May 8, 2015

The Fathers of the Church and Islam (4 of 5)

During the third phase (14th century to 15th century), before the fall of the Roman Empire with the conquest of Constantinople, there was a dialogue between Orthodoxy and Islam, since the Ottoman Muslims had prevailed in Asia Minor and Eastern and Western Thrace, and were threatening Constantinople.

A typical example is Saint Gregory Palamas who lived in the fourteenth century in a critical period in relation to the Seljuk Turks, who acquired as their head Osman (Othman) who founded the Ottoman dynasty, to which he gave his name and began to take over various areas of Asia Minor. Indeed, on the 2nd of March in the year 1354 the Ottomans first stepped on European soil, in Gallipoli of Thrace, and they captured a ship on which Saint Gregory Palamas was a passenger, thus capturing him. Saint Gregory remained a prisoner of the Ottomans for a year.

During the year of his captivity he made three theological dialogues with the Ottomans, which he describes in a letter to his Church, the Metropolis of Thessaloniki.

The first dialogue took place in Bursa, which was the capital of the Ottomans, with the grandson of the emir Orhan, whose name was Ishmael. The topics of discussion were fasting, almsgiving, Muhammad and Christ as the Word of God. Saint Gregory used arguments from the Koran in order to silence Ishmael, which indicates his familiarity with what the Koran said about Christ. Ishmael dissimulated to him that since Christians claimed that Christ was born of the Father, this means that God the Father has a wife. Saint Gregory replied that just as they also argue Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, without a husband, even more so it could happen with God who begat His Word in a God-befitting manner without flesh, without a woman.

The second dialogue took place with the Chiones, who were a syncretistic group of that era, who knew the theological issues between the two religions. The discussion revolved around the question raised by the Chiones, as to why the Christians confessed that Christ was God, even though He was a man and was born as a man. Saint Gregory addressed this issue on the basis of the teachings of Islam, which teaches that Christ is the Word of God and claimed that the creation of the world was one thing while the birth of the Word of God was another thing. Then the discussion turned to Muhammad, and the Chiones asked Saint Gregory why Christians do not love him. Saint Gregory responded that Christ gave a command to love the Apostles and not Muhammad. Then there was discussion regarding circumcision and icons. At this point the dialogue stopped, and the Turkish officials withdrew after greeting Saint Gregory with reverence, while one of the Chiones cursed him and punched him in the face.

The third dialogue took place in Nicaea with the manager of the burial of a certain Muslim. The dialogue revolved around prayer and Christ. The Turks present asked the Saint why he did not accept the Prophet Muhammad and his gospel. The Saint replied that he had no command to revere Muhammad, and that Islam expanded throughout the world by the power of the devil, war, the sword, looting, enslavement and killing, and Muhammad used violence and pleasure to win over followers. Those present were moved with rage against Saint Gregory Palamas, and he prayed for a time when they could agree and believe the same doctrines.

During the fourth phase (15th to 19th centuries) the Roman Empire had already been abolished, Constantinople fell, and the dialogue between the Orthodox Church and Islam is taking place depending on local circumstances. Here I will mention two examples.

The first is Gennadios Scholarios, who was the first Patriarch of Constantinople after its fall. Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror himself installed him Patriarch and gave him many privileges. Although after the fall of Constantinople he was captured and became a slave in service of an officer of Adrianople, he was liberated and became Patriarch. Indeed, the Sultan would dialogue with him on religious matters.

Gennadios Scholarios was in a difficult position against the invaders, which is why he presented the Christian position in opposition to Islam, but it was presented in a positive way rather than with aggression. Expounding on the matter he emphasized the points in which the two religions differed, which is the spirituality of the eschaton, the divinity of Christ, and the Triune God.

He developed an upward trend in the divine economy, by which natural law resulted in the Mosaic law and from there the evangelical law. The evangelical law was developed by Christ and was the perfect law, the fulfillment of the Mosaic law, and it had the power to lead humanity into submission to God, and enables them to despise all transient goods, because of the love for truth and eternal life. That this law is divine is proved by the Martyrs who were killed in order not to betray the law of Christ. Even throughout the three hundred years of persecution against Christianity, it was able to expand and prosper throughout the earth.

That Gennadios Scholarios told Mehmed the Conqueror that there was not a more perfect law than the evangelical law, meant that he left no room for the law and teachings of the prophet of Islam. Of course, in developing his thoughts, he argued that at times there do appear people who claim they receive certain other laws from God, but this is also permitted by God and the cause is known from the evangelical teaching.

Gennadios Scholarios spoke like this in a somewhat hidden manner, so as not to irritate his interlocutor, citing the teaching of Christ that false prophets will appear to lead people into error and test the faith of Christians. This is what he meant when he said that the cause (of false prophets) was recorded in the evangelical teaching, but he did not come out and say it for tactical and discerning reasons, because Christians were in a difficult position, and he wanted to protect them after the great massacre that had recently taken place.

Translated by John Sanidopoulos