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The Founding Father of the Christian Tradition Concerning Islam

John of Damascus: First Apologist to the Muslims

By Daniel J. Janosik

Publisher: Pickwick Publications

Pages: 316 pages

Price: $37

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.

St. John of Damascus was an eighth-century Church Father who lived for much of his life in a city controlled by Muslims. He wrote two brief yet remarkable treatises against Islam, Heresy of the Ishmaelites and Disputation between a Christian and a Saracen. Daniel Janosik, adjunct professor of apologetics, historical theology, and Islamic studies at Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College in North Carolina, situates these two treatises in their historical context, carefully analyzes them, and reproduces them in both Greek and English in the appendices of his book John of Damascus: First Apologist to the Muslims. Janosik states that these are the “earliest explicit discussions of Islam by a Christian theologian,” and St. John is, therefore, “the real founder of the Christian tradition concerning Islam.” Today, almost 1,400 years later, these little treatises are still quite relevant.

John of Damascus (A.D. 675-749) provides us with a window into the first century of Islam’s development. Muslim chronicles were not even written until a century and a half after Muhammad’s death in A.D. 632, and the terms Muslim, Qur’an, and Hadith were not in use for much of that time. Janosik states that “nothing is more certain than that when the Prophet died there was no collected, arranged, collated body of revelations.” It is no surprise, then, that St. John, in his writings on Islam over a century after Muhammad’s death, never once mentions the Qur’an or the Hadiths. In addition, he knew little about Muhammad’s life, since Ibn Ishaq’s biography had not yet been written. Instead, St. John refers to the Arab conquerors as Saracens, Hagarenes, and Ishmaelites, names derived from Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael in Genesis, and he cites only a few separate writings connected to Muhammad, some of which would later be altered and incorporated into the Qur’an. St. John was a great scholar who was fluent in Arabic, Syriac, and Greek. His work Fount of Knowledge showed him to be proficient in mathematics, science, philosophy, and theology. Since he lived in close proximity to the caliph, he surely would have commented on the Qur’an and the Hadiths had these been available to him.

The Arabs conquered Damascus in 635, and by the time St. John was born in 675, the city had become the center of the Umayyad Empire. Like his grandfather and father before him, St. John served as the chief financial officer to the caliph. He withdrew in 726 to St. Sabas Monastery and was ordained a priest by the patriarch of Jerusalem. He preached in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and became one of the greatest theologians and hymn-writers of the Eastern Church. Among his works we find three important treatises against iconoclasm, which was then being promoted not only by Muslims but by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III. St. John’s defense of religious art, based on the Incarnation, greatly influenced the Second Nicene Council (787), which highly recommended the use of images. Thus, we owe gratitude to St. John of Damascus for the religious art we enjoy. In connection with his two treatises against Islam, he also gave a sermon in 743 in honor of Peter of Maiuma, who was martyred for blaspheming Muhammad.

In the eyewitness accounts of seventh-century Christians we hear of Muhammad as a warrior prophet who ushered in new practices like iconoclasm and praying toward the Ka’ba, and of his followers as ruthless killers. In 634 the patriarch of Jerusalem wrote about the “vengeful” Saracens who carry a “blood-loving blade,” and in the 640s the author of “Homily on the Child Saints of Babylon” speaks of how they boast of their fasts and prayers but “massacre and lead into captivity the sons of men.” Strangely, we hear nothing from the Muslims about the development of Islam during this period.

The first recorded use of the word Islam occurs in 691, in an inscription in the Dome of the Rock, built for Al-Malik (685-705) on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem by Byzantine architects. Late in his reign, this caliph minted coins that stated on one side that Allah is the only God, and on the other that Muhammad is his prophet. However, only a few years earlier, Caliph Muawiyah (661-680) had minted coins with his own name on one side and bism Allah on the other, without mention of Muhammad. Suddenly, a new state religion had arisen, with Al-Malik claiming divine authority and the existence of a prophet.

St. John’s Heresy of the Ishmaelites is designed to instruct Christians about the differences between Christianity and Islam and to help them resist the pressure to convert. He begins with a reflection on Islam as a “coercive religion” and the “forerunner of the Antichrist.” Back in Arabia, he says, the Saracens were idolaters of three goddesses whom they called the “daughters of Allah”: Al-Uzzah (Aphrodite), Al-Lat, and Manat. But now they teach, against the Trinity, that “there is one God, creator of all things, who has neither been begotten nor has begotten.” The Saracens, he continues, have three main objections to Christianity: the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ, and the Cross. They deny that Jesus died on the Cross and was resurrected, and as for His deity, they call it the greatest of all sins to “associate God with a created being.” They disparage Christians as “Associators,” but they themselves are “Mutilators” in that they tear apart the Trinity. In their sacred writings, Jesus Christ is named the “Word and Spirit of God.” Well, God would not be God without His Word and Spirit, so their statement proves the eternal nature of the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

St. John questions whether Muhammad was really a prophet. Deuteronomy 18:17-22 describes the marks of a prophet, and they do not fit Muhammad. Nor was his coming foretold in Scripture, as was that of Jesus Christ. Moreover, Muhammad claimed that he received a book from heaven while he was asleep, without any witnesses. Since the Saracens require witnesses for all other transactions, why do they not require witnesses for the foundation of their religion? They accuse Christians of idolatry for venerating the Cross, but they kiss and rub themselves against a stone in the Ka’ba. Some say this was the place where Abraham had sex with Hagar, others where he tied his camel when he went to sacrifice Isaac. St. John says that the stone was “probably once the head of a statue of Aphrodite,” whom the Saracens worshiped in earlier times. He notes that the biblical account of Abraham’s sacrifice tells of a donkey, not a camel, and of woods, so the event didn’t happen in Arabia.

St. John refers to the sacred writings of the Saracens as distinct “books,” such as The Women and The Camel of God. In the former, he notes, polygamy is allowed: A Muslim may have four wives and a thousand concubines. From the same “book” he tells the story of Zayd, Muhammad’s adopted son-in-law, and Zayd’s wife, Zaynab. Interestingly, the text he cites is more detailed than the one found in the Qur’an. St. John comments that Muhammad committed adultery with Zayd’s wife before he made it legal. The Heresy of the Ishmaelites ends with a list of Saracen customs: both men and women are circumcised, certain foods and beverages are prohibited, and it is forbidden to observe the Sabbath or be baptized.

In Disputation between a Christian and a Saracen, St. John composes a “training manual” in dialogue form to prepare Christians to counter certain verbal gambits initiated by Saracens. He deals in part with free will. Most Muslims then (as the Sunnis still do today) denied free will and claimed that human actions both good and evil are “under the compulsion of God.” In his Disputation St. John teaches Christians to distinguish between the good that God wants and the evil He allows out of respect for our free will. St. John had already defended free will in his Dialogue Against the Manichees, in which the Manichees might be proxies for the Muslims.

At the end of Janosik’s book is an extended analysis of St. John’s Orthodox Faith, the fourth part of the Fount of Knowledge. St. John’s brilliant defense of the Trinity and Jesus Christ’s divinity, composed in the context of Islamic rule, may be understood as an answer to all Muslim attacks on Christianity. In this work, St. John introduces the beautiful term perichoresis for the “co-inherence” of the three Persons of the Trinity, who are “united without confusion” and “distinct without separation” in one divine nature. Perichoresis is their eternal “dance” of love, which is “the still point of the turning world.”


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