Philosophy & Theology

Imam al-Dimashqi_a letter to the people of Cyprus



Abu Talib al-Dimashqi’s

Response to

The Letter from the People of Cyprus[1]

أبو طالب الدمشقي:

 جواب رسالة أهل جزيرة القبرص

S. Z. Chowdhury

Summer 2005


The section that follows (fols. 16a-17a) is a translation of the response[2] given by an eminent Muslim jurist and Sufi of Damascus Shams al-Din Abu `Abd Allah Muhammad b. Abi Talib al-Ansari outlining the various Christian positions regarding the Trinity. The short section below in addition to indicating the intimate knowledge Muslims had with Christian theology, dogma and exegesis also highlights the currents of Christological thought flowing at the time particularly in Byzantine east (also familiar to Muslims) then under Muslim rule. The context of the response lies in the arguments presented by the Christian author for the trinity doctrine as well as the utter Divine nature of Christ exploiting Qur’anic passages in several places.[3]

§ 26[4]

In their extreme [interpretations] of Christ, the Christians divided into four sects.[5] One [sect] was that which held four (rabba’at)[6] stating: Father, Son, Holy Spirit and Eternal Man (al-insan al-qadim) with two natures (tabi’atan) but a single volition. They were futile. The Christian Philosophers called the ‘macrocosm’ an eternal human which possesses a universal but simple essence, a universal intelligence, a universal soul and a form of forms and called the ‘microcosm’ that which possesses a spirit, a rational soul and body. They stated that the four internals and four externals are one God, one nature and one volition.

            Another sect affirmed three[7] stating: Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three substantial hypostases (aqanim al-jawhariyya) but one God. Therefore, the Father exists by his essence, living through the [Holy] Spirit and articulates through the Son. The Son is articulate by his essence, existent through the Father and living through the [Holy] Spirit. In addition, the [Holy] Spirit is living through its essence, existent through the Father and articulate through the Son [with] two natures and two volitions.

            Another sect affirmed two[8] stating that Christ was born when he was born as a full [and perfect] creature (makhluq insan tamm) only to be in preparation for God’s dwelling in him. When John the Baptist baptised [Christ], the Holy Spirit dwelled in him and from that point of the baptism, he became fully God and fully man[9] – of the substance of his Father.[10] And then John saw the Holy Spirit hover over him and heard the voice from heaven and bore witness to it.[11] Likewise, [Christ’s] mother was a sensitive essence [also] prepared to receive the dwelling of the Word of God (kalimat Allah) within her. When the Word came to dwell within her, it took the form of a flesh (tajassamat) and united through her thus becoming like the Son in divinity with a single volition but two natures.

            [The fourth] sect asserted one without any differentiation (mughayara) with one nature but two volitions. End

[1] For the letter, see MS Arabe no. 204, fols. 68 copied by the priest Saliba b. Yuhanna al-Mawsili in Famagusta (737 A.H.) found in the Bibliothèque Nationale. For which see G. Troupeau, Catalogue des manuscrits Arabes, Pt. 1, (manuscrits chrétiens). Tome 1, Paris, 1972, pp.172-173. Two other MSS are also extant, MS Arabe, no. 214, fols. 48r-65r written by Jirjis al-Ifranji for Yuhanna b. Ishaq and MS Arabe, no. 215 fols. 203r-223r (copyist unknown) for which see Troupeau, Ibid., pp.185-189. Extensive use has been made of Rifaat Ebied and David Thomas (eds.) Muslim-Christian Polemic during the Crusades,Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2005. The sections (abbreviated as = §) and page numbers refer to that edition.

[2] Two MSS exist of al-Dimashqi’s response (jawab risalat ahl jazirat al-qubrus). They are: MS Utrecht Codex, no. 40, fols. 107 in the Netherlands for which cf. M. J. de Goeje, Catalogus Codicum Orientalium Bibliothecae Academiae  Lugduno-Batavae, vol.5, Leiden, 1873, p.273 and MS Marsh, no. 40, fols. 255 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. See also J. Uri, Bibliothecae Bodleianae Codicum Manuscriptorum Orientalium, Oxford, 1787, Pt.1, p.62 and A. Nicoll, Catalogi Codicum Manuscriptorum Orientalium Bibliothecae Bodleianae pars secunda,Oxford, 1835, p.569.

[3] See MS Arabe, no. 204 fols. 56a-58b = Muslim-Christian Polemic, § 10, pp.91-97.

[4] See MS Utrecht Codex, no. 40, fols. 15a-17a and cf. Muslim-Christian Polemic , p.197.

[5] Christological schematisations are numerous and varied with theological nuances not reflected here due to the nature of the response which is not intended to be a theological analysis of the validity of the Trinity. For a survey of the doctrine, see J. Wolinski, art. “Trinity” in The Encyclopaedia of Christian Theology, ed. by Jean-Yves Lacosta, 3 vols. vol.3, pp.1606-1616.

[6] Meaning a four-part Godhead.

[7] A tri-partite division of the Godhead.

[8] A bi-partite division of the Godhead.

[9] Perfectus dues, perfectus homo in the Athanasian ‘Creed’. See Creeds, Councils and Christ by G. Brag, Leicester, 1984, p.215.

[10] ÐmooÚsion tù patr… – “of one being/substance/kind/co-substantiation of the Father” as stated in the 1st Council of Constantinople – 381. See also N. P. Tanner S.J., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1996, p.24. See also the Creed of the 1st Council of Nicaea – 325: tÁs oÙsiaj toà patrÒj (‘from the substance of the Father’) in Ibid., p.5. Cf. also the third letter of St. Cyril to Nestorius in Ibid., pp.50-61 especially the 12 required points related to the nature of Christ and finally see J. A. McGuckin, St Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994, pp.266-275.

[11] See John,1:32-34.


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