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May 6, 2015

The Fathers of the Church and Islam (3 of 5)

2. The Four Phases of Dealing with Islam According to the Fathers of the Church

When Islam appeared in the seventh century and began to expand westward, dangerously penetrating into the Christian Roman Empire, the Church Fathers began to confront it.

We distinguish four phases of dealing with Islam by the Orthodox Church, the first phase lasting from the 8th century until the mid-9th century; the second phase from the mid-9th century until the 13th century; the third phase from the 14th century until the 15th century when the Roman Empire fell and the period of the Turkish occupation began; and the fourth phase began in the 15th century to the 19th century, which is identified with the Turkish occupation. I will present a few examples.

In the first phase (8th century until the mid-9th century), Islam appeared more as a Christian heresy and the position of the Fathers towards it was rather mocking and disparaging.

A typical example is Saint John of Damascus, who was born and raised in Damascus of Syria, which was the headquarters of the Arab Caliphate. His father Sergios was a "commissioner of affairs" of the Caliphate, holding a position corresponding to the minister of the Caliph at the time in cases of the enslaved Christian population, especially in the distribution of taxes.

In these circumstances Saint John of Damascus came to know Islam and established the first phase of dealing with Islam, considering it a heresy of Christianity. He calls Islam "the religion of the Ishmaelites keeping people in error" and the "forerunner of the Antichrist". The followers of Islam he calls "Ishamelites", because they come from Ishmael who was born of Abraham, but through Hagar and not Sarah, which is why he also calls them "Hagarenes". He also calls them "Saracens", which is derived from "destitute by Sarah", for Hagar said to the angel: "Sarah has sent me away destitute."

Saint John of Damascus confronted what the Ishmaelites upheld, and wrote that the Koran was "worthy of laughter". Regarding Muhammad, whom he calls "Mamed", he wrote that he drew up some legislation for his book, namely the Koran, which is "worthy of laughter" and its strange marvels were "worthy of laughter", but in this book also there is much "chatter".

In his text, Saint John of Damascus lists some typical views about the Koran, and he also lists some of the discussions he had with the Muslims/Ishmaelites.

According to Saint John of Damascus, the Ishmaelites were initially idolaters, who worshipped the star Aphrodite, and when the false prophet Muhammad appeared, he "devised his own heresy," after reading the Old and New Testaments and conversing "with an Arian monk." It seems here that he views Islam as a Christian heresy and that Muhammad was influenced by a certain Arian monk.

Muhammad preached that God created all things, and neither was He begotten nor did He beget. Christ is His Word and Spirit, yet created and a servant, who was born of Mariam the sister of Moses and Aaron, "without seed". The Word of God and Spirit entered into Mariam and she gave birth to Jesus, who was a prophet and servant of God. The Jews wanted to crucify him, but having arrested him they crucified his shadow, but Christ was not crucified, yet died. God who loved him brought him near to Him in heaven. Then Saint John presents much chatter written in the Koran in order to show its ridiculousness.

It seems that Saint John of Damascus in his time entered into dialogue with the Muslims and he even lists some of the questions he posed to them, as well as the answers they gave him. He testifies that the Muslims called Christians "Hetaeriasts", or Associators, because they introduce an associate with God by declaring Christ to be the Son of God and God. Also, they accuse Christians of being idolaters, because they venerate the Cross.

The second phase (mid-9th century until the 13th century) developed a polemic against Islam, centered in Constantinople, and Islam was accused of being an incoherent religion. It was already viewed as a great danger for the Empire with its continuous penetration into its territory, so it needed to be addressed, and it was done with aggression.

A typical example is Niketas of Byzantium, known as the "philosopher" and "teacher", a contemporary of Photios the Great and a little younger than him. He probably lived in the 9th century. He was an apologist against the Armenians, the Muslims and the Latins.

Niketas of Byzantium wrote three books against Islam. The first book bears the title: "Refutation of the Book Forged by Muhammad the Arab," in which he disproves selective chapters of the Koran and a few articles of the Muhammadan religion. The second book is titled: "Positive Exposition of Christian Doctrine, Developed from General Concepts by Means of Dialectical Method, Rational Arguments, and Multiple Syllogistic Proofs, Followed by a Confutation of the Letter Sent by the Hagarenes to the Emperor Michael, Son of Theophilus, in Order to Slander the Christian faith." The third book is titled: "Confutation and Refutation of the Second Letter Sent by the Hagarenes to the Emperor Michael, Son of Theophilus, in Order to Slander the Christian Faith." The two last works deal with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the two letters of the Saracens to Emperor Michael III.

The first book he wrote in an aggressive manner against the errors and myths of Muhammad. It is significant that in this text he features Muhammad as an "ignorant barbarian", and often speaks of "myth-making", "mythic-words", "mythology", "myths", "many myths", "mythic book", while rebuking various views of Islam, and he calls the followers of this religion "barbarians".

At the beginning of his discourse he presents the Orthodox teaching, and then he begins his rebuke against the content of Muhammad's book, namely the Koran. Among the issues he rebukes are the various doctrines of Islam, such as those referring to the Word, that God is the cause of sin, how after the resurrection people will live in marriage, about female angels, on the primacy of angels, how God is all-spherical, how the Ishmaelite people are strangers to the covenant of God, on circumcision, on the God of Muhammad, on the arrogance of Muhammad, among many other things. At the end of his discourse he notes that all he wrote "is a slap against the shameless person of the false speaking Muhammad... who spoke words of injustice."

Translated by John Sanidopoulos