Friday, September 11, 2009

Fr. Sidney Griffith on Arab Orthodoxy

The following is taken from the book The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam by Sidney Griffith, a professor at the Catholic University of America and a Roman Catholic priest. The book itself is definitelythe best (and nearly the only in English) history of Christianity under Muslim rule in the Middle Ages. Fr. Griffith is a deeply learned man when it comes to Arabic and Syriac Christianity whose career has mostly taken the form of piles and piles of scholarly articles, rather than books that would be more accessible to non-specialists. Some of his most interesting work has been on the development of the monasteries in Palestine after the Muslim conquest and his insights into the Arabic-Islamic milieu that St. John of Damascus was writing in need to be more thoroughly taken into account by those studying the Damascene. The book itself is on the whole quite readable, if you can manage a book that is still thoroughly foot-noted. While certainly not the definitive history of Arab Christians that has still yet to be written, the book does an eccellent job of explaining the cultural identifies of Arab Christians, how they defined themselves relative to each other, to other Christians, and especially to Muslims. In doing so, it gives the non-specialist a good idea of the flavor of Arab Christian discourse in the classical Islamic period. In its view of Muslim-Christian relations during this period, it is neither polemic against Islam nor given to the rosy glasses of, say, María Rosa Menocal. Instead, it problematizes the concept of convivencia and gives a picture of a much more complicated interreligious world of conflict, cooperation, and varying degrees of tolerance.

From pages 137-139, on the self-understanding of what for the purposes of this blog are the Arab Orthodox:

While the Nestorian and Jacobite churches were already in the process of formation prior to the rise of Islam, albeit that they achieved the full expression of their enduring ecclesiastical identities only in the first centuries of the caliphate, the Melkite community as a sociologically distinct community of Christians came into existence only in Islamic times and in the world of Islam. They professed the faith of Byzantine orthodoxy, but very much in the Arabic-speaking milieu of the Islamic challenge to Christian faith. The name Melkite seems first to have been used by Syriac-speaking Jacobites, and perhaps even by Maronites, to designate those Christians in the caliphate who accepted the teachings of the sixth ecumenical council of the Byzantine imperial church, Constantinople III (681). Their more authoritative spokesperson was John of Damascus (d. ca. 749), who wrote in Greek. But they were also the first of the Christian denominations to adopt Arabic as an ecclesiastical language. The process of Arabicization began already in the second half of the eighth century, and the earliest Christian writer regularly to write in Arabic whose name we know was the Melkite Theodore Abu Qurrah (ca. 755-830), who wrote not only to respond to the religious challenge of Islam but also very much to state the claims of the Melkites over against those of the Jacobites and the Nestorians. The Melkites, like the others, argued with both Muslims and their fellow Christians that they were in their own view the only truly orthodox Christians. The see of Jeruslem and the monasteries of the Judean desert, particularly Mar Sabas, would remain the intellectual center of the Melkites, but members of their community were to be found throughout the Arabic-speaking world, from Alexandria in Egypt to Antioch in Syria and even in Baghdad. Spokesmen for the Arabic-speaking Melkites in addition to Abu Qurrah included writers such as the now anonymous ninth-century author of the popular Disputation of the Monk Abraham of Tiberias with an Emir in Jerusalem, Qusta ibn Luqa (ca. 830-912), the historian Sa’id ibn Bitriq (877-933) also known as the patriarch Eutychius of Alexandria, Abu l-Fath ‘Abd Allah ibn al-Fadl al-Antaki (fl. Ca. 1050), and Paul of Antioch (ca. 1180). These major writers, among many others, presented the profile of the Melkite church in what would be its enduring form in the Arabic-speaking world.
But a further word must be said about the epithet Melkite. In its first and most appropriate usage it was not synonymous with the Greek Orthodox denomination; they were often called ar-Rum, that is, the Romans, or the Byzantines, by Arabic-speaking Muslims and Christians alike, meaning the Greek Orthodox church of Byzantium. Rather, by contrast with the Greek Orthodox, the Melkites were Arabic-speaking Christians in the world of Islam who were nevertheless in communion with the Greek Orthodox whose faith they shared. If they were to be designated by an ethnic or linguistic label at all, which historically was never the case, they might well have been called the Arab Orthodox. The Crusaders called the Melkites Syri in Latin, for reasons that need not detain us now, but the fact that they used a distinctive name for them indicates that at that time they were still perceived to be a different community from the Greeks. After the time of the Crusades, and especially in Ottoman times, when the Greek Orthodox Church gained the upper hand over the their coreligionists in the old Oriental Patriarchates, the Melkites were for all practical purposes subsumed into the Greek Orthodox Church. In modern times, adding to the terminological confusion, the old designation Melkite was co-opted after 1729 by the largely Arabic-speaking Melkite Greek Catholic Church, a community that in the eighteenth century came from the Orthodox Church into union with Rome.


abuian said...

If I remember correctly, Fr. Sidney told us of the Oriental Orthodox that they refused even to identify themselves as Arabs. Because of the association with Islam, they had to be known as anything else--Phoenician, Assyrian, Egyptian--which had more to do with cultural identity than genetic descent. Did the early Melkite embrace of Arabic language go along with an easier adaptation to Arab ethnic identity?

Samn! said...

Well, at least my understanding of things is that the Oriental Orthodox and Maronite insistence on non-Arabness is a pretty complicated thing. The Armenians (though there have been quite a few Armenians to write in Arabic!), like the Georgians, maintained their language even when living among a larger Arabic-speaking population. The same is true of the Syriac Christians ('Jacobites', 'Nestorians', and Maronites) to some degree, however their urban populations were Arabic-speaking probably from the 9th century or earlier. But identities like 'Assyrian' (or 'Chaldean’, for that matter) for the 'Nestorians' and 'Phoenician' for the Maronites is basically a result of contact with 19th century European racial notions… and so now you have quite a few East Syrians named Sargon or Maronites who claim that Lebanese Arabic is descended from other Semitic languages than Arabic. The Copts are a strange case, because unlike Armenian, Syriac, or Greek, Coptic died out very fast- the Copts were basically entirely Arabic speaking no later than the 10h century and stopped using Coptic for literature by the 13th. Coptic self-identity as non-Arab, from what I've seen, is rather stronger in the diaspora than in Egypt (the Copts are the only Near Eastern Christians who still read their medieval Arabic writers...) and was probably exacerbated by the rise and fall of Nasr's pan-Arabism.

The Orthodox, or Melkite, embrace of Arabic is due largely to the fact that the Melkites were never a distinguishable ethnic group- they were simply the natives of the region who adhered to the Orthodoxy of the Byzantine Church. It seems to be the case that the situation on the ground prior to the Muslim conquest was that the Orthodox in the patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem had a faithful that mostly spoke Syriac or Palestinian Aramaic but who generally, though not always, used Greek as their language of high culture. When Arabic replaced Greek as the imperial language of the region, so to speak, it also very quickly replaced Greek as the cultural language through the process of a fairly intense translation movement that was centered in the monasteries of Palestine. This seems at least somewhat tied to the changing over of the Umayyad administrative records from Greek to Arabic in the late 7th century-- this event is often posited as the reason for St. John of Damascus' leaving his secular career as a bureaucrat and after him, there's virtually nothing written in Greek (though still quite a few things in Syriac) in the Levant until Ottoman times.

So, in addition to that early history there are a few modern factors that lead to the Orthodox not considering themselves to be anything other than Arabs. One is that there's simply no non-Arab identity handy, as there's no point in history where they've considered themselves to be Hellenes. Another is that their experience of colonialism was radically different from that of the other Christian groups. That is, while other Christians came under French Catholic or Anglophone Protestant tutelage, the Orthodox who studied in the Russian-run mission schools were educated in Arabic and encouraged to see themselves as distinct from the Greeks. Finally, in Syria and Lebanon, the Orthodox have tended, especially in the period before the Lebanese Civil War, to adopt ideologies of pan-Arabism or pan-Syrianism as a counterbalance to the politics of Maronite particularism. Interestingly, though, I have run into a number of Orthodox Arabs who try to see their heritage as going back to the pre-Islamic Christian tribes such as the Ghassanids, who were in fact Jacobite.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

The note about the Melkites puts some modern, local trends in context for me. This blog is becoming a valuable resource. Please keep up the good work.

peter said...

Thanks for the mention of Fr. Griffith's book. My copy is now on order.

abuian said...

A somewhat more tangential question: where does the term "Hagarenes" come from, and why does it seem anachronistic? It obviously could not have been a label for Muslims until after Muhammad; but well before that, St. Paul associated Hagar not with Arabs but with Judaizers. Even using the term to designate ethnic Arabs seems to ignore Apostolic usage, but from there you still have to get to Arab = Muslim. If Melkites did not make an ethnic distinction, why did Hagarane not refer to them as well? Or is it that the label arose so quickly that it was already fixed before the conquest got that far? In other words, was the linkage made when "Arab" still meant a Bedu from the Peninsula?

Samn! said...


You answered your own question more or less. Certainly before Islam any of the words that meant 'Arab' (Hagarenes or Saracens in Greek 'Tayoye' in Syriac) almost always means specifically nomadic Arabs. The association of Hagar with the Arabs, though, does seem to be rather ancient, despite St. Paul's usage, which at any rate is rhetorical rather than ethnographic. You don't have to buy into the fancies of Crone & Cook's 'Hagarism' to see that the Arabs even before Muhammad probably had a geneology-story that traces their origins to Ishmael. This is likely related the story of Hagar in Genesis, where she flees with Ishmael to Paran, which was the part of Arabia most known to the other Near Eastern peoples. Another problem is the earliest word for Muslims in Syriac, 'mhagroye' which is either a Syriacization of 'muhajirun' or a calque of 'hagarenes'. Or both.

But as for the Melkites, they had very little connection with the nomadic Arabs and likely hardly any of them had recent nomadic background (the major Arab Christian tribes were Jacobite or Nestorian). Rather, they were Arabized sedentary locals, and so wouldn't really have been even called 'Arabs' for quite a while... The use of 'Arab' to mean 'anyone who speaks Arabic' rather than 'someone descended from the nomadic Arabs' took a while to develop in Muslim society.

stephkst said...

Many kind Thanks for the web site - a most welcome and appreciated working tool. This comment comes very late- but.
As to Arab and xpctian, it seems to me a lot more complicated. There seems to exist a cultural line cuting 'arab-xpctians' somehow in more or less two distict areas in Syria. Those of hellene-syriac origins, north of Damascus, yet south-east-south towards Hauran and Jordan being Arabs - and all Melkite, orthodox and catholics. Hauran and Jordan share the same 'popular' arab culture. The latin presence among arab xpctians in the PAtriarchate of Jerusalem just begins in the 19th century, having created a new entity. Many ofthese people until the 19th century were nomadic, cfr. onely in the 19th century an ancient xpctian site like Madaba bwcane to be repopulated by arab xpctian nomadic tribes becoming sedentary. The present Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem awowed publically that his great grandfather of the Twal family is the one who became sedentary - the same I guess holds true for most xpctian villages and towns in Hauran; obviously the latin arab xpctians are 19th century converts from Orthodoxy. It always startled me, most arab xpctian tribes being jacobite or nestorian, how and when the arabs south of Damascus became Melkite xpctians?
Even among the Syriacs things do not seem to be on such a clear cut line: p.e. the great Syriac acclomaration of As-Saddat east of Homs, having seven functioning Churches, seems to retain the memory of two different 'ethnic' groups living side by side in town, divided by the main road: On one side the Syriacs, on the other side the Arabs, sharing the same faith and Churches. The Arabs claim their provenance to be from Hidjas, as seeminlgy proven by Hidjazi expressions in their dialect. This I heard from the mouth of a syrian catholic metropolitan, who shares these origins.