The contiguity between churches and mosques in the early Islamic Bilad al-Sham

[ by Greg McMurray — a gest post hosted by Charlws Cameron ]

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It’s ny pleasure to offer ZP readers who may be interested in early and surprising Christian-Muslim relations this essay by our friend Greg McMurray. It is admittedly long, and hey, gets richer as it goes deeper. Enjoy. — Charlws Cameron

Sometime in the mid-7th century, the powerful Umayyad warlord Muawiyah traveled with his family to a simple Christian monastery. Nestled along the Great Zab River in the old province of Adiabene, the monks of Bar Qoqa were well known for their works of wonder. During the Arab conquest, the monastery was a refuge for surrounding villagers who miraculously escaped death because of the prayerful intercession of the holy men. The great Arab commander’s visit was to employ some of that same divine protection for his own family and probably for his own imperial power.

There was one incident at the monastery where, while under siege from invaders, the rising flood waters of the river almost swept the Christians away until the surge was stopped by prayer at the last critical moment. Another story has the Arabs chasing the Christians into a church with no provisions except for a jar of water. The monks blessed the water, and it was transformed into a limitless supply as the Arabs were driven off by other divine actions of fire and fury and phenomenon.(1)

Perhaps the region’s most famous miracle working monk was the Assyrian saint Rabban Hormizd . According to the ancient accounts he had a habit of baptizing “heretics”, which was how they referred to the Muslim Arab invaders. When criticized for it, he responded that baptism was not for believers but for the non-believers. To prove it, Hormizd blessed some water to baptize two children, one Christian and the other Muslim. When he approached the Christian child, the water was mysteriously lost, but when he approached the Muslim child the water miraculously returned to the vessel. Vindicated, he continued baptizing that Muslim child and other Arab “heretics”(2)

Hormizd was also extremely proficient at combining baptism with raising the dead. One particularly fortunate soul was the son of the governor of Mosul. At or around the year 640 AD, he healed the young boy while washing him with blessed baptismal waters. The Governor was so grateful that he immediately submitted to be baptized with this “baptism of repentance… as John gave the baptism of repentance unto the people of the Jews.” The Governor then built the famous monastery bearing the name of Rabban Hormizd.(3)

It was amidst this whirlwind of wondrous baptisms and revivifications that the Caliph Muawiyah entered a few decades later with his daughter. According to the old chronicles she was suffering from a withered arm. After being baptized and prayed over by one of the monks, she was healed as well, confirming for the entire Muslim world the miraculous efficacy of Christian baptism.(4) The “Commander of the Faithful” (as Tom Holland reports him to be called), who counted his Jacobite Christian subjects as full-fledged members of the Faithful, understood that, since the majority of the people he now ruled over were Christians, it would be helpful to work with them and with their beliefs. It was also a shrewd policy to use their theological grievances with the Byzantines to pull them closer to the Arabs and to expand his empire.(5)

Now that we’ve reviewed this brief foray into early Christians baptizing Muslims, we have sufficient background to meander through another related topic which Charles and I briefly discussed this week. That would be the relationship between churches and mosques in Syria after the Islamic conquest, as studied by art historian Professor Mattia Guidetti. Guidetti has observed that early mosques in the major cities often were located alongside churches, and, in some rare cases, inside churches. For our purposes we should direct our attention to the city in western Syria, known to the Faithful as Emessa, but now referred to these days as Homs. Guidetti writes,

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