The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam. By : Sidney H. Griffith
Middle Eastern Christianity and Islamic Philosophy:
Mutual Influences and Polemic
In “The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque”, Griffith offers a major highlight on understanding the reality of relations between Christians and Muslims in the Muslim milieu from the time of Mohammad (PBUH) until the Mongol conquest.
Griffith observes Christians as an indigenous population that comprised what could have summed to more than half of the total inhabitants in certain times and places along the Islamic conquered territories. He provides the reader with an informative package about Christianity in the East within an interesting exploration inside Christian theological and ecclesiological visions within an illuminating historical context of many of the controversial points between the faiths.
During the first century after the death of the Prophet, Christians living in the territories under Islamic rule, eventually adopted Arabic language. This resulted in opening a public channel of communication with the Muslims about religion and culture. A conversation that took both direct and indirect moves.
Griffith examines the cultural and intellectual life of indigenous Christians in the Islamic world, describing their challenges and reactions to the new religion, in which he argues that Islam was one of the most persistent problems to be faced by Christian Arabic writers was the challenge of how to express the distinctive teachings of Christianity in an Arabic idiom in which the religious vocabulary had already acquired strong Islamic overtones.
The author aims to show that interreligious dialogue existed, in spite its rather critical views more often, in which it resulted in a unique experience of religious and theological communication.
The book consists of a preface that portrays a more than two decades journey in its making. In the introduction Griffith conveys his main objective in the writing of this work in which he aims to explain to the Western Christian of this day the unknown and often ignored reality of Christianity in the Eastern Arab dominated world. Defining the Christian Arabs and their origins as well as their belonging to the territory as indigenous people. Explaining as well the development of Arabic Christianity from the early centuries of Islam until the Mongol Conquests.
The book itself is nicely produced and includes an impressive bibliography that proves the intensive and attentive work that has been employed in the production of the work.
The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque is divided into seven chapters in which a summary of events is presented and offers the different stages in the middle-eastern history of the Church as well as names, dates, and places we need to know, as well as the theological tides that flawed throughout the dialogue and interaction that took place between Christians and Muslims in the early centuries of Muslim domination of the East.
The book begins with a short preface and an introduction. The introduction describes the state of mis-presentation of Eastern Christianity in the West through decades of orientalist studies that persisted on portraying the Arab Christians as oppressed threatened minorities. All of the Christian communities who lived within the world of Islam in the early Islamic period strove to cultivate good relations with Muslims at the same time that both in Arabic and in their own languages they clearly marked the differences between the two creeds. Their immediate purpose in much of their writing about Islam was to forestall Christian conversions to Islamic faith, nevertheless, their acculturation into the Arabic speaking Islamic common wealth inevitably resulted in a measure of Arabicization and even Islamicization in their fiction, both in Arabic and in their native languages, as they strove to find a common discourse between themselves and those who posed the major local challenge to their faith. These developments as well seemed to have played a role in the estrangement of oriental Christians from their coreligionists in the west and outside of the world of Islam.
The first chapter presents the soul of the book. Griffith speaks about Christians and Jews as People of the Book in the Quran. He emphasized their presence as being in the audience of the Quran that first addressed the “word of god” in a clear Arabic tongue as well as being directly addressed in some places. Griffith mentions the Quran critique to Christianity by objecting Christian behavior as well as accusing them of changing the words of the Bible.
Griffith ensures in this chapter, that regardless to all considerations, that in the lifetime of Mohammad, and in the provisions of the Quran; Jews, Christians and Muslims have had a warrant for dialogue since the very birth of Islam. But its lack of productivity is a result of studying history from the perspective of the Christians who lived outside the world of Islam. In the same chapter he gives a brief outline on Christian’s life development and diminishment over the centuries under Muslim rules since the conquest of the Levant, and the rises and challenges of living under Islamic rule as well as the Christian responses to occurring challenges.
Griffith emphasizes that the history of Christians under Muslim rule is a history of continuous diminishment over the centuries. The numbers declined from a substantial majority of the population in many places I nth conquered territories in the times before crusades, to significant minorities in most of the Islamic world by the ottoman times.
He explicitly considers the social conditions of Christians under Muslim rule as one factor of this gradual diminishing .The Pact of Omar, the Jizya and the Dhimmi position that made Christians become second-class citizens. All these resulted in the course of time to the gradual decrease in monasteries, and schools.
In response Christians developed a discourse of accommodation and a discourse of resistance. On the one hand they attempted to compose a philosophical or religious discourse in Arabic for the sake of a clearer and more effective, apologetic statement of their Christian faith in their Islamic circumstances, and on the other hand they also produced a Christian Arabic literature of resistance and of martyrdom, with a more polemical intent.
In Chapter Two, Griffith sketches the first challenge of belief between Christianity and Islam in the Apocalypse. He explains the Christian responses from the early centuries of Islam and its development into apologetic forms.
In chapter three and four, Griffith illustrates an important overview to development of Christian theology in Arabic and Ecclesiastical Arabic, which included the adoption of Arabic as the church language. In this chapter, he introduces the major Christian thinkers and theologians as well schools of theology that worked on the challenges of Islam.
Griffith develops a profile of the shape of Christian theology in Arabic and the strategies of the discourse adapted in the worlds.
He also takes another opportunity even within the sectarian milieu of the early Islamic period and despite the struggling of Christian and jewish thinkers to present their distinctive religious claims in relationship to the challenges posed by one another, and often in what one can only call a Judaizing, Christianizing or islamicizing discourse depending on the individual case. Christians came to adopt Arabic not only the lingua franca o daily life in the caliphate, but even as an ecclesiastical language.
Christians and jews were faced with the apologetic necessity, that was also an opportunity, both for islamicizing, the Arabic expression for their jewish and Christian teachings and for both Christianizing and Judaizing the current Islamic discourse devoted to reasoned argumentation in defense of the true religion.
Over the next two chapters Griffith illustrates Christian Philosophy in Baghdad whereas translation movement undertook a prominent role in Baghdad between the eighth and tenth centuries, in times when philosophical, scientific, and substantial texts were systematically being translated from Greek, Syriac, and Pahlavi into Arabic. This resulted in an enterprise that brought the learning of ancient Greece and Persian to the new world of Islam, together with the learning of ancient Greece and Persia to the new world of Islam. It also became the impetus for new developments in philosophy itself in the Arab world, and for a new appreciation of the philosophical way of life, which some Christians and Muslim intellectuals together thought could become the vehicle for a more fruitful dialogue between members of different religious communities in the caliphate.
The last chapter, comprises the heart of the book; Griffith searches for the theological, historical, and cultural postures Christians might now reasonably assume in their continuing encounter with Muslims, in the light of the lessons learned from the thought and experience of the Arabic speaking Oriental churches in the early centuries of Islam. He does admit that the lessons of history on this point do not offer grounds for heightened expectations, but the alternative to making the effort to make things better is already well known and mutually destructive.
Griffith affirms that most Arabic Christian writers in the formative period of Islamic history strove to translate and to clarify the doctrines and distinctive confessional formulas of their several denominations in their Arabic treatises and tracts, rather than to rethink in the Islamic milieu how best to articulate the Christian message anew.
It was as well, that the several denominations of the Christians in the Middle East actually came into full and enduring expression of their identities as distinct Christian communities during the Islamic rule.
Griffith raises an important question on whether or not the Arabicization of Christianity in the early Islamic period has paved the way for a clash of theologies more than it offered the newly Arabic speaking Christians an opportunity for new developments in the presentation and expression of their most basic doctrines.
According to Griffith it is certainly true that a clash of theologies characterized the relationships between Muslims and Christians in early Islamic period from one side.
Early Christian apologetic texts in Arabic clearly show their debt to the methods and manners of the Muslim Mutakallimun as well as to the list of their conventional topics of conversation from another side.
This resulted on a deeper level, in the formative period of Islamic thoughts in the Abbasid era, before the disruptive incursions into the Arab world from both the Mongol east and the Latin west in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, there really was in some measure a community of discourse about religion between Muslims and Christians in spite of the clash of their theologies, and in spite of the civil and social disabilities under which Christians, together with the Jews and other religious minorities lived.
In spite of the clash of theologies that the Jewish and Christian adoption of Arabic in the early Islamic period made evident with Islamic world itself, the underlying sibling relationship and history of commonality between the three communities of faith are also unmistakable. This history’s claim to the imperative ground for interreligious dialogue between Jews Christians and Muslims seems to be unimpeachable, especially since it is a fact that even though the long centuries of mutual hostilities the fortunes of the three communities have became, if anything even more inextricably intertwined.
While the Quran definitely offers a critique of Jews, Christians and others in term of the actual state of their religions, it also presumes in its audience a familiarity with biblical narratives, as well as with other aspects of Jewish and Christian lore, faith, and practice.
Griffith emphasizes that the Quran envisions a continuous dialogue between Muslims and Christians and while dialogue, understood as simply conversation between two or more partners, is not always agreeable or friendly, it is nevertheless communication.
The Quran was obviously a major text in the world of the Arabophone Christians, and in their works one can distinguish two levels of its presence. On the one hand, and without any pertinent comment by them on the phenomenon, their Christian Arabic texts are replete with words and phrases from the Quran that had entered the common parlance of the Arabic from the Quran that had entered the common parlance of the Arabic speaking people long before the time when Christians living in the conquered territories adopted the Arabic language.
On the other hand, some Arab Christian writers explicitly discussed the Quran and quoted from it. Some of them depicted the Quran as a flawed scripture and they detailed its shortcomings. Others, in the course of their arguments with Muslims, appealed to texts from the Quran, sometimes citing it by name, sometimes not, they cited it both in witness of the truth of their polemics against Islam, and even in testimony to the truth of the Christian positions they were defending.
In the final assessment, Griffith contributes a great deal to an understanding not just of the important role Christians played in the philosophical and translation movement among others in the Islamic milieu through providing access to a comprehensive field of study in Christian theology that is not open to regular \non specialist readers, but also offers a full understanding of the rise of Islam in its early years from the perspective of contemporary non-Muslims, in a reminder to the Western reader that there is much to learn from the works of people who seriously engaged Muslims in their own world so long ago. An encounter that needs to continue to be engaged in interfaith dialogue.