Disputing with Islam in Syriac: The Case of the Monk of Bêt Hãlê and a Muslim Emir - Sidney H Griffith

Although Islam was born, and became a world religion largely within the ambience of the Syriac-speaking communities of the eastern Christian patriarchates, little study has in fact been focused on the significance of Syriac culture in the early formation of Islam, or on the shaping influence of the academic and literary institutions of the Syriac-speaking churches on the early efflorescence of Islamic culture, particularly in Syria and Iraq.

...But for the most part there has been a scholarly silence in modern times about the broader religio-cultural matrix from which Muhammad and Islam emerged, and especially about that part of it which involves the Aramean heritage of the Syriac-speaking peoples.4 The limitations of modern scholars may be largely responsible for this state of affairs, rather than any disinclination to study Islam from the point of view of the methods of Religionsgeschichte. Few are the Islamicists who have any skill in Syriac, let alone any sure grasp of the religious history and culture of the speakers of Aramaic more generally. And few too are the Syriac scholars whose command of Arabic and knowledge of early Islam is adequate to the requirements of comparative study in this area. But this was not the case with the Syriac-speaking writers of the oriental churches from the eighth through the thirteenth centuries, who lived in the world of Islam. They have left behind not only accounts of Islam's origins, but a number of fascinating works which had it as their purpose to defend the Christian faith in the face of religious challenges coming from Muslims, and to attempt to stem the tide of conversions to Islam. It is the purpose of the present communication to give a hurried overview of this literature, and then to concentrate on one intriguing work, still unpublished, which affords the modern reader a rare glimpse into how Syriac-speaking Christians met the challenge of Islam perhaps as early as the early eighth century.

...It is clear that for the most part the historians considered the coming of Islamic rule as a punishment which God allowed to fall upon his people for their sins. In no way can one find in their chronicles any evidence for the thesis sometimes advanced by modern scholars that the Syriac-speaking Christians welcomed the Arab invasion and the Islamic conquest as a liberation from the oppressive fiscal and theological policies of Byzantine rule. It is true that large segments of the population were considered to be 'Monophysite' or 'Nestorian' heretics by the Byzantine government. But in texts emanating from the 'Syrian Orthodox' or 'Church of the East' communities themselves one finds hostility not so much to Byzantine rule in principle, nor the desire for a unity of faith among all the patriarchates and language communities. Rather, the concern, to the degree that it is anti-Byzantine at all, is with the perceived heresy and malfeasance in office of the actual Byzantine rulers, both civil and ecclesiastical.12 Contrariwise, there is nothing necessarily anti-Byzantine, or anti-Roman, in the occasional remark in favor of the Arabs, such as the one attributed to Patriarch Ishôyahb III, writing to his correspondent Simeon of Rewardashir around the year 650, in the heat of the intra-Christian controversy of the time. He said: As for the Arabs, to whom God has at this time given rule (shultãnâ) over the world, you know well how they act toward us. Not only do they not oppose Christianity, but they praise our faith, honour the priests and saints of our Lord, and give aid to the churches and monasteries.13

...The apocalyptic genre persisted in Syriac, and in later times was even combined with other types of apologetical/polemical writing, such as the Syriac account of the renegade Christian monk, Sargis/Bahîrâ, who is said to have been Muhammad's teacher.16 It had its roots in the patristic traditions of the exegesis of the biblical book of Daniel, such as had already been in vogue in the Syriac-speaking world since at least as early as the time of St. Ephraem.17

...It is chapter X of the Scholion that is of special interest in the present context. In the preface Bar Kônî states the purpose of the chapter, and in a single sentence he rather pithily states the pastoral problem the Christians faced in the Islamic milieu of his day. He says he is writing,

Against those who while professing to accept the Old Testament, and acknowledging the coming of Christ, our Lord, are far removed from both of them, and they demand from us an apology for our faith, not from all of the scriptures, but from those which they acknowledge.19

One notices in this sentence Theodore bar Kônî's statement about the Muslims, whom he calls hanpê,20 that "they demand from us an apology (mappaqbrûhâ) for our faith." And this is precisely what he supplies in chapter X of the Scholion, a reasoned reply to the challenge of Islam, in the question and answer format of the stylized dialogue between a master and his disciple. The style fits well the essentially controversial character of the theological enterprise in the world of Islam, in which the profile of the Christian self-definition necessarily follows the outline of the questions posed by Muslims. The topics discussed in the dialogue are: the Scriptures and Christ, Baptism, the Eucharistic mystery, the veneration of the Cross, sacramental practice, the Son of God, and, of course, interwoven with all of them, the all-embracing doctrine of the Trinity.21 These same issues, mutatis mutandis, are the ones which appear in the topical outlines of almost all of the tracts of Christian theology written under the challenge of Islam. What is striking about the list of them is the obvious intermingling of questions of faith and practice in such a way that it is clear that the shape of theology itself is determined in this milieu by the apologetical imperative to justify religious beliefs in virtue of the public practices they entail. This became the agenda of almost all the theological treatises written by Syriac-speaking Christians from the eighth century onward,22 and especially of the dispute texts, that is to say, texts written with the primary purpose of engaging in controversy with Muslims, or with fellow Christians attracted to Islam.

The questioning begins when the Arab complains that although monks are very astute in prayer, "your creed," he says, "does not allow your prayer to be acceptable."37 The monk replies to this challenge by inviting the Arab to pose whatever questions he wants, and he proposes to given an answer "either from the scriptures, or from the speculation of reason."38 The Arab then avers that Islam is the best religion because, as he says:

We are careful with the commandments of Muhammad, and with the sacrifices of Abraham. . . . We do not ascribe a son to God, who is visible and passible like us. And there are other things: we do not worship the cross, nor the bones of martyrs, nor images like you [do]. . . . But here is a sign that God loves us and is pleased with our religion (tawdîthan): He has given us authority over all religions and all peoples; they are slaves subject to us.39

With this statement the Arab sets the agenda for the whole dialogue. But before he gets into the discussion of the religious issues as such, the monk reminds him that when one puts the rule of Islam in the perspective of world history, "You Ishmaelites are holding the smallest portion of the earth. All of creation is not subject to your authority."40

The first serious question then has to do with Abraham. The Arab wants to know, "why do you not acknowledge Abraham and his commandments?"41 The monk's reply is a recitation of the scheme of salvation history in which he explains that Abraham's life and exploits are the type for Christ's life and accomplishments; in particular the story of the sacrifice of Isaac is the type for the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. So the Arab asks about Christ at his crucifixion, "How is it possible for divinity to be with him on the cross and in the grave, as you say, neither suffering nor being harmed?"42 The monk then explains that divinity truly was with Christ, but that "there was neither a mixture, nor an intermingling, nor a confusion, as the heretics say, but it was by way of the will (sebyãnâcîth), in such a way as not to be harmed or to suffer."43 As for the sacrifice itself, the monk explains, it is continued every day in the Eucharist, about which he then speaks briefly.

[24] The Arab proclaims himself to be satisfied with the monk's explanations, and he turns to the question of Christ as the Son of God, and to the Christian faith in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The monk replies with the statement that God "is one; He is known in three qnômê."44 And he cites a number of passages from the Old Testament and the New Testament to illustrate the point. Then he queries the Muslim on the issue of sonship. He asks, "Tell me, son of Ishmael, whose son do you make him to be, the one called cÎsã, son of Maryam by you, and Jesus the Messiah by us?"45 The Arab answers with a quotation from the Qurcãn, "the Word of God and His Spirit" (an-Nisãc IV:171). The monk then argues that with this affirmation Muhammad had, in effect, endorsed the teaching of the Gospel of Luke in the pericope of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary:

Peace be to you, full of grace; our Lord be with you, blessed among women. The Holy Spirit will come, and the power of the Most High will cover you. Because of this, the one to be born from you is holy, and he will be called the Son of the Most High (Lk. 1:30).46

In the light of this passage, the monk then challenges the Arab, "Either you estrange the Word of God and His Spirit from Him, or you proclaim him to be the Son of God straightforwardly."47 At this point the Arab opts for silence, and he asks the monk what he thinks of Muhammad.

The monk gives it as his opinion that Muhammad "was a wise man and a God-fearer, who freed you [i.e., the Arabs] from the worship of demons and made you recognize the true God is one."48 If that is the case, the Arab then wants to know why Muhammad did not teach his followers about the doctrine of the Trinity. The monk's reply is that the Arabs were as yet in a child-like state in the matter of the knowledge of God, and not yet ready for the mature teaching of the trinity. So Muhammad preached only "the doctrine he received from Sargis Bahîrâ."49 This is the name of the monk who in both Islamic and Christian traditions is said to have tutored the youthful Muhammad in religion and who is said to have recognized his future prophethood.

The monk says that one reason why Muhammad did not teach the Arabs about the doctrine of the Trinity was the fear that in their immaturity they would take it as a pretext for idolatry. And this concern reminds the Arab of his objection to Christian religious behavior, and particularly "that you worship images, crosses, and the bones of martyrs."50 In answer to this objection the monk cites numerous instances from the Old Testament in which the texts tell of occasions when, in the economy of salvation, and by way of typology, the fathers and prophets made prostration to material things, intending thereby to show honor to God. And he says in regard to Christ, the son of God,

We make prostration and we pay honor to his image because he has impressed it with his countenance (parsôpâ) and has given it to us. Everytime we look at his icon (yuqnâ) we see him. We pay honor to the image of the king, because of the king.51

In this connection the Arab then says that he knows of the icon which Christ "caused to be made of himself and sent it to Abgar, the king of Edessa."52 And, as if the very mention of this famous icon explained the matter to his satisfaction, the Arab moves on to ask why Christians venerate the cross when there is no command to do so in the Gospel.

It is in conjunction with his apology for the veneration of the cross that the monk brings up a matter that has been of interest to historians of early Islam ever since this Syriac text became known to scholars. He says to the Arab:

I think that even in your case, Muhammad did not teach all your laws and commandments in the Qurcãn, but you learned some of them from the Qurcãn; some of them are in surat al-Baqarah, and in G-y-g-y, and in T-w-r-h.53

On the face of it, this remark seems to make a distinction between the Qurcãn and the second surah. And, if one assumes that the Syriac consonants have become somewhat garbled in transmission, it may be the case that the next two terms also refer to surahs, viz., The Spider XXIX (al-cAnkabût, Syriac, gwãgay), and Repentance IX (at-Tawbah, Syriac, tyãbûthâ). However, Professor Drijvers is probably nearer the mark when he suggests that one should understand the two terms to refer to the Gospel (al-injîl) and the Torah (at-Tawrat), a reading with the least philological difficulty, and one that repeats a word-pair common in the Qurcãn.54 In either case, there remains what seems to be a reference on the author's part to the Qurcãn, and to at least one of its constituent parts, as if they were two distinct texts, two different sources of Islamic law. From the historian's point of view, the question then becomes, does this reference supply evidence from the early eighth century about the collection of the Qurcãn, to the effect that it might be used to challenge the customary 'orthodox' view of the time and manner of the coming-to-be of the Qurcãn? In other words, did al-Baqarah, and other surahs, at one time circulate as independent compositions, distinct from the Qurcãn as such?55 It is interesting to note in this connection that in some other Christian texts of the early Islamic period, there are also references to al-Baqarah as if it were a separate work in its own right, most notably in St. John of Damascus' refutation of Islam in Chapter 101 of his De Haeresibus.56

Following what may seem like an interruption in his discussion of the veneration of the cross, the author returns to the subject with the explanation that although there is no explicit warrant for such a practice in the Gospel, Christians have found many symbolic allusions to the cross in nature, and he even cites the case of the famous victory of Constantine at the battle of the Milvian bridge as evidence of the cross' power. He concludes:

Anyone who is a Christian, but does not worship (sãged) the cross, like one who will not look upon Christ, truly he is lost from life. When we worship the cross, we are not worshipping it as wood, or iron, or brass, or gold, or silver. Rather, we are worshipping our Lord Christ, God the Word, who dwells in the temple from us, and in this banner of victory.57

Next the Arab inquires about the veneration which Christians show to the bones of the martyrs. The monk explains that "we worship the One who dwells in them and works prodigies and signs by means of their bones."58 And he likens the martyrs to the counselors and friends of an earthly king, through whom people are accustomed to seek the favor of the king.

Changing the subject, the Arab then wants to know why Christians face toward the east when they pray. In answer the monk says,

Our Lord Christ used to pray toward the east. The holy apostles received from him the practice of worshipping toward the east, and so they handed it on to us. The true proof that they received it from our Lord is the fact that all of the churches on earth worship toward the east.59

Impressed with the monk's arguments, the Arab says,

Truly you are in possession of the truth and not error, as men think. Even Muhammad our prophet said about the inhabitants of the monasteries and the mountain dwellers that they will enjoy the kingdom.60

This remark is intriguing because it does echo the positive things said about Christians, and particularly the monks, in both the Qurcãn and the Hadîth, Islamic tradition which Muslim scholars trace back to Muhammad himself.61

Finally, the Arab comes to the question which most puzzles him, and which no doubt would also have puzzled the Christian readers of the dialogue. He puts it this way: While I know your religion is right, and your way of thinking is even preferable to ours, what is the reason why God handed you over into our hands and you are driven by us like sheep to the slaughter, and your bishops and your priests are killed, and the rest are subjugated and enslaved with the king's impositions night and day, more bitter than death?62

...In the end, the Arab then wants to know only one thing. He asks, "Are the sons of Hagar going to enter the Kingdom or not?"64 The monk answers with the verse from the Gospel according to John, "Whoever is not born of water and the Spirit will not enter the kingdom of God." (John 3:5) But he immediately adds: If there is a man who has good deeds, he will live in grace, in abodes far removed from torment. However, he will think of himself as a hired man and not as a son.65

...On the face of it, this dialogue, written in Syriac, was intended for Christian readers. It communicates the idea that Christians have answers for the religious challenges of Islam, and that even Muslims themselves would admit it if they dared.

The author adds another important detail to the narrative which enhances its verisimilitude. He mentions the language difference. He says of the monastery's notable guest, "Because he was a man of office in the emirate, he was engaged in governing much of the time. And because of his high rank, and my own abasement, he used to converse with us by means of an interpreter."70 The wording of this detail suggests that the monks could have communicated with their visitor in Arabic, but that the social circumstances of Christian monks in an Islamic society prevented this at first. (It seems unlikely, but not impossible, that the Arab would have been conversant in Syriac.) That these social circumstances included a reluctance on the part of the subject Christian to speak forthrightly to a Muslim official about religion is borne out by the sequel in the narrative. For at first the author portrays the monk as unwilling to engage in a forthright conversation about religion with the Arab. The monk even says to the Arab, "Because you are asking questions in a passing manner, our preferred choice is to take refuge in silence. ... But if you want accurately to learn the truth, speak with me without an interpreter."71 When the Arab agrees to this request the monk says further:

Since you are very great, I know that on every issue, whatever it is, I should show you honor because of your authority and your eminence. Nevertheless, when you are pressing me about the truth of my faith, I know that I shall not be currying favor with your person.72
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