Church in the Arab World: An Interview

Last night I was editing a couple of article on Louis Massignon and his influence on Vatican II's understanding of Islam and the Catholic Church's relationship to Muslims. His understanding of not just Islam but also of Arab Christianity was often met with blind incomprehension on the part of not a few: What do you mean 'Arab Christians'? All Arabs are Muslims!

Even today, more than a half-century after Massignon's death, and with all the well-publicized turmoil in the Middle East, and significant advances in Eastern Christian scholarship, many people today--especially it seems North American Christians--still have no idea that Christianity has been present in the Arab peninsula since early in the first millennium. A wonderful new collection will surely go a long way in helping to remedy this ignorance: Samuel Noble and Alexander Treiger, eds., The Orthodox Church in the Arab World, 700 - 1700: An Anthology of Sources (Northern Illinois University Press, 2014), 355pp.

About this book, helpfully available in both an affordable paperback and even more affordable Kindle edition, the publisher tells us:
Arabic was among the first languages in which the Gospel was preached. The Book of Acts mentions Arabs as being present at the first Pentecost in Jerusalem, where they heard the Christian message in their native tongue. Christian literature in Arabic is at least 1,300 years old, the oldest surviving texts dating from the 8th century. Pre-modern Arab Christian literature embraces such diverse genres as Arabic translations of the Bible and the Church Fathers, biblical commentaries, lives of the saints, theological and polemical treatises, devotional poetry, philosophy, medicine, and history. Yet in the Western historiography of Christianity, the Arab Christian Middle East is treated only peripherally, if at all.

The first of its kind, this anthology makes accessible in English representative selections from major Arab Christian works written between the 8th and 18th centuries. The translations are idiomatic while preserving the character of the original. The popular assumption is that in the wake of the Islamic conquests, Christianity abandoned the Middle East to flourish elsewhere, leaving its original heartland devoid of an indigenous Christian presence. Until now, several of these important texts have remained unpublished or unavailable in English. Translated by leading scholars, these texts represent the major genres of Orthodox literature in Arabic. Noble and Treiger provide an introduction that helps form a comprehensive history of Christians within the Muslim world. The collection marks an important contribution to the history of medieval Christianity and the history of the medieval Near East.
I asked the editors for an interview, and here they are:
Tell us about your backgrounds.
Alexander Treiger
AT: I was born in St. Petersburg, Russia (then, of course, Leningrad, USSR) in 1975, studied Arabic, Islam, and Eastern Christianity in Jerusalem and at Yale, and am currently employed as associate professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I teach courses on the Abrahamic religions. I’m also an Orthodox Christian deacon, serving at the St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Church (OCA) in Halifax.
SN: My undergraduate degree was in linguistics from the University of Georgia. After that I did a master’s degree in Middle East Studies at the American University of Beirut and while living there I was received into the Orthodox Church. Currently I’m ABD in Islamic Studies at Yale, where Sasha and I met in 2005.
Samuel Noble
What led to putting this collection together?
SN: We felt a very real need for a book like this to exist. Many people—including more than a few specialists in Orthodox Christianity—have a false notion that Christianity disappeared in the Middle East with the coming of Islam and that even if there were a few Christians here or there, they did little that was noteworthy for the wider Christian world. There’s also another common misconception that Arabic only very recently came into use in the Orthodox Church, when in fact it has been a language of Orthodox Christian liturgy and literature for longer even than Slavonic. So, what we wanted to do was to provide a way that people who aren’t specialists in Arabic might be able to access this centuries-old tradition.
AT: I agree. The Arab Christian tradition remains largely unknown to the general public, and even many scholars of Orthodox Christianity are unfamiliar with it. The history of the Church in Byzantium, the Slavic lands, and Europe has been extensively researched. But what about those Christians who are direct descendants of the communities established by the apostles in Christianity’s very birthplace and ancient heartland—the Middle East? Sadly, their history is known only to a handful of specialists. It is to make their rich and unduly neglected heritage accessible to the wider public that we decided, back in 2009, to put this volume together. I am very pleased that after five years of extremely hard work—the contributors’, the publisher’s, and our own—this volume has finally seen light.
Your introduction notes that “in the Western historiography of Christianity, the Arab Christian Middle East is treated only peripherally, if at all.” This, you note, is a common problem even among scholars of Eastern Christianity. Why do you think that is?
AT: In part, the pervasive misidentification of Arabic and the Middle East exclusively with Islam is to blame. Most scholars of Christianity tend to “write off” the Middle East after the Muslim conquest, because they imagine—needless to say, incorrectly—that in the seventh century Islam simply replaced Christianity in this region. For that same reason, scholars of Christianity do not consider it necessary to learn Arabic, failing to realize that Arabic—much like Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, or Slavonic—is an essential language for the history of the Church.
Another reason for this neglect is the equally pervasive Eurocentrism: the spread of Christianity westward is treated with the utmost attention, while its continuous flourishing in the place of its origin and remarkable spread eastward (in the seventh century Christianity reached as far East as China!) is regarded as an unimportant side story. The study of Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, and other linguistic and cultural variations of Eastern Christianity has also suffered tremendously from this kind of Eurocentric bias.
SN: I think that to some degree the existence of Middle Eastern—and particularly Arab—Christianity is inconvenient for a lot of lazy narratives of Christian history. It does not fit comfortably with popular notions of Christendom, in the sense of Christianity as tied to a particular European cultural-political sphere. It complicates narratives of Christian-Muslim relations, making monochrome images of convivencia or dhimmitude impossible. The fact that the three fifths of the ancient pentarchy—Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem—lived most of their history under Muslim rule and were speaking Arabic makes it much harder to center Orthodoxy’s story as being synonymous with the story of the Byzantine Empire…. and so on. So, in a way, dealing with the reality of Arab Christianity requires historians to do more work and step out of their comfort zones.
AT: I would add that it’s equally true for Middle Eastern history. There too it’s convenient to disregard Middle Eastern Christians and other non-Muslim communities. Most histories of the Middle East make practically no attempt to do justice to the experience of non-Muslim communities. (Moshe Gil’s A History of Palestine, 634-1099 is one notable exception.) Once, however, you take into account non-Muslim historical sources and their experience and try to integrate accounts of the various communities into a single picture, things inevitably become more complicated—but ultimately much more rewarding.
You noted that apart from Sidney Griffith’s 2008 book The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam not much else is available yet in English on Arab Christians. And yet, in the next sentence (p. 5) you speak of “hopeful signs for the future.” What gives you hope?
SN: Interest in Arabic Christianity seems to be growing slowly but noticeably, to some degree riding the coattails of growing interest in Eastern Christianity in general and the need to better understand Muslim-Christian relations. A lingering problem, however, is the lack of a real academic home—is it a subfield of Islamic Studies? Church History? Byzantine or Syriac Studies? This is an issue that will continue to be a problem for some time, especially in terms of which conferences and journals should host scholars of Arabic Christianity.
Another factor that is having a positive influence on Arabic Christian studies (as well as Syriac and other fields) is the revolution caused by the digitization of manuscripts. Projects like the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Collegeville, MN, and the Saint Joseph of Damascus Manuscript Conservation Center at Balamand Monastery in Lebanon mean that pre-modern Arabic Christian texts are more easily and widely available than they have ever been in history—and scholars seeking to produce editions of texts are significantly less hindered by trouble obtaining access to manuscripts. Materials, access to which less than a century ago required scholars to travel great distances and suffer many hardships can now be simply stored on my laptop to browse at leisure. So this means that now the harvest is great but the laborers few.
AT: I should add that there is now also an excellent mailing list and online forum for scholars of Arab Christianity: the North American Society for Christian Arabic Studies (NASCAS), which currently has more than 250 participants worldwide. While previously scholars of Arab Christianity had been working in relative isolation from one another, NASCAS has allowed them to communicate more freely and intensively, to ask each other questions, exchange ideas, etc. This has had, I think, a galvanizing effect on the entire field. Additionally, NASCAS has attracted a fair number of graduate students working in neighboring fields—Islamic Studies, Syriac Studies, Byzantine Studies, and others. They are becoming aware of and interested in what we do. This way, the study of Arab Christianity is getting much-needed publicity—an important step towards eventual institutionalization within western academia.
I was staggered by your noting that “close to 90 percent of the vast corpus of Arab Christian literature has not yet been edited or translated, let alone adequately studied.” What explains such an enormous neglect? It seems to me that it must be more than the difficulty of learning Arabic (which I tried a few years ago and gave up!). Are there other factors explaining this neglect?
AT: Once again, this boils down to the common misperception that Arabic is somehow an exclusively “Islamic” language. As a result, students of Classical Arabic, of which there are of course many, gravitate towards Islamic Studies simply by default, often unaware that non-Muslims (Christians, Jews, and others) have used Arabic as extensively and for as long as Muslims, and even longer. Besides, serious study of Arab Christianity requires familiarity with the Christian tradition (Christian theology, Church councils, liturgy, canon law, etc.). Nowadays, as church attendance in the West declines, these skills are harder to come by, while those westerners who do have them rarely know Arabic.
An additional factor is that Middle Eastern Christians today wield little political power. Lebanon is the only notable exception, but even there the political impact of Christian communities is in decline. All other things being equal, most people, quite naturally perhaps, tend to disregard and downplay those communities that are relatively politically insignificant, and focus instead on those that influence (or are perceived as influencing) world affairs. One can’t blame them, of course. After all, this is where the majority of jobs are. Education always depends on market forces that dictate which things are “worth” studying and which aren’t. Some fields, while intrinsically no less important than others, suffer as a result.
Apart from your own work, are there others—individual scholars, perhaps, or academic centres—where some of this work of editing and translating is now being started or continued?
SN: In North America, Christian Arabic studies have been centered at the Catholic University of America, where Fr Sidney Griffith has trained an entire generation of specialists in the field. In Europe and the Middle East, Fr Samir Khalil has had a similar role, simultaneously at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut.
AT: I have already mentioned NASCAS. There are more and more people taking interest in Arab Christianity. Gradually, this kind of interest and awareness will hopefully become more “mainstream” in western academia. We need of course additional efforts aimed at institutionalization—such as establishing a journal for Arab Christian Studies and a regular academic conference in North America (there is currently only one conference on Christian Arabic in Europe, meeting every four years). Most importantly, scholars working in the field need to do more to establish stronger connections with Arabic-speaking Christian communities both in the Middle East and in the diaspora. Only by joining forces will we be able to carry out the task of editing, translating, and studying the unduly neglected heritage of Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern Christianity. We are very fortunate that Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christians are quite supportive of our scholarly efforts. It is particularly significant in this connection that His Eminence Metropolitan Ephrem Kyriakos of Tripoli in Lebanon has written a foreword to our Anthology, stressing its importance for the study of the Orthodox Christian heritage in the Middle East.
You note (p. 9) that “in the wake of Chalcedon, the Miaphysite church proved to be extremely successful among the Arabs” and you also speak of the “appeal that Christianity held even for the Arabs of Mecca.” What factors help us to understand that appeal and its success?
SN: A good place to start in looking into the appeal of the Miaphysite cause for people along the Byzantine-Persian borderlands is Volker Menze’s book Justinian and the Making of the Syrian Orthodox Church. However, the intricate web of theology, ideology, and culture that led to the success of Miaphysite missionaries around the Byzantine periphery is very complicated and needs a great deal more research. We know, for example, that Justinian himself (and even more so his wife Theodora) promoted Miaphysite missionary activities among pagans in Asia Minor and Nubia. One should also not discount the more intangible factor of missionary zeal on the part of Miaphysites who undertook missions among the Arabs apparently of their own initiative. However, prior to the coming of Islam, the Christological identities of the various communities had not yet completely solidified, and political loyalty to the empire and opposition to Chalcedon were by no means yet mutually exclusive. So in a sense, adopting a Miaphysite theology could also be a way for a group to take a bit of distance from Byzantine authority while still remaining broadly within the Byzantine (as opposed to Persian) sphere. Of course, those Arabs within the Persian sphere of influence in what is now southern Iraq and the Gulf region belonged to the Church of the East and in many parts of Arabia, especially Yemen, there was missionary competition between Miaphysites and the Church of the East.
In terms of the appeal of Christianity in general to the pagan Arabs of Late Antiquity, this is a bit of a no-brainer. Christianity was the vehicle for the creation and transmission of high culture—it meant not only importing a deeply meaningful and immediate narrative of salvation, but also the possibility of creating a literary language and opening up to the religious and intellectual currents of the wider Near East and Mediterranean. In the period between Christ and Muhammad, Christianity was able to create new literary cultures among speakers of Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Caucasian Albanian, etc… Arabic, being a culture that placed much higher value on orality than writing, was slower to develop a Christian literature in the vernacular, but this process had begun in earnest in the century prior to Muhammad at the latest, and was especially helped along by the Arabs’ exceedingly great respect for the ascetics of the Syrian desert.
AT: I would also recommend reading Greg Fisher’s recent book Between Empires: Arabs, Romans, and Sasanians in Late Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 2011). All these different factors for the spread of Christianity among the Arabs in the pre-Islamic period are admirably presented there.
It’s often assumed, as you note, that following Islamic conquests of Christians in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere in the seventh century that Christians basically disappeared, or were otherwise reduced to dhimmis. But you note that with the rise of Baghdad as the new capital of the caliphate “Christians of all communities were able to maintain a significant degree of social prestige” and set about, inter alia, translating many Greek and Syriac works into Arabic. What explains this change of status for the Christians, and this burgeoning interest in having philosophical and scientific works rendered into Arabic?
AT: While it is true that non-Muslims in traditional Muslim societies held a subordinate status (as, in fact, non-Christians did in traditional Christian societies at the same time), in practice their conditions varied depending on the time and place, the social and political circumstances, and the good will of the rulers. It is thus important not to generalize, but to consider each society on a case-by-case basis. In the Abbasid capital Baghdad, for example, the status of Christians was relatively high, and most of the restrictions imposed on the dhimmis seem not to have been regularly enforced (the reign of the caliph al-Mutawakkil in the mid-ninth century being a notable exception).
The Muslim writer al-Jahiz even complains that Christians in Baghdad “have stopped wearing their belts [a legal requirement for the Christians], while others wear them beneath their clothes; many of the powerful people among them refrain from paying the poll tax, jizya [imposed on non-Muslims], and although they have the means refuse to give it. They insult those who insult them, and hit those who hit them. And why should they not do this or even more, when our judges, or the majority, consider the blood of a patriarch, metropolitan or bishop to be equivalent to the blood of Ja‘far, Ali, Abbas or Hamza [typical Muslim names]?” (trans. David Thomas). In other words, al-Jahiz complains that Muslim courts treated Christians as being equal (or semi-equal) to the Muslims and allowed them to get away with non-compliance to legal restrictions imposed on dhimmis. It was also at this time also that Christian scholars—under powerful Muslim patronage—played a prominent role in translating Greek and Syriac philosophical and scientific works into Arabic.
SN: One major reason for Christians’ high social status in the first few centuries of Muslim rule was that they had skills and education that were in high demand. For the first century of Muslim rule in the Middle East, the language of bureaucracy in Syria and Egypt was Greek, and since only Christians had Greek education they were able to maintain their social position by continuing to hold secretarial positions. The family of St. John of Damascus is illustrative of this pattern, as they had held administrative positions under the Byzantines and continued to do so under the Umayyad Caliphate. Similarly, because of very long traditions of monastic education and of translation from Greek into Syriac (a language very similar to Arabic), Christians were very well positioned to dominate the field of translating Greek and Syriac into Arabic—that is, to be the intermediary by which Arabic culture “caught up,” so to speak, with the intellectual currents of the Mediterranean world. Of course, it should be remembered that Christians were not merely translators, but often were philosophers and physicians in their own right.
At the same time you note that Arabic seems in this period and context to have started to emerge as a liturgical and theological language for Christians. Why? Was it for business purposes? As a means of conversing with, and ultimately converting, Muslims? As an expression of a newly self-confident Arab Christian community increasingly comfortable in its own identity?
SN: The first Christians to start regularly using Arabic as their liturgical and theological language were the Orthodox of Palestine, and while it would be rash to offer any sure explanation for this, we can maybe identify a few possible contributing factors. For one thing, the linguistic situation in Palestine prior to Islam seems to have been conducive to a transition to Arabic. Before the Arab conquest, Greek was the predominant local liturgical and literary language, due to the international character of the monasteries and the importance of pilgrimage to the liturgical life of the Holy Land. It does not seem, however, to have been the language of daily life for very many people at all, nor was it the marker of a particular ethnic identity, even as it was a marker of elite status. Most local people would have spoken a dialect of Aramaic whose literary form, called Christian Palestinian Aramaic, only gained moderate traction as a vehicle for biblical and patristic translations. It seems that in general, translations of biblical lessons and homilies for the locals’ understanding were done on the fly, like the earliest Jewish targumim. So, with the Arab conquest there was initially a period where Greek was maintained as the Umayyad Caliphate’s language of administration, and in fact this period up through the middle of the eighth century saw a great number of new liturgical and theological works being written in Greek in Palestinian monasteries—St. John of Damascus, of course, is the most famous example of this. During St. John’s lifetime, however, the language of administration switched over to Arabic and so there ceased to be much of an incentive for laypeople to cultivate knowledge of Greek. This coincided with a change in the makeup of the Palestinian monasteries—Sidney Griffith has shown that by the early ninth century all the Palestinian monks whose background we know came from within Muslim territory and would have been Arabic or Aramaic speakers, while before this these monasteries had been home to monks from throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. So it probably made a great deal of practical sense for Christians in Palestine who would’ve almost all spoken Aramaic but who are starting to slowly transition to Arabic in daily life to switch their literary and liturgical language from Greek, which fewer and fewer people understood, to the new prestige language of Arabic, which in any case was far more similar to their native language. In this regard, it’s also worth noting that Aramaic-speaking Christians who used Syriac as their liturgical language—including Chalcedonian Orthodox in Northern Syria and Mount Lebanon—were much slower to transition into Arabic, perhaps because their spoken and liturgical languages were very similar if not the same. In fact, Syriac only completely died out in favor of Arabic as a liturgical language in parts of the Patriarchate of Antioch in the eighteenth century.
Engagement with Islam—which in this early context largely means defending Christian doctrine against Islamic criticisms—and the bolstering of a Palestinian Christian identity do seem to be a major factor in the adoption of Arabic as the chief language of theology for Orthodox Christians. As a literary language, Arabic could be said to have been born with the Qur’an and indeed, we find that the first Christian theological works—such as the Apology for the Christian Faith, extracts of which are translated in the Anthology by Mark Swanson—are already imbued with Qur’anic allusions and turns of phrase, even as they seek to dissuade Christians from conversion to Islam or even from associating too much with Muslims. This challenge of expressing Christianity in the language of Islam is one of the characteristic features of Arabic Christian literature, from its very beginnings to our own day.
At the end of your conclusion, you note that “as the texts assembled in this anthology show, the unique witness of the Orthodox Church in the Arab lands holds important lessons for us today.” Which lessons do you think are most important?
AT: Most importantly, the texts assembled in our Anthology show that Christianity belongs to the Middle East; that it is, at heart, an indigenous Middle Eastern religion, no less than Islam. This has important repercussions for how we are to understand both Christianity and the Middle East. As regards Christianity, we ought to let go of the narrowly Eurocentric view of its history and look at how Christianity has been practiced for two millennia in the place of its origin. As regards the Middle East, we ought to start seeing this region for the religiously, ethnically, linguistically, and culturally diverse place that it is and has always been.
Another aspect that our Anthology helps shed light on is the high degree of flexibility and adaptability of Orthodox Christianity to a wide range of social and cultural situations. With the exception of Arab Christian writers living in Antioch under Byzantine rule (969-1084), such as the deacon, theologian, and translator Abdallah ibn al-Fadl, all the authors represented in our Anthology lived under Muslim domination. Unlike in Byzantium or Russia, in the Middle East after the seventh century Orthodox Christianity was not in a position of power. Nonetheless, these Arab Christian writers expressed their faith with conviction and in doing so succeeded in overcoming formidable social and cultural challenges, such as articulating the Gospel in the language of the Qur’an.
SN: I think that in order to have a fully-rounded picture of the history and the breadth of Orthodox Christian theology and culture it’s absolutely necessary to understand its Arab dimension. But to point to a couple more concrete things that can be learned from Arab Orthodox literature, I would say that, first of all, this literature is essential for understanding how Orthodox Christianity has traditionally interacted with Islam and Muslims, both theologically and culturally.
Moreover, this literature offers further angles for understanding the Fathers since much of Arabic Orthodox literature follows closely in the footsteps of Sts. John of Damascus and Anastasius the Sinaite and engages with earlier patristic writings.
Also, it is completely impossible to understand the history of relations between the Orthodox, the non-Chalcedonians, and the Church of the East without familiarity with Christian literature written in Arabic, since the vast bulk of literature wherein members of these communities discussed Christology—generally very eirenically, even if strong differences and incompatibilities between their respective theologies were often seen to exist—is in Arabic, using a terminology that developed in Arabic.
Sum up what you hope the book does and who should read it.
SN: What we hoped to achieve with this volume is to give a comprehensive introduction to the first millennium of Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christianity. We feel that the translated texts give a good representative taste of the main genres and themes of Arab Orthodox literature and we have also provided a detailed bibliography and notes for further exploring this literature in English and other western languages. So we hope that this book will succeed in making Arab Orthodox materials more accessible both to people interested in related fields—Orthodox theology, Muslim-Christian relations, Byzantine history, Islamic history, etc.—and to English-speaking Christians whose roots, whether by ancestry or conversion, are in the Middle East.
AT: The volume is suitable for anyone interested in the history of the Church or in the Middle East. It is also, I think, quite suitable for course adoption in seminars on Eastern Christianity, Muslim-Christian relations, and so on. The volume opens a window onto a virtually unknown world. Every reader will be richly rewarded.
Finally, tell us what you both are at work on next—another book jointly authored? Individual research projects?
AT: My main focus is the study of the Arabic translations of the Church Fathers, of which there are hundreds and hundreds, virtually all of them unedited and unstudied. I’m also preparing a complete edition and English translation of The Noetic Paradise—the eighth-century patristic masterpiece, originally written in Greek in Palestine but preserved only in Arabic, a few sections of which have already been translated in chapter 8 of our Anthology. Besides, Sam and I are working jointly on an edition and English translation of Abdallah ibn al-Fadl’s major work, The Book of Benefit. This will complement Sam’s translations of two of Ibn al-Fadl’s theological works in chapter 7 and our joint article, published in 2011, containing an edition and English translation of another important text by this author.
SN: In addition to the project on Abdallah ibn al-Fadl that Sasha mentioned, I’m currently working with my wife, Brittany Pheiffer Noble, to translate Constantin Panchenko’s history of Middle Eastern Orthodoxy under the Ottomans, Ближневосточное Православие под османским владычеством. Первые три столетия 1516–1831 (Near Eastern Orthodoxy under Ottoman Rule: The First Three Centuries 1516-1831). Panchenko’s book is by far the most exhaustive study of Middle Eastern Orthodoxy during that period. In many ways it complements our Anthology by bringing the story up to the beginning of the modern era.

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