Orthodoxy in Dialogue is pleased to publish the present essay as part of our Academic Papers series. Check our Call for Academic Papers if you would like to participate in our ongoing project to give both new and more established scholars a wider Orthodox audience for their work.
This paper will examine St John Damascene’s famous critique of Islam, The Heresy of the Ishmaelites (hereinafter The Ishmaelites), which is found in his most voluminous work, The Fount of Knowledge. John, who lived c. 675-750 CE, composed his treatise against Islam during the latter half of his life, while living as a monk in the Monastery of St Sabbas in Palestine. Moreover, it is with this work that John became the first Christian theologian in history to explicitly discuss Islam. So in this sense, The Ishmaelites is truly an unprecedented piece.
It is clear that John wrote The Ishmaelites with the intention of disproving the ‘heresy’ of Islam. However, even though The Ishmaelites is at times somewhat hampered by an overly polemical approach to the Muslim faith, its merits still outweigh its flaws. As this paper will attempt to demonstrate, despite his bias, John’s critique of Islam displays a deep knowledge of the faith. In fact, his work at times offers a stunning view into what appears to be nascent Islamic beliefs and practices. Further, while my paper will not deal with each and every line of The Ishmaelites, it will take an in-depth look at the more prominent and controversial elements of John’s work.
1). Islam as a Christian Heresy
John begins The Ishmaelites by referring to Islam as the ‘superstition’ of the Ishmaelites, and later on claims that it is a ‘heresy’ devised by Muhammad. Not only is the Ishmaelite faith seen as a heresy, but one that is extremely insidious, since John deems it a ‘forerunner of the Antichrist.’ While the word ‘antichrist’ can at times be somewhat overused in patristic writings, John is perhaps using this term in a manner that reflects its dual meaning in Greek. The word ‘αντίχριστος’ does not always have to simply mean someone or something ‘against’ Christ, but can also be understood as meaning ‘in place of’ Christ. While the early Muslims were not usually attempting to eradicate Christians or Christianity, the caliphate at times, depending on the ruler, must have appeared to John to be working towards replacing Christian beliefs and forms of worship with Islamic ones, all while claiming to accept the person of Jesus as God’s prophet and messiah. In fact, this must have been the case since John’s work was written after the Islamizing reign of ‘Abd al-Malik. Moreover, since John does not portray Islam as a separate religion, but rather as a Christian heresy, by using the term ‘antichrist’ in this context, he is perhaps indicating early on in his work that Muslims are attempting to distort the nature of Jesus, and replace the saviour of the world with a counterfeit version of him.
In his work, John then gives an etymology of the term ‘Ishmaelite,’ as well as some of the other terms used to describe Muslims at the time. As the term implies, the Ishmaelites are said to have descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael. The Damascene also points out that they are called ‘Hagarenes’—a term which also connects the Muslims to a descent from Ishmael. The terms ‘Ishmaelites’ and ‘Hagarenes’ are historically very early names used to describe Muslims. For instance, in the Khuzistan Chronicle, which was composed in Syriac in the mid-seventh century, Muslims are referred to as ‘the sons of Ishmael,’ which later authors would modify to such terms as ‘Ishmaelites’ or ‘Sons of Hagar’. So by referring to Muslims in a manner that indicates their legendary descent from Ishmael, John seems to be in agreement with the popular practice of the time. John also says that the Ishmaelites are called ‘Saracens,’ which comes from the Greek ‘Σάρρας κενοι,’ meaning the ‘destitute of Sarah.’ A term again connecting Muslims to Ishmael, since this name is supposedly in reference to the pregnant Hagar being left destitute after being exiled by Sarah. However, Louth deems John’s etymology here as ‘more fanciful,’ and says that the name ‘Saracen’ may have just meant ‘Eastern.’
Despite mentioning three different names associated with the Muslims of his day, and even attempting an etymological explanation for each one, John never mentions the terms ‘Muslim(s)’ or ‘Islam’ anywhere in his writings. Instead, he uses terms that seem to indicate that the followers of the religion of Muhammad represent an ethnic oriented sect, and not a separate religion with universal claims. Moreover, that John does not use the terms ‘Muslim(s)’ or ‘Islam’ could stem from the fact that he would not have associated such terms with the Ishmaelites or their religion, since these terms may not have been in popular use yet, even by those who later came to be known as ‘Muslims.’ The terms John uses indicate that the Islam of his day had not yet undergone some of the changes that were associated with the religion of later centuries. This point, however, needs to be further developed in order to understand just why John seems to associate the beliefs of Muslims with only a particular ethnic group, and why he sees these beliefs as representing a specifically Christian heresy, and not a separate religion.
Firstly, it should be stated that for Muslims from Muhammad’s time until the early eighth century, ethnicity and religion were intertwined. ‘For a non-Arab to become Muslim, that individual first had to gain membership in an Arab tribe by becoming the mawlā (client) of an Arab sponsor.’ In fact, while the Muslim armies during this period could be rather forgiving to non-Arab peoples who attempted to ward off their military incursions, they often dealt harshly with Christian Arab tribes who defied them. So it seems quite reasonable that John should associate Islamic beliefs with a particular ethnic group.
Also, while the terms ‘Muslims’ (muslimun), meaning ‘those who submit’, and ‘Islam’, which itself means ‘submission,’ do appear in the Qur’ān as we have it today—often in reference to Muhammad and those who follow him—the term ‘Believers’ (mu’minun) is applied to the Prophet and his followers far more frequently in the sacred text. For instance, Muhammad and his followers are referred to in the Qur’ān as ‘Believers’ nearly one thousand times, as opposed to the less than seventy-five times ‘Muslims’ is used. According to Donner, it was not until approximately a century after Muhammad’s ministry that Islamic tradition began to emphasize the term ‘Muslims’ in reference to Muhammad and his followers, and to make it appear as if the terms ‘Muslims’ and ‘Believers’ were interchangeable. Moreover, the evidence seems to indicate that Muhammad died somewhere between the years 632-635. Thus, if one accepts that John composed The Ishmaelites during the first half of the eighth century, then it makes sense that he would not necessarily associate the terms ‘Muslims’ or ‘Islam’ with the religion of Muhammad.