Iskandar Bcheiry Releases New Book: ‘An Early Christian Reaction to Islam’/
November 19, 2019
How did Christians of the Middle East interact with and view Muslim Arabs during the seventh century? This is what Atla staff member Iskandar Bcheiry discusses in his latest book, An Early Christian Reaction to Islam: Išū‘yahb III and the Muslim Arabs. Examining Syriac manuscripts of the letters of Išū‘yahb III, a patriarch of the Church, Iskandar explores the changing views of this fascinating historical figure.
Iskandar became interested in the topic after he was dissatisfied with western scholarship around Muslim and Christian relations during that time. Every scholar’s perspective was that Išū‘yahb III had either a positive or a negative view of Muslim Arabs. However, Iskandar saw that the patriarch’s views on Muslim Arabs changed and evolved over the years. He discussed this briefly at the North American Patristics Annual Meeting 2017 in Chicago during his presentation, “The History and Identity of the Monastic Complex Discovered on the Island of Sir Bani Yas in the United Arab Emirates During the Early Period of Islam.”
This book will be an exemplary resource for both the scholarly and theological librarianship communities. It focuses on Syriac texts and how important they are in understanding early Islam. It will also draw academic attention to other Syriac manuscripts around the world and help them to be studied, cataloged, and published.
In this article, Iskandar will go into more detail about the book, its sources, and the scholarly work that surrounds Išū‘yahb III and early Christian-Islamic relations. The book is published by Gorgias Press on November 19. You can purchase it here.
The year 652 marked a fundamental political change in the Middle East and the surrounding region. On this date, the Sasanid 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 by 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 (649-659), which he wrote between 628 and 658. This book discusses Išū‘yahb’s view of and attitudes toward the Muslim Arabs. Although his view of the Muslim Arabs has been a subject of discussion by many scholars, there are still questions to be clarified about his attitudes toward the Muslim Arabs, especially with regard to the chronological development of his views, the issue of the dating of his letters and their chronological arrangement, and the identification of literary sources that he relied upon in portraying the Muslim Arabs.
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 (649-659), which he wrote between 628 and 658.
IŠŪ‘YAHB III (649–659)
Among the great fathers of the Church of the East is Patriarch Išū‘yahb III (649–659), who was born around 590 to the Persian Christian nobleman named Bastomag. He entered his son Išū‘yahb as a novice in the Monastery of Beth ‘Abē. It was 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. This happened in 628/629, and he took part in an important embassy to Emperor Heraclius in Syria under his namesake, Patriarch Išū‘yahb II (628–646). Around the year 640, he was appointed metropolitan for Ḥidyāb. After the death of Patriarch Maremmeh (646–649), Išū‘yahb III was appointed catholicos of the Church of the East. He died in 659 after having ruled for approximately ten years.
Political and Religious Challenges
Išū‘yahb III lived in a period marked by radical political and religious shifts. The first half of the seventh century was a difficult time for the Church of the East. The Sasanid Shah Khosrow II (595-628) forbade the Nestorians from electing a new patriarch after the death of Patriarch Gregory I (596-604), and the seat was vacant until the death of the Shah in 628. During this period, the Jacobites, the “denominational” rivals of the Nestorians, organized themselves in the Persian territory and established an ecclesiastical system, extending the Jacobite activity from the Byzantine territories into Persian territories. Furthermore, after the collapse of the two major powers in the region (the Byzantines and the Persians), a new ruling power arose which came to dominate the major part of the Middle East.
The Muslim Arabs defeated their adversaries and won a vast territory that contained a mosaic of populations, cultures, religions, sects, and languages. For the two previous centuries, the different Christian groups fought against each other by various means; however, during the second half of the seventh century, the new Arab rulers brought a new way of conceiving the God-human relationship. The religion of Islam appeared as the other face of the Arab conquests and influenced the social, cultural, economic, and religious structures of Middle Eastern society.
For the two previous centuries, the different Christian groups fought against each other by various means; however, during the second half of the seventh century, the new Arab rulers brought a new way of conceiving the God-human relationship.
In addition to the challenge of the Muslim Arabs, the seventh-century Nestorian Church suffered from the attempted secession of the Christians of Fars and East of Arabia, whose metropolitan at that time was Šemʿūn of Riv-Ardashīr. The Nestorians in Fars had always been reluctant to submit to Seleucia-Ctesiphon in Iraq, where the catholicos resided. The Nestorian sources show that the Christian community in the Arabian Gulf area and Fars was regularly involved in ecclesiastical schisms and divisions led by the metropolitan of Fars. The nature of these issues is not clear but probably had to do with questioning the authority of the catholicos as the head of the Church of the East. In order to contain the complex situation, Išū‘yahb III in his correspondence claimed the support of the miraculous deeds of the holy men (ascetics and monks) as part of his strategy to win the hearts and the minds of his people, and to negotiate a ground of collaboration with the new Arab power so as to preserve and build his church.
We have received 106 of Išū‘yahb’s letters in a beautiful Syriac manuscript from the tenth century (Vat. Syr. 157), which is 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 during 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 the three stages of Išū‘yahb’s career. The first group of letters contains fifty-two letters (Ep. 1B-52B) written by Išū‘yahb when he was bishop of Nineveh. The second group of letters contains thirty-two letters written by Išū‘yahb when he became a metropolitan of Ḥidyāb (Ep. 1M-32M). The third group contains twenty-two letters written after his ascension to the patriarchal office (Ep. 1C- 22C). 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 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.
Išū‘yahb III and the Muslim Arabs: An Evaluation of the Literature
The letters of Išū‘yahb, especially his letters to the Nestorian local communities in Fars and East Arabia (Ep. 14C-21C), have attracted some scholarly attention in relation to the study of early Muslim-Christian relations, the origin of Islam, the early Arab Muslim conquests, and the reactions of the Christian community toward these conquests. These scholarly discussions examined Išū‘yahb’s views of Islam from different points of view. I would like to discuss some of these studies according to their different approaches:
Rubens Duval, a French orientalist and specialist in Aramaic language and history, offered a great service to the scholarly world by editing the entire corpus of the letters of Išū‘yahb with a Latin translation, based on two manuscripts, Vatican 157 and Paris 336, in Išō‘yahb Patriarchae III Liber Epistularum (1904-1905). In the introduction to his edition, Duval expressed his doubt that all the letters that were attributed to the frame time of Išū‘yahb’s bishopric in fact date back to the era of his bishopric: “Pars Prima scribendi arte valet, tamen nobis obscurior est, quia argumentum epistulae plerumque ignoramus.” Duval’s doubt about the chronological arrangement of the letters attributed to Išū‘yahb’s bishopric became an opening issue that was taken and built upon by later scholars, notably Jean Maurice Fiey.
Jean Maurice Fiey
Jean Maurice Fiey, a French Dominican friar and prominent historian of the Syriac churches, discussed the life and deeds of Išū‘yahb III in a significant article, “Īšō‘yaw le Grand. Vie du Catholicos Nestorien Īšō‘yaw III d’Adiabène” (1969 and 1970). In his article, Fiey takes into consideration Duval’s suggestion that not all the letters in manuscript Vat. Syr. 157 were attributed to the time frame of Išū‘yahb’s bishopric do, in fact, date back to the era of his bishopric. Fiey asserted that the first ten letters of Išū‘yahb (Ep. 1B-10B) were written when Išū‘yahb was still a monk in the monastery of Beth ‘Abē. The rest of the letters that were classified under the bishopric of Išū‘yahb, according to Fiey, were written before the Muslim Arabs’ conquest of the region of Nineveh. According to Fiey, therefore, there is no mention of the Muslim Arabs in the correspondence of Išū‘yahb during his time as bishop of Nineveh. The few letters that clearly mention the Muslim Arabs, such as the famous Letter 48B, should be reassigned to the period of Išū‘yahb’s metropolitanate at Ḥidyāb. The chronological time frame of Išū‘yahb and the arrangement of his letters as being proposed by Fiey led many scholars, including William Young, Sebastian Brock, Robert Hoyland, and Ovidio Ioan, to disregard some letters that I believe are in fact witnesses to the Muslim Arabs as being the secular authority in Nineveh during Išū‘yahb’s bishopric. This issue will be the subject of my discussion in chapter 2.
William G. Young
William G. Young, a church historian and specialist in Muslim-Christian relations, served as a missionary in Pakistan since 1947. From 1966 to 1969, he was professor of Church History at Gujranwala Theological Seminary, Gujranwala, Pakistan. In 1970, he was appointed the bishop of Sialkot in the Church of Pakistan. In his groundbreaking article “The Church of the East in 650, Patriarch lsho‘yab III and India” (1968), Young treated briefly the relationship between Išū‘yahb and the Muslim Arabs. In this article, Young claimed that Išū‘yahb was metropolitan of Irbil around 628 or shortly afterward — but this date does not fit the chronological time frame of Išū‘yahb, being too early. In his important and one-of-a-kind book titled Patriarch, Shah and Caliph: a study of the relationships of the Church of the East with the Sassanid Empire and the early caliphates up to 820 a.d. (1975), Young treated the historical circumstances behind Išū‘yahb’s view and relationship with Muslim Arabs in a larger context and at greater depth. However, Young follows and relies on Fiey’s understanding of the chronological arrangement and time frame of Išū‘yahb’s life and letters.
Young treated the historical circumstances behind Išū‘yahb’s view and relationship with Muslim Arabs in a larger context and at greater depth.
Sebastian Brock, the leading scholar in Syriac studies, discussed Išū‘yahb’s view of the Muslim Arabs in his “Syriac Views of Emergent Islam” (1982). In this important and noteworthy survey of Syriac sources, Sebastian Brock looks at Išū‘yahb’s letters as a source that helps us understand the question of how Syriac Christians adapted the emergence of Islam into their worldview. The letters, according to Brock, convey a great deal of information about the life of the Church of the East during the period of the transition from Persian to Arab rule. However, Sebastian Brock follows Fiey’s chronological arrangement of Išū‘yahb’s letters. He states that the chronological distribution in the Syriac manuscript Vat. Syr. 157 in some cases cannot be correct.
Victoria Erhart, an expert in the history of Late Antiquity, particularly Syriac church history, in her well written article “The Church of the East during the Period of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs” (1996), describes the situation during the early period of Muslim Arabs’ conquests and the reaction of the Christians of the Church of the East. According to Erhart, it is difficult to know how to interpret Išū‘yahb III’s remarks on Islam, which occur mainly in highly polemical, heavily rhetorical letters written in a very defensive tone. Erhart recommends that a detailed study of the full corpus of Išū‘yahb III’s letters is necessary to assess his seemingly contradictory statements about the Arabs and the providential reasons for their conquest. That is a recommendation upon which the present study intends to act.
Robert Hoyland, a professor of Late Antiquity and Early Islamic Middle Eastern history in Oxford who also teaches at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York, approached the subject of early Islam in an innovative study, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam (1997). Hoyland examined a large collection of historical sources to understand early Islam. In this survey and discussion, Hoyland also discussed the letters of Patriarch Išū‘yahb III. According to Hoyland, the writings of Patriarch Išū‘yahb reflect generally good relations with the Muslim Arabs. However, the Muslims were mentioned only in their dealings with Christians, not as a religion per se. In his discussion, Hoyland plainly follows Fiey’s chronological arrangement of Išū‘yahb’s letters.
According to Hoyland, the writings of Patriarch Išū‘yahb reflect generally good relations with the Muslim Arabs. However, the Muslims were mentioned only in their dealings with Christians, not as a religion per se.
Martin Tamcke, a professor in the Department of Ecumenical Theology and Oriental Church and Mission History at Georg August Goettingen University, Germany, and an expert in the academic field of Syriac church history, discussed some aspects of Išū‘yahb’s life and deeds in his informative article “The Catholicos Ischo‘jahb III and Giwargis and the Arabs” (2005). Also in this article, Martin Tamcke follows Fiey’s chronological arrangement of Išū‘yahb’s letters.
Ovidiu Ioan, a scholar who concentrates his research mostly on authors from the Church of the East during the seventh century, dedicated an important book to Išū‘yahb and his relationship with the Muslim Arabs: Muslime und Araber bei Īšō‘jahb III. (649–659) (2009). In his book, Ioan analyzed the letters of Išū‘yahb III in connection with the history, theology, and hagiography of the Church of the East. Ioan summarized Išū‘yahb’s references to the Muslim Arabs in “nine foundational theses.” Among these nine theses: Išū‘yahb accepts that God has given the Arab Empire. The Arab conquest is treated as an event in world politics. The Arabs are not hostile to Christianity. They praised Išū‘yahb’s own belief system, i.e., that of the Church of the East. They honor the priests and the saints of the Church of the East. They have shown themselves helpful toward the churches and monasteries. Ioan has presented an important study that seeks to understand the hagiographical aspects in Išū‘yahb’s letters. This is an important step upon which I would like to build. However, he also follows Fiey’s chronological analysis.
Herman Teule, professor emeritus in Eastern Christianity at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and specialist in the field of Middle Eastern Christianity and Islam, in his bibliographical article about Išū‘yahb and his letters “Ishoʿyahb III of Adiabene” (2009), focuses on two of Išū‘yahb’s letters: Ep. 48B and Ep. 14C. Teule explicitly states that Letter 48B dates back to the time of his episcopate, a statement that contradicts Fiey’s dating. However, Teule dated the letter to a time before the year 637, which is rather contrary to the historical circumstances in which the letter was written, because it mentions the Muslims Arabs who arrived in the region of Nineveh in the middle of the year 637. Though Teule correctly attributes the letters to the time of Išū‘yahb’s bishopric, he still follows Fiey’s chronological arrangement.
Michael Philip Penn
Michael Philip Penn, a professor of religion and gender studies at Mount Holyoke College and expert in Syriac historiography and Muslim-Christian relations in early Islam, in his recently published book When Christian First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam (2015), presents a collection of Christian historical sources from the first two centuries of Islam that mention Muslims and Islam directly or indirectly. Išū‘yahb’s letters are included among these sources. Penn not only discusses the statement of Išū‘yahb about Muslims but also presents his own translation of the original Syriac text of selected passages. Penn deals with only three of Išū‘yahb’s letters: Letters 48B, 14C, and 15B. Penn refers briefly to the doubts of the scholars regarding the chronological arrangement order of Išū‘yahb’s letters. He states that “No one has contested the attribution of these letters to Isho’yhab III. … most recent scholars, however, suggest that a later scribe misordered several of the letters, including 48B, which they say belongs to the period when Isho’yahb was a metropolitan or catholicos.” Penn does not offer his own judgment, but he follows the others regarding the chronological arrangement order by taking the year 637 as the date of the appointment of Išū‘yahb as metropolitan on Ḥidyāb.
Marikje Metselaar is a specialist in the history of Eastern Christianity with a major focus on the Church of the East and its doctrinal development. In her valuable dissertation “Defining Christ: The Church of the East and Nascent Islam” (2016), Metselaar examines chronologically the development of Christology and its terms in the Church of the East from the fourth up to the end of the seventh centuries. Metselaar dedicates most of her attention to the letters of Išū‘yahb III in the contest of a nascent Islam. In her dissertation, she concludes that the allocation of several letters of Išū‘yahb III is clearly wrong or disputable, and the reconstruction of many events remains therefore tentative. However, Metselaar does not completely follow Fiey’s assumption that the last episcopal letters were misplaced and belonged to Išū‘yahb’s metropolitan period. Metselaar suggests an alternative interpretation for some events mentioned in Išū‘yahb III’s letters, which would justify that letter 48B, which dealt with Arabs, belonged to his bishopric period. According to Metselaar, letter 48B is the only letter in which Išū‘yahb III explicitly referred to the religion of the Muslim Arab rulers. Though Metselaar correctly attributes letter 48B to the time of Išū‘yahb’s bishopric, she misses the interrelation between this letter and other letters during Išū‘yahb’s episcopacy which also refer to the Muslim Arabs.
Summary of the Above Literature
For the most part, the above-mentioned scholars follow Fiey’s familiar pattern, including his opinion regarding the chronological order of the letters. The exception is Metselaar, who not only expressed doubt about Fiey’s opinion regarding the chronological order of the letters, but also suggested an alternative interpretation of six letters: Ep. 50B-52B, Ep. 1M-2M, and most importantly Ep. 48B, which Fiey concluded to be misplaced as it dealt with Arab governors. According to most of the scholars, the Muslim Arabs were not mentioned by Išū‘yahb when he was bishop of Nineveh, or for a few (Metselaar and Teule), their attention was limited to Ep 48B, which prevented them from looking elsewhere for additional information about the Muslim Arabs.
Under the leadership of Patriarch Maremmeh, the relationship with the Muslim Arabs was described as good. The main concern of Išū‘yahb was consolidating his church. The rise to power of Muslim Arabs was presented as God’s will. They aided churches and monasteries, and revered priests and monks. They praised the faith of the Christians. They demanded payments (poll tax) from the Christians but did not force those in Mazūn to abandon their faith. The Muslim Arabs were courted by the Jacobites as well as the Nestorians. What was said about Muslim Arabs had to do first with Christians, their doctrines, and their religion, but there are no references to Islam apart from Christianity. Most studies regarding Išū‘yahb’s view of the Muslim Arabs are focused on two letters, Ep. 48B and Ep. 14C. Most of these studies are fair accounts of Išū‘yahb’s later view of the Muslim Arabs, especially from the time of his patriarchate, but the present study aims to explore how his views emerged over time.
Under the leadership of Patriarch Maremmeh, the relationship with the Muslim Arabs was described as good. The main concern of Išū‘yahb was consolidating his church.
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 is needed in order to trace the development and significance of the author’s writings (his letters) within their specific historical contexts. This is what Erhart called for, and what Ovidiu Ioan in Muslime und Araber bei Īšō‘jahb III. (649–659) and Metselaar in “Defining Christ: The Church of the East and Nascent Islam” attempted.
However, in my study, I would like to reconstruct the development of Išū‘yahb’s view toward Islam by re-examining the chronological aspects of some letters written during his bishopric of Nineveh in addition to Ep. 48B, which according to my opinion, contain references to Muslim Arabs; these references were overlooked by Fiey and the many scholars who have followed Fiey’s analysis. This issue will be taken up in chapter 2. 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, will be discussed according to Išū‘yahb’s three approaches, which correspond to three periods in his career. This is the topic of chapter 3. In chapter 4, I will not only return to the monastic and theological backgrounds of Išū‘yahb’s views but will point to specific texts that the patriarch relied on, and how inter-textual correspondences and mirroring affected his portrayal of the Muslim Arabs, as well as his understanding of his church and his own role in it. In the end, a fifth, brief chapter gathers the book’s conclusions: a new interpretation of Išū‘yahb’s letters toward Islam and the Muslim Arabs, and his strategies for the consolidation and preservation of the church.
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