Reimagining Christian Identity in an Islamic World

Joshua Mugler Reviews Peter Schadler’s John of Damascus and Islam

Peter Schadler. John of Damascus and Islam: Christian Heresiology and the Intellectual Background to Earliest Christian-Muslim Relations. Leiden: Brill. 264 pp. $115.

Over the past few years, the Christians of the Middle East and their relationship with their Muslim neighbors have been frequent topics of conversation in politics, academia, and beyond. Peter Schadler’s new book gives us a fresh perspective on one of the foundational voices in this rich Christian tradition: John of Damascus. Schadler provides little in the way of a basic introduction to John’s life, but for those unfamiliar with the history, John was born in the second half of the seventh century, a member of a prominent family in the metropolis that became the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750). Though sure information about his life is difficult to come by, it seems that he worked in his early life at the court of the caliphs, like his father and grandfather before him. Later, however, he abandoned this position and moved to Palestine, where he either became a monk or worked for the Christian patriarch of Jerusalem. Some have suggested that he left Damascus when the caliphal bureaucracy transitioned from Greek to Arabic around the turn of the eighth century, but this is merely an educated guess. In Palestine, John researched and wrote extensively on theological matters, intervening repeatedly in the conflict over icons that was rocking the Byzantine Empire at the time. His most monumental work, however, is the Fount of Knowledge (Pēgē Gnōseōs), an encyclopedic text that synthesizes and systematizes the state of Greek Orthodox Christian knowledge in the early eighth century. He likely died around 750.

Throughout John’s life, he was surrounded by prominent Muslims, from whom he must have acquired a substantial knowledge of the movement. In fact, his intimate acquaintance with Islam rendered him suspect to some Byzantine Christians, and an imperial council condemned him posthumously in 754 for his defense of icons, calling him (using his Arabic name) “Manṣūr with the bad name and the Saracen opinions.” After the imperial position on icons shifted, on the other hand, John’s writings became acceptable in Byzantine circles, and the fact that he was one of the last Middle Eastern Christians to write in Greek meant that his texts were accessible for Byzantines and Europeans who did not know Arabic as well as his Arabophone intellectual descendants. For the encyclopedic accomplishment of his Fount of Knowledge, he is sometimes described as “the last Church Father.”

The Fount is divided into three parts: an introductory discussion of terminology and logical principles, a list of 100 “heresies,” and an extensive and systematic account of the true Christian belief that walks the fine line between all of these heresies. John’s primary sustained discussion of Islam comes in the second of these sections of the Fount, the list of heresies, in which the “people-deceiving practice of the Ishmaelites” is the final, and most extensive, entry. The first 80 heresies in the list are borrowed mostly verbatim from fourth-century theologian Epiphanius of Salamis, but John adds 20 false sects that he claims have arisen since Epiphanius’s time, including Islam. Schadler includes the Greek text and translation of the passage on Islam as an appendix.

Schadler assumes that his readers know most of this background information on John’s life and devotes his attention to an in-depth analysis of John’s discussion of Islam and the previous scholarship on it. The book makes two major arguments, the first of which is that modern scholars have read far too much into John’s classification of Islam as a “heresy.” Schadler discusses the breadth of that term’s ancient meanings, which spanned from medical traditions to Jewish sects to groups of Christian dissenters and beyond. While some thinkers, such as Origen and Augustine, classified heresies as false sects originating only within the Christian Church, Schadler shows that this was not a universal definition. Epiphanius, for example, includes groups that originated long before the life of Jesus and had little to do with Christianity, including Jewish sects, philosophical schools, and polytheistic traditions. It is this compilation of heresies that John borrows from Epiphanius. However, modern scholars—myself included—have tended to neglect this aspect of John’s classification and to assume that the classification of Islam as a “heresy” implies that John saw it as a terribly misguided offshoot of the Christian tradition. John makes a brief reference to the legend that Muhammad learned about Christianity from an “Arian monk,” which has been cited repeatedly as evidence for this.

These assumptions, as Schadler shows, are without merit, and an examination of John’s full list of heresies makes it plain that he does not believe all of them originated within the Church. Rather, John is establishing the orthodox (as he sees it) Christian position within a new and challenging world of religious plurality. While his Church had been the preferred religious group within a powerful empire only a century earlier, his grandfather—as the story goes—had surrendered the keys of Damascus to the invading Arab armies and launched Christians into a world of minority status, forced to find their place among other Christian and non-Christian groups without imperial support. John, therefore, made his contribution to solving this issue by compiling the entirety of Christian thought, as he knew it, into one systematic work, after eliminating the errors of all other groups.

In fact, Schadler not only challenges common assumptions about John’s religious classification, he asks us also to consider John’s heresiology as a type of historiography well-suited to the Umayyad context. As Schadler tells it, Epiphanius was part of an early Christian intellectual tradition that conveyed the history of the world as a series of false doctrines overcome by the truth found in Christ. This historiographical tradition was largely cast aside in favor of the “Ecclesiastical History” style pioneered by Eusebius of Caesarea, which framed history as a progression toward the imperial triumph of the Church in the reign of Constantine. By John’s time, however, it was apparent that the Church in Syria and Palestine had lost its imperial position for the foreseeable future, and John needed to draw on another historiographical style that did not depend on this-worldly triumphalism. This, Schadler argues, was a driving factor in John’s decision to list Islam—currently ruling over Christianity in earthly terms—as one of the false sects overcome by the truth of Christianity in divine terms. The account of Islam and other heresies in the Fount could thus help Christians understand their place in a confusing world of conflicting religious claims, where they were adherents of the one true faith, whether in or out of political power.

Schadler’s second primary argument interacts more closely with the field of Islamic Studies, especially revisionist schools of thought within this field that have arisen over the past few decades. The main thrust of this argument is to vindicate John for some of his claims about Islam that have often been seen as ignorant or dishonest by pointing to the multifarious and unsettled nature of the Islamic community at the time of John’s writing. While much of John’s account of Islam maps closely onto the Islamic beliefs, texts, and practices that became normative in later history, some of his other claims are surprising and have led scholars to question the accuracy of his information. For example, John gives what seems to be a confused description of the Black Stone in Mecca, recounts a lengthy story about a divine camel and the rivers of paradise that does not fit exactly with the Qur’anic version of the tale, and claims surprisingly that Muhammad instructed Muslims to circumcise both men and women. Many commentators have taken these “errors” as evidence that John was either poorly informed about Islam or lying to advance his polemical goals, like so many other Christian polemicists throughout history.

In defense of the Damascene, Schadler first argues that John both knew Arabic and had ample opportunity to learn about Islam from Muslims, which should be no surprise in light of his life story as recounted above. He then discusses the state of the field of Islamic Studies, in which many of the traditional claims about early Islamic history have been placed under intense scrutiny by pioneering revisionist scholars such as Patricia Crone, Michael Cook, and John Wansbrough. These scholars have shown that some things that were once thought to have been settled and universal within the Prophet’s lifetime, or within a few decades after his death, were actually introduced over a period of centuries and retrojected into the formative period in order to assert their authoritative status. The bulk of the ḥadīth tradition, for example, was called into question by Joseph Schacht and other twentieth-century scholars, making it a dubious historical source—at best—for contemporary analysts of the early Islamic period.

With this in mind, Schadler argues that John is not mistaken or dishonest when he describes ideas and practices that strike us as un-Islamic, but rather he is accurately conveying information about forms of Islam that became non-normative in the centuries after his death. This makes him a valuable resource for our understanding of the diverse ideas and practices of early Muslims. Schadler’s point is well taken here, and scholars should avoid speaking of John as a liar or an ignorant polemicist, even if many of his claims about Islam were taken to be universally true by later Europeans who had no firsthand knowledge of an Islamic tradition that had long moved past them.

On the other hand, Schadler himself seems to go too far in his revisionist claims at times, especially with regard to the Qur’anic text. Noting that John appears to quote some Qur’anic passages that do not match the canonical text as we have it today, Schadler presents John’s text as potential evidence for the revisionist opinion that the Qur’an was not fully codified until the eighth century at the earliest, or even (according to Wansbrough) the ninth. This field has moved with surprising speed in the last few years, driven by the discovery of important early Qur’anic manuscripts such as the Sana’a palimpsest and the Birmingham Qur’an, both of which almost certainly come from the seventh century and contain portions of the Qur’an in a form close to the current canonical text. Schadler mentions the Birmingham Qur’an only once, and it likely was not publicized until he had begun writing, but this important find has made it difficult to maintain a position close to Wansbrough’s, as important as Wansbrough’s work was for the field. Ultimately, John’s unusual quotations do not necessitate strong revisionist claims about the date of Qur’anic canonization. They can be attributed to other factors that Schadler also mentions, such as widespread misconceptions about what exactly was in the Qur’an and what was in other authoritative texts, especially when community consensus about the relative status of the different texts had not yet crystallized.

More broadly, this book deserved much more thorough editorial oversight than it received. Numerous typos, grammatical errors, and inconsistencies often distract from Schadler’s arguments. This is an unfortunate impediment to the potential of the book.

Nevertheless, John of Damascus and Islam makes valuable contributions to our understanding of John and his intellectual and social context. Schadler disabuses scholars of some assumptions about the term “heresy” that have hindered our ability to read and understand John’s claims about the origins of Islam, and he helps us reclaim John—and his Christian community more generally—as a knowledgeable perspective on the diverse and shifting world of early Islam. His final chapter discusses John’s intellectual relationship to the ninth-century Syrian bishop Theodore Abū Qurra, the first Arabic-language Christian theological writer whose name we know, who was deeply influenced by John. Theodore adopts many of his predecessor’s positions, but has a much narrower view of heresy, and his knowledge of Islam and the Qur’an is much more in line with the texts and positions that became dominant. Schadler shows how Islamic discourse shifted in the generations between John and Theodore, becoming something much more recognizable to us today, and Theodore’s writings reflect this shift. This does not mean that John did not understand Islam, however, but that he understood a different version of it.

Christians, Jews, and other communities of religious minorities in the world of early Islam faced the challenge of responding to a world whose religiopolitical landscape had shifted dramatically in the space of less than a century. The challenges of self-definition and institutional formation were especially acute for Greek Orthodox Christians like John, who had lost their imperially privileged status and were now one of many religious minorities competing for space within a politically “post-Christian” world. In order to maintain the loyalty and commitment of their congregations, John and other Christian thinkers had to reimagine the meaning of Christian faithfulness in a way that did not rely on governmental support or triumphalist assumptions about the perpetual upward trajectory of worldly religious progress. Needless to say, modern Christian thought has faced some of the same questions and challenges, and Schadler gives us a new perspective on one eighth-century response.

Schadler also reminds us of the diversity of the Islamic tradition, especially in its formative years, and helps us to see Middle Eastern Christians as valuable contributors to our understanding of their Muslim neighbors. Rather than a confused or dishonest polemicist, we can view John as an important window onto a particular strand of early Islam. By placing his claims in their proper context, and avoiding the ways they were misused by later European Christians to attack Islam, we can rediscover the insight of the Middle Eastern Christian traditions. John of Damascus is a foundational voice within both Christian theology and the history of Christian-Muslim relations, and the voice of his intellectual and spiritual descendants must be heard as Christians and Muslims attempt to understand each other today.

Joshua Mugler is a Ph.D. candidate in the Theology department at Georgetown University, researching Christian minorities in early and medieval Islamic history. Currently, he is writing on St. Christopher, patriarch of Antioch in the 960s, who was assassinated by Muslim rebels due to his friendship with their Muslim ruler. Religious conceptions of space and place are among his key interests. Tweets @J_mugs

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