Book Review: Thus spoke Father Qanawati

Mahmoud El-Wardani , Friday 20 Feb 2015

The author Qanawati was one of the prominent theologians in the twentieth century and played a great role in Christian-Islamic mutual understanding


Al-Masihyyah wa Al-Hadarah Al-'Arabiyyah (Christianity and The Islamic Civilisation) by Father George Shihata Qanawati, General Egyptian Book Organisation, Family's Library Series, Cairo 2014. pp.378

This book is perhaps one of the most important reprints which the Family's Library Series has published. It is considered one of the main references that tackled the Christian Arabs' civilisational, intellectual and scientific contribution to Arabian civilisation both before and after the advent of Islam.

The significance of this book originates from the stature of its author Father George Shihata Qanawati (1905 – 1994) who was one of the prominent theologians in the twentieth century and played a great role in Christian-Islamic mutual understanding. Qanawati was born in Alexandria, studied pharmacology, began teaching it and then turned to monasticism and joined the Dominican Order. He studied Philosophy and Theology in Cairo. In 1944 he was appointed the first secretary of the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies' Library and then became the Institute's Director. He also taught in a number of European universities and authored more than 250 books and essays ranging from Islamic topics to Natural Sciences and Islamic Mysticism.

According to Father Qanawati in the book's preface, he spent about half a century studying Arab philosophical, scientific and theologian heritage, tracing its impact on Western civilisation during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  He wrote that due to his specialisation in scientific studies on the one hand- especially in the chemical and pharmacological fields- and philosophical and theological on the other, he had the privilege to access several sources of Arab heritage and recognised its richness which he described as unimaginable.

Qanawati asserts from the very first lines that there are a number of common principles between Christianity and Islam and that it is the clue to understanding how the Christians lived in perfect harmony with their Muslim brothers. What's more important is that it "contributed naturally and continuously to building the Arab civilisation and keeping it". For instance, Sharia (Islamic Law) legalised the marriage of Muslim men to Christian women without forcing them to change their faith. He observed that it allowed the existence of Christian elements and habits to become integrated into the heart of the family that the women married into.

Father Qanawati devotes the third chapter to studying Christianity in the Arabian Peninsula before the advent of Islam- especially the Arabian Roman province which was a part of the Roman Empire.

For example, different Islamic narratives agree that after the conquest of Mecca, there were paintings depicting prophets and angels drawn on the Ka'aba walls, including paintings of Mary and Jesus. In this respect, Father Qanawati quotes Al-Azraqi, a trusted historian and scholar, and also a renowned biographer of the Prophet.

On the other hand, Christianity was affected by Al-Badiya (the Desert) nature, as there were a number of bishops who used to travel with the Arabs. They were referred to as "Campsite Bishops" and some of them participated in the church councils, which the Roman Empire used to hold to discuss the differences between Christian denominations. Those bishops used to sign in the councils using introductions such as "So and So bishop of the allied Arabian tribes" or "So and So bishop of the desert Arabs".

Historians, both ancient and modern, mention that Christianity was spread – at that time – in several areas in the Arabian Peninsula which were then mostly part of the Roman Empire. The first king to convert to Christianity after the year 570 AD was Al-Nu'man III.

In the fourth chapter, Father Qanawati discusses how the Greek philosophical, scientific and religious heritage was transferred to the Arab civilisation and contributed to grafting and enriching it after a selected group of translators undertook the burden of rendering it to the Arabic language either directly or through the Syriac language.

With the beginning of the Umayyad Caliphate, the Islamic capital was moved to Damascus and thus became the biggest contact point between the Arab world and Western civilisation- Greek in particular. Relationships were formed and strengthened between the inhabitants of the countries which the Arabs conquered in the Levant and Iraq. These countries were originally strongly influenced by Greek heritage. Naturally, the relationships didn't stop at the stage of economic exchange- it was extended to the religious and intellectual spheres.

Among the manifestations of these relationships, for example, the Jacobite church was adjacent to the Caliphate palace and the Caliphate Muawiya's physician was Christian, as was his vizier, his brother's tutor and favourite poet Al-Akhtal. The case was that the first two Islamic centuries witnessed a common life with strong bonds between Arab Muslims and Christians.

On another level, the Christian scientists played an extremely significant role in Arabising the Greek heritage and the renaissance during the Abbasid Caliphate. In this context, Father George Qanawati cites lists of Christian renderers of the Greek heritage into the Arabic language, as well as a comprehensive list of what was translated from this heritage and also the names of Christian scientists who were famous in the fields of science and philosophy. It is noticeable that he quoted Islamic references in these citations from the books of Ibn Al-Nadim, Al-Qifty and Ibn Abi-Usaiba.

Christians translated the works of Arsitotle and Plato in philosophy, physics and divinities, and the books of Hippocrates in medicine. As for Galen, who has written a number of comprehensive medical books, they translated, summarised and interpreted it as well as books in mathematics, stars and music.

These were general outlines of a distinguished book which Father Qanawati left to posterity. It remains to be pointed out that not only was it the Arabs during the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates that benefitted from the Arab Christian translators but many Greek books in their original versions were lost and Europe was obliged to translate them from Arabic into different European languages in order to achieve its Renaissance. 


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