George C. Papademetriou – Two Traditions, One Space: Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Dialogue. Reviewed by Theodore Pulcini, Dickinson College.

(Religion and the Arts 21:2017, 271–289)

In these times when Christians are suffering at the hands of Muslim extremists in the Middle East, it is increasingly difficult, though certainly necessary, to cultivate irenic relations between Orthodox Christianity and Islam. This is precisely the purpose of this book, whose editor presents a series of studies which “by clarifying some murky issues between the two religions, … open a way toward further understanding and peaceful coexistence in our constantly shrinking world”. Papademetriou presents nine essays, two of which he wrote and another five of which he translated from the original Greek. These essays are introduced by a set of forewords (by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and esteemed Muslim scholar Mahmoud Ayoub, both known for their commitment to dialogue) and are followed by two appendices, one providing a summary of Islamic beliefs and the other chronicling the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s engagement in Muslim-Christian dialogue.

This collection is divided into two major sections. The first, “Historical, Philosophical, and Theological Encounters,” opens with a study by George Patronos on “Jesus as a Prophet of Islam,” in which the exalted status of the “Muslim Jesus” as Prophet, Messenger, Messiah, Servant of God, and Word of God is discussed. While noting that the Qurʾan affirms the Virgin Birth of Jesus, Patronos stresses the divergence of Islamic Christology (which he sees largely as a reaction against heterodox doctrines afoot in the time of Muhammad) from that of Orthodox Christianity as defined by the early Ecumenical Councils. To the Muslim, Christ is not the Son of God but only a part of a prophetic evolution culminating in Muhammad.

Nevertheless, in their dialogues with Muslims, Christians should remember that Muslims, even while denying Jesus’ divinity, accord him high honor indeed. Despite the disputes caused by differing theological assertions, Marios Begzos, in his essay “Inter-Religious Dialogue in Byzantine Thought,” argues that religion (as opposed to fanaticism and superstition) is essential to the cultural dialogue between Christianity and Islam. In developing this point, he focuses on the philosophical and theological contributions to this dialogue made by the eighth-century Christian theologian John of Damascus in his Dialogue Between a Saracen and a Christian, a crucial work in the history of Christian-Muslim relations.

A more thorough assessment of the contribution of John of Damascus is found in the essay of Radko Popov, “Speaking His Mind in a Multi-Cultural and Multi-Religious Society,” which examines John of Damascus’ knowledge of Islam in his “Heresy of the Ishmaelites,” a chapter in his work Concerning Heresy. In this essay, Popov sets the historical context of John of Damascus’ career and assesses his presentation of Islam’s origins, doctrines, and practices, concluding that the Damascene’s assertions are not always based on Islamic sources but rather reflect his unfavorable opinion of Islam. This observation is of paramount importance because John of Damascus’ work would serve as a touchstone in Christian-Muslim relations for centuries to follow— indeed up until the nineteenth century. Moreover, Popov observes, the Damascene’s polemics may have even stimulated the development of Islamic theology, prompting Muslim theologians to develop arguments in favor of the prophethood of Muhammad on the basis of Christian biblical texts.

Papademetriou turns to another illustrious figure in the history of Orthodox Muslim encounter in his essay “St. Gregory Palamas: Three Dialogues with Muslims,” which examines dialogues in which Palamas participated while a prisoner of the Muslims between March 1354 and July 1355. One of the dialogues was with the grandson of an imam, a second with the Chiones (a group that had converted from Christianity to Judaism and later to Islam), and a third with an unnamed imam. Papademetriou sees these conversations, in which Palamas defends Christian doctrines, especially Trinitarian dogma, as clear indication that in the Byzantine period “people were able to discuss issues of faith and theology with sincerity, boldness, and civility”.

Rounding out this first section of the anthology is an essay by Gregorios Ziakas on “Islamic Aristotelian Philosophy.” Recognizing falsafa, (Islamic philosophy) as one of the brightest achievements of Muslim culture, Ziakas considers Aristotelianism to be perhaps falsafa’s highest expression, shaped by such minds as al-Kindi (d. ca. 870), al-Farabi (d. 950), Ibn Sina/Avicenna (d. 1037), and Ibn Rushd/Averroes (d. 1198), whose works he discusses in turn.

The second major section of Two Traditions, One Space includes four essays on “Contemporary Dialogue.” The first, “Byzantine and Contemporary Greek Orthodox Approaches to Islam,” is by Anastasios Yannoulatos, whose role as the primate of the recently “reborn” Orthodox Church of Albania has brought him into ongoing, productive engagement with Islam in that Balkan nation. Yannoulatos provides a superb integrative study in which he describes how the tenor of Byzantine-Islamic encounter evolved over the centuries. He distinguishes five stages in this encounter: (1) eighth to the mid-ninth century, in which Byzantine authors (exemplified by John of Damascus and Theodore Abuqurra) “taunt” and “undervalue” Islam; (2) mid-ninth to the mid-fourteenth century, in which Byzantine authors (like Niketas Choniates) adopt a more aggressive and polemical approach; (3) mid-fourteenth to mid-fifteenth century, the period shortly before and just after the fall of Constantinople, in which Byzantines (including Gregory Palamas, Emperor Manuel Paleologos, and Patriarch Gennadios Scholarios) assume a more authentically dialogical approach characterized by a certain patience, “mild criticism,” and “objective evaluation”; (4) mid-fifteenth to mid-eighteenth centuries, in which dialogue suffers a “disruption” in that Christians resort to a kind of “resistance” through “silence and monologue” in countering Islam, which had risen to a position of unquestioned power; and finally (5) the contemporary phase, in which Orthodox encounters with Islam have been shaped by academic context, scholarly tone, and involvement of international church organizations.

The conversation between Orthodox Christians and Muslims has become increasingly objective, self-critical, and other-appreciative in response to the dynamics of interdependence characteristic of the modern world. Even though Orthodoxy now participates in the dialogue with Islam alongside other Christian confessions, Yannoulatos insists that Orthodoxy still has a distinctive contribution to make by virtue of its longstanding historical and cultural common ground with Islam. To be sure, there are insurmountable impasses between Christianity and Islam, but Yannoulatos holds out the hope that the contemporary encounter between the two traditions can be based on “respect for the person and freedom for our dialogic partner.”

This final phase that Yannoulatos describes is the focus of Papdemetriou’s essay on “Contemporary Dialogue Between Orthodox Christians and Muslims,” in which he recapitulates a succession of academic dialogues between the traditions, beginning with a consultation held in 1985 at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts, which generated subsequent consultations in Chambésy, Amman, Istanbul, and Athens. Nicely complementing Papademetriou’s essay is that of Gregorios Ziakas, “The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and Recent Dialogues with Islam,” which provides a survey of dialogues, conferences, and symposia convened in the closing decade of the twentieth century. This survey is extended in the appendix “Recent Activities of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Muslim-Christian Dialogue,” which provides documentation from meetings held between 2001 and 2008, including several addresses by Patriarch Bartholomew.

Standing apart from the other essays in the second section of this book is the study of Samira Awad Melki, “The Jesus Prayer and Dhikr: A Potential Contribution to Christian-Muslim Dialogue,” in which she discusses the spiritual experiential intersection of Orthodoxy and Islam by drawing parallels between hesychasm and Sufism. Especially helpful in this essay is a glossary of terms pertaining to the mystical dimensions of the two religions.

In general, Two Traditions, One Space manifests both the strengths and weaknesses of the anthology genre. Among the strengths are the gems of insight typically drawn into such a collection by an able editor like Papademetriou. Among the weaknesses are a lack of coherence and an unevenness of quality among the contributions. The essays that constitute this work, their strengths notwithstanding, do not cohere as tightly as they might. Both sections of the anthology lack a clear center of gravity. One has the sense that the essays, rather than being solicited from authors who could make significant contributions to topical categories purposefully set beforehand, were simply gathered and then separated into two broad groupings. One wonders, too, whether the work as a whole could have been organized a bit more logically. For example, why not present “A Summary of Islamic Beliefs” not in an appendix at the end of the work but in an “orientation” at the very beginning? This would provide the reader of Christian background with an effective springboard into the essays that follow. Moreover, in reading this book, students of the encounter between Orthodox Christianity and Islam may legitimately ask why the focus of this anthology is solely on the Constantinopolitan Patriarchate when other Orthodox patriarchates, most notably Antioch and Alexandria, have much more extensive and intensive interaction with Muslims on a regular basis. Despite Constantinople’s status as a “first among equals” in the leadership of world Orthodoxy, in the specific area of relations with Islam, its experience is not primary. It is to be hoped that in future works on the Orthodox-Muslim dialogue this fact will be kept in mind.

I must stress, however, that, whatever the shortcomings of this anthology, one can only see it as a significant contribution to the field of Christian-Muslim relations. Furthermore, one must certainly respect the constructive purpose of Papademetriou and his courage in undertaking this project in a time of high tension between Orthodoxy and Islam in many parts of the world, tension which makes enhanced understanding between two religions not just a nicety but a necessity.