Last update: 2022-04-22 09:44:58
The series Patrimonio Culturale Arabo Cristiano (Arab Christian Cultural Heritage), now in his 9th release, offers Italian readers the first part of an important work by Nestorian Bishop Elias of Nisibis (975-1046).
Practically unknown in the West, the learned bishop, who lived in Upper Mesopotamia and wrote some 20 books on theology but also philosophy, grammar and calligraphy, as well as an Arabic-Syriac dictionary and even a treatise on weights and measures, is, to quote Caspar, Charfi and Samir in Bibliographie du dialogue islamo-chrétien (Bibliography of Islamic-Christian Dialogue, pp. 255-286, in Islamochristiana, 3, 1977), "the most important author when it comes to relations with Islam both for the quality of his opus (which inspired many other Christian writers) as well as for its quantity."
Even though he was deeply steeped in his own cultural tradition, Elias was aware that Muslims could not understand the theological vocabulary of Christianity. For instance, Samir writes: "In reality it was a true mental revolution [. . .]. He broke for good with the ghetto mentality, the Christian ghetto represented by the Syriac language and adopted the other's words; it does not matter that they are contrary to 'the rules of logic' to which he is strongly attached, or contradict the traditions of Syriac translators of Greek philosophical texts (Un traité nouveau d'Élie de Nisibe sur le sens des mots et , A New Treatise by Elias of Nisibis on the Meaning of the Words and , in Parole de l'Orient, 14, 1987, pp. 129-130).
One fact that clearly separates Elias' works from that of other Medieval polemicists is the presence of actual interlocutors, first among them, Abû l-Qâsim al-Maghribî, an important official of the small Marwanid state to which the diocese of Nisibis was attached. The interest shown by this top Muslim official for Christians developed when he met local monks after he barely managed to survive a purge within the administration of Fatimid Egypt.
If the vizir had previously viewed Christians as unbelievers and polytheists because of their faith in the Trinity, the care with which the monks healed him when he had fallen ill and his successive recovery, which he thought miraculous, led him to re-examine the matter. This, as it were, was the introduction to the famous Seven Sessions that Bishop Elias wrote following the vizir's death for the benefit of the latter's brother and later for the patriarch's secretary.
In the Fifth Session we find a profession of the Trinitarian monotheistic faith that meets with complete approval by his Muslim interlocutor. "I firmly believe that anyone who professes this opinion and the doctrine therein is a monotheist and that there is no difference between him and Muslims other than over the prophecy of Muhammad, son of 'Abdallah," the vizir is quoted as saying.
The fact that the Sessions refer to dialogues that actually took place and are not just imagined, leads the author to transcend the narrow confines of polemics and gives the text, even with the rigour associated with its philosophical dialectics, a pleasant touch of realism.
Always on the vizir's request, who was forever busy, Elias wrote the Book on how to dispel concerns, a collection of maxims whose purpose is well summarised in the author's preface: "Since your afflictions [. . .] are many, but the graces of God Almighty towards you are greater, it is necessary that your worries be many; but your joy is greater, and if your joy is greater than your worries, it is necessary that [your] gratitude be greater than [your] dissatisfaction."
The syllogistic progress in writing constitutes the only supporting structure in which Elias inserts maxims from the Arab, Greek and Persian traditions and from the Christian Scriptures.
The text thus belongs to the sapiential tradition, which is especially rich in Arabic literature and more broadly in those of the Middle East, but is distinct from contemporary Muslim texts for the absence of Qur'anic references, partly replaced by those taken from the Old and New Testaments.
As David Righi writes in the preface, this is a prudential choice by the author because it would have been out of place for a Christian to remind a Muslim of the contents of the latter's sacred book.
Yet despite this limitation, the text by the bishop of Nisibis remains one of the best examples of an actual theological exchange between Muslim and Christian believers during the Middle Age.
The exceptional level of culture the two men had, the situation of freedom in which the works were written and last but not least the real interests in understanding the views of the other surely represent a rare case in the often tense history of Muslim-Christian relations. This is another reason to be thankful for the publisher's courageous choice to publish.
The text, which is still waiting for its second part to go to print, comes with a lengthy introduction. The Italian translation and annotation are side by side with the Arabic text, thanks to the hard work of Anna Pagnini, who died all too prematurely before she could complete the task.