Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians and the Early Muslim World. By MICHAEL PHILIP PENN. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion. Philadelphia: UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA PRESS, 2015. Pp. v + 294. $59.95, [pounds sterling]39.
Michael Penn's Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians and the Early Muslim World is a welcome contribution to the rapidly growing body of research on the Christian communities in the Muslim-ruled Middle East. It offers an insightful survey and analysis of the earliest (seventh- through ninth-century) Christian writings about Islam in Syriac, many of which are now conveniently available in Penn's own translations in the companion volume When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam (Oakland, CA: Univ. of California Press, 2015).
These sources, ranging from scribal colophons and marginalia to theological treatises, apocalypses, hagiographies, martyrologies, and historical works, allow Penn to challenge the widespread assumption--prevalent in modern popular discourse--of a perpetual and inevitable "clash of civilizations" between Christendom and Islam. Penn is careful to emphasize, however, that by denouncing the "clash of civilizations" model, he does not intend to endorse the opposite and equally flawed view that Islamic rule ushered in "a golden age of religious tolerance." Rather, his aim is to offer "a more accurate depiction of how the first Christians experienced Islamic rule" (p. 13). Penn argues that "Christianity and Islam's relationship to each other" was "characterized by a multiplicity of complex, heavily negotiated interactions occurring in a rapidly changing and highly permeable environment" (p. 13); that "Christianity and Islam no longer seem to have been locked in an inevitable conflict"; and--most significantly--that they have "exhibited too much permeability, interdependence, and convergence to be defined as firmly bound, independent entities, to say nothing of clashing civilizations" (p. 186).
Penn's study includes an introduction, four chapters--dealing with "memories of the Islamic conquests," "narratives of religious identity," "narratives of Islamic rulers," and "the continuum between early Christianity and early Islam" respectively--and a conclusion. Extensive endnotes (pp. 187-250), a comprehensive bibliography, and a helpful index add value to the volume.
Chapter one discusses how Syriac memories of the Islamic conquests changed over time, from the matter-of-fact eyewitness account of Byzantine losses and casualties, drafted as early as 637 (a fragmentarily preserved scribal note in the manuscript British Library Add. 14,461), to the Chronicle of Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, written ca. 842. Of all the sources examined, Dionysius's account is the only positive assessment of the Islamic conquests: uniquely, this author presents the conquests as a liberation from oppressive Byzantine rule. Penn points out that, unfortunately, many modern writers have read Dionysius's account "uncritically as an objective description of the conquests and their reception" and, as a result, have maintained that "Syriac Christians conspired with Muslims against the Byzantines and welcomed the Arabs with open arms" (p. 49). As Penn shows, this view is groundless and misleading, because it overlooks the evidence of the Syriac...