Islamo-Christian Polemics in the Arab Christian Literature

by Dr. George Khoury

The contacts between Muslims and non-Muslims led to polemical arguments which reflected on one hand the kind of socio-political relationship that existed between Muslims and Christians and which gave birth on the other hand to a literature of controversy. Evidence of the existence of discussions between Muslims and Christians is to be found already in the works of John of Damascus (d. 749), who held a secretarial post under the Ummayad caliphs. It was also found in the writings of Greek authors and theologians such as Theophane the Confessor (d. 817), George Hamortolos (fl. 842-867) and Nicetas Byzantinus (fl. 842-912). The work of Theodore Abu Qurrah-about whom I will write an article in future issues of the Al-Bushra-, some Syriac treatises of controversial theology, and such chronicles of church history as the Chronicum Maroniticum, the chronicle written by Jacob of Edessa, or the chronicle of the Jacobite patriarch, Denis of Tell-Mahre (d. 845). provide other examples. The purpose of these works was to reassure Christians of the truth of their faith and to refute the claims of Islamic apologists. The typical addressees of controversial theology were not only the Muslims or the Jews. The different Christian communities polemicized against each other to show on one hand the falsehood of their Christian opponent's theological and dogmatic stand, and on the other to present to their Muslim audience the true face of Christianity. This inter-Christian polemic is found in Arabic as well as in Syriac literature. The Jacobite Abu Ra'itah wrote several treatises with the purpose of explaining to the Muslims the basic tenets of Christianity and of refuting the Melkites. Against the Melkites he specifically wrote four treatise: Risala fi r-radd ala l-malakiya fi l-ittihad, Risala fi r-radd ala l-malakiya, Risala fi l-ihtijaj an ath-thalath taqdisat alladi suliba anna, and Maqala fi l-ihtijaj an ath-thalath taqdisat l-ladi suliba 'anna. Abu Qurrah addressed several of his tracts to Jacobites and Nestorians. In his Treatise on the Death of Christ he violently attacked both Jacobites and Nestorians as he attempted to prove that only Chalcedonian Christology (that is the doctrine of Christ as defined by the Council of Chalcedone, 451) can fully account for the statement that God had died for us. In his Letter to the Jacobite David he explained to a Jacobite friend he met in Jerusalem the Chalcedonian doctrine concerning the hypostatic union (i.e., the assuming of a human nature by the second person of the Holy Trinity-two natures in one person) of Christ, refuting what he considered the ambiguous, monophysite formulations. His Treatise on The Law and the Gospel, and on Chalcedonian Orthodoxy comprises two sections: in the first he deals with Moses' authority and proposes to demonstrate Christ's superiority over Moses, and the superiority of the Gospel and of Christ's sacrifice over those of Aaron. In the second section he attempts to show where one can find true Christianity. According to him true Christrian faith is to be found in the Chalcedonian confession of faith and nowhere else. In this controversial literature one must distinguish between the maqala, which is a treatise or a historico-philosophical topic in which the author deals only with one problem, and on the other hand with the majlis. The majlis is a very popular description of a meeting or more literally a session before a prince or an important official such as a minister, where artists, physicians, poets, and scholars gather in order to expose their beliefs and opinions. A series of majlis held before a prince is called a mujadala, a debate. The majlis is a work of imagination and propaganda where topics are discussed without first being prepared and rehearsed. Some of these discusions were put down later in writing while others were not. This explains why some controversies survived while others left no trace behind. This is as to the form, but what about the substance of controversial literature? Islamo-Christian literature was apologetical, polemical, controversial, and dogmatic. It was apologetical because the protagonist aimed at defending his beliefs against those who did not share his faith and against those he considered heretics. It was polemical because the author defended his religion, mounting attacks and counter-attacks against his adversary. It was controversial because both defense and counter-attack took place between interlocutors, real or fictitious. It was dogmatic because it was an irenic (peaceful) expose of the faith. It so happens, however, that the same author can use one of more of these literary forms in his writings, as we shall see later in the case of Abu Qurrah.