Arab Christian Literature of the 8th-9th Centuries

by Dr. George Khoury


Since we surveyed in the last issue of Al-Bushra the larger sociopolitical environment in which the different Christian groups lived and worked and described the nature of the relations they entertained with the Muslims, it becomes important to examine now the immediate Christian cultural milieu in which Arab Christian authors lived and describe briefly the literary contributions of the several Christian communities, Melkite, Nestorian, Jacobite, Copt, and Maronite, and finally some notable writers from each community in order to display some of their literary works in the various academic domains in which they distinguished themselves.

After this preliminary survey of the Christian Arabic literature, special attention will be accorded to Christian-Muslim controversial literature.

2-Syriac, Greek, Arabic

As has been noted, three religious confessions shared SyriaPalestine in the 7th-8th centuries: Chalcedonianism, Monophysitism, and Monothelitism.

Chalcedonianis- the doctrine that asserted two natures in Christ, i.e. that Jesus was truly a man and truly God- constituted the official church of Syria, the CaesaroPapist church which had its seat in Antioch for Syria and Jerusalem for Palestine.

The Monophysite church -the doctrine of those Christians who preferred to speak of the one nature of the incarnate word of God also constituted an important Christian element in Syria and was much spread among the Arab Christian tribes of the Syrian desert, namely, among the Ghassanides, Kalbites, and Taglibites. Monotheism (one will in Christ) had been popular for some time in the Antiochian hierarchy until it was condemned in 681 in the Antiochian council meeting at Constantinople. Monothelite were subsequently persecuted by both Jacobites (those Christians who accentuated the divinity of Christ to the detriment of his humanity) and Melkites (who upheld Chalcedonian Orthodoxy) and many were forced to emigrate to Lebanon. Further east, the Nestorian Church (which downplayed the divinity of Christ in favor of his humanity) remained confined to Persia and Mesopotamia and retained very few adherents in Syria. The classical languages of Middle Eastern Christianity for the first six centuries were Aramic (Syriac), Greek, and Coptic.

When Islam appeared in the seventh century a great movement of Islamization took place and was then followed by gradual Arabization. Arabic was the language of the new rulers, and it was inevitable and natural that it soon became the common and official language of the Arab empire. Furthermore, both the caliphs and the Arab thinkers and writers encouraged and promoted a great movement of translation from Persian and Greek into Arabic.

Arabized Christians were pioneers in this endeavor and distinguished themselves earlier than their Muslim counterparts. Their reason for abandoning their ancient languages and using the language of the conqueror was that the Christians, challenged in their faith, needed Arabic in the defense of their religion and in affirming the faith of wavering believers. It is this apologetic and polemical motive which lay at the origin of many Islamo/Christian treatises, and triggered interreligious dialogues and sessions as well as a sizable philosophical and theological correspondence between Christians and Muslims.

3-Translations & Arab Christian Contributions

One fact stands out: Syriacspeaking Christians contributed more than any other people to this general cultural awakening and intellectual renaissance in Abbasid Baghdad. Syrian Christians had already been translating Greek works into Syriac. While Arabians did not know Greek thought, Syrians had been in contact with the Greek world for over a millennium. As Philip Hitti expresses it:

Between 750 and 850 A.D. the Arab world was the scene of one of the most spectacular and momentous movements in the history of thought. The movement was marked by translations into Arabic from Persian, Greek, and Syriac. The Arabian Muslim brought with him no art, science, or philosophy and hardly any literature; but he did bring along from the desert a keen intellectual curiosity, a voracious appetite for learning and a number of latent talents. In the Fertile Crescent he fell heir to Hellenistic science and lore, which was unquestionably the most precious intellectual treasure at hand. In a few decades after the foundation of Baghdad (762 A.D.) the Arabic-reading public found at its disposal the major philosophical works of Aristotle and the Neo-Platonic commentators, the chief medical writings of Hippocrates and Galen, the main mathematical compositions of Euclid and the geographical masterpiece of Ptolemy. In all this the Syrians were the mediators.... For two centuries before the appearance of Islam Syrian scholars had been translating Greek works into Syriac.

Long before Umar II transferred the philosophical school of Alexandria to Antioch an intense wave of translation had swept the monasteries of the Syrian Church. The people who had opened the treasures of Greek science and philosophy to the Persians were now doing the same to the Arabs. The same people who before Islam were instrumental in cultivating the main elements of Greek culture, spreading them eastward and propagating them in the schools of Edessa and Nisibis, Harran and Jundi-Shapur were now busily engaged in passing those elements on to the Arab-reading world. (See Philip Hitti, History of Syria, pp. 548-550)

It is therefore during the last decades of the Ummayyads and in the first century of the Abbasid dynasty that this great movement of translation from the classical ancient languages into Arabic began, and in this enterprise the Christians had the lion's share. The Barmakids, the powerful supporters and viziers of the Abbasid caliphs, appreciated Indo-Iranian literature and encouraged the translation and adaptation of many Persian works into Arabic.

The Caliph al-Ma'mun (813-833) founded Bait al-Hikma (house of wisdom) and made it a center of practical and speculative studies and encouraged not only the translation, but also the diffusion of translated works.

Jundi-Shapur, Harran, & Edessa: Major Intellectual Centers

In addition, the great intellectual centers of the 8th century began to shine with greater glory; JundiShapur for medicine, Harran and Edessa for philosophy. The material translated came mostly from Greek texts, some from Persia, and a little from Hindu sources. Most of the philosophical works were translated, not directly from Greek, but from Syriac. Scientific works, on the other hand, were translated from Greek texts.

Not all translators were Christian. There were Jews and some Persians from the Mazdean religion. Christian translators tended to know three languages: Syriac, Greek, and Arabic. The most important Christian translators were members of the Bahtisu family, Hunain ibn Ishaq, and his son Ishaq and his disciples. Qusta ibn I uqa, al-Bitriq and his son Yahya al-Elitriq who lived at the time of the caliph al-Mansur (754-775) translated a great number of works on medicine, the books of Hippocrates and Galen.

In the next issue of Al-Bushra we will discuss the works of specific individuals and the literary contributions of the different Christian communities, such as the Melkites, the Jacobites, the Nestorians, and the Maronites.

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