Islam, Holy Icons & St. John of Damascus


“May you live in interesting times,” is
a statement generally held to be a mild curse. However, St. John of Damascus lived in such
times. He is one of the great Church Fathers and
lived in an era when Orthodox doctrine was maturing, even as it confronted challenges
from both inside and outside the Church. One external challenge came through the rise
of Islam, with St. John becoming the first Christian writer to approach the new faith
from Arabia in a systematic manner. He defended the divinity of Christ against
the claims of Islam, and the veneration of Holy Icons against attacks both from Islam,
as well as, from within the Christian community. Born around AD 675, he came from a long aristocratic
line in Damascus. Both his father and grandfather had been protosymbulli,
or “chief financial officers” in the Christian Roman administration of this illustrious city,
the jewel of the Eastern part of the Empire. In order to understand the importance of St.
John of Damascus, we must go back a couple of generations, to mid-April 634. The Christian Roman Empire of the East had
been exhausted by a twenty-year long conflict with Persia. Both sides were severely weakened. In the meantime, a new power had arisen in
Arabia, which had racked up a series of rapid and impressive victories in the East. This was the army of Islam. The prophet Muhammad had died, but the military
advances continued. The Islamic armies set siege to Damascus and
nearly starved the city. At the helm of the Muslims was a ferocious
warrior named Khālid ibn al Walīd who had gained a reputation as the “Sword of Islam.” He had led the armies which unified Arabia
under the banner of the prophet Muhammad, and had scored impressive victories in Persia. Khālid, a harsh and war-like figure, now
had his sights set on Christian Roman territory and the renowned city of Damascus. As defeat seemed imminent, a small band of
Damascenes approached a deputy of the feared Muslim commander and negotiated fairly generous
terms of surrender. Christians would be allowed to worship in
their sacred places, which would not be harmed by the victors. Those who did not wish to live under Muslim
rule would be allowed three days’ safe passage to emigrate to other Christian Roman cities. Once the deal was struck, it was brought to
Khālid, who objected at first, because he thought the agreement was too lenient. But he then relented and accepted the surrender
of the city. Once the three days had passed, however, Khalid
changed his mind. He could not reconcile with the fact that
so many of the Christians had left the city. He ordered his troops to pursue the refugees
into the desert. Once they caught up with them on the sixth
day, they surrounded them, defeated the Christian soldiers fleeing with them, and slaughtered
indiscriminately, taking loot and prisoners back to Khalid. Damascus, the most important city in the eastern
part of the Christian Roman Empire was now under Muslim rule; an unthinkable disaster. But it could have been much worse. Among this small band of Damascene diplomats
who cut the deal with the Muslims, was Mansūr ibn Sarjūn, St. John’s grandfather. September 19th 634, when Damascus officially
fell under Muslim rule, is a crucial date in both Christian and Muslim history. This was no unimportant city. It was a highly cultured and intellectual
center that had an ancient history and an urbane citizenry. Up to this point, there was absolutely no
other city of its caliber in the nascent Islamic empire. This was the first real encounter of Muslim
rulers with a highly literate Christian population. On the side of the Christians, this was a
major loss. As the descendant of a privileged family,
John was given an excellent education. His father made sure that he studied not only
major Christian texts, but also those of classical Greece, and even those of the Muslims. He became fluent in Arabic and also in Greek. Reportedly, his education was furthered by
a Nestorian monk named Cosmas who had been a prisoner, but who was saved from execution
by John’s father on condition that he would tutor the boy. John absorbed like a sponge all that was presented
to him, mastering philosophy, religion, astronomy, geometry and music. He was definitely prepared to assume his father’s
position in the Umayyad court. However, John’s administrative career proved
to be short lived. He abandoned his prestigious post in the year
725, after only a few years of service in the Muslim court, to become a monk at the
monastery of Mar Saba in the desert of Palestine not far from Jerusalem. While the Umayyad Muslims were initially tolerant
of both Christians and Jews within their domains, they nonetheless encouraged them to convert
to Islam. In this, they were often successful for several
reasons; the most obvious reason was that they held power. For many, the fact that they ruled was sufficient
reason to believe that they were favored by God. For the more cynical, conversion was a simple
matter of social advancement; not only could one become exempt from the head-tax, the Jizya,
levied on People of the Book, but one could possibly get a better social or professional
position, as well. There were still more subtle reasons for the
conversion from Christianity to Islam. Islam claims to be the “completion” of
God’s revelation, which was first given to the Jews and subsequently to the Christians. The Qur’an recounts stories of Biblical
prophets like Moses, Jonah, David and others. Sometimes it affirms what Christians or Jews
believe, yet at other times it claims to “correct” their beliefs. From a Christian point of view, the most serious
of these claims was the accusation that Christianity exaggerated the importance of Jesus, whom
Islam considers a prophet, by declaring him to be God Incarnate. To the Muslims, as also to the Jews, this
is a blasphemous concept. The idea of the Incarnation of God in Jesus
proved to be a stumbling block for many. On the one hand, the Qur’an gave an explanation
for the ministry of Jesus as prophet, which Jewish converts could easily accept, while
on the other hand, Christians who were uncomfortable with the notion of God becoming man, found
in Islam an understanding, which still honored Jesus without declaring him God. Hence, the monk John desperately watched from
the monastery of his obedience both Christians and Jews converting to Islam. As an Orthodox Christian, this bothered him
deeply. He thought of Islam as a Christian heresy. Christology was still debated during his lifetime. Even though six Ecumenical Councils had made
public pronouncements on this crucial issue, there were still vociferous proponents for
alternative views within the Roman Empire and beyond. Although the Muslim advocacy of a fully human,
but prophetic Jesus did not seem that far-fetched to many people, it greatly offended those
who held to the Orthodox Faith, including St. John of Damascus. This issue of the Divinity of Christ motivated
St. John to defend the Orthodox faith with methodical and literate apologetics aimed
at a learned audience. His magnum opus is a defense of the faith
in three parts, called The Fount of Wisdom which begins with a philosophical introduction
that defines the terms on which he builds his argument. Then, he examines Christian heresies to which
he includes Islam. Finally, he concludes with an exposition on
the Orthodox Faith, which is encyclopedic in scope and stands out as the first systematic
philosophical defense of Christianity. His approach to Islam is the first erudite
Christian response to the new faith. It is not a mere polemic, since St. John was
steeped in Muslim culture and knew its texts well. He was fully aware of the criticisms leveled
against Christianity and answered them directly. While the fall of Damascus to the Muslims
was a major loss for the Christian Roman Empire of the East, St. John’s steadfastness in
the Orthodox Faith and his patient witness in the Umayyad Empire, provides something
of a silver lining, since this event created the need for a meticulous examination of belief
and a clear definition of Orthodoxy. St. John’s erudition in both classical Greek
and Christian texts would have served well in any case, however, it was his intimate
familiarity with Islam as a faith and with the intricacies of the Muslim Caliphate that
proved both unique and fortuitous in his writings. He was able to read the Qur’an from a Christian
perspective in his defense of Christianity. He fully understood that the Qur’an acknowledges
the virgin birth (Q 19: 28‒29) and calls Christ the “Word of God” and the “spirit
of God” (Q 4:171), yet asserts that God is not begotten, nor does he beget (Q 112:
2‒3) and that Jesus is a created “servant” of God (Q 43:59). He also saw that while the Qur’an holds
Jesus in high esteem as a righteous prophet, it claims that the crucifixion never took
place. It proposes instead, that a shadow of Jesus
was nailed to the cross in his place (Q 4:157) because God loved him and took Him to Himself
(Q 4:158). This is based on the Muslim understanding
that the execution of an innocent man is unjust, and God would not allow it, because He is
just. The crux of the matter is the Incarnation. This is a serious stumbling block for Islam. The Christian claims that Jesus is God and
part of the Holy Trinity leads Muslims to call them “associators,” which is a form
of idolatry that “associates” anything else with God. St. John uses the Qur’an itself in the defense
of Christianity and turns the argument around accusing Muslims of being “mutilators”
of the Godhead: ‘As long as you say that Christ is the Word
of God and Spirit, why do you accuse us of being Associators? For the word, and the spirit, is inseparable
from that in which it naturally has existence. Therefore, if the Word of God is in God, then
it is obvious that He is God. If, however, He is outside of God, then, according
to you, God is without word and without spirit. Consequently, by avoiding the introduction
of an associate with God you have mutilated Him. It would be far better for you to say that
He has an associate than to mutilate Him, as if you were dealing with a stone or a piece
of wood or some other inanimate object. Thus, you speak untruly when you call us Associators;
we retort by calling you Mutilators of God.’ This was far more useful than a mere refutation
of anti-Christian claims drawing from Biblical texts or appeals to classical philosophy. He based his arguments on Qura’nic thought
and turned the argument in on itself. There is no doubt that this has been an effective
witness, for St. John’s apologetics have survived the test of time and have been consulted
for centuries by students of theology. While St. John was involved in doctrinal discussions
with the Muslims, the official church in the Christian Roman Empire was embroiled in another
controversy regarding the use of icons. In the years leading up to 717 AD when Leo
the Third, the Isaurian, became Emperor, the Empire had suffered a long period of unstable
rule, owing largely to the constant encroachment of Muslim invasions into Christian territory. Leo III was a clever and authoritative man
who managed to deceive and defeat the powerful armies under Maslamah ibn Abd al Malik who
had hitherto seemed invincible. This stopped their inexorable advance towards
Constantinople and forced them into negotiations with the Romans. Leo proved to be an adept diplomat as well,
keeping them in a constant state of check. This allowed the brilliant and powerful emperor
to turn his attention towards the inner unity of his domains. Emperor Leo, as sovereign of the Christian
Empire and encouraged by the support of the nobility and the military, sought to impose
his ideology on the Church as well. He was genuinely interested in ecclesial affairs
and was aware of the controversies of the Faith. He also believed that the recent misfortunes
of the Empire, including Muslim advances, as well as several earthquakes, were a result
of God’s judgment for the sin of worshipping graven images. His views, however, were not shared by the
majority of the clergy and the Christians of the Empire. The veneration of Icons was prevalent everywhere. Undeterred by the opposition to his views,
the Emperor forbade the veneration of Icons by royal edict in 726. This was followed, four years later, by a
complete ban on public display of religious images, ordering that relics and images be
destroyed, beginning with the golden image of Christ at the entrance of the Royal Palace. Iconoclasm was now imperial law, and Leo enforced
his policies with a vengeance. He dismissed the Patriarch of Constantinople
and replaced him with one who supported his policies. This was followed by the dismissal of dissident
clergy. He then closed the ecclesial academy in Constantinople
temporarily, because of their reluctance to accept his decree. He even sent a task force to Rome to put pressure
on the Pope, who also favored icons. As fortune had it, his legates never arrived
in Rome because of bad weather. This only strengthened the Bishop of Rome’s
conviction, who decreed that iconoclasts should be excommunicated from churches in his jurisdiction. St. John of Damascus, living in the monastery
of Mar Saba near Jerusalem, which was now under the Muslim Umayyad rule, remained out
of Leo’s reach. He was able to write freely and proceeded
to produce three powerful theological treatises in defense of the veneration of Holy Icons. He centered his argument against the charge
that veneration of images is idolatry, on the idea that they provide affirmation of
the Incarnation of God: “Of old God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed
was not depicted at all. But now that God has appeared in the flesh
and lived among men, I make an image of God that can be seen. I do not worship matter. I worship the God of matter, who became matter
for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter
which works for my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God.” Emperor Leo’s rejection of icons came against
the larger backdrop of iconoclastic sentiment among both Jews and Muslims, who were also
opposed to any depiction of God. St. John, however, focuses on icons as a reminder
of Christ’s divinity, which is the central teaching of Orthodox Christianity. He notes that veneration of holy images is
a long-standing part of Christian tradition and that the honor paid to icons is reverence
offered to the prototype of the image, rather than the image itself. He also points out that, “Often, when we do not have the passion
of Our Lord in mind, a picture brings it to mind and we fall down in worship of Him.” His major contribution to Christian theological
thought is his differentiation between “Veneration” (proskynesis-προσκύνησις) and “Worship”
(latreia-λατρεία), which were used interchangeably until this point. He points out that although both Veneration
and Worship are offered to God, only Veneration is offered to the saints and the Holy Icons. St. John’s defense was brilliant, but it
fanned the flames of the controversy in the Christian Empire. Intellectually, he won the day, and the advocates
of iconoclasm had to seek other arguments. Yet, the Emperor was not easily deterred,
so he aimed his vitriol at St. John against all logic. In an act of revenge against the saint, the
Emperor had a letter forged in St. John’s hand, in which he was supposedly offering
his help, betraying the Caliphate in favor of the Christian Empire. The saint’s biographers tell us that the
ruse worked and that the angry Muslim potentate threw his former trusted councilor into a
dungeon, and had his right hand severed so that he may not be able to use it to write
such letters again. Tradition has it, that the Theotokos quickly
restored the saint’s hand, a miracle which caused the Caliph to repent and release the
saint from prison. This story is the origin of the Holy Icon
of the three-handed Theotokos, as the grateful saint attached a silver image of his restored
hand to his icon of the Virgin. Besides his theological prowess, St. John
of Damascus is also reputed to have had a beautiful singing voice as well as the ability
to compose music and write poetry. He composed hundreds of liturgical hymns,
including the paschal canon which is still widely used today. St. John of Damascus lived in the proverbial
“interesting times,” but he is certainly one of the reasons which made those times
so interesting. The Christian Church had flourished in the
Roman Empire for three centuries by the time of the saint’s birth, but it continued to
be beset by doctrinal debates and disagreements. Although the Ecumenical Councils had made
many definitive statements on belief, it was St. John of Damascus who wrote the first truly
systematic philosophical treatise exposing the Orthodox Christian Faith. St. John’s excellent education and remarkable
intelligence were tried and tested by the serious challenges of Islamic claims. As the successes of the Muslim armies and
the rapid expansion of the Umayyad Empire, even into Damascus, proved to be far more
dangerous to Christian fidelity than just as a mere heresy, St. John’s theological
prowess showed him to be uniquely qualified to speak and write in defense of the faith
in Christ as God, utilizing his knowledge of both Islamic and Christian beliefs and
practices. He thus defended the Orthodox Christian faith
heroically in the land of the Caliph. Likewise, St. John of Damascus stood up to
the Iconoclast Emperor Leo III, defending the veneration of Holy Images as an affirmation
of the Incarnation of God in Jesus, the central doctrine of the Church, which distinguishes
Christianity and sets it apart from the other monotheistic religions of this time. St. John of Damascus feared neither Caliph
nor Emperor in his devotion to Christ and the Orthodox Faith. Continuing to write hymns and treatises, he
spent the remaining years of his life in the Monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem, where
he surrendered his sanctified soul to the Lord on December 4th, in the year 749 AD. His monastic cell, where he wrote his treatises,
along with his grave, have been points of veneration for pilgrims visiting the monastery
of Mar Saba since that time. St. John of Damascus, please pray for us that
we may remain faithful to Christ, as you did.

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