Review: The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque

Title of Work:

The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque

Author of Work:

Sidney H. Griffith


Pastor Ben Tomczak

Page Number:

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The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque by Sidney H. Griffith, Princeton University Press, 2008; xiii + 220.

SS.47.The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque.LgSidney H. Griffith is a professor at the Catholic University of America, where he teaches Syriac and Christian Arabic.

As Western Christians, we know almost nothing about the history, or even the existence of, the Christian churches of the East, especially those that have labored under Muslim domination for nearly 1,500 years. Maybe my ignorance of the Nestorian, Jacobite, Melkite, Maronite, Armenian, and Georgian churches and the Christian theology written in Arabic is the exception, but I’m guessing that’s unlikely, especially since Philip Jenkins’ 2008 publication of The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How it Died.[1]

Griffith aims to alleviate some of that widespread ignorance with this volume, which he calls “a succinct overview of the cultural and intellectual achievements, including the theological posture vis-à-vis Islam, of the Christians who spoke and wrote in Syriac and in Arabic and who lived in the world of Islam from the time of the prophet Muhammad (ca. 570-632) up to the time of the Crusades…” (4). Note well the word “succinct” and his caveat in the preface: “this book is not a comprehensive presentation of its subject” (xii).

The book’s origins lie in Griffith’s many years of study of this and related subjects. The reader will note in the bibliography nearly four pages dedicated to the various articles, essays, lectures, and books Dr. Griffith has written on the topic. According to Griffith, these essays became public lectures “that, after much revision, would become the chapters of this book” (xi).

In that origin, however, one finds a minor weakness. Despite his revisions, occasionally the essays repeat information in such a way that makes it clear that they began as independent essays. On the one hand, because of the vast unfamiliarity with many of the names, dates, and events, a little repetition is good. For example, tell me you’re up to speed on the writings of Abul-Fath ‘Abd Allah ibn al-Fadl al-Antaki. On the other hand, noting previous references, such as footnotes taking you back to where you first encountered this writer, would have improved the reading experience.

As far as his overall goal, Griffith achieves it well. Throughout his seven chapters he introduces some of the names, dates, and places we need to know, as well as the theological currents running throughout the dialogue and interaction that took place between Christians and Muslims in the early centuries of Muslim domination of the East.

From the very beginning, Griffith makes it clear that Christians viewed Islam as a threat to the faith. Whether viewing Islam as a heresy or an entirely different religion[2], Christian apologists understood that Islam attacks the core of the Christian faith. For that reason, it must be met not with ecumenical dialogue seeking accommodation and peace, but with apologetic defenses of the faith, proving that Christianity is the truth and Islam is a distortion (at best) and a Satanic lie (at worst).

This reviewer was disappointed by Griffith’s inability to listen to his own research. Time and again he puts forward the words and works of Christians laboring under Muslim power, and shows them saying that there is so vast a difference between these faiths that they’re incompatible. Yet in his introduction and conclusion, Griffith says we should learn from these Christians how we might come to some sort of rapprochement (cf. 5, 178-179). He praises Vatican II’s “revolutionary statements” that claimed someone who did not know the Gospel could attain eternal life if he did his best according to his own knowledge and situation, a theological position otherwise known as pluralism or universalism.

At the same time, Griffith does cite one anonymous Christian apologist who “pinpoints Christology as the decisive issue in Christian/Muslim relations in his day. He contends that once Christians have given way on this issue, the distinctiveness of their faith is eclipsed” (58). In other words, these first generations knew that without Christ as Savior and Mediator, true God and true man, Christianity becomes nothing more than another ethical system. Without Christ Christianity, Judaism, and Islam ARE the same.

More evidence of this comes from the seven questions posed by a Muslim emir to a Christian patriarch, questions which, as Griffith says, “are such as one would expect to have often been posed to Christians by Muslim interrogators” (36). The emir asks if there is but one Christian Gospel, and if so why are there different Christian denominations. He asks, “Who do you say Christ was, God or not?” He wonders, “If Christ is God, when in the womb of Mary, who ran the universe?” He asks about the doctrines that Moses and Abraham held and believed, and if Christ is God, why didn’t the great prophets say that more clearly? He asks to be shown “literally from the Law” where Christ is God, and, finally, where do Christians get their rules and laws.

Frequently Griffith refers to questions like these, and variations on them, questions centering especially on Christ’s deity and the incarnation as being at the center of the dialogue, discussion, and debate between Christians and Muslims. He points us also to the words emblazoned on the Dome of the Rock: “There is no God but God alone…. He did not beget and was not begotten…. Praise be to God who has not taken a son” (33).

In other words, the distinction between Christians and Muslims back then, as it is today, remains starkly clear—it’s Christ! Christians have him. Muslims do not, and therefore refuse him. Still Griffith speaks ill of evangelizing Muslims (5). Instead he calls for a “renewal of mutual respect,” arguing that evangelizing Muslims could be a violation of religious freedom (5).  Later, he even calls them “co-believers in the one God” (22).

It’s sad that Griffith cannot, or almost will not see the results of his research. In his sadness over the breakdown of dialogue between the two faiths, in the disappearance of Christians almost entirely from Muslim lands, he wants, at all costs, to restore the ability to talk between the faiths. In that desire, however, he blurs the line between the faiths and falls prey to typical 20th and 21st century ecumenical and interfaith blundering.

For all that, this introduction to the thought and writings of Arabic speaking/writing Christians does open the door to an important area of study, especially as Islam crosses the one billion member mark and is no longer just “over there,” but right here among us and around us (22).  We need to know how to speak to Islam, to identify what the great issues are, and to know that there is a great tradition of interacting with Islam. If only more of it were translated into English.

[1] Reviewed by Prof. Ken Cherney in Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, Vol. 107:1, pages 77-78.

[2] An interesting discussion that Griffith makes brief note of occasionally, cf. his references to John of Damascus on page 42.