Islam, Syriac interactions with

Syriac-speaking Christians, along with Arabic-speaking Christians whose patristic and liturgical heritage was largely Syriac, were among those Christians most immediately present to Islam in its origins. Throughout early Islamic history, especially in the period stretching from the earliest Islamic conquests in the territories of the Oriental Patriarchates in the first half of the 7th cent., up to the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258 and beyond, interactions between Syriac Christians and Muslims were a regular feature of political, intellectual, and cultural life in the caliphate. Thereafter, and up to the present day, Syriac-speaking communities have continued to be a significant, cultural presence in the Islamic milieu, especially in the modern states of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Iran, where so-called ‘Neo-Aramaic’ dialects (see Aramaic; Sureth; Ṭuroyo), with their roots in classical Syriac, are still spoken and the classical literature is still prized.

By the middle of the 7th cent., when Islamic rule was firmly established in the Levant, the main Christian, confessional communities among the Syriac-speaking peoples were already firmly established. In due course, Syriac- and Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims alike came to refer to them as ‘Nestorians’, ‘Jacobites’, and ‘Melkites’, adopting the polemically inspired denominational labels devised by each community’s theological and Christological adversaries. Already in the 6th and early 7th cent., these communities were well established in the peripheral regions of Arabia (Hainthaler), with well-known congregations along the Persian Gulf, in Ḥaḍramawt and Nagran in south Arabia (Trimingham; Tardy), among the Lakhmids and Ghassanids on the north eastern and western fringes of the desert (Shahid), and the tribal groups Christianized by the monks of Palestine and the Sinai. From these peripheral locations among others, largely under Syriac and Aramaic influence, knowledge of Christian doctrine and practice, along with a considerable body of ecclesiastical lore, spread among the tribally organized, Arabic-speaking peoples of central Arabia and the Ḥijāz. By the time of the prophet Muḥammad (ca. 570–632), there was a significant level of awareness of Christianity in its Aramaic and Syriac expression, in the environs of Mecca and Yathrib/Medina, of its scriptures, traditions, and confessional formulae. The principal evidence for this relatively high quotient of awareness of Aramaic and Syriac Christianity in the Arabic-speaking milieu of 7th- cent. Arabia is the Arabic Qurʾān itself. Scholars alternatively trace this awareness to the influence of a local ‘Jewish Christianity’ (De Blois; Gnilka), or to the actual presence of mainly ‘Jacobite’ and ‘Nestorian’ Christians in the Qurʾān’s audience, based on the text’s reflection of common eschatological and scriptural themes and its critiques of Christian doctrines and practices in their Syriac expression, as a growing body of scholarship in recent times is increasingly arguing (Andrae; Reynolds; Van der Velden; Griffith 2008).

Syriac interaction with Islam thus had its beginnings in the very origins of Islam, manifesting itself principally in the Islamic scripture; according to one estimate, Syriac loan words in the Arabic Qurʾān account for about seventy percent of the foreign vocabulary in the text (Mingana). This state of affairs, along with other considerations, has prompted some recent scholars to propose a hitherto unsuspected level of influence of the Syriac language even on the grammar and lexicography of Qurʾānic Arabic (Luxenberg). Other scholars had already made use of other comparative data (Wansbrough) to propose a later, early 8th-cent., Syrian origin for Muḥammad, Islam, and the Qurʾān; some have gone so far as to postulate the development of Islam at this late date from a supposed heretical, pre-Nicene, Syriac Christianity, hitherto unrecognized by earlier Syriac scholars (Ohlig). While these latter hypotheses have gained little or no scholarly support for their specific conclusions, they nevertheless highlight the continuing importance of Syriac and Syriac studies for the scholarly investigation of Islamic origins in Late Antiquity.

Syriac writers were among the earliest, non-Muslim witnesses to the Islamic conquest and to the appearance of Islam as a new religious tradition. The so-far earliest known Christian reference to Muḥammad by name occurs in a Syriac chronicle composed around the year 640; the text mentions ‘a battle between the Romans and the Arabs of Muḥammad in Palestine twelve miles east of Gaza’ in the year 634 (Hoyland, 120). The chroniclers continued to record the interactions between Muslims and Christians well up into the Middle Ages, including records of battles, raids, massacres, martyrdoms, impositions of taxes, and other matters, including even accounts of the reigns of the caliphs and other aspects of Islamic history. These accounts have proven invaluable to historians of the early Islamic period, as independent records of events that are only sparsely reported or not reported at all in Islamic, Arabic sources of the time (Borrut). The great medieval, Syriac chronicles, such as the Chronicle of Michael Rabo (d. 1199) and the anonymous Chronicle of 1234, incorporating the narratives of earlier chroniclers (e.g., Dionysios of Tel Maḥre), include biographies of Muḥammad and accounts of Islamic religious thought, along with reports of the encounters between Muslims and Christians. These encounters were often unfriendly and sometimes resulted in mass conversions to Islam. For example, a chronicler from the late 8th cent. says of the Syriac-speaking Christians in his era, in the region of Ṭur ʿAbdin, that ‘the gates were opened to them to [enter] Islam….Without blows or tortures they slipped towards apostasy in great precipitancy; they formed groups of ten or twenty or thirty or a hundred or two hundred or three hundred without any sort of compulsion…, going down to Ḥarran and becoming Muslims. A great crowd did so, from the districts of Edessa and of Ḥarran and of Reshʿayna’ (Harrak, 324).

The earliest religious responses in Syriac to the challenge of Islam seem to have been in the apocalyptic genre. The most notable of these is the ‘Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius’, in all likelihood composed originally in Syriac by a Syr. Orth. writer in ca. 691 (Reinink 1993). The author explains how the interlude of Arab domination in time to come, all immediate evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, will not really disrupt the unfolding sequence of the four kingdoms of the prophecies in the book of Daniel, destined to end with the kingdom of the Greeks. Rather, he says, the depredations of the Arabs are part of God’s plan for the era of punishment for sin that is destined to usher in the final days of world history (Reinink 1992). The Apocalypse was soon translated into Greek and from that language was many times translated into other languages of the Christian west (Alexander). A number of other apocalyptic texts in Syriac from the same era elaborated on the same theme (Drijvers; Suermann). The most important of them was the Syriac Sargis Bḥira legend, soon revised into Arabic, which incorporated many of these apocalyptic themes into the story of Muḥammad’s encounter, following Islamic sources, with a Christian monk who recognized the sign of prophecy on the youthful prophet’s body. The 9th-cent. Syriac author told of the monk’s interactions with Muḥammad, including their dialogue about the major topics of Christian/Muslim controversy (Roggema). This ingenious narrative, which was destined to exert an enormous influence within the Syriac- and Arabic-speaking Christian communities of the Near East for centuries to come, incorporated an already popular genre in Christian/Muslim relations in Syriac, a literary dialogue between a Christian, often a monk, and a Muslim notable, in this instance Muḥammad himself.

The earliest of the Syriac, apologetic dialogue texts, like the apocalyptic narratives, also come from the early 8th cent. The earliest of them is a letter, written in the early 700s and preserved in a manuscript copied in 874, in which a now unknown writer tells of the occasion when the Syr. Orth. Patr. Yuḥanon of the Sedre (r. 631–648) was interrogated by a Muslim emir, ʿUmayr b. Saʿd al-Anṣārī, on Sunday, 9 May 644 (Nau, Penn) — even though this date has been questioned in recent research. They discuss the major doctrinal and practical issues between Christians and Muslims in such a way that the Christian dialogue partner successfully defends his faith, thereby offering the Christian Syriac reader of the text the confidence that Christians do have answers to the Islamic religious challenge and ways to show the truth of Christianity on the one hand and Islam’s shortfall on the other hand. Of the numerous compositions in this genre written in Syriac over the centuries, one might mention the most well known among them, works such as the account of the monk of Beth Ḥale with a Muslim emir (ca. 720) (Hoyland; Griffith 2000), the dialogue between a master and his disciple in Chapter 10 of Theodoros bar Koni’s (ca. 792) ‘Scholion’ (Griffith 1981), Patr. Timotheos I’s (d. 823) account of his dialogue with the caliph, al-Mahdī, and Muslim scholars in the caliph’s majlis (Mingana; Putman; Heimgartner), Nonos of Nisibis’s (d. after 861) apologetic treatise in Syriac (Van Roey), and Dionysios bar Ṣalibi’s (d. 1171) long refutation of Islam in thirty chapters, distributed in three general discourses (Amar). Many anonymous texts of this sort are known in the ms. tradition, and a number of them, like Patr. Timotheos’s account of his dialogue with the caliph and his attendant scholars, were later translated into Arabic and enjoyed a wide circulation in the Christian communities in the Islamic world. As a matter of fact, many of the Christian Arabic writers of apologetic texts of this sort from the 9th cent. onward were Syriac-speaking Christians who had learned Arabic. The most well-known among the earliest of them were the ‘Melkite’ Theodoros Abū Qurra (ca. 755-ca. 830), the ‘Jacobite’ Ḥabīb b. Khidma Abū Rāʾiṭa (d. ca. 851), and the ‘Nestorian’ ʿAmmār al-Baṣrī (fl. ca. 850), whose apologetic texts in Arabic had a long and wide circulation among Middle Eastern Christians (Griffith 2008).

An interesting feature of these Christian apologetic texts in both Syriac and Arabic is that in them their authors developed an apologetic strategy for commending the reasonable credibility of the controversial Christian doctrines that took advantage of the modes of reasoning deployed by the contemporary Muslim theologians in the early development of an Islamic, systematic theology. In fact, it seems to have been the case that the Arabic-speaking, Muslim theologians developed their characteristic modes of reasoning in religious matters, the ʿilm al-kalām, very much in the course of their interactions with Syriac-speaking, Christian theologians in such intellectual centers as Baṣra and Baghdad in the late 8th and early 9th cent. (Cook). One catches a glimpse of the process in the Syriac letters of Patr. Timotheos I, who moved his residence from Seleucia-Ctesiphon to Baghdad, where he not only participated in a well-known debate at the caliph’s court, but where he also engaged in conversations with Muslim scholars. He tells about his experiences and recounts his conversations in several of his Syriac letters, addressed to a number of Christian correspondents (Hurst). In these letters he tells not only of his own experiences in conversation with Muslims but in three letters addressed to Christians in the environs of Baṣra he offers advice about how to discuss Christology in a Muslim dominated milieu (Griffith 2007). In these letters one acquires a glimpse into the circumstances of the origins not only of Muslim controversial theology, but of a Christian kalām as well, such as that displayed in the generation after Patr. Timotheos, in the Arabic works of ʿAmmār al-Baṣrī, in his interactions with the thought of his fellow Baṣrian, the Muʿtazilī, Muslim mutakallim, Abū Hudhayl al-ʿAllāf (d. ca. 840).

In Baghdad from the late 8th to the mid-11th cent. at least, Syriac-speaking, Christian intellectuals played a determining role in the multi-faceted intellectual undertaking known as the Graeco-Arabic translation movement in early Abbasid times (Gutas). Building on the earlier, intellectually important task of translating logical, philosophical, and other texts from Greek into Syriac in the context of the Christological controversies, especially by scholars in the Syr. Orth. community (Hugonnard-Roche), in the 9th and 10th cent. scholars who were mostly alumni of the several important schools of the Ch. of E., were engaged by mostly Muslim patrons to translate a whole range of texts from Greek into Arabic, embracing not only logical and philosophical texts from the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions, but medical, mathematical, and other scientific disciplines as well. Important participants in this undertaking were members of the Bokhtishoʿ family, with their connections with Gondeshapur (Beth Lapaṭ), the famous Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq (808–73), with his family and associates from Ḥirta, and Abū Bishr Mattā b. Yūnus (d. 940) from the monastery of Dayr Qunnā, the community from which many Christian officials at the caliphal court in the 9th  cent. came originally (Massignon). It is important to see that these Syr. Christian intellectuals were not only translators for hire, but important scholars in their own right, who participated fully in the scholarly life of Baghdad in their time. Abū Bishr Mattā b. Yūnus is a case in point; not only was he one of the two Christian teachers of the Muslim philosopher Abū Naṣr al-Fārābī (ca. 870–950), the other one being Yuḥannā b. Ḥaylān (d. 910), Abū Bishr was also the champion of ‘Greek logic’ among the Christian and Muslim intellectuals of Baghdad. He defended the cause in a famous, if for him ill-fated, debate between himself and the champion of the Muslim mutakallimūn, Abū Saʾīd al-Sīrāfī, who disdained ‘Greek logic’ in favor of the claims of theoretical Arabic grammar as a sufficient measure of the soundness of statements made in Arabic (Endress).

The most prominent philosopher in the third quarter of the 10th cent. in Baghdad was the Syr. Orth. Christian Yaḥyā b. ʿAdī (893–974), the student of al-Fārābī, and in turn the master of a circle of both Muslim and Christian disciples who became the mainstays of the Baghdad Aristotelians well into the 11th cent. Prominent among them was Yaḥyā’s Syr. Orth. disciple ʿĪsā b. Zurʿa (943–1008), who was a notable presence in the learned salons of the social elite of Baghdad in his time (Kraemer).

An interesting feature of the interaction between Syr. Christian and Muslim scholars in the 10th and 11th  cent. is the response made by Christian writers to positions taken by prominent Muslims in popular books written in Arabic that enjoyed a wide circulation in their time. For example, the Muslim philosopher Yaʿqūb b. Isḥāq al-Kindī (ca. 800 – ca. 867), who had been a patron of Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq, wrote a widely read essay called ‘The Art of Dispelling Sorrows’ that offered consolation on solely philosophical grounds. At least three Christian writers wrote responses to this text in Arabic (Griffith 1996), prominent among them being the Ch.  of E. prelate Eliya of Nisibis (975–1046), who became famous for his discussions about religion with the Muslim vizier Abū al-Qāsim al-Ḥusayn b. ʿAlī al-Maghribī (981–1027) (Samir). Similarly, the famous Muslim writer, Abū ʿUthmān ʿAmr b. Bahr al-Jāḥiẓ (777–868) had argued in his famous Kitāb al-ḥayawān that lifelong sexual continence is impossible for humans. Both Yaḥyā b. ‘Adī and Eliya of Nisibis wrote treatises on sexual continence expressly to refute al-Jāḥiẓ’s claims and to commend the practice of sexual abstinence as an important virtue for one seeking moral perfection (Griffith 2006).

These and many other instances of the interactions between Syr. Christians and Muslims in the heyday of the Abbasid caliphs show clearly that Christians of the Syriac-speaking communities played a major role in the growth and development of classical Islamic culture in its origins. Their interactions continued into much later times. A major case in point is evident in the life and work of the Syr. Orth. polymath Bar ʿEbroyo (1225–86). He composed important works in both Syriac and Arabic, and in his time he was well known not only among his co-religionists, but among Muslim intellectuals as well; he mentions the names and takes account of the positions of Muslim writers such as Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, al-Jāḥiẓ, and al-Ghazzālī in his own works. In Syriac, Bar ʿEbroyo often wrote in the style current among Arabic-speaking writers of his day. As a matter of course, he takes Islamic points of view seriously in his work and in many ways he came the closest of all Syriac writers to something like a real dialogue with Islam; in his work there is a concern for scholarly objectivity, shown in his quotations from Islamic texts, that sets him apart from the earlier writers of dispute texts (Takahashi).

An important, but controversial area of interaction between Syriac Christianity and Islam is religious mysticism. Specifically, the question arises about the influence of Christian asceticism and mysticism in its Syr. expression, and especially in its E.-Syr. or Ch. of E. tradition, on Sufism in its early, especially Persian stages. Scholars have been divided in their opinions, with some pointing to the early development of Sufism in the very territories of the Syriac-speaking Christians and citing numerous parallels (e.g., Tor Andrae; Blum); others have emphasized the natural origins of Islamic mysticism in the Qurʾān and early Islamic tradition (Massignon). This is very much an area of Syriac interaction with Islam in which detailed, comparative study of texts has yet to be undertaken. Most scholars of Sufism simply ignore the Syr. ambience in which many of the early Sufi writers lived.

Not long after the ‘Syriac Renaissance’ of the 12th and 13th centuries, when local languages gradually came to dominate both the intellectual and even the ecclesiastical and liturgical life of Syriac Christianity, at the expense of classical Syriac, interactions between Islam and Syriac Christianity nevertheless continued to be an important feature of life for the Christians living in Islamic polities. Syriac-speaking communities readily became fluent in the newly dominant languages of their homelands, be they Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, or Persian, and in these and other languages, such as those of Central Asia, their interactions with Muslims have been continuous and their participation in public life in the Islamic milieu, especially in the Arabic-speaking world, has been significant especially in the cultural and political spheres. A notable instance of this interaction in modern times was the prominent place of Christian intellectuals in the promotion of Arab nationalism in the early to middle 20th cent (Hourani).

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How to Cite This Entry

Sidney H. Griffith , “Islam, Syriac interactions with,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay, https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Islam-Syriac-contacts-with.

Footnote Style Citation with Date:

Sidney H. Griffith , “Islam, Syriac interactions with,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Islam-Syriac-contacts-with.

Bibliography Entry Citation:

Griffith, Sidney H. “Islam, Syriac interactions with.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Islam-Syriac-contacts-with.

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