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Theme Changer

 Topic: ...

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  • ...
     OP - November 13, 2017, 03:22 PM

    These comments probably belong in the history section and feel free to move or delete as moderators see fit.

    I am writing speculatively about late antiquity in the 2 or 3 centuries prior to the arrival of Islam and in the 200 years following the emergence of Islam.   My reading on that period, and on the Islamic conquests has started to make me wonder about the religious differences in Christianity, their relationship to Islam and the extent to which they reflected underlying ethno-cultural hostilities.

    Byzantium was the home of Christian orthodoxy framed in a Latin cultural milieu.  The fierce debates about Christology pitted the Latin church against the semitic churches (my term) centered in Alexandria, Jerusalem, Damascus, Antioch and other Christian Patriarchies in Anatolia and Mesopotamia.    These disputes were not always polite disagreements between refined theologians - but were animated with hostility and sometimes brutal physical violence.  Example: a patriarchal appointee sent from Byzantium to Alexandria was murdered in the street by an angry mob of Monophysite Christians.

    Another hint of these tensions was the immediate disappearance of Christianity from N Africa as soon as Muslim armies arrived - with the notable exception of Egypt.   Philip Jenkins in his book 'The Lost History of Christianity' explains this by saying that the church in N Africa was a Latin imposition serving urban elites.   Coptic Christianity in Egypt was not structured like that and had sunk deep roots in rural areas as well as cities - and was viewed as benign by ordinary peasants.  But elsewhere the tension between indigenous people and the official Latin Church would seem to have an ethnic (if not overtly racial) character.

  • ...
     Reply #1 - November 13, 2017, 04:52 PM

    Some brief thoughts...

    I’d be wary about looking for “underlying ethno-cultural hostilities” in the pre-modern world. It’s not that something of this kind couldn’t exist but if you set out assuming it’s there it’s very likely that you’re projecting modern nationalist assumptions back into the past.

    The Orthodox Christianity based in Constantinople was based on Greek rather than Latin. As I understand it the thinking of Greek and Latin churches drifted apart long before any formal schism, but I’m not any kind of expert.

    In the Near East the orthodox Chalcedonian church tended to use Greek while rival churches used one or other variety of Aramaic or other local languages. Greek was also a widely used spoken as well as official language in the region. Use of Latin was limited though it remained the language of law for a long time. I’m doubtful that the use of Greek should be seen as an indication of ethnic difference. It was there because it had been the official and literary language of the ruling classes since the time of Alexander.

    Christianity and spoken Latin took centuries to disappear from North Africa after the arrival of Islam. They were still around at the time of the short-lived Norman Kingdom of Africa. My understanding is that North Africa (I’m not including Egypt here) was the early stronghold of Latin Christianity rather than it being an imposition from outside.

    Again, I think looking for ethnic or racial explanations is probably just projecting modern obsessions back into the past.
  • ...
     Reply #2 - November 13, 2017, 10:26 PM

    I didn't start out by 'looking for it' or projecting ... what I'm reading is suggesting to me that there may be some ethno-cultural tensions mingled with theological tensions.

    Byzantium was the last phase of the Roman Empire.  Rome had fought its most critical wars against Carthage.  Who were the Carthaginians?   Africans?  Berbers?   When Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire the peoples surrounding Constantinople were subject peoples who had been conquered at some point by Roman legions, and who paid taxes to that empire.   It is usual to expect some resentment by subject peoples kept loyal by force of arms by another ethnic group.

    I'm using Latin as a cultural adjective rather than a strict linguistic descriptor.   Linguistically .. right up to the 7th century and beyond it was a confused situation in the greater 'Roman' Empire.   Romans sent their children to Athens to learn Greek and complete their education.   Plutarch started as a Greek speaker who learned Latin.    Justinian spoke mainly Latin and St Augustine of Hippo was a Latin speaker too.  A reasonable generalization would be that Latin was universally read and spoken in the Western Empire and was primarily the language of the royal court at Constantinople (and in law as you point out), with Greek being the language of the ordinary folk.

    'Orthodox' Christianity is a later development and was primarily Greek culturally and linguistically, but that's not the division I'm discussing.   I had no idea that Latin lasted as long as you say in N Africa.   The language may have lasted, but the Latin Church did not, and the Greek Orthodox church was never a presence as far as I'm aware.

    But the distinction I was trying to make was between European and Semitic peoples within the Christian community.   And the question I have (no definitive answer yet) is were tensions between rulers and ruled over peoples a partial motive in rival religious institutions and theological disputes.   Jenkins is quite unequivocal that Augustine's church was a church of urban elites and never gained the loyalty of the rural population.   Augustine of Hippo is of course a monumental figure in the evolution of Christian doctrine.

  • ...
     Reply #3 - November 14, 2017, 12:05 AM

    There’s a short blog post on Latin in Africa here:

    Wiki on the church in Africa:
    There are reports that the Roman Catholic faith persisted in the region from Tripolitania (present-day western Libya) to present-day Morocco for several centuries after the completion of the Arab conquest by 700. A Christian community is recorded in 1114 in Qal'a in central Algeria. There is also evidence of religious pilgrimages after 850 to tombs of Catholic saints outside of the city of Carthage, and evidence of religious contacts with Christians of Arab Spain. In addition, calendar reforms adopted in Europe at this time were disseminated amongst the indigenous Christians of Tunis, which would have not been possible had there been an absence of contact with Rome. There are also Christian graves at En-Gila, south of Tripoli, dated from 945 to 1003 and Kairouan dated 1007, 1019 and 1046. Local Catholicism came under pressure when the Muslim fundamentalist regimes of the Almohads and Almoravids came into power, and the record shows demands made that the local Christians of Tunis to convert to Islam. We still have reports of Christian inhabitants and a bishop in the city of Kairouan around 1150 AD – a significant report, since this city was founded by Arab Muslims around 680 AD as their administrative center after their conquest. A letter in Catholic Church archives from the 14th century shows that there were still four bishoprics left in North Africa, admittedly a sharp decline from the over four hundred bishoprics in existence at the time of the Arab conquest. Berber Christians continued to live in Tunis and Nefzaoua in the south of Tunisia up until the early 15th century, and the first quarter of the 15th century, we even read that the native Christians of Tunis, though much assimilated, extended their church, perhaps because the last Christians from all over the Maghreb had gathered there.

  • ...
     Reply #4 - November 14, 2017, 04:42 PM

    Byzantium was the last phase of the Roman Empire.  Rome had fought its most critical wars against Carthage.  Who were the Carthaginians?   Africans?  Berbers?

    The Carthaginians spoke Punic, a language closely related to Hebrew and still spoken in parts of the Roman province of Africa in late antiquity and probably up to and after the the Arab conquests. It would also have been spoken in parts of Sicily, Spain and elsewhere before being replaced by Latin.

    This article is worth reading on the Berbers in late antiquity and their relationship with the Romans: The Saharan Berber Diaspora and the Southern Frontiers of Byzantine North Africa. It also contradicts any claim that Christianity hadn’t put down roots in rural areas. Incidentally the distinction here probably shouldn’t be between city and rural area, but between a more fertile lowland zone of small towns and rural estates controlled by Roman landowners, and remoter mountainous and semi-desert areas where villages and tribal groups had a more autonomous existence.

    But the distinction I was trying to make was between European and Semitic peoples within the Christian community

    Semitic is a language group not a racial group. It includes Punic which as stated above was spoken in parts of Europe, as well as Africa. Latin was spoken in Africa as well as Europe. Greek was spoken in Asia, Africa and Europe. Latin and Greek shouldn’t be considered as simply, or even mainly, European languages. I don’t think the idea of a distinction in this period between ‘European and Semitic peoples’ has much meaning or serves much purpose.

    A reasonable generalization would be that Latin was universally read and spoken in the Western Empire and was primarily the language of the royal court at Constantinople (and in law as you point out), with Greek being the language of the ordinary folk.

    Latin would have played a minor role in the East. Even when there were still Latin speaking emperors in Constantinople the city itself, along with the educated elite and the church, would have been overwhelmingly Greek speaking.
  • ...
     Reply #5 - November 14, 2017, 05:51 PM

    From the article linked to above and regarding Christianity in the countryside:
    Among the best arguments put forward by, in particular, Pierre Morizot, for looking elsewhere for the Moors of the Aurès are his remarkable surveys of the valleys of the mountains, carried out over fifty years. In every valley are found farms, villages, olive presses, churches: very few large structures, but a myriad small ones, built in Roman opus africanum with square corners and occasional inscriptions. Far from being a Roman imposition, he sees these as indigenous sites that had benefitted from the economic and political efects of the Roman occupation of the area, and show a fairly intense penetration of Christianity in the region during the fourth and fitfh centuries.

    Probably also worth looking at: Peasant and Empire in Christian North Africa

    The main focus throughout the book is on the rural peasantry. After a brief historical overview, which suffers somewhat from being overly broad, the remainder of the book is divided into three pairs of chapters which deal with the themes of rural consumption, rural communal structures, and the impact of Christian preaching in the countryside.
    The next pair of chapters examines the relationship between rural communities’ struggle to gain some kind of self-government or representation (Chapter 4) and the growing number of rural bishops in Africa during the fourth century – a phenomenon distinct to the African provinces (Chapter 5). After a significant increase in imperial municipal promotions under the Severans, which is known to us only thanks to inscriptions, they had all but ceased by the beginning of the fourth century, and Dossey goes on to provide an enthralling account of why, in the absence of other options, the election of a rural bishop often became the most favourable course of action for these rural communities: ‘Bishops brought rural populations a measure of self-government – a local law court, a place for public assembly, and a literate mediator with the outside world’ (p. 126). According to Dossey this was usually a bottom-up rather than a top-down process, what she calls a ‘popular push’.

    In Chapter 6 Dossey again picks up her thread of the increasing resemblance between rural and urban populations. Preaching to the rural peasantry meant that a previously marginalized group could employ the morals and ideas present in the canonical texts to forward their own interests. The morality of the sermons, many of which had been aimed at the excesses of the wealthy urban landlords during the third century when bishops had mainly presided over urban communities, could well have struck a unifying chord with the exploited rural peasantry of the fourth century.

    The final chapter, ‘Reinterpreting Rebellion’, then neatly returns to examining the reality of the perceived threat of popular unrest. Dossey demonstrates how several texts indicate that members of the Catholic clergy were also indulging in actions which would have been considered illegal or subversive by the imperial authorities. It was in the interests of Augustine, Optatus and others, however, to demonize the Donatists, which no doubt led to biased and exaggerated accounts of the risk of civil unrest.

  • ...
     Reply #6 - November 14, 2017, 10:06 PM

    ok ... Offering below an extended Jenkins quotation on this.   I'm not sure what conclusion you are deriving from the fact that there were remnants of a once dominant culture and Christian faith community after the Muslim conquest in the 7th century.   The 400 bishoprics to 4 that you quoted is given as more than 500 by Jenkins.  Even taking the lesser number it means 99% elimination.   What is the current Christian population of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya when compared to Egypt's 10-12 million Copts - with a patriarch in place?

    From page 228 of 'The Lost History Of Christianity':

    'To take an extreme contrast, we can compare the fate of Christianity in two regions that in different ways had been critical to the development of the early church.   Muslim forces occupied Egypt in the middle of the 7th century, and North Africa (roughly, Algeria and Tunisia) over the following 50 years or so.  In Egypt, the Coptic Christians coped impressively with the new regime.   Coptic Christianity flourishes today in stark contrast to the faith of North Africa, which was all but extinct within a hundred years of the coming of the Arabs.  The Copts are not the only example of extreme Christian resilience over long ages - witness also the Maronites and Armenians - but numerically they are the most significant.
    In it's day, the African church had been one of the wonders of the Christian world.   The great classicist Theodor Mommsen wrote: "In the development of Christianity, Africa plays the first part.  If it arose in Syria, it was in and through Africa that it became the religion of the world."  Latin Christian traditions developed in Carthage rather than Rome, and Africa was the home of such great early leaders as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine.   By the late 5th century North Africa had 500 or 600 bishoprics, while monasteries were a familiar part of the local social landscape.   Even after long struggles by rival Christian sects, North Africa in the century after 560 was a potent center of spiritual, literary and cultural activity:  "in no part of the West were the clergy and people so orthodox as in Africa."
    Yet within fifty years of the completion of the Arab conquest in 698, local Muslim rulers were apologizing to the caliphs that they could no longer supply Christian slaves, since Christians were now so scarce.

    One of the last 'remnant' communities I am aware of is through an infamous event associated with it.  The Trappist monastery at Tibhirine at Algeria - where the monks, beloved by locals were all beheaded in 1996 during the Algerian civil war.   That, just a footnote to centuries of slaughter, enslavement and forced conversion.

  • ...
     Reply #7 - November 15, 2017, 06:41 PM

    The killing of the monks in Algeria was a tragedy but it was just one incident in a modern Islamist insurgency. The monks were not a ‘remnant’ community of an older tradition of North African Christianity. If they were a remnant of anything it was of a renewed Catholic presence under French colonial rule. As I understand it there was a conscious idea under the French of bringing back Catholicism to its original homeland. I think this was a reason for the construction of the cathedral at Carthage (next to the main archaeological site and museum and no longer used as a church, perhaps partly because of the symbolism). Going back to the killing, it wasn’t part of some 1,300 year long story of oppression and slaughter by Muslims, any more than Srebrenica or the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya stand for age old narratives of Orthodox Christian or Buddhist violence. These are all modern political events where some form of nationalism has joined up with reworked religious ideology.

    Thanks for the quote from Philip Jenkins. The book looks interesting and I’d probably buy a copy if I came across it. However from looking at the preview available on Amazon I’m not convinced of its reliability, at least in detail. In a way there’s something that reminds me of the genre of popular history books that glorify Muslim Spain as an example of medieval multicultural tolerance. They may tell good stories and be interesting, readable and well-meaning but as history they really need to be treated with caution. The first page of Jenkins’ book talks about pasts when India was mainly Buddhist for a thousand years, Persia was Zoroastrian and Spain was mostly Muslim. I think all these statements are problematic or at least need qualifying. In the case of Spain most of it was under Muslim rule for a time but I doubt that there were ever major areas where Muslims were in a majority. I’d say they would always have been essentially a ruling minority, and I think this is the general pattern for the early centuries of Muslim rule over a previously Christian world. I’m not convinced at all that North Africa would have been an exception to this. What may have happened is a pattern of wholesale strategic conversions by more autonomous and tribal communities from the mountain and desert margins, putting more pressure on the survival of Christianity in the cities and their rural hinterlands. I doubt that most conversions were forced and over a period of centuries there can be many reasons for a religion’s decline. I’ve no doubt at all that Jenkins is simply wrong to say that North African Christianity “was all but extinct within a hundred years of the coming of the Arabs”. I suspect that what’s happening here is that Jenkins is channeling received academic wisdom that happens to be wrong - always a potential problem with the writing of wide-ranging history that relies on secondary sources rather than original research.
  • ...
     Reply #8 - November 15, 2017, 07:52 PM

    I find myself sometimes taking exception to the use of the word tragedy when applied to acts of terror.  It can only be applied logically to the victims and their loved ones.   It says nothing about the perpetrator.   I prefer 'atrocity'.

    Appreciate your observations on Jenkins - who now teaches at Baylor - a Baptist University in Texas I think.  He is on youtube as well if you want to take a look.   He's very balanced on Islam.  There is a speech he gave in the last year somewhere - where he compared the relative violence of Islam and Christianity.   No difference according to Dr Jenkins.

  • ...
     Reply #9 - November 15, 2017, 08:21 PM

    Yes, ‘atrocity’ would do. I wasn’t intending to downplay the agency of the terrorists.

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