Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Islam and Iconoclasm

This week we celebrated the feast day of St. John Damascus (Dec. 4th), best known for defending orthodoxy against the iconoclasts. He famously wrote:
“In former times God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with humans, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter: I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter: who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! I honor it but not as God.”
12th century Sinaitic icon of St. Theodosia,
a Constantinopolitan executed by the iconoclasts
in the 8th century.
from the Monastery of St. Catherine
Less well known is the means by which he was able (without being killed, that is) to defy a heresy so prevalent among Christians that the Eastern Christian Emperor Leo himself forbade the use of icons.


St. John was immune to the persecutions of the iconoclasts because he lived under Muslim rule. That’s right, here is a Christian saint protected… from Christians… by Muslims.

A second defender of orthodox iconography during the time of the iconoclasts is the Monastery of St. Catherine, which preserves to this day many of the oldest icons in existence, most of the rest having been destroyed by the iconoclasts. Here in the Sinai desert, while much of the Christian world was breaking icons and killing those who used them, their veneration continued. This bastion of orthodoxy, too, was under Muslim rule.

From The Monastery of St. Catherine, by Dr. Evangelos Papaioannou:

"According to its tradition, the monks of St. Catherine sent a delegation to Medina, in 625 AD, to ask for Mohammed’s patronage and protection. The request was granted; a copy of the original document… proclaims that the Moslems would defend the monks, who were also exempted from paying taxes. Legend has it that Mohammed visited the Monastery on one of his journeys as a merchant. This may well be so, for the Koran does mention the holy places in Sinai. So, when the peninsula came under the rule of the Arab conquerors in 641 AD, the monks and their Monastery continued to live unmolested and emerged unscathed from the early Arab period."
The later Arab period was not so kind, but that is a different story. The Monastery remained under Muslim rule whilst the iconoclast heresy was prevalent (throughout the 8th and 9th centuries).

The irony of all this is that the heresy of Islam embraces iconoclasm as heartily as any of the iconoclasts (witness the desecration of Hagia Sophia). The Muslims, believing icons to be idolatrous, would have had no sympathy for the beliefs they were inadvertently protecting. But the presence of certain Christians among them was insignificant enough that they saw fit to leave them alone (at least during this time). Its icons of great antiquity (even then) were consequently left unharmed.

I am convinced that our Lord and God does not hesitate to use the adversaries of the Church to shape her and correct her, as with a stone against a blade.

Currently, Islam appears to have lost much of its former tolerance of Christians. I believe God is using Islamic persecution of Christians, as with the previous Islamic protection of Christians, to strengthen the Church. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches are now faced with the need to unite or be overthrown. Unprecedented steps toward that reunion are made daily.

1 comment:

Josephus Flavius said...

"I am convinced that our Lord and God does not hesitate to use the adversaries of the Church to shape her and correct her, as with a stone against a blade."

Whether those adversaries be non-Christians or heretical movements. Look at the creeds themselves to see how this sort of conflict melts the dross away from the theology of our faith. Christianity is a religion that thrives under persecution and hardship as it brings the faithful closer to Him.

In the Western world we take the fruits of Christianity for granted and assume the culture that monasticism planted is the result of egalitarian principles and "hard work." For that reason people assume that the morality, safety, and rights of today are obvious. It will be a rude awakening when population, immigration, etc. realign the countries of Europe and the Christian underpinnings break so that citizens experience truly socialism, radical Islam, or the simple anarchy of a disordered life devoid of a Christocentric mentality.

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