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St. John of Damascus on Islam

Kevin at Biblicalia gives us a fresh translation of one of the earliest (and most knowledgable) Christian witnesses to Islam:

St. John of Damascus is a very important witness to early Islam. He was born into a priveleged family in Damascus (his grandfather had been the administrator of the city at the time the Muslims took it), and he grew up and served in the court of the caliph. He was entirely familiar with Islam (a name it did not yet possess, apparently), and thus what he has to say about it, and the context in which he places it, is of great historical importance. For one thing, this is a single chapter in his work “On Heresies,” part of his larger work, “The Fountain of Knowledge.” Thus, St. John did not consider Islam, as it was during his lifetime, to yet be a separate religion, but rather a Christian heresy. In any case, he mentions several suras of the Qur’an by name, and refers most interestingly to one which is no longer extant.

Read the text.

St. John is also the Church’s great defender of the use of images in worship. His Three Treatises on the Divine Images are passionate works, well grounded in Scripture, tradition, and common sense. An outstanding study of St. John’s life and work is Andrew Louth’s very recent St John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology. We cannot understand our own times if we don’t understand the ages that led us here. A far-sighted man, St. John wrote so that we would be able to understand our age, to live in it peacefully, and to evangelize. We have a duty to study St. John of Damascus, the “last of the Fathers.” Thanks, Kevin.

7 thoughts on “St. John of Damascus on Islam

  1. As always, you’re very welcome!

  2. Mike, thanks for the information. I knew that H. Belloc taught that Islam was a Christian heresy; I didn’t realize that St J D basically shared that opinion.

  3. Pauli:
    So did Dante and his contemporaries. I concour with their assessment.

  4. are there other Christian writers of that period who wrote on/against Islam?

  5. I don’t recall any Christian writers on Islam of that specific time (early 700s), but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. I have a niggling memory of some Armenian writers. There are plenty earlier (St Sophronios of Jerusalem, who had to turn the city over to the Arabs). But none came from such a background at St John, from the very center of the action, so to speak, in a period before Islam became what it is today. His witness is invaluable.

    A valuable work in this regard, which presents a history of Islam based on non-Muslim accounts, is Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook (Cambridge University Press, 1980). While their conclusions and revision of Islamic history may go a bit too far, they do collect all the earliest testimonies to the rise of the Arabs as an invading/imperialist power. It’s worth the price of admission just for that.

  6. Yikes! I only just looked at the price on the used copies! Find it in a library. The book is short and by no means should anyone pay that much money for it.

  7. Yeah, I was wondering if you really, really meant to say “worth the price of admission”!

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