Back in the third week of Lent, we noticed the stories of the 200’s CE were still centred in Africa and Asia. Coptic and ‘autocephalous’ communions today trace a heritage from these roots with greater continuity than ours. Our ‘Eurocentric’ perspective, as settlers from a colonial imperial project, confuses our church with the church. Look around urban Canada, with new semiotic awareness, and see the wider Christian tradition represented here.
In this month of North African unrest in Morocco, Algeria, and Libya, review Donatus and Cyprian stories. As you read of Egyptian tensions, remember Dionysius and Anthony the Hermit. After Turkish elections, revisit Sabellius and Paul of Samasota. The Christian roots are deep, if attenuated, and confused by the imperial projects of recent centuries.
In the seventh century, key allies of early Islam were Copts who had been persecuted by Chalcedonian Christians. Key opponents of the Islamic expansion up the Nile into Sudan and Ethiopia were also Copts and other autocephalous Christian communities. Various interests and identifications, and choices to resist or effect change, drove those alliances and conflicts.
Mu’awiya, married a Jacobite Christian, Maysum, rebuilt the cathedral of Edessa after an earthquake, and generally tolerated ‘people of the book’. The Umayyad regime offered order, a welfare state demonstrated in Arabia through the practices of zakat, and a famous regional postal service. Safe communication and commerce are powerful gifts to a fragmented world after the long cold and hot war between imperial Rome and imperial Persia.
Africans and Egyptians had not been well treated as hinterlands by Rome. They were the ‘breadbaskets’ supplying an imperial superstructure, in an age when Italy did not feed its own residents. The 6th century, the 500’s CE in our terms, had experienced waves of plague, which had a greater impact in urban areas than in rural less populated regions. How bad did the Umayyads look, given religious freedom, subject to a fair zakat?
Tribal conflicts among Arabs are more familiar themes form our ‘orientalist’ worldviews, and are confessed in more contemporaneous Islamic sources. The power of a monotheism, with a Sunni moderation of the umma, through the developing ‘common law’ of hadith and sharia, offered a better paradigm than the petty tyrannies of local leaders.
Following the collapse of the Persian revival of Khusrau II, the former Sasanian imperial institutions had lost their heads. Babylonian Talmud reflects the established Jewish presence in Mesopotamia, and Christian religious communities had long been beyond the civil reach of the Roman or Chalcedonian or Constantinian orthodoxy.
Our co-religionists in Asia and Africa have coexisted for 2 millennia outside the religious arrangements of the Orthodox or Byzantine, the medieval and Tridentine Roman, and the European Protestant communions. In our own unfamiliar post-Constantinian, post-modern era, we find ‘heretics like us’. Their history of co-existence with Islam since the 7th century may instruct our own better adjustment to our 21st century.