In this podcast from the Islam 101 series, we ask the question “What can an 8th century Christian Monk teach us about living with Muslims today?”  Aiding us in this topic is expert on John of Damascus, Dr. Daniel Janosik.

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Here starts the auto-generated transcription of John of Damascus: A Christian in the Court of the Caliph:

Once again, Muslim terrorists A terrorist. Islamic extremist now. These is not irrelevant. It is a warning. Welcome to the truth about Muslims podcast.

The official podcast of the Swimmer Center For Muslim Studies, where we help to educate you beyond the media. Here are your hosts, Howard and Trevor. Alright. So I think we tend to believe that Muslims and Christians started interacting on 9:11, but reality is we’ve been interacting since the very beginnings of Islam In the, 7th 8th 9th centuries, there’s quite a, robust relationship going on between Muslims and Christians. But it’s not one it’s not a lot of history that we’re aware of.

Right. That’s something that I never learned in school. Yeah. Not a whole lot of sermons preached about the days of John of Damascus. The the only thing I knew about, Muslims, actually, now that I think about it before 911 was, being involved in missions work.

Mhmm. Yeah. So I have a a good friend, doctor, Daniel Genosic. He is a he has an undergraduate degree in biology and English and there’s an MDiv and as well as a master’s degree in Islamic Studies or Muslim Studies from the Zwemer Center. He also, did his doctorate degree on John of Damascus.

So That that’s quite the gamut. Yeah. So, you know, he’s the guy to ask and so he gives sort of a background of this, relatively unknown, person in Christian history amongst most people. Unless you study this point in history, you wouldn’t know much about him. And it’s pretty interesting, some of the things that he brings up.

Well, who was John of Damascus? It’s a name from the past. It may bring some recollection of, times in early Islam, but John had a great role to play in Islam. But there are also stories of John of his, demise and his trouble, his, difficulties. One of these is when he got in trouble for, going against the caliph who was Abdul Malik at that time, And John was his right hand man, and yet he was a Christian.

And so this was perhaps a way to get back at the Christians at that time. But what happened was that, there was supposedly a letter from a Christian leader from the Byzantine Empire who sent the letter to to the caliph, Abdul Malik, and this letter implied that John of Damascus was plotting to assassinate the caliph. And so this was, something that was very, horrible in the eyes of the caliph. So he had his men bring in John of Damascus, accuse him of treachery, and they cut off his right hand and put him in jail. And then they were going to, to kill him after that.

But when he was in prison, he asked for his hand to be brought back to him, and so they did that. And during that night, he prayed to the Virgin Mary that she would, bring about a miracle and reattach his hand. And lo and behold, in the morning when they came to get him, his hand was reattached. It worked fine and the miracle just, amazed the the people. And the caliph relented and realized that, he must be mistaken because this was an obvious miracle.

Now, of course, this is folklore that did not happen in John of Damascus, but this shows the honor and the respect and the the memory of a man that, in many ways, gave us a picture of Islam in the early days. Alright. I think that that’s poly folklore. You know what? I was kinda wondering, like, why?

Like, there was already the assumption there that this didn’t happen. Is it because, Well, that’s what he said. He said, you know, he that he thought it was folklore. Yeah. I am just wondering myself.

Like But I I do I do, I do feel you. I I I that would be really a really cool story, a testimony to God. Well, he he did mention that the the source of the story comes several, you know, decades, maybe a 100 of years After afterward. Right? After.

So there’s some yeah. It’s a little skeptical. Right. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see the relationship that John of Damascus does have with the, caliph of Islam of the Islamic Empire right there in the beginnings in Syria. John lived in the first 100 years of Islam.

He was actually born 675, died 7 50, gives you a place mark there. He worked under the caliph Abdul Malik who, reigned from 685 to 705. But John was the grandson of the man who apparently surrendered the city of Damascus to the forces of Islam when they came up in 635. So very early in the, the immigration of the, the Arabs to the north, the city was given over. So his his grandfather was the mayor of the city of, Damascus.

And in order to, to save lives, he relented, surrendered the city. It had been a a peace relatively peaceful time for decades, and, John’s grandfather was restored to his position. He was, called the Logosetes, which is kinda like the chief tax collector, especially for the the Christians. And at first, the Christians were glad that the, the Arabs came in because the Byzantines, who had been rulers before, had exacted, pretty high taxes. And it was getting pretty onerous, so their new, masters were much more easy on them in regard to the taxes.

And these Arabs really lived outside in Garrison Town so that they did not bother the Christians so much at that time. Alright. So this show wouldn’t be possible without sponsors. And at this point in the show is where, if you wanna partner with us, we would put your ad. So if you wanna be a part of the show, you wanna partner with us, you like what we’re doing, you wanna be on our team, what have you, bringing this show to the world, then email us and let us know.

So when maybe for context, for understanding, it’s kind of like it sounds similar to the New Testament where you have Roman rule, but you also have, the Jews living under Roman rule and you had Jewish tax collectors that were essentially employed by the Roman Empire to collect taxes from the Jews living under the protection of Rome, Pax Romana. There’s sort of this, overarching, political power structure that that the Jews live under. So is that a good comparison when Islam comes in, to Damascus, they shift the power from from Mecca to Damascus and then the Christians live under a Islamic rule, but they still utilize, Christian leaders to collect taxes and deal with their own people. That’s a very good analogy, in fact, because the John’s grandfather was that, particular person to collect taxes in Damascus. And then when, the empire settled there in Damascus, that was the central city, John’s grandfather was still the the chief tax collector.

He gave that job off to his son, John’s father, And then in time, probably around 700 AD under Abdamalik, John of Damascus, became the chief tax collector of the Logothatas, chief financial officer of the empire. Yeah. I see how it’s a lot like Rome and, of course, Israel at this time. But, it also reminds me of Byzantine, what we kinda talked about last week. Right.

How the Byzantine Empire set up the sort of set the stage so that Islam could come in and fill that void. Right. And then when they came in, they charged taxes, but maybe it was much less than what they were used to pay. Right. And it’s not it’s not like the Muslims were purely motivated.

He does bring up an interesting point, regarding why the Muslims needed to work with the Christians. Well, from the sources that we have, John’s family was in a lot of favor. They they were a strong Christian family, a Melkite Orthodox Christian family. His father was a friend of the former caliph and, so they got along well. They were respected.

They were needed at that time because all the record keeping, the the financial record keeping was in Greek. And so that is why they had favor with the Arabs. The the Arabs needed them to to maintain the the status of the whole empire or the budding empire because it was just coming into being at that time. So John was very much needed. He spoke Arabic.

I mean, his his actual name was John Mansur. Mansur is a an an Arab name. It means Victor, victory. Wow. And so, you you usually know of him as John John of Damascus and, Yati had that Arabic link.

So he knew Arabic. He knew Syriac because Syriac was the, religious language of the church and he was very good with Greek. He’s known for his Greek writing. And, so he had a very good education, and yet he was serving in the court of the caliph at that time and respected and he seems to have respected Abdul Malik, who he was working for. So, you know, in the beginning, it’s actually a pretty good relationship between Muslims and Christians.

Right. They need each other, kind of. Right? Because the rules and the the laws, all that stuff is in Greek. Yep.

John of Damascus speaks Arabic. He also can read and write in Greek. Right. In Syriac, which is pretty I don’t even know what that is, but that’s pretty cool. And, but it doesn’t always stay that way.

Shortly after John served, the language, requirements changed. The the Muslims had more of a more control. They wanted to have the financial control so they made it so that all the people in leadership, even if they were Christians, needed to know Arabic. Arabic became the official language. Yeah.

So it sounds like there was a really good relationship between John of Damascus and the caliph. Right. But the the problem is it’s not going to remain that way. What started off well would not finish well as far as it goes between the relationship of the Muslims living in Damascus and, John of Damascus. I I see some parallels with today when you have, areas where there are where there would be a large percentage of Christians or non Muslims, and the Muslim, population would be small at first.

And then there’s more of a, congeniality, working together. But as the Muslims develop more power and more influence and more population growth, There seems to be a change, and that seems to be have happened in the early 700. You have, the governor of Iraq, Al Hujaz, who was a good friend of Abd Amalek coming in, and he made a lot of new proclamations. That’s where Arabic became the official language and, there was more of a a sense that, they were putting pressure on the Christians from war taxes, and that’s when the jizya, the so called head tax, came into effect in the early, 7 100. So there was a change in the tenor of the government.

The Arabs moved into the cities. They started taking control of the cities, and that’s where you also had an exodus of Christians out of the area because they were being, persecuted. It sounds like when the Muslims started to change everything, that it was cutting out the Christian. Like, they they switched everything to the Arabic language which, made it so that they didn’t actually need any of the Christians anymore. Yeah.

I mean, that’s one way of of looking at it. The other the other perspective would be, they set up a system that really favors their own people. Right. Which wouldn’t be an inherently Muslim idea. Right.

That’s a human human thing. Right? It tends to be what we still do. We want to, live in places with people like us and vote for people that will most benefit us, and that is a human issue, not necessarily one that’s inherently Muslim. Right.

It reminds me actually of, the Exodus with pharaoh and the Jews or the immigrant community living there. Remember how we were talking a few weeks back about immigration? Right. Immigration issues when you start having these, Christians living under the Islamic Empire, there’s concerns about why do we they’re not converting, you know. Let’s raise some taxes.

Let’s, cause life to be harder on them and shouldn’t be as hard on us. I mean, this is our empire. We’re providing the protection. This is an Islamic empire, not a Christian one. And so you see how that kinda happens.

And then eventually, it’s, you know, just like, Daniel Dinosick was saying that the the Christians start to leave. Yeah. There’s a a a mass exodus of Christians, but not all Christians. There’s still those historians that stick around. So what happens to John of Damascus after all of this?

Well, eventually, he leaves and he retires into a monastery where he begins doing a lot of his writing. In in the process of joining the monastery, there was an interesting story that that Daniel shared, about his first interactions with the abbot or the sort of head monk of the monastery. It’s it’s very interesting. When John decided to become a monk, he, was set up in a monastery at Saint Sabas and the, the the chief, abbot appointed a strict master over him who really wanted to get John in line. John was known for his, brilliance, his intellectual brilliance, and so this master monk decided to break him down.

And so he wanted to, have him do humiliating things. And one of those things was to to, take baskets and, go into Damascus and sell these baskets as a a, representative for trade. Well, Don did that with, a joyful part. He went in. He took these baskets, and, of course, people looked down on him.

But then, one day, there was a a friend of his who was very wealthy and came and saw John’s predicament and ended up giving him, buying all the baskets. And John was able to go back and praise the praise God for his good fortune. And in time, this master monk relented and, gave John the benefit of the doubt and gave him better quarters and and, more freedom. He the the the irony was that, this master monk did not want John to write, and yet that was his great gift. And this is just an interesting story of the difficulties that he may have had, in his early time.

So is that the end of the story? He just has this quaint little life in a monastery and that’s it? Basically, no. No. It’s here while he’s living in the monastery that he writes his his work, both his theological works for Orthodox Christianity and also really his polemics against the what he would consider to be the heresy of the Ishmaelites.

What are some of the differences that John really, focuses in on that he would say that this is a Christian heresy? Okay. Well, first of all, you have the, the sense that, the Arabs, the Muslims did not accept the trinity. At first, there was a difference. You have on the Dome of the Rock, which was built in the 6 ninety’s by Abdemalik, the phrases do not say 3.

In other words, don’t talk about 3 gods, which of course the Christians never believed in 3 gods, but there were these admonitions against those types of ideas. Do not put Jesus Christ as God himself or the Son of God. So these ideas were becoming more and more prevalent in the, in the time of Abd Amalek, in the time of John of Damascus. And so when he went away to the, to the monastery and wrote, we have a lot of, works by John written in Greek, mostly his works on Orthodox Christianity, but also on, 2 treatises where he talks about his time with Muslims, what he learned. One is called the heresy, the Ishmaelites.

He called them Ishmaelites. He never called them Muslims. He never referred to the Koran, though he does talk about the writings of Mahmed. He doesn’t call them Muhammad, but he calls them Mahmed. And at that time, he’s and this is about 743, he died in 7 50, so it is before, before his death, as he’s writing his big orthodox faith, which is a composite of the 8 centuries of Christianity, where it seems like he’s trying to leave something for the Christians so that they will not fall away from the faith.

He sees that, there are a lot of Christians who are going over and converting to Islam. Others are leaving the country. He stayed. It’s obvious that John of Damascus is writing with a certain audience in mind. Right.

I mean, people, as he’s getting ready to point out, are are leaving, Christianity for Islam, and so he’s having to give a credible defense for a reason to stay in the faith. He said that, Muhammad or Mohammed was a false prophet and the religion was one of coercion and that it was, leading to the antichrist. Not that it was the antichrist, but it had the hallmark of the antichrist. And so he saw difficulties. One of those was that they denied the trinity.

Another was that they denied the deity of Christ. They saw him as a prophet. They had great respect for him. And that’s where it seems like the early, movement that became Islam, came out of a respect for Christ, but a deficient view of Christ. And then they also came up with the view that the Bible was corrupted.

You even see that in the writings of John where he felt like they would not accept certain things that he would say biblically because of their views of the Christian scriptures. So I don’t know. Today in our language, we don’t really come down on heretics like that. And so with the way John, of Damascus spoke, it you know, it’s kinda starting a little startling a little bit. Yeah.

It seems a bit harsh at first glance. I mean, I get it in this time of, you know, this day and age or at this time when he’s writing. You know, it would be very, you know, he would be very cutting to, heretics or people he perceived to be heretics. And he would have to give a credible defense of the faith while discrediting Islam. And that’s what he does in his writings.

And he was writing primarily to the church. This wasn’t really for Muslims. He’s not he’s not enter entering a debate with them. You know, I think that’s one of the things that I’ve always wondered about John of Damascus. I’m not sure that this is meant to be an evangelistic strategy.

Oh. Sometimes, we think of apologetics and evangelism It’s 1 and the same. Yeah. And I think John of Damascus has a particular audience in mind, and that is Christians that are wondering, should I stay within the Christian faith or should I convert to Islam? Hey, ladies.

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CIU educates people from a biblical worldview to impact the nations with the message of Christ. You wanna read that again? Yep. You’re like, I’ll be so embarrassed to make your mouth here. I mean, it’s fascinating to sit and ask questions of somebody that’s dedicated a good portion of their life to looking at one individual, John of Damascus, and his early interactions with the the Muslims there in Damascus, Damascus, Syria.

Right. And, it seems like, it’s starting to cross, pertinent for us because today, we’re dealing with some of these things like, people converting, both ways. Right? And then, of course, refugees, you know. And then, you know, it’s power changing, people losing favor, people becoming secondary citizens.

Right? We have that happening in the Muslim world at this moment. We have that happening in the Muslim world where, Christians are being, driven out by radicals. We have it happening in the Western world where Muslims are looking for refuge and to be treated with justice and mercy and because they’re Muslims, some people don’t want to. The irony behind all of this is that we are still talking about the same place, Syria.

Yeah. And this is Damascus. Right? And so one of the questions that, you know, I had to ask was, so how what would John of Damascus say to us as Christians today watching what’s happening in the world, and would John of Damascus have relevant words for us? Well, I think this is a great opportunity.

Muslims are coming to us. They want, they have a lot of questions. They’re questioning their own beliefs. They are seeing what ISIS is doing and realizing that that is Islamic. They are following the Quran and, yet they are having second thoughts.

So this is a time of great opportunity for Christians to really show the love of Christ, to reach out to these to to these, refugees and, see this as, perhaps, a way that god is breaking down the walls as he has in in so many, Muslim countries already with the dreams and the visions and the the, miraculous things that are happening. I mean, god is on the move and this may be another way that god is moving and opening us to the opportunities. We can see from the life of John how things changed even during his lifetime. Early on when the Arabs came came in, they took over Damascus. There was, a sharing of responsibilities.

There was a respect for the Christians, a need for the Christians because they spoke Greek, they they took care of the economic financial matters but, as time went on, the persecution grew and, that’s why I think that John decided to give up his, his life as a civil servant. He knew Arabic so he could’ve continued, in that service. But, around 7 15, 717, he decided to go off to the monastery, became a priest in Damascus under a very famous, priest there and then moved off to, Saint Sabas monastery outside of Jerusalem. He had a friend who was a monk there in Damascus and this friend just got to the point of rebelling against Islam and so he went out into the square and proclaimed blasphemy against Mohammed, against Islam. And of course, he was taken, captive.

His, tongue was cut out. He was beat, to a pulp and then, turned turned loose, exiled. But he didn’t survive, very many days. And I think John took that, very, very deeply. It was something that affected him and you find that in some of his writings.

But, that’s what was going on. And so he wrote in Greek and he wrote against Islam in his later years. The heresy of the Ishmaelites, another dialogue, the disputation between a Christian and a Saracen. And these were apologetic treatises. They brought out the differences between Christianity and, Islam.

And he had great insight into what was going on. But he also saw that, these were troubled times. It was not what started off in the early days. Yeah. I like how he says that that these are huge opportunities that God is, at work in using the wrath of man to praise him in moving peoples all over the world and particularly Muslims into areas where they might hear the gospel.

Yeah. And that’s kinda what we talked about with the refugee episode. Mhmm. It is an amazing opportunity. And, you know, talking with Daniel Donacek was really cool about the, him, you know, knowing so much about John at Damascus.

It’s encouraging that he would say that this is what John at Damascus would say. Absolutely. Yeah. Because, for me, when I look back on on history, sometimes I think that maybe other people didn’t have that perspective of reaching people with the gospel. You know, no matter the cost, no matter the circumstance, looking above and beyond, what seems like in the natural.

But here we go. I mean, this is, Daniel Janosic, who’s an expert on John and Damascus, and I thought that was pretty encouraging. Yeah. And he’s also, he gives a little bit more that we’re gonna have to put into another episode regarding the Trinity. And so he gives a nice explanation of John of Damascus, how he would argue and defend the the trinitarian beliefs of Christianity and also goes on to explain sort of the basis of apologetics.

We’re gonna have to put that into another episode. Well, thanks for listening this week. Again, iTunes, we have a lot, so far, but we would love to see more and more. It makes a difference. Right, Trevor?

Oh, absolutely. It helps us, know that people are listening. 38 people that have left reviews listening, and we love those 38 people. But That’s how we do it. It is a lot it is a lot of work, and it’s almost been a year.

So we will do our 1 year anniversary show here in a few weeks and, what are we doing? I don’t know, that may be the last show of our existence if we may just wrap it up in a year, so we’re still in Islam 101, 101 episodes of Islam. Yep. I don’t know why you keep saying that. Alright.

We’ll see you next week.