Most people outside the Middle East do not realize there are Middle Eastern Christians. Oh sure, there are Christians in the Middle East, at least some Western diplomats who might be Christians, or aid workers, or perhaps even missionaries, but they are Christian in the Middle East, not Christians from the Middle East. They are foreigners and outsiders in the “central Islamic lands.” In the places I have lived in the USA and in England, at least, the presumption is that Christianity is an exclusively Western (American and European) religion, and the Middle East is entirely Islamic, with the exception of the state of Israel since 1947.
Middle Eastern historians know better. They know that the lands conquered by the early Muslim armies in the 630s and 640s contained a lot of Christians and Jews (indeed, west of the Tigris, the majority of the population was most likely Christian), and this population did not evaporate. They know that there were significant Christian populations, and significant Christian individuals (often in the employment of the state) for centuries. They know that the Cairo Geniza is an unparalleled collection of documents from the pre-modern Middle East, and was collected in an important synagogue in Old Cairo. They know that the Jewish population of Israel did not all come from Europe, but also emptied out of Middle Eastern capitals like Cairo. In other words, it is common knowledge among Middle Eastern historians that there are and always have been non-Muslims in the Middle East.
Yet Middle Eastern history is more often known by another title, “Islamic History,” and even if the facts in the preceding paragraph are common knowledge, they are presumed by most Middle Eastern historians to be largely irrelevant. In this regard, most Middle Eastern historians are no different than the general public: both groups presume that anything relevant about the Middle East is a statement about Islam, and if there were or are non-Muslims, these are a vanishingly small minority who have missed the memo that the Middle East belongs to Islam. From this dominant perspective, interest in Middle Eastern Christians is at best a quaint eccentricity, and at worst a sinister politically motivated distortion of what we “know” to be important about “the Islamic world.”
I disagree. The study of non-Muslims in the Middle East, including Christians, is an important part of Middle Eastern history. There are many reasons one could give for this view; in upcoming posts I will give four reasons.
- The Danger of Over-Simplification
- The Advantages of Marginalia
- The Value of the View from Below
- Not Islam Alone, but Islam in the Company of Others