Muslim protection of Christian monasticism before the Crusades

Although pre-Islamic arabia is often viewed, with some justification, as somewhat of a cultural backwater, the Arabs nonetheless had extensive contacts with both the Sassanid Persian and Byzantine empires.

Through the contacts with Byzantium, and especially through interaction with the Christianized Arab Ghassanid tribe, pagan Arabs first came into contact with Christian monasticism. Arab poets make a few references to Christian monks; one perhaps allegorical allusion describes a Bedouin wandering lost in the desert by night, who sees in the distance the flickering light from the lamp of a monk reading in his cell and finds shelter with him.

But such minor incidental references in poetry are insufficient to give us anything but the vaguest hints about how pre-islamic Arabs viewed monasticism. For a more complete understanding of how the muslim view developed we must turn to the Qur'an, where monasticism is discussed in four passages that laid the foundation for subsequent muslim attitudes toward monks during the crusades. On the positive side, the Qur'an describes monks as leading people near -although not fully- to the path of God.

This positive attitude toward monasticism was further emphasized by the story of the monk Bahira, found in the earliest surviving biography of Muhammad, written by Ibn Ishaq. As a young teenager Muhammad journeyed with a caravan to Syria. (The biography) reveals a number of implicit attitudes about monasticism. First, there is a clear preference in early Islamic sources for hermitic (solitary) monks over coenobitic (communal) monks. The favorably depicted monk in early islamic sources is generally the lone ascetic devoting his life to prayer and contemplation in the wilderness. In a sense, Muhammad himself pursued this ideal for his early biographers describe him as a hanif, a nondenominational monotheist who for one month each year withdrew to mount Hira' near Mecca for tahannuth, devotional prayer and contemplation. (...)

In addition to this basically positive assessment of monks, however, the Qur'an also outlines three major problems with monasticism. First, monasticism places human intermediaries between God and mankind. Second, monasticism was not ordained by God. However well intended, it is a human invention. Finally, monks are accused in the Qur'an of corruptly using their positions as rulers in society to garner personal wealth and power.

Yet, despite the problems with monasticism enumerated in the Qur'an, monks -and Christians in general- were considered "People of the Book", followers of God who had received an early portion of God's revelation but not the fullness revealed to Muhammad in the Qur'an. As such they became a tolerated religious minority within Islam. This attitude is reflected in the early Islamic conquests in the seventh century, when the churches and monasteries of the Christians were given special protection in peace treaties. (...) Thus, since the earliest days of Islam, monasticism was a protected institution of a protected religious minority.

This blog draws freely on the paper "Muslim perspectives on the military orders during the crusades" by William J. Hamblin, published in BYU Studies.Illustration: Muhammad's encounter with the Christian monk Baḥīrā, source

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