Tag Archives: Christians

Recovering the Role of Christians in the History of the Middle East

(It’s been a while since I’ve posted, because I’ve been working on other things.  One of those things was my participation in a workshop earlier this month at Princeton University, organized by Christian Sahner, Jack Tannous, and Michael Reynolds.  Here, as a guest post, is their post-workshop summary of the discussion, for anyone interested in Middle Eastern religious diversity, yesterday and today.)

Recovering the Role of Christians in the History of the Middle East
A Workshop at Princeton University
May 6-7, 2016
A Summary

On May 6-7, 2016, the Near East and the World Seminar welcomed fourteen distinguished scholars to Princeton University to discuss the place of Christians in Middle Eastern history and historiography. At the outset, speakers were invited to reflect on how the field of Middle Eastern history generally and their work specifically changes when they consider perspectives provided by Christian sources, institutions, and individuals. A working premise of the conference was that although Christians have formed a significant portion of the population of the Middle East since the Arab conquests, the stubborn but understandable tendency of historians to conceive of the Middle East as a Muslim region has had the effect of marginalizing Christian experiences. The result has been to consign Middle Eastern Christianity to a niche specialty alongside larger fields, such as Islamic studies, Byzantine studies, church history, Jewish studies, and Ottoman history. Continue reading

Is ISIS Medieval?

A while ago I read a thought-provoking discussion of the goals of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and how that jihadist group draws from pre-modern Islamic religious texts in formulating its tactics and its appeal to violent extremist Muslims.  The author is at his provocative best in likening well-intentioned Western liberal attempts to define ISIS as un-Islamic as a kind of takfirism, or labeling certain Muslims as unbelievers.  I think he misses the point when he delegitimizes practicing Muslims for describing ISIS as un-Islamic, and indeed, his article provoked a firestorm of criticisms, refutations, and abuse over the use of the term “Islamic” for ISIS.  For practitioners, islam is submission to God’s will, and if ISIS is going against God’s will, then they are ipso facto not islam.  It does not require historical naivete (or, as Prof. Haykel evocatively termed it, “a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” although see his clarification here) to acknowledge that many things historically practiced by Muslims are inconsistent with what most modern Muslims understand to be God’s will.  However, the real bone I want to pick with the article is the way it simply accepts the Salafi account of what medieval Islam was, an account which is itself revisionist history.

Put simply, the “medieval Islam” to which ISIS and other Salafis appeal never existed as such.  Too many scholars play along with this modern chimera, though they know better, and thus are complicit in a cultural genocide which is reducing the fascinatingly diverse pre-modern Middle East to a one-dimensional textbook description of Sunni Arab Islam, complete with five pillars evidently erected by Muhammad himself. Continue reading

The Mosul Expulsion Decree

Although I found many news articles about the ultimatum against the Christians in Mosul issued by ISIS, I was unable to find the text available anywhere, other than in an image which circulated around Twitter.  So here I have transcribed and translated the decree.  Because I have done this quickly, I have no doubt that I have made some errors of transcription or translation; any suggestions welcome!

First, here is the picture of a copy of the decree which I saw on Twitter:

Several copies of the decree were re-tweeted.

The ultimatum decree issued by ISIS ordering Christians to convert, to pay jizya, or to die.

The text (ignore extra ـ characters; for whatever reason the RTL algorithm is failing):

عدد: 40
لتريخ: 19/رمضان/1435هـ
ـ 17/ 7 /2014م
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
الدولة الإسلامية
ديوان القضاء
لا اله الا الله
الله
رسول
محمد

بيان

الحمد لله معزّ الإسلام بنصره، ومذلّ الشرك بقهره، وجاعل الأيام دولاً بعدله، والصلاة والسلام على من رفع الله منار الإسلام بسيفه، وبعد : ـ

يقول الله تعالى : وَإِذْ قالت أمة منهم لم تعظون قوما الله مهلكهم  او معذبهم عذابا شديدا قالوا معذرة الى ربكم ولعلهم يتقون : الأعراف (163).ـ

فبعد إبلاغ رؤوس النصارى واتباعهم بموعد الحضور لبيان حالهم في ظل دولة الخلافة في ولاية نينوى أعرضوا وتخلفوا عن الحضور في الموعد المحدد والمبلغ إليهم سلفاً، وكان من المقرر أن نعرض  عليهم إحدى ثلاث :ـ

ـ1 – الإسلام.ـ

ـ2 – عهد الذمة (وهو أخد الجزية منهم).ـ

ـ3 – فإن هم ابوا ذلك فليس لهم الا السيف.ـ

وقد من عليهم امير المؤمنين الخليفة ابرهيم – اعزه الله – بالسماح لهم بالجلاء بانفسهم فقط من حدود دولة الخلافة لموعد أخرة يوم السبت الموافق 21 رمضان 1435 شـاعة الثانية عشر ظهرأء وبعد هذا الموعد ليس بيننا وبينهم إلا السيف.ـ

ـ((ولله العزة ولرسوله وللمؤمنين ولكن المنافقين لايعلمون))ـ

ديوان القضاة
ولاية نينوى

The translation:

There is no God but Allah
Allah
Messenger
Muhammad
In the Name of God the Merciful the Compassionate
The Islamic State
The Council of Judges
Number: 40
Date: 19/ Ramadan / 1435 A.H.
17 / 7 / 2014 A.D.

Declaration

Praise to God who strengthens Islam by his victory, and who humbles polytheism by his subjugation, and makes the days follow one another by his justice, and prayer and peace upon whomever God exalts as the beacon of Islam by his sword, and hence:

God Most High says, “When some of them said: ‘Why do ye preach to a people whom Allah will destroy or visit with a terrible punishment?’- said the preachers: ‘To discharge our duty to your Lord, and perchance they may fear Him.'” (al-A’raf 163)

And after the announcement of the leaders of the Christians and their dependents of the appointed time of the meeting for indicating their condition under the shadow of the state of the caliphate in the province of Nineveh, they rejected and were absent from the meeting at the specified time and the payment to them in advance, and it was determined that we should present to them one of three things:

1. Islam

2. The contract of dhimma (and it includes taking the jizya from them).

3. And if they refuse these, there is nothing for them but the sword.

And the Commander of the Faithful, Caliph Ibrahim (may God strengthen him) has granted to them permission for them to depart with only their persons from the boundaries of the state of the caliphate at the latest by Saturday which falls on 21 Ramadan 1435, at the hour of twelve noon, and after this time there is nothing between us and them but the sword.

But honour belongs to Allah and His Messenger, and to the Believers; but the Hypocrites know not.

Council of Judges

Nineveh Province

The End of Christianity in Mosul

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has consolidated its hold on the city of Mosul in northern Iraq and is busy converting the metropolitan center to its own extremist brand of Sunni Islam.  Last week the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now styling himself Caliph Ibrahim, issued an order for Christians in the city to (a) convert to Islam, (b) pay the jizya tax on non-Muslims at an unspecified rate, or (c) be killed, although some awareness of the option to leave was displayed in the order as well.  Reports that a church was torched are of uncertain veracity (see a careful analysis of the photos circulating around the web at this blog), but images showing an Arabic ن (for نصارى, nasara, meaning “Christians”) spray-painted on various houses indicate that these houses were available to be seized.  Nor are Christians the only ones to suffer: reportedly some Shiite men have disappeared, Shiite families have been told to flee or be killed, and Shiite homes have been emblazoned with another Arabic letter, ر for رافضي (rafidi) something like “heretic scum,” while reports are also circulating that ISIS has destroyed the Sunni shrine and tomb of Nabi Yunus (the biblical prophet Jonah) in the ruins of ancient Nineveh to the east of the Tigris).  In this climate, most Christians chose to leave Mosul for the comparatively tolerant lands of Iraqi Kurdistan to the north, although refugees have reported being robbed of all their belongings at the checkpoint leaving the city.

The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, Louis Sako, who is presently the highest ranking ecclesiastical official of any denomination in Iraq, commented on the expulsion of the Christians, “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.” Continue reading

Non-Muslim Significance? In the Company of Others…

Islam did not develop in a vacuum.  This is not pejorative, nor indeed contrary to the traditional Muslim account of its own origins.  The traditional Muslim view is that Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), ‘Isa (Jesus), and others were all prophets preaching Islam, but that Jews and Christians corrupted their scriptures.  So one might expect certain continuities, and indeed, the Qur’an refers to Jews and Christians and presents Allah as instructing Muhammad to consult the “people of the book” if he is doubtful about the revelation he has received (Yunus 10:94).  It is well known to scholars of the origins of Islam that the Qur’an adapts various biblical accounts and refers to various figures found in the Bible, but this contact between Islam and other religions did not cease with the final form of the Qur’an, but rather intensified.

After Muhammad’s death, his followers conquered a large part of the world and came to rule over societies of non-Muslims.  One would then expect even more extensive contact between Muslims and non-Muslims.  One result of this contact is the importation into the body of Islamic tradition of the isra’iliyyat, accounts from Jewish or Christian tradition regarding biblical figures.  The anxiety of early Muslims imitating non-Muslims is shown in the hadith (traditional account) which ascribes to Muhammad the prohibition of imitating Jews or Christians.  In one of several formulations, this injunction reads, “He is not one of us who imitates other than us. Do not imitate the Jews or the Christians.”  (Note: hadith accounts are often not genuine, and often reflect conditions and questions that arose after Muhammad’s death.)

But “imitation” is too restrictive a model to describe the relationship between Islam and other religions of the regions ruled by Muslims, whichever direction that “imitation” is posited.  It is also the case that our evidence rarely allows us to establish that “imitation” occurred.  Instead, we can speak reasonably confidently of certain aspects of shared culture.

Consider the importance of Jerusalem.  Of course it is the holy city of Judaism, the place where the Temple was built and G-d dwelt on earth.  It is the holy city of Christianity, the place where Jesus was crucified and rose again from the dead, where the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost and inaugurated the Church.  According to traditional Islamic accounts, it was also the first holy city of Muslims and the direction that the earliest Muslims were to pray (the first qibla), before Muhammad changed Muslim prayer to be in the direction of Mecca.  It is often presumed that the change of qibla relegated Jerusalem to the status of third holiest city of Islam, after Mecca (Muhammad’s home town) and Medina (Muhammad’s adopted city).  But in fact, three and a half centuries after Muhammad, an important Muslim author named al-Muqaddasi (i.e. “from Jerusalem”) wrote that Jerusalem was in fact more important than Mecca or Medina because Muhammad ascended to heaven from there and God would bring all creation there for judgment!  (Al-Muqaddasi acknowledged, however, that Muslims were a minority in the city.)  Thus the cultural importance of Jerusalem was shared, if differentiated, among Muslims, Jews, and Christians.  Other examples of shared culture include the aesthetics and gendered architecture mentioned in a previous post.

As a historian, I take it for granted that Islam has a history.  Even at the highest intellectual stratum, certain thinkers thought (and, more importantly, wrote) at specific periods of time.  They did so in particular cultural contexts, and cultural contexts which included not only Muslims, but also non-Muslims.  Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) is one of the heroes of the Salafi movement (so-called “Islamic fundamentalism”), though he lived seven centuries after Muhammad, at exactly the half-way point between Muhammad and the present.  He is known for his voluminous writings and polemical rejection of everything Islamic that did not have the most spotless pedigree.  He wrote polemics against a wide variety of popular Muslim devotional practices, such as celebrating saints’ birthdays at funeral shrines, and opposed honoring mosques (even that at Jerusalem) too highly.  He opposed any similarity to non-Muslim religions, and often opposed practices by arguing that they were influenced by Muslim religions.  Here is a Muslim thinker for Muslims.

But like all thinkers, Ibn Taymiyya wrote in a cultural context.  He wrote a polemic against Christianity (كتاب جواب الصحيح لمن بدّل دين المسيح, “The right answer to whoever corrupts the Messiah’s religion”), in response to fears that Muslims would convert to Christianity in light of a Christian polemic against Islam in Arabic.  When he left his native Harran for cities further south, such as Damascus, he must have stopped for a rest in a town which was almost entirely Christian at that time: Qara, one caravan stop south of Hims.  He opposed Muslims doing things that he had seen Christians do, because he wanted Islam to be a distinct religion that could stand on its own two feet without supporting itself with non-Muslims.  His writings must be placed in a context which includes non-Muslims; to read them without that context, as many Salafis do today, makes Ibn Taymiyya into a monster who simply glorified in calling other religions nasty names.  But instead he used polemic, as did his various contemporaries, to protect what he valued against what worried him.  He was worried that the Islam of his day was not independent enough, and too similar to the religions of Christians and Jews.

And if so strong a Muslim exceptionalist as Ibn Taymiyya must be read in light of a mixed-religious context, then the normal Muslims against whom he is arguing, who are engaging in devotional practices which Ibn Taymiyya labels imitative of non-Muslims, must even more be seen in a religiously diverse Middle Eastern context.  This becomes apparent when one reads the travel accounts of Muslim travelers such as Ibn Jubayr (d. 1217) and Ibn Battuta (d. 1368/9), as they discuss different local variations of Islam, and how Muslims of different regions interact with the non-Muslims there.  Ibn Jubayr, during a very brief stay in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, was scandalized at how easily Muslims adjusted to being ruled by non-Muslims, and he devoted a couple passages to arguing from Islamic tradition that Muslims are obliged to leave a region conquered by non-Muslims.  Ibn Battuta describes the various ways in which the Muslim Turks ruled Anatolia in the fourteenth century, when much of the population was still Greek Christian, and he complains both that he cannot find Muslims who speak Arabic, and that people in one city suspect him of being a heretic, because they never saw anyone of his branch of Sunni Islam.  Anatolian Muslims knew how to live with Greek Christians, but not Maliki Sunni Muslims.

The reason why Muslim sources so rarely discuss non-Muslims is not that there were few non-Muslims, but that the Muslim authors took the non-Muslims for granted and considered them literally unremarkable.  Nevertheless, the fact that Islam developed over centuries in a religiously diverse society had a poorly understood but readily apparent impact on the shape even of religion, to say nothing of government, law, society, culture, and art.  The history of Islam, like the history of every human phenomenon, cannot be understood without a broad analysis of the society as a whole.