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Apology or its evasion? Some ninth-century Arabic Christian texts on discerning the true religion.


As a historical phenomenon, Islam is a post-Christian religion, one that sought to honor previous revelations of God, including those vouchsafed to the prophets and apostles Moses and Jesus, but which also claimed to bring correctives to the doctrines of existing religious communities. In the light of Islam's passionate insistence on the unicity (tawhid) of God, Christian teachings such as the divinity of Christ and the Trinity of the Godhead were called into question. Jesus the Messiah, son of Mary was venerated, and yet interpreted not as the Word-made-flesh of the Gospel of John but rather as a prominent member of a prophetic history that had a consistent pattern and that found its culmination in the life and ministry of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632). This pattern did not allow for claims to divinity, not did it have a place for the unique event of Christ's death by crucifixion for the sake of human redemption.

Clearly, Islam brought a set of sharp challenges to central Christian teachings. However, much of the Christian literature that has dealt with Islam over the past fourteen centuries does not take the challenges of Islam to Christian faith seriously. From John Damascene's description of Islam as the "still-prevailing deceptive superstition of the Ishmaelites, the forerunner of the Antichrist" (1) to polemical Web sites today, the Christian church does not have a particularly good record of measured theological engagement with Muslims; more often than not, ways are sought simply to dismiss Islamic challenges. There are exceptions--as I shall mention below. But creative encounters are easy to miss among the polemics, eagerly repeated but utterly mendacious legends about the Muslims' Prophet, or neo-martyr accounts in which Muslim characters are portrayed as ferocious and immoral. (2) To these one may add apocalyptic texts, in which events involving Muslims--their building of the Dome of the Rock, for example--are interpreted as signs of the End of Time, and in which Muslims figure into the interpretation of the Bible's cast of apocalyptic characters: Gog and Magog, the Abomination of Desolation, the fourth beast of Daniel 7, the locusts of Revelation 9, the seven-headed dragon of Revelation 12, or the Beast whose number is 666 in Revelation 13. (3) The Christian literature occasioned by the encounter with Islam is full of ways of dismissing or even demonizing it, and certainly of evading its challenges to Christian doctrine and practice.

A good place to look for the exceptions--that is, attempts by Christian theologians to take Islamic challenges seriously--is the Arabic-language literature of Christian communities in the Middle East. Not much more than a century after the rapid Arab conquests of the mid-seventh century, in which Christian communities from North Africa to Persia rather suddenly found themselves within what came to be called the Dar al-Islam, many members of those communities were adopting the Arabic language. Leaders of Christian communities reacted, sometimes with alarm, but also by translating the scriptures and other Christian books into Arabic and by writing apologetic treatises directly in the Arabic language. (4)

In what follows, I would like to describe a very popular apologetic strategy that we find already in the writings of three Arabic-speaking theologians, from different regions of Mesopotamia and from different theological communities or "denominations," who all flourished in the first third of the ninth century: Theodore Abu Qurrah, bishop of Harran (a "Melkite" or Chalcedonian "two-natures-in-Christ" theologian); Habib Abu Ra'itah of Tikrit (a "Jacobite" or anti-Chalcedonian "one-nature-in-Christ" theologian); and 'Ammar al-Basri (i.e., of Basrah, a theologian of the "Nestorian" Church of the East). (5) The strategy they develop is a curious one and may at first seem to be a sophisticated addition to the list of ways in which Christians have evaded Islamic challenges to Christian teachings. In order to get a sense of this, however, we must turn to some texts.

On the True Religion

One of the most important loci in the controversial literature arising from the Christian-Muslim encounters of the late eighth and ninth centuries is one that we might label "On the True Religion." Christian apologists adopted a variety of approaches to this topic. From the time of the very earliest Christian-Muslim debates, as far as the available evidence suggests, they identified fulfilled prophecy and evidentiary miracles as positive signs by means of which the true religion might be discerned--and tacitly or explicitly called the prophethood of Muhammad into question because of their presumed absence in his career. (6) That the Christian argument was not without effect is clear from the response of Muslim apologists, who sought out prophecies of Muhammad in the Christian scriptures, worked out their own sets of criteria for discerning the true prophet, and developed the doctrine of i'jaz al-Qur'an, the sublime inimitability of the Qur' anicspeech, which they proposed as Islam's distinctive and unsurpassable evidentiary miracle. (7)

Theodore Abu Qurrah on the True Religion

Positive criteria for discerning the True Religion in addition to fulfilled prophecy and evidentiary miracles are advanced in what may be one of Theodore Abu Qurrah's earliest writings, On the Existence of the Creator, and the True Religion. (8) In the heart of this treatise, (9) Theodore claims that the true religion is the one that possesses doctrines in accordance with what human reason can perceive about the nature of God, the moral life, and reward and punishment in the afterlife. Arguing on the basis of analogy with human beings--or at one point even more specifically with pre-lapsarian Adam, created "in the image of God" (and so making the analogy possible)--Theodore concludes that human mind can perceive the inner-communal nature of God, the imperative of love in this life, and the incorporeal sublimity of reward in the next life. Comparing these conclusions to existing religions (with some unsubtle criticisms of Islamic teaching and practice along the way), Theodore unsurprisingly concludes that of all the candidates in the world for the title of True Religion, Christianity fits best. (10)

A surprising feature of this material is that it is immediately followed by a kind of Appendix, which John Lamoreaux, in his excellent collection of English translations of Theodore's works, treats as a separate treatise and gives the title That Christianity is from God. (11) It begins as follows: "We also report that there is another way in which our minds can infer that the religion of Christianity is from God. ..." (12) With these words, Theodore introduces an argument for discerning the True Religion that is entirely different from the one just concluded: rather than presenting the positive criteria that indicate the True Religion, he instead presents an analysis of the motives for which a person might decide to choose a religion other than the true one.

Theodore's argument goes like this. After reminding the reader that he is arguing on the basis of reason, he summarizes the humanly comprehensible motives for which people might decide to adopt a religion: they might be constrained to do so by the sword; they might embrace the new religion in the hope of gaining wealth, power and status; they might embrace a religion that gives scope to their fleshly passions; or they might find in the new religion theological teachings of which the minds of ordinary people can approve, perhaps because of their simplicity or familiarity. Theodore goes on to argue that none of these reasons can account for the acceptance of Christianity at the hands of the apostles, who coerced no one; who were without status, possessions, strength, or learning; and who called their hearers to lives of asceticism. As for Christianity's theological teachings, the apostles "did not at all call them to faith in a matter about which they had heard, or of which their human minds could approve, or to which anyone had previously called, but rather to a matter that was new and strange": namely, the Incarnation of the Son of God; his virgin birth and human growth; his rejection, suffering, crucifixion, death and burial; his resurrection after three days and ascension into heaven; and that salvation is solely through faith in him, who is God and Son of God. (13) It is striking that, in describing this "new and strange matter," Theodore comes very close to reciting the second article of the Creed.

But now (moving to the next step of Theodore's argument), if Christianity was not accepted for any of the reasons just mentioned (coercion, worldly gain, license, or easy and familiar doctrines), the secret of Christianity's undisputed spread in the world must lie elsewhere: namely, in the evidentiary miracles that accompanied its preaching. For an archetypical example, Theodore recalls a scene from the Acts of the Apostle Thomas: the apostle raised a man from the dead "in the name of Jesus Christ, crucified in Jerusalem"--at which point the kings of India, who had previously been mocking the apostles preaching, came to faith in the crucified and risen Christ. (14)

This is an appropriate place to pause and make some observations about Theodore's argument. On the one hand, it is not particularly convincing. Each item in Theodore's list of humanly comprehensible reasons for accepting a religion--coercion by the sword, worldly gain, license with regard to fleshly appetites, simplified doctrine--corresponds to well-known Christian charges against Islam, and so it appears that Theodore's argument is circular from the outset, assuming what it sets out to demonstrate. (15) On the other hand, however, one can admire the sheer audacity of Theodore's argument. He was keenly aware that Muslims found Christian teaching, especially that of the crucifixion of the one confessed to be Lord and God, to be scandalous. But in his little appendix/treatise That Christianity is from God, Theodore incorporates the sense of scandal and repulsion aroused by this teaching into an argument for its truth: this folly is such a stumbling-block for the human mind that only divine authentication can account for the observable fact that people throughout the world actually came to believe it! And, to give this dialectic one final twist, Theodore points out that it is not just any sort of divine demonstration that authenticates the Christian religion but specifically the miracle of raising the dead in the name of the Crucified. Thus, Theodore builds Christian faith's great paradox, the crucifixion of the one confessed as Lord and God, into both the negative and the positive moments of his argument.

In a similar little text, On the Confirmation of the Gospel, (16) Theodore offers a list of humanly comprehensible motives for adopting a religion that is only slightly different from that of That Christianity is from God. In the first place, Theodore lists license or permissiveness; then, might or power; next, ethnic or tribal solidarity; and finally, what he calls "the satisfaction of the mercantile mind." Again, Theodore makes a case that Christianity did not spread for any of these reasons: the apostles offered no license to fleshly desires; had no status or might with which to appeal to the worldly ambitious; and attracted a community that developed a new solidarity beyond that of ethnicity, nation or tribe. (17) Furthermore:
  As for the satisfaction of the fleshly, mercantile mind, it is
  altogether excluded from the Gospel. That is because the Gospel
  recalls that Christ, the Son of God, was born of the Father before
  the ages, and that the Father is not more eternal than he. It recalls
  that this Son, at the end of time, came down and took up residence in
  the belly of a woman and was born from her as a human being, while
  remaining God as he had been from eternity. He was a child in the
  manger; he nursed and grew through eating food until he reached
  maturity. The Gospel recalls that this eternal Son made offerings to
  God in the Temple; that Herod sought him, and that he fled from him
  into Egypt. It recalls that he fasted, was tempted by Satan, and
  prayed. He hungered, thirsted, and became weary. Fear came upon him,
  so that he sweated perspiration viscous like blood. His enemies
  overcame him, insulted him, and put him to shame to the point of
  spitting in his face. They struck him around his head, scourged him
  with whips, and crowned him with thorns. They mocked him, nailed his
  hands and his feet, and hung him from the wood [of the cross]. They
  gave him vinegar and gall to drink. They stabbed him with a lance,
  and blood and water burst forth from him. In the course of all that,
  he called out and said, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

If in That Christianity is from God Theodore had come close to reciting the Creed at this point in the argument, here in On the Confirmation of the Gospel he assembles a whole series of Christ's acts of human weakness, many of which were being used by Muslim controversialists in questions that took the form, "How can you claim for someone who did this [fill in the blank], that he is God?" (19) Later Christian apologists would have to write at length about the meaning of Christ's deeds of human weakness, and, in particular, about his prayers, including his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, or the cry of dereliction from the cross. Theodore, however, boldly and almost preemptively gathers this material into his argument for Christianity's truth.

Up until this point in the argument, Theodore appears to have left open the possibility of saying that, while the "fleshly, mercantile mind" may not find Christian teachings persuasive, the minds of the wise may find otherwise. But Theodore now slams that door shut: "There is no one among the people whose mind can be convinced that Cod is properly described in such fashion!" And a bit later on, we read: "No one is convinced by this or accepts it, not the wise, nor the ignorant, nor the one in between." (20)

Similar analyses

We do not know whether Theodore Abu Qurrah was the first to formulate this procedure for discerning the true religion through an analysis of the natural human motives for adopting a religion, and an examination of the available religions in the light of this analysis (a procedure that, for the remainder of this essay, I will simply call "the True Religion apology"). He may well deserve this distinction. Whatever its origins, the procedure quickly became part of the standard apologetic arsenal of Arabic-speaking Christians of every confessional community--as we may see from its use in the writings of Theodore's contemporaries Habib Abu Ra'itah and 'Ammar al-Basri. (21)

Habib Abu Ra'itah begins his treatise On the Proof of the Christian Religion and the Proof of the Holy Trinity (22) with the assertion that there are seven reasons for the spread of any religion. The first six are: (1) desire with respect to the things of this world; (2) craving for the (corporeal) delights of the world to come; (3) coercing fear; (4) license with respect to desired but forbidden things; (5) what Habib calls approval, al-istihsan (to which we shall return in a moment); and (6) collusion and ethnic or tribal solidarity for the purpose of group advancement. (23) Habib comments that these six reasons for the spread of a religion "deviate from the religion of God, have nothing to do with his obedience, and part ways from his religion." (24) But as for the seventh reason for the spread of a religion, it consists in (7) the evidentiary miracles by which God himself establishes the proof of his religion.

Habib's list will now be familiar to us: as in Theodore's lists, we find coercion; desire for worldly gain; permissiveness or license (to which Habib adds the hopes of carnal delights in the world to come); and ethnic or tribal solidarity. And as in Theodore, we find a category that has to do with the religion's doctrines. Theodore, in That Christianity is from God, had spoken of "theological doctrines of which the minds of ordinary people can approve" (tastahsinuha, the verbal noun of which is al-istihsan); (25) we remember that he had stressed that people would approve simple and familiar doctrines, but encountered in Christianity matters that were new and strange. Habib Abu Ra'itah uses the same language of "approval," al-istihsan, but in an interestingly different way: he speaks of "approval because of [the doctrines'] elegance and ornamentation." (26) In fact, Habib seems to be thinking not so much of one's own approval of doctrines as of the approval that one seeks for oneself from others by "putting on" those doctrines, almost as if one were putting on fancy dress clothes in the hope of compliments on one's refined taste and aesthetic flourishes. But Habib goes on to make it clear that central Christian teachings are not such as to give an air of debonair elegance to those who show them off:
  As for the fifth category, which is the approval [of a belief system]
  because of its elegance and ornamentation, this is also inconceivable
  for the religion of the Gospel. That is because the one who is
  intended in worship and sought in religious observance; who is the
  stored-up treasure of the End and hoped-for reward; upon whom is
  reliance in this world and in the next; is a crucified man: weak in
  appearance and despicable to view among his crucifiers, who received
  him with every maltreatment, inexorably culminating in his death and
  burial. What sort of "approval" clings to the one who accepts this?
  What ornamentation or elegance attaches to the one who is firmly
  convinced of this? (27)

We move on to our third author, probably the youngest of the three we are considering here, 'Ammar al-Basri. Two works of his are preserved, The Book of the Proof and The Book of Questions and Answers. (28) 'Ammar's discourse about the True Religion in The Book of the Proof largely follows the pattern we have met in Theodore and Habib, but with some interesting twists. In the first place, while 'Ammar believes as firmly as Theodore and Habib that the true religion was established by evidentiary miracles, he acknowledges that such miracles had not continued down to his own day: once God's true religion was established through God-given signs, they came to an end. (29) Thus there is a historical aspect to 'Am-mar's inquiry: not which of the religions is established by evidentiary miracles, but which one was so established. He also, later on, will be concerned to alert his readers to the possibility of counterfeit signs: for him, one of the "worldly motives" for accepting a religion is what he calls "the illusions and specious proofs of sorcery." (30)

Evidentiary miracles, therefore, are vouchsafed only for a limited period of time, and one must watch out for pale imitations. All the same, they remain central to 'Ammar's proof for the discernment of the True Religion. He specifically excludes the possibility of discerning the True Religion through any capacity of human reason, with all its subtlety and finesse, to scrutinize the teachings and books of the religions, in order to distinguish which of them has the truest doctrines. For 'Ammar, any such attempt goes beyond the limits of what is possible and lands people "in the sea of God's knowledge: God has not given them any instrument with which to cross it, and has not commissioned them to plunge into it." (31)

What the human mind can and must do is to examine the religions for the presence of "worldly" or "earthly" motives for their acceptance; one of 'Ammar's lists includes: (1) collusion; (2) the sword; (3) bribes and flattery; (4) ethnic/ tribal solidarity; (5) al-istihsan, [reasoned] approval; (6) license with respect to the laws; and (7) the illusions and specious proofs of sorcery, mentioned earlier. (32) By now, such a list should be familiar. Once again, we find the word al-istihisan used in connection with the doctrines of any particular religion; what 'Ammar appears to mean by it is the "reasoned approval" of a religions teachings because of their conformity with notions that human reason can devise and deem acceptable. 'Ammar writes:
  As for al-istihsan, and that which reasoned opinion devises, that
  arises in thought, and that the mind accepts, with the result that it
  imagines that this [approval] is a motive for accepting [a religion]
  apart from evidentiary miracles, I believe that the religion of
  Christianity is entirely at variance with that. That is because those
  who called [people] to it called [them] to things and narrated
  reports that reasoned opinion does not devise, that do not arise in
  thought, that do not come to mind, and that reason does not imagine.

What are these reports? 'Ammar provides a list of ten: (1) the virginal conception; (2) the virgin birth; (3) that the child that was born was Son of God; (4) that this Son of God was crucified, died, and was buried; (5) that he rose from the grave; (6) that he ascended into heaven; and (7) that he will come again to raise the dead and judge the righteous and the unrighteous. Following these seven creedal points, 'Ammar mentions (8) that the apostles called people to the worship of the Crucified one, to the bearing of heavy burdens, to distributing their wealth to the poor, to giving their lives over to death for his sake; and (9) to lives of asceticism, without looking for the pleasures of food, drink, and sex either in this life or in the life to come. (34) But 'Ammar is saving his biggest reason for last:
  The tenth, and it is the summation, perfection and completion of all
  of this, is that [the Apostles] called [their hearers] to belief in a
  God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is something that does
  not arise in thought and that reasoned opinion does not devise.
  Reasoned opinion may devise Good and Evil on the basis of what people
  observe of good and evil in the world; or it may devise the One on
  the basis of what they observe of the order of things, and their
  witness to One. But as for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
  that is not something that reasoned opinion devises. ... (35)

When 'Ammar says that "reasoned opinion may devise Good and Evil on the basis of what people observe of good and evil in the world," he means that reasoned opinion may devise the concept of Good and Evil principles or deities; in other words, it is not surprising that rational people should come up with dualistic religions--and, in a parallel passage in his other book, he mentions the teachings of Zoroaster, Mani, Bardaisan, and Marcion. (36) When 'Ammar says that "reasoned opinion may devise the One on the basis of what they observe of the order of things," he means the One, non-trinitarian, God; his claim is that it is not surprising that rational people should develop non-trinitarian monotheisms--and in the parallel passage, he explicitly mentions al-tawhid, the Islamic term for God's unicity. (37) Human rational analysis may devise and approve of a sheer monotheism, or a dualism, or (as 'Ammar says in the parallel passage) the subtleties of the ancient Greek philosophers, or the doctrines of those who believe in the eternity of the world. (38) 'Ammar suggests that these are religious ideas that plausibly conform in some way to what people observe in the world, and so they may arise in thought, and the mind may give them its approval. But the doctrine of the Trinity is something else again!

Once again we note that there are slight differences in emphasis between Theodore's, Habib's, and Ammar's speech about al-istihsan with regard to a religion's doctrines. Theodore emphasizes a person's ready approval of easy and familiar doctrines--in contrast to which Christianity came with doctrines that were new and strange. Habib's emphasis is on the aesthetic: a person may accept doctrines that gain her approval as a person of elegance and refined taste--but Christianity offers a crucified God. 'Ammar emphasizes the mind's reasoned approval of plausible doctrines--and Christianity offers a triune God. In all three cases, the treatment of al-istihsan offered the Christian apologist an opportunity to list Christian teachings quite unapologetically, with the paradoxes of the Incarnation on vivid display.

Lessons for today?

It is, of course, not a straightforward matter to move from a set of ancient texts to "lessons" for Christians today. Still, I believe that three sets of comments may be justified.

Making a defense (1 Peter 3:15)?

In 1 Peter 3:15, readers are famously exhorted to be prepared to "make your defense [apologia] to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you." The "defense" offered by what we have been calling the True Religion apology is a rather odd one: Christian doctrines are utterly repugnant to reason, and there are no earthly reasons why anyone should believe in them, but people did believe in them, and so they must have believed them not for earthly but for heavenly reasons (as confirmed by miracles), and so they must be true! This summary may be a bit of a caricature, but it expresses a nagging suspicion that I have long harbored: that this is, in fact, no "defense" at all; rather, here we find yet another way--in addition to the polemics, legends, martyrdoms, and apocalypses mentioned in the introduction--in which Christians have managed to evade the specifically doctrinal challenges of Islam. The True Religion discourse presented here appears to be an apology that undermines apologetics. One does not need to explain Christian belief in God the Holy Trinity or the confession that the Son of God was crucified for us. It is enough to exult in the sheer paradoxical nature of the teachings. As Tertullian is alleged to have said, credo quia absurdum, "I believe because it is absurd." (39)

It is important to note that all three of the theologians considered here, Theodore, Habib, and Ammar, in addition to their treatments of the True Religion apology, did in fact devote a huge amount of intellectual energy to attempts to explain the central doctrines of the Christian faith. (40) While some of us may find it difficult to see how a True Religion apology (such as those described above) and a rational argument for the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity can appear in the same writer's collected works--and sometimes in the very same treatise--it may be that those of us who have been trained in the discipline of "systematic" theology are tempted to judge the work of these ninth-century theologians with the wrong standards. They appear to have been concerned not so much with strict theological consistency as with fashioning arguments that were pastorally useful in conversations with various audiences, at a time and in regions in which rates of conversion to Islam were accelerating, in part because of the pro-conversion policies of the Abbasid rulers who had come to power in 750. (41) These theologians' apologies, and other Arabic Christian texts of the period, were intended at least in part to convince Christians who had adopted the Arabs' language not to take the further (and some might think, logical) step of adopting their religion. One can readily imagine that the theologians who crafted True Religion apologies intended especially to urge Christians who may have been wavering in their allegiance to examine their motives for considering a change. (42) Rather than looking in the preserved Arabic writings of thinkers such as Theodore, Habib, and 'Ammar for systematic theologies, we should expect to find "apologetic dossiers" of arguments that had proved their worth in the difficult work of community preservation. Whether or not these arguments formed an internally consistent set is perhaps not an issue about which these apologists were overly concerned.

Christian life as a witness to its truth

If the True Religion apology as described above fails to explain central Christian teachings, it did allow Theodore, Habib, and Ammar to say something about what it means for Christians to live according to Christian teachings, that is, to embody the commitments they espouse. The Christian life, they remind us, has a particular shape: not of reliance on violence, but of turning the other cheek; not the pursuit of wealth and status, but of self-giving and contentment; not of license, but of discipline of the appetites; not of zeal for tribe, but of embrace of all nations. This is certainly a "lesson for today"--in which too many self-identified Christians confront those with whom they differ with verbal violence, inhospitality, undisciplined indulgence in anger and resentment, and a kind of neo-tribalism. Theodore, Habib, and 'Ammar remind us that in the encounter with the religious Other, the actual behavior of Christians cannot be separated from their witness.

The genuine oddity of Christian belief

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the arguments of Theodore, Habib, and 'Ammar that have been surveyed here is this: they provide a salutary reminder to their readers--including Christian readers today--of the genuine oddity of Christian belief. Even in a day in which Christians are increasingly aware of religious plurality all around them, it is a great temptation for Christian believers, gathering together in specifically Christian spaces and institutions--and often in the absence of people of other faith-traditions--to regard Christian doctrine as something quite obvious. How could anyone actually believe otherwise? As an antidote to this, Christian theologians need the questions from outside the assembly: "What do you mean by the Trinity of God?" "Why do you worship a crucified man?" And so on.

It is a gift of the religious Other to make the familiar again strange--and in these texts of the True Religion apology, forged in long experience of conversation with Muslims, Theodore, Habib, and 'Ammar have distilled that gift to a terrific degree of potency. Christian teachings are not easy and familiar; they do not ooze elegance and refinement; they do not conform readily to what we observe in the world. We are reminded that faith is not our intellectual achievement, but God's extraordinary gift. We are reminded of our need for humility.

And so, perhaps ironically, texts that may fail the test of 1 Peter 3:15 can still provide Christians some wisdom for interreligious encounters today--as we approach those whom we meet humbly, and seek to live our lives consistently with the truly extraordinary teachings of the faith that we confess and cherish.

(1.) Daniel J. Sahas, John of Damascus on Islam: The "Heresy of the Ishmaelites" (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1972), 133.

(2.) Helpful guides to this material include R.W. Southern, Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1962); Robert G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It (Princeton: The Darwin Press, 1997); and John V. Tolan, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

(3.) There is a huge literature on this topic. In addition to the works by Hoyland and Tolan in the previous note, it may be interesting to note Luther's participation in this tradition: John T. Baldwin, "Luther's Eschatological Appraisal of the Turkish Threat in Eine Heerpredigt wider den Turken," Andrews University Seminary Studies 33 (1995): 185-202, and Gregory J. Miller, "Luther on the Turks and Islam," Lutheran Quarterly 14 (2000): 79-97.

(4.) We now have an excellent introduction to this material in Sidney H. Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

(5.) The label "Nestorian" is understood today to be pejorative, although it was widely used in medieval Arabic texts, both Christian and Islamic.

(6.) Already John of Damascus makes the charge that there are no prophecies of the coming of Muhammad; Sahas, John of Damascus on Islam, 135.

(7.) For an excellent example of a ninth-century defense of Islam as the true religion (with a collection of biblical prophecies of Muhammad), see A. Mingana, 'Ali Tabari: The Book of Religion and Empire (Manchester: University Press, 1922).

(8.) Edition of the Arabic text: Ignace Dick, ed., Theodore Abuqurra: Traite de l'existence du Createur et de la vraie religion, Patrimoine Arabe Chretien, 3 (Jounieh and Rome, 1982). English translation: John C. Lamoreaux, ed., Theodore Abu Qurrah (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2005), 165-174, 1-25,41-47.

(9.) Or set of treatises. Note that Lamoreaux treats the work, which circulates as a unity in the known manuscripts, as three separate treatises.

(10.) Dick, Traite, 199-258; Lamoreaux, Theodore, 1-25.

(11.) Dick, Traite, 259-70; Lamoreaux, Theodore, 41-47.

(12.) Dick, Traite, 259 (par. #1). All English translations in this essay are the author's, from the published Arabic texts.

(13.) Ibid., 259-264. The translated matter is at p. 263 (par. #20).

(14.) Ibid., 264-270. The story of the Apostle Thomas is at p. 269 (pars #45-48).

(15.) In addition, see Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), written with the assumption that the early growth of the Christian movement is humanly (sociologically) comprehensible. People did become Christians because of solidarity within networks of family and friends, and out of hope for material well-being and greater social status in this world, as well as felicity in the world to come.

(16.) Edition: Constantine Bacha, ed., Mayamir Thawudurus Abi Qurrah usquf Harran, aqdam ta'lif 'arabi nasrani (Beirut: Matba'at al-Fawa'id, 1904), 71-75. English translation: Lamoreaux, Theodore, Ch. 4, 49-53.

(17.) Bacha, Mayamir, 71-73; Lamoreaux, Theodore, 49-51.

(18.) Bacha, Mayamir, 73.

(19.) This is the fundamental question of a text by the ninth-century convert to Islam, 'Ali al-Tabari: his Refutation of the Christians. Watch for the new edition and translation of Rifaat Ebied and David Thomas in the Brill series "The History of Christian-Muslim Relations."

(20.) Bacha, Mayamir, 73-74.

(21.) The pioneering study of this material is Sidney H. Griffith, "Comparative Religion in the Apologetics of the First Christian Arabic Theologians," in The Beginnings of Christian Theology in Arabic (Aldershot, Hampshire and Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Variorum, 2002), Chapter I.

(22.) Arabic text and English translation: Sandra Toenies Keating, Defending the 'People of Truth' in the Early Islamic Period: The Christian Apologies of Abu Ra'itah (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 73-145.

(23.) Ibid., 82-95 (pars #1-10).

(24.) Ibid., 84 (par. #2).

(25.) Dick, Traite, 260 (par. #7).

(26.) Keating, Defending the 'People of Truth', 88-89 (par. #7).

(27.) Ibid., 88-91 (par. #7).

(28.) Edition of Arabic text: Michel Hayek, 'Ammar al-Basri: Apologie et controverses (Beirut: Dar el-Machreq, 1977). The section on the True Religion in The Book of the Proof is at pp. 24-41.

(29.) Hayek, 'Ammar, 27.

(30.) Ibid., 39.

(31.) Ibid., 27.

(32.) Ibid., 32-41.

(33.) Ibid.. 36.

(34.) Ibid., 36-37.

(35.) Ibid., 37.

(36.) In The Book of Questions and Answers, Part 2, Question 6: Hayek, 'Ammar, 136.

(37.) Ibid.

(38.) Ibid.

(39.) For what Tertullian actually did say, see his On the Flesh of Christ, 5, translated by Ernest Evans, ed., Tertullian's Treatise on the Incarnation (London: SPCK, 1956), 18-19.

(40.) E.g., for explanations of the Trinity by Theodore and Habib, see Mark N. Swanson, "The Trinity in Christian-Muslim Conversation," Dialog 44 (2005): 256-263. For 'Ammar's discussion of the significance of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, see Mark N. Swanson, "Resurrection Debates: Qur'anic Discourse and Arabic Christian Apology," Dialog 48 (2009): 248-256.

(41.) The classic study is Richard W. Bulliet, Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period: An Essay in Quantitative History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979).

(42.) We may also note that the apologies examined above all pack a great deal of Christian doctrinal and moral teaching into a few pages and may well have provided a kind of emergency catechesis for under-catechized, wavering Christians.

Mark N. Swanson

Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
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Author:Swanson, Mark N.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2010
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