Christians at the Heart of Islamic Rule: Church Life and Scholarship in Abbasid Iraq

Christians at the Heart of Islamic Rule: Church Life and Scholarship in Abbasid Iraq

Christians at the Heart of Islamic Rule: Church Life and Scholarship in Abbasid Iraq

Christians at the Heart of Islamic Rule: Church Life and Scholarship in Abbasid Iraq

Synopsis

The chapters in this volume, which come from the Fourth Woodbrooke-Mingana Symposium, cover aspects of Christian life in and around Baghdad in the early centuries of Abbasid rule. The authors explore both broad themes, such as the place of monasteries in Muslim cultural life, accusations of Islam as crypto-idolatry, and Muslim responses to Christian apologetic arguments, and also specific topics, such as a Nestorians explanation of the Incarnation, a Jacobites purpose in composing his guide to moral improvement, and the development of Christian legends about the caliph al-Mamun. The volume illustrates the vigour of Iraqi Christian life in Abbasid times, and helps show that relations between Christians and Muslims, although strained at times, were often beneficial to followers of both faiths.

Excerpt

Iraq in the period of the ʿAbbasid caliphs was an area of surprisingly mixed population, culture and religion. Although it came under Muslim rule within a decade of the Prophet Muḥammad’s death, and was made the political and intellectual centre of the Islamic world in the second/ eighth century, it remained religiously pluralist for many hundreds of years. At first, the Jews, Christians, Persian dualists and others who had lived there for centuries, and in some cases millennia, hardly seemed aware of any need or requirement to conform to the faith of their Muslim rulers. And it was only after some centuries that many of them felt driven to abandon their dhimmī status and inherited faith under the accumulated pressures on people who did not follow Islam. In the intervening centuries, when members of different faiths mixed with some confidence and freedom in the lands along the Tigris and Euphrates, intellectual and religious influences extended in all directions, and relations between scholars, professionals and many of the common populace flourished in ways that prohibit any over-simple account of the ways in which Muslims looked upon their client Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians.

Christianity was long-established in Iraq by the time al-Manṣūr chose the site of Baghdad for his new capital. And Christians quickly became noticed in and around the city, both for their sheer numbers and also for the skills and accomplishments by which they could benefit their rulers. At the top of the social and religious hierarchy the metropolitans and bishops of the various denominations were early recognised as men who commanded respect and deference among their followers, and could thus control them on behalf of the caliph. And so the election of new church leaders became a matter of keen interest to the government and frequently an occasion for direct intervention to ensure the right man was appointed.

It is probable that the best known of the church leaders under early ʿAbbasid rule, the Nestorian Patriarch Timothy I, rose to his position through this direct involvement of the caliph. And by virtue of his preeminence over all Christians in the empire he enjoyed direct access to the caliph’s presence itself. The manner in which he casually begins a letter to his friend Sergius—’One day recently, as I was at the gate of the royal palace, a prominent man exuding power, wealth and grandeur approached’—suggests how normal it was for him to attend at court and how undaunted he was by his dhimmī status. Nevertheless, he was never allowed entirely to forget this, and could never feel completely at ease with his Muslim counterparts. In his celebrated dialogue with al-Manṣūr’s . . .

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