Monday, October 29, 2012

Fr Georges Massouh on the Dialogue between Timothy I and al-Mahdi

Arabic original here

The dialogue between the Nestorian Patriarch Timothy I and the Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi exists in two versions, Syriac and Arabic. The Syriac version, translated by Alphonse Mingana, can be read here. The Arabic version, translated by Clint Hackenburg, can read here.

The Dialogue of the Caliph and the Patriarch

Perhaps the finest Muslim-Christian dialogue about theological issues is the one in Baghdad that gathered the Patriarch Timothy I and the Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi. In this dialogue,which took place at the beginning of the ninth century, the two sides treated controversial topics, such as the Holy Trinity, the divinity and incarnation of Christ and His crucifixion and resurrection from the dead, and the authenticity of the Gospels... It was dominated by mutual respect and esteem and love of knowledge, something as rare in those days as in our own day.

That said, Timothy's response to al-Mahdi's question "What do you say about Muhammad?" remains the finest thing that was said in the dialogue. The patriarch affirmed that "Muhammad walked in the way of the prophets and lovers of God" because he taught God's oneness, distanced his people from evil and wicked deeds, attracted them to goodness and virtue, and forbade humans from demon-worship and idolatry, and encouraged them to worship God and venerate His majesty.

The prophets of the Old Testament did all these things and for this reason Muhammad, even if he was not a prophet from the Christian perspective, he did what the prophets did and thus walked in the way of the prophets.

Timothy sees an exact parallel between what the prophets, especially Abraham and Moses, did and what the messenger of Islam did. He says, "Just as Abraham, the Friend of God, abandoned idols and the people of his race, followed God and worshiped Him, teaching the oneness of God to the nations, so too did Muhammad when he abandoned the worship of idols and those of his race and others who worshiped them and only honored the one who alone is the true God and worshiped Him."

For this reason, Timothy goes so far as to affirm that "Muhammad was greatly honored by God." He then goes on to wonder emphatically, "Who does not praise, O triumphant king, one whom God has praised? And who does not weave a crown of honor and reverence for one whom God has honored? I and all those who love God say this and things like it about Muhammad." When the caliph asks, "So why then do you not accept Muhammad's words?" Timothy responds decisively, "Belief in one God was taught by the Torah and the Gospel. I held fast to this and for the sake of this I would die."

When al-Mahdi asks Timothy about his not accepting the testimony of Christ and the Gospel to Muhammad, the patriarch responds by citing verses from the Bible that prophecy the coming of Christ and no one else. Timothy says, "I did not see even a single verse in the Gospel or the prophets or elsewhere that bears witness to Muhammad, his deeds, or his name."

Here the caliph mentions that the Christians distorted the scriptures, removing from them all the verses that talk about the coming of Muhammad. Timothy responds by rejecting the accusation, saying, "If mention of Muhammad was found in the Gospel, we would not have removed his name from it. Rather, we would say that he has not yet come, but rather is yet to come. If I were to find (a prophecy about Muhammad in the Gospel), I would not abandon something from which I derive comfort in this world and and by which I am rewarded in the next."

It must be said that the patriarch Timothy represents the model of a faithful Christian who is open to the greatest degree to the Islamic religion without departing from the basis of the Christian faith. Even as he did not recognize Muhammad as a prophet, he affirms without hesitation that he "walked in the way of the prophets." Difference does not prevent closeness. Frankness does not negate love and respect. Recognizing what is good in another does not imply flattery, hypocrisy, and spin.


The Anti-Gnostic said...

It must be said that the patriarch Timothy represents the model of a faithful Christian who is open to the greatest degree to the Islamic religion without departing from the basis of the Christian faith.

Does Islam in particular merit this sort of deference? If so, why?

Samn! said...

I would say, from the perspective of both Timothy and Fr Georges the answer would be: because they're our neighbor. Not unproblematic, I'll admit, but that's the reality of many (historically, most!) Christians...

The Anti-Gnostic said...

A worthy ideal, but like Paul and Barnabas, the reality seems to be to insist that the Christians shake the dust off their feet.

Samn! said...

Well, in Lebanon where your Muslim neighbor is often literally your next-door neighbor, it's neither practical nor desirable to shun them. Also, over the past thirty years or so, Orthodox leaders in Lebanon-- especially Met. Georges-- have been able to build fruitful and genuine relationships with some of the Shi'ite leadership.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit confused by this. Mohammed denied the resurrection, which is central to Christianity. So in my mind to hold him in any kind of esteem or say that he "walked with the prophets" is to participate in that denial.

If we really love our Muslim brothers we need to draw them to the Christian faith and salvation through Christ, not allow them to feel satisfied in their flawed understanding of God.

Anonymous said...

Metr. George as well as other respected xpctian theologians are able to build dialogue with Shi'ite ulemas, as the 'Porch of Ishtihad' in Shi'a is NOT closed in utter difference to the Sunni.
Hence this dialogue between Patriarch and the Caliph in those days should not astonish. May it become possible today in a large scale again, never denying the basis of our Faith, nor closing the doors for searchers of the truth who is XPCt