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When Christians First Met Muslims

When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam

Michael Philip Penn
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    When Christians First Met Muslims
    Book Description:

    The first Christians to meet Muslims were not Latin-speaking Christians from the western Mediterranean or Greek-speaking Christians from Constantinople but rather Christians from northern Mesopotamia who spoke the Aramaic dialect of Syriac. Living under Muslim rule from the seventh century to the present, Syriac Christians wrote the first and most extensive accounts of Islam, describing a complicated set of religious and cultural exchanges not reducible to the solely antagonistic.Through its critical introductions and new translations of this invaluable historical material,When Christians First Met Muslimsallows scholars, students, and the general public to explore the earliest interactions between what eventually became the world's two largest religions, shedding new light on Islamic history and Christian-Muslim relations.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-96057-2
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. PROLOGUE: The Year 630
    (pp. xiii-xx)

    The year is 630 according to the Christian calendar, and the Byzantine emperor Heraclius is celebrating at the center of the world. Through a daring sneak attack that still impresses military historians, he has just defeated the Sasanian King of Kings, concluding a twenty-five-year war between the Byzantine and Persian Empires. To crown his victory, Heraclius triumphantly processes into Jerusalem, to the Church of the Resurrection, the “navel of the world,” where Adam was thought to be buried and Christ resurrected. Sixteen years earlier the Persians had wrested Jerusalem from Byzantine control, gained possession of this church, and captured Jesus’s...

  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    The year 630 and those immediately following are a turning point not simply for world history but also for the modern study of world history. Until recently, most historians traveled the same route Heraclius did: as soon as they reached the time of Muḥammad’s death, their studies quickly retreated westward, concentrating on either the European Middle Ages or the later Byzantine Empire. Even those historians interested in Christian-Muslim interactions quickly shifted to a more Western perspective, focusing on conflicts between the Byzantine and Islamic Empires or on relations between Islam and the Latin West.

    Starting in post-Enlightenment Europe, a different...

  6. Account ad 637
    (pp. 21-24)

    Probably the earliest, clearly the most dramatic, and arguably the most frustratingly incomplete of early Syriac references to the rise of Islam was likely written in 637. At that time, an anonymous author used a blank page in the front of his Bible to jot down a brief commemoration of the events he had just seen. Like most ancient books, at some point this one lost its cover, leaving the note unprotected. As a result, the opening page has been substantially damaged, and the ink is often unreadable. Nevertheless, this five-by-nine-inch piece of parchment with poorly preserved jottings constitutes the...

  7. Chronicle ad 640
    (pp. 25-28)

    TheChronicle ad 640is a lengthy Miaphysite text that starts with the birth of Adam and continues to the opening years of the Islamic conquests. It does not present these events in anything close to chronological order, even though it often refers to specific years or indictions, fifteen-year periods that Byzantine chroniclers often used. Its rapid transitions between disparate lists of disasters, bishops, biblical characters, ecclesiastical councils, topography, and military campaigns have led some scholars to characterize its author as completely insane and others to hypothesize an ingenious method to his madness. Regardless of their view on how he...

  8. Letters ISHO‘YAHB III
    (pp. 29-36)

    Isho‘yahb III (d. 659) had an impeccable ecclesiastical lineage. Born to a noble family in Abiabene, he became a monk under the first abbot of the famous East Syrian monastery of Bēt ‘Abē, then progressed through the successively more prestigious offi ces of bishop, metropolitan, and catholicos, the head of the East Syrian church, which he became in the last decade of his life. During his ecclesiastical career, Isho‘yahb wrote numerous epistles detailing the day-to-day operation of the Church of the East in the fi rst decades of Islam. None of the 106 of his surviving letters focus solely on...

  9. Apocalypse of Pseudo-Ephrem
    (pp. 37-46)

    Because the manuscript title “A memrā by the Syrian teacher, the holy Mār Ephrem, concerning the end, the consummation, the judgment, the punishment, Gog, Magog, and the Antichrist” is a bit unwieldy, modern scholars most often refer to this text by the shorter nameApocalypse of Pseudo-Ephrem.As this nomenclature suggests, its attribution to the most famous of Syriac writers, Ephrem the Syrian (d. 363), is clearly false. TheApocalypseis structured as amemrā,or verse homily, that follows the form traditionally attributed to Ephrem: paired couplets of seven-syllable lines. This 560-line poem begins with the war between Rome...

  10. Khuzistan Chronicle
    (pp. 47-53)

    One of the most valuable East Syrian chronicles is both anonymous and incompletely preserved. Because of its focus on the region of Khuzistan, most scholars call this mid-seventhcentury work the Khuzistan Cḥronicle. It focuses on ecclesiastical history from circa 590 to the mid-seventh century and twice discusses Islam: once in the main section and a second time in a section that most scholars suggest was written by a slightly more recent author and then appended to the main work. These pages contain some of the most extensive East Syrian descriptions of the Islamic conquests and are especially important for those...

  11. Maronite Chronicle
    (pp. 54-61)

    The title of this universal chronicle no longer survives. Due to the theological affi liation of its anonymous author, modern scholars most often refer to it as the Maronite Cḥronicle. Because only fragments remain, basic questions such as the work’s composition date remain unresolved. Nevertheless, the Cḥronicle’s discussion of Islam, especially of Mu‘āwiya’s caliphate, is particularly valuable. In addition to providing data on mid-seventh-century military and political history, the Maronite Cḥronicle includes three particularly interesting episodes of interreligious encounter.

    The first relates a debate between Miaphysites and Maronites that allegedly took place in front of the Umayyad caliph Mu‘āwiya. According...

  12. Syriac Life of Maximus the Confessor
    (pp. 62-68)

    The document whose Syriac title reads “The history of the wicked Maximus of Palestine, who blasphemed against his creator and whose tongue was torn out” is generally known to modern scholars by the less colorful nameSyriac Life of Maximus the Confessor.Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) was a key opponent of the mid-seventh-century doctrine of Monotheletism, the belief that, although Christ has a divine nature and a human nature, he has a single will. Initially championed by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius as a compromise solution to the Christological controversies, Monotheletism quickly became a new source of contention. Maximus’s opposition...

  13. Canons GEORGE I
    (pp. 69-76)

    George I served as the head, the catholicos, of the East Syrians from 660/61 to 680/81. In 676 he convened a synod on the island of Diren (modern-day Bahrain) in the Persian Gulf. The synod produced a document consisting of a preface followed by nineteen canons. Although it addresses a variety of issues, several parts of this document are particularly relevant as early Christian reactions to Islam.

    The preface includes one of the earliest extant references to the traditional Muslim calendar and states that the synod was convened during the fifty-seventh year of the Arabs’ rule. A handful of late...

  14. Colophon of British Library Additional 14,666
    (pp. 77-78)

    British Library Additional14,666, f. 56, is the only surviving leaf of a no longer extant New Testament manuscript written in 682. This page originally contained the last twenty-seven verses of a Syriac translation of Hebrews, as well as the codex’s colophon, a concluding scribal note. Unfortunately, even these fragments are only partially preserved. Nevertheless, the colophon’s surviving text includes most of the dating formula, which speaks of the reckoning “of the Hagarenes, the sons of Ishmael.” The colophon is one of the earliest examples of Syriac use of a hijra date and properly correlates A.G. 993 in the Seleucid...

    (pp. 79-84)

    Early in his life, Athanasius of Balad studied at the Miaphysite monastery of Qenneshrē, a renowned center of Greek learning. Having become an avid translator of Greek, he also became famous as a biblical interpreter. In 684 C.E. Athanasius was elected the Miaphysite patriarch. He died in 687. Although later chronicles briefly speak of his patriarchate, only one of his writings survives from these last three years of his life, an encyclical addressing the issue of Christians mingling with ḥanpē.

    In this letter, Athanasius instructs rural bishops (chorespiscopi) and ecclesiastical visitors (periodeuta) to better regulate interactions between Christians and ḥanpē....

  16. Book of Main Points JOHN BAR PENKĀYĒ
    (pp. 85-107)

    In the late 680s, the abbot of the East Syrian monastery of John Kāmul asked one of his monks, John of Fenek (more commonly known as John bar Penkāyē), to write a theological response to contemporary events. John evidently took his abbot’s request quite seriously, as it motivated him to write more than four hundred pages of text. TitledBook of Main Points,the resulting narrative traces the world’s history from creation until the late 680s.

    John wrote during the second Arab civil war, which began soon after the death of the caliph Mu‘āwiya II in 683. For the following...

  17. Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius
    (pp. 108-129)

    TheApocalypse of Pseudo-Methodiuswas the most widely read early Christian text about Islam. Soon after its circulation in the Syriac world,Pseudo-Methodiuswas quickly translated into Greek and from Greek into Latin. Excerpts of its prophecies regarding the Sons of Ishmael’s imminent demise were even printed in Vienna during the Turkish siege of 1683. Among late ancient and medieval Syriac sources, allusions toPseudo-Methodius’s apocalyptic schema appear again and again. There is little question that of all Syriac sources, this seventh-century apocalypse had the broadest and longest-lasting eff ect on Christian understandings of Islam.

    Falsely ascribed to the...

  18. Edessene Apocalypse
    (pp. 130-138)

    Due to missing pages, this document’s original title has not been preserved. But because of its emphasis on the city of Edessa, modern scholars most often refer to it as theEdessene Apocalypse(or sometimes theEdessene Fragment). This text is a substantially abridged and revised version of the earlierApocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius.Although heavily dependent onPseudo-Methodius,theEdessene Apocalypsemakes several important changes to its source’s apocalyptic schema that particularly augment the emphasis on sacred space. UnlikePseudo-Methodius,the Edessene Apocalypse specifies that both the Sons of Ishmael and a horde of unclean nations from the north will...

  19. Exegesis of the Pericopes of the Gospel ḤNANISHO‘ I
    (pp. 139-140)

    Ḥanisho‘ I (d. 699/700) was the head, the catholicos, of the East Syrian church from circa 685 to circa 692. In the early 690s a Muslim governor deposed him, and he retired to the monastery of Mar Yunan. Most likely toward the end of his life, Ḥanisho‘ wrote a gospel commentary that survives only in fragments quoted by later exegetical works. In one fragment, primarily concerned with Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, he focuses on anti-Jewish polemic.

    But toward the end of this fragment he also briefl y refers to “ some new folly” that sees Jesus simply as one of...

  20. Life of Theoduṭē
    (pp. 141-143)

    A soon to be published Syriac hagiography of Theoduṭē, the late seventh-century Miaphysite bishop of Amid, contains references to the poll tax and several passages in which Muslim characters play a central role. Of particular import are its narration of interactions among Theoduṭē, Muslim authorities, and other Muslims.

    For example, theLife of Theoduṭēstates that in an overflowing church, Arabs gather alongside Christians to witness Theoduṭē’s ordination. At another point, Hagarenes listen to one of his homilies and constantly follow his commandments. Government officials are equally impressed. An Arab governor seeks Theoduṭē’s blessing, officials from Edessa greet Theoduṭē when...

  21. Colophon of British Library Additional 14,448
    (pp. 144-145)

    British Library Additional14,448 is one of two Umayyad-era Syriac manuscripts whose colophon includes a hijra date. This shows that within a few decades after Muḥammad’s death, Syriac Christians were already familiar with the Muslim dating formula (albeit this particular scribe miscalculated the date by a year). This brief note is also important for its vocabulary. The scribe refers to his conquerors both as Arabs and as Ishmaelites and seems to use these terms interchangeably. Unlike contemporary apocalyptic writers, this scribe refers to the Ishmaelites as having both a kingdom and a dynasty (i.e., the house of Marwan) and uses...

  22. Apocalypse of John the Little
    (pp. 146-155)

    TheApocalypse of John the Littleclaims to be a revelation given to the apostle John, the younger of the two sons of Zebedee (hence “the Little”). This apocalypse builds on the imagery of Revelation and begins with an angel presenting John with a scroll that records what men will suffer at the end of time and a heavenly voice providing him with further details regarding the eschaton. Modifying the book of Daniel’s schema of four successive kingdoms, theApocalypse of John the Littletells of the rise and fall of Rome, Persia, and Media. God destroys each of these...

  23. Chronicle ad 705
    (pp. 156-159)

    TheChronicle ad 705is one of two surviving Syriac texts from the Umayyad era that provide a list of early caliphs, along with the lengths of their reigns. It begins in 620/21 with Muḥammad and enumerates most of the subsequent caliphs up to Walīd I. Along the way, its author commits a number of chronological errors. For example, the initial date, most likely a reference to Muḥammad’s flight to Medina, is already at least a year off. So too the reign lengths of Muḥammad and ‘Umar I differ from those found in Muslim sources. Like the laterChronicle ad...

  24. Letters JACOB OF EDESSA
    (pp. 160-174)

    Ordained in 684 as the Miaphysite bishop of Edessa, Jacob gained a reputation for being a stickler for church regulations. Frustration at his contemporaries’ disregard for ecclesiastical rules led him to resign his bishopric, retire to the monastery of Jacob at Kayshum, and, while there, write yet more legal decisions. He subsequently moved to the monastery of Tell ‘Adē. In 708 he returned to be Edessa’s bishop, but he died a few months later.

    Most of Jacob’s decrees appear in epistles written in response to specific questions. Although not originally written as canon law, they were later collected into Miaphysite...

  25. Chronicle JACOB OF EDESSA
    (pp. 175-179)

    In the 690s, Jacob the Miaphysite bishop of Edessa completed hisChronicle,a continuation of the famous fourth-centuryChronicleby Eusebius. After an introduction that corrects some of Eusebius’s work, Jacob followed Eusebius’s format and arranged the remainder of hisChroniclearound a central chronological table. This table provides the regnal years of the Byzantine, Sasanian, and—in the last entries—Muslim rulers. Jacob further divided his chart into four-year Olympiads. He also added his own sequence of years, whose first year begins circa 327 C.E. According to this idiosyncratic system of dating, Muḥammad first appears around the year 293...

  26. Scholia JACOB OF EDESSA
    (pp. 180-184)

    Jacob the Miaphysite bishop of Edessa (d. 708) became renowned as an interpreter of scripture and even produced biblical translations. His extant exegetical writings include passages found in his letters, hisCommentary on the Octateuch,hisOn the Hexameron,and his revised Syriac translations of Genesis and Samuel. They are also preserved in a collection of excerpts known as Jacob’s Scholia, a compilation that contains a few dozen of his interpretations of particular biblical passages. In one of these scholia, an interpretation of 1 Kings 14:21–28, he directly refers to Arab rule. Although brief, this passage provides an important...

  27. Against the Armenians JACOB OF EDESSA
    (pp. 185-187)

    A medieval Christian compiled excerpts from earlier patristic authors in the form of an imaginary dialogue between a student and a variety of theological luminaries such as Evagrius Ponticus, John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, and Severus of Antioch. In the midst of this dialogue appears three folios’ worth of material attributed to Jacob the Miaphysite bishop of Edessa (d. 708). The majority of this excerpt consists of his diatribe against Armenian Christians. As part of this invective, Jacob portrays Armenian rituals as an amalgamation of practices found in groups that he considered particularly undesirable, such as Jews, Chalcedonians, and East...

  28. Kāmed Inscriptions
    (pp. 188-190)

    A 1934 archeological survey in modern-day Lebanon discovered thirty-one early eighth-century Syriac inscriptions at the ancient site of Kāmed. Although short and often fragmentary, these inscriptions bear witness to a group of mainly East Syrian stoneworkers whom the caliph Walīd hired to reopen the quarry at Kāmed. Their inscriptions include references to priests and deacons who came along with them, as well as “the head of the table.” This phrase appears in no other known Syriac text. Some scholars have suggested that it refers to the director of a group of monks, implying a monastic origin for these stoneworkers. Others...

  29. Chronicle of Disasters
    (pp. 191-195)

    This far from uplifting chronicle begins with the heading “The various afflictions that came upon the land in the year 1024 according to the reckoning of Alexander [712 C.E.] and those [afflictions that came] afterward.” Modern scholars most often refer to it by the shorter, ominous, albeit apt titleChronicle of Disasters.

    TheChronicle’s inventory of calamities begins with a comet’s appearance “when the kingdom of the Sons of Ishmael held power and its control stretched over the entire land, in the days of Walīd, son of Malik, son of Marwān, who reigned at that time.” One has to make...

  30. Chronicle ad 724
    (pp. 196-199)

    TheChronicle ad 724is one of two surviving Syriac texts from the Umayyad era that provide a list of early caliphs, along with the lengths of their reigns. It begins with a reference to Muḥammad entering Medina and ends with the death of Caliph Yazīd.

    Although this particular caliph list survives only in a unique Syriac copy, several factors make it likely that theChronicle ad 724follows an Islamic exemplar. First, as Robert Hoyland points out, an unusual phrase that describes the fi rst year of Muḥammad’s reign (“his first year, after he had entered his city and...

  31. Disputation of John and the Emir
    (pp. 200-208)

    TheDisputation of John and the Emirrelates an alleged conversation between the seventh-century Miaphysite patriarch of Antioch John Sedra and an unspecified Muslim leader. The text purports to be a letter written by an unnamed companion of the patriarch. In order to reassure the reader of John’s safety, the narrator describes how the patriarch had a friendly audience with the Muslim official.

    The majority of the text consists of a dialogue between John and the emir. The emir presents a series of brief questions, and John gives more lengthy responses. They discuss topics such as the diversity of Christian...

  32. Exegetical Homilies MĀR ABBĀ II
    (pp. 209-211)

    When he died in 751, the East Syrian catholicos Mār Abbā II of Kashkar was reputedly 110 years old. He wrote a large number of works, which, for the most part, no longer survive. A later medieval compilation, however, preserves fragments from hisExegetical Homiliesthat document early Muslim knowledge of the New Testament and early Christian knowledge of the Qur’an.

    The most explicit reference occurs in a discussion of John 20:17 explicitly attributed to Mār Abbā II. Here he complains that the “Arabians of our time” are using Jesus’s statement in the Gospel of John that he ascends “to...

  33. Disputation of Bēt Ḥalē
    (pp. 212-216)

    A soon to be published text with the manuscript titleThe Disputation That Took Place between an Arab Notable and a Monk in the Monastery of Bēt Ḥalēprovides particularly important data for assessing early Syriac reactions to the rise of Islam. Scholars use a variety of shorter titles to refer to this document, such asDisputation of Bēt Ḥalē.If scholarly consensus is correct and this anonymous East Syrian text was composed around the 720s, it is one of the earliest surviving Christian disputation texts concerning Islam and the first to explicitly speak of the Qur’an.

    After a brief...

    (pp. 217-234)
  35. INDEX
    (pp. 235-254)