The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam

by Sidney H. Griffith

Princeton University Press, 236 pages, $35

Certain historical moments so profoundly shape subsequent events that one’s curiosity about them can never be exhausted no matter how many books one reads. The rise of Islam is certainly one such event. It never ceases to amaze me that, within just five years of Muhammad’s death in A.D. 632, the armies that swept north from the Arabian Peninsula were able to defeat the Romans at Yarmuk (636) and the Persians at al-Qadisiya (637). Within a dozen years, three of the five patriarchates of Roman Christendom were under Muslim rule”with one in every two Christians ruled by a Muslim. Over the next hundred years, the Islamic empire would grow to include all of North Africa and a good piece of the Iberian Peninsula.

The spectacular success of the Arab warriors is astonishing, but every bit as surprising was the transformation this entailed for Christian life. The growth of a Muslim majority was a slow process. In the first few centuries, the Christian and Jewish presence within the Islamic empire was considerable, with Muslims a distinct minority. Given that Christian culture had had a considerable amount of time to establish deep intellectual and cultural roots in the Middle East, it posed both a challenge and an opportunity to the Arabs.

The challenge came from the fact that most of the indigenous Christian population resisted the new religion. Muslim thinkers had to develop the means to defend and project their views on a suspicious clientele. The opportunity derived from the fact that Muslim intellectuals were able to deepen their theology by reading the Greco-Roman philosophical works they came upon through the mediation of Christian scholars.

In The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque , his marvelous new book on the subject of Christian-Islamic relations in these early centuries, ­Sidney Griffith allows this story to unfold in a compelling style. Griffith, a professor of Semitics at the Catholic University of America, is one of the leading experts in the world on the subject, and his career, which has spanned several decades, has focused particularly on the position of Christians in the early Islamic empire.

Griffith begins his narrative with an account of the first wave of Islamic warriors shortly after the death of Muhammad. For the citizens of the eastern realm of Byzantium, these invaders were not new: For centuries, marauders from the desert had appeared from time to time to wreak havoc on Roman settlements at the edge of the empire.

At first, their appearance was parsed in a biblical fashion. Like the Babylonian invaders of Jerusalem in Old Testament times, they were seen as an instrument of God punishing the Christians for their sins. But within just a few decades, it was clear that these invaders were unique. These Arabs came with their own sacred book and a ferocious allegiance to the theological principle that “there is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.”

Yet the meeting of Islam and Christianity over the first several centuries was the occasion for surprise. First, it is important to know that the Qur’an is replete with biblical stories. The longest continuous narrative in the Qur’an is a retelling of the Joseph story (itself one of the longest tales in the Bible). Though signs of the coming dhimmitude were already in evidence (Christians and Jews had to pay a special tax and on occasion were forced to dress in distinctive manners as well), one also finds a significant degree of respect for the “peoples of the book.”

As Griffith points out, on several occasions the Qur’an itself is desirous of respectful dialogue among its sister religions and goes so far as to advise its devotees, “If you are in doubt about what We have sent down to you, ask those who were reading Scripture before you.” Or even more: “Do not dispute with the ‘People of the Book’ save in the fairest way . . . . And say: ‘We believe in what has been sent down to us and what has been sent down to you. Our God and your God is one and to Him we are submissive.’”

The response of the Christians to the initial appearance of Islam is also revealing. At first, the faith of these Arab invaders was not viewed as a new religion but rather as a variant form of their own. Heretical, to be sure, but close enough to be worthy of that epithet. A monk known as Sargis the Venerable went so far as to say that the Qur’an was originally a Christian book that the Muslims had altered to cohere with their aberrant theology. Another theologian felt it appropriate to cite Qur’anic verses as an authority on matters of Christian doctrine.

But the closeness of the two faiths was also the occasion for great anxiety. As sociologists have long noted, the most bitter animosities often arise within sects that have the most in common. Muslims felt obliged to make clear where the thinking and practices of Christians had gone astray. The Trinity and the veneration of the cross and icons were two targets frequently mentioned.

Still, a remarkable dialogue emerged. Perhaps this was due to Christians’ constituting a demographic majority in large parts of the Islamic world. But another factor was the desire of Muslim intellectuals to learn from their Christian counterparts. Especially desired was access to the great philosophers of the Greco-Roman world, who were part of the intellectual patrimony of the Church. Many scholars have viewed the employment of Christian scholars to translate these works into Arabic from a purely commercial point of view: Christians engaged in the process as a way to sustain the economic viability of their communities. But Griffith takes great pains to remind us that Christian scholars had an interest in the philosophical works that stretched back centuries. The development of Christian theology itself would be unintelligible without it. With the arrival of the great new centers of Islamic learning (Baghdad was not founded until 767), Muslim scholars were able to tap into this deep Christian tradition of philosophical learning.

Griffiths closes his book at the thirteenth century. This is when the Mongols arrive and the Crusaders have departed. At this point, the ­period of peaceful coexistence comes to an end. Griffith wonders whether the gradual demographic diminishment of the Christian community (economic and cultural opportunities were always much better for the Muslim) was partially responsible for the harsher attitudes that arose toward religious minorities.

Rigorist thinkers such as Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) were no longer receptive to interreligious discussion, and this probably exacerbated prejudicial ­tendencies. A few Muslims went so far as to argue that Muslim-dominated areas had no compelling reason to retain its dhimmi populations. Such attitudes did not augur well for the indigenous Christian communities.

One striking thing to consider is how these earlier Muslim and Christian thinkers would have responded to the ecumenical optimism in our own day about the issues of a shared monotheistic belief and a shared common ancestor in that belief, Abraham. Both of these themes were addressed early on and both proved to be much more divisive than moderns might expect. Muslim thinkers, for example, spent an enormous amount of time showing how Christians believed in a different sort of “God””the mystery of the Trinity was lost on them; it was parsed as simple polytheism.

The matter of a common father in Abraham is equally vexed. Because Muslims and Christians do not share the same Scriptures, when Muslims speak of Abraham they are speaking of a specific sort of figure that emerges from the Qur’an. Their Abraham has been constructed in accord with the Islamic notion of a line of prophets that culminates in Muhammad. The Christian reader, on the other hand, cannot avoid the fact that Abraham’s full identity must be discerned in the way the Christian Bible reveals him. In the end, we are left with incommensurable figures. There is no neutral Abraham for the Jew, Christian, and Muslim. The Christian thinkers that Griffiths explores had a healthy awareness of how the variant canons of the “peoples of the book” shape the way each “people” understands its contents.

But for all these challenges, it is striking to see how vigorous and civil the dialogue between Muslims and Christians could be during the first several centuries of the Islamic era. The portrait that Griffith draws of the “salons of inquiry” ( majlis al-munawwarah ) in tenth-century Baghdad could serve as an inspiration for our own difficult task of finding some sort of civic space in which the depths of our traditions might be explored.

Gary A. Anderson is professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame.