Friday, May 9, 2014

The Orthodox Church in the Arab World: An Interview

The Orthodox Church in the Arab World: An Anthology of Sources, 700-1700 is available from the publisher or in paperback or Kindle from Amazon or even in Nook, if you're into that.

Dr. Adam DeVille has graciously posted a pretty long interview with the editors of the anthology, Alexander Treiger and myself on his blog, Eastern Christian Books. An excerpt:


Your introduction notes that “in the Western historiography of Christianity, the Arab Christian Middle East is treated only peripherally, if at all.” This, you note, is a common problem even among scholars of Eastern Christianity. Why do you think that is?
AT: In part, the pervasive misidentification of Arabic and the Middle East exclusively with Islam is to blame. Most scholars of Christianity tend to “write off” the Middle East after the Muslim conquest, because they imagine—needless to say, incorrectly—that in the seventh century Islam simply replaced Christianity in this region. For that same reason, scholars of Christianity do not consider it necessary to learn Arabic, failing to realize that Arabic—much like Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, or Slavonic—is an essential language for the history of the Church.
Another reason for this neglect is the equally pervasive Eurocentrism: the spread of Christianity westward is treated with the utmost attention, while its continuous flourishing in the place of its origin and remarkable spread eastward (in the seventh century Christianity reached as far East as China!) is regarded as an unimportant side story. The study of Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, and other linguistic and cultural variations of Eastern Christianity has also suffered tremendously from this kind of Eurocentric bias.
SN: I think that to some degree the existence of Middle Eastern—and particularly Arab—Christianity is inconvenient for a lot of lazy narratives of Christian history. It does not fit comfortably with popular notions of Christendom, in the sense of Christianity as tied to a particular European cultural-political sphere. It complicates narratives of Christian-Muslim relations, making monochrome images of convivencia or dhimmitude impossible. The fact that the three fifths of the ancient pentarchy—Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem—lived most of their history under Muslim rule and were speaking Arabic makes it much harder to center Orthodoxy’s story as being synonymous with the story of the Byzantine Empire…. and so on. So, in a way, dealing with the reality of Arab Christianity requires historians to do more work and step out of their comfort zones.

AT: I would add that it’s equally true for Middle Eastern history. There too it’s convenient to disregard Middle Eastern Christians and other non-Muslim communities. Most histories of the Middle East make practically no attempt to do justice to the experience of non-Muslim communities. (Moshe Gil’s A History of Palestine, 634-1099 is one notable exception.) Once, however, you take into account non-Muslim historical sources and their experience and try to integrate accounts of the various communities into a single picture, things inevitably become more complicated—but ultimately much more rewarding.
Read the whole interview here! You can also read an earlier interview we did with Gabe Martini for the blog On Behalf of All.

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