Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Timothy I and the Caliph Madhi

At Levellers, Michael Westmoreland-White's blog, in the midst of a discussion of the new Narnia movie (a movie that, as reflected in that discussion, disappointed me) a bit of a fight over Christian-Muslim relations has broken out. Perhaps "fight" is the wrong word, but I can't seem to come up with a better one. Voices from the nether regions of the Christian blogosphere have seen fit to arise once again with cries of "blasphemy!" and "heresy!" at the notion that just maybe some Christians and some Muslims actually, gasp, worship the same God.

To say that the vitriol in this discussion does little for Christian-Muslim relations would be an understatement. Hell, this conversation does little for Christian-Christian relations, carrying with it as it does the relentless drive toward one form of imposed orthodoxy or another. Anyway, I will probably shortly either reproduce one of my comments there or, more likely, revisit and expand on themes that emerged in one of my comments there, revisiting the tired topic of conversational ethics in a last-ditch effort to restore some semblance of civility to the blogosphere. The best fights are, after all, losing ones.

But, in the meantime, dissatisfied with the tenor of that conversation - a conversation that reflects poorly on those haphazardly tossing out labels that used to come equipped with death sentences, and not on Michael Westmoreland-White, who has acquitted himself well in dealing with this sort of nonsense - I wanted to post a paper I wrote loosely on the topic of Christian-Muslim relations. Actually, it is about a single conversation held in the eighth century. But hopefully an understanding of that conversation, and its historical, political, theological and ecclesial implications shows that something fruitful can emerge when Christians and Muslims engage each other in respectful dialogue.

Of course, nothing fruitful emerges when Christians accuse Muslims of worshipping some demonic false deity, or when Christians accuse other Christians of heresy for suggesting that just maybe the one true God of the universe is not some tribal deity to whom only those who believe exactly the right things may have access.

A rabbi once explained to me the most logical conclusion of monotheism: If there's only one God, and you're praying, then you're praying to God, because there's only one God. We Christians could learn something from that simple statement of faith, rather than engaging in endless disputes over which language God would rather hear people pray in.

Anyway, here's the story of that eighth century conversation between patriarch Timothy I and the caliph Madhi:

In 781 CE, roughly a year after becoming patriarch of the Nestorian/East Syrian church, Timothy I engaged Mahdi, the Abbasid caliph, “in a two-day interreligious dialogue” that he later recorded in his Apology Before the Caliph Mahdi. At one point in that wide-ranging philosophic and theological dialogue, the caliph, who holds all of the political power in the room, asks an important but – in the context of Christian-Muslim relations in Muslim controlled land – loaded question: “What do you say of Muhammad?” Timothy responds, “Muhammad is worthy of all praise, by all reasonable people, O my sovereign." Does Timothy’s answer reflect a recognition of the caliph’s power? Does it reflect an authentic respect for his host’s religion, and the prophet whose revelation from the angel of God stands at the root of that religion? Does it reflect some apologetic strategy? What, in other words, is going on here, as a leader of a Christian church voices such praise of the Muslim prophet?

The first thing that can be ruled out is that Timothy, in ascribing “all praise” to Muhammad, is committing some sort of apostasaic blasphemy. While we often and rightly ascribe “all praise” to God, any giving to Muhammad what belongs only to God would be as offensive to Muslim ears as to Christian ears. What Timothy is certainly not saying – as it would have gotten him killed – is that the praise due to Muhammad is the sort of praise which we generally give to God. But, if he was not exactly betraying his own faith, what exactly was Timothy doing? To understand that, we have to understand a little bit about both the historical and textual contexts of this comment about Muhammad.

Baghdad, where this exchange takes place, was founded in 762 by Al-Mansur as the new seat of the Abbasid caliphate. The Abbasids came to power roughly twelve years earlier, amid concerns about corruption in the previous Umayyad empire. The founding of Baghdad as an urban center, a City of Peace and a storehouse of learning, represented in part the promise of a new and more pure beginning for the Muslim world. Part of the vision for Baghdad included a symbolic and pragmatic “opening to the world.” Baghdad was thus open not only to commerce, but also to the kinds of cross-cultural and pluralistic encounters that come with open commerce.

In Baghdad there was a great concern to build up Islamic scholarship in part by bringing it into contact with other traditions. This did not keep Baghdad from being distinctly Muslim, with an Islamic government based on Islamic laws. But it did mean that within Muslim Baghdad there was an understanding that Muslims could learn from non-Muslims. Muslim scholars, in developing their kalam, their philosophic theology, consulted many diverse sources, and interacted with Jewish, Christian, and other scholars from other traditions.

It is in this more pluralistic culture no less than in a situation in which Islam was normative and the Muslim caliph held all political power, that Mahdi entertained Timothy. In this environment of curiosity and respect we can see Timothy’s statement about Muhammad as at least an honest form of courtesy. The textual context reveals, however, that it was also much more than that.

Before the caliph asks the patriarch about Muhammad, they were discussing the authorship of the Gospels, which Mahdi had previously asked Timothy to bring to him. In that discussion they attempt to reconcile the Gospel’s standing as, historically speaking, human products, with the Christian claim of the Gospel’s divine origin (the caliph asks, “Was it not written by four Apostles?” in the face of Timothy’s claim that “the Word of God… gave us the Gospel.”) It is within the context of this discussion that the conversation shifts to Muhammad, and the shift occurs first not with the caliph’s pointed question – a question to which the answer may mean life or death, if there is no conversational charity – but with Timothy’s use of an analogy.

In making his case for the Word of God being the source of the Gospel, Timothy builds an argument that moves toward a subject the caliph may be more familiar with, and points that the caliph may be more inclined to grant because his position may have some stake in them. He first makes an analogy between the Gospels and the Torah, saying that the divine authorship of the Gospels was worked in a similar process to the divine authorship of the Torah. Just as “the Gospel was written by the apostles,” who “simply wrote what they heard and learned from the Word-God,” so too “the Torah was written by Moses,” who “heard and learned it from an angel,” who in turn “heard and learned it from God.”

This, not coincidentally, is much like the process by which Muslims believe the Qu’ran came to be. Thus, Timothy continues, the way in which both the Gospel and the Torah originate in God even though they were recorded by human beings is much like the way the Qu’ran originated in God though it was recorded by Muhammad. “In the same way also the Muslims say that they have received the Qu’ran from Muhammad, but since Muhammad received knowledge and writing from an angel, they, therefore, affirm that the Book that was divulged through him was not Muhammad’s or the angel’s but God’s.”

So, when the caliph asks Timothy what he has to say about Muhammad, the question – though it may well be loaded – does not spring up from the ground like a trap, but rather arises naturally in the conversation. Timothy’s use of analogy, in fact, makes the question not unexpected, but rather almost unavoidable. Similarly his answer, which in part declares Muhammad “worthy of all praise by all people,” is also not entirely unexpected, because he needs a rather high understanding of Muhammad in order for his analogy – on which, for him, the divine authorship of the Gospel depends – to have any weight.

His answer to the caliph’s pointed question, however, does not end with Muhammad’s being “worthy of all praise,” though no part of the answer takes that back. The rest of the answer fleshes out why Muhammad is “worthy of all praise,” and it does so on Timothy’s Christian terms, though they are terms that the caliph can agree to. Muhammad is worthy of all praise because, like “all prophets” he “taught the doctrine of one God,” driving his people “away from bad works” and toward good ones, away from “idolatry and polytheism” and toward God. Timothy sees Muhammad as a prophet, much like the prophets celebrated by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is in this participation in the prophetic form that Muhammad is “worthy of all praise.”

Timothy goes on in his praise of Muhammad, but much like his praise of Muhammad as a prophet, his praise does not entirely yield the ground to Islam. Rather he praises that in Islam which is like his understanding of Christianity – and, as he understands it, that is quite a lot. But it is important to note that in the analogy that sets up Mahdi’s pointed question, Timothy, in the way in which he sees how each document moves from divine origin to human recording, gives the Gospel a more privileged position (though he does not call attention to this). Both the Torah and the Qu’ran had an angel standing between God and the human recorders of the text – Moses and Muhammad respectively. But in Timothy’s account of the recording of the Gospel, there is no angel. The Word of God speaks to the four Apostles.

It is difficult to make too much of this, especially without some consideration of what it meant here by the Word of God. But that there is a subtle difference in Timothy’s account to the divine inspiration of the Gospel should provide some comfort for those who see Timothy’s praise of Muhammad as some ceding of ground to his Muslim host. He is offering here an apology of the Christian faith, in a Muslim culture, that calls Christians to be proud of their faith, and to hold fast to it even as they acknowledge the value of the dominant faith in their culture.

So, what does this have to do with the conversation at Levellers? Not much, perhaps. But it does demonstrate, at the very least, that Christians can engage in reasoned discourse with Muslims, and offer a respectful apology for their faith, without being assholes. This approach, then, should be tried in our pluralistic setting no less than it was in eighth century Baghdad.


Amy said...

The only response I can make to your statement about getting over language is "Amen! Praise the Holy Mother in Heaven!"

Sandalstraps said...

And let me add a hearty AMEN! to your hymn of praise to our heavenly Mother!