Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christianity and Early Muslim World

Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christianity and Early Muslim World

Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christianity and Early Muslim World

Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christianity and Early Muslim World


The first Christians to encounter Islam were not Latin-speakers from the western Mediterranean or Greek-speakers from Constantinople, but Mesopotamian Christians who spoke the Aramaic dialect of Syriac. Under Muslim rule from the seventh century onward, Syriac Christians wrote the most extensive descriptions extant of early Islam. Seldom translated and often omitted from modern historical reconstructions, this vast body of texts reveals a complicated and evolving range of religious and cultural exchanges that took place from the seventh to the ninth century.

The first book-length analysis of these earliest encounters, Envisioning Islam highlights the ways these neglected texts challenge the modern scholarly narrative of early Muslim conquests, rulers, and religious practice. Examining Syriac sources including letters, theological tracts, scientific treatises, and histories, Michael Philip Penn reveals a culture of substantial interreligious interaction in which the categorical boundaries between Christianity and Islam were more ambiguous than distinct. The diversity of ancient Syriac images of Islam, he demonstrates, revolutionizes our understanding of the early Islamic world and challenges widespread cultural assumptions about the history of exclusively hostile Christian-Muslim relations.


John: If a village of heretics should return to the true faith, what
should one do with their mysteries?

Jacob: They should be sent to the adherents of their faith. For this
also happened to me. Once there were some Hagarenes who carried
off the Eucharist from Byzantine territory. And when they feared
their conscience and brought it to me, I sent it to adherents of the
Byzantine confession.

—Jacob of Edessa, Second Letter to John the Stylite

In the late seventh century, John the Stylite sent his friend Jacob, bishop of Edessa, a series of inquiries ranging from when to consecrate holy oil to whether one should fast after Pentecost. Complications arose, however, when John asked what he should do with Eucharistic elements from a village that had just renounced Byzantine theology. By this time, there already was a twohundred-year tradition of John and Jacob’s church seeing the Byzantine Eucharist as invalid. Because Jacob had acquired a reputation of being a stickler for ecclesiastical boundaries, John probably thought his mentor would further reify church divisions, declare the Byzantine Eucharistic elements profane, and instruct him to simply throw them out. Jacob, however, confounded these expectations. He instructed John to find some local Byzantine Christians and give them the villagers’ Eucharistic elements. But Jacob did not stop with this unexpected answer. He followed it with an even more surprising story relating his interactions with some Hagarenes.

The word “Hagarenes” was the most common term Jacob used to speak of people whom we would call Muslims. The beginning of his anecdote thus appears to support the most common modern understanding of ChristianMuslim interactions, a relationship that twentieth-and twenty-first-century . . .

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