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When Christians First Met Muslims: A sourcebook of the earliest Syriac writings on Islam

Anthony McRoy

Michael Philip Penn
University of California Press, 254pp


Imagine what it was like for the Aramaic/Syriac speaking Christian communities of Iraq and Syria when the Jihadis of the Islamic State appeared, massacring, enslaving, imposing the Jizyah tax on non-Muslims, of which failure to pay could result in death. Only we are not speaking of the modern Islamic State (IS) group, but rather of the initial Arab-Muslim conquests of the Levant and Mesopotamia. For contemporary Assyrian/ Aramæan Christians, it must seem like déjà vu.

European historical reporting of the early Arab conquests generally rested upon reports by Byzantine rulers and generals in regard to major battles and their aftermaths. Islamic historians, naturally, relied on Muslim reports. However, Penn notes: 'There are few Islamic documents besides the Qur'an itself that scholars can securely date to within a century of Muhammad's death. Thousands of pages of Islamic sources describing the time from Muhammad up to the end of the Umayyad dynasty in 750 survive, but almost all these were written under the subsequent dynasty of the Abbasids... If historians rely solely on Arabic texts, they remain almost entirely dependent on documents written centuries after the events they depict.' The late dating of such documents raises questions about their historical reliability.

The earliest reports of the Arab conquests come from Syriac Christians. These are thus valuable for that reason alone - historians always prefer the earliest sources, since they are more likely to be historically dependable. The Syriac Christian writings are also important in gaining insight as to how the Conquered viewed their Conquerors, and what they said about life under Arab/Muslim rule. Was it a time of unalloyed bliss for the Syriac Christians as modern Islamic propagandists (sometimes echoed by non-Muslim 'useful idiots') propose? Or was it always a kind of religious Khmer Rouge regime as militant critics suggest? One of the dangers of the present situation is that of anachronism - reading back from the current situation under IS to the early Islamic regime.

This is what makes Penn's work indispensable. Firstly, Penn has provided us with the actual texts from Syriac Christians, both East and West (the former were likely to be Nestorian, whilst the latter were Jacobite, i.e. Miaphysite, the opposite Christological belief), as he states: 'it puts between two covers introductions, new translations and a bibliography for almost every known Syriac text on Islam written prior to the Abbasid revolution of 750.' This is a great boon to scholarship, and every college addressing Islamic, Byzantine and Persian studies should obtain this excellent compact book. However, again as Penn states, it is also useful to 'nonspecialists', giving insight into the reaction of Syriac Christians to the new situation, and this is aided by the accessible character of Penn's writing. Secondly, Penn shows that the 'direct interactions' between Syriac Christians and their new rulers 'did not result in uniformly positive images of Islam. Syriac texts do not suggest that early Christian- Muslim relations were a paragon of harmony and coexistence'. They range from 'overtly antagonistic to downright friendly', displaying a variety of nuances in their responses.

The texts involved include chronicles, letters, disputations and apocalypses. The first text is a Miaphysite Account AD 637, which speaks of the 'army of Muhammad', and that 'Many villages were destroyed' and 'many people killed'. In the light of current IS actions, that really does sound like déjà vu, and of course IS claims to base its policies on the practices of the early Muslims. Interestingly, this text may suggest that Muhammad was still alive at the time of the invasions, whereas Muslim sources - which are two centuries later - indicate that he died before this. Similarly, a Miaphysite Chronicle from 640 states that 'about four thousand poor villagers from Palestine - Christians, Jews, and Samaritans - were killed...', and that around Mardin (in modern Turkey) 'the Arabs killed many monks...' The callous acts of IS against monasteries and monks doubtless reflect this practice.

In contrast, the Letters of Isho'yahb III, head of the Nestorian church c. 650, claimed that the Arab rulers were tolerant: 'Not only are they no enemy to Christianity, but they are even praisers of our faith, honorers of our Lord's priests and holy ones, and supporters of churches and monasteries.' Were the local Arab rulers in the East better than their Levantine counterparts, or were there different policies towards the Nestorians, not least because in Persia, they were a minority among the Zoroastrians? In Palestine, among the largely Miaphyiste and Byzantine-rite Christians, we see something of an ecumenical spirit, with the Arab ruler Mu'āwiya (c. 660), according to the Maronite Chronicle, praying at Golgotha, Gethsemane and the Tomb of Mary. It is inconceivable that the IS Caliph would ever follow suit, not least because Muslims today generally deny that Jesus was actually crucified. Was this a sign that at this stage, the Arab conquerors did not reject the reality of the crucifixion?

The other Syriac response was specifically religious, as with the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Ephrem (second half of the seventh century). This presented the Arab conquest as divine punishment for the sins of Christians, but predicted that the 'sons of Hagar' would be destroyed by God-sent armies. Of course, this did not happen. Whether contemporary Syriac Christians are composing apocalypses, they are doubtless hoping that Russia and NATO will rain down apocalyptic destruction upon IS. Penn is to be greatly applauded for this superlative book, informing us about Syriac Christians under early Islam, thus helping us to understand the perspective of the Conquered.