By Jozef Kosc
The Future of History, Vol.8 (2013-14)
Introduction: Much of contemporary political writing on the history of Muslim-Christian relations in the Near East is marred with polemic obfuscation and inaccurate one-sided portrayals of significant events. Some would seek to paint the overall experience of Christian communities — stretching out over fourteen different centuries under Muslim political hegemony, in various regions and states throughout Asia Minor and the Near East — as one of universal disadvantage, if not outright exploitation under an unbroken imperialist regime of religious universalism. Adherents to such polemic scholarship are quick to account for portentous events – such as the fourteenth-century campaigns of the Mongol potentate Tamerlane, which sought to (and largely succeeded) expunge Christian influence and presence from the Orient – without providing a relevant historic and cultural context.
It is invariably true that after the fall of the Abbasid Empire (brought down by internal political disorder, civil war and Mongol invasions which culminated in a final assault on Baghdad in 1258) all of Near Eastern Christendom fell into a cultural, social and economic backwater – the miserable state of which was only perpetuated for the next seven centuries by Ottoman disregard for the economic and cultural wellbeing of territories beyond the immediate Turkish land of Asia Minor. But one would be naïve to portray the entire history of Muslim-Christian relations in the Near East as decidedly confrontational or even universally unilateral in its power structure.
The following exposition will seek to outline a clear thread of social, economic and religious cohesion and symbiosis between foreign Muslim conquerors, Islamic overseers and the native Christian ahl al-kitāb of the lands of Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Iran. Beginning with the period of the first four caliphs in the seventh century and stretching into the time of early-Umayyad expansionism, a close examination of various primary and secondary sources reveals the widespread efforts of military collaboration between the subjugated Christians of Persia and Byzantium, and the incoming Arab invaders. Continuing under the Umayyad caliphate of the eighth century, and well into the Fatimid period of the tenth and eleventh centuries, Muslim-Christian social synthesis developed and blossomed within the public sphere of state political and local community administration, through the context of a high degree of commercial autonomy. Finally, Muslim-Christian theological synthesis, beginning in the Umayyad period and culminating in eleventh century Fatimid Egypt, will be explored through the particular lens of Coptic-Christian clerical and lay efforts to appropriate the Arabic cultural language as a means of religious survival and dialogue with Muslim apologists.
In the eastern lands of the Persian Empire, ravaged by a series of extended wars with the Byzantines—the last of which had decimated the military capacity of both world powers from 602 until 628 AD—Nestorian Christians had long suffered persecution under Sasanian overlords. It is of no surprise, therefore, that local Christian communities across Iran freely welcomed the newfound political stability that came with the Arab invasions of the seventh century. Further to the west, the Arab military conquest of Egypt and Syria was not only welcomed by local Christian communities once within the strict legalistic confines of Byzantine administration, but was even facilitated in many unique instances of local armed resistance against dwindling Byzantine forces. In the Syrian city of Emesa, the local Christian community barred the re-entry of Heraclius’ troops, which desperately sought to reconquer its fallen walls from the Muslim invaders.