Abū Qurrah’s Theology of the Christian Practice of Venerating the Holy Icons


Theodore Abu QurrahTheodore Abū Qurrah lived in a world different than his not so-distant ancestors. The hegemony of the Christians in the Near East gave way to a new hegemony that proved challenging culturally and theologically to the “natives.” In a century Syriac and Greek in the Near East yielded their dominance to Arabic1, the language of the Muslims who carried with them a new scripture, the Qur’ān, claimed by Muslims to be God’s word delivered to their Prophet Muhammad at the hands of the Angel Gabriel. Christians had established certain practices, which they probably took for granted, by the time the new “liberating” army of the new “Christian heresy”2 arrived at the door steps of the three ancient Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. However, this was neither a “liberating” army nor a new “Christian heresy” but an expanding army with a new and challenging religious message: God is but one and has revealed his last and “undistorted and uncorrupted” scripture at the hands of Muhammad, the last and final prophet in a series of revered prophets including Jesus, the Son of Mary, whom Christians proclaim to be the Son of God.

Christian practices encompassed a whole list of traditions which were adopted from Judaism and native cultures and religions in which Christians found themselves. No doubt these traditions were adapted to the needs of the Christian faithful to portray certain theological truth and beliefs. One, however, cannot deny Christian innovation in creating new and necessary Christian customs. The heirs of Judaism were able to justify the establishment of a new spiritual movement which called for the veneration of the cross and icons of Christ, Mary, and the saints despite the fact that, on the surface, this practice seemed to defy God’s stern and unwavering commandment,

“I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them. For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishments for their fathers’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation but bestowing mercy, down to the thousandth generation, on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Deut. 5, 6-10)

In a world dominated by Christians numerically and politically, this new spiritual movement flourished not without its challenges coming from a Jewish3 minority. The scale, however, was tipped not to the advantage of the Jews but to this new dominant force whom the Christians could no longer ignore owing to the fact that it was changing the face of the dominant Christian landscape to a Muslim one and was intimidating Christians into conversion or, at best, stopping to follow traditional practices such as venerating the cross and holy icons.

The controversialist Melkite theologian Theodore Abū Qurrah faced this challenge head on in his work “A Treatise on the Veneration of the Holy Icons4” (ميمر في إكرام ألايقونات)5. He was neither the first to address the issue nor was he the first to put forward the theological arguments6 favoring the current and widespread Christian practice of prostrating to the holy icons. He followed in the footsteps of his teacher John of Damascus7 whom he had never known except through studying his writings while staying at Mar Sabas8. His innovation, nevertheless, was that he faced this challenge in Arabic, the language that was no longer that of the invading Muslims but is now the dominant language of the Jews, Christians and others who lived under the governance of the Muslim Califs despite the fact that they remained numerically superior to the Muslim populace until the twelfth century9. Ignace Dick states that, “Abuqurra constitue un chaînon qui relie les Pères Grecs aux écrivains arabes chrétiens. Il est …héritier de la pensée de St Jean Damascène qu’il a suivi de près au monastère de St Sabbas … Abuqurra s’addresse en arabe à ses compatriotes qui avaient commencé à mettre en cause la légitimité du culte des icônes…10” According to Sidney Griffith, “Theodore was the first Orthodox scholar whose name we know regularly to write Christian theology in Arabic11”.

Since Abū Qurrah wrote in a specific historical context, it is opportune for the sake of this presentation to spend some time elaborating on the circumstances that led to the composition of the text under study, “A Treatise on the Veneration of the Holy Icons.” This historical exposition will shed some light on the Qur’ān and Muslim views regarding the issue at hand. This paper will end with an analysis of Abū Qurrah’s composition allowing the reader a glimpse into the theological thought of one of the first Orthodox Church Fathers who wrote in Arabic. Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was the first “Muslim” to order the destruction of figural images. This interesting biographical information was recorded by Azarḳī (d. 858 A.D.) who wrote The History of Mecca. This book was translated from Arabic into German by Ferdinand Wüstenfeld in 1861 under the title Die Chroniken der Stadt Mekka. According to Azarḳī, while in Mecca at the Ka’ba, Muhammad orders the destruction of all the images except the one that he has under his hand; all images to be destroyed except the image of Mary and the child Jesus sitting on her lap. “Zuerst fiel Muhammed eine hölzerne Taube in die Hände, die zerbrach er und warf sie zu Boden; dann traf sein Blick auf die Gamälde12 an den Wänden und Pfeilern und er gab Befehl, sie mit nassen Tüchern auszuwischen, nur das Bild der Mutter Maria mit dem Jesuskinde bedeckte er mit seinen Händen un sprach: ‘wischet alle Bilder aus mit Ausnahme dessen, welches unter meinen Händen ist;’ und es blieb erhalten, bis es bei dem Brande der Ka’ba unter Ibn el-Zubeir zerstört wurde13”. What is most intriguing is that the Prophet of Islam protects the destruction of an icon of Mary with Jesus on her lap! Based on this narrative about the Muslim Prophet, one may conclude that the actions of Muhammad do not warrant any negative reactions against Christian icons especially the ones depicting Jesus and Mary. Furthermore, it would seem that his faithful followers would imitate his behavior and prevent these images from destruction, yet this was not the case.

The Qur’ān, the Holy Scripture of the Muslims, does not forbid images of any kind to be depicted. K. A. Creswell states, “Even at the present day the belief is very widely held that all forms of painting are forbidden by explicit passages in the Koran, but this is a popular error for no such passages exist, as orientalist have frequently pointed out14”. The wide spread beliefs about Islam’s iconoclastic tendencies can be placed, according to Anthony Welch, under two headings: the religion does not allow any kind of images of living beings for Muslims and non-Muslims and is determined to destroying such figural images belonging to either group who finds itself under its protection15. Nonetheless, there are many historical evidence that the burgeoning Muslim society enjoyed a varied array of figural images. The negative tendencies toward such an art does not seem to be part of the doctrine the early Islamic period. While the Qur’ān seems to be silent on the issue, the canonical, Islamic traditions (aḥādith) are not. Both Muslim Scriptures, however, are explicitly against any idol worshiping and any hints thereof.

The aḥādith are important to Muslims who consider them along with the Qur’ān as inspired scriptures. They are the traditional sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and are authoritative in the world of Islam second to the Qur’ān. The doctrine forbidding the depiction of anything living comes from these authoritative Islamic scriptures. In his treatise on the veneration of the holy icons, Abū Qurrah incidentally records Muhammad’s traditional saying concerning the Muslim doctrine on painting figural images, “A rebuke is due to those who say that whoever makes a portrait of anything living will be required on resurrection day to blow the spirit into its portrait” (توبيخ للذين يقولون إنّ من صوّر شيئا حيّا كلّف يوم القيامة أن ينفخ الروح في صورته)16. According to this Muslim teaching, the one who creates figural images will be demanded on the day of resurrection to blow into them the breath of life. The creative power is reserved only to God and cannot be presumed by any created being even by the act of depicting figural images. The objection of the aḥādith to the depiction of the figural images seem to be the source of negative reaction17 to such art. In his article entitled “The Lawfulness of Painting in Early Islam,” Creswell seems to be pointing to the reason that may have influenced the aḥādith in rejecting the depiction of figural images. He concludes his article saying, “the prohibition against painting did not exist in early Islam, but that it grew up gradually partly as a result of the inherent temperamental dislike of Semitic races for representation art, partly because of the influence of important Jewish converts and partly because of the fear of magic18”. Despite the prohibition that is found in the aḥādith, Muslims artists continued their artistic endeavors and representational figures were not absent from their works. The aḥādith in question were not per se against the depiction of religious figures only but all images of animals and humans as well.

The Cross and Christian icons are visual Christian creeds. The Muslim rulers took issue with what the cross stands for and the icons depicting Mary and Jesus openly profess. The cross is a visible sign of the crucifixion of Jesus which the Christian and Muslim communities well understand. However, their scriptures do not tell the same story. Christian scriptures, specifically the four Gospels, culminate in the death of Jesus the Messiah on the cross and his resurrection after three days. Through His incarnation, which encompasses his crucifixion and resurrection, the Son of God brought salvation to the world. Therefore, the symbol of the cross for the Christian tells the salvific story of God who dies for his creatures in order to bring them back into his fold. In opposition to the Christian scriptures, the Qur’ān denies the crucifixion of Jesus (see an-Nisā’ (4): 157). God does not have a consort or a son. Jesus in the Qur’ān is not the Son of God but rather the Son of Mary (see al-Mā’idah (5): 17, 72-75, 116). Albeit, he is one of the greatest prophets. In Qur’āninc prophetology, the enemies of the prophet never overcome and kill him for God always vindicates him. Since the Qur’ān professes that Issa (Jesus) the son of Mariam (Mary) is a prophet, therefore, God vindicates him and does not allow his enemies to kill him. Accordingly, the cross is a symbol that goes against this Qur’āninc doctrine and must be rejected. Christian icons depicting Jesus and Mary are more than figural images of human beings; they are theologically ladened. They are visual declarations of the divinity of Jesus which the Qur’ān obviously denies. Therefore, they must be rejected by the faithful Muslims (المؤمنون).

With the Arabicization and Islamization of the concurred territories that started with the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik, symbols depicting religious non-Islamic doctrines were bound to be rejected and destroyed19. However, there are no historical evidence that the Muslims carried systematic destruction and annihilation of crosses and icons20, yet there are historical evidence that some Christians refused to honor the cross and icons and went as far as distorting figural images in their churches21. Abū Qurrah witnesses to the former practice, he writes “Abba Yannah, our brother, you who are here with us in Edessa, have informed us that many Christians are abandoning the prostration to the icon of Christ our God…The same too with the icons of his saints…” ( إنك أخبرتنا يا أخانا أنبا ينّه المقدّس … أنّ كثيراً من النصارى يتركون السجود لصورة المسيح إلاهنا … وصور قدّيسيه )22. In the Greek speaking Christendom, Iconoclasm23 was due to a division in Christian beliefs whether the veneration of icons is a permissible Christian action or is it a new form of idol worshiping and a return to paganism. Unlike the Byzantine Iconoclasm, which was solely a Christian problem, in the territory dominated by Muslim rules “there do seem to have been disagreements over church policy about what stance to take in face of a strong Islamic reaction to the public veneration of icons. Some leaders may well have been in favor of down-playing the traditional devotions for the sake of peace. After all, in the world of Islam, unlike that of Byzantium, both cross and icon go together as the public symbols which elicit the reproaches of Muslims and Jews. And the most likely explanation for the defacement of the figures of living beings in Christian churches in the late eighth century in Palestine and Transjordan is that Muslims sometimes worshipped in Christian churches at the time, and this circumstance went a long way toward explaining the rise of local Christian iconophobia, rather than a specific concern for the policies of the synod of Hiereia (754)24

Theodore Abū Qurrah witnesses to this iconophobia25 phenomena in the world of Islam when he gave the reasons for writing his treatise on the veneration of the holy icons. The reason for discontinuing this traditional practice on part of some Christians is that “Anti-Christians, especially ones claiming to have in hand a scripture sent down from God, are reprimanding them for their prostration to these icons, and because of it they are imputing to them the worship of idols, and the transgression of what God commanded in the Torah and the Prophets, and they sneer at them” (ذلك لأنّه لا يزال مخالفو النّصرانيّة، ولا سيّما من يدّعي أنّ بيده كتابا منزلا من الله، يعنّفونهم لسجودهم لهذه الصور، وينحلونهم لذلك عبادة الأثوان، ومخالفة لما أمر الله به في التوراة والأنبياء، ويتهزّأون بهم)26.

Theodore’s defense of venerating the holy icons is not a theological treatise per se similar to his other writings27 but it is ladened with theological notions that were discussed in the circle of the Muslims and Christian “theologians” (متكلّمون)28 of his day. He probably wrote his essentially pastoral treatise while he was still the bishop of Ḥarrān between the years 800 and 81229 in response to Abba Yannah who brought to his attention that many Christians are succumbing to the pressure induced by Anti-Christians, especially the Muslims. This concerned Shepherd explicitly addresses members of his community who are believing Christians yet are abandoning the traditional act of prostrating to icons because Anti-Christians accuse them of idolatry and abandoning God’s law as found in the Torah and the Prophets, and they ridicule them (يتهزّأون)30. Furthermore, this tract provides the necessary theological arguments needed to strengthen the faith of those Christians who may be at the verge of falling into the snare of Anti-Christians polemicists by answering what the author envisions to be the arguments against the Christian practice of venerating the holy icons. Two other communities are also addressed; the Jews on the one hand by the epithet “O Jew” (يا يهودي), and the Muslims who were not referred to by name but alluded to by reference to Muslim scriptural passages and theological beliefs on the other. However, the epithet “O Jew” used by Theodore in all probability is a “stand-in for the Muslims, who are the real adversaries of the piece. Presumably, in the Islamic context it was safer to attack the Jews31”. This Melkite writer strove to show that the act of prostrating to the holy icons does not go against God’s commandment as found in the Old Testament, is reasonable and a duty to all those who believe in the divinity of Christ.

The veneration of the holy icons, especially that of Christ and his mother, is theologically ingrained in the incarnation of God. Due to the historical fact of God becoming man, it is now possible for those who believe in the Divine and Human natures of the Messiah our God to portray Him in an icon. Abū Qurrah states, “In his compassion, for the sake of our salvation, he made it possible for there to be an icon of him, due to his incarnation from the Holy Spirit and from the virgin Mary” (المسيح إلاهنا أمكن أن يكون له صورة لتجسّده من روح القدس ومن مريم العذراء برحمته من أجل خلاصنا)32. The Word of God became incarnate and dwelt among us and continues to do so figuratively in icons. The complaint of Abba Yannah was directed toward the many Christians who “were abandoning the prostration to the icon of Christ our God” (أنّ كثيرا من النصارى يتركون السجود لصورة المسيح الاهنا)33. The dogma of the divinity of the Messiah is one of the main tenants that distinguishes Christianity from Islam and other religions. It is a point of contention between Christians and Muslims, who while respecting Jesus as a prophet deny that he is the Son of God. Muslims believe in one God and avoid polytheism (إشراك بالله) or any hint of it like a plague and accuse Christians of being polytheists (مشركون بالله عزّ وجلّ) for believing that the Messiah is God. The Melkite theologian living in the midst of a Muslim hegemony, did not shy away from proclaiming this foundational Christian dogma. He professes that God has a Son (لله ابنا34) who is his equal, of his very being (هو عدله من جوهره35), and who is the Messiah our God (المسيح إلاهنا36). Furthermore, although this Son is born of God, God is not before Him (هذا الابن المولود من الله، ليس الله بأقدم منه37).

Interpreting the “Torah” typologically, Theodore provides scriptural passages to show that events in the Old Testament prophesy the coming of God in the flesh and are “icons” of his incarnation. He refers to the tablets of the law upon which were written the decalogue as “the greatest, the most famous icon” (الصورة العظمى المشهورة:لوحي الناموس)38. Through this icon “painted” by the very finger of God, God has spoken to the Israelites. Theodore provides all the elements necessary to make his theological argument based on the very scripture that Jews, Christians and Muslims are called to revere: the tablets, the finger of God and the Words engraved on the tablets foreshadow Mary, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus son of Mary and God respectively. Therefore, the tablets of the law are an icon that prefigures the very incarnation of the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit and from the Virgin Mary at the end of time39. Furthermore, As the tablets of the Law, i.e. the words of God, were put in the ark of the covenant, so too was the Word of God conceived in the womb of Mary. Theodore eloquently says, “The ark of the Lord is Mary, in whom the Word of God dwelt incarnate, who was divinized. Sin did not impair her, just as the ark was of unimpaired wood, covered with gold inside and out” (وتابوت الربّ هي مريم التي سكنتها كلمة الله متجسّدة، التي ألّهت فلم تشوشها الخطيئة، كما أنّ التابوت كانت من عود غير مشوش، مغشاة بالذهب من داخل وخارج)40. Abū Qurrah ingeniously points out that the Prophets who bowed to the tablets of the Law and the Levites who made prostration in front of them were in fact venerating an icon for the incarnation of Christ,
the eternal Word of God. He, therefore, strengthens his theological position in favor of the Christian act of venerating the holy icons by basing it on the actions of the Prophets and the Levites.

By extension the icons of the saints are venerated. “In the Holy Spirit they [the saints] were emboldened to enter into the arena to participate with him in his sufferings. By perseverance they enhanced the embellishment of his cross41 and became leaders of honor for the believers, the memory of whom stirs them to imitate them, and to crowns of victory like theirs” (قدّيسيه الذين تصلّبوا بروح القدس، فجروا في ميدانه وشاركوه في أوجاعه، وتزيّنوا صبرا بحلية صليبه، وصاروا أئمة كراما للمؤمنين، ذكرهم يهيّجهم إلى الإقتداء بهم، والفوز بمثل إكليلهم)42. Those who were strengthened by the Holy Spirit and walked the trail of Golgotha in imitation of their Master become encouraging examples for other Christians and entice them to keep their focus on the ultimate reward reserved for those who persevere until the end. These saints, who participated in the suffering on the cross, deserve to be honored because the cross adorns them. This instrument of death became, with the death of the Messiah upon it, a beauty mark for the believer.

The physical act of prostration to an icon is the same whether it depicts Jesus the Son of God or a saint. Despite the similarities in the actions, there is a major difference in the meaning. The act of prostration (سجود) to an icon is not idol worshiping for the Christian believer is not worshiping the canvas and the paint. The intention of the worshiper makes the act itself intelligible. Abū Qurrah makes his point by referring to the Muslim act of prostration. He asks an unidentified person whom for obvious reasons he envisions to be a Muslim believer a rhetorical question, “Tell us, do you make the act of prostration only to the thing on which you put your knees and forehead, or to what your intention wills in putting down your knees and forehead in the act of making a bow?” (أخبرنا: السجود إنّما تجعله للشيء الذي تقع الركبتان عليه والجبهة، أم لما تريده النيّة بوقوع الركبتين والجبهة وبالإنحناء؟)43 He finally comes to his main point that “the act of prostration goes to what the intention has in mind in the flexing of the knees, putting down the forehead, and the direction one faces” (فلا بدّ للسجود من أن يكون لما تريده النيّة بثني الركبتين ووقوع الجبهة والموضع المستقبل)44.

The intention of the believer makes the act of prostration intelligible. Still yet, this same act has two meanings; to worship God and only God, and to give honor to the apostles, saints, martyrs represented in the icon. The Christian act of prostration to an icon of the Messiah, for example, is not an act of worship of the panels or the colors but rather is an act of worship to the Incarnate God of whom it is a representation45. The same act of prostration to an icon of Saints Peter and Paul is an act of paying homage to these apostles of Christ and not of worship. Furthermore, by honoring Christ’s icon, the Christian believer makes him happy and by honoring the icons of his saints, the worshiper honors God because his saints “became vessels of the Holy Spirit, who does not leave them, neither in their life nor in their death” (لأنّهم صاروا أوعية لروح القدس الذي لا يزايلهم، لا في حياتهم، ولا في موتهم)46. The icons of Christ and of his saints have contact with their subjects whom they depict similar to the likeness in which God appeared to the prophets. This is so to the point that Abū Qurrah argues, “To look at the icons of them [the saints], even if the icons have no contact with them, is like looking at them themselves” (وكأنّهم ينظرون إلى أولائك بنظرهم إلى صورهم، وإن كانت الصّور ليست موصولة)47.

Honoring the saints by venerating their icons is a source of blessing for the believer for God, in his goodness, has made his saints “intermediaries between God and man; in both their life and their death they make him pleased with man” (وسطاء بين الله والناس، يرضونه عن الناس في حياتهم وموتهم)48. The act of prostration entices the saint to intercede to God on behalf of the believer. This is a further justification that there is a direct link between the icon and the saint of whom it is a representation. This act of veneration is greatly rewarded by God. The saints become the believer’s representative at God’s gate, raise his petitions, strengthen them, and ask God for their fulfillment49. God has made the saints intermediaries between Him and man in order to honor them and to raise the interest in others to follow in their footsteps and be rewarded with the same honor. Furthermore, His saints have also the power to appease God’s anger by their supplications. The benefit procured from the veneration of the icons of the saint is great; not only does the saint pray on behalf of the believer but also knows what is best for the one who is honoring him. “This is a great blessing which the one who makes a prostration acquired effortlessly. Who would not covet it?” (وهذه نعمة عظيمة ينالها الساجد صافية. فمنلا يحرص عليها؟)50

The icons depicting those who found favor with God and whose prayers God heeds are a source of miracles. These miraculous icons are a sure sign of God’s pleasing attitude toward Christians who worship His Son and honor His saints. These miracles are no doubt performed not by the powers of canvas and paint but rather by the power of God Almighty. Oftentimes myron flows from the icons of the saints and this is done by the power of the omnipotent God51. Furthermore, graves, relics and icons of the saints, have the power to drive out demons52. Theodore recalls a story of a blind man who gained his sight when he smeared his eyes with the blood that flowed from an icon of Jesus on the cross after it had been stabbed with a lance53. Christians do not need such miracles to remain steadfast in their faith. However, God continues to grant them, “for the sake of the outsiders, and the lowest rank of the Christians” (في حال البرّانيين وسفلة النصارى)54.

Venerating the holy icons is incumbent upon all Christians. To reject this tradition because of its repulsiveness to the outsiders necessitates the rejection of all Christian beliefs and traditions which the Muslims and the Jews find to be loathsome. This includes the rejection of the indispensable Christian beliefs of the incarnation, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, the Trinitarian dogma, Baptism, the Eucharist and all the other Christian Mysteries. Who of the outsiders would not say that the Christians are gone mad for believing that “God has a Son who is of his equal, of his very being” (لله ابنا هو عدله من جوهره), “this son born of God, God is not prior to him” (إنّ هذا الابن المولود من الله، ليس الله بأقدم منه),“the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, each one of them is perfect God, and not three gods but one God” ( إنّ الآب والابن وروح القدس كل واحد منهم إله كامل وليسوا ثلاثة آلهة، بل إله واحد), the eternal Son descended “into the womb of Mary in the latter days,” became incarnate and was born from her (حلول هذا الابن الأزلي في بطن مريم في آخر الأيام، وتجسده ومولده منها), bread and wine become “Christ’s flesh and his blood” (لحم المسيح ودمه), and by being immersed in blessed water and brought out of it one emerges now as “the son of God, after having been a son of the flesh” (صار ابنا لله بعد أن كان ابن لحم)55.

Veneration of the holy icons along with other Christian beliefs and traditions are inherited from the times of the Apostles despite the fact that some of them may not be expressly found in the Old and New Testaments. This is not a novelty custom practiced here and there but rather it is a universal tradition found in all the churches and witnessed to by Church Fathers such as St. Athanasius, the fathers of Jerusalem, Eusebius, and St. Gregory56. The attestation of the Church Fathers to this practice is to be highly esteemed for they “have a high rank in the church, above all the ranks after the rank of the apostles and the prophets” (للمعلمين مرتبة عالية، درجتهم في الكنيسة فوق مراتبها كلها، بعد مرتبة السّلّيحيّين والأنبياء)57. Christians who continue to follow this tradition walk in the footsteps of these respectable teachers.

It may not be expressly found in the Old Testament, but the veneration of the holy icons is scripturally based and has precedence. What is needed, however, is the right interpretation of scriptures. In Exodus 20, 2-5 and Deuteronomy 5, 6-10, God commands “…You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them…” Christians may seem on the surface to be breaking this commandment of God by prostrating to icons or to their bishops. However, by closely scrutinizing the scriptures, one is able to find the justification of their action.

God’s will is not to forbid believers to make any statutes or icons for He has commanded Moses, Solomon, Ezekiel to build such things. “Rather, he forbade them only the reproductions which they used to make and to worship, these used to draw them away from the knowledge of God and his worship” (بل إنما نهاهم عن الأشباه التي كانوا يصنعونها ويعبدونها وتحيد بهم عن معرفة الله وعبادته)58. God denounced the practice of making prostration to images because the Israelites were prone to leave Him for worshiping idols and did not distinguish between the two meanings of prostration: to worship and to give honor. “God adjusted these commandments to the Israelites, not as he willed, but according to what they could bear…” (الله هندس هذه الوصايا لبني إسرائيل، لا كما يريد هو، بل كما كانوا يطيقون)59. Christians are not abrogating God’s law but they are interpreting it correctly in light of Christianity which is a godly wisdom60, attained only in the Holy Spirit61, was proved true by the miracles performed by the apostles in the name of Christ62. Furthermore, they are following in the footsteps of Abraham, the mother of Solomon, Nathan, Bathsheba, Adoniah, Jacob and others who prostrated before other humans and man-made objects63. These prostrations are not by way of worship but by of way of honor. Furthermore, God would not have ordered the angels to prostrate to Adam if the act of prostration was meant only to worship. Far be it for God to mislead the angels into worshiping a creature! The correct interpretation of God’s will in light of Christianity and by scrutinizing the scriptures open the way to the Christian cult of the
veneration of icons without breaking God’s Law or nullifying it.

Finally, Abū Qurrah reminds his co-religionists that those who reject prostrating to the holy icons deprive themselves from what the others deserve. Christians are proud to portray Christ naked and hung on the cross. They declare openly that He is their God and their savior, their joy and hope. They worship him and honor him by honoring his saints. Their deeds will not go unnoticed and they deserve the best reward from him. “Therefore, blessed be anyone who makes an icon of Christ our Lord and makes prostration to his icon” (إذا طوبى لمن صوّر ربّنا وسجد لصورته)64 and to the icons of His saints. The legacy of Theodore Abū Qurrah lives on today in the Near East. Most Arabic speaking Christians today probably do not know his name or that he wrote Christian theological treatises in Arabic or that he defended the very practice of the veneration of icons of which they are very proud. The Arabic speaking Christians, marginalized today in the Near East and living under the dominance of the Muslims, continue to hang and venerate crosses, icons of Christ, Mary and the saints in their churches and in their homes. Can this fact be to the credit of Abū Qurrah?

Endnotes

1 See Sidney H. Griffith, “From Aramaic to Arabic; the languages of the Monasteries of Palestine in the Byzantine and Early Islamic Periods,” presented at symposium, “Palestine and Transjordan before Islam,” Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C. 28-30.

2 Sidney H. Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque, (Princeton, New Jersey: 2008) p. 30-31.

3 See Sidney Griffith, Theodore Abū Qurrah’s Arabic Tract on the Christian Practice of Venerating Images, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 105, No. 1 (Jan-Mar., 1985), pp. 59-62.

4 The English translation of Theodore Abū Qurrah’s work on the “Treatise on the Veneration of the Holy Icons” are taken from Sidney H. Griffith, trans. A Treatise on the Veneration of the Holy Icons Written in Arabic by Theodore Abū Qurrah, Bishop of Harran (c. 755 – c. 830 A.D.), Eastern Christian Texts in Translation, 1 (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 1997). Referred to herein as Griffith.

5 The Arabic texts are taken from the Arabic edition of Ignace Dick, maymar fī ikrām al-ayqūnat li-thawdhūrus abū qurrah (who died ca. 825 A.D.), Jounieh, 1986. Referred to herein as Dick.

6 See Sidney Griffith, Theodore Abū Qurrah’s On the Veneration of the Holy Icons, The Sacred Art Journal, vol. 13, no. 1 (March 1992), pp. 6-7.

7 See Ignace Dick, “Un continuateur arabe de saint Jean Damascène: Théodore Abuqurra, évêque melkite de Harran,” Proche Orient Chrétien 12 (1961), pp. 209-223, 319-332; 13 (1962), pp. 114-129.

8 On the biography of Abū Qurrah and his connection to Mar Sabas, see Sidney Griffth, “Reflections on the biography of Theodore Abu Qurrah,” Parole de l’Orient, vol. 18 (1993), pp 143-170; see John C. Lamoreaux, “The Biography of Theodore Abū Qurrah Revisited,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, no. 56 (2002), pp. 25-40.

9 See David J. Wasserstein, “Conversion and the ahl al-dhimma,” The New Cambridge History of Islam vol. 4 (2010), pp. 184-208.

10 Dick p. V.

11 Griffith p. 2.

12 Gemälde?

13 Ferdinand Wüstenfeld, trans, Die Chroniken der Stadt Mekka, Volume 4 (Leipzig 1961), p 105.

14 K. A. C. Creswell, K. A. C., “The Lawfulness of Painting in Early Islam,” Ars Islamica, vol. 11/12 (1946), pp. 159-160.

15 Anthony Welch, “Epigraphs as Icons: the Role of the Written Word In Islamic Art,” The Image and the Word: Confrontations in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Editor Joseph Gutmann, (Scholars Press:1977) p. 63.

16 Griffith p. 53; Dick, p. 132.

17 See Sidney Griffith, Crosses, Icons and the Image of Christ in Edessa: the Place of Iconophobia in the Christian-Muslim Controversies of Early Islamic Time, Transformations of Late Antiquity,

18 Creswell, “The Lawfulness of Painting in Early Islam”, p. 166.

19 See Sidney Griffith, Theodore Abū Qurrah’s Arabic Tract on the Christian Practice of Venerating Images, Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol 105, No. 1 (Jan – Mar, 1985); pp. 62-65.

20 The exception was the reign of Yazid II. See A. A. Vasiliev, The Iconoclastic Edict of the Caliph Yazid II, A. D. 721, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, vol. 9/10 (1956), pp. 23-47.

21 See G. R. D. King, Islam, Iconoclasm and the Declaration of the Doctrine, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 48, No. 2 (1985), pp. 267-277. Robert Schick, The Christian Communities of Palestine From Byzantine to Islamic Rule: A Historical and Archaeological Study, Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam, pp. 180-224. Sidney Griffith, Crosses, Icons and the Image of Christ in Edessa: the Place of Iconophobia in the Christian-Muslim Controversies of Early Islamic Times, Transformations of Late Antiquity, pp. 70-72.

22 Griffith p. 29; Dick p. 87.

23 See Patrick Henry, “What was the Iconoclastic controversy about?”, Church History, vol. 45 no. 1, (March 1976) pp. 16-31.

24 Sidney Griffith, Thedore Abū Qurrah A Treatise on the Veneration of the Holy Icons. P. 7

25 See Sidney Griffith, Crosses, Icons and the Image of Christ in Edessa: The place of Iconophobia in the Christian-Muslim Controversies of Early Islamic Times, transformations of late antiquity, p. 63-84.

26 Griffith, p 29; Dick p. 88.

27 See John C. Lamoreaux, trans., Theodore Abū Qurrah, Library of the Christian East, Vol. 1 (Provo, Utah: 2005).

28 See M. Abdel Haleem, Early kalām, History of Islamic Philosophy, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Oliver Leaman, Routledge History of World Philosophies, volume I, london and New York. pp. 71-88.

29 Sidney H. Griffith, Theodore Abū Qurrah’s Arabic Tract on the Christian Practice of Venerating Images, Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 105, no. 1 (Jan.-Mar. 1985) p. 58.

30 Griffith p. 31; Dick, pp. 87-88.

31 Griffith, Church in the Shadow of the Mosque, p. 70

32 Griffith p. 29; Dick, p. 87.

33 Griffith, pp 28-29; I. Dick p. 87.

34 Griffith p. 31; Dick p. 91.

35 Griffith p. 31; Dick p. 92.

36 Griffith p. 29; Dick p. 87.

37 Griffith p. 31; Dick p. 92.

38 Griffith p. 69; Dick p. 164.

39 Griffith p. 69; Dick. p. 164.

40 Griffith p. 70; Dick p. 165.

41 The author suggests a modified English translation: “By perseverance they were adorned with the ornament of his cross…”

42 Griffith p. 29; Dick pp. 87-88.

43 Griffith p. 57, Dick p. 140.

44 Griffith p. 57, Dick p. 141.

45 Griffith p. 58, p. Dick 142.

46 Griffith p. 89, Dick p. 204.

47 Griffith p. 63, Dick p. 152

48 Griffith p. 67; Dick p. 160.

49 Griffith p. 67; Dick p. 160.

50 Griffith p. 69; Dick p. 163.

51 Griffith p. 44; Dick p. 116.

52 Griffith pp. 44 & 73-74; Dick pp. 116 & 172.

53 Griffith p. 74; Dick pp. 173-174.

54 Griffith p. 72; Dick p. 170.

55 Griffith pp. 31-32; Dick pp. 91-93.

56 Griffith pp. 43-47; Dick pp. 114-121.

57 Griffith p. 47; Dick p. 122.

58 Griffith p. 54; Dick p. 134.

59 Griffith p. 81, Dick p. 188.

60 Griffith p. 32; Dick p. 95.

61 Griffith pp. 33-34; Dick p. 96.

62 Griffith p. 40; Dick p. 108.

63 Griffith pp. 50-53; Dick pp. 126-131.

64 Griffith p. 96; Dick p. 217.

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