A Dissertation Explained: ‘An Early Christian Reaction to Islam’/
February 27, 2019
On February 12, I defended my second PhD dissertation in a colloquy that took place at the Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago. The dissertation is titled: An Early Christian Reaction to Islam: Isho’Yahb III and The Muslim Arabs and was supervised by the renowned scholar in Muslim-Christian studies, Professor Mark Swanson. I will graduate on May 19, 2019, with my Doctorate in World Christianity & Global Missions / Christian-Muslim Studies at the Lutheran School of Theology Chicago.
The dissertation is to be a reference to those interested in the field of Muslim-Christian studies, as it sheds light on the importance of the legacy of many Syriac manuscripts that are published, or not yet, and have been preserved in the local churches, monasteries in the middle east, or in the famous libraries in Europe and North America.
The year 652 marked a fundamental political change in the Middle East and the surrounding region. On this date, the Sassanid Empire collapsed and the major part of the Byzantine dominion in the East was lost to the hands of Muslim Arabs. The conquests of the Arabs were followed with deep cultural, social, and religious changes that affected the lives of the populations in the seized territories. An important and contemporary source of the state of the Christian Church at this time is to be found in the correspondence of the patriarch of the Church of the East, Išū‘yahb III (648-659), which he wrote between 628 and 658 regarding the state of his church during his lifetime and early attitudes toward Muslim Arabs. Although his view of the Muslim Arabs has been a subject of discussion by many scholars, there are still questions about his approach to the Muslim Arabs that can be clarified, especially with regard to the chronological development of his opinion, the issue of dating his letters and their chronological arrangement, as well as the identification of literary sources that he relied upon in portraying the Muslim Arabs.
The Church of the East
The term “Church of East” refers to the Christian communities that in the early Christian centuries were found east of the Roman-Persian border and whose patriarch, known also as Catholicos, had his see at the Persian capital Seleucia-Ctesiphon. The Christian Church in the Persian territory is also known as “East Syriac Church,” which is a term that refers to the Syriac Christian tradition in Persia that used the Syriac/Aramaic language to express its faith. Another name is the “Persian Church,” since the Church of the East was located mostly within the territory of the Persian Empire. In addition, the same church was known for centuries as the “Nestorian Church.” This name comes from the patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius (d 451), who maintained the doctrine of two persons in Jesus Christ which was the Christological doctrine of the school of Antioch represented mainly by Diodoros of Tarsus (d. 390) and Theodor of Mopsuestia (d. 428).
The Church of the East adopted this Christology at the end of the fifth century and honored Nestorius as a teacher and saint; however, he is not the founder of the Christological doctrine of the Church of the East. During the sixteenth century, part of the Church of the East joined the Roman Catholic Church and came to be known as the “Chaldean Catholic Church.”
Patriarch Išū‘yahb III (648-659)
The main source that this study is based on is one of the great fathers of the Church of the East, Patriarch Išū‘yahb III (648-659), who was the son of a Persian Christian nobleman called Bastomag and was born probably around 590. Bastomag entered his son Išū‘yahb as a novice in the monastery of Beth ‘Abē, a famous monastery that belonged to the Nestorian monastic circle, where each monk lived in a separate shelter but acknowledged the rule of an abbot and worshiped with his fellow-monks in a common chapel. Išū‘yahb progressed so rapidly that at quite an early age he was appointed bishop of Nineveh. In 628/629 Išū‘yahb was appointed bishop of Nineveh and took part in an important embassy to Emperor Heraclius in Syria, under his namesake, Patriarch Išū‘yahb II (628-645). Around the year 640, he was appointed metropolitan for Ḥidyāb. After the death of Patriarch Maremmeh (645-649), Išū‘yahb III was appointed Patriarch of the Church of the East. After ruling about ten years, he died in 659.
Among the survived writings that we have received, there is a collection of 106 of Išū‘yahb’s letters in a beautiful Syriac manuscript from the tenth century (Vat. Syr. 157) and preserved in the Vatican Library. These letters are valuable documents that inform us about the history of the Church of the East prior to the Islamic conquest and in the twenty years following this conquest 630-656. The letters are divided in Vat. Syr. 157 into three groups according to a chronological order that reflects three stages of Išū‘yahb’s career. The letters are a source that reflects the personality of Išū‘yahb as a pastor and a man involved in building a platform of collaboration between the church and the political government of his time.
The letters of Išū‘yahb III are one of the few Syriac sources datable to the mid-seventh century witnessing the Arab invasion of the Sasanian Empire. It is true that he did not write a specific work about Islam, because he was more concerned for most of his ecclesiastic career with the internal problems in the Church of the East, however, some of his letters do contain observations and statements relevant to the Muslim Arabs conquest of the Sasanian Empire
A New Approach of Examination
The thought of Išū‘yahb emerged from a particular social, political, and religious situation over the course of many years, and therefore, a historical-critical method of exploring the writings of Išū‘yahb was needed in order to trace the development and significance of the author’s writings (his letters) within their specific historical contexts. Therefore the study reconstructs the development of Išū‘yahb’s view toward Islam by re-examining the chronological aspects of some letters written during his bishopric of Nineveh, which according to my opinion contain references to Muslim Arabs; these references were overlooked by Jean Maurice Fiey and the many scholars who followed Fiey’s analysis. This issue was taken up in Chapter Two.
Then, the question of Išū‘yahb’s efforts to build up a platform of collaboration, or rather, a loyal and stable friendship between the Arabs and the Church of the East is discussed according to Išū‘yahb’s three approaches which correspond to three periods in Išū‘yahb’s career: bishop, metropolitan, and patriarch. This was the topic of Chapter Three.
In Chapter Four, I returned not only return to the monastic and theological background of Išū‘yahb’s view but, also pointing out specific texts that the patriarch relied on, and how intertextual correspondences and mirroring affected his portrayal of the Muslim Arabs as well as his understandings, his church, and his own role in it. In the final chapter, I gathered the dissertation’s conclusions: its new interpretation of the letters of Išū‘yahb toward Islam and Muslim Arabs and his strategies of church consolidation and preservation.
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