- Umayyad Christianity: John of Damascus as a Contextual Example of Identity Formation in Early Islam by Najib George Awad
John of Damascus lived a life simultaneously on the margins and at the center. He grew up in a prominent family who even under Byzantine rule were known by the decidedly Semitic name of their ancestor Manṣūr. In the Umayyad capital, they were part of a bureaucracy that continued to operate in Greek. Theoretically subject to numerous civil restrictions as dhimmis and, as Mel-kites, potentially suspect coreligionists of the Umayyads’ chief rivals, they were nevertheless the elite of a Christian community that still constituted a demographic majority and were witnesses (if not the chief protagonists) of what is sometimes called the “re-Chalcedonization of Syria” under Muslim rule. Likewise, Jerusalem and its surrounding monasteries constituted the main center of Greek literary production during the “Byzantine Dark Ages” and was the center of resistance against the Monotheletism and then Iconoclasm promoted by the Church of Constantinople. Preconceived categories of Byzantium and Islam, Greek and Arabic, obscure far more than they reveal when we visit the eighth-century Levant.
No doubt because of John’s central place in later Orthodox theology and hymnography, there is a longstanding historiographical tradition of portraying him as a paradigmatic “Byzantine” father. It is in self-conscious opposition to this that Najib Awad attempts in his monograph Umayyad Christianity: John of Damascus as a Contextual Example of Identity Formation in Early Islam to “bring this great church father back home” (viii) and claim him for “Arab–Islamic” culture. He does this by adopting what he terms a “from-context-to-text” methodology, “founding its hermeneutics on the ‘Sitz im Leben,’” a methodology that “must definitely exceed his [ . . . ] Greek textual and literary legacy” (31).
Awad is correct to call into question facile categorization of John as a “Byzantine.” As he successfully demonstrates, John is consistently culturally othered in Byzantine sources, both in his beturbaned depiction on icons and in the bitter invective hurled against him at the Iconoclast Council of Hieria of 754, calling him “Saracen-minded” and mocking his family (not, pace Awad, personal) name. If contemporary Byzantines didn’t consider him to be one of themselves, why should we? On the other hand, medieval Muslim historians consistently qualify members of the Manṣūr family as “Rūm” i.e., Byzantine. Cultural categories are always a matter of perspective, especially when imposed from the outside.
In order to avoid simply becoming an exercise in begging the question, a “from-context-to-text” approach must be applied with nuance and careful attention to the text to which the context is being applied. Suppositions about a Sitz im Leben can neither be used as a pretext for eisegesis nor as an excuse to ignore the text altogether. It is here where Awad falters, sometimes in confusing ways. For unclear reasons, he is averse to discussing John as a monk and at one point even comes close to dismissing his monastic status altogether (65). This leads to a lack of sensitivity to the literary tradition in which John wrote and the primary context in which most of his works would have been read. In place of this, Awad assumes that he wrote for a broad audience including Muslim intellectuals, whose knowledge of Greek he takes for granted on very scant evidence (163–66). [End Page 228]
Even more strangely, Awad argues that because he was “free of family ties,” John was able to “stand outside the cultural criterion (paideia) that was created and made official by Byzantine standards,” as “Christians of Syria–Palestine could easily distance themselves . . . from the Hellenic–Byzantine paideia and affiliate closely to the local, originally Syriac one” (65–66). He then goes on to deploy uncritically Patricia Crone and Michael Cook’s (long-discredited) concept of “Hagarism” and states that “John and his family [ . . . ] are from the Syro–Damascene Christians who Hagarized themselves and their culture” (70). Here Awad conflates imperially-sanctioned dogma with the...