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A curious-minded vizier who delights in theology, a learned bishop steeped in both Syriac and Arab culture and oceans of time to discuss things together in the Upper Mesopotamia of a thousand years ago. This rare conjunction gave birth to one of the most fascinating works of Christian Arab literature, The Book of Dialogues, by Elias of Nisibis.
The vizier in question is Abu ’l-Qāsim al-Maghribī (981-1027). Belonging to an important line of functionaries, he survived the massacre of his family ordered in Egypt by the Caliph al-Hākim; after plotting a number of intrigues, he finally ended up on the banks of the Tigris, at the court of the Marwanid Emir Nasr al-Dawla. A cultural patron (he was, inter alia, indirectly connected with the genesis of al-Ma‘arrī’s famous Epistle of Forgiveness), the vizier held an intellectual salon in his free time, following the custom of the time.
Elias (975-1046) is one of the most noteworthy figures of the Syriac Church of the East. A monk and later bishop of Nisibis (currently Nusaybin, on the border between Turkey and Syria), he mainly wrote about theology and apologetics but he also has works on spirituality, a Syriac grammar, a chronography and even a treatise on weights and measures to his credit.
His fame as a cultured man reached the vizier’s ears and the latter, taking advantage of a stay in Nisibis, sent for him in order to question him: how can Christians say that they are monotheists if they profess that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit? And what is meant by their statement that God has a Son?
An Effort in Inculturation
If the topic is an absolute classic, the dialogue distinguishes itself from a great deal of controversialist literature by the effort made by both its protagonists to adapt their categories to those of their interlocutor. Elias, in particular, bases his formulation of God’s Unity-Trinity upon the typically Islamic debate about the divine attributes. The issue (which Michel Allard has referred to as “the essential problem of Muslim theology”) has as its starting point the fact that God is described in the Qur’an by way of various adjectives: powerful, wise, merciful etc. The masters of kalām, the dialectical theology then in vogue in the Islamic world, had identified seven particular attributes and had posed themselves the problem of their relationship with the divine essence.
Simplifying matters to the maximum, two schools of thought had formed. Whilst the Mu‘tazilis, advocates of a rationalist approach, maintained that some of these attributes were created and others coincided with the divine essence, the (proto-)Sunnis considered all of them to be uncreated and “not God and not different from God.” Following the steps of other, earlier theologians such as ‘Ammār al-Basrī (early ninth century), Elias uses this intra-Muslim debate to expound Christian doctrine in a language familiar to his listener, establishing a parallel between the Persons of the Trinity and the divine attributes in the Sunni vision. The common ground offered by Aristotelian philosophy (to the “Arabization” of which the Syriac scribes had made a decisive contribution) does the rest: although the vizier sympathises with the Mu‘tazilis – an allusion he makes towards the end of the first dialogue makes this quite clear – he certainly does not accuse the Sunnis of unbelief and is, therefore, essentially convinced by his guest’s explanation. The latter, for his part, does not fail to insist most skilfully (this time in harmony with the Mu‘tazili school) on the need to interpret some passages from the Scriptures allegorically.
When, a few days later, a judge from the intransigent Hanbali School sows seeds of doubt in the vizier’s mind as to whether Elias had been sincere in his statements, the bishop writes out a profession of faith in his own hand: a profession that, without betraying Christian doctrine, echoes at every step the technical Islamic vocabulary. And without saying so explicitly, he gives the vizier to understand that the Christian vision is closer to his theology than the Hanbali judge’s strict literalism is. The historical mission of Eastern Christians as mediators finds one of its highest forms of expression in these pages.
Conditions Dialogue Requires
This observation, so evident from a reading of the text, obviously does not obliterate some limitations in Elias’s exposition. Remaining basically tied to the apologetic genre, the bishop sets out to demonstrate negatively that the doctrine on the Trinity is not a departure from monotheism, whereas one could maintain, positively, that it is the necessary foundation for it. More than anything else, however, at several points he tends to slip into statements with a modalist flavour, partly on account of his need to maintain the parallel with the Islamic doctrine of the divine attributes. Finally, in the un-translated part of the dialogue, his exposition of Christology reveals an unresolved dualism that reaches its peak in the statement by which Jesus the man would not have seen and never will see the person of the Word. Here it seems correct to speak of adoption rather than incarnation of the Word.
And yet these theological limitations, limitations that (particularly as far as the Christology is concerned) do not seem to amount to a simple question of language – an explanation to which people incline, nowadays, a bit too casually – are amply redeemed by the very human introduction and the moving conclusion.
In the introduction, after the customary enquiries about the bishop’s health and affairs, as well as the news of wise men and scholars, the vizier tells him the story of his miraculous healing in a monastery. It has been this episode that has brought him to re-open the question of Christianity (which, intellectually, he had considered already closed), forcing him to ask himself – by way of a typical Shia conceptual pairing – whether the inner kernel of Christian doctrine could contain something beautiful, despite its for him repugnant exterior. One can understand the significance of the change brought about in the vizier by his meeting with the monk if one considers his previous experience: the Caliph who had ordered the massacre of al-Maghribī’s family in Egypt had been incited by a rival network led by a Christian scribe. And yet the monk’s lentil soup and pomegranate, together with his mysterious words about the blessing linked to that place, get the better of the past. Without this personal gesture, the dialogue would have degenerated fatally into disputation, as Elias says, in the most intelligent sentence in the whole text: “if the vizier’s aim […] in asking me these questions is to come to know our religion and to make sure that it is innocent of the horrible things that have been attributed to it, I will expound all that I know on the subject; but if his aim is to argue for the fun of arguing, I would ask him to excuse me and do me the favour of dropping the subject and passing to other matters not linked to religion and faith.”
Equally, one cannot fail to be moved, in the conclusion, by the fifty-year-old bishop’s courage: returning to his monastery, he writes his monotheistic profession of faith straight off, taking more than one risk. And the ecumenical importance (as we would say today) of his declaration, with that singular incipit “We, the family of Christian monotheists,” is not to be underestimated. Indeed, by using the expression “family” (or, more literally, “group” or “tribe”), Elias means to unite all the Christians who agree on the Nicene Creed, jumping over the division produced in the East by the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Despite everything, the Christians – or, rather, the Nazarenes, because Elias uses the Qur’anic term – remain one single “tribe”.
Could one imagine a dialogue of this depth, interwoven as it is with references to Aristotle, the Qur’an and the Bible, in today’s Mosul under the terrorist Caliph? And does the monastery where the vizier stayed still exist or has it already been destroyed by ISIS’s iconoclastic fury? Better than scores of speeches, these questions allow us to gauge the extent to which those lands have been hit by a regress in civilization. And they illustrate what a loss the definitive destruction of the Christian East’s heritage would constitute for mankind.
To cite this article
Martino Diez, “Thinking (and Conversing), Using the Categories of the Other”, Oasis, year XI, n. 22, November 2015, pp. 98-101.
Martino Diez, “Thinking (and Conversing), Using the Categories of the Other”, Oasis [online], published on 27th January 2016, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/thinking-and-conversing-using-categories-other.