As Pope Francis visits Iraq, the real story may be mediaeval Baghdad’s inter-faith harmony


Baghdad in the 10th century. The Abbasid Caliph Al Mansur commissioned the building of a perfectly round city in 762, possibly as a tribute to Euclid


“Some people say there is a God; others say there is no God; the truth probably lies somewhere in between”
– W. B. Yeats

As Pope Francis continues his three-day visit to Iraq, much of the media has described it as an attempt to “support one of the world’s oldest Christian communities”. And then this further point is made, as in The New York Times: “The ranks of Iraq’s Christians have dwindled to roughly a third of the 1.5 million who lived there during the final years of Saddam Hussein’s rule”. A BBC correspondent said on Friday, March 5, that the Pope’s visit was meant to convey the sense that he is “the pastor of the suffering”.

When I read all of that my thoughts turn to the long, complex and generally mutually supportive history of the Christian-Muslim relationship in the Arab world. Not enough is written about that. But it should be, as a hopeful reminder that different faith communities can live together quite well.

I offer you the following from my doctoral research.

In the mediaeval period, after the coming of Islam in 622 AD, the Christian-Muslim rivalry was limited to their respective empires. The Christian Byzantines and the Muslim Caliphate (first ruled by the Umayyads and then by the Abbasids) were neighbours. They pursued a spirited “dialogue” (as scholar Jas Elsner terms it) over the words on coinage, over the use (or not) of images. This was prefatory to other symbolic struggles between Byzantine and Caliphate rulers even as their armies faced-off on the battlefield.

But Arab Christians lived in large numbers in the Muslim Caliphate. And they appear to have been given considerable freedom to speak their mind, including to criticise Islam and its core beliefs and practices.

Consider the case of the prominent iconophile Christian priest Theodore Abu Qurrah. He served as bishop of Harran, now Turkey, from 795 to 812 AD and was a student of John of Damascus. John, of course, was considered the founder of the eastern Christian tradition of anti-Islamic polemic. That gives us some sense of Abu Qurrah’s predilections.

Anyway, Abu Qurrah, who wrote in Arabic, mounted a defense of the use of images in worship, something the Muslims totally rejected. He deplored what he called the “unacceptable state of affairs”, which he claimed to have learned. This, Abu Qurrah said, was as follows: “that many Christians are abandoning prostration to the image of Christ…and to the images of his saints…because non-Christians, and especially those who claim to be in possession of a scripture sent down from God, rebuke them for their prostration to these images, and because of it impute to them the worship of the idols, and the infringement of what God commanded in the Torah and the prophets, and they sneer at them”.

That reference to a sneering, harrying group of people “who claim to be in possession of a scripture sent down from God” was not particularly subtle. Abu Qurrah was obviously talking about Muslims, who were increasingly blamed for the Christian re-think of image-veneration in Byzantium. It is striking that he could write so openly – and in Arabic, no less – about his views from within the Muslim Caliphate.

Remember Abu Qurrah was not some unknown crank. He was mentioned in treatises and books written by Arab Muslim scholars of the day. He is also known to have travelled widely, from Egypt to Armenia, and in the territories in between, preaching the Chalcedonian message and arguing with Jews, Muslims, and Jacobites alike. There is even some speculation that he visited the caliph’s court in Baghdad.

His freedom to speak his mind suggests the Muslim rulers were relaxed about dissonant Christian voices. That’s interesting in the context of the divisions of today. But then Baghdad, which was commissioned by the Abbasid rulers in 762, was built as the “city of peace”.