- Muslims and Christians in the Levant:A Shared Culture, An Evolving Concept of Citizenship
Recent scholarship has endeavored to counter a widespread impression that the Middle East is a homogenous Arab and Muslim ethnic entity. Although Christians once constituted large and important communities in today's Arab world, later scholars tended to regard them as tools of Western interests or as victims of Muslim rulers whose histories are irrelevant to understanding the contemporary Middle East. An additional impediment to studying Christian Arab history was the reluctance of some scholars to approach questions dealing with sectarianism and communal politics. Yet, as this essay will explain, the record shows that Christians have been an integral part of Middle East society and culture throughout history and can and must be enabled and encouraged to do so now and in the future, not only in the interest of social peace and justice but also for the benefit of local society and culture as a whole. [End Page 1]
The rise of political Islam in the 1970s and the resulting Islamization of Middle Eastern politics marked a reevaluation of the approach of overlooking Arab Christian history. Paul Rowe, Laura Robson, and Sidney Griffith, among others, have challenged the image of the Middle East as a homogenous Muslim region that is in opposition to the predominately Christian West.1 Sidney Griffith, for example, traced the spread of Christianity from the Holy Land westward throughout the Roman Empire as taking place simultaneously with the spread of the Gospel eastward to the Persian Empire, into China and southward into Arabia and India.
This history was recorded in the widely spoken dialect of Aramaic, called Syriac and attests to the presence of Christians in the region some 600 years before the rise of Islam. The Qur'an also provides strong evidence of the Christian presence in the region, as Arabic-speaking Christians were the audience to whom much of the Qur'an was addressed.2
When Christians assimilated into Arab and Islamic society and embraced the Arabic language by the end of the eighth century, modern scholars tended to interpret this development as evidence of their marginalization and therefore as a topic unworthy of study. As a consequence, this superficial interpretation robbed Middle Eastern Christians of agency and of the positive view that by adopting the Arabic language, Christians could better express their identities in the Arabic idiom of the Arab Islamic culture of which they had become an integral part. By the tenth century, this interpretation seemed vindicated when Christians, still the majority of the population in the Islamic polity, were actively engaged in the development of Arab culture, literature, and the sciences. To support this view, Griffith cites the work of Christian scholars who, along with Jewish and Muslim scholars in the Islamic environment of Baghdad during the Abbasid caliphate in the ninth century, translated the works of Greek philosophy, science, and medicine into Arabic and Latin. Their contributions lasted from the ninth-century in Iraq into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Egypt.3
Although relations between Christians, Jews, and Muslim during this period were often intellectually and culturally complementary, they were [End Page 2] also "confrontational and cooperative at the same time."4 Griffith maintains that from the thirteenth century until the beginning of the twentieth century, "numerous disabling factors" intervened to disrupt the complementarity of their relationship such as the evolution in Islamic religious thinking, the numerical decline of Christians and, finally, the demographic insignificance of Christians in some areas of the Middle East.5
Griffith and other prominent scholars maintain that the intellectual and cultural influence of Arab Christians in the Middle East has seldom been told. Even more damaging is the impact of this neglect today, as it has led Western scholarship to regard Christendom as coterminous with the Latin Middle Ages and to regard Eastern Christians as schismatic and even as a heretical people who left the Church centuries ago.6
Dhimmitude: Christians as "Minorities"
The concept of "minority" as it pertained to Christians and other non-Muslim communities developed gradually in the Middle East. Its basis was laid by the Ottomans, who, after their victories...