"The first outstanding scholar to enter the field of polemic against the Moslem was John of Damascus. (He is) known to history as the most honored of the later theologians of the Greek Church. ... His great dogmatic work on the Sources of Knowledge includes an important section 'Concerning Heresies,' and it is one chapter under this heading that deals with Moslems.1 The topics the author selected and the arguments he used have been constantly repeated by similar champions from the eighth century to the twentieth. Throughout all his controversial work John of Damascus displays a thorough knowledge of Islam. Fully at home in the Arabic tongue, he often cites the Koran word for word and shows his familiarity with the Hadith, or traditions. ... It is characteristic, in fact, of all the earlier polemic, during the age when Islam and Christendom were in close touch, that the Christian advocate is in full control of his material and knows at first hand what he is talking about."2
Dr. Addison is expressing, of course, a typical and not a private estimate. A document held in such high regard and of such wide influence merits careful investigation. Failure some years ago to find Quranic documentation for some of the statements in the Tractate about the "Camel of God" led the present writer to undertake a detailed examination of the entire document. This article embodies the results.
John of Damascus prefixed to his great work De Fide Orthodoxa a compendium of one hundred heresies. The idea was that, if one read first an account of the errors into which men had strayed, his mind would be the more ready to accept the truth, when it was presented to him. He added at least two other heresies, the first (101st) being Islam. Let us proceed at once to his description of this late "heresy." It will serve our purpose to itemize his statements. In case a statement can be confirmed from the Qur'an, the passage is indicated in parenthesis, the verse numbers being those of the Royal Egyptian text; a second number indicates that of the verse in the text of Fluegel, if the two are different.
The documentations indicated from the Qur'an show that John of Damascus was not without sources of correct information. However, the textual order in item 3, "begetteth not, ... is not begotten," is reversed, something of which a Muslim source would seem incapable. "Acting against the Law ... seized him ... through loving him (items 12, 13, 18) are Christian elucidations, and are not found in the Qur'an. The resemblance of items 19-25 to the text of 5:109/108-119 is evident, but the wording of the supposed conversation differs very considerably from the original. Further, it is to be noted that except for items 1 and 2, Islam is described as a Christological heresy, an appraisal that is manifestly but partial, and is negative in conception. At the beginning of the Tractate John of Damascus characterizes Islam as a precursor (prodromos) of Anti-Christ. The coming of Anti-Christ occupied a prominent place in his own thought, and in that of his times, and seems to have been connected with the Arabs. Mingana describes a Syriac document (Catologue of Syciac MSS., No. 65) which treats of events at the end of the world, including the apparition of the Arabs from Yathrib and the defeat by the Greeks, and the apparition of Anti-Christ.
The Tractate goes on to tell of discussions between Christians and the adherents of this "heresy." These latter have a prophet who has written a Book. He is said to boast in this Book that the Book was brought down to him from heaven, and his adherents declare his statement to be true. Also they charge Christians with being polytheists, because they say, "Christ is the Son of God, and God," and idolators, because Christians "worship the Cross."
To these assertions the Christians reply. Their answers to the Muslims about their prophet and his Book leave the Muslims confounded. "Who witnessed God's giving of the Book to your prophet?" What prophet foretold that such a prophet would come?" They are at a loss for a response. "Why did God not provide proofs, as in the case of Moses and Jesus, so that men could be sure about your prophet?" "God does as He wills," they say. "How was this Book given to your prophet?" "It came down on him in his sleep," they reply. "So the sneering jest has been fulfilled ... for receiving it in sleep he would not be aware of what happened." (The jest is not reported). Commentators have suggested. "Sleeping, he dreams!" or "Tell me your dreams!" "Your prophet told you not to do anything without witnesses" (2:282), say the Christians. "Why did you not demand of him witnesses about this giving of a Book, and prophecies in support of it?" Ashamed, they have nothing to say. "No transaction whatever is legal for you without witnesses, yet you have accepted without a witness a faith and a Book. A Book received in sleep! There is no verification of any sort."
As to the charge of polytheism, the reply is made by the Muslims that, if the Christians are in error, the responsibility rests on the Hebrew prophets, for the Christians simply repeat what the prophets said, and the Muslims insist stoutly that they accept the prophets (2:136/130). To meet this reply Muslims know enough about the Scriptural passages in question to propose answers. One in that the Christians allegorize, reading into the passages the meanings which they claim to find there about Christ. The other allows that the interpretations made by the Christians are legitimate, but says that the passages were interpolated by the Jews to deceive the Christians, and work their ruin.
A second line of reply to the charge of polytheism makes use of the terms which the Muslims themselves apply to Christ. He is "Word" and "Spirit" of God (4:171/169). In view of this usage, Christians make the apparently axiomatic statement that God's Word and God's Spirit are inseparable from God Himself. Either conclusion from this premise is against the Muslims. If they allow the premise to be true, they must accept that Christ is God: if they deny its truth, they declare God to be "without-Word" and "withoutSpirit," and so "mutilate" Him which is worse than to "associate."
As to the charge of idolatry, "What about the stone in your Kabatha (i.e. Ka'ba that you kiss and embrace?" Some Muslims reply that it was used as a bed by Abraham and and Hagar; others that Abraham tied his camel to it when he went to sacrifice Isaac (sic.) To this second explanation Christians retort that, according to the Scriptures, the mountain of Abraham's sacrifice was wooded, and not like Mecca; that there was wood there to burn that Abraham split and in Mecca there is little fire-wood; that Abraham left behind asses, not camels, and that asses do not come as far south as Mecca (cf. Genesis 22:13,3,5). The Muslims are ashamed; yet they insist that the stone is the Stone of Abraham.
Turning then to the first explanation, the Muslims are ridiculed. And they are told, "Are you not ashamed, in either case, to kiss the stone for such reasons? Yet you blame Christians for worshipping the Cross, through which the power of demons and the deceit of the Devil have been destroyed."
In this account of Christian Muslim discussions we are introduced to a situation in Syria in which three points of divergence in religious matters have become clearly defined, one maintained by Christians regarding Muslims and two by Muslims regarding Christians. We see in the discussions reflections of the characteristic mentalities of the two groups. The Muslims have their tradition about the giving of the Qur'an, their solution for unanswerable questions in "the will of God," their professed acceptance in all the prophets, their requirement of witnesses for all transactions, their "Stone of Abraham" at Mecca and the stories told about it. The Christians appear as skilled disputants. They demand evidence for asserted statements of fact from eye witnesses or from Scripture. They rely on the Old Testament, and argue from the prophets. The Muslims know enough about Christian belief and practice to strike at what Christians say of Jesus, and at their reverence for the Cross; enough also about the Old Testament prophecies urged by the Christians to venture explanations of this phase of Christian apologetic, though in these they are not agreed. The Christians know enough about the Qur'an to cite statements made there about Jesus and a law requiring witnesses. They know that Mecca is treeless and fire-wood scarce, and that asses are not used. They know of the Ka'ba, of a Stone that is reverenced there, and of customs in veneration of the Stone. Making use of the Quranic designations for Jesus which they know, they apply a very simple logic which balks the Muslims completely.
One is impressed by the reported inability of the Muslims to make replies to the Christian charges, whereas they certainly could have done so, if they had known certain passages in the Qur'an. For example, in sura 6 alone we find that the preaching of Muhammad was not accepted without protest (verse 37), that there were demands for proof (109), that there were charges of falsehood (66) that proofs were cited (104), that there were Jews who accepted Muhammad (20). As it is, the Muslims are simply nonplussed and brow-beaten by the intelligence and astuteness of the Christians. On the other hand, the Christian replies are on the tu quoque order. The Christians speak as though putting to rout ignorant people, on a lower level of culture. There is no serious religious discussion, no attempt to present Christian faith, no thoughtful consideration of Islam. Let it not pass unnoticed, also, that the Christians are as unaware as the Muslims of the Quranic passages which the Muslims might have brought forward.
John of Damascus goes on to inform us about the Book of the Muslims. It contains chapters, each with a title. He makes reference to four.
The chapter "Concerning the Women" (sura 4) legalizes polygamy: four wives, and female slaves in addition (4:3). Divorce is authorized at will, and then further marriages (2:229). The story is recited of Zaid, who had a beautiful wife, of how the prophet made him divorce her and then married her himself, asserting a command of God as the reason. If a man after divorcing his wife wants to take her back, she must first be married first to another man: it may be to the man's own brother, if he is willing. In the Book he tells, "Till the ground which God has given to you, and beautify it" (cf. 2:223), "not to say as he does things altogether shameful."
The chapter "Concerning the Camel of God" tells of a camel from God that drank up a whole river, and then could not pass between two mountains for lack of room. The camel and the people of the place were to have drunk the water of the river on alternate days. However, after the camel had drunk up the water, the camel fed the people with milk instead. Some evil men killed the camel. Now the camel had a foal, and when the mother was killed, the little camel cried to God, and God took her up to Himself. About this story the Christians say to the Muslims, "Where did that foal come from?" "From God," they reply. "Was there not a sire?" They say, "No," "Then how was it born?" "We see your foal without sire, mother, or pedigree; also after the foal was born the mother camel was killed, but nothing appears about someone who had mated her; and the foal was taken up! You say God spoke to your prophet. Why did not your prophet find out about the foal - who fed it, milked it, took the milk? Was it, too, killed by evil men, or did it enter Paradise as your forerunner? Is the river of milk that you foolishly talk about from this foal? For you tell of three rivers in Paradise - of water, of wine, and of milk. If the foal is outside Paradise, it must have died, or else someone now has its milk. And if the foal is in Paradise, it will drink up the water there, and you will have none. Then, if you would drink wine instead, there will be no water to mix with the wine, and drinking unmixed wine you will become drunken and go to sleep, and so you will miss the pleasures of Paradise! How is it that your prophet did not think of these matters, or that you did not ask him to tell you about the three rivers? John of Damascus ends with further ridicule of the story, and bitter reviling of those who believe such Stories, "brutish as you are."
The chapter "Concerning the Table" (sura 5) says that Christ asked a "Table" from God, and it was granted to him, God saying, "I have given you and yours an incorruptible table" (cf. 5:112-155). As for the quotation, it is quite incomplete, and the reference should be consulted. The passage concerns the Eucharist. It is not at once clear whether the intention here is a simple statement of fact, or whether attention is being drawn to another example of absurd notions in the Book, as though a meal of imperishable foods were sent down from heaven!
In the chapter "Concerning a Heifer" (sura 2) "he says many other things, foolish and ridiculous, but are so many, they may be omitted, they are so many," says the author.
The Tractate closes with mention of some Muslim regulations. Men and women are to be circumcised; Muslims are not to keep the Sabbath; they are not to be baptized: some things forbidden by the Mosaic Law are to be eaten by them, and others not (2:178/167, 173/168); no wine is to be drunk (5:90/92). With or without Quranic documentation, these would be customs well known to the Christians from Muslim practice. Circumcision and prohibition of baptism cannot be documented from the Qur'an. Prohibition of observance of the Sabbath is inferential only (cf. 16:124/125; 62:9). One cannot but note the tendency in this description of the Qur'an to discredit everything Muslim. It is as though the author had formed an unfavorable opinion in advance, and now brought exhibits in proof.
As to this material many things must be said. Matters that can be documented from the Qur'an have been indicated already.
Of the items enumerated under "Concerning the women" (sura 4), only the first, concerning polygamy, is from that sura, "Ye may divorce your wives twice" is the law about divorce, and it is found in sura 2:229. An intervening marriage to another man (to make it repugnant?) is prescribed after a thrice-repeated divorce statement only (sura 2:230). The law regarding remarriage after a first or second divorce is found in 58:3-4. A man must free a captive, and the men are warned to conform. If a man cannot find a captive to release, he must fast two months in succession, before the two can come together. If unable to do this, he must feed sixty poor men. Of these things, our author could not have been aware.
The matter of Zaid is referred to in 33:37 only, and without mention of a personal name. He is spoken of, however, as an adopted son. If the author had known of this relationship, would he not have used it to give added force to what he says? The law promulgated in view of this incident is given in 33:37, but it is not about divorce. Evidently this, was not understood.
Regarding "Concerning the Camel of God," there is no such chapter in the Qur'an. The Qur'anic versions of this story are found in 91:13; 26:155-157; 54:27, 28; 17:61/59; 11:64-66/67, 68; 7:73/71. The she-camel, "the Camel of God" (96:13) was a sign, given to test the people of Thamud (Petra). She and the people were to drink from the river on alternate days. The people were to let the camel feed, and not harm her, lest punishment fall on them. Certain men maltreated her, and hamstrung her, and destruction followed. Other features of the story as given by our author are oral tradition. Also, instead of three rivers in Paradise, there are four - of water, wine, milk, and honey (47:15/16, 17), and that men should become drunken from drinking unmixed wine in Paradise is impossible, for the wine of Paradise does not intoxicate (37:47/46).
Having reviewed in detail the "heresy," let us consult the preliminary orientation with which the Tractate begins. The "heresy" is said to have arisen among the Ishmaelites, or Hagarenes, names indicating descent from Abraham through his son Ishmael, and from Ishmael's mother, Hagar. It is said that these Ishmaelites, however, call themselves "Saracens," and that they explain the name as signifying that they are descended from Hagar, "whom Sara sent away empty (in Greek, kene)," So far as the etymology is concerned, Christians of widely different backgrounds, e.g., Jerome (cir. 400), Sozomen (cir. 440) and much later Bar-Salabi (d. 1171), upheld derivation from the name of Sara. To imagine Arabs who could give to themselves such a name of Greek derivation, we must think of Arabs long under Roman rule, Christianized, Hellenized, acquainted with the Old Testament stories in Greek, who might fabricate such an explanation. This could be true only of Arabs living in Syria or Mesopotamia. However, identification of the name "Saracen" with a Nabataena locality to the east of the Dead Sea, from which the appellation spread, would confirm the statement of the author that the Ishmaelites apply the name "Saracen" to themselves. This name is not found in the Qur'an. Instead the appellation used is "Arabs" (al-arab); compare 9:90/91, and repeatedly in this sura, and elsewhere. Why did not John of Damascus use this name, or even mention it? Incidentally, the question arises whether John of Damascus did not think of the Arabs of the Hijaz as a southern branch of the Arabs of the north. If so, what was true of the latter might be supposed to be true of the former.
It is said that till the time of Heraclius (610-41) these people "served idols openly," and "worshipped the morning star and Aphrodite." Paganism was outlawed by Theodosius I (390). People still practised pagan rites openly must have lived outside the empire, as indeed the Arabs south of the border did. That these Arabs worshipped idols is correct, as is the worship of the morning star, i.e., of al-Uzza (53:19, 20). But in this Quranic Passage al-Lat and Manat are mentioned also; Djibt and Thagout are spoken of in 4:51/54, and Thagout repeatedly (5:257/258; 5:60/65; 4:60/63; 4:76/78). One wonders at the mention of "the morning star and Aphrodite." The morning star was Venus-Aphrodite. In another place our author says that the Stone of Abraham at Mecca bears a likeness of Aphrodite. There was once at al-Hirah in Iraq an image of gold of Venus, which was worshipped by the Arabs, and was destroyed when their king accepted Christianity. Many Arab tribesmen who worshipped Venus were converted to Christianity under the preaching of St. Simeon Stylites, whose pillar was not far front Antioch. Does the author have in mind a star-worship, and also a goddess-worship once prevalent among the Arabs of Syria?
Aphrodite is called khabar "in their own tongue" we are told, "which signifies 'great.'" This is, of course, the Arabic adjective. Whether merely adjectival use or use as a proper name is to be understood is not clear.
This brief historical introduction is followed by a paragraph about the founder of the "heresy." Again, it will be convenient to itemize the statement.
We note that the time element is correct. "Mamed" (item 2) may represent colloquial non-Muslim pronunciation. It is not a transcript of the written Arabic name, for the four consonant m-h-m-d would be unmistakable. "Happening on the Old and New Testaments" ignores the circumstances involved, the questions of language, and MS. copies, and ability to read. Or should the custom of targuming from Greek or Syriac be understood implicitly, and considered a sufficient explanation: He may have had a Christian friend (item 4); indeed the Quran reports charges that he had a teacher (44:14), a foreigner (16:103). The Nestorian tradition is definite that a Nestorian monk named Sergius was his teacher. Had John of Damascus, a Greek-Orthodox adherent in Syria, heard of this tradition current among Nestorian "heretics" in Iraq, but was not able to make a positive statement? Why an Arian? Was it more than the author's inference from his view of Islam as a Christological heresy, with teachings resembling those of the Arians? "Set up a heresy (or a sect?) of his own." One would gladly have details - why brand the religious practices of Muhammad as pretense (item 6)?
As the items of this statements are studied, one is struck by the absence of clear-cut, definite, circumstantial detail. In particular what about the history of long opposition to Muhammad at Mecca, the migration to Yathrib, the establishment of the Islamic community, its defense against the Meccans, its growth to political supremacy over Arabia, the acceptance by the Meccans and the Arabs in general of Islam? There is no hint that the Book as a unified whole did not come into being till after Muhammad's death, or that the text had to be standardized twice because reciters differed. The Nestorian al-Kindi, an Arab from the Banu Kinda of Central Arabia who wrote at Baghdad a century later, gives such information. Can John of Damascus have thought these matters unessential to his purpose? Or may it be that he was ignorant of them? Evidently, among the Arab Christians in Iraq there were traditions about Muhammad and the rise of Islam. Should we conclude that no comparable tradition existed among the Christians in Syria?
Finally, let us look once more at the Tractate as a whole.
In several connections it has been noted that the information of John of Damascus must have been limited. In the summary of Muslim belief it is said of Jesus. "He did not die" (item 16), and this is documented from the Qur'an. But the author can hardly have been aware of the existence of two contrary statements: "the day I shall die" (19:33/34), and "I will cause thee to die" (19:35/48). Unawareness of this statement in sura 19 must call in question any documentation from that sura (cf. items 8, 10, 11, involving 19:27/28-28/29, 30/31). In the case of several other suras we have seen reason for questioning whether their contents were known: 33 (Zaid), 58 (first and second divorce), 47 (rivers in Paradise), 37 (wine in Paradise). 53 (objects adored by the Arabs). Nor can there have been knowledge, as has been noted, of the passages which the Muslims themselves failed to adduce in rebuttal. e.g., those in sura 6 already indicated; and passages which tell of methods of revelation (4:51, 52/50-52), of prophecy (7:157/156; 61:6), of Muhammad's visions (53:1-18: 81:15-23), of the Qur'an as a confirmation of the earlier Scriptures (12:111; 46:12/11; 46:30/29; 6:92; 10:37/38; 3:3/2; 2:41/38, 89/83, 91/85, 97/91, 101/95), of Jewish approval (26:196,197; 46:10/:9).
How explain the idea that the story of the Camel is a sura in the Quran, and the giving to it of a formal name? The story and its discussion occupy one-fifth of the entire Tractate, more space than is devoted to the introductory information about the Ishmailites, the Information about Muhammad, and the outline of Islamic belief, all together.
As we review the statements which we have found it possible to document from the Qur'an, we come upon a further matter of surprise. Documentation has been made practically entirely through verses from me second, third, fourth, and fifth suras. Exceptions might be 112:3, which is textually inexact; 19:27,28,30/28,29,31, on knowledge of which doubt is cast by the author's ignorance of 19:33/34; references for not keeping the Sabbath, of inferential bearing only at best. That is, acquaintance with these four suras alone would have been sufficient to account for the statements that are made.
Confining attention, then, to these four suras, detailed study brings to light in them a whole series of passages that would have changed the statements and the argumentation of John of Damascus, had he known them. These passages tell of pre-Islamic worships, of protests against Muhammad and his message of proofs of prophecy, of Gabriel and the impartation of the Qur'an, of the Qur'an as confirming the previous Scriptures, of Jewish testimony. (Compare 2:41/38, 89/83, 91/85, 97/91, 99/93, 101/95, 118/112, 121/115, 146/141, 3:4/3, 13/11, 70/63, 79/73, 81/73, 86/80, 183/179; 4:47/50, 31/54, 60/63, 76/78, 153/152, 174; 5:48/52. 60/65.) No other conclusion seems possible but that our author was not acquainted with even these four suras of the Qur'an in detail.
JOHN ERNEST MERRILL
1 De Haeresibus by John of Damascus.
See Migne. Patrologia Graeca, vol. 94, 1864, cols 763-73. An English
translation by the Reverend John W Voorhis appeared in THE MOSLEM WORLD for
October 1954, pp. 392-398.
2 The Christian Approach to the Moslem, by James Thayer Addison, p. 26f.
1 De Haeresibus by John of Damascus. See Migne. Patrologia Graeca, vol. 94, 1864, cols 763-73. An English translation by the Reverend John W Voorhis appeared in THE MOSLEM WORLD for October 1954, pp. 392-398.
2 The Christian Approach to the Moslem, by James Thayer Addison, p. 26f.
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