Christian Influences In Islam

Christian influences in Islam could be traced back to Eastern Christianity, which surrounded the origins of Islam. Islam, emerging in the context of the Middle East that was largely Christian, was first seen as a Christological heresy known as the “heresy of the Ishmaelites”, described as such in Concerning Heresy by Saint John of Damascus, a Syriac scholar. 

Christians introduced the Muslims to Greek learning. Eastern Christians (particularly Nestorian Christians) contributed to the Arab Islamic civilization during the Ummayad and the Abbasid periods by translating works of Greek philosophers to Syriac and afterwards to Arabic. They also excelled in philosophy, science, theology and medicine.

The majority of Muslim countries also use a Gregorian calendar and some countries observe Sunday as a non-working day (cf. Sunday Sabbatarianism).

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453

Prayer and worship

In explicating the origin of the Islamic salah, academics state that it was influenced by the religions prevalent in the Middle East during the time of Muhammad, such as Christianity and Judaism. The five fixed prayer times in Islamic prayer may have their origins in the canonical hours of Christians, especially those used in the 4th century by believers in the Oriental Orthodox Churches (that were widely regarded as Monophysite) who prayed seven times a day, given the extensive contact that Muhammad and his companions had with Syrian Christian monks. Abu Bakr and other early followers of Muhammad were exposed to these fixed times of prayer of the Syrian Christians in Abyssinia and likely relayed their observations to Muhammad, “placing the potential for Christian influence directly within the Prophet’s circle of followers and leaders.” Muhammad, who had direct contact with the Christians of Najrān in Yemen, would have been aware of the Christian practice of facing east while praying, which was ubiquitous in Christendom at the time. The position of prostration used by the Desert Fathers, Coptic Christian monks of Egypt, may have influenced the position of sujjud, marked by the Quranic symbol ۩.

Christian prayer in the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox traditions employs bows and prostration.

A Christian prayer in the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox traditions employs bows and prostration.

Ritual washing before performing the Salah was influenced by the Jewish practice of washing one’s hands and feet before praying, a practice common among the Jews in Syria, Yathrib and Yemen; the Babylonian Talmud teaches that in the absence of water, earth should be used, a practice adopted in Islam. The Jews face Jerusalem when praying and the Qur’an records that the early Muslims did the same, with the direction of prayer facing Mecca being changed to this later. Justin Paul Heinz regards these as clear examples of syncretism in which Judaism influenced religious practice in Islam.


In the late 7th and 8th centuries, Muslims encountered Levantine Christians. The cognate Syriac word sahedo may have influenced the Arabic shahid (martyr-witness). During the Abbasid dynasty, translations of the gospels from Syriac into Arabic were made, particularly by historian Bar-Hebraeus, at the request of the Arab governor.


Roman and Byzantine styles were particularly prevalent in early Islamic architecture. One of the examples is the Dome of the Rock (late 7th century) in Jerusalem. Its design is derived from Roman architecture. Madrasa-Mausoleum of Sultan Al Nasir Muhammad in Cairo has a Gothic doorway from Acre, reused as a trophy. The former Christian cathedral Madrasat al-Halawiyya in Aleppo, probably taken by Nur ad-Din Zangi, featured an altar. The Aqsa Mosque has a sculpted ornament, taken from Crusader structures of the 12th century, in the arches of the facade. The upper double capital of the mosque on twisted columns expresses the unity of nature in a characteristic Romanesque style.

After the fall of Constantinople, the Ottomans converted a major basilica, Hagia Sophia, to a mosque and incorporated Byzantine architectural elements into their own work, such as domes. This was a part of the conversion of non-Muslim places of worship into mosques. The Hagia Sophia also served as model for many Ottoman mosques, such as the Shehzadeh Mosque, the Suleiman Mosque and the Rüstem Pasha Mosque.

Christological motifs could be found in the works of Nizami, Rumi and others. Islamic artists applied Christian patterns for iconography. The picture of the birth of Muhammad in Rashid ad-Din’s Jami’ al-tawarikh is reminiscent of the birth of Jesus. The angels, hovering over the mother, correspond to a Christian type, while the three women, who came to visit the mother, conform to the three Biblical Magi. Some surviving Ayyubid inlaid brasses feature Gospel scenes and images of Madonna with infant Jesus. References to the Annunciation and the baptism of Jesus are manifest in al-Athar al-Baqiyah, where the Virgin is depicted in accordance with her representation in Byzantine art.

The frescoes of Samarra, painted between 836 and 883, also suggest the Christian craft because of the Christian priests who are the subjects and the signatures of the artist.

Cultural influence

Christians (particularly Nestorian Christians) contributed to the Arab Islamic civilization during the Ummayad and the Abbasid periods by translating works of Greek philosophers to Syriac and afterwards to Arabic. During the 4th through the 7th centuries, scholarly work in the Syriac and Greek languages was either newly initiated, or carried on from the Hellenistic period. Centers of learning and of transmission of classical wisdom included colleges such as the School of Nisibis, and later the School of Edessa, and the renowned hospital and medical academy of Jundishapur; libraries included the Library of Alexandria and the Imperial Library of Constantinople; other centers of translation and learning functioned at Merv, Salonika, Nishapur and Ctesiphon, situated just south of what later became Baghdad. The House of Wisdom was a library, translation institute, and academy established in Abbasid-era Baghdad, Iraq. Nestorians played a prominent role in the formation of Arab culture, with the Jundishapur school being prominent in the late Sassanid, Umayyad and early Abbasid periods. Notably, eight generations of the Nestorian Bukhtishu family served as private doctors to caliphs and sultans between the 8th and 11th centuries.

Role of Christianity in science in the medieval Islamic world

See also: List of Christian scientists and scholars of the medieval Islamic world

Christians especially Nestorian contributed to the Arab Islamic Civilization during the Ummayads and the Abbasids by translating works of Greek philosophers to Syriac and afterwards to Arabic. They also excelled in philosophy, science (such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq, Qusta ibn Luqa, Masawaiyh, Patriarch Eutychius, Jabril ibn Bukhtishu etc) and theology (such as Tatian, Bar Daisan, Babai the Great, Nestorius, Toma bar Yacoub etc.) and the personal physicians of the Abbasid Caliphs were often Assyrian Christians such as the long serving Bukhtishu dynasty.

Role of Christianity in medicine in the medieval Islamic world

Ibn Bakhtishu's Manafi' al-Hayawan (منافع الحيوان ), dated 12th century. Captions appear in Persian language.

Ibn Bakhtishu’s Manafi’ al-Hayawan (منافع الحيوان ), dated 12th century. Captions appear in Persian language.

A hospital and medical training center existed at Gundeshapur. The city of Gundeshapur was founded in 271 by the Sassanid king Shapur I. It was one of the major cities in Khuzestan province of the Persian empire in what is today Iran. A large percentage of the population were Syriacs, most of whom were Christians. Under the rule of Khosrau I, refuge was granted to Greek Nestorian Christian philosophers including the scholars of the Persian School of Edessa (Urfa)(also called the Academy of Athens), a Christian theological and medical university. These scholars made their way to Gundeshapur in 529 following the closing of the academy by Emperor Justinian. They were engaged in medical sciences and initiated the first translation projects of medical texts. The arrival of these medical practitioners from Edessa marks the beginning of the hospital and medical center at Gundeshapur. It included a medical school and hospital (bimaristan), a pharmacology laboratory, a translation house, a library and an observatory. Indian doctors also contributed to the school at Gundeshapur, most notably the medical researcher Mankah. Later after Islamic invasion, the writings of Mankah and of the Indian doctor Sustura were translated into Arabic at Baghdad. Daud al-Antaki was one of the last generation of influential Arab Christian writers.

Christian merchants and the silk trade

The Vank Cathedral. The Armenians moved into the Jolfa district of Isfahan and were free to build their prayer houses, eventually becoming an integral part of the society.

The Vank Cathedral. The Armenians moved into the Jolfa district of Isfahan and were free to build their prayer houses, eventually becoming an integral part of the society.

The one valuable item, sought for in Europe, which Iran possessed and which could bring in silver in sufficient quantities was silk, which was produced in the northern provinces, along the Caspian coastline. The trade of this product was done by Persians to begin with, but during the 17th century the Christian Armenians became increasingly vital in the trade of this merchandise, as middlemen.

Whereas domestic trade was largely in the hands of Persian and Jewish merchants, by the late 17th century, almost all foreign trade was controlled by the Armenians. They were even hired by wealthy Persian merchants to travel to Europe when they wanted to create commercial bases there, and the Armenians eventually established themselves in cities like Bursa, Aleppo, Venice, Livorno, Marseilles and Amsterdam. Realizing this, Shah Abbas resettled large numbers of Armenians from the Caucasus to his capital city and provided them with loans. And as the shah realized the importance of doing trade with the Europeans, he assured that the Safavid society was one with religious tolerance. The Christian Armenians thus became a commercial elite in the Safavid society and managed to survive in the tough atmosphere of business being fought over by the British, Dutch, French, Indians and Persians, by always having large capital readily available and by managing to strike harder bargains ensuring cheaper prices than what, for instance, their British rivals ever were able to.

Ottoman Empire

Immediately after the Conquest of Constantinople, Mehmet II released the his portion of the city’s captive Christian population with instructions to start the rebuilding of Constantinople which had been devastated by siege and war. Afterwards, he begin to also repopulate the city bringing new inhabitants – both Christian and Muslim – from the whole empire and from the newly conquered territories. Phanar was then repopulated with Greeks deported from Mouchlion in the Peloponnese and, after 1461, with citizens of Trebizond.

The roots of Greek ascendancy can be traced to the need of the Ottomans for skilled and educated negotiators as the power of their empire declined and they were compelled to rely on treaties more than the force of arms. From the 17th century onwards the Ottomans began facing problems in the conduct of their foreign relations, and were having difficulties in dictating terms to their neighbours; the Porte was faced for the first time with the need of participating in diplomatic negotiations.

Given the Ottoman tradition of generally ignoring Western European languages and cultures, officials found themselves unable to handle such affairs. The Porte subsequently assigned those tasks to the Greeks who had a long mercantile and educational tradition and could provide the necessary skills. As a result, the so−called Phanariotes, Greek and Hellenized families mostly native to Constantinople, came to occupy high posts of secretaries and interpreters to Ottoman officials and officers.

Some of the most influential Arab nationalists were Arab Christians, like George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Syrian intellectual Constantin Zureiq. Many Palestinian Christians were also active in the formation and governing of the Palestinian National Authority since 1992. The suicide bomber Jules Jammal, a Syrian military officer who blew himself up while ramming a French ship, was also an Arab Christian. While Lebanese Maronite Christian were among the Masters and Fathers of the Arabic Renaissance Al-Nahda.

Today Middle Eastern Christians are relatively wealthy, well educated, and politically moderate, as they have today an active role in various social, economical, sporting and political aspects in the Middle East.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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