In 762 A.D. Baghdad was founded as the capital of the Abbassid dynasty, and hence the Patriarch of the Church of the East moved his see from Seleucia-Ctesiphon to the capital in order to have easy access to the court of the caliphs. This early Abbassid period was a time of relative security and stability for the ancient Christian communities in Mesopotamia and Persia before the tide turned against them.
Patriarch Timothy I - Caliph al-Mahdi, the Debate
In 782 Patriarch Timothy I conducted his famous debate with Caliph al-Mahdi with whom he also struck a close friendship. They were intellectual equals, and the caliph even asked the patriarch to translate a work of Aristotle from Greek into Arabic, having already translated it into Syriac. Since the Christians were better educated than the Arab Muslims, many were allowed to serve in various capacities as doctors, teachers, engineers, administrators and translators (giving rise to the movement of Arabic philosophy).
The great debate between the caliph and the patriarch took place over a period of two days in 782 and is the earliest extant piece of Christian-Muslim dialogue that we possess. There are versions of it in Syriac and Arabic, with manuscripts housed in the Chaldean monastery of Alqosh in Northern Iraq, as well as the Vatican, and one copy that is kept at the University of Birmingham.
By associating with caliphs and other Muslim leaders and debating religious issues with them, Timothy was not only answering philosophical and theological challenges posed by Islam and the Koran but also strengthening his own Christian flock in their faith and facilitating peaceful coexistence between the two religious communities. Both debaters possessed fine rhetorical skills, but the patriarch outdid the caliph in his wider use of scriptures, both Christian and Muslim.
Content of the Debate: Common Ground and Differences
The two parties stressed the common ground between Christianity and Islam, particularly monotheism (though differently understood), as well as the prophethood, sinlessness and virginal birth of Jesus. But theological differences were also seriously discussed, especially the Trinity, which is wrongly interpreted in the Koran as a tritheism of God, Jesus and Mary. Another crucial issue was the divinity of Jesus, and in particular the title “Son of God” which the Koran denounces by interpreting it in a physical and carnal sense. The Koran also denies the crucifixion of Jesus as not befitting one of God’s prophets.
Both caliph and patriarch spent a long time debating the Islamic claim that the Bible was “distorted” by Christians and to which Timothy replied
“What possible gain could we have from corrupting our Bible?” Then, ending another long argument about the Bible supposedly foretelling the coming of Mohammed, the patriarch exclaimed: “If I had found such a prophecy, I would’ve left the Gospel for the Koran long ago.”
Conclusion: The Debate, a Model for Inter-faith Dialogue
Timothy then wrote a full account of his debate to Sergius, Metropolitan of Elam, in S.W. Iran, which led to other Christian leaders composing their own apologetics in the face of further challenges due to the increasing dominance of Islam in the region. This famous debate is perhaps a good model for us to follow in our own inter-faith dialogue, i.e., showing respect towards other parties, but at the same time, arguing honestly and without compromising our own beliefs.
(© JS, 2012, article previously published in Catholic Today,
of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, 15 June 2012, included here with permission)