A History of Orthodox Missions Among the Muslims

A History of Orthodox Missions Among the Muslims
by Yurij Maximov

It is widely believed that Muslims do not abandon Islam. This widespread opinion is, however, only partly true. It is true that it is difficult to convert Muslims, but it is not so much the difficulty of converting Muslims as it is the scarcity of Christian missions among them that leads us to believe they are hard to convert. Still, if many think that Muslims are difficult to convert to Protestantism or Roman Catholicism, even more would think it impossible to convert Muslims to the Orthodox Faith. This later opinion has its basis in a general lack of knowledge about the missionary labors of the Orthodox throughout the ages and the world in places as diverse and far apart as Africa, India, Siberia, China, Japan, and Alaska. Indeed, the history of Orthodox missions among the Muslims is a particularly important and fascinating part of the overall mission of the Orthodox Church. As it is impossible to fully cover the history of Orthodox missions among the Muslims here I have only attempted to highlight some of its facets to give those interested a better idea about this part of the Orthodox Church's missions.

Although it is generally known that many of Muhammad's followers found refuge in Ethiopia during the early years of Islam, it is not well known that one of his followers, Ubaidallah ibn Jahiz, became a Christian while in Ethiopia and was baptized there. He was the first Muslim, but certainly not the last, to discover and embrace the truth. Here are two stories from the early history of Islam, both set in the reign of the fourth 'righteous' caliph, Muhammad's nephew and son-in-law Ali: "One Muslim converted to Christianity. Ali ordered him to return to Islam, but he refused. Ali killed him and would not give his body to his relatives, though they offered much money. Ali burnt the body. "Another man from the tribe Bani-Ijl became a Christian. He was brought shackled to Ali, who spoke at length with the convert. In response to Ali's questions the man said, "I know that Isa [Jesus] is the Son of God." Then Ali stood up and stamped on him. When the others saw it they also started to trample the man down. And Ali said: "Kill him." He was killed and Ali ordered that the body be burnt."

Missions within the East Roman or Byzantine Empire

From history we know that after the Arab Muslims' early conquest of Antioch the East Roman or Byzantine Empire regained that great city, together with northern and central Syria, during the 10th century. During the ensuing period of Byzantine rule the entire Arab Muslim population voluntarily converted to Orthodoxy, including the Arab nobility.1 The same happened in the district of Laodicea and the town of Melitene, which returned to the Byzantine Empire during the same time period.2 Most notable, however, is the conversion of the Bedouin tribe of the Banu Khabib in 935, who "[numbered] 12,000 horsemen with full armament, with families, clients (people who were not members of the tribe, but who enjoyed its protection - Y.M.), and slaves joined the Greeks, accepted Christ and started to fight against their former fellow believers.3 A history in Arabic by Ibn Safir, who wrote in the 13th century, said that the Banu Khabib remained Christians "till today."

Several examples of more 'concentrated' missions among the Muslims can be found in Byzantine hagiographical works. In the middle of the 9th century St. Theodore of Edessa converted the "Saracen king", Muawid, one of the three sons of the Umayyad caliph Mutawakkil (847-861), to Orthodoxy, baptizing him with the name John together with his three confidants.4 St. Ilya the New, when staying in Palestine at the end of the 9th century, healed and baptized many Muslims. Later, while traveling to Persia, the Saint met twelve Muslims whom he converted to Christianity and baptized.5 At the opening of the 9th century St. Gregory Dekapolites wrote about the conversion of the Umayyad caliph's nephew, which was followed by the conversion of many other Muslims.6

There are other vivid stories that can be recalled. At the end of the 9th century and the beginning of the 10th century a Spanish Muslim, Omar ibn Khaphsun, converted to Christianity with his sons and ruled over several mountain valleys for nearly fifty years, having the castle Bobastro as his residence.7 During the same period of time the Kurdish prince Ibn-ad-Dahhak, who possessed the fortress of al-Jafary, abandoned Islam for Orthodoxy.8 Additionally, the contemporaries of the Muslim theologian Abdallah ibn Kullaib (who died in 955) write that he secretly converted to Christianity.9 It is also known that Bunei ibn Nefis, a military commander and confidant of caliph al-Muktadir, became an Orthodox Christian and fought with the Byzantines against arabs.

Looking at all of these sources we can say that as many as 100,000 Muslims converted to Christianity during the 9th and 10th centuries. It is also interesting to note that in the 15th century the great Muslim city of Baghdad and some regions of Asia Minor ruled by the Turkish Kara-Kiunglu dynasty adopted Christianity, they having been condemned by Egyptian historians for apostasy.

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[Read it all at Orthodox Wiki.]

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