Envisioning Islam

Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians and the Early Muslim World

Michael Philip Penn
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Envisioning Islam
    Book Description:

    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 Islamhighlights 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9144-5
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    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...

  4. Chapter 1 When Good Things Happened to Other People: Syriac Memories of the Islamic Conquests
    (pp. 15-52)

    Contrary to the well-known maxim, history is not always written by the winners. The earliest and most extensive descriptions of the Islamic conquests were composed not by victorious Muslims but by defeated Christians. The changes brought about by Muslim rule motivated later Syriac Christians to look back to the 630s as a key moment in their communities’ history. Syriac conquest accounts thus preserve an invaluable record of collective memory. That is, they reflect how their authors attempted to “make sense of their own present through recourse to constructed narratives of their pasts.”¹

    Examining conquest accounts as a form of collective...

  5. Chapter 2 A Different Type of Difference-Making: Syriac Narratives of Religious Identity
    (pp. 53-101)

    In the late seventh century, the Miaphysite bishop Jacob of Edessa composed an entire book against those who disobeyed church laws. No copies of his complete work survived. All that remains is a single chapter that two ninthcentury Syriac scribes preserved and titled “what Christianity is and that it precedes and is older than all religions.”¹

    At first glance, this recently published text seems fairly pedantic. Jacob’s definition of Christianity as “God’s covenant with humanity” was far from novel. The interest lies not in Jacob’s mundane answers for how to define Christianity but in his having to respond to the...

  6. Chapter 3 Using Muslims to Think With: Narratives of Islamic Rulers
    (pp. 102-141)

    What should one do with a ninth-century dog story, especially the story of a dog who—at least at first—can’t stay dead? Our initial questions might center on the canine. For example, what did Rabban Cyriacus’s statement “your dog is not dead” mean? Did Cyriacus lie, and the hound really was dead the first time around? Instead, did the narrator lie, and the doggy was never truly resurrected? Alternatively, like some ninth-century predecessor of the famous twentieth-century quantum mechanics dilemma named Schrödinger’s cat, was this poor pooch in an indeterminable state, neither truly alive nor truly dead until the...

  7. Chapter 4 Blurring Boundaries: The Continuum Between Early Christianity and Early Islam
    (pp. 142-182)

    TheChronicle of Zuqnin’s anonymous author was clearly not a fan of the Abbasid governor of Mosul, Mūsā son of Muṣʿab (r. ca. 769). Nevertheless, we may find his arch-enemy useful for our own purposes. For Mūsā’s uncanny ability to discover what was previous hidden may help us discern something we might otherwise overlook. According to theChronicle of Zuqnin,Mūsā’s most recent revenue stream involved a pyramid scheme of kidnapping, ransom, and outright theft. Central to Mūsā’s plot was his determination to ferret out those “who took [Syrian] wives, bore Syrian children, mingled with Syrians, and were even indistinguishable...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 183-186)

    In 1993 Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington published aForeign Affairsarticle and later a book popularizing the phrase “clash of civilizations.”¹ Rarely can one so clearly document an academic writer’s effect on the popular imagination. Prior to 1993, the periodical database Nexis records only 11 sources using the phrase “clash of civilizations.” In the seven years following Huntington’s work, this number increased to 625. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the number of citations jumped to over 5,000.²

    In his book, Huntington identified nine civilization groups that could potentially clash. In theory, each of these civilizations should...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 187-250)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 251-278)
  11. Index
    (pp. 279-292)
  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 293-294)