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Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians and the early Muslim world

Anthony McRoy

Michael Philip
Penn University of Pennsylvania Press, 294pp

Last month, we reviewed Penn's compendium of the earliest Syriac Christian sources on Islam, When Christians First Met Muslims. This second book is an analysis of those sources. It is well-written, such that a non-specialist could follow it, and very engaging. It is also very pertinent, as Europe grapples with the challenge of Muslim refugees arriving en masse, and, obviously, as the West, Syria, as well as Iraq confront the Islamic State (IS). In his conclusion, Penn notes that Huntingdon's 1993 work The Clash of Civilizations enjoyed only 625 citations up to 2000, but after 9/11 boasted over 5,000. The incompatibility of Islam with Western Civilisation is now a staple assertion not only of the Right, but even others; after the mass sexual molestation of women by Muslim men in Cologne earlier this year there were references to 'Leftageddon' by disillusioned Guardianistas. Was it always so?

Penn attempts to show that the divide was not always so clear, that there was substantial 'blurriness' in the relationship of Conquerors and Conquered - at least up to the rule of 'Abd al-Malik (684-705), and, to some extent, until the ninth century. For example, the eighth century Caliph Hisham built a mosque in the Syrian city of Rusafa immediately north of its Basilica, a pilgrimage site for the relics of saint Sergius, such that the qibla wall had a door opening out to the church courtyard. It gave 'Muslim worshippers quicker access to Sergius's shrine.' Was this an example of how contemporary lines between Syriac and Arab communities - even in worship - were not characterised by such barriers (material and conceptual) being erected across Europe to deny access to Muslim migrants? This may be indicated by the writing of Jacob of Edessa (d. 708) referring to a Christian who had become a 'Hagarene' (i.e. Muslim) but now wanted to re-convert. Nowadays, anyone attempting such in IS or Saudi Arabia would be executed, but Jacob's reaction suggests that in his time, apostasy was not seen as a capital offence.

Was it a case of doctrinal development? The kind of punitive discrimination now associated with Shari'ah in IS or Saudi Arabia seems to have been established largely in the Abbasid era. That is, the original Arab conquerors possibly thought of themselves as somehow not that distinct from Christians in theological terms, and only later constructed the religious edifice of Islamic law/theology. Certainly, the Conquerors were first distinguished by ethnic, not religious categories, demonstrated by terms such as tayyaye, 'Ishmaelites', 'Sons of Hagar', etc. The essential identification of their religion as a distinct entity - Islam - began under 'Abd al-Malik, consolidating under the Abbasids. Works such as John and the Emir (early eighth century) show that the early Muslims seemed to accept the Torah, whilst rejecting the rest of the Old Testament - a canonical position also held by the Samaritans, (which was referenced by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook in their 1977 controversial revisionist history of Islam called Hagarism). Similarly, the Bet Hale Disputation (c. 720s) indicates that 'Hagarenes' accepted the Torah and the Gospels, whereas today Muslims denounce the entire Bible as corrupt.

This 'evolution' of law/doctrine is problematic for Muslims. They base their understanding of Islamic Origins on the Hadith or Sirah, but these were largely compiled two centuries after Muhammad. Penn notes that there are 'almost no surviving Islamic references to the conquests that can be securely dated to before 750'. In a reversal of the dictum that 'History is written by the victors', the 'earliest and most extensive descriptions of the Islamic conquests were composed not by the victorious Muslims but by defeated Christians'. This is what makes these Syriac documents so historically valuable - their early dates. By studying them, we can see that the premise that 'Muslim'-Christian interaction was always hostile needs to be qualified; there was, at different times and places, considerable blurriness, a rebuke to right-wing commentators to whom Penn refers in his conclusion.

However, after the ninth century the lines became more demarcated, with consequent disadvantage to the Christians - something the liberal-left must recognise. Penn demolishes that oft-repeated claim that Syriac Christians welcomed the Arab conquests, because of their persecution by the Byzantines, as this depends on a single ninth century comment. The early Syriac documents shows that this is unfounded - rather, as with the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, they saw the conquests as 'bad news'. They tried to make theological sense of the Christian defeat - usually seeing the conquests as a passing phase, and/or punishment for sin.

The different Christian sects vied to impress Muslim rulers. The Life of Rabban Hormizd is a Nestorian attack on the Jacobites, where the latter try to frame a renowned Nestorian monk by taking a prostitute and her son to his cave entrance, kill her and inform the Muslim governor that Rabban did it. He resurrects the woman, who explains the truth, and her baby speaks, informing the governor that he was the product of two of the monks who impregnated her, whilst the other three were impotent, causing the governor to beat the Jacobite monks!

Unfortunately, today, Westerners often associate Islam with terrorism and sex attacks in Paris, Cologne, Sweden and Rotherham. Muslims may protest that this is stereotypical and unfair, but the fact remains that when Westerners see people they have been told were 'good, ordinary folk' joining IS as Jihadis or Jihadi brides, it is unlikely that Mosque Open Days will shift their perception. Perhaps the better response is what Penn suggests in this book - that it was not always so.