Christians in the Age of Islamic Enlightenment: A Review Essay

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Christians in the Age of Islamic Enlightenment:: A Review Essay

Christian Doctrines in Islamic Theology. By David Thomas. Leiden: Brill, 2008. Pp. viii, 392. euro135 / $200.

The Legend of Sergius Bahïrâ: Eastern Christian Apologetics and Apocalyptic in Response to Islam. By Barbara Roggema. Leiden: Brill, 2009. Pp. xii, 579. euro169 /$249.

Emerging bedraggled from imperial repression and reeling from the sudden inrush of Greek science and philosophy, Christianity achieved at the hands of Constantine a measure of guarded cohesion before splintering further under Justinian in the sixth century. The Christological controversy, which had taken its toll by the time of the rise of Islam in the seventh century, survived into the Islamic phase with renewed vigor. Rather than flinching, the fledgling Islamic movement set upon the Christian world from two different directions: from without, by the sequestration of territory, in the east against Byzantium and in the west against Spain; and from within, by Islamic criticism of Christian Scripture and of Christian doctrines. In the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Christianity was consolidating its hold on the Mediterranean before the rise of Islam in the seventh century challenged it seriously. In time, the caliphate proceeded to hold the papacy to ransom for a hundred years, and for much longer Europe danced to the tune of the caliph and, later, to that of the Sublime Porte in Istanbul. Meanwhile, Islam held tenaciously to the view that Christianity is a corrupted religion whose doctrines are invalid. Muslims may for expethence tolerate Christians, but they may not countenance the religion. Split in that fashion, Christians were granted protected status as a matter of social policy while the religion remained under legal restriction. Nowhere is the double fact of territorial disinheritance and religious disqualification more evident than in Bethlehem, Jesus' birthplace and for centuries belonging in the Muslim sphere. It continues to lie on the remote, exotic rim of the Christian world, and therefore of Christian consciousness. No such fate overtook Mecca, Muhammad's birthplace, thanks to Islam's territorial ascendancy and to the institution of the annual pilgrimage rite.

Befuddled historians since Edward Gibbon have tried in vain to explain the surprising ease and rapidity with which Islam overwhelmed Christianity in its heartlands. By contrast, it is much easier to account for the changes that left only traces of Christianity in their wake and where the outcome is self-evident. Islam's territorial gains in Egypt, the Near East, North Africa, and Constantinople, for example, are permanent and as easily accounted for. Yet in its cumulative historical expansion and in its contention against the incarnation and the Trinity, Islam has pursued the church everywhere, mounting an attack on the doctrinal system that has sustained Christianity both long before the rise of Islam and subsequently.

Once the Muslims succeeded in breaking down Byzantine power, they exposed the Greek intellectual structure of Christian thought by demanding an answer to Islam's objections to the church's teaching. Since the church employed Greek ideas and concepts in propounding its doctrines, Muslim scholars could employ the same ideas in attack once they gained access to Greek philosophical sources from the ninth century, which is precisely what happened with the scholastics of Islam, among them the Mu'tazilites. The Mu'tazilites were prickly defenders of God's unity and oneness, which put them at loggerheads with Christian teachings, but also with mainstream Islamic orthodoxy in respect to the subordinate status the Mu'tazilites gave the Qur 'an in preserving the divine unity. The Mu'tazilites floundered on the issue of the Qur 'an. In any case, it helped the Islamic argument of falsehood that such Christians as Nestorians, Jacobites, and Melkites, for example, were in bitter contention among themselves, and it did not escape the attention of the theologians that the language of Christianity was the language of the pagan Greeks and Romans, not the language of Jesus. …