18.11.05, Teiszen, Cross Veneration in the Medieval Islamic World

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Emran El-Badawi

The Medieval Review 18.11.05

Tieszen, Charles. Cross Veneration in the Medieval Islamic World: Christian Identity and Practice Under Muslim Rule . The Early and Medieval Islamic World. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2017. pp. 224. ISBN: 978-1-78453-662-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Emran El-Badawi
University of Houston

No symbol of Christianity is more salient than the cross. And perhaps no faith has confronted its veneration more than Islam. In Cross Veneration in the Medieval Islamic World: Christian Identity and Practice under Muslim Rule the author, Charles Tieszen, examines how the cross shaped Christian-Muslim relations, mainly in Islamic lands from the 8th-14th centuries CE (5).

Tieszen focuses on Christian apologetic literature from this time in the Arabic, Syriac, Greek, and Coptic languages; he ultimately paints a detailed, nuanced and insightful portrait of an exciting but little known subject. The book achieves, in fact, more than its stated goals by first exploring both the pagan and Jewish contexts of cross veneration in Byzantine lands between the 4th-6th centuries CE. From the Byzantine heyday under emperor Julian the Apostate (d. 363), to the empire's twilight in the days of hermit Gregory Palamas (d. 1359), the reader's understanding of medieval cross veneration is made up of a rich literary survey and analysis spanning a millennium.

Tieszen differentiates between the veneration of the cross and that of icons. Both customs ultimately met the opposition of a nascent Islamic culture, which increasingly viewed the worship of almost any symbol, relic or representation as little more than idol worship.

The ancient Christian communities of the Middle East were, therefore, under growing pressure to conform to a religious culture at odds with their own. The utter transcendence of God within Islamic tradition left no room for the adoration of His immanence or incarnation. Cross veneration, as Tieszen argues, is not a representation of God's divinity but rather a thoughtful appreciation for Christ's humanity and the miraculous qualities of this ritual (20). Besides these concerns, Tieszen adds, the prospect of Christians converting to the prestigious, new faith of their Islamic rulers challenged the future of their communities. It was the role, therefore, of church patriarchs and holy men to write apologies in defense of "cross veneration in the Medieval world," especially in lands under the jurisdiction of the Umayyad (660-750 CE) and later Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258).

During this time Christian apologetics both responded to and took on the qualities of its Arab-Islamic context. However, as Tieszen argues, challenging Christian cross veneration was not new; apologetics against Muslim reproach simply continued the long tradition of writings "against the Jews" (Adversus Judaeos) (22). Despite the "variety" of accusations and responses touted by the author, there is considerable reiteration with each new generation of writers.

Chapter 1 takes us to the founding generation of apologists. The first among them is the famed John of Damascus (d. 749), who belonged simultaneously to the Chalcedonian (Byzantine) church and the Umayyad court. He offers us the first glimpse into the debate on cross veneration. In this Islamic context, John's Orations sets the precedent for making instrumental arguments in defense of cross veneration: veneration is a "symbol of submission and honor," not outright "worship"; the incarnation of God as Christ made Him "visible"; finding "scriptural support" in the Old Testament for the use of images; finally, giving the analogy of honoring a king or emperor. Most (all?) of these defenses emerged in the Adversus Judaeos.

Tieszen similarly argues that Muslim attitudes towards cross veneration and Christian icons were not uniform, especially before the whims of the Umayyad caliphs. Christians were first publicly subordinated before the Dome of the Rock constructed by 'Abd al-Malik (d. 705), "absorbed" by al-Walid I's (d. 715) transformation of the Church of St. John the Baptist into the Umayyad Mosque par excellence, culminating in the decree of Yazid II (d. 724) to destroy Christian mosaics at the hands of--Tieszen argues--both Christians and Muslims. The "dismantling of public Christianity" during those days, as Sidney Griffith dubs it, is indeed associated with both Umayyad empire-building and the crystallization of Islamic Hadith traditions. Therefore, the author's reluctance to associate the subsequent Byzantine iconoclasm initiated by Leo the Isaurian (d. 741) with their Umayyad nemesis--at the height of their political and religious hegemony in the early 8th century--seems short sighted (38). Nevertheless, Tieszen demonstrates clearly that early Muslim condemnation of cross veneration was political as well as religious (42).

In chapter 2 the Christian apologists offer a strong counter-condemnation to their Muslim interlocutors, namely attacking their veneration of the Ka'ba's Black Stone. John of Damascus attacks this custom as an act of idolatry from pre-Islamic paganism generally, and the worship of Aphrodite specifically. It is at this point in the book that the reader feels that the Christian-Muslim debate on cross veneration has been pushed into overdrive. The renowned Islamic theologian 'Abd al-Jabbar (d. 1025) responds, claiming that Christian cross veneration merely replaced ancient Roman devotion to the moon and the constellations. In turn the 9th century East Syrian theologian, 'Ammar al-Basri, offers a detailed defense of both the crucifixion and the cross. Al-Basri also criticizes Muslims for "kissing a stone because of Abraham, and disown[ing] the cross on account of the veil (hijab) of the Creator," ultimately concluding that Christ is greater than Abraham (58), thereby undermining Islamic theological claims. The tit for tat presentation of this debate as "Muslims on the counterattack," followed by "Christian counterattacks intensified" is instructive albeit anachronistic.

The third chapter surveys the works of medieval luminaries of the eastern churches. They include Isaac of Nineveh (d. ca. 700), Theodore Abu Qurrah (d. ca. 823), Timothy I (d. 823), Theodore bar Koni (d. 823), 'Abd al-Masih al-Kindi (9th century CE) and Dionysius bar Salibi (d. 1171). Included as well are less known Christian apologists, namely Anastasius of Sinai (d. ca. 700), Elias II (d. 797) and Bar Malkon (d. 1246). The latter demonstrates the distinctly Islamic context of Christian apologetics at this time by offering the cross as a symbol for "Christ's Jihad" (71), while conceding that both Christianity and Islam are greater religions that mere paganism (72). Abu Qurrah and others assert that the cross is a symbol of honor and victory. Bar Koni endorses cross veneration by citing the images of the Arc of the Covenant and Moses' golden plate (78), while Anastasius and still more claim that the cross has miraculous powers over demons and poison (87-88). These are but a sample of the rational and hermeneutical arguments made in defense of cross veneration.

The fourth chapter explores how Christian apologists "ma[de] the cross a qiblah and a proxy for Christ." The intriguing wording of this subject and its adoption of Muslim religious vocabulary-qiblah--are striking. Despite the intensity of their argumentation against Muslims, Tieszen alludes, some Christian apologists held Islam in esteem, in other words considering it a worthy adversary rather than lesser paganism. According to Abu Ra'ita al-Takriti (d. ca. 835) the cross is a symbol made of wood which represents austerity. It is also "Christ's sure sign upon the earth that precedes [his] second coming (113; Cf. Matthew 24:30)."

Tieszen draws a connection between the eschatological nature of cross veneration in Christian apologetics, and the Hadith claiming that Christ will indeed come before the Day of Judgment only to "break the cross" (Bukhari). He adds, furthermore, that this exchange was literary as well as political. At the Council of Trullo (Quinisext Council) in 692 cross veneration became both a reenactment of Christ's sacrifice and sacramental in nature (107). What particularly stands out in chapter 4 is what the author dubs the "Islamic ways of speaking" (106) adopted by Christian apologists.

The concluding chapter ties together and reiterates the different threads within the book. Tieszen saves the anonymous monk of Bet Hale (8th century CE) for last. The monk summarizes all the major points Tieszen finds important in this debate. The chapter offers precious insights about which Christian-Muslim exchanges were likely historical, whereas others were topoi. Above all Tieszen succeeds in demonstrating the thoroughly "Islamic context" of this debate (124). The appendices offer handy research material, listing all primary sources, their title, translation, language, date, author and a synopsis.

The strengths of this work lay in Tieszen's dexterous management of the disparate sources, as well as his expertise researching and presenting the technical details in coherent prose. I am mindful, however, of particular methodologies taken for granted in such studies on Christianity and Islam, and by extension the Bible and Qur'an. To say this differently, Christian or biblical discourse "influenced" Islam--and justifiably so. However, after more than a millennium of Islamic rule, Christianity is still viewed as largely original, autonomous and independent--colored only by Islamic culture or language. It seems more direct and to the point to describe the apologists dabbling with Islamic tradition as "influence," rather than "innovation." Moreover, the number of times Tieszen argues the apologists made innovative arguments in their Islamic context (a dozen or so times total) seems outnumbered by the readers' appreciation for just how repetitive their arguments were in justifying cross veneration. As church councils and synods continued into the Umayyad era (esp. Dayrin in 676; Quinisext in 692), the laws and customs of the eastern churches evolved as a direct result of bourgeoning Arab-Muslim rule. This much is explicit in their canons. To sum this point up, the genius behind making the cross a qiblah is not that it is innovative, but rather Islamic.

Nevertheless, Charles Tieszen, Cross Veneration in the Medieval Islamic World: Christian Identity and Practice under Muslim Rule is highly recommended and sure to generate discussion. This is not least because it based on a careful reading of the sources and equally methodical analysis, but also because it is the only monograph on this important and little known subject.

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