Friday 17 May 2013

Islam and Christianity

Anastasios of Sinai thought it appropriate to consider Islam as a kind of Christian heresy, for having spoken of the false notions of the Arabs, he goes on to say: "Likewise, in regard to the rest of the heresies, it is necessary first to condemn however many false opinions about the faith they have." (Sidney H. Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008] 30-31.)

St John Damascene's (d. 749/764) Pege Gnoseos or The Fount of Knowledge was written in Greek, perhaps as a monk of the Mar Sabas monastery in the Judean desert, in the first half of the eighth century, the years of burgeoning Islamic scholarship. Most Christian scholars have taken his work to represent the last of the patristic era in the East, and to have been addressed to a largely monastic audience with eyes and hearts turned towards Constantinople in Byzantium. But John never lived in Byzantium, and his works (other than those on veneration of icons) made no impression there until some centuries after his lifetime. In fact, John - known as Mansur ibn Sarjun in the Arabic-speaking world - lived all his life among Muslims, and he knew and wrote also in Arabic, though all his surviving writings are in Greek, the theological and liturgical language of the Melkite Christian community, whose chief spokesperson he was to become. His literary output fits perfectly into the scheme of the issues among Melkites, Jacobites and Nestorians in the milieu of Islam.

John presented his The Fount of Knowledge as a compendium of the teachings of the fathers. It is divided into three parts: definitions of philosophical terms used in the formulation of Christian doctrinal statements; a list and description of the principal Chrisitan heresies; and a systematic presentation of Christian dogma according to the teachings of the six councils of Byzantine orthodoxy.

The last of the one hundred heresies John discusses is "the heresy of the Ishmaelites." For John, and for other Christian writers of his day, the Ishmaelites were the Arab descendants of the biblical Hagar. John applies this name to the Muslims. He speaks of the prophet as one who, "having happened upon the Old and New Testament, likewise having probably been in conversation with an Arian monk, contrived his own heresy." His use of the word 'heresy' here amounts to an admission that the Muslims share the same world of discourse with the Christians. In fact, John's response to the challenge of Islam was not confined to this mention. It must be considered to have been a motivating factor behind his whole conception of The Fount of Knowledge. (Griffith 41-42)

I remember Griffith saying that Muhammad's first wife, Khadija, was a Christian, and that her uncle was an Ebionite bishop. Ebionism, if I remember right, is a close relative of Arianism: there cannot be two Gods, so Christ cannot be God. Simple. And that - is illumining for the connection between Christianity and Islam! But I just can't find the reference in Griffith. 

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