Master of Arts (MA)


Edward L Smither

Primary Subject Area

Religion, General; Religion, History of


Apologetics, Heresy, Ishmaelites, Islam, John Damascene, John of Damascus


John Damascene's work concerning "The Heresy of the Ishmaelites" confronts Islam--a heresy according to John--with respect to fundamental disagreements between Christians and Muslims concerning the deity of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity and the authenticity of Muhammad's prophethood and revelation. I argue that John's work was prompted and influenced by his context in seventh-and eighth-century Byzantium. More specifically, my argument is that John's firsthand understanding of Islam, the new rhetoric of a heavenward focus within what had been the Roman empire, the development of apologies and disputations concerning Islam, and the growing tensions in Christian-Arab relations in eighth-century Byzantium all influenced "The Heresy of the Ishmaelites"--very likely the first polemic against Islam from the orthodox Christian community.

The first chapter surveys the history of the Arab conquest, with a special focus on the Ummayad Caliphate, under which John lived and served. I also detail the effects of the Arab Conquest on the Christian community, specifically that Arab rule signaled the end of the persecution of the Jacobite and Nestorian churches. In my second chapter I detail the Church's attempt to deal with the fall of the Roman Empire in the East, and how the call to orthodoxy stimulated the growth of apologetic literature. My third chapter deals with Christian-Arab relations in Byzantium and the tensions that evolved as Islam began to make religious truth claims over and against Christianity. My fourth chapter builds on the previous three, analyzing John's polemic and revealing those elements of culture, politics, education and religion that can be seen in his work. I argue that these elements of context led him to consider Islam a heresy--an understandable conclusion--and respond to that heresy with an informed perspective, perfectly suited to provide the Byzantine Christian community with an answer to the theological challenges coming from their Arab rulers.