CHAPTER 3 THE SOCIO-POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND DURING THE ERA OF JOHN OF DAMASCUS (650 – 750)
This chapter describes broadly the milieu prior to, and contemporary with, John of Damascus. It was a period characterized by political and religious quarrels. Politically, the Byzantine and Persian leaders fought for control of the Syrian area, and in the religious arena, internal quarrels over the differing Christian confessions took place between the Chalcedonian, the Monophysite or Jacobite, and the Nestorian or Persian Churches. At the same time, the Christians and the Muslims who lived under the Ummayad dynasty, which had established Damascus149 as the headquarters and ‘City of Islam’, were mutually suspicious of one another.
The Socio-Political Context and Religious Environment of Syria
Under this heading we shall investigate the socio-political and the religious context of Syria on the eve of, and during, the Islamic Conquest.
The Eve of the Islamic Conquest (600 – 630)
The Political Context
The historian150 Starcky, quoted by Jargy (1981: 21-26), reminds us that Damascus was a product of the general regional and international context of the East. This area, states Jargy (1981: 22), experienced continuous wars for hegemony151 between Constantinople (Byzantium) and Ctesiphon (Persia), and for control of the great trade and communication routes. Indeed, from the 5th to the 7th Centuries, the classical East was under the power of three empires, two of which could be classified as true powers: the Byzantine Empire in the West, and the Persian Empire in the East, and the much less powerful Abyssinian Empire. Brown notes (2003: 272-276) that the Arabian region was caught between these two great powers and lay ‘at the Crossroads of Asia’ where it suffered interminable wars. He describes the situation as follows:
The shrinking of Asia at this time was in part the result of renewed conflict in the Near East. In Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine, the Christian populations were divided between two world empires. Those in the west (in what are now modern eastern Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel) were subjects of the Christian empire of East Rome and those to the east (in an area which coincides roughly with modern Iraq) belonged to the Pagan, Zoroastrian empire of Sasanian Persia. These two empires were spoken of as ‘the two eyes of the world’. For almost 70 out of the 90 years between 540 and 630, they were at war. From the Caucasus to Yemen in the south of Arabia, and from the steppe lands of the Euphrates to eastern Central Asia the two superpowers manoeuvred incessantly to outflank each other. As a result, the inhabitants of the Near East found themselves caught between ‘two powerful kingdoms who roared like lions, and the sound of their roaring filled the whole world with thunder’… Most paradoxical of all, the generals and the troops who fought across these Near Eastern landscapes were usually foreigners to the region. The armies of the Romans were largely recruited in Asia Minor and the Balkans; those of the Persians came from the closed world of the Iranian plateau and from the steppes of Central Asia … Both empires fought to control a Syriac-speaking ‘heartland’ whose language they did not understand. As for the inhabitants of the region-the political and military frontier between the two empires meant little to them. Syriac-speaking Christian villages stretched on both sides of the frontier, without a break, from the Mediterranean to the foothills of the Zagros. It was possible to travel from Ctesiphon, the Persian capital in southern Mesopotamia, to Antioch, speaking Syriac all the way. Despite the ravage of war, the sixth–century Near East was crisscrossed by travelling clergymen and intellectuals for whom the political frontier between Rome and Persia was irrelevant.
In 610, at the height of these wars between the two empires, Le Coz (1992: 23) describes how the Persian Emperor invaded Syria and Palestine. The inevitable consequence of this invasion was occupation, and the ensuing persecution of Christians who remained loyal to the Christian Byzantine Empire. A peace agreement was finally signed between the Byzantine Emperor, Heraclius, and the Persian Emperor on the 17th June 628.152 What was the religious situation of this area at this time? The following subheading will respond to this question.
The Religious Context
Under this heading, the background153 of the various Christian Churches in the Middle East will be described. Le Coz (1992: 24) relates that as a result of the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, held respectively in 431154 and 451,155the Middle Eastern Christians were divided into three communities: the Chalcedonian Church, the Monophysite or Jacobite Church, and the Nestorian or Persian Church. These three Churches hated one another and sought the support of the political powers of the day to eliminate their rival Churches156. They might be viewed as ‘national Churches’ which Wessels (1995: 52-54) explains as follows:
Even more important than these dogmatic differences, however, were the more or less ‘national’ lines along which the churches were divided. There were clergy who were imperially or melchitically (melchos is the Syriac word for ‘prince’) orientated. It was their intention to enforce the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon (located next to Constantinople, the second Rome, and the residence of the emperor) amongst other metropolitans, such as those of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch. This led to the confrontations, some of them bloody. An identification of sorts arose between emerging nationalistic sentiments and Monophysite inclinations. Constantinople recognized only the Greek Orthodox (Melchite) Patriarch of Antioch and those clergy of Greek orthodox bent. The ‘Nestorians’ moved beyond the border of Persia. Where the Jacobites remained in Byzantine territory, they were forced underground and had to endure persecution … At the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 553 Cyril’s interpretation of Chalcedon was confirmed under Justinian’s influence. The ‘national’ churches of Jacobites, Armenians, Copts and Ethiopians continued, however. It is said concerning the wife of Justinian, Empress Theodora (died 548), that she was secretly a Monophysite and supported adherents of Monophysitism. Her influence in the political formation of the empire was probably considerable. The Melchites were supported by imperial weapons, while the Monophysites had their own armies of monks. In the ensuing struggle, the Syrian Orthodox or Jacobites were raided.
They lived in conflict with Byzantium and had to suffer under discrimination.
Thus, it is apparent that during this period the following main churches157 still operated in the Middle East, namely, the Jacobite or Monophysite, the Nestorian, the Armenian, and the Coptic churches. They had in reality, however, amalgamated into three major confessions: the Chalcedonian, the Monophysite, and the Nestorian Churches. Wessels (1995: 54) points out that all these Churches considered the Patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch as their own, while they saw Pope Leo I as Roman. This was one of the reasons why the Egyptians and the Syrians initially welcomed the Persians, and later the Arab Muslims as liberators from the Byzantine yoke.
( i ) The Chalcedonian Church
According to Le Coz (1992: 24), after the Byzantine Emperor’s victory over Persia in 628, the Chalcedonian Church158 drew to itself all the Christians who accepted the conclusions of the Council of Chalcedon (451). It was the official religion of the Byzantine Empire, but it is useful to note that, at the beginning of the Seventh Century, for the sake of ‘unity and reconciliation with the Monophysite and Chalcedonian Churches’ (Cunnington 1999: 75), and in order to recuperate Syria, Palestine and Egypt which were once under Roman rule, it seemed imperative to Heraclius (610-641) and his ecclesiastical advisers, that the prolonged misunderstanding between the Chalcedonian and Monophysite Christians be resolved. The attempt to solve the misunderstanding concerning the ‘persona’ (hypostasis) and ‘nature’ (phusis) of Jesus Christ159 caused Emperor Heraclius to impose yet another new heresy – monothelitism.160 This heresy, Cunnington explains (1999: 75), was initiated by Sergius and originally named ‘Monoenergism.’ It was another attempt to devise a formula for dogmatic compromise. It taught that whereas Christ has two natures, one divine and one human, he possesses a single activity or ‘energy’ (in Greek). Doctrinally, the Chalcedonian Church recognized the tenets of ‘without division’ and ‘without separation’, and the ‘without division’ and ‘without separation’ of the two natures of Jesus Christ. It was finally named the ‘Melkite Church’161 and established in the great cities and central and southern regions of Syria. Chalcedonian Christians were of the Greek tradition, with the exception of the Arabs settled in the South.
(ii) The Monophysite or Jacobite Church
According to Brown (2003: 279), by the middle of the Sixth Century, a ‘dissident’ Monophysite Church had become established throughout the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. A network of counter-bishoprics, monasteries, village priests and holy men of anti-Chalcedonian views stretched its tentacles from Egypt to Nubia and Axum, across the Fertile Crescent, and into the territories of the Persian Empire as if no frontier stood in its way. Based on an unusual combination of theological sophistication and intense, Christ-centred piety, Monophysitism, in its various forms, was the dominant, and certainly the most vocal, faith of the western Syriac world. Indeed, states Le Coz (1992: 25), the Monophysites are, theologically speaking, the disciples and heirs of the Alexandria School. As followers of Origen and Cyril, they opted for an allegorical and mystical exegesis of the Scriptures. Consequently, they were in opposition to the theological School of Antioch concerning the nature of Christ. Between 512 and 518, the entire Syrian and Egyptian ecclesiastical leadership was Monophysite. The Emperor Justinian disbanded the Monophysite Church which stressed the unique, divine nature of Christ. At the request of the Arab Monophysites, who lived in the Syrian desert and were allies of the Byzantine Emperor, James Baradius162 was made the sacred Bishop of Edessa in 543. A brilliant leader, he improved the ecclesiastical structure of his church. In memory of his actions, his name was given to the Arab Monophysite Church: ‘Jacobite.’
(iii) The Nestorian Church
The Nestorian Church is also called the ‘Church of Persia.’163 Its denomination originated from Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, who was discharged in 341 by the Ephesus Council. This Bishop did not agree with the title of Theotokos . According to Nestorius, Mary was not the mother of the divine, but only of the human nature of Jesus. Driven beyond the Persian border by persecution, the Nestorians came to be called the Church of Persia.’164 With the conquest of Edessa by the Byzantines, the Nestorians moved on to Nisibia, and settled finally in Seleusia. In Persia, the Nestorians were a minority and the official Persian religion was Zoroastrianism. Persia directly opposed anything Byzantine and, therefore, the Nestorians had to adopt the Syriac language one century before the Jacobite Church, their eternal enemies. The Nestorians evangelized the Arab tribes who were organized under the ‘Lakhamid Empire’ which extended from Lower Iraq to the centre of Arab territory. One further element of the Arabian religious environment must be mentioned: that is, the presence of the Hanifs who were considered as independent ascetics. SP Trimingham (1990: 261-267) argues that in the accounts of Muhammad’s life, these ascetics are called hanifs, and the origin and meaning of this term have been much discussed. The word hanif, or hunifa, in the plural form was used in the Qur’ân where it occurs twelve times: six times in Mecca and six in the Medinan suras. This term, explains Trimingham, occurs mainly with reference to Abraham; in eight passages it used to describe the millat Ibrahim, ‘the way of Abraham’. In two of the Medinan suras, it is joined to the term muslim, or its verb, as in aslama wajhahu: ‘Abraham was not a Jew, nor was he a Christian, but he was a hanif, a muslim, and not of the polytheists’ (soura 3, 60). Philologists propose that the word hanif is derived from the Syriac usage root h:n:p. In Christian Syriac usage hanputho165 describes the religious way of life of the Aramaeans, their natural pagan religion. The term hanif refers to neither a Jew nor a Christian, since these cults were not in existence in Abraham’s time. Therefore, this word in the Qur’ân166 relates to a natural, as distinct from a prophetic, monotheism, and, thus, links Muhammad directly to a natural Arabian monotheistic tradition. Traditionally, hanifs are mentioned as contemporaries of Muhammad and linked with Christianity. Traditionalists, wishing to show certain men as being religiously distinctive from Quraishite paganism, seized the word for this purpose. The hanifs by tradition are recognized like ‘Abraham as self-submitted monotheists’ (Qur’ân 3, 60), not bound up with any specific cultic expression, and who, when they sought a cultic identity, became Christians.167 As mentioned above, the idea of hanif was crucial to the personal definition of Muhammad’s identity as the Prophet, independent of the Jewish and Christian considerations which existed prior to Muhammad.
To summarise, on the eve of the Muslim conquest around 632, the Middle East had been deeply affected by over two centuries of Christological quarrels. Consequently, the Christians were divided into the three Monophysite, Nestorian and Chalcedonian Churches who were actively hostile towards one other.168 Nevertheless, in the Arab area, the monks adopted the model of Simeon the Stylite. It is said, according to Jargy (1985: 30-31), that Simeon, who lived in the north of Syria, spent thirty years blessing and preaching the Arab Bedouins who came from all over the Syro-Mesopotamian desert.
The Period of the Muslim Conquest and the Reigns of the First Four Caliphs169 (632 – 661)
Historically speaking, the Islamic conquest started during the reigns of the first four caliphs (632 – 661).170 Before the advent of Islam, the Arab Christians were divided over the nature of Jesus Christ. They were fertile ground for any teachings concerning this sensitive matter. Islamic doctrine, which uses the Arabic language, contains one point that speaks also about Isa or Jesus Christ. It is known that Mohammad171 died in 632. The following year, states Le Coz (1992: 28-29), Hira, the great city of the Arab kingdom, which was allied to the Persian Empire, surrendered without a struggle to the Muslims. Saint Sophronius (560-638), the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, had to negotiate the surrender of this city in 636 with the second successor to Mohammad, Caliph Umar Ibn al Khattab, while Mansour Ibn Sarjun, the grandfather of John of Damascus had to negotiate the capitulation of Damascus. In the same year, with the battle of Yarmuk – in Syria – the way for Islam to convert the entire Near East was opened, that is to say, to conquer the North of Syria,172 Antioch, and Edessa. By 638, Syria and Persia were under Islamic power. Egypt fell in 642. At this date, notes Brown (2003: 296), Iran and Central Asia were controlled by the Muslims. In addition, in the ten years it took the Muslims to conquer this region, politically, observes Le Coz (1992: 29), the Jews, who like the Christians were considered ‘people of the book’ (ahl al-kitab, were a ‘ people under protection’ (dhimmi),173 and were forced to pay only tribute. The status of the dhimmis was to change with the rise of the Ummayad dynasty.
During the Ummayad Dynasty174 (661 – 750)
The word ‘ummayad’, states Brown (2003: 299), is derived from the family of Ummaya, members of the clan of the Quraysh of Syria, from which the Caliph Mu’awiya ibn Abu Sufyan (661-680) had come. In fact, during the ‘Ummayad Empire’ (661-750), politics and religion were not differentiated from one another. Nevertheless, notes Brown (2003: 298), for the duration of this era ‘justice flourished in this time and there was great peace.’ It is interesting to see how John bar Penkâye, a Christian in the Near East, regarded the development of the Arab Empire under Mu’awiya175 whom he praised as one who brought an end to civil war: ‘He became king, controlling the two kingdoms, the Persians and the Byzantines. Justice flourished in his time and there was great peace in the regions under his control. He allowed everyone to live as they wanted.’
It emerges from the last part of this quotation that Mu’awiya, who became Caliph one year after the Qur’ân had been written down (660), tolerated Christians. Indeed, it is probable, according to Le Coz (1992: 36) that Mu’awiya spent most of his spare time with Christians and used their services. It is said that within a short time the Mu’awiya’s lovely wife was a Christian Jacobite; the private tutor of his son, and his private Physician were all Christians.
In addition, the famous Akhtal,176 the official poet of Mu’awiya’s Court, was an Arab Monophysite. Mansour Ibn Sarjun, the grandfather of John of Damascus, occupied the highest position in the administration in Damascus. Lastly, Mu’awiya showed his good feelings toward Christians by rebuilding a Church which was destroyed by the earthquakes in Edessa. However, according to Le Coz (1992: 33), the year 661 is a very important date in the Islamic calendar. It marks a historic turning point in the relations between Christians and Muslims. Indeed, Damascus177 became the headquarters of Islam and the seat of Islamic government. Jerusalem was given prominence, and Christians played an important role in the public administration178 even if there was no unanimity among them concerning the nature and person of Jesus Christ. The Muslims, on the other hand, had still not solved the question of who could legitimately succeed ‘The Prophet’. They faced the dual dilemma of Muhammad’s succession as both a religious and a political authority. In Islam, the religious and political powers are not separated. The question of the succession was solved by Mu’awiya when he established the hereditary regime and made Damascus, which is occupied in its majority by Christian people, the capital of the large Muslim Empire which extended from China to the Pyrenees in Europe. Administratively, Muslim leaders used the expertise of Christians. That is the reason why Greek remained the language of the administration. It was in Damascus that, for the first time, reveals Le Coz (1992: 35), Islam developed its theological thinking and exegesis. This encounter with the cultivated Christians of Damascus coincided with the Muslim struggle over succession.
Therefore, we witness, points out Le Coz (1992: 35-6), the elaboration of the first elements of what would subsequently become the ilm al-kal m: Muslim theology.179 Damascus was the crucible in which the exchange and collaboration between Muslims and Christians became established in all domains. But, continues Le Coz (1992: 36), the relations were developed according to such circumstances or situations as the resumption of the fight over Byzantium or the personality of the Caliphate. This is the reason why, it is recommended that we examine the evolution of these relations during the Ummayad’s dynasty, specifically under the reign of the successors to Mu’awiya180. Indeed, the Muslim state set up during the epoch of the successors of Mu’awiya, and in particular the Caliphs ‘Abd al- Malik (685- 705), al-Walid (705-715), ‘Umar II (717-720), Yazid II (720-724), Hisham (724-743), Walid II (743-744), and Marwan II (744-750). ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705),181 asserts Brown (2003: 301-302), did not tolerate Christians. He made Arabic, the sole official language of the bureaucracy after 699. At the time, this change affected only those involved in the business of administration, but the Caliphs also used this as a very visible way to make their presence felt in the world at large, as the East Roman emperors had done. By 693, the Muslims replaced the Roman coins. By the year 700, the public spaces of Syria, Egypt, and Iraq began to look distinctively Muslim and Arabic. Arabic script could be seen on coins, in inscriptions, and textiles. However, ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705) recommended, states Wessels (1995: 16), that Muslims make their pilgrimage to the holy rock in Jerusalem instead of to Mecca. ‘This rock for you will take the place of the Ka’bah [in Mecca].’ There is even a tradition according to which Mohammed regards Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem as being important sites for pilgrimage, and indeed, that Jerusalem ought to be placed above the other holy sites. As an expression of his high regard for Jerusalem, ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705) had a dome built in 691 over the rock on which, it was believed, the hoof print of the winged horse of Mohammed, Boraq, could still be seen. This dome was supposed to surpass the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in beauty in order to symbolize Islam’s conquest of Christianity. Both holy places are referred to by Arabs as Al-Haram al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary). According to the regulations, specifies Wessels (1995: 20), traced back to ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-Kattab(634-644), but probably having been derived instead from ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, Christians were required to dress distinctly; they were not permitted to ride horses, carry weapons, or build new churches, and limits were placed upon the restoration of existing church buildings; they could not ring the church bells, hold processions, or wear the cross in public. There were also personal restrictions. An Islamic man could marry a Christian wife, but a Christian could not marry an Islamic woman unless he converted to Islam and raised the offspring of the mixed marriage in the Islamic faith, a regulation that continues almost universally in the Islamic world to the present day. Al-Walid (705-715) had a reputation for hating Christians and destroyed churches. Initially, he promised Christians that they could keep their churches, but he is thought to have been the one who destroyed the Church of John the Baptist, one of the many churches that claimed to have the head of John the Baptist. This mosque is viewed by Moslems as the most important ‘holy place’ after Mecca, Medina, and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
In spite of the persecutions under ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705) and the discriminatory regulations of ‘Umar II182 (717-720), remarks Wessels (1995: 20), Christians remained loyal to the Ummayad’s authority. It is important to keep in mind, however, observes Wessels (1995: 20-21), that the pressure frequently exerted y on the Christians was not primarily religious, but economic in nature. That was also the case, for example, during the reign of ‘Umar II. According to Denis of Tell-Mahré, the Jacobite historian, the Caliph Yazid II (720-723), in 723, allowed the destruction of images in application of the Islamic rule which bans the artistic portrayal of humans. In addition, the Caliph Walid II (743-44) exiled the Patriarch of Antioch for his preaching on Islam.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Table of Contents
PART ONE: INTRODUCTION, HISTORICAL OVERVIEW, AND JOHN OF DAMASCUS ERA AND UNDERSTANDING OF HERESY
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION AND FRAMEWORK OF THE RESEARCH
1.1 Statement of the Problem
1.2 Motivation for the Study
1.3 Limitation and Area of Investigation
1.4 Aims and Objectives
1.5 Research Methods and Explanation of Terms
1.6 Rationale for chapter division
CHAPTER 2: THE HISTORICAL OVERVIEW OF UNDERSTANDING OF HERESY
2.2 Understanding Overview of Heresy
2.3 Causes for the Birth, Spread, and Persistence of Heresies
2.4 Church’s riposte against heresies
CHAPTER 3: THE SOCIO-POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND DURING THE JOHN OF DAMASCUS ERA (650-750)
3.2 The Socio-Political Context and Religious Environment of Syria
3.3 The Advent of John of Damascus
CHAPTER 4: JOHN OF DAMASCUS UNDERSTANDING OF HERESY
4.2 The Literary Output of John of Damascus
4.3 The Theological System of John of Damascus
4.4 Heresies during the John of Damascus’ epoch
4.5 John of Damascus portrait of heretic
4.6 John of Damascus’ Apologetic
PART TWO: CASE STUDIES OF MODERN CHRISTIAN HERETICAL MOVEMENTS
CHAPTER 5: DUTCH REFORMED CHURCH AND APARTHEID HERESY
5.2 Historical Panorama of South Africa
5.3 Meaning of ‘apartheid’
5.4 The Historical roots that gave rise to Apartheid policy
5.5 Struggle over Apartheid
CHAPTER 6: A HERESY AGAINST ITS WILL: KIMBANGUISM
6.2 Panoramic Background of Democratic Republic of Congo
6.3 The Advent of Simon Kimbangu and Kimbanguism (1889-1959)
6.4 Growth and outreach of the Kimbanguism (1959-2001)
6.5 Kimbanguism and its Trinitarian doctrinal crisis (2001- )
CHAPTER 7: TOWARDS THE PORTRAIT OF MODERN HERETIC IN THE LIGHT OF JOHN OF DAMASCUS
7.2 John of Damascus’ portrait of a heretic
7.3 The Dutch Reformed Church and Apartheid
7.5 Modern portrait of a heretic
CHAPTER 8: FINAL CONCLUDING REMARKS
GET THE COMPLETE PROJECT