Disputing with Islam in Syriac: The Case of the Monk of Bêt Hãlê and a Muslim Emir

Disputing with Islam in Syriac: The Case of the Monk of Bêt Hãlê and a Muslim Emir

By Sidney H. Griffith

Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, Vol.3:1 (2000)

Introduction: Although Islam was born, and became a world religion largely within the ambience of the Syriac-speaking communities of the eastern Christian patriarchates, little study has in fact been focused on the significance of Syriac culture in the early formation of Islam, or on the shaping influence of the academic and literary institutions of the Syriac-speaking churches on the early efflorescence of Islamic culture, particularly in Syria and Iraq. It is almost as if the scholarly world has accepted the apologetic claims of Muslim writers in the eighth and ninth centuries that in the somewhat remote world of the Hijãz in the prophet Muhammad’s day there was only ignorance (al-jãhiliyyah) and the worship of idols until the fateful moment when the angel Gabriel brought the earliest lines of the Qurcãn down from heaven to an ecstatic Muhammad. Of course, both the Qurãn itself, and modern Islamicists, admit the presence of Jews and Christians in the world in which Islam was born. And there have been a few venturesome studies into what one writer called “the foreign vocabulary of the Qurãn,” along with several more quixotic proposals about the Christian or the Jewish/Samaritan, or even the Manichee origins of early Islam. But for the most part there has been a scholarly silence in modern times about the broader religio-cultural matrix from which Muhammad and Islam emerged, and especially about that part of it which involves the Aramean heritage of the Syriac-speaking peoples.4 The limitations of modern scholars may be largely responsible for this state of affairs, rather than any disinclination to study Islam from the point of view of the methods of Religionsgeschichte. Few are the Islamicists who have any skill in Syriac, let alone any sure grasp of the religious history and culture of the speakers of Aramaic more generally. And few too are the Syriac scholars whose command of Arabic and knowledge of early Islam is adequate to the requirements of comparative study in this area. But this was not the case with the Syriac-speaking writers of the oriental churches from the eighth through the thirteenth centuries, who lived in the world of Islam. They have left behind not only accounts of Islam’s origins, but a number of fascinating works which had it as their purpose to defend the Christian faith in the face of religious challenges coming from Muslims, and to attempt to stem the tide of conversions to Islam. It is the purpose of the present communication to give a hurried overview of this literature, and then to concentrate on one intriguing work, still unpublished, which affords the modern reader a rare glimpse into how Syriac-speaking Christians met the challenge of Islam perhaps as early as the early eighth century.

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