Cross Veneration in the Medieval Islamic World

Christian Identity and Practice Under Muslim Rule

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Charles Tieszen
The Early and Medieval Islamic World
  • London, England: 
    I.B. Tauris
    , March
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this new work, Charles Tieszen examines “medieval apologetic, debate, and disputational literature written roughly between the eighth century and the fourteenth century” by Christian and Muslim scholars throughout the Islamic world. He focuses narrowly on how Christians and Muslims discuss cross veneration—defined as bowing, kissing, and making its sign—in inter-religious discourse.

Cross Veneration in the Medieval Islamic World contains five chapters with two additional appendices that present the text’s primary sources with annotations of both culture and context. The appendices themselves are valuable resources for scholars interested in medieval Christian-Muslim dialogue; and, the bibliography includes both the primary sources and available translations. Tieszen arranges the chapters thematically, although he often discusses how early writings—for example, Christian Adversus Judaeos rhetoric—appear in later works such as historical progression.

This book’s main contributions include two central arguments: first, Tieszen distinguishes cross veneration as a primary marker of religious identity for Christians living within Islamic empires; and second, he explains that related Christian-Muslim discourse must be placed within localized contexts—of subordinate Christians living under Muslim rulers—instead of only the larger Byzantine world’s theological and iconoclast debates, as is traditionally done.

These two arguments certainly advance contemporary conversations in medieval studies, religious studies, and comparative religion; however, they often lack analytical depth and sufficient cultural context. Tieszen indeed establishes his methodology as narrow, textual analysis in his introduction, but I am not convinced this is the best strategy. For example, while focusing on the specific theological and ritual act of cross veneration, he ignores other Christian sacraments usually “bundled” together in inter-religious rhetoric. Chapter 4 touches a bit on this: Christian authors’ insistence that Jesus is present in the Eucharistic elements, such as bread and wine, just as he resides—in a very real way—in the cross. Tieszen nods briefly to the evolving sacramental theology as context, but then emphasizes that some Christians living in Islamic empires might be tempted to minimize their Christian identity by becoming “quasi-Muslim;” for example, by allying themselves with Jesus as prophet instead of god. Christian authors—in this case, of the ninth century al-Jāmi` wujūb al-īmān, or The Compilations of the Aspects of the Faith—thus emphasized Jesus’s divine nature, present in the cross, to criticize such cowardice and embolden Christian identity. Indeed, it would be difficult for Christians to deny Jesus’s divinity as they prostrate before the cross, especially in a Muslim cultural context wherein prostration is an important worship signal. Tieszen is persuasive; the localized exchanges between Christians and Muslims should always inform textual analysis instead of, by default, assigning Christian rhetoric to imperial power struggles and Byzantine theological controversies—in this case, sacramental theology.

With that said, Tieszen’s narrow emphasis often robs us of the larger discursive milieus, so wondrously messy and complex. He presents his readers with a dialogue between Christian identity and Muslim identity while considering the variety of Christian confessions within Islamic lands. Tieszen alerts us to the Christian Chalcedonian majority living within Muslim lands—that includes Melkites, Miaphysite/Jacobites, Nestorians, and Copts—but seldom delves into their distinct beliefs and ritual actions, even those related most directly with the cross. And, while Tieszen correctly urges us to “think locally” when reading Christian-Muslim rhetoric—including that discussion about cross veneration did not necessarily reflect Byzantine concerns for icon worship/iconoclasm—those larger theological issues certainly informed the discursive background. For a work dedicated to careful reading of specific texts, Tieszen also includes surprisingly little textual analysis, specifically the Greek/Syriac/Arabic terms that Christians and Muslims employed in discussing symbols/signs, icons/images, and venerate/worship.

While most of my review thus far has included—perhaps unfairly—my desire for more, I should now applaud what Tieszen so skillfully provides. Perhaps one of the most important things we learn from Tieszen’s book is that Christian and Muslim authors knew much about each other’s beliefs and ritual practices. Chapter 3 describes the twelfth-century Dionysius bar Ṣalībī’s Christian correlation between cross veneration and Muslim adoration of the Qur’an’s material form, for example, kissing ornate binding/covers. Chapter 4 includes ninth-century Abū Rā’iṭah’s equating the cross with the qiblah (direction of Muslim prayer).

Both Christian and Muslim authors also drew heavily upon their shared story: the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. While Muslims decried cross veneration as innovative polytheism, Christian authors pointed to biblical archetypes of material adoration—including the Ark of the Covenant and Moses’s rod. Just as Christian authors defended the reverence for material form, and ultimately Jesus’s incarnation, to an earlier Jewish audience (discussed fully in chapter 1), the same themes/topoi resonated with Muslims who recognized similar sacred stories. As Tieszen explains, Christian and Muslim authors often succeeded in explaining their beliefs and practices—by referencing a shared sacred history and understanding of the other—instead of just accusing the other of violating their own absolute Truth.

While Tieszen successfully demonstrates that Christians and Muslims knew much about each other, he also includes several surprising characterizations. Chapter 2 incorporates fourteenth-century al-Dimashqī’s Muslim suspicion that the Apostle Paul purposefully deceived Jesus’s disciples about his nature and encouraged sectarian divisions. Part of Paul’s trickery involved burying the wood—and calling it the True Cross—that Saint Helena later discovered, thus establishing the vile practice of cross veneration (53). Chapter 3 also reveals a strong Muslim classification of the cross as a ‘shameful’ image of criminal torture and humiliation; it made no sense as to why Christians would adore such a symbol. One Christian response, preserved in the late eighth-century debate between Patriarch Timothy I and Caliph al-Mahdī, not only defended the cross but also developed an impressive theological argument for the incarnation as well as God’s universal love and progressive revelation (64-5).

Altogether, Cross Veneration in the Medieval Islamic World is a valuable, albeit narrow, contribution to multiple fields. It reminds us, at a critical time in our own history, how important interreligious dialogue and awareness can be.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary Thurlkill is professor of religion at the University of Mississippi.

Date of Review: 
July 31, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charles Tieszen is associate professor at Simpson University and adjunct assistant professor at the Fuller Seminary. He received his PhD from the University of Birmingham and is the author of Christian Identity amid Islam in Medieval Spain and A Textual History of Christian-Muslim Relations.


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