History of Arab Christians

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The history of Arab Christians spans from the earliest adoption of Christianity by Arab tribes during the time of the Late Roman Empire to their modern history in Arab societies.

Pre-Islamic period[edit]

The earliest Arab Christians belong to the pre-Islamic period. There were many Arab tribes that adopted Christianity. These included the Nabateans and the Ghassanids, who were of Qahtani origin and spoke Yemeni Arabic as well as Greek. These tribes received subsidies and protected the south-eastern frontiers of the Roman and Byzantine Empires in north Arabia. However, a number of minority Christian sects were persecuted as heretic under Roman and Byzantine rules.

The tribes of Tayy, Abd Al-Qais, and Taghlib were also known to have included a large number of Christians prior to Islam.

The southern Arabian city of Najran was also a center of Arab Christianity. Letters exist in Syriac that record the persecution of believers by the king of Yemen in the 6th century, when the latter had adopted Judaism. Cosmas Indicopleustes records the launch of a punitive expedition from Ethiopia in response. The leader of the Arabs of Najran during the period of persecution, Al-Harith, was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as St. Aretas.

No literature has been preserved in Arabic from this period.

Islamic period[edit]

The rise of Islam led to large areas of the Near East coming under the rule of Muslim Arabs. This resulted in substantial Christian populations coming under Islamic rule.

Initially, the invasions were seen by the occupied as more like a large-scale raid with tribute being paid. Possibly the Arabs saw things in these terms themselves; certainly their policy was to allow the existing administration to continue, but the taxes gathered to be paid to themselves rather than to the Byzantine emperor or the Persian Shah. Christians who were persecuted as heretic actually began to enjoy more religious freedom under initial Arab Muslim occupation than they had under Roman and Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox Christian) rule.

Christians did not at first compose in Arabic, but continued to write in Greek, Syriac or Coptic. However, over time as conversions occurred, there was a need for works in Arabic. The first to write in Arabic was Theodore Abu-Qurrah and Severus Ibn al-Muqaffa.

Relations with Islam[edit]

As "People of the Book", Christians in the region are accorded certain rights by theoretical Islamic law (Shari'ah) to practice their religion free from interference or persecution. However it was conditional to pay a special amount of money by non-Muslims called "Jizyah" (pronounced Jiz-ya). This could be paid in form of either cash or goods, usually a wealth of animals, in exchange for their safety and freedom of worship. In practice, things were less clear, and the obligation was seen as levied on a community rather than individuals. At times this was used by Muslims to oppress Christians; at others, Christians could be found in government and Muslims remained indifferent towards the payment of Jizya. At the same time, non-Muslims were not allowed to be involved in the army.

In the 9th century, Islamic rulers often had Christian or Jewish physicians, such as Hunain Ibn Ishaq.

The History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria contains lengthy eye-witness accounts of how Christians in Egypt were treated under various Islamic rulers.

Other issues[edit]

Arab Christians have made significant contributions to Arab civilization and still do. Many of Arab literature's most noted poets were Arab Christians, and many Arab Christians were physicians, writers, government officials, and men of letters.


Further reading[edit]

  • Twice a Stranger by Bruce Clark. Publisher: Granta Books (March 5, 2007)# ISBN 1-86207-924-2, # ISBN 978-1-86207-924-3 has very limited information on Assyrian Christians.
  • Not Even My Name: A True Story by Thea Halo. Publisher: Picador; 1st Picador USA Pbk. Ed edition (June 2, 2001) ISBN 0-312-27701-6, ISBN 978-0-312-27701-7
  • A History of the Modern Middle East by William L. Cleveland. # Publisher: Westview Press; 3 edition (July 1, 2004) ISBN 0-8133-4048-9, ISBN 978-0-8133-4048-7
  • Sources in the History of the Modern Middle East by Akram Fouad Khater. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company (April 9, 2003) ISBN 0-395-98067-4, ISBN 978-0-395-98067-5

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