Read When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam by Michael Philip Penn Online


The first Christians to meet Muslims were not Latin-speaking Christians from the western Mediterranean or Greek-speaking Christians from Constantinople but rather Christians from northern Mesopotamia who spoke the Aramaic dialect of Syriac. Living under Muslim rule from the seventh century to the present, Syriac Christians wrote the first and most extensive accounts of IslThe first Christians to meet Muslims were not Latin-speaking Christians from the western Mediterranean or Greek-speaking Christians from Constantinople but rather Christians from northern Mesopotamia who spoke the Aramaic dialect of Syriac. Living under Muslim rule from the seventh century to the present, Syriac Christians wrote the first and most extensive accounts of Islam, describing a complicated set of religious and cultural exchanges not reducible to the solely antagonistic. Through its critical introductions and new translations of this invaluable historical material, When Christians First Met Muslims allows scholars, students, and the general public to explore the earliest interactions between what eventually became the world’s two largest religions, shedding new light on Islamic history and Christian-Muslim relations....

Title : When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam
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ISBN : 9780520284944
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 280 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam Reviews

  • A.J. Deus
    2019-01-26 04:23

    First Syriac-Muslim Sources in Plain English There is little doubt that Michael Penn’s book When Christians First Met Muslims will establish itself as a sourcebook for students of early Islam. However, while the material presented is excellent and even for me sometimes new, it contains very little surprises. The positive of this book is that Penn’s translations are very easy to read. They are put in modern English and could almost be used as a bed-time lecture. The way he structured every document throughout his book is excellent: a statement of faith of the sender; a beautifully written context; a short manuscript history; and a definition of the authorship; followed by the translations. This book never deviates from the consensus – and that is a problem. Students of early Islam know that it stinks in Mecca, and nobody has yet cracked open the riddle of how this all came about. So far, all trails are cold. Thus, providing a commented sourcebook that does not at least ask some pointed questions about its own evidence appears rather futile. First, it needs to be disclosed that I have written two critical papers on the Umayyads, their conversion to Islam (or lack thereof) and their relationship to Muhammad (both for free on In other words, I am intimately familiar with the consensus but also with fringe ideas. But, as everyone else, I have no definite answers since the hard evidence is very thin, and all literary documents are problematic.Here is the issue: when everybody knows that the traditions reflect wishful thinking, old brooms cannot swipe clean. Penn states that some writers excluded ‘heretical’ texts by their competition. They should be assessed critically, he says. However, it does not prompt Penn to question whether the authors are actually of the faith that is generally assumed. Neither does he seem to realize that some of the writers made some extraordinary claims worth investigating. In addition, he writes that some texts had been fathered upon personalities of old. But he does not seem to take into consideration that every single text could have derived from questionable sources, and that every text has perhaps undergone changes to reflect the zeitgeist of later times. The landscape of religious fraud is colossal, and in the absence of firm evidence, we have very little other than numismatics to build a solid foundation. The process is easy: take an existing history and inject your own story; have your father convert to Mormonism post mortem; edit old books from another faith into yours; put words into another’s mouth. The possibilities have no end, and the elders sometimes even bragged about how they could forge handwriting. Then as now, they knew how to choose old parchments. If anything, ancient crooks were not stupid. We know today that convenient ‘traditions’ would have started to appear right after a religion’s rise to power, rather than decades or centuries later. Do we have to assume that it is any different with Islam? This is a minefield, and to untangle it does not come easy. Everybody who has not studied the facts from the very beginnings of Judaism and Christianity (Penn has a strong background in both) through to Islam and also everyone who has a vested interest in one of the Judaic sects perhaps approaches the discourse with a bias that essentially disqualifies them. What it takes is a broad understanding of the true mechanisms of (Judaic) religion through time and space. To illustrate the problem, Penn faithfully repeats the traditions of the conflict between Muawiyah and Ali. He notes that Ali is at times missing where he should be prominent. But if this person is not there, it might be imprudent to repeat what is suspected by some as false. Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and Ali’s non-existence would unleash the Rapture. However, it provides for clues for students where to take a closer look. His appearance in the Maronite chronicle might be due to an edit or to a later composition that had already absorbed tradition in the service of self-aggrandizement. Also, there is the issue of ‘civil wars’ between early ‘Muslims’. What if these were not civil wars but religious wars? At the current, poor state of research, every door needs to remain open until a path is found out of the maze. Penn should care less which reputed scholar may accept something when there exists no evidence at all or when he delivers counter evidence. He claims that the word ‘Islam’ had not emerged before the rise of the Abbasids. But the consequences do not surface in the rest of the book. The point is: if the context is false, how do we understand what the writers are trying to say? Perhaps in the pursuit of simplicity and linguistic beauty, Penn creates a dis-service to the student by translating critical words into terms that may have a consensus (which is subject to changes). To translate the tayyaya as Arabs is fine as long as the author says Arabs [tayyaya]. Although it is all fuzzy, these are important stones to the puzzle, in particular since we know that there must be two kinds of Arabs, the good and the ugly. When the original term is removed, it leaves the puzzle unsolvable. Even if the introduction provides for sort of a key, when it is lost in the text, it leaves the doubt, which makes the documents unusable unless the student double-checks the Syriac originals. For example, he translates the word hanpa as pagan, which is ok as long as it reads pagan [hanpa], even though there are different possibilities. The word pagan is indeed more problematic than the Syriac term. It has very little to do with Paganism (which was marginalized at this time), and the word appears in sources from various sectarian and religious (!) backgrounds. It is simply a derogatory term for those outside of any given sect. In Penn’s own work, even the Jews are branded as Pagans (Jacob of Edessa). In other words, it is certain that hanpa does NOT mean pagan in the modern sense of the word (and gentiles might also be a mistranslation). Instead, it is a (perhaps derogatory) term for a (Judaic) sect that had already been active at the time of the book of Acts and appears to be on the path to Islam, which may thus inherit the designation naturally. Another problematic issue is with the word Muhammad. Here too, the author would have dramatically improved his work if he would have put down Muhammad [MHMD]. Despite the consensus, there is an increasing number of scholars that recognize that MHMT is not MHMD, which may not be the Prophet Muhammad either. Even though highly reputed scholars accept the historicity of Muhammad, the leader simply does not appear in the evidence until AFTER 632 AD, his undocumented (!) year of death. He slips into the role of Amr al-‘As with the Chronicle of Khuzistan. In other words the ancient inventors of the traditions outsmarted the modern scholars. Since it is a sourcebook, I do not anticipate a discourse about these issues, but I expect the author not to repeat traditions or to make decisions that are based on traditions when his evidence does not support or contradicts them. Through Penn’s comments, it appears that he is unfamiliar with much of the symbolism in the documents, and he seems, at times, uncomfortable with Koranic doctrines or with the various meanings of Christian technical terms. Who can blame him? These expressions mislead the unsuspecting researcher into believing that there were only a few sectarian (main) divisions. But there were many more, and Penn might have been better off in following his gut feeling. In Penn’s translation, Jacob of Edessa contains precise theological statements that are identical with the Koran (3:40). When held against Sebeos where Mu’awiah declined Jesus as the Christ, it allows for exclusion of some of the (technical) groups. Jacob also holds the Hagarenes against the Jews who rejected Jesus as the Christ. According to Jacob, the former built a unity of Jesus the man with the spirit, i.e. the Word of God. As other contemporary authors claimed, the doctrine is a resurrected form of Messianic Judaism, described by the writers as like-Arianism (man carries the Word of God, perhaps close to Arian-Adoptionism or Appollinarism, man carrying the Holy Spirit, but not God). The problem is that all boundaries became fluid at sword point, depending on who held the weapons at any given time during the previous century or so. Yet, the novelty seems to be the focus on the role of the spirit (rather than the human-divine natures of Jesus). This could then be a rare mirror of the seventh century concerns of Maximus the Confessor (as it is believed), which had rocked the religious landscape from Seleucia to Rome. Bar Penkaye lays out a doctrine where the western Umayyads use ‘the immortal who was crucified for us’ to describe Jesus. The passage does not need to be dissected here other than stating in bold and capital letters: this is NOT Islam – but what is it? Also that the Deceiver in Pseudo Methodius pretends to be like God on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is Muslim ANATHEMA (yet, it may be Abbasid). These are rather remarkable comments by the ancient authors that cannot be left by Penn without at least a hint of awareness. It also appears odd that bar Penkaye still awaited the deceiver while the ‘beast’ sat on the Temple Mount. Should he not have arrived seven decades earlier? Who then is this deceiver? In the East Syrian Canons of 676, bishops are granted tax exemption. Penn takes this as evidence for Islam. However, in the text, it is the church that rules over the bishops’ exemptions, not a ‘Muslim’ leader. Besides, these taxes have been in place long before the advent of Islam. Likewise, he takes Mar Abba as referring to Islam when a sect erased the word ‘birth from the column of a page.’ Muslims have no issue with Matthew 1:25, and Jesus’ ‘birth’ presents a paradox for those only that had turned the Messiah into God. The Koran accepts the virgin birth from Mary. Instead, it disputes the stance that God has begotten a son. In other instances, Penn sticks with the comfort of the consensus even though his translation contains details that beg to differ. For example, bar Penkaye is accepted to having originated around 687 AD. However, the conquerors could not have arrived in Spain until later. The highly symbolic apocalyptical texts are even more problematic in their dating since prophesies are ALWAYS written after the facts – without exceptions. The only questions are how long after and to what purpose. But another set of questions could have been expected from Penn: where is Revelation in all of this doom? Why is there no hint of it?A major disappointment of the book is that the author removed his translations for works that someone else was about to publish. Students have to go and buy yet another book when Penn’s sourcebook should have been complete. This is unacceptable. Having said all this, I like this book, I really do – for pleasure reading. I hope that Penn picks up on the suggestions made here for a second edition. It will then be suitable for critical academia – and excellence. A.J. Deus Social Economics of Religious – July 25, 2015

  • Walker Trimble
    2019-02-21 10:35

    An excellent sourcebook that gives accounts mostly from Syriac, Monophysite, non-Caledonian sources. A very good source for teaching undergraduates the history of early Islam and the "early non-West"