Tag Archives: Christians

Sirry, “Scriptural Polemics: The Qur’an and Other Religions”

On June 2, Oxford University Press will publish Scriptural Polemics: The Qur’an and Other Religions by Mun’im Sirry (University of Notre Dame). The publisher’s description follows.Scriptural Polemics

A number of passages in the Qur’an criticize Jews and Christians, from claims of exclusive salvation and charges of Jewish and Christian falsification of revelation to cautions against the taking of Jews and Christians as patrons, allies, or intimates. Mun’im Sirry offers a novel exploration of these polemical passages, which have long been regarded as obstacles to peaceable interreligious relations, through the lens of twentieth-centurytafsir (exegesis). He considers such essential questions as: How have modern contexts shaped Muslim reformers’ understanding of the Qur’an, and how have the reformers’ interpretations recontextualized these passages? Can the Qur’an’s polemical texts be interpreted fruitfully for interactions among religious communities in the modern world?

Sirry also reflects on the various definitions of apologetic or polemic as relevant sacred texts and analyzes reformist tafsirs with careful attention to argument, literary context, and rhetoric in order to illuminate the methods, positions, and horizons of the exegeses.Scriptural Polemics provides both a critical engagement with the tafsirs and a lucid and original examination of Qur’anic language, logic, and dilemmas, showing how the dynamic and varied reformist interpretations of these passages open the way for a less polemical approach to other religions.

The Return of the Dhimma?

First Things has run my essay on the return of the dhimma in Syria and its potential meaning for Mideast Christians:

Recently, an Islamist group in the Syrian opposition, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), captured the town of Raqqa and imposed on its Christian inhabitants the dhimma, the notional contract that governs relations with Christians in classical Islamic law. The dhimma allows Christian communities to reside in Muslim society in exchange for payment of a poll tax called the jizya and submission to social and legal restrictions. In Raqqa, for example, Christians have “agreed,” among other things, to pay ISIL a tax of $500 per person twice a year—poorer Christians can pay less—and to forgo public religious displays.

The dhimma has not been in operation in the Mideast for about 150 years. Even Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood did not reinstate it during the party’s brief period in power. Indeed, some progressive Islamic scholars argue that the dhimma is an anachronism that should no longer be part of Islamic law. So ISIL’s decision to impose it now has shocked Christians and many Muslims. The formal reestablishment of the dhimma in Raqqa reveals that some Islamists are prepared to cross a line many had thought inviolable.

You can read the whole thing here.

David Cameron on the Persecution of Christians

The persecution of Christians, slowly, is making its way onto the world’s agenda. In his annual Easter message, British Prime Minister David Cameron (above) urged churches in Britain to do more to draw attention to the suffering of Christians across the globe. Cameron also spoke, unusually, about his own Christian faith and the benefits Christianity “brings to Britain.” Skeptics might perceive an attempt to smooth relations with rank-and-file Conservatives, many of whom Cameron antagonized by supporting same-sex marriage. But politicians always have a variety of motives. Cameron deserves credit for raising the issue of persecution at a time when many in the West ignore it.

And why do so many in the West ignore the persecution of Christians? The always valuable John Allen explains:

Why isn’t this global war on Christians more of a cause célèbre?Fundamentally, the silence is the result of a bogus narrative about religion in the West. Most Americans and Europeans are in the habit of thinking about Christianity as a rich, powerful, socially dominant institution, which makes it hard to grasp that Christians can actually be victims of persecution.

I’ve made a similar point myself, here.

Report: Obama Administration to Increase Aid to Syrian Rebels

 

Kessab19

Holy Mother of God Armenian Apostolic Church in Kessab

The Wall Street Journal reports today that President Obama’s national security advisers have agreed on a proposal to increase US aid to “moderate” Syrian rebels. Although the advisers disagree on the advisability of more aggressive military intervention, they have apparently coalesced around a plan for US Special Forces to train and equip the moderates. This is in line with a report on Walter Russell Mead’s blog that Obama agreed during a recent visit to Saudi Arabia to supply the rebels with shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, or “manpads.”

One can understand the Administration’s frustration. Two-and-a-half years after Obama said that Assad would have to go, and several months after the President’s about-face on chemical weapons, the Assad regime seems more secure than it has for a long time. But two factors counsel strongly against more aggressive assistance to the rebels. First, as Patrick Brennan writes, “for months and months now, it’s been obvious that the effective parts of the Syrian opposition are militant Islamists” like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Pro-Western moderate rebels, the sort the Administration likes to promote, are more or less “powerless.” If the opposition were to succeed in overthrowing Assad, it’s quite possible that the Islamists would overwhelm their secular allies–perhaps through a democratic election, as in Egypt in 2012–and transform Syria into an Islamist state. How would that advance America’s interests? 

Second, assistance to the rebels would almost certainly worsen the already dire situation of Syria’s Christians. Just in the last two weeks, the Nusra Front attacked the Armenian town of Kessab, displacing thousands of Christians. Fortunately, first reports of a massacre seem to have been unfounded. Indeed, the rebels are conducting a PR offensive to assure Kessab–and the world community–that they mean no harm. Christians are skeptical, and with good reason. ISIL recently imposed the centuries-old dhimma in a different Christian town, Raqqa, and, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon observed this morning, “gross human rights violations undeniably continue.” Islamists have kidnapped nuns and bishops and murdered clergy. Only today, masked gunmen, presumably Islamist rebels, murdered a Catholic priest in a rebel-controlled district in the city of Homs. For these reasons, Syria’s Christians mostly support the Assad regime, usually quietly, sometimes vocally.

At this writing, it’s not clear whether the plan to equip and train the Syrian rebels will be adopted. In the words of the Journal report, “It isn’t clear where Mr. Obama stands.”

President Obama and Pope Francis on Mideast Christians

In the Boston Globe, the always worthwhile John Allen analyzes today’s meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis. Although the two men will agree on issues like economic inequality, Allen says, they will likely differ on others, including, notably, Mideast policy.

Pope Francis often highlights the crisis Mideast Christians face; President Obama, not so much. “Few on the Catholic side are inclined to see the Obama administration as a great defender of those Christians at risk,” Allen writes, “while standing up against violent anti-Christian persecution is emerging as a cornerstone of Francis’ social and political agenda”:

On Egypt, Obama took a “pox on both your houses” stance last summer with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood and the army after a military council declared controversial President Mohamed Morsi deposed. The Vatican was more favorable to the military intervention, inclined to see it less as a coup and more as a reflection of popular will.

In Syria, the Obama administration has made the removal of President Bashar al-Assad a precondition for any negotiated end to that country’s civil war, while the Vatican is more skeptical about regime change, in part out of concern that whatever follows Assad might actually be worse.

Underlying these contrasts is that the Vatican’s reading of the Middle East is heavily conditioned by the perceptions of the Christian minorities in these countries, who generally see either a powerful military or strong-arm rulers as a buffer between themselves and Islamic radicalism. They often point to Iraq, where a once-thriving Christian community has been gutted in the chaos that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein.

You can read the full article here.

Oldfield, “Sanctity and Pilgrimage in Medieval Southern Italy, 1000–1200″

Next month, Cambridge will publish Sanctity and Pilgrimage in Medieval9781107000285 Southern Italy, 1000–1200, by Paul Oldfield (University of Manchester). The publisher’s description follows.

Southern Italy’s strategic location at the crossroads of the Mediterranean gave it a unique position as a frontier for the major religious faiths of the medieval world, where Latin Christian, Greek Christian and Muslim communities coexisted. In this study, the first to offer a comprehensive analysis of sanctity and pilgrimage in Southern Italy between 1000 and 1200, Paul Oldfield presents a fascinating picture of a politically and culturally fragmented land which, as well as hosting its own important relics as important pilgrimage centres, was a transit point for pilgrims and commercial traffic.

Drawing on a diverse range of sources from hagiographical material to calendars, martyrologies, charters and pilgrim travel guides, the book examines how sanctity functioned at this key cultural crossroads and, by integrating the analysis of sanctity with that of pilgrimage, offers important new insights into society, cross-cultural interaction and faith in the region and across the medieval world.

Two Updates on Syria’s Christians

Holy Mother of God Armenian Apostolic Church in Kessab, Syria

Two updates on last week’s post about the persecution of Christians in Syria, one hopeful, one much less so.

First the hopeful one. As I wrote last week, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting with Syrian opposition, has succeeded in capturing the town of Raqqa and imposing the classical dhimma on the town’s Christian inhabitants. The dhimma is a notional contract that Christians make with the Islamic community; it offers Christians protection and some autonomy in exchange for their agreement to pay a poll tax called the jizya and to accept restrictions on their dress, movement, construction of churches, etc. Although the historical origins are obscure, the dhimma was a standard concept in classical Islamic law. The Ottomans abandoned the concept only in the 19th century. Its revival now, even in this limited way, is a very worrying sign.

In a response to my post, a post at Andrew Sullivan’s blog points to comments condemning ISIL by a scholar at Egypt’s al-Azhar University, the leading center of Sunni Islamic learning. The scholar, Sheikh Abdul Zahir Shehata, maintains that Islamic law makes imposition of the dhimma illegal in these circumstances. ISIL’s collection of the jizya , he says, is “a form of theft that uses religion as a cover.”

It’s gratifying to see someone from al-Azhar making the point. But there is a certain ambiguity in Shehata’s remarks. If you read them closely, you see that he is not necessarily condemning the jizya as such, only its collection by a renegade group:

“ISIL contradicts itself,” Shehata said. “On the one hand they say they are implementing the provisions of Islamic sharia, including the ‘jizya’, however the Islamic state must be a full-fledged state and recognised by its citizens and subjects, which is not the case in the areas where ISIL is imposing its control by force and bloodshed.”

Maybe it’s a problem with the translation, or perhaps one has to read the whole interview to understand Shehata’s point. But it’s important to focus on the nuances. Perhaps Shehata’s real point is that only a true Islamic law state, not a band of rebels acting outside government authority, may impose the jizya–in which case, Syria’s Christians may find his rejection of ISIL’s actions less reassuring than first appears.

The less hopeful update: over the weekend, fighters with a different al-Qaeda offshoot in the opposition, a rival of ISIL known as the Nusra Front, captured the Armenian Christian town of Kessab. The fighters crossed the border from Turkey, where their bases are located, and attacked the town on Friday. By Sunday, it had fallen. Thousands of Kessab’s Christians–some of whom had sought refuge from Raqqa–have fled to the nearby city of Latakia, where they receiving assistance from the local community, the Red Cross, and Red Crescent. Eyewitnesses report that the Nusra Front has looted Christian homes and stores and desecrated churches in Kessab.

Many Armenian Christians in Kessab descend from refugees who fled the last great persecution of Christians in the region, the Armenian Genocide of 1915–itself a byproduct, in part, of a jihad the Ottoman Empire declared against Christians during World War I. The sad ironies will not escape any of the Christians in Syria today.

Reinstating the Dhimma in Syria

This month, the conflict in Syria enters its fourth year. The latest news is that the government has recaptured the border town of Yabrud, an important opposition stronghold. In fact, Yabrud is where the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate in the opposition, had been holding hostage a group of Greek Orthodox nuns. The Front released the nuns only last week, reportedly in return for a government promise to allow the Front to leave the city.

Yabrud’s fall will be welcome news to Syria’s Christians. Although they have tried to avoid getting too mixed up in the conflict, it’s no secret that most of them quietly support the Assad government. Some Americans express dismay at this fact. Earlier this year, in fact, Senator John McCain reportedly stormed out of a private meeting with Syrian Christian leaders who had traveled to Washington to warn about Islamist elements in the opposition. Presumably, Senator McCain thinks these warnings reflect badly on non-Islamist elements in the anti-Assad coalition, whom he favors supplying with arms.

It’s easy to support moderate rebels and hope for the best when one lives in the United States. Syria’s Christians do not have that luxury. They favor Assad because he represents the lesser of two evils. A member of a minority religion himself–he is an Alawite–Assad has been reasonably tolerant of other minorities, including Christians. Better to take your chances with him, even if he is a dictator, than risk life under jihadists who kidnap nuns and hold them for ransom.

Actually, for an al Qaeda affiliate, the hostage-taking Nusra Front is relatively tolerant. The opposition contains worse. Take, for example, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), another al Qaeda offshoot that fights with the opposition. ISIL has taken the eastern town of Raqqa and reinstated the centuries-old dhimma, the notional contract that governs relations with Christians in classical Islamic law. According to the dhimma, Christians may live in an Islamic society as long as they pay a poll tax called the jizya, accept restrictions on their activities–for example, they may not engage in public religious displays, affect equality with Muslims, or carry weapons–and refrain from cooperating with Islam’s enemies. If they break the terms of the contract, Christians forfeit the protection of Islamic society and become subject to retaliation.

ISIL has updated the dhimma for Raqqa’s several thousand Christians. For example, Haaretz reports,

According to the 12 clauses in the accord, the Christians will commit to pay a twice-yearly poll tax of “four gold dinars” – which at today’s rate, comes to about $500 per person – with the exception that members of the middle class will pay half this amount, and the poor will pay a quarter of it, on condition they do not conceal their true financial situation.

The Raqqa dhimma also requires Christians to turn over persons ISIL believes to be working against it. Interestingly, this might include other jihadists. At the moment, ISIL is quarreling with the Nusra Front, whose members have demanded that ISIL leave the country and allow the Front to represent al Qaeda’s interests in Syria.

The Ottomans formally abolished the dhimma in the nineteenth century, an act that led at the time to a widespread anti-Christian backlash. Since the founding of the modern Middle East, no Islamist group has seriously sought to reinstate it. Even the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, for example, did not propose that Christians formally comply with the old dhimmi restrictions. It’s no surprise that Syria’s Christians look at developments in places like Raqqa and decide that Assad, rather than the opposition, offers them a more secure future.

Cox, “American Christianity”

Next month, the University of Texas Press will publish American Christianity by Stephen Cox (University of California, San Diego). The publisher’s description follows. American Christianity

Christianity takes an astonishing variety of forms in America, from churches that cherish traditional modes of worship to evangelical churches and fellowships, Pentecostal churches, social-action churches, megachurches, and apocalyptic churches—congregations ministering to believers of diverse ethnicities, social classes, and sexual orientations. Nor is this diversity a recent phenomenon, despite many Americans’ nostalgia for an undeviating “faith of our fathers” in the days of yore. Rather, as Stephen Cox argues in this thought-provoking book, American Christianity is a revolution that is always happening, and always needs to happen. The old-time religion always has to be made new, and that is what Americans have been doing throughout their history.

American Christianity is an engaging book, wide ranging and well informed, in touch with the living reality of America’s diverse traditions and with the surprising ways in which they have developed. Radical and unpredictable change, Cox argues, is one of the few dependable features of Christianity in America. He explores how both the Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant churches have evolved in ways that would make them seem alien to their adherents in past centuries. He traces the rise of uniquely American movements, from the Mormons to the Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and brings to life the vivid personalities—Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Sunday, and many others—who have taken the gospel to the masses. He sheds new light on such issues as American Christians’ intense but constantly changing political involvements, their controversial revisions in the style and substance of worship, and their chronic expectation that God is about to intervene conclusively in human life. Asserting that “a church that doesn’t promise new beginnings can never prosper in America,” Cox demonstrates that American Christianity must be seen not as a sociological phenomenon but as the ever-changing story of individual people seeking their own connections with God, constantly reinventing their religion, making it more volatile, more colorful, and more fascinating.

Sirota, “The Christian Monitors: The Church of England and The Age of Benevolence, 1680-1730″

This month, Yale University Press published The Christian Monitors: The Church of England and The Age of Benevolence, 1680-1730 by Brent S. Sirota The Christian Monitors(North Carolina State University).  The publisher’s description follows.

This original and persuasive book examines the moral and religious revival led by the Church of England before and after the Glorious Revolution, and shows how that revival laid the groundwork for a burgeoning civil society in Britain. After outlining the Church of England’s key role in the increase of voluntary, charitable, and religious societies, Brent Sirota examines how these groups drove the modernization of Britain through such activities as settling immigrants throughout the empire, founding charity schools, distributing devotional literature, and evangelizing and educating merchants, seamen, and slaves throughout the British empire—all leading to what has been termed the “age of benevolence.”