A new book entitled Arab Theology is leaping off the shelves of Arabic bookstores in the Middle East. The first copy of 5000 copies disappeared in a few days, and subsequent printings went almost as fast. Five thousand copies might not seem like much for a Middle East population of over 300 million people, but Arabs don't read a lot of books. The Oprahesque concept of curling up in a comfortable chair with a good book on a lazy Sunday afternoon is not your average Arab's idea of a good time.
Author Youssef Zeidan notes that the Arabic word for theology or divinity, Lahout, is of Syriac origin. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic that was spoken by the Christians who lived throughout Arabia until they were exterminated by Islam in the seventh century. Numerous other theological words present in today's Arabic, such as Malakout (the Kingdom of God), Jabarout (omnipotence), and Nasout (human nature) also derive from Syriac.
Youssef argues that the Nestorian Christians of Arabia developed the only true Lahout, or study of God, whereas the Coptic Christians of Egypt and the Orthodox and Catholic congregations of Eastern Europe and Near Asia were sidetracked by the person of Jesus. The Nestorians saw Jesus as a Prophet, not as God, and as the Syriac language was gradually replaced by Arabic the Nestorian concept of God found its way into Islam through Muhammad. According to Youssef, what are commonly described today as the Three Great Monotheistic Religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are in fact a single current of thought and belief that stretches across several thousand years.
Having established his theory that there is really only one monotheistic religion which finds expression today in the trilogy of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, Youssef develops his main argument which is that the real sources of violence and religious conflict come from competing sects within each faith. The battles of the Crusades between Muslims and Christians, he argues, were nothing in comparison to the wars between Israel and Canaan in the Old Testament or those between Protestants and Catholics in 17th century Europe.
The reason for these Biblical and European religious conflicts, believes Youssef, is the concept of Harb Al Muqaddasah or Holy War. The Hebrew soldier who annihilated the Philistines in Canaan three thousand years ago was convinced he was serving God in Holy War, and the Israeli soldier who kills a Palestinian in Israel today is convinced he is doing the same thing. God promised Abraham the land for his descendants, and the Israeli soldier is making sure the promise is fulfilled.
I have not yet been able to obtain a copy of this book, but listened to the author's description of it here on Al Jazeera TV. As he spoke I had the sense that I so often have in listening to similar presentations. It is as if a thick cloud surrounds the speaker, permeating his every thought and word. He thinks he is thinking objectively and speaking logically, but the cloud that influences every part of his being is Islam.
I was reminded of another Al Jazeera program I described here, where people were calling in to give their opinions of who was responsible for the slaughter of Christians in Iraq. Some people thought it was the Kurds, and others the Iranians. A surprising number were convinced it was the Americans. Only one person, Edward the Saudi, had the courage to say that we, Arab Sunni Muslims, are the ones who are killing Christians there.
I was reminded of the interview I translated here, where Ahmed Mansour interpreted the statement of a Coptic Priest that Christians in Egypt were prepared to die for their faith as a call for war.
They all think Islamically, which means they apply an Islamic understanding to everything they talk about. Because militant Jihad is a part of Islam emphasized repeatedly in the Quran, Youssef thinks that Israeli soldiers are gleefully killing Palestinians to carry out Holy War. Because the Islamic concept of martyrdom is the Shahid dying in war for Islam, Ahmed believes that Christian martyrs do the same thing. They are all unable to truly see reality from the viewpoint of the other, but only from the perspective of Islam.