Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Apology or Its Evasion? Some Ninth-Century Arabic Christian Texts on Discerning the True Religion

Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Apology or Its Evasion? Some Ninth-Century Arabic Christian Texts on Discerning the True Religion

Article excerpt

Introduction

As a historical phenomenon, Islam is a post-Christian religion, one that sought to honor previous revelations of God, including those vouchsafed to the prophets and apostles Moses and Jesus, but which also claimed to bring correctives to the doctrines of existing religious communities. In the light of Islam's passionate insistence on the unicity (tawhid) of God, Christian teachings such as the divinity of Christ and the Trinity of the Godhead were called into question. Jesus the Messiah, son of Mary was venerated, and yet interpreted not as the Word-made-flesh of the Gospel of John but rather as a prominent member of a prophetic history that had a consistent pattern and that found its culmination in the life and ministry of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632). This pattern did not allow for claims to divinity, not did it have a place for the unique event of Christ's death by crucifixion for the sake of human redemption.

Clearly, Islam brought a set of sharp challenges to central Christian teachings. However, much of the Christian literature that has dealt with Islam over the past fourteen centuries does not take the challenges of Islam to Christian faith seriously. From John Damascene's description of Islam as the "still-prevailing deceptive superstition of the Ishmaelites, the forerunner of the Antichrist" (1) to polemical Web sites today, the Christian church does not have a particularly good record of measured theological engagement with Muslims; more often than not, ways are sought simply to dismiss Islamic challenges. There are exceptions--as I shall mention below. But creative encounters are easy to miss among the polemics, eagerly repeated but utterly mendacious legends about the Muslims' Prophet, or neo-martyr accounts in which Muslim characters are portrayed as ferocious and immoral. (2) To these one may add apocalyptic texts, in which events involving Muslims--their building of the Dome of the Rock, for example--are interpreted as signs of the End of Time, and in which Muslims figure into the interpretation of the Bible's cast of apocalyptic characters: Gog and Magog, the Abomination of Desolation, the fourth beast of Daniel 7, the locusts of Revelation 9, the seven-headed dragon of Revelation 12, or the Beast whose number is 666 in Revelation 13. (3) The Christian literature occasioned by the encounter with Islam is full of ways of dismissing or even demonizing it, and certainly of evading its challenges to Christian doctrine and practice.

A good place to look for the exceptions--that is, attempts by Christian theologians to take Islamic challenges seriously--is the Arabic-language literature of Christian communities in the Middle East. Not much more than a century after the rapid Arab conquests of the mid-seventh century, in which Christian communities from North Africa to Persia rather suddenly found themselves within what came to be called the Dar al-Islam, many members of those communities were adopting the Arabic language. Leaders of Christian communities reacted, sometimes with alarm, but also by translating the scriptures and other Christian books into Arabic and by writing apologetic treatises directly in the Arabic language. (4)

In what follows, I would like to describe a very popular apologetic strategy that we find already in the writings of three Arabic-speaking theologians, from different regions of Mesopotamia and from different theological communities or "denominations," who all flourished in the first third of the ninth century: Theodore Abu Qurrah, bishop of Harran (a "Melkite" or Chalcedonian "two-natures-in-Christ" theologian); Habib Abu Ra'itah of Tikrit (a "Jacobite" or anti-Chalcedonian "one-nature-in-Christ" theologian); and 'Ammar al-Basri (i.e., of Basrah, a theologian of the "Nestorian" Church of the East). (5) The strategy they develop is a curious one and may at first seem to be a sophisticated addition to the list of ways in which Christians have evaded Islamic challenges to Christian teachings. …

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