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Christian Arabs in the Middle East

Haseeb Shehadeh
Haseeb.shehadeh@Helsinki.fi
2007 / 9 / 17

University of Helsinki


The three terms appearing in the title do not have, as a rule, a single fixed and accepted definition or clear-cut interpretation (ta>r•fun j?mi>un wa-m?ni>un). It is hoped that some light will be thrown on them or rather on their complexity in the course of this paper. According to Webster’s Dictionary, the Middle East or the Mideast is: "the area from Libya east to Afghanistan, usu. including Egypt, Sudan, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the other countries of the Arabian peninsula". In our Nordic Society for Middle Eastern Studies "the Middle East is understood in its most inclusive sense, from Islamic Africa to Central Asia, and from the earliest times until today".
As one of the characteristics of this area, one may mention the existence of a wide variety of ethnic or religious communities. It suffices to call attention to the following sects and groups: Alawis, Armenians, Assyrians or Nestorians, Bahais, Benei Israel, Christian Arabs, Chaldeans, Circassians, Copts, Druzes, Falashas, Karaites, Kurds, Mandaeans, Messianic Jews, Maronites, Muslim Brothers, Netorei Karta, Samaritans, Shiites and Yezidis. In regard to religion, it is no wonder that these groups, as well as others which we have not referred to, belong to some type of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, since the Middle East is the cradle of these three monotheistic religions. In addition to religion, there are two significant factors, namely nationalism (qawmiyya) and nationality or citizenship (wa†aniyya or jinsiyya) [p. 71], which ought to be taken into consideration when discussing Middle Eastern issues. In Western countries there is no need to distinguish between these two terms.
One need not be an expert to realize the falsity of the widespread equation between Arabism and Islam (al->ur¥ba wa-l-isl?m) maintainted by people in the East and West alike. On the basis of this assertion, a great number of Muslim Arabs, mainly in the Maghrib, believe that being an Arab and Christian at the same time is contradictory. In the West people believe as a result of ignorance that an Arab and a Muslim are one and the same. A typical example of differentiating Christian Arabs from Muslim Arabs (and especially between Arabs as a whole and Druzes) because of political considerations, such
as "divide et impera" tactics, is furnished by the policy of the Israeli government, which includes a ministry for religious affairs.
Though Islam is the predominant faith in the Middle East (including the Arab world), and Christian Arabs there are a small minority, forming about five percent (ca. ten million) of the Arabs, there is no scientific justification for the equation mentioned above. On the other hand, we may point out the open secret that Muslim Arabs are also a minority, about 20 per cent in relation to the nearly one billion Muslims in the world. It goes without saying that figures are very important in many respects but not in the attempt to define the complexity of the concept of a nationality. Usually, we prefer to give an illustration or description of words and things because it is much easier than giving a definition. Islam, after all, is first and foremost a religion, a belief in one God and in the human mind. Yet in reality, it is at the centre of all social order and of the moral and intellectual values of Middle Eastern Muslims, whereas in the West religion is a matter of private conscience. Moreover, it should be pointed out that Islam is the official religion in all Arab countries, with the exception of Lebanon and probably the Syrian Arab Republic.
We believe that separating religion from nationalism and the state is a necessary step on the path of modern development and progress. This path, as a matter of fact, is followed by all modern developed countries. Needless to say, considering Arabism and Islam as synonyms embodies discrimination against various ethnic and religious groups in the Middle East. The common recitation of the motto "al-d•n li-ll?h wa-l-wa†an li-ljam•>" in the Arab world (religion for God while the homeland belongs to all [countrymen]) is no more rhan a cliché. It will not be out of place to touch upon the prevailing idea in the Muslim Arab world that regards the symbiosis of Arabism and Islam as the fountain [p. 72]-head of cultural and moral riches. In the light of such a view, there is no need to raise the issue of secularization or adoption of Western values and systems. Nevertheless, everybody knows that the Arab world in its Mashriq and Maghrib is a prosperous market for the products of Western secular civilization.
Three years ago the topic "Nationalism and Islam" was discussed in a conference held in Cairo. Almost all participants concentrated upon investigating approaches for bringing these two concepts into harmony rather than examining the advantages of separating them from each other. All signs and developments in the Arab World clearly indicate that secularization is out of question.
It seems reasonable to assume that because of several pressing problems relating to economy and politics, the main issue of creating a more modern and democratic society in the Arab World, does not receive adequate analysis. As H.A. Kurani has put it, "The Arabs need a Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle to help them in tiding over the present critical transitional period of their history, or perhaps an outstanding religious leader to help in revitalizing Islam in order to render it more capable of meeting the demands of the modern mind".
It is true that Arab patriotism or nationalism existed centuries before the advent of Islam in the seventh century. Accordingly, an Arab Christian may claim, not without justification, that his roots go back to pre-Islamic Arab tribes such as the Ghass?n, Taghlib, Tan¥kh, Lakhm, Judh?m, Sulay?, ?ay?mila and Arab Christians of ?•ra (al->Ib?d) or Najr?n.

Arab and Christian

An arabicized Christian such as a Copt, Chaldaean, Assyrian or Maronite might mention with pride that his origins also stem from pre-Islamic people, namely the true sons of the Pharaohs, descendants of Sennacherib and the Phoenicians respectively. Along with such [p. 73] customary claims one is compelled to emphasize the fact that life under a Muslim Arab majority and rule for fourteen centuries has certainly moulded an entity characterized to a great extent by a common language and culture. This entity is known today as Arab, sometimes followed or preceded by adjectives.
The natural question which would be raised in this connection is: What does the ethnic term Arab mean today ? It would be pretentious on our part to present here, let alone deal with, the wide range of answers and arguments given in works on Arab nationalism. Firstly, Arabs are not a race in the modern anthropological sense. Yet it is known that the inhabitants of the Middle East (with the exception of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Kurdish and Berber minorities and the Jews in Israel) and North Africa are Arabs, ca. 200 million. Secondly, Arabs do not belong to one religion either, because in addition to the overwhelming Muslim Arab majority there are Arab Christians and Druzes. Thirdly, Arabs are not as yet a nationality in the legal sense of the word. Although there is an Arab League (J?mi>at al-duwal al>arabiyya) no one Arab state exists but more than twenty Arab countries. An Arab wishing to travel to a brother country or a sister state (al-qu†r al-shaq•q, al-dawla al-shaq•qa) needs a passport. In the passport there is no indication of the term Arab at all but the name of the country in which this necessary document was issued is stated, for example, Jordan, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and so on. The same holds true concerning the 800,000 Palestinian Arabs living in Israel. Perhaps it is not superfluous to mention in this context a fact that to the best of our knowledge is unique, namely the appearance of the word Arab as a nationality (ha-l#arabiyya) in contrast to Arab peoples (al-shu>¥b al->arabiyya). Such an approach is most probably based upon political and cultural considerations. Nearly three decades ago the following definition of an Arab was announced by a group of Arab leaders: "Whoever lives in our country, speaks our language, is brought up in our culture, and takes pride in our glory is one of us".
The first encounter between Eastern and Western civilizations was to a great extent caused by the strong impact of Christian Hellenization on Islam. It is sufficient here to remind ourselves of the famous Christian centres in Edessa, Nisibin and Qinnasrin, in which varied fields of [p. 74] knowledge as medicine, science, history and theology were studied. The Christian calligraphers of al-?•ra invented the K¥f• script as well as the script used in writing the Qur Mention should be made of D?r al->Ilm or Bayt al-?ikma (House of Knowledge/Wisdom), a library in Baghdad established by the Caliph al-MaIb?d• (810—873 or 877), son of a Nestorian Arab pharmacist of al-?•ra, was probably the most prolific translator from Greek and Syriac into Arabic. This chief physician to the Caliph al-Mutawakkil (822—861) and a translator to the Caliph al-Ma
The impact of the West

Nearly one thousand years later the second meeting of East and West took place through Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and some decades later through various Western missionaries working mainly in Greater Syria. Though the period of the Crusaders is irrelevant in this connection, the seed of Eastern Catholicism, as we shall see shortly, was sown at that time. These Western missionary organizations established schools, universities, hospitals and charitable institutions. The Madrasat al-?ikma (School of Wisdom, later Université de Saint Joseph), for example, was founded by Bishop Y¥suf al-Dibs in Beirut in 1875. Famous names such as Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883—1931), Wad•> >Aql (1882—1933) and D?<¥d Barak?t are among its graduates. A wide variety of subjects were taught in these institutions, such as foreign languages, Western science, literature, philosophy, politics and religious concepts. It should be emphasized that in these educational institutions Arab youth have been introduced to Western thought, as well as to their past and cultural heritage. This education, as a matter of fact, played a central rôle in the emergence of Arab movements for [p. 75] independence as well as in the rise of Arab nationalism. Since Christian Arabs, mainly Syrians and Lebanese, were ready to accept and absorb ideas from Christian Europe, they were in a position to make disproportionately significant contributions to various aspects of the Nah?a (Awakening). Dictionaries and encyclopaedias were compiled, and books on Arabic grammar and textbooks composed. Arabic translations of the Bible, as well as of ancient and modern works appeared and various works on literary criticism were published. Christian Arabs have in fact made a considerable contribution to the creation of a modern, literary and scientific Arabic. This stage in the history of the Arabic language may be compared with the first Christian Arabic writings in the Umayyad era (660—750 A.D.), during which the church consisted of four groups — Melkites, Maronites, Jacobites and Nestorians.
It should be stressed that the Arab Christian contribution to the revival of modern Arabic language and literature clearly reflects their Arabism or Arabness. Beginning with the seventeenth century, several Lebanese Maronites, such as Ibr?h•m al-??qil?n• (Abraham Ecchelensis, 1605—1664) and his nephew al-Namr¥n• (Giovanni Matteo Nairuni), al-Sim>?niyy?n, Giuseppe Simone Assemani (1687—1768) and his nephew Stefano Evodio (>Aww?d) Assemani (1711—1782) and Mikh?<•l al-Ghaz•r• (Miguel Casiri, 1710—1791) compiled catalogues of Arabic manuscripts housed in some eighty cities in the world. In 1610 the first printing press came to Dayr Quz?ayy? in Lebanon, and in 1834 the well-known American Press was transferred to Beirut. One of the main achievements of this Protestant Press was the translation of the Bible into Arabic. It is sufficient to add the following sample of names of scholars who have contributed to the revival of modern Arabic language and literature: Sa>•d al-Shart¥n•, Sulaim?n al-Bust?n•, Anist?s M. al-Karmil•, al-Shaikh Naj•b al-?add?d, M•kh?<•l Nu>aima, Mayy Ziy?da, Jurj• Zaid?n, ?ab•b al-Zayy?t, al-l¥f.
An ideology of modern Arab nationalism, based on a common language, common culture and a shared territory, was formulated by Christian Arabs. The call for separating religion from the state [p. 76] was raised, that is to say, the adoption of secularism as the way towards a modern society guided by reason. Since 1847, many learned societies have been created by this group of people in order to achieve a cultural and social renaissance in Arab society. Al-Mu>allim Bu†rus al-Bust?n• (1819—1883) and al-Shaikh N??•f al-Y?zij• (1800—1871), for example, founded, with the help of American missionaries, the ASAS, the Arab Society of Arts and Sciences. Ten years later (1857), the first joint Christian-Muslim organization, namely the SSS—the Syrian Scientific Society— came into being.

The Arabic language

It is well known that Arabic (one of the three main languages of Islam), being the language of the Qur What is less known, however, is the fact that Arabic is also the language of Middle Eastern Christian liturgy and thought. Generally speaking, the process of arabicization in the wake of Muslim Arab conquests included the lion’s share of Oriental Christianity by the end of the tenth century. Christianity, which was once the major religion in vast areas of the Muslim Arab Empire, has only partly survived.
Zoroastrianism in Persia, on the other hand, surrendered to the new religion, Islam, but the Persian language was not replaced by Arabic. During its history the Arabic language exercised an influence on many [p. 77] languages to various degrees, such as Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Urdu, Swahili and Medieval Hebrew, but it remained the vernacular and the national tongue for Arabs only, Muslims and Christians alike.
Despite Graf’s masterpiece "Geschichte der Christlichen arabischen Literatur" (4 volumes) and the publication of about fifty works, Christian Arabic literature is still buried in manuscripts. What is better known, especially among Arabists, is the so-called Christian Arabic, a sort of "lughat bayna bayn" (Middle Arabic), the study of which began more than a century ago with the publication of Dozy’s Supplement to the Arabic Dictionaries. This manifestation of dialectal Arabic, both old and new, similar to that of Jews, Karaites, Samaritans and some Muslim Arabs, does not interest us here. Here we are referring to the literary Arabic written by Christian Arabs from the eighth century until today. In view of what has been said, it is hopefully clear that the expression "arabiyyata l? tatana??aru" (verily Arabic cannot become Christian) no longer has any place in reality.

Denominations

The term Christian Arab is pluralistic in its essence and compound in its meaning. Here it is employed in its wide sense, including all Arabic-speaking Christian communities in the Arab world, numbering more than ten million faithful. These Christians are the surviving heirs of Chalcedon or the Chalcedonians (that is Melkites, Malkites, or Melchites) and the Monophysites, such as the Copts, the Western Syrians and the Armenians and their offspring, the Latins and the Protestants. All Oriental Christians agree that Jesus Christ has two natures, divine and human, but the interpretation of the relation between these two aspects [p. 78] gave rise to the different sects. The fourth Ecumenical Council held in Chalcedon near Constantinople in 451 A.D. symbolizes the first schism in Christianity between East and West. In this council it was decided that "Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man...to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation". The tenth century western Syrian theologian >Al• b. D?<¥d al-Arf?d• ascribes the divisions between Christians to four reasons—ignorance, passion, fanaticism and desire for leadership (jahl, hawan, >a?abiyya and riy?sa). A rich variety of churches and rites are represented by Middle Eastern Christianity.
The Orthodox Church is the largest one. It includes the following rites: Coptic [Hikaptah >Aigyptos >Gibt (in 640 A.D. D?r al-Gib† is "home of the Egyptians") > Qib†], Greek Orthodox (or Byzantine, or Arab, or the original Melkites, R¥m Urth¥duks), Syriac and Armenian. The second largest group of churches, namely the so-called "Uniate" in the West, began to emerge from the period of the Crusaders from the preceding indigenous Christian communities. The religious orders of the Benedictines, Capuchins, Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans Jesuits and Lazarists were engaged in various missionary activities in Greater Syria, Anatolia and Iraq. They were united to bring the "heretical, pagan and corrupt" Middle Eastern Churches into communion with Rome, to convert them into "papists". Middle Eastern Catholicism consists of the following seven sects: the Maronites, the Latins, the Chaldean (Nestorian) Catholics, the Syrian (Jacobite) Catholics, the Greek Catholics or the Melkites, the Armenian Catholics and the Coptic Catholics. These sects were formally recognized by the Ottoman Government as independant sects (milal) in the 1830s. Thirdly the Protestants, who are mainly Presbyterian / Congregational in Syria and Lebanon and Anglican in Palestine and Jordan, are the smallest and most recent community (since the beginning of the 19th century) in the Arab World. Tiny Arab Protestant congregations, such as Adventists, Baptists, Pentecostals and Quakers, are to be found in almost all Arab countries.
Finally, it is but natural to raise the question: Is there a future for Arab Christianity ? This unique heritage of Apostolic Christianity (cf. Acts 2:11, Galatians 1:17—18) with openness of mind to Western[p. 79] Christianity has survived under Islam for fourteen centuries. It is qualified to play a central rôle as a mediator between East and West, between Islam and Western Christianity. Yet the great question mark is the quality of that future.
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