A look at the history of Christians in the Arab world shows a fruitful dialectic between rootedness in their own tradition and openness to other cultures

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A look at the history of Christians in the Arab world shows a fruitful dialectic between rootedness in their own tradition and openness to other cultures. High points have been the creation of an interreligious humanism in tenth-century Baghdad and the ecclesial renewal during the Catholic Reformation that paved the way for the Arab awakening. Today, as previously, however, such interaction is only possible when Muslim regimes are open to otherness and not caught up in an introverted and obsessive sectarianism.

What future can there be for Arab civilization in a Middle East dominated by sectarianism and fundamentalism? This question had already begun to emerge several decades ago and has now become most dramatically pressing after the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. There is then a second question, no less fraught with consequences, which specifically concerns the Christian communities in the region: will there still be a place for them? There is probably no conclusive answer to these closely connected questions. Nevertheless, a general overview of the role that Christians have historically played within Arab civilization highlights some guiding principles that, if projected into the future, allow us to assess on what conditions a Christian presence may still be possible in the Middle East in the twenty-first century.

The purpose of this article is therefore not to re-evoke the glories of the past, pausing melancholically to weep over its ruins (al-bukā’ ‘alā l-atlāl), as our poets of the pre-Islamic period were wont to do. The aim is, rather, to look back briefly at the composite Middle Eastern Christian identity, that fruit of successive cultural deposits, in order to be able to judge, in a proper perspective, what plan for the future may feasibly be nurtured. And since it is impossible to condense a bimillenary history into a few pages,[1] I will concentrate on two fundamental junctures, seeking to draw from them some valid lessons for our tormented present in the final part of this article.


An Interreligious Arab Humanism

 When, under the leadership of the second Caliph, ‘Umar (634-644), the Muslims launched themselves beyond the confines of the Arab peninsula, they took over some of the most prosperous and advanced regions at that time in a matter of only a few years. However torn Syria, Egypt and Mesopotamia may have been by the centuries-old conflict between the Byzantines and the Persians, these regions were famous for their schools of philosophy, science, law and theology: schools that continued and extended the classical heritage both temporally and spatially. Initially, the conquerors were attracted by the external aspects of this civilization: the architecture, with its monuments, palaces, churches and monasteries; the technology; and the administrative organization. Arab vocabulary testifies to this: it is rich in borrowings from Greek, Syriac and Persian in these sectors, as well as Latin, albeit to a lesser extent. Very soon, however, the conquerors also began to become interested in the culture that these material achievements presupposed. Thus, under the first Abbasid Caliphs, the work of translating from Greek into Arabic got under way. The translation movement was centred in the new capital, Baghdad, which had been founded in 762 on the banks of the Tigris. Nearly all the translators were Christians whose mother tongue was Syriac. They could play on a consolidated experience in this field, insofar as a linguistic shift from Greek to Syriac had been under way from the fifth century onwards, particularly with Sergius of Reshaina (a priest, who died in 536). It was a shift that was symptomatic of the local populations’ reaction to the influence of Hellenistic culture, which had, up to that moment, been pervasive.

The appropriation of the scientific and philosophical heritage happened in stages: first translation, then glosses and, finally, the production of autonomous works. This is the normal process in every instance of acculturation. It took place in certain schools that were initially tied to the monasteries but subsequently became independent of them. Whilst the pupils in the first generations after the conquest were all Christians, the Muslims gradually increased in number until they became the majority.

The biography of al-Fārābī, the famous philosopher of Hellenistic inspiration honoured in Arabic with the title of “second Master” (after Aristotle), is instructive in this respect. Born in distant Turkestan in 872, al-Fārābī had three philosophy teachers, all of whom were Nestorian Christians. The last and most famous was Abū Bishr Mattā Ibn Yūnus, who taught logic at Baghdad. When Abū Bishr died on 20 June 940, al-Fārābī considered his formation to have ended and moved from Baghdad to Aleppo, chez the Hamdanid Prince Sayf al-Dawla, at whose court he was to spend the last ten years of his life. Amongst the disciples of Abu Bishr and al-Fārābī, another Christian stands out: Yahyā Ibn ‘Adī (893-974), who was to be nicknamed “chief of the logicians” (ra’īs al-manātiqa) and to become the most famous Aristotelian philosopher of his time. Yahyā, in his turn, saw to the formation of a circle of disciples, amongst whom six Muslims and four Christians stood out. This prevalence of the Islamic element probably reflects the new demographic situation by virtue of which the Christians were no longer the majority in Baghdad or Iraq from approximately 950 onwards.

Looking beyond the contributions made by individual thinkers, their common intellectual genealogy testifies to the birth of an interreligious Arab humanism. Christians, Muslims and Jews were one another’s disciples. The fact that Yahyā Ibn ‘Adī copied al-Tabarī’s great commentary on the Qur’an (published nowadays in Cairo, in 30 volumes) not once but twice to earn his living is a detail of no little significance! Conversely, the same Yahyā was to be cited positively by the famous Muslim theologian al-Ghazālī (1058-1111), just as he was by the great Jewish Arab philosopher, Maimonides (who died in Cairo on 13 December 1204), in his “Guide for the Perplexed” (Dalālat al-hā’irīn).

Thus a new world culture was formed. One that we may call “inter-denominational” because it was the mutual work of citizens in the Muslim empire who belonged to different religious communities. Its language was Arabic: an Arabic forged in Baghdad for the purposes of integrating all the sciences existing at that time.

In actual fact, when Hunayn Ibn Ishāq (808-873), probably the most conscious of the translators, began to work on Galen’s works, he had to pit himself against an Arabic that was a most mediocre tool for the task he was setting about. In order to render numerous concepts, he was to find himself obliged to resort to Greek, Syriac and Persian terms, thereby enriching the Arabic technical vocabulary. As a consequence, Hunayn criticized Arabic as a language in one of his treatises, comparing it to Syriac and emphasising its deficiencies at the level of scientific vocabulary. A century and a half later, the bishop Elias of Nisibis was to take the point even further. Responding to those who were exalting Arabic as the perfect language by virtue of the fact that it would have five hundred words to denote the lion or the camel, Elias was to counter-parry with Arabic’s poverty of terms in the field of medicine and pharmacopoeia.[2] Indeed, the wealth and modernity of a language is not gauged by the number of its synonyms but by its capacity to express the concepts and realities of the global culture of its time.

Our medieval Syrian Arab authors had thoroughly understood the problem underlying translations: a language must continue to enrich itself by adapting to novelties if it is to avoid becoming something moribund that gradually dies for lack of innovation. Here is a first lesson for the present: if Arab culture wants to continue existing outside a denominational ghetto, it will have to go back to expressing all the reality of our era.


The Awakening Before the Awakening

 Let us now jump forward several hundred years to the second half of the sixteenth century. The cultural landscape is totally different: the Abbasid Empire is long gone and the Turks have taken the place of the Arabs and Persians at the Islamic world’s helm. There is an atmosphere of general decay and conservation has taken the place of innovation. After proudly suffering persecution under the Mameluks, the Christian minorities enjoyed a bit of a respite with the advent of Ottoman power. Indeed, the empire was fully included in the European politics of the time and this fact permitted the Christians to establish closer ties with the West.

This was the time of the Catholic Reformation and one of its key figures in the East was Giambattista Eliano (1530-1589). Born a Jew, in Rome, to a family of famous rabbis, he converted to Catholicism and was received into the Society of Jesus by Saint Ignatius himself. After a first mission to Egypt, which was to prove a failure, Eliano was sent to Lebanon on two occasions between 1578 and 1582. He succeeded in convening a synod of the Maronite Church at Qannūbīn in August 1580 and this reinforced the latter’s traditional relations with Rome. During these stays in Lebanon, Eliano conceived the revolutionary idea of forming some Maronite seminarians in a special college in Rome, where they could cultivate their tradition within catholicity’s universal embrace. Indeed, in Rome they were to have a far wider-ranging access to theological culture than they would have done in the mountains of Mount Lebanon, constantly exposed as the latter were to the risk of incursions and raids. The Maronite College opened in 1584, under Gregory XIII’s bull, and the young seminarians immediately threw themselves wholeheartedly into the study of all the subjects offered, learning mathematics and the sciences, history and geography but, above all, philosophy, theology, ethics, canon law, exegesis and languages.

After returning to Aleppo, the region’s most important urban centre at that time, or to Lebanon, many of these young Maronite priests were to strive to pass on – in their sermons and daily teaching – what they had received in Rome. Thus they introduced new forms of devotion and apostolate and they totally renewed preaching. They re-launched monastic life, modernizing it and modelling it on western religious life. Together with numerous Roman missionaries arriving in the East at the beginning of the seventeenth century, they began translating the manuals they had used in Rome and the spiritual works they had appreciated the most. On the intellectual level, they followed the path taken by the Christians in Baghdad during the ninth and tenth centuries: a first phase saw them translating, then they moved on to commenting and finally they produced their own original, West-inspired works. All the important treatises (such as the Summa Theologiae by St. Thomas [1225-1274]), were translated from Latin into Arabic, whilst in 1671 the most beautiful work in Arabic of that period saw the light of day: the first unabridged translation of the Bible, printed in elegant Latin and Arabic characters and embellished with numerous xylographs. Indeed, printing was introduced into the East to meet the needs of the Christian communities.

One of the central figures during this period was Germānos Farhāt (1670-1732), Maronite bishop of Aleppo and true author of the Church’s integral renewal, as much on the cultural level as on the spiritual and pastoral one. One of his main objectives was the re-Arabization of the Christians. Indeed, knowledge of classical Arabic had greatly declined during the Ottoman era, not only amongst the Christians but also amongst the Muslims, as a result of the general cultural decay and the invasive influence of Turkish. Only the experts in the Islamic religious sciences still had a good command of this language. Germānos Farhāt began by attending the school of a famous Muslim sheikh, Sulaymān al-Nahwī, so as to master the language perfectly. He then began his reform by drawing up both an Arab grammar based entirely on the Gospels (thereby imitating the methodology adopted by the Muslims, who based theirs on the Qur’an) and a style manual illustrated with examples taken exclusively from the Gospels. This choice was to prove fundamental. Indeed, the Christians had always had reservations about Arabic (which had long supplanted the various communities’ original languages, in its colloquial form as well) because they felt it was alien, being tied to the Qur’an and Islam.

Germānos Farhāt also composed a fine apology of Christianity for Muslims. He was the first modern author to take up this genre once again after four centuries of silence and withdrawal imposed by persecution. Over time, a team of Christian men of letters formed around him and profoundly renewed the Arab language. This movement was not crowned with the same success on the strictly ecclesial level, unfortunately: attempts at union with Rome only partially succeeded and, with the sole exception of the Maronite Church, every local church ended up dividing into two branches, one Catholic and the other Orthodox.

In any event, if “Awakening” (Nahda in Arabic) is the term by which one habitually designates the re-awakening of Arab culture during the nineteenth century, it is, in my opinion, more than legitimate to speak – with regard to the communities in Greater Syria – of an Awakening before the Awakening that was specifically Christian in its origins and aims and paved the way for the Arab world’s great renewal.


Some Lessons

What is striking, when looking back at these two episodes, is the fact that Christians in the Arab world have generally been men and women open to other cultures, although well rooted in their own. Conversely, when one of these two elements was lost, interaction with the surrounding environment came to an end. Christians acted as a bridge between two religions and two mentalities: the authors I have referred to were certainly Christian but, culturally speaking, they were also Muslim.

Speaking for myself, I am not ashamed to say that I have learned much from Islamic culture through its language, customs, certain way of doing things etc. What ought to characterize Christians – and, in a certain sense, distinguish them from Muslims – is not that they are less rooted than the latter in Arab culture but that they are rooted therein whilst remaining open to other cultures: the Hellenistic culture at the time of Hunayn Ibn Ishāq and Yahyā Ibn ‘Adī; the European (and, especially, Italian) culture of the Maronite College and Germānos Farhāt; and, today, naturally, the Euro-American culture. This bridging function also works the other way round, for that matter: it was, in fact, the Christians who passed on the first scholarly knowledge about the Muslim world to Westerners.

The Eastern Christians therefore have been and are being called by their history to carry out a work of discernment. One that may make them capable of grasping the positive elements existing in the cultures surrounding them and integrating elements that have a different ethnic background. Indeed, culture is not a monolith. It is life and is continuously evolving. That of the Eastern Christians is founded on the Greek, Syriac, Arab, Muslim and Western heritage and on many other elements as well.

But what will become of it tomorrow? And what is already becoming of it today? It must, realistically, be recognised that the cultural role of Christians in the Arab world has been possible on one precise condition: the existence of Muslim regimes that were open to otherness. When the tenth Abbasid Caliph, al-Mutawakkil (847-861) began a fanatical and persecutory policy against all non-Sunnis (whether they were Shi‘ites or Christians), the result was a very clear halt in Arab Christian production. Conversely, the extremely open climate only a few decades earlier, under his predecessor al-Ma‘mūn (813-833), had manifested itself in the publication of dozens of treatises written by Arab Christians who brought honour upon themselves for their contribution to that  civilization.

The Arab Christians’ bimillenary history has entrusted them with the marvellous and noble task of creating a society that is always open to what is best, living in total solidarity with the past and continually evolving towards a future still to be built. But they will not be able to do this without the Muslims’ support. And it is precisely this support that is lacking in the Middle East today; not only (as is obvious) in the territories controlled by the jihadist criminals but also in all the many expressions of diffidence and discrimination that are symptomatic of a widespread cultural climate. Indeed, jihadism has not sprung out of thin air: it has been nurtured by fanatical Islamic propaganda for decades.

However, whilst in the past the Christians could seek refuge in certain remote areas and wait for the storm to blow over and the times to become more favourable, modern technology makes this option totally unrealistic. The game becomes one of all or nothing, life or death. The life or death of the Eastern Christians, certainly, but also, and no less so, the life or death of a Muslim Arab world that is increasingly risking closing itself off in an autistic repetition of what is identical to itself, thus definitively cutting itself off from the living forces that are shaping history today.

Arab Christians have an essential role to play – at the socio-political and ethical-cultural levels – in the preservation or re-introduction of peace and justice: 1) political peace, between Israel and the Arab world, based on justice and international agreements represented by the United Nations; 2) the peace and justice needed to apply and observe all the points in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and absolute equality between men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, in particular; 3) social peace, in order to cancel the scandalous gap between the very rich and the very poor within the Arab world; 4) religious peace within Islam, between the Sunnis and the Shi‘ites, who are the principal cause of the current war in the Middle East; and 5) cultural peace, in order to open the Arab and Islamic world to modernity without falling into secularism or a purely individualist understanding of freedom.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


[1] For a wider-ranging treatment, the reader is referred to Samir Khalil Samir, Rôle culturel des chrétiens dans le monde arabe, (Cedrac, Beirut, 2005), of which this article constitutes both a summary and an update. The book is also available in Italian, translated by Paola Pizzi (Ruolo culturale dei cristiani nel mondo arabo, Edizioni Orientalia Christiana, Rome, 2007) and in Arabic: Dawr al-masīhīyyīn al-thaqāfī fī l-‘ālam al-‘arabī, (Dār al-Mashriq, Beirut, 2004).

[2] See Samir Khalil Samir, “Langue arabe, logique et théologie chez Élie de Nisibe,” in Mélanges de l’Université Saint-Joseph 52 (1991-1992), Beirut, 1995, pp. 227-367. See, in particular, at pp. 305-313.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Samir Khalil Samir, “Arab Christians: Makers of Novelty. With Muslims’ Support”, Oasis, year XI, n. 22, November 2015, pp. 20-27.

Online version:
Samir Khalil Samir, “Arab Christians: Makers of Novelty. With Muslims’ Support”, Oasis [online], published on 27th January 2016, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/arab-christians-makers-novelty-muslims-support.