English/Theology

Who Was ‘Ammār al-Baṣrī and What Did He Say?

If I told you that ‘Ammār al-Baṣrī was Egypt’s most famous football (soccer) player in the twentieth century, you as a typical Western reader would believe me on my word. But he was not. Again, if I told you that ‘Ammār al-Baṣrī was a minister under Saddam Hussein, you would believe me on my word. But he was not. Again, if I told you that ‘Ammār al-Baṣrī was a famous Muslim scholar some centuries ago, you would believe me on my word and would add: this time you must certainly be right. But he was not.

‘Ammār al-Baṣrī was a nineth century Arab Christian theologian—“al-Baṣrī” suggests that he was born in the city of Basrah in Iraq. He was one of the first Christian theologians to write in the context of islam, which makes him a rather original thinker of lasting significance, who especially deserves to be read by Western Christians who are now often for the first time stimulated or forced to think about their relationship towards muslims and islam. ‘Ammār al-Baṣrī’s wrote his main work Kitāb al-Burhān [The Book of Proof] in Arabic, but Wageeh Y F Mikhail (c) willemjdewit P1070185this can no longer be an argument to leave it unread. My Egyptian colleague Wageeh Y. F. Mikhail here at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo has translated the work in an appendix to his doctoral dissertation and introduces ‘Ammār and analyzes his book in the dissertation itself. Just click here with your mouse to download the pdf of the dissertation and to step into the world of nineth century Christianity.

Famous, for example, is ‘Ammār’s argument for the Trinity over against the islamic claim of the absolute oneness of God. Muslims would agree that God is living and speaking, but ‘Ammār points out that this means that He has Life and Word and that the One God thus by necessity exists as a Trinity: the One (the Father) who has Word (the Son) and Life (the Spirit). The following is part of his argument:

I say [to a Muslim]: “Tell me, oh you who believe in the ‘One,’ do you say He is ‘living?’” If he says, “Yes,” then we say: “Is it a life of His own in His eternal essence, as it is in the soul of a human beingーa life in its substantial essence and part of him? Or, is this life accidental, like the life of the body which has a life that is other than it, and has no life in the essence of its substance?” If he says, “Life is in Him, in His eternal essence,” then, he says what we say.

But, if he says, “His life is neither essential nor eternal, nor accidental,” we say, “Then you do not want to confirm in the word ‘living’ a life which is essential, eternal, and not accidental.” If he says: “Yes,” we say: “How do you claim the name ‘the living One’ while the name ‘living’ is derived from life? We call a man ‘living’ as long as life is in him; but when his living spirit leaves him, we call him ‘dead.’ Since you call him ‘living,’ where his life is neither essential nor permanent nor accidental on account of nature or food, therefore, you should call earth ‘living although it has no life; and water “living” even though it is without life; and also the air, fire, and sky, and other inanimate things. We only know that a thing is called by what it has, not by what it does not have. Therefore, these four elements and their like are not called ‘living,’ for they have no ‘life’ in their essences. Further, animals are not called ‘speaking,’ because there is no speech in their essences. But we call the soul of a human being ‘living’ and ‘speaking’ because it has ‘life’ and ‘word’ in its essence.”

It has become clear that he does not call Him “living” since he does not affirm that He has “life” and “word”ーjust as we have previously explained. He deprives his God of “life” and makes Him inanimate. May God be greatly exalted above that!

‘Ammār al-Baṣrī concludes his work with a section on eschatology and deals mainly with just one question, which to many Western Christians today may sound rather secondary: will we eat and drink in eternal life? For Muslims, it would diminish the goodness of eternal life if we did not enjoy food and drink and sexual intercourse in it, but for ‘Ammār it is clear that these things only have their value in the current imperfect world:

Thus it has become evident that Godーmay His name be blessedーhas shown in His Book that He will magnify the place of His reward, away from any weakness or need, and that their, [the faithful], life is sustained by something other than themselves. And [it has become evident] that He makes their body in that world perfect strength, not weak, not sustained by food or drinking and not subjected to growth on that account, as it grows from a small state to a bigger one. Instead, it will remain [sustained] by the power of the Creator, and not by something weaker than itself which is inferior to it. Therefore, the gladness of the creature with its Creator will last forever and ever; it will remain in one perfect state, a state that is not sustained with the taste of different kinds of food, or different kinds of drink, or the multiplicity of sexual intercourse, even if these things are different and multiple. Instead, [God] will rejoin them in rank, power, dignity, endurance, and eternal joy with His holy angels forever and ever.

By the end of his dissertation, Wageeh speaks of double mission of the Arabic church: not only “explaining Christianity to Muslims,” but also “explaining Islam to the Western church.” Moreover, he calls the Arabic church to formulate its own creed in the context of islam (which has never happened so far, but for which ‘Ammār al-Baṣrī’s work may be helpful starting point):

Likewise, there is a need to question the relevance of Greek theological formulations in the Arab context. How can Greek theological formulae, created to address Greek concerns and theological issues raised in a Greek milieu, be useful today in a Muslim context? Were not these same articulations a major factor in dividing Christians before the advent of Islam? Arguably, the absence of any Arab Christian creedal formula, with Islam in mind, is a grievous lack. This absence is especially unhealthy given that Islam is a creedal religion in which the Shahādah [Islamic creed] is repeated five times a day.

One of the primary needs of the church in the Arab world today is to formulate statements of faith that speak to the challenges of Islam. In such an attempt, a work such as Kitāb al-Burhān would doubtless be of great importance.963 Its value comes from the fact that ‘Ammār maintained a balance between his Christian heritage and his contemporary Islamic context, and was able to reconcile his heritage with the inheritance of his Islamic culture.

When the modern Arab church succeeds in such a mission, it will thereby succeed in preserving its apostolic faith, having Arabicized it!

Just as I recommend Khaled Al Khamissi’s Taxi to you as first time visitors of Cairo—so that you understand that taxi drivers are not machines that work if you insert some cash, but are men full of wisdom even though they are perhaps not able to share it because you don’t speak their language—, likewise I recommend ‘Ammār al-Baṣrī’s Kitāb al-Burhān to you Western professors who are going to the Middle East expecting that there is much to teach and little to learn (except perhaps some exotic details of everyday life that make good pictures)—could it be that, at least in some respects, the Arabs are centuries ahead of Europeans and Americans?

– – –

See: Wageeh Y. F. Mikhail, “‘Ammār al-Baṣrī’s Kitāb al-Burhān: A Topical and Theological Analysis of Arabic Christian Theology in the Ninth Century” (PhD thesis, University of Birmingham, 2013).

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