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Book Review: The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque by Sidney H. Griffith

Sidney H. Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007).  220 pp.

How did Christianity change and develop differently for Christians outside the Roman Empire during the Islamic Expansion?  In The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque Griffith wants to emphasize the contribution of the Arabic-speaking Christians in the East to the Christians in the West (128), the influence of Islamic culture on Arabic-speaking Christians under Islamic rule, and to the formation of the religious identities of the Christian communities of the Nestorians, Melkites, and Jacobites (130).  He is concerned to demonstrate the shift in articulation of the Christian faith that took place under Muslim rule.  For example, Griffith notes that Christian Trinitarian theology took on “a design and vocabulary very different from that of the Patristic era and largely unfamiliar to Christians outside of the Islamic world” (96).  The genre’s of apologetics were heavily influenced by the world of Islam.  Griffith is concerned to show how the terms of discourse were basically set by the Islamic attacks on Christianity.  For example, the list of topics found in popular genres of Christian apologetics in Syriac and Arabic in the early Islamic period are “distinctively Islamic” (97).  Christian kalam is basically a borrowing of the “Islamic style of religious discourse in Arabic” (89).

Our author is also concerned to point out that although the characters are often fictional or symbolic in the popular apologetic genres that depicted dialogue between Christians and Muslims, these texts nevertheless shed light on real historical circumstances of open dialogue between Muslims and Christians (102-103).  Griffin also shows a concern to demonstrate that Christians made use of the authority of the Qur’an to validate their Christian doctrines to the Muslims (168-70).  Finally, Griffith thinks that Christianity should not discount the churches that were considered as “dissident churches” by the exclusive Roman imperial authority (129).  Latin Christians in particular, Griffith thinks, have wrongly considered Christians of the Orient as heretical and schismatic.  He thinks that “now is the time to take steps to remedy this situation” (3).  He refers to those normally considered heretics (Jacobites and Nestorians), not as non-Chalcedonian heretics but as “non-Chalcedonian Christians” (130). 

Taxonomy of Christian Groups & Literature

The main groups into which Christians in the Islamic world were divided in the period Griffith discusses were Greek, Syriac, and Arabic.  Although Greek works were translated into Syriac and Arabic, Greek was distinctive in that it was the language of the Hellenized culture in which the first doctrinal positions of Christians were articulated.  Greek culture was heavily influenced by philosophy—particularly the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.  Aristotle’s works had an especial influence over the churches in Syria through the translation and appropriation efforts of Hunayn ibn Ishaq who was a Nestorian Christian.  Syria served uniquely as the culture that “passed” the baton of Aristotle’s philosophical legacy (114).  Syria, after the time of Alexander the Great, was often caught in the middle of the Roman and Persian empires (115).  Nestorianism had its origins in the Syriac-speaking academic communities of Edessa and Nisibis (131).  These communities were influenced by the Syriac translations of Theodore of Mopsuestia, “the blessed interpreter” whose patriarchal see was in Persia (131).  The Jacobites also flourished in the Syriac-speaking communities under the influence of the bishop Jacob Baradaeus in Edessa who wrote in Syriac (135).

A distinctive feature of the Arabic language was that it often carried anti-Christian (or non-Christian) connotations within its very language, making translation of Christian words like ousia, for example, difficult to translate into the Arabic idiom.  The understanding of certain religious terms in Arabic language was also heavily influenced (biased we might even say) toward the exclusive Islamic faith.  The domination of Arabic language—which set the tone for theology in the East—alienated the East from the West to some extent and created theological and genre developments that were distinctively shaped by the Islamic-Christian dialogues and polemics (130).  By the time of The Great Schism, the East was speaking a different language (literally and figuratively) than the West, and this only made their differences all-the-more difficult to resolve.

The Copts, who possessed their own identity and language (Coptic) are usually lumped in with the Jacobites because of their common theological identity through the articulation of the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria, although Griffith is concerned to point out that “they are the much larger community and have their own independent church structures” (137).  Likewise, the Armenians professed the same faith as the Jacobites, but had their own language and independent hierarchical structures (137).  The Maronites and Gregorians, although Syriac/Aramaic speaking churches, were Melkite and eventually came into communion with Rome (139-140).

Conclusion

Griffith’s book is more-or-less a taxonomy and introduction to Arabic Christian literature.  As such, the book is more useful for those who actually plan on spending a great deal of time following up with Griffith’s suggestions on literature to read.  But for those wanting a stimulating introduction to the history of Christianity under Islamic rule, the book is more of a letdown.  In other words, it’s a useful and indispensable resource for those specializing in Arabic studies, but not much else.

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