Christians have been reduced to a paltry minority in their former heartlands. LUKE COPPEN applauds a brilliant study which explains why.
Christians and Jews under Islam by Youssef Courbage and Philippe Fargues, translated by Judy Mabro, I.B. Tauris, £40 IN A CORRUPTION OF A FAMOUS aphorism one could say that most books on the Christianity in the Arab world are simply a footnote to the history of European Christianity. The fact that Christians have been reduced to a paltry minority in their former heartlands has been the cause of much pain and perplexity among western Christian historians. The result has been scholarly work coloured by nostalgia for the golden age of Christendom and a melancholy evocation of communities destined for the sword of Islam.
Such work has never explained the dynamics behind the "dechristianisation" of North Africa and the Middle East. Courbage and Fargues have thus produced a remarkable book. I have never read an account of Christians and Jews in the Islamic world written with such clarity and precision. This is largely due to the authors' respective backgrounds in demography and economic history, which enables them to build up a picture of the Christian orient through censuses and fiscal records. Their judgements are thus based on available evidence, rather than romanticism; hard facts, rather than speculation.
Courbage and Fargues have condensed one thousand and five hundred years of inter-confessional history into eight dense, but remarkably readable, chapters. The first two consider the knotty question of exactly how the Arab Empire spread so quickly and how it was able to displace Christianity from its ancestral homelands. Typically Christian historians have argued that the Arabs spread their new religion by the sword. However, as Courbage and Fargues reconstruct the era through available demographic and economic records, it is clear that the Arab invaders were a tiny minority compared to the peoples they conquered. Furthermore their beliefs and practices spread slowly through the conquered communities, taking hundreds of years to achieve hegemony. Solid documentary evidence frees the authors from many impasses. For example, the Muslims' discriminatory jizyah tax on Christians and Jews, which has outraged many gifted Christian scholars, is seen in a new light. While it certainly encouraged conversion, it also often worked to the advantage of the Christians. In return for the tax the payers were exempt from military service and, as the authors wryly note, one doesn't lose one's life through tax, but through war.
The authors are ever alert to the ironies of Christian-Muslim history and frequently astonish with cogent reinterpretations of received ideas. An example is their treatment of the highly wrought question of the disappearance of Christianity from Turkey the homeland and favoured missionary turf of St. Paul. They argue that it was not the zealously Islamic Ottoman caliphate that put paid to Christianity, but rather the secular republican ideals
of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Using Ottoman censuses, they build up a picture of a vibrant Christian community, favoured by the Sublime Porte's decree that the Jews and Christians should be self-regulating millets, or nations, responsible for decisions pertaining to their community's health, education and religious welfare. Following the collapse of the Ottoman
Empire at the end of the First World War, they describe how various nationalisms competed for the remaining fragment of the empire present-day Turkey. The eventual winner was secular, Turkish nationalism, but before this could be consolidated the Republic had to be turned into a homogenous Turkish, Muslim society. Armenian and Greek Christians, who accounted for one in five of the population in 1914, were massacred or deported, so that by 1991 just one Turkish citizen in five hundred was a nonMuslim. Although well aware of the tragic proportions of these events, the authors do not lose their neutrality. In the best scholarly fashion they simply report that this episode is the subject of an ongoing dispute between Turks and Armenians. This points to a great sensitivity to the biases that lie in even the most objective sources. They never assume that because a statistic is official, it is true. They are aware that communities have political reasons for exaggerating or diminishing census figures and this greatly enhances their later discussion of Christian-Muslim relations in the Lebanon. Here as elsewhere they offer a new interpretation with brilliant reasoning and supreme awareness of subtleties.
Although Courbage and Fargues' book is a revelation, presented with supreme concision and accuracy, there are three possible points of criticism. Firstly, although the book claims to be a description of Christians and Jews under Islam, the Jews are given relatively short shrift. Although this is no doubt due to the fact that Jewish communities were generally much smaller than their Christian counterparts, a fuller consideration would have greatly enhanced the book. Secondly, the authors insist on using the archaic and inaccurate terms "Monophysite" and "Nestorian" when they are referring to the Oriental Orthodox Churches and Assyrian Church of the East. While this may seem pedantic, the contemporary communities themselves find the former terms derogatory. Fortunately, however, the authors have presented the causes of their division from the western Church fairly and this in itself is quite rare. Thirdly and finally, the cover price for this hardback tome is prohibitive. This book deserves to be read by everyone interested in Christians in the Middle East, not merely those who can afford to spend forty pounds on a slim volume. So wait for a paperback, or else order the book through your local library. For here at last is a book that does justice to the lost Christianity of the East, and it has done it not through sentimental evocation, but through the pursuit of truth based on the highest standard of proof.