Saturday, November 07, 2020


Open the Orthodox Synaxarion in any given month and you are bound to come across a number of persons who achieved martyrdom for either refusing to convert to Islam, or for converting to Islam and then seeking to espouse Christianity. Of all European peoples, the Greeks have been in contact with the Islamic world the longest, such contact commencing, if legend is to be believed, with Muhammad writing to Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, enjoining him to convert to Islam, or at least with the battle of Yarmuk in 636, when the armies of the Rashidun Caliphate defeated the Byzantines in Syria. Thereafter, the Greek world was compelled to take the Islamic world very seriously, especially considering that the Muslim armies wrested not only Syria, but also Egypt from Greek rule, their armies often raiding up to the city walls of Constantinople itself. 

With Muhammad reputed to have prophesied: “Constantinople will surely be conquered; what a good commander is the conqueror, what a good soldier is the conqueror,” it was understood that the relationship between the two worlds was one of survival of the fittest. Muslim legend, as the great Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi records, in his Sayahtname (Travel Book), held that on the day of the birth of Muhammad, the dome of the Great Church of Saint Sophia crumbled. It was then that the mysterious time travelling prophet Khidr suggested that three hundred priests living in Bosra under the leadership of Priest Bahira (who according to legend instructed the young Muhammad in matters of faith) to go to Mecca. They took an amount of saliva from Muhammad’s mouth and his handprint.  They also collected water from the well of  Zamzam and some soil of Mecca. Travelling to Constantinople, they the collapsed parts of Saint Sophia with these, the implication being that the Church was always destined to become a mosque and the symbol of the triumph of Islam over Christianity. 

Paradoxically, another building symbolising such a triumph was constructed on behalf of the victorious Islamic rulers by Byzantine craftsmen. The Dome of the Rock, built on the Temple Mount of Jerusalem, was designed after the shape of a Christian martyrium and possibly in emulation of the Church of the Seat of Mary  and Byzantine mosaic specialists worked upon its decoration, including its Koranic inscription which offers an explicit rejection of the divinity of Christ, from Quran (19:33–35): 

“So peace is upon me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive!" Such is Jesus, son of Mary. It is a statement of truth, about which they doubt. It is not befitting to Allah that He should take himself a child. Glory be to Him! when He determines a matter, He only says to it, "Be", and it is.” 

An observer will notice superficial similarities between orthodox Christianity and Islam. Both religions practise prostrations, specify prayers at certain times of the day,  face a certain direction when praying, place great importance upon fasting and have a decentralised, collegial  structure of authority. During periods of peace, Islamic rulers sought from the Greeks, ancient manuscripts and translators, and much of Muslim scholarship in its golden age is based on studies and interpretations of the ancient Greek heritage. In turn, the Iconoclast controversy which wracked the Byzantine Empire for over a century until it was resolved by some very clever women, was profoundly influenced by the aniconic tradition of Islam, one which the Byzantine Emperors believed, was the key to Islamic success. Indicating just how important these controversies were considered to be, we celebrate the Restitution of Icons in the Orthodox church every year, during the Sunday of Orthodoxy. 

 Part of the Greek world’s modus vivendi with Islam arose from the fact that it was considered that both faiths occupied the same cultural continuum. Saint John of Damascus, a native of Syria wrote the first Christian analysis of Islam, which he considered to be a Christian heresy. Indeed many Islamic missionaries attempted to gain converts by preaching their religion upon Christian terms: maintaining that Muhammad was the Paraclete that Christ promised to send after him, in the Bible. He also records the many debates and dialogues he conducted with Islamic apologists and indeed this culture of disputation continued under Arab rule, with the Caliphs often asking Patriarchs of the various Eastern denominations (Orthodox, Miaphysite and Nestorian) to debate with Islamic scholars, for their own edification.  

Thus, even when the Byzantine world counterattacked against the ever encroaching Caliphate, notably retaking parts of Syria and rendering peripheral emirates as tributaries, the religious sensitivities of the populace were respected. A mosque for Islamic prisoners of war was erected in Constantinople as early as 717, while there are even reports of a mosque existing in Athens prior to the tenth century to cater for traders. These were two peoples, of rival faiths and polities who though engaged in a battle for survival, understood each other. 

The same cannot be said for the western Crusaders whose proto-colonialist conquests of the Holy Land and parlous treatment of Muslims has set the tone for the relationship between the West and Islam ever since. Then, as now, it has been the indigenous Christians of the East, most of them living under Islamic rule that have borne the brunt the Islamic backlash against the West, paying the price for political machinations by people that do not belong to their denomination and care not a jot about them. In the last twenty years, it is estimated that over four million native Christians have fled the Middle East. None of these have tried to subvert the government that rule over them, generally oppressively, nor have they insulted Islamic sensitivities. The mere fact that they are associated by their faith with a paradoxically secular West, is enough to spell their death knell. There is no point in pointing this out to those Muslims who persecute them. There is no point explaining to the terrorist who shot Father Nikolaos Kakavelakis in Lyon recently, or to ISIS who abducted and brutally murdered the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo that our Church has never offended or attempted to insult Islam. It is what they represent (however erroneous) rather than who they are, which enrages them and they are an easy outlet for anger. 

The uneasy but balanced manner in which Orthodox and other Eastern Christians abide with Islam has been forgotten during the controversy over French President Macron’s  reproduction of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, the Islamic world’s furious reaction and the tragedy of terrorism brutally claiming the lives of innocent people. The modern incarnation of the Greek identity, of which we will celebrate the bicentenary next year, arose in spite of and as a quest for emancipation from Islamic rule. A century later, our people along with other native peoples of Asia Minor, were subjected to genocide because we were not Muslim. Since that time, Islam has been periodically been employed by unscrupulous rulers to justify threats or acts of aggression against our people, most recently this year. Even so, Greeks and other Orthodox Christians do not publicly denigrate Muhammad. They do not publish insulting or provocative cartoons bearing his image. This is because a millennium and a half of engagement with Islam has taught them that insulting a people’s religious sensitivities is a futile act and in no way assists in such dialogue or rapprochement that could possibly be made. 

This is where Macron, in expressing solidarity with Charlie Hebdo has erred. Depicting Muhammad in any form contravenes the prohibition against iconography in Islam and thus is a form of blasphemy. Doing so unwittingly, out of ignorance is excusable. Doing so in order to lampoon him as a religious figure on the other hand is not free speech. It is a deliberate act of imperialism by a smug, self-assured Western culture that considers itself superior and thus able to insult the sensitivities of the culture of those it considers inferior, with impunity and without regard to their feelings, in a manner similar to Jesuits desecrating or burning the idols of the native American tribes they sought to dominate. We should know. The West has subjected the Orthodox world to the same forms of ridicule, colonialism and cultural appropriation since 1204 when Constantinople was sacked by the Crusaders. In ordering the display of Charlie Hebdo cartoons in prominent French public spaces, Macron is neither engaging in constructive debate, but rather asserting the power of his nation. Simultaneously, he is placing the already Christians of the Middle East in sure jeopardy or reprisal and facilitating the radicalisation of those susceptible to the anti-Christian, decadent western narrative. Father Nikolaos is but a prime example. 

The Greek Orthodox world has never resiled from its position on matters of faith, nor has it forgotten all that it endured under Islam. Yet it speaks volumes for its ability to continue to engage with Islam effectively , that its four patriarchates, that of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, abide in countries that are either Muslim-ruled or where Islam is a major religion. Παρρησία, speaking the truth, in love, is an important element of the Orthodox faith. It permits one to boldly state an opinion, not in order to dominate or to subject one’s interlocutor to ridicule, but rather, out of love and concern for their well-being. Not a lot of love is emanating from France at the moment. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 7 November 2020