A Textual History of Christian-Muslim Relations

Seventh-Fifteenth Centuries

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Charles Tieszen
Engagements with Abrahamic Religions
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , May
     2015.
     224 pages.
     $44.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781451490268.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

A Textual History of Christian-Muslim Relations is an anthology of translated and abridged sources documenting some of the literary interactions between Christians and Muslims from the rise of Islam to the beginnings of modernity in the West. Charles Tieszen divides the book into six chapters, roughly two centuries per chapter. The first two chapters focus on Christian responses to Islam, the third on Muslim responses to Christianity, and the final three on the increasingly complex, and at times vehement, interchange of arguments between both sides. Each chapter includes passages from several apologists or theologians. The Christian side is represented by the likes of John of Damascus (with excerpts from On Heresies), Theodore Abu Qurrah (On the Trinity), Al Kindi (The Apology of Al Kindi), and Thomas Aquinas (Reasons for the Faith against the Saracens, Greeks, and Armenians), among others; Muslims are represented by Al Warraq (The Refutation of the Three Christian Sects), Al Tabari (Book of Religion and Empire), Al Baji (The Reply to the Monk of France’s Letter to the Muslims), and Ibn Taymiyyah (The Correct Answer to Those Who have Changed the Religion of Christ), among others.

Tieszen has selected a wide range of authors and texts, and this book provides the reader with a good sense of some of the sticking points between Muslims and Christians that appeared frequently during this time period. Tieszen’s thoughtful introductory essay, centered around a church-turned-mosque-turned-church-again in Toledo, as well as a close reading of a miniature depicting a Muslim and Christian waging war on a chessboard, is a gem. It serves as a good reminder to readers of how complex interactions between Muslims and Christians have been over the years. He closes the book by summarizing the literary topoi used by both sides. His thoughtful conclusion adds a good deal to the book, and should be read prior to reading the source documents to frame the themes of both sides.

In A Textual History, theological issues such as the trinity, the incarnation, the crucifixion, the nature of Muhammad’s prophethood, and the reliability of the gospels are argued back and forth across the centuries. It is not that these Muslims and Christians are ignorant of the other’s beliefs, although they do at times mischaracterize the other. More often than not, both sides understand each other suitably well but are talking past each other, stuck within the limits of language as they desperately want to honor their God—who, although called by the same name, is described in significantly different terms. Contemporary arguments that Muslims and Christians are serving the same God (for a popular account, see Miroslav Volf’s Allah: A Christian Response, HarperOne, 2011) did not hold for the authors within A Textual History. Indeed, Muhammad’s belief that he was serving the same God as the Christians needed to be qualified by his followers after his death, as Muslims began to encounter more Christian doctrine and scripture beyond the little that had reached the Hejaz during his time. A Textual History lets us see some of the initial encounters between Muslim and Christians who are realizing that their shared spiritual heritage—and Muhammad’s initial assumptions of Christian beliefs and their compatibility with his own—are rapidly becoming sources of frustration more than of rapprochement. For both sides, the other may be well-meaning, but the other also misunderstands God, and there is an eternity at stake in getting Him wrong.

In reading through this collection, it was difficult for me to understand how useful this book could be for its apparent audience of undergraduates. I assume this is the primary audience, since the passages are too short to be of use for research. If this book aims to introduce the history of early Christian-Muslim relations at the undergraduate level, it lacks some editorial conventions that would make it most suitable for use at this level. For instance, biblical and quranic passages cited by the various authors sometimes have chapter/sura and verse/aya numbers, and sometimes do not. Some of the original sources whose translations are used by Tieszen provided such references, but these did not make it into A Textual History. Consistency in reproducing (or adding) such references would have been useful for readers who are familiar with one text or religious tradition but not the other. An index of passages from both traditions would have been helpful as well.

Along with including consistent references when citing quranic and biblical passages, these readings would have been improved by more detailed introductions. Tieszen provides a crisp introduction for each author and passage that does not always provide the background information that would help readers understand the arguments within the texts. For instance, passages such as The Disputation of Patriarch Timothy I with Caliph al Mahdi, which criticizes early Muslim claims about Muhammad being the Paraclete (παράκλητος), will prove confusing to readers without some knowledge of the convoluted connection between the παράκλητος of John 14-16 and أحمد (either “Ahmad” or “the most honored one”) of Sura as Saf (61.6), which is not provided in the text. There is something to be said in favor of grappling with these texts and being forced to seek out details and the circumstances surrounding them, but instructors who use A Textual History will likely spend a good deal of time answering basic questions about each passage that could have been covered by more detailed introductions to each passage, or more judicious use of footnotes. Adding to the confusion, the book’s index of authors and terms has a number of incorrect page references.

Tieszen has perhaps anticipated this critique in his introduction. He notes that the purpose of his format is to both “introduce readers to primary sources” and to help them “encounter the major theological issues that emerge from these sources” (7). Still, it seems to me that a book with so many abridged primary sources, dealing with so many topics over so many years, could have been made more readable with a more forceful editorial hand.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Captain Brandon Colas is an International Affairs instructor at the United States Military Academy (West Point).

Date of Review: 
September 7, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charles Tieszen is an adjunct professor of Islamic studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of Christian Identity Amid Islam in Medieval Spain (2013).

Comments

Charles Tieszen

Thank you, Captain Colas, for your thoughtful and well-written review of my book. You offer a few criticisms and these are certainly fair. I can only say that a number of editorial decisions have to be made when compiling a book of this nature and I ultimately chose to offer much shorter introductions to the texts so that more of the book's overall wordcount could be devoted to the medieval authors' words. I hoped a bit of balance could be brought with the 'Suggestions for Further Reading' and I've found it works well in my classes - both undergraduate and graduate - where we have time to discuss the very issues you felt were absent in the book. So, I wouldn't necessarily disagree with what you've criticized. I would only clarify that I attempted to, as you say, anticipate some of these issues in the introduction and balance them out with some of the other elements of the book.

As for the index, which has a number of incorrect page references, this is indeed upsetting. The final proof text, from which the index was compiled, comprised a slightly different page count than what the publisher printed. I've no idea how (or why!) this happened, but will be sure to request necessary corrections in reprint editions.

Again, thank you for a helpful and judicious review.

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments