One of the most important recent works on Arabic-speaking Orthodoxy is the book Forgotten Saints in the Antiochian Heritage by Archimandrite Touma (Bitar), abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan at Douma (al-Qiddisun al-Mansiyun fi al-Turath al-Antaki, Beirut: Manshurat al-Nur, 1995).
Correction: thanks to some research by 'Flavius Josephus', it turns out that Fr. Michel Najim (who still has a pretty nice website) hasn't translated this book. So, somebody needs to!
The recovery of ‘forgotten saints’ is especially important in the life of the Churches of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria because of their unique histories under Islamic rule and the later domination of their hierarchies by ethnic Greeks. In the case of the Patriarchate of Antioch, many people wrongly assume that Greeks held exclusive control of the patriarchate until the 20th century. However, from relatively shortly after the time of the Muslim conquest of Antioch until the Melkite Schism of 1724, most patriarchs were Arabic speakers or biculturally Greek and Arab. (In future posts I hope to elaborate much more on the medieval history of Arab Orthodoxy…).
However, two historical events led to the tragic loss of much of Antioch’s Arab heritage-- the Crusades and the subsequent rise of the Mamluks in the 12th and 13th centuries and the Greek takeover of the patriarchate in the 18th century. While the Byzantine re-conquest of Antioch and the Syrian coastline as far south as Lattakia in the 10th and 11th centuries led to a revival in Christian learning in both Greek and Arabic, the subsequent conquest of the entire Levant by the Crusaders led to the exile of much of the native Orthodox clergy to Constantinople, increasing the pace of the Constaninopolization of native Antiochian liturgical practice. With the final defeat of the Crusaders at the hands of the Muslim Mamluks, Antioch was sacked and its monasteries (including the Monastery of Saint Simeon, which at one point had the world’s largest church) destroyed. During the period from the 13th century until the 16th century, there is a dramatic drop both in the number of original works written by Orthodox Christians under the Muslim yoke and in the number of manuscripts copied.
Under the Ottomans, things generally improved. While the Patriarch of Constantinople was legally the head (millet bashi) of all Orthodox Christians in the empire, the patriarchs of Antioch maintained a fair degree of autonomy and were able to bolster this with newly-established ties to secular and religious authorities in Wallachia, Moldova, Russia, and even Georgia. The patriarch Macarios ibn al-Za’im (d. 1648), who traveled to all of the aforementioned countries as patriarch, is perhaps the greatest figure of Arabic Orthodox revival in this period. Of his many activities, one that he gave special attention was the copying of old manuscripts, often by his own hand or the hand of his son and archdeacon Paul, and the general revival of the Patriarchate’s heritage, both Arabic and Greek. Of his many works (almost all of which remain only in manuscript!!!), is Saints of our Country (Qiddisun min Biladina), which records the lives of saints of the Patriarchate of Antioch from the earliest martyrs through his own time, and includes a number of saints from the Islamic period whose memory had fallen out of regular celebration. Sadly, less than a century later the events surrounding the schism of the Church of Antioch into Orthodox and Uniate parties led to the installation of an almost entirely Greek hierarchy, a situation mirroring that of the contemporary Patriarchate of Jerusalem. These hierarchs, ignorant of local customs, simply followed the customs and celebrations of the Church of Constantinople. And so, even after the return of the patriarchate to Arab leadership after over 150 years, much had been lost.
The work of Fr. Touma to recover the lives of many of these saints is a very involved undertaking, requiring the use of over a dozen Arabic manuscripts as well as a host of other primary sources and western scholarly works. It provides as much material as he could find about each liturgical commemoration (since the Church of Antioch commemorated a number of miraculous events and relics in addition to her saints) as it appears in his manuscripts and provides a detailed account of his sources and other available historical information. The book itself is of a scholarly quality on par with the best western work (unfortunately not always the case with modern Arabic-language scholarship) but is also written with a deep sense of reverence toward the saints and love for the Church of Antioch.