A Theological Heritage
Arabs who believe in Jesus and live in the Muslim world have a long heritage. This began, of course, in the book of Acts. Arabs were present on the day of Pentecost. People in Jerusalem, Palestine, Samaria and Syria came to believe in Jesus the Messiah. Paul came to faith on his way to Damascus, and gave his first sermon in a synagogue in the Syrian capital. Over the following centuries, many people came to faith in Jesus in the regions between Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. While we think of these regions as Muslim countries today, they were then the heartlands of Christianity with lots of theology happening there.
Many of the early Church fathers, who developed theology, lived in the region. Justin Martyr (100 AD) grew up in Nablus in Palestine. He met a man, who was likely from Syria, who shared the faith with him. Justin became a believer and later travelled to Rome. Clement (of Alexandria in Egypt) and Origen (of Alexandria in Egypt) were both Egyptians. Athanasius who was key in the discussions of the trinity was a leader of the Egyptian church and based in Alexandria in Egypt. These writers wrote in Greek, a main language of the region. The other main language was Aramaic also known as Syriac. Ephrem the Syrian grew up in Damascus and later moved to Palestine. He wrote some important works in Syriac.
Muhammad died in 632 AD and in the centuries that followed, the Islamic empire quickly spread to the regions of Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. By the end of the 700s, the church in these regions was now a minority in an Islamic empire. Their theologians were doing theology with the challenges of Islam uppermost in their minds.
Over the next few hundred years, the church and many theologians engaged with Muslim thinkers and their Islamic context. They developed theological and practical answers to these challenges: They wrote about topics like monotheism, the trinity, the incarnation, the cross and certain Christian practices which Muslims found confusing. These texts were written in Arabic, the language of the Islamic empire. They engaged with Islamic terminology, alluded to the Qur’an and Islamic beliefs and explained the Christian faith in ways which were designed to make sense to people from a Muslim background.
There are literally hundreds of texts written in Arabic by Christian theologians from Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt from the middle ages. Because these texts were written in Arabic which the western world did not understand and because they dealt with Islamic contexts, which were not important to the western world, most of these texts have not informed Western Theology.
People have been doing theology in Arabic in a Muslim context for over 1,200 years! This theology engages with Islamic beliefs and Muslim contexts. It is a wonderful heritage for Arabic speaking believers in the Muslim world. As we develop theology in Arabic, we can draw so much from the theology from this millennium of believers in the Arab world.