A recent book on the history of Christian-Muslim Studies has attracted significant discussion with its unusual and provocative line of enquiry. Cross Veneration in the Medieval Islamic World: Christian Identity and Practice under Muslim Rule (2017) offers a view of the extensive but oft-forgotten engagement among Muslims and Christians between the eighth and fourteenth century.

The author is Professor Charles Tieszen, an Adjunct Professor of Islamic Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary and the author of A Textual History of Christian-Muslim Relations (2015), and Christian Identity amid Islam in Medieval Spain (2013).

In this post, Professor Tieszen shares his initial inspiration for Cross Veneration in the Medieval Islamic World with the Christian-Muslim Studies Network blog. He also reflects thoughtfully on some of the work’s implications for contemporary Christian-Muslim engagement.

Christian-Muslim Studies Network Cross veneration is an unusual point for Christian-Muslim comparative work. Questions about monotheism, where discussion is long and rich, or even other concepts such as baptism or the Virgin Mary, where most Christians and Muslims often acknowledge a parallel, are more common. Do you think the book itself makes as provocative an argument as this title suggests?

Charles Tieszen Compared to discussions of monotheism or practices like baptism, the topic of cross veneration might seem obscure and unexpected. Actually, my initial interest in the topic began when reading a ninth-century text and reacting with surprise when I discovered the author addressing the practice of cross veneration alongside more expected topics. This surprise began a process of inquiry.

In this sense, the topic is unexpected and, in the context of Islam, which we typically assume to be iconoclastic (though this would not be entirely accurate), it can be provocative. As I try to show in the book, however, the topic was a commonplace in medieval disputational literature produced by Eastern Christians; they did not find it obscure in the least and, for this reason, I hope the book makes as provocative an argument as the title suggests.

In reality, the practice of venerating crosses and icons (and related acts of piety) are central acts of daily and communal devotion for Eastern Christian communities. For those who are a part of these traditions, the practice of cross veneration, the discussions that surround it, and the ways in which non-Christians view it are hardly unexpected. In fact, the literature that continues to be produced in order to discuss it—often in the form of leaflets or brochures made available in parish halls and bookstores—employs the very same arguments, sometimes verbatim, that John of Damascus or Theodore Abu Qurrah employed centuries earlier. Certainly one reason for this is the Eastern Christian preference for drawing from tradition in order to explain a concept, as opposed to introducing new arguments. But another reason is that the posture towards images was always a part of the monotheistic rhetoric, first among Jewish communities with respect to their surrounding milieus, then for Christian communities vis-à-vis Judaism and Greco-Roman religion, and then with reference to Islam. This pattern, alongside the fact that, at least for Eastern Christians, the practice of cross veneration remains central to their communal identity, means that discussions about it are commonplace even if they have become dislodged from their original contexts to the extent that they now seem unusual.

This is one of the arguments the book makes, but it also does so by trying to demonstrate the unique trajectory this identity formation took, not just in the context of Byzantine imperialism, but primarily in contexts influenced by Islam. Here the cross and the posture one took towards it (literally and figuratively) became symbols that shaped public space and the political and religious claims one could make on that space for either Christianity or Islam. In this way, part of the provocative nature of the title and the argument is the way in which cross veneration was so deeply seated in Eastern Christian society and as a feature of Christian-Muslim discourse.

CMSN Your article, ‘Re-planting Christianity in new soil: Arabized Christian religious identity in twelfth-century Iberia‘, identifies certain Arab Christian medieval texts – even some that offer polemics against Muslims – as crucial in ‘outlining for their readers a religious identity that helped them to navigate inter-religious living’. To what extent might cross veneration have served Muslims in the same way? That is to say, did cross veneration enable Muslims to plant Islam in new soil?

CT From the Muslim perspective, the Qur’an already had a built-in critique of the cross (or at least of Christian Christology) and so this critique functioned as a means for articulating religious identity, too. Did it help Muslims ‘plant Islam in new soil’? Perhaps not in the same way that Arab and Arabised Christians used Islam, but one readily thinks of the construction of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem: this structure, especially with its Arabic inscriptions, says something to Muslims about what they believe, but, positioned as it is near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre/Resurrection, it also says something vis-à-vis a different community with an opposing symbol. In this way, the cross was not necessarily given new meaning by Muslims (in the ways Arab/Arabised Christians sometimes infused new meaning into Islamic concepts), but it was a spot around which a new identity and polity could pivot in a new context.

CMSN Engagement with the cross and its importance to Christianity has featured in contemporary Christian-Muslim engagement in several ways. The following quote, from the final chapter of Professor Mona Siddiqui’s book, Christians, Muslims, and Jesus, offers one such engagement of a contemporary Muslim scholar as she sits in a church and contemplates the cross. What parallels or contrasts might come from your own research into medieval Christian-Muslim engagement?

‘The cross is powerful and the crucifixion is sorrowful. But as I sit here I feel that while the cross speaks to me, it does not draw me in. Its mystery is moving, but I cannot incline towards what it says about a God in form, a God who undergoes this inexplicable agony for an inexplicable act of mercy. It is not the language of redemption which I cannot understand, it is the necessity of God’s self-revelation for this act of redemption. Why does the fall become the paradigm of human life, making the cross the ultimate paradox of death and new life? There are other ways to come to redemption even if this means looking at the world in a dramatically different way. This is a world in which the intimacy of human relations with God does not rest on an event that has occurred but on our constant movement towards him in the hope of events which are about to occur. Forgiveness is not a given, it has not happened yet, not because it needs to be earned but simply because we have not witnessed it yet.’

Siddiqui, Mona. Christians, Muslims, and Jesus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. 242-243.

CT One of the interesting features of Christian-Muslim relations and dialogue is the way in which we see examples of one community encountering other community. Mona Siddiqui’s reflection, which you quote, is a wonderful example of an encounter that goes beyond observation and moves to actual engagement. Her words are as beautifully written as they are profound.

For my part, I have sat in grand and not-so-grand mosques wondering about some of the same things that Mona reflects upon in that local church. The architecture, no matter how grandiose or practical, speaks to me and the language of God scripted so beautifully moves me. The imprints left by prostrating hands and heads on the carpet are tactile reminders that there was an encounter here with the Divine. Yet I incline myself not in the direction of this qiblah, but towards the direction marked out by a cross (which, in my tradition, is quite literal).

Why? It is certainly not because I find one tradition to be intellectually superior and thereby more convincing. One could explore the notion of religious belonging, but to respond directly, I think there are indeed parallels with my work on medieval Islam and the work Mona does because so much of it involves placing religious thought in a multi-religious context where we see belief and practice being forged in light of different and at times opposing beliefs and practices. There is something about this approach that helps to sharpen how we view religion, both our own and that of others. I can only hope that the results of my work will be as beautiful and profound as they are for Mona’s work.

CMSN Several of your other books bring to light both the context and insight that primary texts from the medieval period provide. Was there anything unearthed in the primary literature from which this book draws that surprises or troubles the any assumptions of contemporary Christian-Muslim dialogue? 

One thing I discovered in the course of research that was both surprising and troubling was the link between posture and belief, a kind of lex orandi, lex credendi. One of the related discussions with respect to cross veneration was the direction one faced in worship (the Christian communities referred to in the book faced East, Muslims faced Mecca) and how the cross both pointed out that direction and became a sign through which one bowed toward Christ (for Christians).

It was awkward to reflect on that history and the ways authors discussed this kinetic and symbolic aspect of worship when, at the same time, I observed Christian communities where I live pointing themselves towards an American flag and bowing before it in prayer. There is a remarkable dissonance that is produced in such an environment when the symbol of the cross is replaced or marginalised in this way. How that dissonance further reshapes a community’s posture towards other religious communities, especially ones for whom the cross can function as its own kind of symbol (even if only as a foil), is also significant. This example could be an extreme one, but it is connected to a cultural expression of faith in which the meaning of symbols is assumed (in this case, a national symbol is made to do double-time as a religious symbol). Unfortunately, that symbol can also be weaponised when it is baptized and put into service. I think the study of religious practices and their related symbols helps to dislodge some of these presumptions by giving us eyes to see in fresh ways what might otherwise go unnoticed and, thereby, help us to decrease dissonance between symbol, posture, and practice. In this process we might also decrease the dissonance between religious communities and, in turn, produce something closer to harmony.

CMSN What would you like to see next, either in this discipline or related to the field of Christian-Muslim Studies?

CT I think I am primarily opening up a Christian-Muslim engagement with the symbol of the cross. I think it is a creative endeavour with fruitful results and potential for more. But along the way I do try to open up how a few Muslims engaged with what the cross meant for Christian worship and surely more can be done there, both within historical methodologies and contemporary theological engagement.