Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) was a popular preacher and Muslim legal scholar in Damascus under Mamluk rule. He is primarily remembered for writing polemics against almost everyone (Jews, Christians, Alawites, Twelver Shiites, wild Sufis, the Mongols who had recently converted to Islam, Persian speakers, Sunni Muslims who engage in popular practices such as shrine visitation and praying to saints), and the famous traveler Ibn Battuta described him as having “some kink in his brain” (Gibb trans.). He is a leading authority cited by Wahhabis and other Salafis today. So one does not expect him to be a main resource on the religion of his opponents. But in reading this week from one of his polemics (against those Muslims who participate in non-Muslim festivals), I came across his account of what happened on Palm Sunday, a version of the events which I had never heard:
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.
Dates are reassuring. They allow one to pin an event to a particular time and give the illusion of order and comprehension. But sometimes they are wrong, and sometimes they simply don’t apply. Despite historians’ reputation for date obsession, this historian sometimes find they obscure more than they clarify.
While reading around on the new Syrian Orthodox patriarch-elect, I came across a repeated assertion that his particular branch of Middle Eastern Christianity was founded in 452 (e.g. here). What happened in 452? Well, plenty of things happened of course, but I cannot think of any significant event relevant to the future development of the Syrian Orthodox branch of Christianity. The Council of Chalcedon, which was rejected by the Syrian Orthodox, met in 451, and so the source of this date seems to have simply added one to the date of the council. This is a bad way to date an event. If one wished to date the founding of the Syrian Orthodox after the Council of Chalcedon, why not upon the completion of the council in November of 451? Or why not years later, perhaps in 457?
But even more important than the arbitrary nature of the choice of “the following year” is the problem that this is not how many religious groups develop. If you ask the Syrian Orthodox, their church was founded by Christ and the apostles. But that can’t be right, some will say, since Christ and the apostles founded “our” church (or at least the variety of Christianity we know better, whether Catholicism or Protestantism), and since the Syrian Orthodox are not that, their history must be shorter. It always amazes me when even people who pride themselves on rejecting Christian theology adopt such a necessarily theological interpretation of the past.
Like Shi’a Islam, Syrian Orthodox Christianity was not founded in a moment of time by some particular individual. Rather what was one group with a range of different ideas and opinions before the council in 451 experienced mitosis slowly (over the course of about two centuries), and around about the rise of Islam had clearly divided into two distinct groups. Speaking both sociologically and ideologically, there was a lot of continuity between each of the latter groups and what went before. Differences developed within the two sides as they coalesced into distinct camps, and it became progressively more difficult to avoid being one or the other, although as late as the 520s the poet-bishop Jacob of Serug did not find it profitable to address these contested issues. It was only from the 530s that separate clergy were being ordained for the two groups, and only from the 550s that a complete parallel ecclesiastical hierarchy was created. And since members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy tend to be pickier about such issues than laypeople, we do not have any very clear idea when the laity considered these groups to be distinct Christian sects. In any event, the process of religious divergence is almost always messy. The emergence of the Khariji groups and the various extremist ghulat testify to the same messy divergence within Islam, and even the formation of Islam as a different sort of monotheism from Judaism and Christianity was not a smooth course. But I do not think historians need be in the business of legitimating one set of heirs over another.
The process of religious divergence is complicated, but in both the Syrian Orthodox case and the early Islamic case the religion is misunderstood if it is characterized as something new. Both groups took great pains to assert (outsiders would say fabricate) their continuity with what went before. To characterize the Syrian Orthodox as a johnny-come-lately Christian sect disagrees with their own understanding, and makes it more difficult for the scholar to understand their viewpoint. Even Islam, with its insistence upon Muhammad as the prophet of God (rasul Allah), taught equally that he was the latest and the last (the “Seal”) of the prophets, teaching what earlier prophets such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus had (allegedly) taught. Traditional Muslim doctrine is that Islam was not a new religion, but the restoration of the original monotheism which had been corrupted by Jews and Christians in recent centuries.
This emphasis on continuity puts historians of religion in something of a bind. Not all claims to continuity are true. It is difficult to see how the Syrian Orthodox Church was founded by Christ and yet he was also a prophet of Islam. On the other hand, for historians to insist on the differences and divergences makes it difficult to understand how members of those groups reasoned and understood themselves. And yet to speak of these groups sensibly, historians must adopt distinct terminologies and determine when to apply those terminologies or the earlier labels.
In order to resolve these tensions, historians need to practice switching contexts, seeing the world (as much as possible) through the eyes of various historical actors and holding in abeyance the reflexive evaluation of an assertion as true or false (which is not to say that there isn’t a truth value to these assertions, just that our own evaluation may get in the way of our understanding those who evaluate the assertion differently). But it is also necessary to adopt a more nuanced vocabulary regarding the origin and development of religious groups: instead of insisting that every group was “founded” at some point in time, it is necessary to recognize complex and drawn out processes of mitosis which result in two (or more) groups, while both claim continuity with what went before. In other words, we must adopt the language of divergence.
(This is true not exclusively of religious groups; ethnic groups also experience mitosis, and new labels are adopted to replace old ones. In the fourteenth century, the famous Muslim world traveler Ibn Battuta would have been offended if you had called him an Arab; in his travelogue, “Arabs” were country bumpkins and bandits, and had nothing to do with his sophisticated urban self.)
Some may feel that such an approach is too complex. After all, a journalist is a busy professional who does not have time to describe the entire complex process by which two religious groups diverged, yet readers may wish some orientation to where this group fits in the grander scheme of things. I have sympathy with this complaint, although as a professional historian I have an obligation to plea for people to slow down and add nuance. Nevertheless, it is surely possible to do much better than a scurrilously precise date. The statement that his church “developed out of a fifth-century schism” is no longer-winded than the phrase “was founded in 452 after a schism” as used in the ABC article cited above. (The article’s statement that the schism was “with the bulk of the world’s Christians” is also questionable, but that’s an issue for another venue.) There are sufficiently concise ways to speak of the divergences of religious groups without sacrificing accuracy.
Yesterday the BBC Magazine ran an interesting article on Abuna Yuqin (“Fr. Joachim”) Unval’s effort to restore the monastery of Mor Awgin above the city of Nusaybin on the Turkish border with Syria, and his response to Syriac Christian refugees escaping into Turkey from the Syrian Civil War.
As usual when popular news media speaks on something that I know something about, I liked it, but I kept saying, “But there’s also…” and “But what about…” (No doubt the reason I do academic writing rather than journalistic writing is that I cannot get to the point fast enough for a wide readership.) So I thought here I would give a little wider context to this story, from my perspective as an outside expert.
It is probably worth mentioning that Abuna Yuqin’s denomination is the same as Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim, one of the two abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo.
We perhaps think of monasteries as communities of monks, but the reason Abuna Yuqin is the only monk mentioned in the article is that he is the only monk at this monastery. Restoring a monastery is not easy work, and he needs to prove that it is viable to support a monastery in this environment by attracting both additional monks and sufficient donations.
The “distinctive black cap of his Syriac Orthodox habit” has two panels on the top of the head, with between them thirteen ornate crosses (which from some angles look almost like stars). I have been told by several monks that these crosses represent Christ and the twelve apostles. It turns out that it is hard to find a picture of it online or in my own photos (I usually photograph the front of monks rather than their backs), but it is similar to the “koulla” of Coptic monks (depicted here).
The village he refers to is not Nusaybin, the nearest large city, but probably Eskihisar. Eskihisar formerly had a large Syriac Christian population before 1951, and the ancient village is known in Syriac texts as M’arre or M’arrin (“caves”). It is frequently linked to the monastery of Mor Awgin in historical texts. As of a few years ago, the village was entirely Kurdish, so if Syriac Christians are moving back into the village, that is a very significant development.
It is not actually too surprising for Syriac monks to be grateful to Yezidis. It is true that Yezidis are widely labeled “devil-worshippers” by Muslims and Christians alike, due to their high veneration of Mal’ak Ta’us (“the peacock angel”); the stories they tell of Mal’ak Ta’us closely resemble tales told of Iblis/Shaytan (Satan) in Islam. On the other hand, Yezidis do not accept converts, and are therefore not a religious threat to other groups, and since at least the nineteenth century Christians and Yezidis have sometimes helped each other in the face of antagonism from the larger populations of Sunni Arabs or Sunni Kurds. When I visited Dayr al-Za’faran in April 2012, a Yezidi dressed all in white was sitting and chatting beside a Syriac monk dressed all in black, and the two made a wonderful image. I wish I had a photo of it.
As to “Syriac Christianity dates back to the third century,” we don’t really know its origins. In fact a Christian community is probably earliest attested in the city of Nusaybin (ancient Nisibis), on the plain below Mor Awgin monastery, in the Aberkios inscription (in Greek) in the mid-second century, although it is only implicit. The oldest Syriac Christian texts may be the Odes of Solomon, which are variously dated to the first – third centuries (and are rather strange). Syriac Christians themselves tell the story of how King Abgar of the city of Edessa (modern Urfa in Turkey) corresponded with Jesus, who after his resurrection sent Addai/Thaddeus to miraculously heal the king and convert his city already in the first century. This legend was already rejected in the west by Pope Gelasius in 495.
On the subject of Syriac Christian foundation legends, the story of Mor Awgin as narrated by Abuna Yuqin, that he was a pearl diver who brought the Egyptian monasticism to Syria, is probably a fifth-century fabrication. It is true that Mor Awgin monastery is really old, but we do not know when it was founded, and it probably is not the oldest. Syriac Christianity had earlier non-cenobitic forms of asceticism which congealed into cenobitic monasteries in the early fifth century.
Abuna Yuqin also mis-speaks when he says, “We want our brothers to come back from Syria. Most of them fled there during the First World War.” It is true that large numbers of Christians fled Tur Abdin during World War I as a result of the massacres. The same massacres which targeted Armenians in eastern Turkey and are therefore known in the West as the Armenian Genocide also targeted Syriac Christians and some Kurds. Syrian Orthodox Christians refer to those massacres as Sayfo (“the sword”), while the Church of the East calls it the “Assyrian Genocide.” The survivors of the Syrian Orthodox community of Edessa (modern Urfa) made their way to Aleppo in northern Syria, and are regarded as a distinct community within their own denomination there, with their own traditions of church music and their own carefully guarded manuscript collection. On the other hand, most of the Syriac Christians within Syria have been there for generations before World War I. It is very true that the border between Turkey and Syria is artificial, created by European powers to reflect colonial interests (France wanted Syria), and it is equally true that throughout their long history, Syriac Christians have often moved from one region to another if they suspected a different government would be more favorable to them. They escaped to French Syria from the Sayfo, and now some are escaping back to Turkey from the Syrian Civil War, just as in the Middle Ages they escaped into or out of Byzantine territory depending on the attitude of the Emperor in Constantinople.
My biggest criticism of the BBC article is how it smooths out conflicts with the Turkish government. On the one hand, when I was in Mardin for a Syriac conference in 2012, I myself heard the governor of Mardin province and the president of the new Mardin Artuklu University (named after a 14th C dynasty which ruled Mardin) publicly call for Syriac Christians to return to the Tur Abdin region. And since the governor was part of the ruling AKP party, he probably could not have said those things without the permission of Prime Minister Erdoğan. This call for Syriac Christian immigration surprised me at the time, as it surprises the author of this BBC article.
But this call has a context. The theme of the conference was Syriac Christianity and cultural diversity, and among the groups acknowledged in the opening remarks to have lived in that region were Turks, Arabs, Kurds, and Syriac Christians. There was conspicuously no mention of Armenians, who also lived in Mardin and nearby Diyarbakır until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The BBC article mentions heavy government investment in dams in the region, but does not mention the forced resettling of the Kurdish population whose villages will now be underwater. I visited Hasankeyf, an ancient city on the Tigris, and Kurdish children came up to me and said in English, “Please tell the government not to destroy our homes.” They were handing out pamphlets to tourists trying to prevent the government from destroying Hasankeyf in the project to build the Ilısu Dam. The Syrian Orthodox have had their share of harassment: one of the two most important Syrian Orthodox monasteries in Tur Abdin is Mor Gabriel outside Midyat, which has lost property to government expropriation.
(A funny linguistic aside: the road signs to Mor Gabriel do not refer to it by that name, but by the name Deyr-Ül Umur Manastırı. When I visited, I asked why this was called “Umar’s Monastery,” and I was informed that the “Umur” represents the Syriac ‘umro (“monastery, habitation”), which has been prefixed with the Arabic dayr al- (“monastery of the”), to which has been added the Turkish word manastırı (“monastery”) borrowed from a European language. So the Turkish name for the place translates from three languages into “The monastery of the monastery of the monastery.” I think that’s just awesome.)
So what is the government in Ankara doing supporting the opening of Mor Awgin monastery above Nusaybin and calling on Syriac Christians to come “back” to Tur Abdin? As it was explained to me in Mardin by another foreigner visiting the city, the government knows that even if all the Syriac Christians come back to Tur Abdin, they will still be only a small minority, and therefore not a challenge. In contrast, the larger Armenian diaspora is making political trouble for Turkey by calling Western governments to recognize the Armenian genocide. The Kurdish majority of this region is also making international headlines complaining of Turkish nationalist discrimination, for example in the choice of dam locations, to say nothing of Ankara’s fears that the autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq (and the de facto almost autonomous Kurdish region in Syria due to the civil war) might fuel demands for Kurdish autonomy within Turkey. In other words, what the Turkish government wants is a “model minority” to which it can point to say that they treat minorities well, which would support the Turkish government’s bid to enter the EU. In the meantime, politics in southeastern Turkey remains a strange game in which ethnic and religious diversity sometimes leads to surprising winners, such as Abuna Yuqin.