Vol. 33 – June 1995 – No. 146, pp. 322-344.
Maren Tyedmers Hange assisted with this translation.
Introduction as we approach this important issue, it is necessary to give a brief overview of the political and religious conditions shortly before the appearance of Islam in the areas where the Syrian Church began in the early age of Christianity and in the places where Islam originated and spread after more than 600 years of Christianity. We will touch on the general situation of Christianity, the split of the church and her doctrinal differences in order to gain a better insight into the foundations of the beliefs of these two religions. We will also mention some points in broad strokes where the Christian and Islamic beliefs agree.
Who are the Syrians? The members of the Antiochian Syrian Church represent the direct descendants of the original inhabitants of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Asia Minor, as well as Upper- and Lower- Mesopotamia—that is Iraq today. Their language, Syriac-Aramaic, was the language of ancient Syria. It was also the language our Lord Jesus Christ spoke and the language predominantly spoken in these areas when Islam appeared. Besides this, Arabic was spoken by the Arabic tribes coming from the Gulf region. These tribes had immigrated a long time earlier and lived in villages in eastern Syria and in western and northern Iraq. Along side Arabic these tribes used Syriac as an inseparable part of the Anthocyan Syrian Church’s liturgy. In addition to these two languages, Greek was spoken as the official language of the Byzantine colonial power and by the populations in the cities of Greek origin who were the inhabitants of the large cities. Persian was also spoken as the language of the Sassanid Empire.
Religious and Political Conditions Before the Appearance of Islam The Split of the Christian Church At the beginning of the 7th century the Antiochian Syrian Church fought with all its might for its existence, its Syriac-Aramaic heritage and its exalted Christian dogma inherited from the holy Apostles and the spiritual, righteous Fathers. The church was weakened by the forceful persecution from both empires, namely the Byzantine and the Persian, who for generations had threatened its existence because of its geographical position. Through the enormous number of martyrs, whom the church produced through the centuries, the members gained a certain long suffering patience that allowed them to bear the oppression, distresses and deprivations as good soldiers of Christ. Added to that was the appearance of extreme opinions in religion and the kindling of dogmatic confrontations as an occasion to study theology more deeply. Furthermore it drove its scientists to combine theology with the science of philosophy as a weapon to use against heretical statements and to defend the truth of religious dogma.
The Syrians were so famous for their love of science that they founded a school beside every church. Their monasteries became faculties for theology and other sciences. The church suffered under this division. It changed from a spiritual institution that strove for the salvation of souls into a battlefield where christological conflicts were carried out inconsiderately. This situation led to doubt in the hearts of the believers and to a weakening of the faith.
In addition to this, the Roman empire was divided into two camps after the death of the Emperor Constantine: namely the West-Roman, using Latin, and the East-Roman that used Greek and was called the Byzantine empire. Most of the Syrian areas were under the rule of the Byzantine empire, while the rest were under the rule of the Persians. The Byzantine and Persian empires were in conflict with each other over control of the Orient leading to constant wars between them.
The Christian Creed Because of the appearance of some foreign religious ideas that deviated from the exalted dogma of the church, the Christian Creed was determined by the two ecumenical councils, which took place in Nicea in 325 A.D. and in Constantinople in 381 A.D.
In the first council Arius was excommunicated for stating that Jesus was no more than the logos created by God whom he had sent to humanity as a religious messenger. He stated: “The Father existed before the Son was there. Then God created the Son who became His logos. The Son was created like the rest of creation. The Father gave him all power and he made heaven and earth.”
In the second council Makdonios was excommunicated for denying the divinity of the Holy Spirit and said that the Holy Spirit was created by the Son and he is his servant. At the above councils the areas of jurisdiction were also determined for the three apostolic Sees of Rome, Antioch and Alexandria, then the forth See Constantinople. In the last council the prerogatives of these Sees were also determined after their geographical location and their closeness to the centers of civil and political power.
The Split of the Syrian Church These constant dogmatic debates between the Christian churches alienated the churches from each other and culminated in the split of the church. Hardest hit by this split was the Syrian church. It happened as a result of the anathematizing of Nestorius at the council of 431 A.D. in Ephesus. Nesters claimed that Jesus embodies two persons: God, the logos, and Jesus, the human. Because God cannot be subjected to natural influences, Mary only gave birth to the human Jesus, and therefore she cannot be called “Mother of God” (Theotokos). This means that Christ has two persons and two separate natures. (With this he cast doubt on the Christian faith of the Holy Trinity).
The Syrians, who accepted Nesters’ ideas and did not follow the canon of Ephesus, were called Nestorians. They were persecuted by the Byzantine Empire. Thus, they fled to the Persian empire in South-Mesopotamia. In this way the Syrian church was divided into two. The Syrians living west of the Euphrates were called ‘Syrians of the West’ and they came directly under the Patriarch of Antioch. Those living east of the river Euphrates – also in Iraq -were called the ‘Syrians of the East’, most of them were Nestorians, except those who still came under the See of Antioch. Because of this geographical division, the Syrian language split into two dialects, namely the West-Syrian and the East-Syrian. The ‘Syrians of the West’ living in the Persian empire had to suffer heavily under oppression by the Persians. This happened not just because of their faith but because its spiritual leadership was residing in the hostile Byzantine empire. They were therefore accused of disloyalty.
When the Byzantine empire adopted the resolutions of the council of Chalcedon in 451, they began to oppress those who rejected these resolutions – first and foremost the members of the Syrian church. The church fathers and the believers had to endure various agonies like bans, killings and incarceration. Many of them, both clergy and laity, gained martyrdom.
Justinius I carried out one of these oppression against the members of the Syrian, Coptic and Armenian churches after his ascension to the Byzantine throne in 518 A.D. Because of that Patriarch Severius the Great was forced to make his way to Egypt. There he lived for 20 years and led the church through his representatives and letters.
After the death of Justinius I in the year 527 A.D. his nephew Justinian ascended the throne and with him his wife Theodora, the daughter of a priest from Manbij in Syria. She had pity for the oppressed, the banned and the incarcerated Syrians in Constantinople. For political and administrative considerations, she was not able to stop the oppression because the followers of the council of Chalcedon would have accused her husband of siding with the banned Syrians and being under the influence of his wife.
The Ghassanid Arabs had already founded an important Emirate. The Byzantine emperor commissioned their princes (“the Gafnan”) with the reign over Syria. They were supposed to secure the border of the Byzantine empire against the attacks of the Arab tribes allied with the Persians. The Ghassanians held fast to their Syrian Church and defended its dogma. Empress Theodora met the wish of king Al Hareth Ibn Gabla to send some bishops into the areas occupied by the Byzantine Empire. She asked Patriarch Theodosius the Alexandrian, who was banned to Constantinople with Antimos the Patriarch of Constantinople, to consecrate the monk Jacob Baradäus as Metropolitan of Edessa, Syria and Asia Minor, as well as to consecrate the monk Theodor the Arab as Metropolitan of the Arabs in Bosra in 543 or 544 A.D. Immediately after the consecration, Mor Jacob went to work. Untiring he moved on foot with amazing speed from town to town incognito, disguised as a layman and always pursued by the Byzantine powers. In this way he crossed Syria, Armenia, Asia Minor, Cyprus, Rhodes, Chios, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, Persia and many more places strengthening the true faith of believers.
With two assistants whom he ordained as bishops according to the church canons he consecrated 27 bishops. With this he strengthened the members of the Syrian Orthodox Church as well as the Coptic and Armenian Churches in the faith that was decided on in the three ecumenical councils of Nicea, Constantinople and Ephesus. He also consecrated thousands of priests and deacons. Thus, the great apostolic striver was able to strengthen the foundations of the Syrian Church. As a result of this and out of hate and anger, the Syrian Church was called the Jacobite Church by its enemies. Although the Syrian Church is proud of Mor Jacob it rejects this name because Mor Jacob was neither its founder nor the author of a new dogma. He was one of its spiritual fathers who strengthened its members in the right faith they had received from the Apostles and the righteous church fathers. His steadfast holding up in the face of the Byzantine injustices is unprecedented and the church will always be proud of him. The church also holds the strong belief that the Lord Jesus lives in her midst and that “the gates of hell will not overcome it.”
At the beginning of the 7th century Heraklios (610-641 A.D.) ascended the throne of the East-Roman Empire. After he defeated the Persians and conquered Mesopotamia, he forced his way into Syria in 612 A.D. In 629 A.D. he occupied Damascus. Following that he tried earnestly to restore the religious unity in his empire to unite the Syrians, Copts and Armenians with the Byzantines. This happened on the one hand through promises and on the other hand through threats. Very often he used ruthless oppression through which many Syrians, Copts, and Armenians became martyrs. The persecution of the Syrian Church by the Byzantine Empire did not end until the appearance of Islam.
Only through the campaigns of Islam in the first half of the 7th century was it possible to free the East from the Byzantines and the Persians. This happened with the help of the members of the Syrian Church; the original inhabitants of Syria of whom one part was of Aramaic origin who inhabited these areas for generations and another part was of Arabic origin. When the Arab Muslims marched into Syria they were welcomed by the Syrians who saw the new rulers as saviors who freed them from the yoke of the Byzantines because the Byzantines tried by force to assimilate them into the Byzantine Church. This was the church of the empire and membership in it would have meant compulsorily acceptance of the resolutions of Chalcedon: that Christ had two natures, the human eating, drinking and feeling pain and the divine making miracles. This would have been a denial of the dogma of their church fathers. The Syrians were also able through the cooperation with the Arab Muslims to retain their ecclesiastical dogma, the Antiochian See, their churches, monasteries, ecclesiastical inheritance and their liturgy.
The Position of the Syrians Toward the Islamic Conquest >From the above it becomes clear that the religious conflicts in the Christian church, the attempts of the Byzantine powers to force the issues of the council of Chalcedon upon the other churches by force, to throw its members in prison, to kill them, to ban them and to drive them out alienated the Syrian Christians. All these unchristian deeds only sowed hate and aversion in the hearts of the Syrians against the Byzantine powers. The Persian powers in their empire oppressed both West and East Syrians in general to force them under tyrannical policies and Zoroastrian beliefs. Therefore the Syrians under the Byzantine and Persian powers saw the Islamic conquerors as liberators and not as occupiers. The Syrians put great hope in them, not only because the Muslims liberated them from their religious trouble but also because they relieved the Syrians of the burdensome taxes that were placed on their backs. They said, “Praise be to God, who delivered us from the unjust Byzantines and who put us under the rule of the just Muslim Arabs.”
The Religious Situation of the Arabs at the Time of the Rise of Islam The religious situation of the Arabs was confusing and disorganized. Some tribes were totally pagan. The split of the church distracted them from their task of spreading the Gospel. Thus, the time was favorable for the appearance of Islam on the Arab peninsula. We have to mention here that one part of the population of the Arab peninsula was pagan at the time of the appearance of Islam. The others were in name only followers of Abraham. It is mentioned in history that Christianity appeared in the first century on the peninsula. It spread with strength in the Syrian desert and in Iraq among many tribes like, Beni Taghleb, Beni Kalb; in Yemen, Tai, Bahraa, Salikh, Tennuch, Ghassaen and others who thus were prepared for accepting Islam later.
The dogma of Arius and Nesters that was anathematized at the ecumenical councils of Nicea (325 A.D.) and Ephesus (431 A.D.) were wide spread among the Christians on the peninsula. Added to this is that through rebellious members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church some doubtful heretical religious statements in the name of Christianity were spread among some Arab tribes.
At the end of the 6th and the beginning of the 7th century, Qas Ibn-Sa-ida Al-Ayadi, bishop of Najran, was praised for his wisdom, poetry and the art of speech. Another famous man is named Waraqa Ibn Naufal Ibn Assad (who died about the year 611). He was the bishop of Mekka that was full of Christians. He was the cousin of Khadidga, daughter of Khuailid, the wife of Muhammad, the prophet. Most of the Christians of Mecca, Yemen and Najran were members of the Syrian Orthodox Church. The majority of Qurash was Christian. (The Christians were called ‘Nazarians’ after Jesus.) As manifold as the different dogma of the Christians of the Arab peninsula might have been, they exercised a great influence upon their Arab Muslims there.
We do not want to forget that the main religious dogma of Christianity and Islam are close to each other, such as the belief in one God who made heaven and earth, the belief in the day of judgment, the day of the resurrection, eternal life, heaven and hell, etc. There are also historical-religious events of the Syrians, which are mentioned in the Quran, like the Legend of the Cave and The Martyrs of the Furrow. For the Syrians the Legend of the Cave was an event with which God proves that He, the creator, can bring back to life the dead on the day of the resurrection. It was handed down in the Syriac language in excellent style, verse and prose. It belongs to the Syrian tradition and was studied thoroughly also by the great chroniclers like Zachariah the Rhetor (587), the Monk of Zuqnin (521). The church remembers these Seven Sleepers on November 24 every year. They have their own liturgical prayer in which the truth of their sleeping and awakening is documented and handed down.
The Martyrs of the Furrow who are mentioned in the Quran are the Himyarite martyrs, the Syrian-Christian Arabs of Najran, who were persecuted by Mashruq the Jew, known as Dhu Nuwas, and thus gained martyrdom. Islam From the View of the Scientists of the Syrian Church All of the Syrian scientists who occupied themselves with the biography of the prophet Muhammad described his qualities and noble character traits. Because of lack of space we will content ourselves with the testimony of Bar Haebraus, Maphrian of the East (1286 A.D.) who summarized the life of the prophet Muhammad in his book Chronicle of the Dynasties as follows : “(Muhammad Ibn Abdallah, Peace be upon him) The biographies of Muhammad mentioned that he is from Ishmael, the son of Abraham, whom Hagar gave birth to . . . He was born in Mecca in the year 882 (after the Seleucid era that is 571 A.D.). When he was about two years old, his father Abdallah died. His mother, Amina, the daughter of Wahab, stayed with him for six years. After her death his grandfather Abdul Muttaleb took him and vouched for him. When he was about to die, he asked his son Abu Talib to take care of him. When he was nine years old, his uncle took him along to Syria.
When they arrived in Bosra, a clairvoyant monk called Bahira met them and stepped towards them. When he came to the child, he held his hand and said: ‘This boy will become a great man, and his fame will go across borders because when he came he was shaded by a cloud.’ When he was 25 years old an honorable, noble and rich woman called Khadija offered that he run her business in Syria. She wanted to pay him more than anyone else. He took the offer. Then she wanted to marry him and offered herself in marriage. She was 40 years old when he married her. They lived 22 years together. Then she died in Mecca. When Muhammad turned 40 he began his mission. After the death of his uncle and his wife, the tribe of “Quarisch” harmed him so he emigrated to Al-Medina (which is Yathrib). In the first year of his emigration he was celebrated by the people and they supported him against his enemies in Mecca . . . In the 10th year of his emigration he went on his last pilgrimage and in this year he got sick. Two days before the end of the month Safar, on a Monday, he died at the age of 63. The people of Mecca wanted to bury him in Mecca where he was born. The population of Al-Medina, however, wanted to bury him in their city because he emigrated there. Others, for their part, wanted to bury him in Jerusalem because that was the place where prophets were buried. In the end all parties agreed to bury him in Al-Medina in the same room where he had died.”
To gain a better overview of the prophet, we add to the before mentioned: The messenger Muhammad converted the Arabs during their feast gatherings and many believed in his teachings. He had to leave Mecca to evade the persecution of the Qurischians. The population of Al-Medina welcomed him and supported him. Later he had to take up the sword to protect the fruits of his mission from its enemies. Therefore, he armed armies and led invasions. Among the important wars is the great Badr invasion in which the Muslims won a great victory. Among the good deeds of the Muslims are counted the buying of the prisoners’ freedom through teaching: The money to buy the prisoners freedom was collected in that every prisoner of Quarisch had to teach ten children of Al-Medina reading and writing. The wealthy could buy their relatives free with money also. Before every invasion the messenger instructed his armies with these words: “You will find men who withdrew into cells; do not disturb them, kill no woman, no child, no old man and do not cut down a tree.” In this way the messenger Muhammad wanted to proclaim his message in the world as brotherly and just and by keeping freedom and human rights. Whoever studies the Quran in- depth will understand that the messenger Muhammad was not sent to force people into Islam. The following verses in the Quran confirm this truth: “It is not for you to guide them: God guides whom he will.” (Sura 2, The Cow, verse 272)
“There is no compulsion in matters of faith. Distinct is the way of guidance now from error. He who turns away from the forces of evil and believes in God, will surely hold fast to a handle that is strong and unbreakable, for God hears all and knows every thing. (Sura 2, The Cow, verse 256)
“And tell the people of the book and the heathens: ‘Do you submit?’ If they do, they will find the right path; if they turn away, your duty is to deliver the message. And God keeps an eye on His votaries.” (Sura 3, The Family of Imran, verse 20)
“Call them to the path of your Lord with wisdom and words of good advice; and reason with them in the best way possible. Your Lord surely knows who strays from his path, and he knows those who are guided the right way.” (Sura 16, The Bees, verse 125)
“We have sent down this book to you with the truth for all humanity. So, he who comes to guidance does so for himself, and he who goes astray does so for his own loss; on you does not lie their guardianship.” (Sura 39, The Small Groups, verse 41)
The Quran speaks for the Christians and recognizes their holy books through the following verses:
“If you are in doubt of what we have sent down to you then ask those who have been reading the Book (for a long time) before you. The truth has indeed come to you from your Lord, so do not be one of those who doubt.” (Sura 10, Jonah, verse 94)
“You will find the Jews and idolaters most excessive in hatred of those who believe; and the closest in love to the faithful are the people who say: ‘we are the followers of Christ,’ because there are priests and monks among them, and they are not arrogant.” (Sura 5, The Feast, verse 82)
The Quran also attests, that Jesus was not born of human conception but that God breathed his Spirit into Mary. In addition there are sayings in the Quran that summarize the supernatural appearance of Christ. The Quran attests also the creative power of Jesus Christ. This testimony was not given to anybody else. Thus, it says the following in the Sura of Al Umran: “The angels said: “O Mary, God gives you a new thing from Him, for rejoicing, (news of one) whose name will be Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, illustrious in this world and the next, and one among the honored, who will speak to the people when in the cradle and when in the prime of life, and will be among the upright and doers of good.” She said: “How can I have a son, O Lord, when no man has touched me.” He said: “That is how God creates what he wills. When he decrees a thing, he says, ‘Be’, and it is. He will teach him the Law and the judgment, and the Torah and the Gospel, and he will be Apostle to the children of Israel, (saying:) ’I have come to you with a prodigy from your Lord that I will fashion the state of destiny out of mire for you, and breathe (a new spirit) into it, and you will rise by the will of God. I will heal the blind and the leper, and infuse life into the dead, by the leave of God. I will tell you what you devour and what you hoard in your homes. In this will be a portent for you if you do believe.” (Sura 3, The Family of Imran, verse 45-49)
The messenger Muhammad also gave all Christians a covenant, which we will repeat because of its importance. In it is shown the noble character and sense of justice of the Messenger. This testimony is kept still in some monasteries until this day.
He said: “In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful! This is a writing written by Muhammad Ibn Abdallah to all people as messenger, preacher, admonisher, and the one responsible so that nothing is kept from the messengers of God. God is powerful and wise. He writes it for the Christians all over the earth who live here or abroad, who speak Arabic or other languages, known and unknown. He gives them a covenant. He who annuls it, who practices the opposite, who oversteps the commandments, annuls the testament of God, denies its agreement, laughs about his religion, and earns a curse whoever he is, a ruler or another Muslim.
When a monk or someone passes through seeking refuge on a mountain, in a valley, in a cave, in a house, on flat land, on sand or in a church, then I with my helpers, relatives, my tribe and my followers will do what they can for him with enthusiasm because he is a member of the community and stands under my protection and I keep all harm from him. The persons affected shall only be taxed with so much tax as they are freely willing to pay without force or pressure; no bishop shall be moved from his bishopric, no monk from his monastery, no hermit from his cell to another city; no one passing through shall be hindered in his traveling. No house, no church building shall be torn down. None of the riches of their churches shall be used either for the building of a mosque or a house for Muslims. Whoever does anything like this violates the testament of God and his messengers. The bishops and God’s workers shall be burdened with neither taxes nor fines. I protect them wherever they may be – be they on land or on sea, in the east or in the west, in the north or in the south. They are under my protection and safe from any need.
Added to this is: Whoever prays to God as a hermit in the mountains or in a blessed place does not have to pay for the sowing, nor the taxes, nor the tithing; one is not allowed to take a part because they only earn their own living and nobody helps them with their harvest. They are also not required to go to sea. The land and estate owners shall not pay more than twelve Dirham’s per year; none of them shall be burdened with excesses and one shall not debate with them but rather do better than them as a good example, showing mercy and keeping them from tragedies.
When Christianity has come under the rule of Islam then the Muslims shall be satisfied to let them pray in their churches and no obstacle shall stand between them and their inclination to religion. Whoever violates God’s testament, who does the opposite, is disobedient before God and his messenger. The Muslims shall be helpful to them, the Christians, with the restoration of their churches and houses. None of them is obliged to carry weapons because the Muslims protect them. Nobody shall offend against this testament until the day of the last judgment and until the end of the world.”
The Syrians and the Arab-Islamic Conquests There were many psychological, social and religious reasons for the Syrians, the indigenous inhabitants in the Byzantine Syria, to welcome the Muslim Arab conquerors coming out of the Arab peninsula. Because the Syrians, as we have mentioned above, suffered a lot under the Byzantine yoke in Syria. They were also oppressed by the Persians because the Persians tried to force the Syrians to pay high taxes and through barbaric treatment and bloodshed to force them to switch from their faith to their Zoroastrian religion. The apparent reason for the oppression of the Syrians by the Byzantines was the rejection of the resolutions of Chalcedon (451 A.D.). The true reason, however, was the fact that from the Syrian’s national consciousness thoughts of freedom movements flamed up anew. They wanted to free their country from the colonizing Byzantine control. In addition the Byzantines robbed Syria of its wealth – especially it’s wheat. It is not surprising that an inner resistance spread in the hearts of the Syrians because of the Byzantine oppression so that the Syrians welcomed the Muslim Arabs as liberators of their country. This happened especially because many Arab tribes in Iraq and Syria were members of the Syrian Orthodox faith. These tribes felt obliged to support the Arabic Muslims despite the difference of their faith for they were related by blood, language, and culture.
Thus most of them, like the tribes Taghleb, Uqail, Tennuch and Rabia in the north and west of Iraq, joined the Muslim fighters under the leadership of Al-Muthanna Ibn Haritha and fought with them. In the year 651 A.D. the Persians were defeated and their last king Yezed Jared fled the country. History tells us that a Syrian Christian boy from the Taghlebites killed the Persian leader Marzaban Mihran took his horse and shouted with a loud voice: “I have killed Marzaban.” The conquering army marched towards Byzantine Syria, they entered Damascus in 634 A.D. and Jerusalem 637 A.D. They came to Alexandria in the year 638 where they were welcomed by the Copts in the same way as they had been welcomed by the Syrians in Syria before.
The Syrians Under the Islamic Rule Keeping their faith, the Syrians fought together with the Muslim Arabs against the colonists and freed their land and afterwards they supported them in the building of a new empire. History tells of their creative power in all areas of science and culture.
Despite our lack of time we want to dwell on a few points of the common history between Syrians and Muslims and acknowledge the positive events from the reports of trustworthy chroniclers, avoiding the negative events because they do not build up. At the same time we assure you that the unjust deeds on the side of the Arab-Muslim army during and after the conquest happened relatively seldom in comparison to similar conquests of other armies. We are going to mention the names of a group of Syrian characters who found favor with the Islamic Arab rulers and served them faithfully, which at the same time held fast onto the Christian faith and their Syrian Church. This leads us also to the strong relationship between Islamic Arabs and sons of the Syrian Church and the fact that holding fast to Christianity does not oppose pride in one’s nation or faithful service to it.
The Viscount Philip de Tarazi says in his book The Golden Era of the Syrians: “The Syrians won the trust and respect of the ‘Rashidic’ caliphs (632-661), the caliphs of the Ommayads (662-746) and the Abbasids (750-1258). The first Syrian who won their trust was Mansur Ibn Johanna the Syrian who became finance minister in the epoch of the ‘Raschids’. His son Sargon as well as his grandson John – known as Saint John of Damascus (749) – took over the office of work and tax income in the reign of the Ommayads.”
The Caliphates’ Treatment of the Syrians and All Christians Umar Ibn Al-Khattab was the first “Rashidic” Caliph who was called the “Emir Al- Muminin” (Prince of the Believers). He also was called “Al Faruk” because he knew how to distinguish between justice and injustice. The Syrians confirmed this name but interpret it differently. The Syrians say that the word stems from the Syriac word “Faruqo” which means savior. This name was given to the divine savior, Jesus Christ, and then to the “Rashidic” Caliph Umar. They gave out the slogan: “Thanks be to God who liberated us from the rule of the oppressive Byzantines and who put us under the rule of the just Muslim Arabs.” Of this historical position of the Syrians’ gratefulness to Muslims and the honoring of their good deeds we want to recount a few exemplary deeds by the Muslim Caliphs.
Of all these deeds we must name the famous action of Umar Ibn Al Khattab in Jerusalem. When the Caliph was visiting Jerusalem he found himself in the nave of the Church of the Resurrection during prayer time. He did not want to pray in this church but instead he went outside and prayed alone on the step in front of it. When asked for the reason he answered: “If I had prayed in that church then the Muslims would have turned that church into a mosque after my death and said: “Umar has prayed here.” Then he ordered the Muslims in a document to pray on the step of a church only one at a time, not to say community prayers and not to call upon God with a loud voice. Many written documents stem from Umar in which he grants safety and protection to Syrian-Christian churches as well as their monasteries. The treatment of the Christians was positive and the Christians paid their taxes in return for their protection like those who were under Persian rule. One of the negatives that took place during the reign of Caliph Umar Ibn Al-Khattab was the document that contains Umar’s conditions that did not preserve the honor of the Christians.
The Syrians were granted a good position by the Ommayads. Many of them were appointed to administrative offices and during their era the Arabic scientific renaissance began in which many Syrian scientists and authors participated through translating their sciences as well as the Greek ones into Arabic. They reached high positions in the administration and occupied important offices.
So, we see that caliph Abdul Malek Ibn Marwan (685-705) entrusted Athanasius Bar Gumoya, the Syrian from Edessa, with the administration of finances in Egypt. He proved himself through his time of service with regard to government income significantly benefiting for the Ommayads.
Caliph Marwan (744-750) wrote in the year 746 a letter of authorization (Firman) for Patriarch Iwannis IV (740-755) which authorized the Patriarch to conduct all church business independently. This was the first document of its kind that was given to a Syrian Patriarch. From this point on it became the custom to hand out such a letter of authorization (Firman). It is important to report that the translation of the Gospels from Syriac into Arabic took place in this epoch through Patriarch John Abu Sederatt (+648). With this translation he fulfilled the wish of Prince Umair Ibn Saad Ibn Abi Waqqas, Prince of Mesopotamia. It is worth mentioning that the prince asked for the passages in the translation that dealt with the divinity of Jesus (regarding the crucifixion and the baptism) to be cut out. To this the Patriarch replied heroically: “God prevent that I cut or add one single letter even if all the spears of your army were pointed at me.” The prince was impressed with the heroic position of the Patriarch and entrusted him with the translation. For the implementation of this translation the Patriarch called together some bishops and linguists of both Syriac and Arabic from the tribes of the Bani Tennuch, Uqail and Tai. They then translated the holy gospels under his supervision which he then handed over to the prince.
At the time of the Ommayads there lived a famous poet named Al Achtal. He belonged to the Taghleb tribe and was a member of the Syrian Orthodox Church. He was born in Mesopotamia and grew up there. He enjoyed a good reputation among the caliphs of the Ommayads. Caliph Abdul Mallek Ibn Marwan (685 – 705) said to him after the poet praised this Caliph in one of his poems: “Oh Achtal, do you want that I write to all countries and tell them that you are the best poet of the Arabs?” Achtal replied to this: “It is enough when the prince of the believers says it.”
Achtal held on to his faith. He was allowed to visit the Caliph Abdul Malak without permission, wearing a silk robe and with a golden chain around his neck on which hung a golden cross. His bishop is said to have locked him up once in the church because of harassment and abuse, although the poet said about himself: “I have not written a satirical poem about anyone that a virgin could not have written about her father.” Then when one of the noble Arabs asked for his release and the poet was released by the bishop, the noble Arab asked the poet with astonishment: “How can a man with such high regards from the caliph tolerate such a shameful punishment from a bishop?” Achtal answered: “It is the religion, it is the religion. Be silent with the silent!”
In the era of the Abbasids, many excellent translations were made and from the ranks of the Syrians many great scientists, translators and doctors emerged. At the time of Harun Al-Rashid (766 – 809) the Syrian scientist Johanna Ibn Masaweh became famous. Caliph Harun Al-Rashid entrusted him with the translation of the old books. He enjoyed a good reputation with the Caliph and his successors until the Caliph Al Mutawakkel.
Thus the Syrians translated the Greek sciences into their language and then into Arabic. The Syrians founded universities for the various sciences and literature. Therefore, the sciences developed enormously during the era of the Abbassids.
The Syrians participated faithfully in the tasks of the state. As an example we report about Patriarch Dionysius of Tel Mahri ( 845) whom caliph Al Mamun (813 – 833) entrusted with a political mission. He went to Egypt in order to cooperate with the Caliph and with Patriarch Yosab of Alexandria in pulling down the threatening Christian revolt in the lower Nile.
Among the Syrians who served the successors of the Abbassids was the famous doctor and secretary of state Abu Karam Saaed Ibn Touma of Baghdad who is to be mentioned for his noble character, Christian virtue, his faithfulness and sincerity. He enjoyed the full trust of Caliph Al-Naser (1180 – 1225), he even was his favorite. The Caliph entrusted him with all his family and state secrets. Now it happened that the eyesight of the Caliph got worse and for that reason he asked a woman Sit Nasim to write all his papers for him. The handwriting of the woman was very much like that of the Caliph. When she handed the minister a paper, the minister thought it was from the Caliph himself and executed the orders contained therein. She hatched a plot with a eunuch named Tag Ed-Din Rashiq, in which she sent forged letters to the minister. In the course of time the prime minister became suspicious and asked the doctor and minister of state Abu Karam Saaed Ibn Touma of Baghdad about the health of the Caliph. The doctor reported on the health condition of the caliph and also reported that a woman was writing all letters instead of the caliph. When the woman noticed that she was exposed she sent someone who killed the Minister of State.
At the time when the Tartars occupied large areas of Asia and Europe, the armies under the leadership of Genghis Khan in the 13th century gained their decisive striking power. In this time the wise Syrian Abu Salem of Malta (Malatya) – known as Ibn Kraba – served Sultan Ala-Ed-Din Kaybaqad (1219 – 1236) and enjoyed a good reputation.
History also mentions that the Patriarch Ignatius IV. (1264 – 1283) went to the capital of the Tartars (“Attaq”) and visited Holako. From him he received an authorization letter (Firman) for his Antiochian Patriarchate. Another time the Patriarch was on his way to visit king Abaqa – the son of Holako – and his heir to the throne. From him he again received an authorization letter (Firman). The monk-priest Schemun the Syrian was Holakos’ private doctor. In the year 1258 Baghdad fell to the Mongols who then professed Islam in 1295. Professor Wolfgang Hage said in a lecture about Syrian history:
“The Syrian Orthodox Church as well as the other churches in the Near East were weakened when at the end of the 13th century the Mongols, penetrating from inner Asia, professed Islam and were not as just as the Muslim Arabs. Oriental Christianity was literally decimated finally through the cruel representative of the Mongolian-Islamic fanaticism: Timur the Lame (1336 – 1405) around 1400 went through Mesopotamia, Syria and Asia Minor and understood himself as the deadly enemy of Christianity. He destroyed Baghdad in 1393. He forced the Syrians and the other Christians to accept Islam and persecuted those who refused. Many of them were martyred. Diseases followed the massacres and only ten percent of the Christians remained.”
This historical truth that Professor Wolfgang has mentioned reveals that our people suffered in that historical era at the hand of a non-Arab Muslim leader who didn’t honor the covenants that were given to the Christians by the Arab prophet and the rightly guided caliphs and the Ommayads and the Abbasids to protect them and their rights. He did not respect the covenants but he slaughtered them and destroyed their churches, monasteries and schools. Most of their precious manuscripts were lost and this is considered a great loss to all civilized humanity.
Holding this before one’s eyes, one does not have to emphasize what undescribable misery, harm, deprivation and death the people in this region suffered. Over and above that we do not have to mention what irretrievable works of the different areas of science and especially theology have been lost through the burning of churches, monasteries and schools. “During these centuries the Syrian Orthodox Church shrunk to a small faith community who in modern times lived in a united area again (now the Ottoman) but was never able to regain their former size and importance.”
At the beginning of the 15th century the Ottomans conquered a great part of Asia Minor. In the middle of the 15th century – also in the year 1453 – the Byzantine empire collapsed with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.
In this quick journey through the centuries we stopped at certain points along the way where we thought it useful. We got to know some of the religious, scientific and political personalities. We also tried to uncover the background reasons for the decline in membership and the suffering of the Syrian church over the centuries. Now we know how she fought to survive and what she did to protect her inheritance as well as her faith. After she survived weakened by the fight with the Byzantine rule, she breathed a sigh of relief with the rise of Islam. There was cooperation in peaceful and unsettled times. We have also seen how their relationship with the Muslim authorities changed like the ebb and flow of the sea and how the church fathers went about it according to the commandment of Jesus Christ: “so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves!” (Mt 10:16).
After the fall of the empire of the Abbassids the land came under the rule of a variety of non-Arab Muslim sultans. Unsure times began for the churches: They lost many of their members. They were further weakened when the Ottomans took power and after strengthening of their ruling power played with the destinies of the people.
The most dangerous enemy, however, that attacked and almost destroyed the Syrian Orthodox Church at its foundation was the ignorance and the spiritual irresponsibility that spread out in their own ranks at the end of the 13th century. The chaos began to get out of hand when hate, tribal thinking and provincialism broadened. This chaotic state of the church is also explainable from the fact that the church had three Antiochian patriarchs at the same time: one in Sis who was followed by the Syrians of Cilikia, one in Tur Abdin for the people there, and one in Mardin for all Syrians of the East. The patriarchate of Tur Abdin lasted 130 years and the one in Sis 152 years. In this way they tore the body of Christ apart. When the Patriarch Behnam Hadi Al Bartali reigned on the See of Mardin (1412), he was able to bring about the unity of the Syrian-Antiochian See. He died in 1454. Because we are trying to uncover the reasons for the growing weakening of the church we have to go into the terrible happenings of the years 1895, and especially 1915 – 1921, in which the church had to suffer from the Ottomans. During these years the church lost thousands upon thousands of innocent martyrs although the church was very loyal to the land of its grandfathers. She obeyed the civil power. The church has rejected the patronage of foreign governments because she has firm faith that God will protect her.
“Despite the low numbers of church members the Syrian Church was able to reconsolidate. The church believes firmly that her existence until now is a sign that God lives in her midst, strengthens her, lets her flourish and not disintegrate. She embodies now the faith handed down by the holy apostles and the Syrian inheritance deeply rooted in her history. She tries to preserve her holy Syriac language, the language of Jesus. She seeks a constructive cooperation with all peoples of the earth for the welfare of all humanity.
Time does not allow us to talk about the relationship between the Syrian Church and Islam and others in this time. That is because the geographical location of the Syrian Church has expanded through the emigration of its children all over the world and their different relationships with many peoples who believe in many faiths.
Conclusion In conclusion, I am glad to thank you for your patience and attentiveness and express my thanks to the honorable authorities at Humboldt University in Berlin for inviting me and giving me a chance to talk to them.
You will surely share my opinion that the fear, terror and persecution the Syrian Christians in the whole world had suffered throughout the ages was from the oppression of strange governments. Also, disasters had repeatedly arisen as a result of the distance from God by some Syrians and other Christians through their distancing themselves from the sources of Christian teaching and its translation into good works. Therefore, even in this generation we shouldn’t be surprised to hear from some who have studied the Gospels and got to know Jesus Christ what once Ghandi – the leader of the Indian independence movement – said: “We want your Christ but not your Christianity.” This may also be true for our brothers the Muslims. But we do not want to judge the others. We want to call ourselves to account. The split of the Christian church is a big mistake, a blasphemy of the Holy Spirit and an ignoring of the existence of Christ who promised: “… the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Mt 16:18) I invite you to stand before history for a moment to see the result of our divisions. You will see the bloodshed of thousands of innocents, righteous men have suffered and been expelled from their countries. We thank God that Christian churches in this generation began to feel the necessity of continuing the Christian dialogue and as a result they have drawn closer to each other and planned for continuous meetings at various levels to study different subjects. The unity of Christianity can only happen in and around Christ, who is the head of the church and we with all our doctrines are only parts of the holy body of Christ.
Satan is still at work. He brings about disturbances, constantly encourages new splits and wants from this the tearing apart of the body of Christ, that is the Church. We have to be careful. Politics usually uses religion to reach its worldly goals. We should limit our talks to spiritual themes because the kingdom of Christ is not of this world. We do not want the unity of Christianity to fight against other religions. Instead we want unity to reach our goal more quickly; that is the constructive dialogue with others who believe in God and here especially with the Muslims with whom we share one homeland. Let us learn from history. Let us avoid what splits us. Let us walk the way that leads to a better understanding, to a life in which love and peace rule.