When did Arabs become Christians?

When I visit the United States and introduce myself as a seminary professor, I am often asked, very politely, about the circumstances of my conversion from Islam. As an Arab, they assume I must also be a Muslim.

I answer politely, but poignantly, that I have been a Christian since the day of Pentecost.

The Book of Acts details how Arabs were present to receive the Holy Spirit, along with several other ethnicities. Upon leaving Jerusalem, they went back to their various homelands and preached the gospel.

And though the armies of Islam conquered the modern Middle East in the 7th century A.D., Christians continued to occupy prominent positions in Muslim society—notwithstanding periods of severe persecution.

At the dawn of Islam, Arab Christians were divided into three separate families of faith, based on different understandings of the nature of Jesus:

  • Chalcedonian Christians believed that Christ’s one person united his two natures: divine and human. These were derogatorily called “Melkites”—derived from the Arabic word for “king”—due to their favor from the Byzantine emperor.
  • The Eastern Orthodox churches, including Egypt’s Copts and Christians in the west of Syria, were non-Chalcedonian. Derogatorily called “Jacobites” after their eponymous founding monk, Jacob Baradaeus (d. 578), their theology esteemed Jesus as both human and divine but united in one nature, not two.
  • Eastern Syrians were also non-Chalcedonian, but denied the term Theotokos, rejecting Mary’s appellation as the “Mother of God.” Their name of insult was “Nestorian.”

In modern times, each of these churches has engaged in substantial interchurch dialogue to smooth over theological distinctions. But centuries ago, the conquering Muslims leveled all three and called them al-Nasara.

Most Arab Christians today reject this term, especially as it has been used by ISIS and other extremists. But its Arabic root most likely comes from the Syriac translation of Acts 24:5, where followers of Jesus are called the “Nazarene” sect.

Partners in wisdom

Labeled with Jews as “People of the Book,” Christians were governed by the Pact of Umar, the second caliph of Islam. Some historians trace the pact instead to a later ruler, but its regulations include keeping an overall deferential posture to Muslims and paying the jizya tax in exchange for allowance to not follow the new religion of the state.

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But not all caliphs cared to impose the terms of this document, and Christians were elevated in some administrations due to their mastery of other languages and of Greek philosophy. As early as the fourth century, Christians had been translating this literature into Syriac, and in the ninth century, Caliph Al-Ma’mun employed them in his Bayt al-Hikmah, “the House of Wisdom,” to carry it into Arabic.

This “golden chain” is the link between Hellenic knowledge and modern Western civilization, as Christians in Muslim Andalusia—roughly modern Spain and Portugal—then rendered the Arabic corpus into Latin, sparking Europe’s emergence from the Dark Ages.

Hunayn ibn Ishaq (d. 873), a Christian who headed the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, wrote or translated over 150 books, including the Septuagint. The Christian Bukhtishu family served as personal physicians for the Abbasid caliphs for over 300 years. And Qusta ibn Luqa—an Arabic-speaking Armenian Christian—wrote the first book on caring for a Hajj pilgrim’s personal health, Medical Regime for the Pilgrims to Mecca.

But while Christians were often esteemed for their academic mastery, they were continually demeaned on theological grounds. Though Muslims viewed Christianity as a parallel religion, they deemed it corrupted, as its doctrines lowered their conception of God. They believed a physical incarnation limits God’s transcendence, while the weakness of the cross limits his absolute power.

And in the face of this apologetic challenge, Christians responded in Arabic.

Seeking first to pastorally care for their flock, they were mindful of their setting and generally compiled texts that were respectful toward Islam. But their contextual approach mirrored the Islamic literature of the day—as did Jewish writings in Arabic—and their linguistic beauty could easily be compared with that of Muslim writings.

Three major theologians have stood the test of history.

Polemic in debate

The first is John of Damascus, born Yuhana ibn Mansur ibn Sarjun in 675 A.D. A third-generation treasurer of the Umayyad caliphate, he is depicted in an Orthodox icon wearing an Arab turban.

But John is an exception to the above rule, in that he did not write in Arabic and was not respectful toward Islam. When Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (d. 705) imposed Arabic as the official language, converting a major Damascus church into a mosque, the once-important political administrator decided to retire to a Jerusalem monastery.

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There, John wrote several books, including The Fountain of Wisdom. The second part of this work lists Islam as the last of 100 heresies. Later translated into Latin, it influenced many European theologians in their perspective on Islam. Calling Muslims “Saracens,” he accuses Muhammad of inventing the religion after having learned of Christianity from an Arian monk.

But it was a different work of his, Dialogue Between a Christian and a Saracen, that became fundamental to the history of Christian-Muslim relations. And as his views circulated, they provoked many theological disputes among Muslims themselves.

John advised Christians to query their Muslim inquisitors: Is the Qur’an—the word of God—created or eternal?

If created, this means that at some point in history, God was without word, without speech, unable to communicate with humans. But given that God now has spoken, this means God has changed, which is impossible. The word of God must then be eternal.

But if eternal, the Qur’an refers to Jesus as “a word from God.” Christ must then also be eternal, but in Islam this is also impossible. With similar questions about the nature of human freedom, John’s arguments eventually divided Muslims into several camps.

Polite in engagement

A second theologian presented another defense of Christianity that remains utilized to this day.

Timothy I, born in 727 A.D., was patriarch of the Church of the East for 43 years during the Abbasid caliphate, presiding over 230 dioceses. Under his leadership, the gospel reached all the way to China.

One day, caliph Al -Mahdi (d. 785) invited Timothy to his court for a two-day theological conversation, engaging the sensitive topics of the incarnation, the Trinity, and the place of Muhammad in Christian understanding.

Timothy explained the Trinity by saying the caliph was one king with both his word and his spirit. Similarly, he continued, the Christian God is not three but is one God, with an eternal Word and Spirit inseparable from his being.

He was very polite. He had to be. Imagine having to answer the difficult question: Why do you not believe in Muhammad? His basic answer was simple: As a Christian theologian, I find no reference to him in our Bible.

But when pressed to answer what he believed personally about the Muslim prophet, his answer was fascinating—and departed from John’s example.

“Muhammad is worthy of all praise,” he said, “because he led people to the worship of one God, away from idols, leading them to fast and pray.” Timothy even continued that Muhammad “walked in the path of the prophets,” though without affirming his spiritual office.

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Proof in linguistics

Timothy’s writings influenced many who came after him, including a third theologian , Ammar al-Basri (d. c. 850). Little known apart from his two books, this ninth-century writer came from Basra in modern-day Iraq, which was then the leading center of scholarship in Arabic grammar. And, fittingly, his apologetic rested on linguistic mastery.

His Book of the Proof is also aptly named, as verse 111 of the Qur’an’s second chapter challenges Jews and Christians to bring forth the proof of their faith. The leading Muslim theological camp at that time was the Mutazilite, who did not believe the word of God to be eternal. Keen on insisting that God, only God, without any other being, is eternal, al-Basri used this context to prove the correctness of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Muslims call God al-Hayy, meaning “the Living One”—which infers that he has “life.” Similarly, God is described as al-Mutakallim, “the Speaking One,” which means he has a “word.” Arabic grammar establishes the vital relationship between the noun “life” and the adjective “living.” So, if God speaks, then he has a “word” as eternal as his being. And if God is “living,” then he has a “spirit” as eternal as his being.

Ammar said that in Christianity, living—and speaking—are the noblest means humans have used to describe God. Only the essential attribute of “living” and “speaking” can be used to describe what God is, because they are the attributes that essentially separate essences of being.

To explain this, take the example of the difference between a horse and a man. The horse has power; man has power. The horse has eyes; man has eyes. But there is one thing that, if taken away from the man, would cause the differentiation between him and the horse to disappear. That is the Logos—the mind, the wisdom, the speech. If you take this away from humans, they become no different from any animal.

Now, if you take a table and compare it to the same horse, you discover that although the table can carry something—maybe even more than the horse—the main difference is the attribute of life. If you take life away from the horse, there is no fundamental difference between the horse and the table.

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Therefore, we say the Word of God is eternal. And the Spirit of God is eternal. We believe in one God, eternally speaking and eternally living. And this is, in my view, the best way of talking about the Trinity in a Muslim context.

Persevering in faith

How is this part of our story not known, even to us as Arab Christians? How do we jump from St. Augustine to Europe, overlooking generation after generation of Arab Christians who stood firm in the faith, who witnessed to the gospel and were active in their societies as the physicians, translators, and scholars of their day?

We as Arab Christians are in great need of rediscovering our heritage, first and foremost for ourselves. When we know who we are and where we come from, our rootedness and our cultural role in our Middle Eastern homelands is strengthened. And knowing these things may also help us renew our investment and commitment to stay.

But even then, we remain a numerical minority among the neighbors God calls us to love as ourselves. When we see how our great thinkers of the past modeled postures toward Muslims, we can seek discernment for the mutual understanding needed today.

And if we can achieve a new equilibrium with our neglected past and our troubled present, we can remind the global church—evangelicals especially—of these vital links in our golden chain of gospel faithfulness. A healthy understanding of our common history in Christ is necessary to prepare us for the diversity emerging in our world today, reflecting the vision of all tribes and languages described in Revelation.

We had a share then. May God strengthen again our role today.

Wageeh Mikhail is the Christian-Muslim relations engagement director for ScholarLeaders and the former director of the Center for Middle Eastern Christianity at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo. This essay is adapted from his lecture presented at the Centre of Christian-Muslim Understanding and Partnership in Cairo on August 1, 2023.