Sunday School blogging: Arab Christians in the Middle Ages


Our own Sunday School class this morning was fascinating. As part of our church's missions conference, all the adult classes met together to hear David Vila, assistant professor of religion and philosophy at John Brown University. Prof. Vila spoke on the early history of Christian missions, from the beginning through 1300. In the course of his lecture, there were three recurring themes: How persecution of Christianity led to the spread of Christianity, the importance of apologetics (writings defending Christianity to the outside world), and the all-too-frequent reluctance of God's people, from Jonah to present day Christians, to take God's message of reconciliation to hostile nations. Vila also introduced us to some Arab Christian martyrs, theologians, and apologists from the Middle Ages, some with names that link them to familiar places in present-day Iraq.

That last bit was the most eye-opening. Because Arabic names are hard to Google, I won't try to find online resources about these people, but I'll give you the names as presented by Prof. Vila, with a brief description of their importance:

  • Anthony al-Qurayshi: From Damascus, of the tribe of Mohammed, a nephew of the Caliph, and a persecutor of Christians. He was converted, took the name Anthony, and for his apostasy from Islam and refusal to recant, was beheaded and crucified upside down, in the year 799.
  • Abd al-Masih an-Najrani al-Ghassani: Raised as a nominal Christian from an Arab Christian tribe (al-Ghassani) in an Arab Christian city (Najran), he went on raids with Muslims and joined in their prayers to Allah. His nominal faith was brought to life, and he joined St. Catherine's Monastery at Mt. Sinai. Later he encountered his fellow raiders, who believed that he had been a Muslim because he prayed with them. He was beheaded around 750 for apostasy. The beginning of his name, Abd al-Masih, means "servant of Messiah."
  • Theodore Abu Qurrah: Described as the Calvin of Arabic Christianity, who wrote apologetics and theology in Arabic and Greek. Died around 820.
  • Ammar al-Basri: One of many Arab Christian writers who composed a "Book of the Proof" in response to the Koran's challenge to Christianity. As his name indicates, he was from Basra, in what is now southern Iraq. Died around 850.
  • Yahya Ibn 'Adi at-Takriti (d. 900) and Habib ibn Hidmah Abu Raita at-Takriti (d. 840): Theologians, both from Tikrit, once a prominent Christian city, now famous as Saddam Hussein's hometown.

Someone asked whether there was much contact between these Arab Christians and Greek or Byzantine Christianity. Prof. Vila said that Greeks maligned Arabs, and Greek Christian attitudes toward Arab Christians were no different.

The works of these Arab Christian apologists and theologians haven't been translated into English for the most part, which means American Christians have little awareness that indigenous Christianity still exists in parts of the Arab world.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 27, 2005 11:34 PM.

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