Book Preview: The Orthodox Church in the Arab World (700–1700)

On Behalf of All - Book Preview

Forthcoming from Northern Illinois University Press is The Orthodox Church in the Arab World (700–1700): An Anthology of Sources.

Edited by Samuel Noble, a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Yale University, and Alexander Treiger, associate professor in the Department of Classics and Program in Religious Studies at Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia), this new work fills a present void in academic scholarship when it comes to the latter history of the Orthodox Church in the Arab world.

Cover Art - The Orthodox Church in the Arab World (700–1700): An Anthology of SourcesMost exciting about this volume are the first-time English translations of several Arabic texts, all with great importance to the history and development of the Orthodox Church. Both Orthodox faithful and mainstream historians alike will no doubt benefit from their efforts.

From the publisher’s preview:

Christian literature in Arabic is at least 1,300 years old, the oldest surviving texts dating from the 8th century. Yet in the Western historiography of Christianity, the Arab Christian Middle East is treated only peripherally, if at all. The first of its kind, this anthology makes accessible in English representative selections from major Arab Christian works written between the 8th and 17th centuries. Until now, several of these important texts have remained unpublished or unavailable in English. Translated by leading scholars, this anthology encompasses the major genres of Orthodox Christian literature in Arabic.

I was able to interview both editors recently, and here’s what they had to say:

ME: What led you both to decide to put this book together, and what has you most excited about it?

S.N.: The idea for the project goes back several years, to when the two of us were in grad school together at Yale. While Yale is one of the very rare universities that does occasionally offer a course on Copto-Arabic literature, to a large degree we were on our own in exploring the history of Arabic Christianity, a field that doesn’t really have an academic home. That is, to a great degree Arab Christianity is ignored both by people who work on the history of Christianity– who too often assume that for all practical purposes Christianity disappeared from the Middle East with the arrival of Islam– and people who do Islamic studies, who equally often make the same assumption.

So the reason we wanted to put this book together was very simply that we felt a real need for it. Until recently, there has been very little in the way of accessible, English-language resources for learning about Christianity– and in particular Orthodox Christianity– in the Arab world, and so our goal was to put together a comprehensive introduction to the first millennium of Arab Orthodoxy. It is our hope that this book will inspire both scholars and non-specialists to want to learn more about this essential part of Christian and Middle Eastern culture.

A.T.: There is a real need for it. Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christians are descendants of the earliest Christian communities. And yet, when they come to the West no one knows who they are. When westerners meet Arabic-speaking Christians for the first time, they are frequently surprised to hear that there is such a thing as Arab Christianity. One often hears people react, “So you are an Arab and a Christian; when did your family become Christian?” What are they to answer – “Huh? 2000 years ago”? Most historians of the Middle East disregard them, books on Church history routinely overlook them, and even the news agencies often neglect to tell their story. We wanted to begin to fill this gap, to bring the experience of Arab Orthodox Christians throughout history back to people’s awareness. Obviously, this book is only a first step. Much more remains to be done in the future.

ME: If a person was only able to read one of the texts translated in your new book, what would you recommend?

A.T.: Depends on what interests them the most. The book offers a diverse selection of texts: lives of the saints, theology, history, mysticism, philosophy, devotional poetry, disputations with Islam, and more. Chronologically, it spans a millennium. All the texts speak in their diverse ways about the complex experience of Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christians throughout history.

Perhaps the lives of the saints are worthy of special attention. These saints had been unduly forgotten and their veneration was discontinued, but now it’s being revived. The archimandrite Touma Bitar of the monastery of St. Silouan the Athonite in Douma, Lebanon has even written a book in Arabic with this title, Forgotten Saints of the Antiochian Tradition. We are very pleased that our book also makes a small contribution to this important revival.

S.N.: I agree that the lives of saints translated by John Lamoreaux are one of the key ways of understanding the life and witness of Arab Christians over the centuries. An important task for the future is translating into English Father Touma’s book and an even bigger task is reviving the liturgical commemoration of these saints who, for complex historical reasons, came to be forgotten.

Another text that I think deserves special attention is Fr Sidney Griffith’s translation of the Letter to a Muslim Friend by Paul of Antioch, who was bishop of Sidon in the late 12th or early 13th century. This is one of the best examples of the long tradition, continuing even into our own day in the writings of thinkers like Metropolitan Georges Khodr, of Christian attempts to address Muslims by reading the Qur’an in a manner that uses it to point toward the truth of the Gospel.

ME: In putting this work together, what were some of the challenges you both had to overcome?

S.N.: If we count the two of us and the brief foreword by Metropolitan Ephrem (Kyriakos), this volume includes contributions from nine scholars based in five countries. Moreover, most of the texts had never been translated into a western language before and a few of them have never been published in Arabic– they still only exist in manuscripts. So, the biggest challenge in editing this volume was to ensure an appropriate degree of uniformity that would still reflect the wide diversity of genres and eras represented by the texts while simultaneously making them as accessible as possible for readers who are not specialists in Arabic. Of course this took a lot of patience on everyone’s part, but we’re proud of the final result and very appreciative of the careful work done by all the contributors during the back-and-forth of the revision process.

A.T.: I agree. The editorial process, which involved constant consultations both with the publisher and the contributors, was perhaps the most challenging aspect of our work. Then there have been the usual challenges that we all face, as scholars and translators of ancient texts: what does this or that word mean in a given context, how best to translate it into English, how to make the translation accessible to diverse audiences, and so on. Ultimately, our goal was to produce something useful, something that people – and by people I mean anyone interested in the history of the Church or in the Middle East – would actually pick up and read. If we have succeeded in this, then all the labor that went into the production of the book and, most importantly, the extraordinary effort of the contributors, who are all internationally recognized experts in the field, was worth it.

ME: And finally, why should Orthodox Christians in particular be excited the book?

A.T.: The Orthodox Church is one Church, despite jurisdictional divisions. No matter what language Orthodox Christians worship in, the Arabic-speaking Orthodox are members of the same Church, the same Body of Christ. Moreover, the Arab Orthodox have a unique historical experience, a unique testimony to share. They are blessed to live in the Holy Places. They have lived for centuries under Muslim rule. Their rich heritage has a lot to teach us. In the North American context, it is also hugely important to understand and appreciate the experience of Antiochian and Palestinian Christians. For all the various Orthodox communities it is crucial to get to know each other better, to stand together.

We also very much hope that the book will be useful to the Arab Orthodox themselves, that it will perhaps make them more aware of their own history, and that it will help second and third-generation English-speaking Antiochian and Palestinian Christians, many of whom are no longer able to read Arabic, to reconnect with their own tradition.

S.N.: I hope that this book will be cause for Orthodox Christians to be excited at the breadth and cultural diversity of the Orthodox tradition, which is not limited to Byzantium, Russia or those places and times where Orthodox are in the majority or hold political power. But even more than that, I hope that this book will inspire love, solidarity and a desire for greater familiarity with the Christians living in the lands where our Savior and His Apostles walked.

The Orthodox Church in the Arab World is set to be released in March. You can pre-order a copy direct from the publisher, or on Amazon.com. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy, and encourage you to do the same.

A special thanks to both Samuel and Alexander for speaking with me. I know we’re all looking forward to getting our hands on this.

Comments

  1. Katherine Hayes says

    It is great that you have stumbled across this treasure, for more, you may consider reading some of Father Sidney’s works:

    The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque

    The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the ‘People of the Book’ in the Language of Islam (Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World)

    My husband and I are Melkite and he studied under Father Sidney, more specifically, my husband studied the languages and literatures of the Christian Near East (Syriac and Arabic were his specialties)–so this is near and dear to me.

    Thanks again!

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