The Arabic Christian Literature

Author: Dr. George Khoury

The Arabic Christian Literature

By Dr. George Khoury

Dr. Khoury Georges speaks about the contribution of the Melkites, the Jacobites, the Nestorians, The Copts and the Maronites to the Arab Christian Heritage.

1- Introduction

Arabic at the time of the Abbasids had become a language of full maturity, unchallenged mistress in the school, the mosque, and in the offices of the administration. It prevailed in all parts of the Muslim world, not only as an ornament of great value for the pen, but also as a generous nurse of thought. The Iranians themselves, who later succeeded in giving life to their nationalism and in reviving anew a literature in Persian language, were unable to garble the Arabic language as a language of science and religion. They also had to keep its strong mark on their own vocabulary and on the alphabet. If Baghdad was an aging city hardly a century after its founding, it was nonetheless under the first Abassids the symbol of a new civilization and the home of the shining Arabic language which had become a language of thought and culture.

The irruption of foreign nations reached its height during the Abassid caliphate, with their cultural contributions and their specific gifts to the social and intellectual life of Arab Islamism. It also provoked a great effervescence of thought and an intense literary activity which poured into the Arabic language and brought about a development of prose. The vocabulary waxed richer thanks to new terms it borrowed from other cultures; the syntax became suppler, and the style clearer. Literary genres were either recovered or created. Ideas, new doctrines and research required more suitable expression.

Thanks to some talented writers of prose there was now a neat prose, eloquent in its simplicity, without affectation or mannerism, fluent and clear, without neither rhymes nor embellishment. From this period of Arab history we have works in theology, law, ethics, Qu'ranic exegesis, traditions, philology (i.e., grammar, lexicography, prosody), philosophy, history, geography, the exact sciences, and mystical theology.

2- The Melkites

Melkites means those Christians who adhered to the Calcidonian faith,451AD, which was supported and defended by the Bysantine Basileus in Constantinople Connecting Greek with Syriac as a language of life and as expression of thought, Arabic became first and little by little the prevailing form and later the only form of Christian literature in the Melkite community, whereas the Syriac and Coptic communities kept for a longer time their respective languages. One must distinguish, however, between two literary forms of Arabic in the Melkite literature of this period. This diversity is to be explained by the destination of Melkite literature.

One form uses the literary language--a language in no way inferior, from the point of view of stylistic purity, to that used by the Muslims. This is used in translating the Greek heritage of philosophy and science, in the chancellories, in the writing of history, and in the Islamo-Christian controversies. This literary Arabic is addressed to a Christian as well as a Muslim elite. It is not contaminated with vernacular dialect nor with foreign terms, except when these are required by technical needs or by the lively evolution of the language, especially in the field of philosophy.

A second, different Arabic is addressed to the people; this is the language used in hagiography, ascetic literature, and liturgy. Its users also enjoyed a bilingual education, Greek and Arabic, sometimes trilingual, Greek, Arabic, and Syriac, but its destination was the people and the monasteries. Its form of expression often deviated from grammatical norms and from syntax in order to borrow the suppler and livelier forms of the local dialect. Thus it frequently used foreign terms, mostly from Greek and Syriac. It was a language half-way between classical and local dialect. Here are some of the most famous and representative Christian Arab writers and thinkers who issued from the different Christian communities in Syro-Mesopotamia and Egypt, and who wrote during the Abassid era. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

a) Qusta Ibn Luqa (835-912)

Qusta Ibn Luqa was a Melkite from Baalbeck. He was an eminent translator and a theoretician of medicine. In addition, he was mathematician, physician, philosopher, apologist, and musician. Of him Ibn an-Nadim says: "He is an excellent translator; he knew well Greek, Syriac, and Arabic; he translated texts and corrected many translations. Many are his medical writings." (see Ibn an- Nadim, Fihrist, ed. Fugel, p. 234.) Qusta was with Hunain Ibn Ishaq the author who best served Greek culture in the Arab civilization.

b) Al-Bitriq (8th century)

Al-Bitriq lived during the caliphate of al-Mansur (754-775), who commissioned him to translate numerous ancient medical works. He translated Galian's Simplicia under the name of al-adwiat al- mufrada; the De Prohibenda Sepultura and the De Cura Icteri of the pseudo-Galian under the name of Maqala fi l-yaraqan. He also works attributed to Hippocrates: De Alimento, Kitab al-gida': De Septimanis, Kitab al-asabi, and he translated the Quadripartus of Ptolemeus, Kitab al-arabi'a. There was also Sa'id ibn al-Bitriq, Patriarch of Alexandria from 933 to 940 and whose works put him on equal footing with Qusta ibn Luqa. In the field of medicine he wrote Kitab fi t-tibb(lost), in history, Kitab at-tarih al-magmu' ala t-tahqiq wa t-tasdiq, more commonly known under the name, Nazam al-gawahar. As apologist, he wrote in defense of Christianity, Kitab al-gadal baina l-muhalef wa n-nasrani.

3- The Jacobites

Habib Abu Ra'itah Al-Takriti (early 9th century) is a contemporary and a theological opponent of Theodore Abu Qurrah, Bishop of Harran. He is the author of four important theological treatise. 1. A letter on the Trinity addressed to a Muslim and in which he attempts to explain the mystery of the Trinity with the help of philosophical concepts of substance, hypostasis and essential attributes, such as life, knowledge, and wisdom, and with natural analogies, such as light, sun, man. He also quotes the Bible and the Qur'an. 2. A letter on the Incarnation in which he tries to explain the mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. 3. Demonstration of the truth of the Christian religion and of the doctrine of the Trinity. 4. Proof of the truth of the Christian religion (however, this treatise may be inauthentic). There were also Musa al-Hagari (known as Moses Bar Kepha, died 903), and Al- Harith ibn Sinbat from Harran who were great biblical translators. But the most prestigious among them was Yahya ibn Adi (d. 974): philosopher, polemist, and theologian. His literary corpus comprises 40 philosophical treatises, several treatises of apologetics, and his refutation of al-Kindi's refutation of the Christians. He was also a skilled translator of Plato and Aristotle. Issa ibn Zurah (Baghad, 1008), in addition to being an apologist and theologian, was also physician, philosopher, and scientist. Yahya ibn Garir from Takrit was physician, astronomer, philosopher, and theologian. His compendium in theology is call Kitab al-murshid.

4- The Nestorians

Because of their number and importance in Mesopotamia, the Nestorians contributed more than any other Christian community to the Christian Arab literary heritage. Their activity comprises all the literary genres. In the first place stands out the Catholicos Timothy 1 (728-823). He was the protagonist and author of an interesting Muhawarah (debate) with the caliph al-Mahdi (775-785). Next to him stands Abu Nuh Ibn Al-Salt Al-Ambari, translator of Greek works and author of Tafnid al Qur'an (Refutation of the Qur'an), Maqalat fi al-tawhid and Maqalat fi al-tatlit (Essaya on God's Unity and Trinity). Ammar al-Basri (1st half of the 9th century) was a contemporary of the Melkite Abu Qurrah and the Jacobite Abu Ra'itah al-Takriti, and of the Nestorian Timothy 1. Al-Basri wrote two apologetics: Book of the Demonstration and the Book of Questions and Answers. Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (808-837) was a famous physician, philosopher, and translator of Greek works under several caliphs. He is the author of a Letter to Yahya ibn al- Munaggim. Yahya ibn al-Munaggim was a Muslim who invited Hunayn to convert to Islam. He also wrote a Letter on how to attain to the True Religion in which he shows that Christianity corresponds to the criteria of the true religion. His son Ishaq continued in his father's footsteps as translator and writer. From him we have Maqalah fi al-tawhid (Essay on Unity). There was also Abd al-Masih al-Kindi(end of 9th or 10th century) known for his Letter of Abd al-Masih to Abdallah al-Hashimi which became a classic in the annals of the Islamo-Christian polemics. There were also the members of the Bahtishu' family who, in addition to their medical profession, produced during three centuries an abundant philosophical and theological literature. Elias of Nisibis (Metropolitan of Nisibis (d. ca. 1049), known also as Elias bar Senaya, wrote as a dogmatic theologian two significant theological treatises: Letter on the Unity of the Creator and the Trinity of Persons and Letter on the Creation of the World. As apologist he wrote The Justification of Faith and Treatise on the Happiness of the Other World. He also bequeathed the report of Seven Sessions with the vizir al-Magribi. In the field of exegesis he wrote a Letter on the Difficulties of the Gospel. Another important figure in the first half of the 11th century is Abdallah ibn al-Tayyib, physician, commentator of the Greek classics, philosopher and a prolific Christian writer. He wrote several treatises in systematic theology, one on moral theology and one on law. As biblical commentator he wrote more commentaries than any other Christian writer.

5- The Copts

The Copts, who were of the Monophysite faith, adhered to their own language longer, and were almost one century later than the other Christian communities in expressing themselves in Arabic. Their contribution to the Arab Christian literature began with a great figure: Bishop of Asmunayn (Upper Egypt) Severus Ibn Al-Muqaffa (d. ca. 987). In theology, he wrote three important works: Book of the Exposition, Order of the Priesthood, and Precious Pearl. In apologetics he wrote: Book of the Councils and Brief Explanation of the Faith. He is best known though for his monumental History of the Patriarchsf Alexandria which was continued and completed in the 11th century by Michael, bishop of Tinnis and by Mawhub Ibn Mansur, deacon of Alexandria. In the 12th century the Patriarch Christodule (d. 1077), Cyril Second (d. 1092), and Yunus Ibn Abdalah wrote abundantly in the field of legal and liturgical literature. In the 13th century there was Simon Ibn Kalil (d. 1206), author of a treatise On the Unity of the Creator and of the Trinity. He also wrote a Commentary on the Gospel of St. Mathew and an Introduction to the Psalms. In ascetic theology he left us a beautifully written work, Garden of the Hermit and the Consolation of the Solitary. The 13th century was also called the century of "Awlad Al-Assal", Al-Safi, Al-Assad, and Al-Mu'taman, who distinguished themselves in this golden century with a rich literary production. Al-Safi was a great translator and author of many works, among them: Al-Sahahih fi gawab al-nassa'ih (The Correct Answers), and Al-Kitab al-awsat (The Middle Book). Al Mu'taman was a philosopher, theologian, exegete, a homiletic and liturgical writer.

6- The Maronites

The Maronite community kept longer than the other Christian communities to the Syriac language and literature. However, two Maronite names stand out during the classical period of Arab patrology. The first is Thomas, bishop of Kafartab, who composed in the 11th century a theological work The Book of Treatises. The other name is Bishop David who in the 11th century translated from Syriac to Arabic Kitab al-Huda (The Book of Guidance). It is a collection of canons and laws, of liturgical rules and short theological treatise dealing with trinitarian and christological problems.

Copyright (C) by Al-Bushra January 22, 1997

Al-Bushra (from Arabic, means good news), is created by Rev. Labib Kobti from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem (The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Jerusalem)

Courtesy of: Catholic Information Network (CIN) -