St John of Damascus on Islam

St John of Damascus is a very important witness to early Islam. He was born into a very privileged family in Damascus (his grandfather had been the administrator of the city at the time the Muslims took it) and he grew up and served in the court of the caliph. He was entirely familiar with Islam (a name it did not yet possess, apparently), and thus what he has to say about it, and the context in which he places it, is of great historical importance. For one thing, this is a single chapter in his work On Heresies, part of his larger work, The Fountain of Knowledge. Thus, during his lifetime, St John did not consider Islam to yet be a separate religion, but rather a Christian heresy. In any case, he mentions several suras of the Qur’an by name, and refers most interestingly to one which is no longer extant. St John, in this work, as characteristically, pulls no punches. Enjoy.


And there is also the up until now strong and people-deceiving superstition of the Ishmaelites, being the forerunner of Antichrist. And it is born from Ishmael, who was born from Hagar to Abraham, from which they are called Hagarenes and Ishmaelites. And they call them Saracens, as from Σαρρας κενοι (those empty of Sarah), because of what was said by Hagar to the angel: “Sarah has sent me away empty.” So then, these were idolaters and reverenced the morning star and Aphrodite, who they indeed named Khabar in their own language, which means great. Therefore, until the time of Heraclius, they were plainly idolaters. From that time and until now came up among them a false prophet called Mamed, who, having encountered the Old and New Testament, as it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk, he put together his own heresy. And under the pretext of seeming pious, attracting (?) people, he reported that a book was sent down to him from heaven by God. Therefore some of the compositions written by him in a book, worthy of laughter, which he handed down to them as an object of reverence.

He says there is one God, the Maker of all things, neither having been begotten nor having begotten. He says Christ is the Word of God and His Spirit, only a creation and servant, and that he was born without seed from Mary the sister of Moses and Aaron. For he says the Word of God and the Spirit went into Mary and she bore Jesus who was a prophet and servant of God. And that the Jews, acting against the law, wanted to crucify him and having seized (him), they crucified his shadow. For Christ himself, they say, was not crucified nor did he die, for God took him to himself into heaven because he loved him.

And he says this, that when Christ went up into the heavens, God questioned him, saying, “O Jesus, did you say that ‘I am the Son of God and God’?” And Jesus, they say, answered, “Have mercy on me, O Lord; you know that I did not say (that), nor am I too proud to be your servant, but men who have turned aside wrote that I said this word and lied about me, and are wandering.” And God, they say, answered him, “I know that you did not say this word.” And many other astonishing sayings in this same writing, worthy of laughter, he boasts God sent down to him.

But we say, “And who is the witness that God gave the writing to him, or which of the prophets foretold that such a prophet would arise?” And they are at a loss, as Moses received on Mount Sinai, in the sight of all the people, the Law of God who appeared in cloud and fire and darkness and storm. And that all the prophets, from Moses and onward, foretold the coming of Christ, and that Christ is God, and the Son of God, being flesh, will come, and will be crucified, and will die, and will rise again, and he will be the judge of the living and the dead. And we say, “Why did your prophet not come in this way, with others witnessing about him, nor coming among you as God gave the Law to Moses on a smoking mountain with all the people watching, and, as you claim, provide this book, so you also might have certainty?” They answer that God does as he wills. We know this too, we say. But, we ask, how did the writing come down to your prophet? And they answer that while he was asleep the writing came upon him. And we jokingly say to them that since he received the writing while sleeping, and did not sense the activity, in him is fulfilled the popular proverb (“You are spinning me dreams”).

Again we ask, “Why, when he commanded us in your writing not to do or to receive anything without witnesses, did you not ask him that ‘First you show through witnesses whether you are a prophet, and that you came from God, and which Scripture witnesses about you?'” They are silent, ashamed. To whom we say, “For good reason! Since it is not allowed for you to marry a woman without witnesses, nor to buy, nor acquire property (?), nor do you allow yourselves to have a donkey or an animal unwitnessed. For you indeed also have wives, and properties, and donkeys, and all the rest through witnesses, and you have only a faith and a writing unwitnessed. For he who handed this down to you has in no way an assurance, nor is any previous witness of him known, but he received this also while sleeping.”

And they call us Associators, because, they say, we introduce an associate to God by saying Christ is the Son of God and God. To whom we say that this is what the Prophets and Scripture have handed down. And you, as you insist, accept the Prophets. If, therefore, we are wrong saying Christ is the Son of God, they also are who taught and handed it down to us. And some of them indeed say that we have allegorized the Prophets, imputing (sayings) to them. Others say that the Hebrews, hating (us), have deceived us, having written as from the Prophets, so that we might be destroyed.

And again we say to them, “You say that Christ is the Word of God and the Spirit. How then do you rebuke us as ‘Associators’? For the Word and the Spirit are each of them unseparated from Him in Whom they have been born. If, therefore, in God is His Word, it is obvious he is also God. But if he is outside of God, as according to you, God is irrational (αλογος) and lifeless (απνους). Therefore, in avoiding to associate with God, you have mutilated him. But it would be better for you to say that he has an associate than to mutilate him, and represent him like a stone, or wood, or any of those insensible things. Thus, indeed, falsely accusing us, you call us ‘Associators.’ But we call you ‘Mutilators of God.'”

They also accuse us as idolaters for reverencing the Cross, which they despise. And we say to them, “Why, therefore, do you rub yourselves against the stone by your Khabathan, and love kissing the stone?” And some of them say Abraham had relations with Hagar upon it, and others that he tied up the camel around it when about to sacrifice Isaac. And we respond to them, “The Scripture says that there was a mountain like a grove, and wood from which also Abraham cut for the whole burnt offering on which he laid Isaac, and that he left the donkeys with the servants. Therefore, from what source is your foolish saying? For there is no wood of a forest lying in that place, nor travelling by donkeys.” They are indeed ashamed. Nevertheless, they say the stone is of Abraham. Then we say, “If it is of Abraham, as you foolishly say, therefore are you not ashamed, kissing this thing only because Abraham had relations with a woman upon it, or that he tied up a camel? But you censure us because we show reverence to the Cross of Christ through which the strength of the demons and the deceit of the Accuser is destroyed?” And this thing which they say is a stone is the head of Aphrodite which they reverenced, who they also called Khabar, upon which also even up to now the shadow of an inscription appears to careful observers.

As we have said, this Mamed composed many foolish sayings, and he laid upon each of them a title, like the writing “The Women,” in which also he plainly legislates (for a man) to take four wives and one thousand concubines if he is able, however many he might put under his hand, aside from the four wives. And he legislated to divorce whichever one he wishes, or if he wishes, also to take care of another, for this very reason: Mamed had a companion named Zeïd. This one had a beautiful wife, whom Mamed loved. Therefore, when they were sitting together, Mamed said, “Oh, by the way, God has ordered me to take your wife.” And he answered, “You are the Apostle; do as God has said to you. Take my wife.” Or rather, so we might tell it from the beginning, he said to him, “God has ordered me, that you divorce your wife” And he divorced. And after several days, he says, “But God has ordered that I will also take her.” Then he took (her) and committed adultery with her (and) made this law: “He who wills may divorce his wife, but if after divorcing, he would return to her, another must marry her; for it is not allowed to take (her back) if she has not been married by another. And even if a brother divorces, let his brother marry her, if he is willing.” And in the same writing, he transmits this message: “Plough the land which God has given to you, and beautify it” and do this, and in this way—so I might not say all the obscene things as he did.

Again, there is the writing of the Camel of God, about which he says that there was a camel from God, and she drank a whole river, and she could not pass between two mountains through which she could not fit. Therefore, he says, a people was in that place, and indeed on one day they would drink the water and the camel on the next. And while drinking the water, she maintained (?) them by providing milk instead of water. Therefore those men, being wicked, rose up, he says, and killed the camel. But there was a small camel of her offspring which, he says, when the mother had been done away with, cried out to God, and He took her to Himself. To them we say, “From where was that camel?” And they say that it was from God. And we say, “Did any other couple with this camel?” And they say, “No.” We say, “Therefore how did she give birth? For we see you camel is without father, without mother, without genealogy. And having given birth, she suffered evil. But neither does the coupler appear, and the little camel was taken up. Therefore, why did not your prophet, to whom, as you say, God has spoken, learn about the camel: where she pastures, and if any drank milk (?) by milking this one? Or was she not at some time, like her mother having met evil men, destroyed? Or did she enter into Paradise, your forerunner, from whom is your river which you foolishly say is of milk? For you say three rivers are to flow for you in Paradise: of water, wine, and milk. If your forerunner camel is outside of Paradise, it is obvious that she has dried up from hunger and thirst, or that others are enjoying her milk. And your prophet is boasting foolishly as having spoken with God, for the mystery of the camel was not revealed to him. And if she is in Paradise, she again drinks the water, and waterless, you will dry up in the midst of the delights of Paradise. But if you desire wine from the river flowing by, since there is no flowing water, for the camel drank it all, you will be inflamed (?) drinking unmixed wine, and collapse (?) in drunkenness, and fall asleep. And also, being heavy-headed after sleep, and having a headache from the wine, you will forget the pleasures of Paradise. Therefore, why did your prophet not think of these things that might happen to you in the Paradise of delights? Nor did he consider about the camel, where she now lives. But neither did you ask him, as the dream-teller was telling you about the three rivers. But we tell you definitely, your wonderful camel has run ahead of you into the souls of donkeys, where you are soon to live like animals. And in that place is the outer darkness, and endless punishment, the roaring fire, the unsleeping worm, and demons of Tartarus.

Mamed speaks again (in) the writing of The Table. And he says that Christ asked God for a table, and he gave it to him. For God, he says, said to him that “I have given to you and to yours an incorruptible table.”

Again, the writing of The Cow, and some other foolish sayings worthy of laughter, I think I should skip because of their number. He legislated that they be circumcised, including the women, and also commanded not to keep the Sabbath, nor to be baptized, and to eat some of the things forbidden in the Law, and to avoid (some of) those it permitted. And he entirely forbade the drinking of wine.


65 thoughts on “St John of Damascus on Islam”

  1. Pope_St_Peter, This was written in the early 700s, during the time of the last Umayyad caliphs, just before the Abassid coup. I’ll improve the short introduction later today to include date and other information. I was just too tired last night once I’d finally finished it to put too much energy into that part!

  2. Yes, Derek. He was no doubt influenced by St John Damascene, as many are on this point. It’s not particularly obvious from our current standpoint, after 1300 years of development in Islamic theology. It appears to be particularly after the time of St John, in the early Abassid period, that Islam diverged sharply from Christianity and went from heresy to distinctly separate religion.

    1. Islam did not diverge from anything, It’s the Christian view that evolved over time ( like your theology). Few decades after John, The Christendom recognized Muhammad as a true prophet, but just for the Arabs, not for all people.

      I am struck by the level of this piece of John of Damascus, I was expecting a much higher intellectually work. I can’t believe that these objections are presented to Muslims, and the Muslims just turned in shame. Some objections are really silly, such as where is the witness to that Muhammad was given a revelation from God? A Muslim would simply point out that there is witness to any of the writing of the NT, and numerous Prophets of the OT.
      May be John was debating with 8 year old student of Islam.

      And I want to mention that The Quran was not changed at anytime, even if you suppose that Othman burned the supposed missed Surah, that happened 100 years before this writing of John. Your argument doesn’t hold water.
      My opinion is that John has writing this piece without real knowledge or study o Islam.

      The only valuable information from his writing is to show how much tolerant the Muslims were in the early age with unbelievers. If a Muslim say that Jesus is a false prophet in any part of the Christendom , he would be killed.

      1. Muneeb, you are mistaken on several points.

        First, of course Islam developed. Muslims may not like the idea, but it certainly did, and it continues to do so. But the early Abassid period was when the religion was developed into something completely separate from Christianity.

        Second, whoever told you that Christianity recognized Muhammad as a prophet for Arab Christians only is either lying or simply wrong. That is not true at all. He is not considered a Christian Saint or Prophet.

        Third, St John was not writing for Muslims, but to Christians. There are other debates between Christians and Muslims, but the above does not come from one of those. As I describe above, it’s one chapter in a book describing various heresies.

        Fourth, St John certainly knew the Islam of his day, having been at the court of the Caliph in Damascus from birth until he retired to the monastery in Palestine. That is what makes this short writing so interesting, that his description involves differences. Whether it was Uthman or another who removed The Camel of God surah is irrelevant. The fact is that St John knew it as part of the Qur’an and it is now no longer there. And that is very interesting.

        Fifth, your statement simply wrong: “If a Muslim say that Jesus is a false prophet in any part of the Christendom , he would be killed.” Whether in the past or the present, that is simply not true.

        This short writing is recognized for its value in helping understand the history of Islam. It’s certainly not well-known in Muslim circles, as it’s really not relevant for anything else. As you noticed, the arguments are not particularly compelling nowadays. We have other issues that are more important, like that of this so-called “tolerance.” I will believe in Muslim tolerance when churches are permitted to be built in every Muslim nation and area and Christians are permitted to worship in them without being killed and without fear. That would be true tolerance.

        1. Your claims has no scholarly back up sources , you assume everything John wrote is right and and everything a Muslim writes is wrong.
          The idea that the religion of Islam was not known by its name is a quite silly, it shows only that John has not studied Islam. For the word Islam and Muslims is mentioned several times in the Quran. The Sanaa manuscript of the Quran predates John by several decades and it does not include that Surah of the she-camel that John speaks about. Uthman’s standardization of the Quran happened 100 years before John. Being a high official in Islamic court doesn’t mean he studied Islam. Go ask Barak Obama how many Books are there in the Bible and see if you get a good response.
          The Abbaside are from of Ibn Abbas, Many of the Islamic tradition came to us are from Him.
          John doesn’t make the difference between Hadiths and Quran, He mentions circumcision which is only found in Hadith tradition.
          As I said the supposed debates between “us” and “they” can hardly have happened, some of john’s objections are inconsistent with his belief, Where is the witness to ANY revelation in the Bible? If you assume that John is right about everything, than the NT also has evolved , since the one we have today doesn’t present a witness to its revelation. I need to check again, I think also Moses was ALONE when he received the tablets. Would you believe that the story has been changed from what John has in his time?

          Finally, there was a time when some Christians in the east recognized Muhammad as a prophet from God, but only for the Pagan Arabs. That is why Ibn Taymyah has written 6 volumes refuting their claim. I am sure John knows that in the Bible God gave a promise of blessings to the sons of Ishmael, Rabbis recognized Islam to be that blessing. Can God bless a people by making them followers of “Anti-Christ”?

          Of course, your assumption that every Christian saint is infallible would lead you to erroneous conclusions. I respect you faith, but you cannot convince us with arguments based on assumptions and blind faith.

        2. Muneeb, on the contrary, my claims come directly from scholarly sources, as opposed to yours which are merely your religion’s own self-satisfying tale of its origins. I’ll post a bibliography for you later. For now, here are some quick points:
          1.) “islam” appears in the Qur’an but as a proper noun, not as the name of a religion. There is a difference.
          2.) your claims that St John wouldn’t have known much about Islam, being at the very court of the caliph and raised and educated with one of those eventual caliphs himself, are ridiculous.
          3.) the early Abassid period was the one in which Islam found itself named and established (through the help of some very convenient ahadith) as a fully organized religion in contrast to Judaism, Christianity, Manichaeism, etc.
          4.) read more attentively: the delivery of the Law at Sinai begins with the voice of God terrifying the people. In the NT, the words of Jesus are relayed from the witnesses that heard them, and His miracles affected thousands. In contrast, Muhammad’s visions were private: no angel appeared that others could witness. That’s what St John is saying.
          5.) again, this is not a debate; St John’s writing is from a descriptive list of heresies, based upon an epitome of the Panarion of St Epiphanius of Cyprus, to which he added the last few heresies, including this one on “Ishmaelites.”
          6.) some Christians may have considered Muhammad a prophet for the pagan Arabs, but this was not an idea shared by any theologians or mentioned in any of the Church Fathers, which makes the claim dubious at best.

          More later.

          1. Islam is not a name of religion in the Quran? LOL
            1/ And whoever seeks a RELIGION other than ISLAM, it shall not be accepted from him, and in the life to come he shall be among the losers.” [Quran 3:85].

            This day have I perfected your RELIGION for you and completed My favor upon you and have chosen for you ISLAM as your RELIGION.” [Quran 5:3

            Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was one inclining toward truth, a Muslim. And he was not of the polytheists. Quran 3:67

            These verses are in the Sanaa Manuscript which predates the book of John of D. That is a sufficient proof to demonstrate the lack of knowledge of John.

            John’s education is very disputed. Some say he had a Hellenic education, others say Classic Christian education. His writings clearly demonstrate he had no Islamic education.

            “the delivery of the Law at Sinai begins with the voice of God terrifying the people”
            A terrifying voice is a witness to revelation?!!

            You are putting words in the mouth of John, John is not talking about witness to Miracles, he is talking about witness to revelation. We have no witness to any writing of NT, some are clearly Anonymous, others are forgeries.

            “as Moses received on Mount Sinai, in the sight of all the people, the law of God who appeared in cloud and fire and darkness and storm”
            That is a flat out lie, God did not appear at anytime. Nobody saw God delivering the law to Moses, would you say that John is talking about some missing verses in your Bible? Be consistent please.
            Furthermore, was Moses foretold by any prophets, may be Noah?
            You are right, John’s writing are just for the gullible Christians around him. That shows that the layman Christians of his time, had no access to scriptures for themselves, but they rely on whatever the Church told then to believe.

            Ibn Warraq is not a scholar of anything. You didn’t give any scholarly quote.

          2. You really aren’t getting it are, you? “Islam” as used in the Qur’an is simply the word for “submission,” and isn’t used as a label, like “Judaism” or “Christianity.” These are completely separate. You will find NO author anywhere, Muslim or otherwise, referring to the religion with that term as a label in the same manner that “Judaism” is used until the Abassid period. This is a point made in some of the work that I cited for you, by people better qualified than you or I are. But if you are too lazy to look it up, then we have nothing more to discuss.

            John (whose name before becoming a monk was Sarjun ibn Mansur) certainly received a classical and Christian education. And of course he didn’t receive a Muslim education, but he would certainly have known about the religion of the rulers under whom he worked, and all the people of the level of society of which he was a part, mostly Christian, some Muslim. The suggestion that one must be Muslim to know about the religion is absurd.

            And yes, it appears that you are having difficulty following St John’s objections in regard to witnesses, too, which was a consistent charge in debates between Christians and Muslims as well. Yes, God appeared on the mountain, covered in a storm, and His voice frightened the people. Read it yourself: “And the LORD came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.” (Exodus 19:20 RSV) “Now when all the people perceived the thunderings and the lightnings and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled; and they stood afar off, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:18–19 RSV). That’s thousands of witnesses. Is that clear enough for you? And in the case of the New Testament, all the sayings and actions of Jesus Christ are considered revelation, and all the people that experienced them were witnesses to those. But, as St John says, demonstrating clearly that he knows the stories attached to Muhammad, his visions were private: no one else heard a voice or saw an angel or anything. No witnesses there!

            What the above writing is is a demonstration in very short space of some very clear points which St John finds evidence for heresy. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. But it is certainly not the case that St John is expecting people to accept his word over that of the Bible itself. He alludes to the Bible, which he and I know a whole lot better than you do, as I show you the quotes above that you were ignorant of. If you don’t know something, don’t pretend. You’re wasting my time.

            ibn Warraq was the editor of that volume, which is comprised of separate chapter-articles from a number of good scholars, most of whom are professors of Islamic studies and history. The two Brill volumes are scholarship of the highest order.

          3. “You really aren’t getting it are, you? “Islam” as used in the Qur’an is simply the word for “submission,” and isn’t used as a label, like “Judaism” or “Christianity. ”


            Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was a Muslim. And he was not of the polytheists. Quran 3:67

            You want me to believe that the words ” Jew” and “Christian” are not in the same category as the word “Muslim”.
            Muslim means literally Submitters, but that doesn’t make sense where the Quran commands people to take no other RELIGION but Islam, that doesn’t leave room for your theory.
            How do you know that ISLAM is meant to be just an adjective? In other words, what do you expect the Quran to say, so that you become convinced that it’s actually a religion? I am waiting.

            I am still waiting for your scholarly quote about what feature of Islam evolved in the Abbaside period? I can’t purchase the volumes you mentioned, but since you have read the books , give me the quotes.

            “You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:18–19 RSV)”
            This passage demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Jews didn’t hear anything from God. If what they witnessed is thunder and clouds.

            One last question, do you believe in Hadiths as historical evidence?

          4. I am not responsible for doing your reading for you. Go to a library.

            The assertion that Abraham was a Muslim is simply laughable.

            You are not permitted to post here anymore. Comments on this post are closed.

  3. Kevin, Thank you so much for posting this work! It is fascinating and, given the rapid spread of Islam in so-called Christians nations, it should be read widely.

  4. Christopher, yes, that’s a funny one, isn’t it? Such things were very common, though. I wouldn’t be too hard on ancients and their sometimes peculiar (yet amusing and charmingly naive, I often think) etymons. They did their best with what they had. I’ve heard the sharqiyyin suggestion before, too, but I think the most likely suggestion I’ve seen (and it wasn’t in the book in which I just thought it was, so now I’m not sure where I read this or what the suggested Syriac or Arabic name was) was for the name of one of the Byzantine Christian Arab Confederate Tribes based out of SW Syria to have been transformed into a general term for Arabs, much as “Graecae” as a S Italian Greek tribe’s name came to be applied all Greeks.

    And you’re very welcome Alice! It certainly is fascinating, and I would think that, if nothing else, it at least shows people that Islam did not arise in a vaccuum and was not unopposed during its history.

  5. As much as I love St John of Damascus’ writings (reading On the Divine Images now for the third time), he gives an unpleasant amount of folk etymologies. “Saracens” is not from Σαρρας κενοι, but from Arabic sharqiyyin, “Those from the East”.

  6. A fascinating piece. Thanks for posting it.
    Which bit was in the quran then but not now? Is it instead an extra quranic islamic tradition (hadith) instead?

  7. Hi Peter,
    It’s the writing he called “The Camel of God.” It’s definitely not a hadith, which was not a recognized body at the time he wrote (between 743 when his adopted brother Cosmas, who asked him to write the Fount of Knowledge, became bishop of Maiuma, and circa 750, when St John died). The ahadith were only first collected and written down over a century later (and following). As St John mentions “The Camel of God” in an identical manner to the other surahs which are still found in the Qur’an (The Women, The Table), it’s certain that he was referring to it as part of that book. It’s usually considered to have been included in one of the editions of the Qur’an which were atrociously destroyed by Uthman in his work of standardizing the text. While the story is alluded to in various early sources, it no longer exists in its entirety.

  8. I’ve learned much on the subject from many different books, of varying qualities, dealing on various particular aspects, some pretty technical, you might say. So, I may have to recommend more than one for you. I’ll look around for something!

  9. I think one of the best general introductions to Islam as both a religious, cultural, and political phenomenon (for it truly is even still all three) is Islam and the Arab World, edited by the incomparable Bernard Lewis. Basically, anything by him is excellent. That book is out of print, but there are many used copies available. The book is large and well-illustrated with both black and white and color photographs and various illustrations. But I think it’s still unparalleled as an introduction to the subject, both in information and presentation. And the used copies are nice and cheap, too!

  10. Kevin,

    I enjoyed reading St. John’s views on Islam. I am planning to link this post to my blog on Friday and with your permission, I will copy and post your introduction and the first paragraph of what St. John wrote.

    Claude Mariottini

  11. Kevin, that’s a very interesting post. Now, I’m going to try to push it at my Muslim friends and at the same time avoid getting physically assaulted (possibly).

  12. Kevin, I doubt it’ll do much good as any kind of apologetic work. However, if they’re very familiar with Muslim writings, you might ask them if they can find out anything about “The Camel of God” that St John mentions as a part of the Qur’an that he knew at the Umayyad Caliph’s court in Damascus, where he served as chief financial administrator from about 680-720. I’ve heard that the story is referenced here and there, but never seen specific information on precise citations.

    And let’s do hope that your worries about assault are only in jest.

  13. Off subject, but something that struck me while reading St. John’s objections about the lack witnesses re: the handing down of the Qur’an is that the same ojections could be made about Mormonism and Joseph Smith’s golden tablets. Only he saw them, and then — once he translated them into the Book of Mormon — they were taken back up into heaven.

  14. Yes, Glenn, the same has occurred to other thoughtful readers, as well. In the translation, I used “assurance” a few times. It could easily also be rendered “evidence.” St John focuses on the very point you mention: something so crucial as one’s religion and scripture, which is so very different from everything known before, is supposed to be accepted just on one person’s word? Particularly when anything important in secular and personal matters requires witnesses, why would not the most important things? It’s a very good point that St John makes.

  15. Kevin,
    Thanks for the translation and the helpful comments. I am working on a Ph.D. dissertation on John entitled “John of Damascus: First Apologist to the Muslims,” and I have been working with the “Heresy of the Ishmaelites.” Two of the best books on the subject are Daniel Sahas, “John of Damascus on Islam,” and Andrew Louth, “St. John Damascene.” One thing that really fascinates me is that John’s eyewitness account is about 100 years before the story that we get from the traditional Islamic accounts, even considering the first biography of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq (died in the mid 700’s but his material is only known from ibn Hisham who lived about 100 years later). It’s the same thing for the Qur’an. The earliest copy that we have of the Qur’an is from the late 700’s. It may be that John’s sketchiness in quoting from the Qur’an is because it had not been finalized yet. Of course, this is anathema to a Muslim, but the evidence for an earlier Qur’an is just not there.

    What other non-Muslim sources have you run across from the early 8th century? Also, do you know if there is an English translation of the Vita written about John, first in Arabic and then translated into Greek?

    Thanks again for getting some comments flowing on a very important topic for today!

  16. Hi D.J.! That sounds like a fun topic! Of course I would agree. I thought I had already mentioned that I was using the text in Sahas, a copy of the PG text, corrected toward the one in TLG (very minor differences). Shame on me! I’ll have to fit those in somewhere above. And I don’t yet have the Louth, but will pick it up soon.

    For the Vita, I only have the PG text listed. I don’t know if that’s the same one or not. If you find any translation of the Arabic one, please let me know, too. Maybe Sahas says something. I’ll have to delve into there again. He’s so incredibly thorough, I’ll bet it’s listed in there somewhere.

    On translations of early non-Muslim sources contemporary with the initial outburst of Islam, see Hagarism by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook. They essentially put together an account of the Muslim conquests from ONLY non-Muslim sources, reaching a widely different reconstruction from the traditional one in the Sirat, etc. I remember they provided references to the various patristic sources in the book, though I don’t have a copy. It’s hard to come by.

    I think you’re absolutely right about the unestablished text of the Qur’an at the point St John was writing. It was about to be standardized and the congerie of beliefs held by the Arab invaders was about to be melded (via a liberal sprinkling of very useful newly discovered “authentic” ahadith) into an actual religion in its own right by these earliest denizens of the Abassid throne. Certainly the surah on “The Camel of God” fell by the wayside, perhaps precisely because of St John’s scathing comments on it.

    Keep up the good work!

  17. I’ve never heard about “The Camel of God” surrah in the Quran. That’s pretty interesting to think that St. John gives us a “snapshot” of Islam before its codification. Does anyone know what modern muslim scholars’ positions are in regards to this surrah? I think most muslims believe that the Quran has been unchanged since Muhhamed.

  18. Greetings in Peace,

    Rather than taking it as some demonstration of an alleged proto-orthodox situation as is the case in Christology, the piece reveals itself to be a very strong polemic, lacking the usual fact-based approach.

    I think to use this piece as an authentic source of early Islamic manifestation, or even as a somewhat valid source, is extremely naive.

    To prove its polemic value, let us take the accusation that the Prophet took his info fropm an Arian monk. The Arian monk event, if it can be authenticated, was a short meet with a young lad and wow that brief encounter served as the basis from which the Quran itself sprung is fantastical to suggest.

    It also speaks to an assumption of borrowing, which is equally faulty because from whom did Muhammad borrow that Jesus was never crucified or resurrected – there would no purpose in breaking with the Christian position.

    ANOTHER note to show the proof is in the polemic, is the Christian notion that the Jewish Scriptures spoke of a Messiah that was to come – who was Divine, who was Son of the Divine etc. – which is certainly NOT the case. Such a reading approach is one big beg-the-question fallacy.

    ANOTHER yet is the kissing of the stone, Al Hajar Al Aswad.

    First, it is not even a mandatory act of any rite of worship, it is considered meritorious and desirable because the Prophet did it – and even Umar, Caliph #2, denounced it of any value, only that because the Prophet did it – he would do it.

    John takes the act of kissing as reverence as akin to actual worship of the Divinity – which it is not and never has been considered to be.

    The errors he makes in his piece are so obvious, and his responding by positing Christian doctrine clearly reveals its intent – polemic.

    Mubin Shaikh – Toronto, Canada

  19. Brian, as you may know, there was a codification of the Qur’an that happened under the Caliph Uthman around 650 AD, very early in Muslim history, because many of those who had memorized parts of it were dying in battles. So at that point, a standardized text and collection of surahs was made. Other, non-standard copies were destroyed. It’s likely that one of these non-standard copies contained this “Camel of God” surah. Whether that makes it genuine or not is not able to be investigated now, since we unfortunately don’t have the text of it to compare with the style of the remaining surahs. But it’s very interesting and very important that someone associated with the Caliph’s court in Damascus at a very early period refers to it, suggesting that even perhaps our understanding of the codification of the Qur’an under Uthman (which is solely based on Muslim tradition) was likely more complex than we think.

  20. Mubin, thanks for writing. I don’t think anyone disagrees, obviously, that this is polemic. The importance of it, however, is in St John of Damascus’ long association with the Caliph’s court in Damascus, at the end of the Umayyad period, which I think all are agreed was not particularly orthodox according to Muslim standards, and also pre-dating the establishment of a more rigid orthodoxy, and as some would say, the real period of the establishment of Islam as an organized religion, in the early Abassid period, with the social/administrative and religious/traditional work that flourishes in that period. The problem is in placing the non-polemic data in what John wrote. We know he was an early witness, and that material needs to be examined and understood in that light. It’s historically very important precisely because he was an eyewitness of the period, very well-informed though certainly unsympathetic, and his incidental statements (exclusive of his evaluation of them) are of great value. Filtering out the polemic leaves us with important data, and that needs to be incorporated into what we know of early Islam.

    Also, if you know of any other off-handed references in ahadith or elsewhere to the “Camel of God” story, please do let me know. As I mentioned above, I’ve heard of allusions, but not seen them and their context.

  21. Greetings!

    I was searching for the text of St John’s treatise and found yours and a $125 book on Amazon.

    First, thank you for the very generous contribution to the world by translating St John.

    Second, I’d like permission to help spread St John’s words to other Christian apologists. I’d like to port your translation and introduction into an eSword topic file for free distribution to eSword’s 2 million plus users.

    I maintain an eSnips folder on Islam for folks to download eSword topic files and other modules at no cost.

    I would be more than glad to ensure that you receive credit for the translation and include any text you may require.

    God bless you and your work…

    – Timothy

  22. Timothy, yes, you and everyone else are certainly welcome to use any of the translations found here on the blog. I think “Placed in the public domain by Kevin P. Edgecomb, 2006” will suffice for attribution. If you wanted to link to the blog, somehow, that would certainly be welcome, but it’s not at all necessary. I’d rather work a little more on the introduction, though. The short one above is probably not as useful as the longer one in the following post. Some amalgamation of the two is in order. Send me an email, and we can take that aspect “offline.”

    The $125 book you saw was the Brill one, I’m sure. There’s also this edition which includes the full work from which the section on Islam is taken, called The Fountain of Knowledge. It’s a remarkable work of three parts: an outline for education, a description of heresies up to St John’s date, and a catechism. It’s the full work and much less expensive! Brill books are always outrageously priced, unfortunately.

  23. The story John of Damascus describes called the Camel of God seems to be related to the Islamic story of a prophet named Saleh who as a sign from God for his people the Thamud created a huge 10 month pregnant camel out of a giant rock.

  24. Wow! Interesting. I wish the author of the article had provided a reference. It definitely mentions the insatiable thirst of the camel, but that part isn’t Quranic, and it’s so close to the mention of the camel in the above that it may actually be sourced from there. I’ve left a request for a citation for the latest editor of the article, which may or may not be the one who would know (which is one of the drawbacks of Wikipedia).

    Aside from this, St John clearly refers to it in similar manner to other, surviving, surahs, so that’s why people think it’s a lost one. Most likely it was lost in Uthman’s redaction, which is a shame.

  25. Hi Kevin,

    Excellent article. I frequently debate with Muslims and I was happy to see that St. John Damascene hit upon the points which I make most frequently.

    1. No one saw or heard the angel speak to Mohammed. No one saw or heard Allah speak to Mohammed.

    2. In order to believe in the Quran, one must have blind faith in a man who teaches that lying “Al Takiyya” is beneficial. And it is true that Mohammed told his companion that Allah had ordered him to divorce his wife so that Mohammed might have her. How convenient.

    Therefore, in order to believe in Islam and the Quran one must have blind faith in a man who is not trustworthy.

    That is ridiculous. God does not put men in that situation. The entire Jewish nation saw the miracles whjich God made through Moses and saw God manifested in the Pillar of Cloud by day and Fire by night. The Apostles and the Jews all saw Jesus miracles, bringing the dead to life, healing the sick and finally they saw Him resurrected and rising to the heavens. But there is no evidence and never has been any evidence for the claims of Mohammed. None, Zero.

    3. And I mean even before Uthman burned the original Qurans.. The original manuscripts must have been a mess if Muslims felt compelled to destroy them and substitute a copy for the original.

    Anyway, thanks for the great article. I hope I may use it in my own future writings.


    De Maria

  26. Dear Kevin,
    Thanks for translating this important piece of Christian scholarship, and the insight it offers us today with regard to Christian-Muslim dialogue, and healthy debate. As one who has been equally interested in finding both pastoral and spiritual “common ground”, especially as a chaplain, I’d be interested in knowing if you have translated and/or investigated other writings or historical accounts of John of Damascus, and/or other Christians living under Muslim rule, and/or in a Muslim culture. I understand that while John clearly defends the Christian faith in this and his other writings, that he was protected by the Caliph he served, and/or other Muslim protectors, during the contemporary iconoclastic controversy in the Christian Church. It seems most remarkable to me that a Muslim leader, whose own faith clearly forbade any form of “graven images” would have offered such firm protection to a Christian whose writing and defence of iconography stood the test of time, despite widespread and serious opposition and persecution from other parts of “Christiandom”, including the Emperor (Leo). What does this history also have to teach us today about Muslim-Christian relations? Although we may differ in some important matters of theology, do we not also share much in common with respect to our faith in One God, and the importance of the life and witness of Jesus? And when we may not agree, does John’s story not give historical example of how we may yet–in the midst of our differences–protect and honor one another, if not “love one another”, particularly as Christ himself loved us? Thanks for your excellent work.

  27. Thank you for writing, Chaplain Grant. I’d recommend the book I mentioned briefly above, John of Damascus on Islam: The Heresy of the “Ishmaelites” by Daniel J. Sahas (Brill, 1972). Perhaps easier to find (and less expensive!) is Andrew Louth’s St John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology (Oxford, 2002). Both are quite pricey, though, relatively speaking.

    There are two things at issue here in your comment. One is the perception that the Islam of St John’s time was that fully developed religion that we know today. It was not. The mention of the “Camel of God” in the text above shows that at this time even the borders of the Qur’an itself were not established as they are today. Likewise, because it was not yet established as a distinct religion (this was to progress over the next century of the Abassid caliphate) St John lists it among the Christian heresies, and certainly not in a flattering light. He would no doubt have other things to say of it in its current developed state. He would certainly take issue with the idea that Christianity and Islam worship the same God, as Islam rejects the Trinity altogether.

    For a “no holds barred” look at the plight of Christians in the lands of Islam in the earliest centuries up to the twentieth century, see Bat Ye’or’s The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996).

    Certainly St John, writing the above in the last decade of his life, did benefit eariler from his connection to the court at Damascus, but this was a matter of the caliph protecting one of his highest officials, not just a Christian theologian. That St John’s theological works were a direct affront to the iconoclast emperors surely gave no little amount of joy to the caliphs involved. But eventually that level of protection was ended by the caliph expelling all non-Muslims from positions of authority and forbidding the use of Greek in the administration, at which point, St John retired as a monk to St Sabbas Monastery in the Holy Land. Not so protective, I think. And if there is a lesson for Christians today in this, it would be the same that John learned: fight heresies wherever they are, among whatever people you are.

  28. Thank you for that, Khadija. It’s not the full story, though, only an allusion to it. As St John obviously had before him a surah containing the whole story, we can only suppose that this is one of those surahs destroyed by Usman, unfortunately.

  29. St. John of Damascus points out that Muhammad thought that Mary was the sister of Moses. Koran verses 3:35-45, 19:27-28, and 61:6 actually prove that Muhammad believed this and so show that the Koran is from Muhammad not God. These verses report, respectively, that Jesus’ mother Mary was born to a “woman [wife] of the house of Imran” [Moses’ father was ‘Imran’ or ‘Amran’], that Mary was the sister of Aaron [Moses’ brother], and finally that Jesus said he was God’s messenger and that he was there to confirm “whatever came before me in the Torah” [first five books of the Bible which Moses is historically considered to have authored] and to “announce a messenger coming after me named Ahmed” [Muhammad]. Now the Koran and Islam teach that the Torah was originally true but was corrupted by Moses’ followers. Muslims have to reject the idea that the Koran says Muhammad believed Moses was Jesus’ uncle, so Muslim apologists claim that “Mary being born of a woman of the house of Imran” just means that Mary is decendent of that house or that Mary’s father was named Imran but he wasn’t Moses’ father and that “Mary sister of Aaron” just means that Mary was born into the priestly line that Aaron started. The Muslim commentator’s problem really starts, however, with the Koran passage (61:6) in which Jesus says he was sent to “confirm the Torah.” If Muhammad thought Moses was Jesus’ uncle and didn’t know that there were 1200 to 1300 years between them, then that explains why Muhammad said Jesus came to “confirm the Torah” because Muhammad, the Koran, and Islam all contradict the Torah and teach that, while the original Torah was true, it was corrupted by Moses’ subsequent followers. Therefore if Muhammad believed that Moses and Jesus were contemporaries (uncle and nephew) then Jesus could confirm the Torah that Moses authored (actually Moses probably presided over its authorship) but the Torah could still be corrupted soon after Moses. Some Muslim commentators, who are aware of this BIG problem, try to separate the Torah from the Bible by saying that “the Torah” Muhammad refers to is really an unknown called “the Law of Moses.” Now, it is true that Jews do sometimes call the Torah the “Law of Moses” but the Torah is still the first five books of the Bible and nothing else. This subtrafuge really shows how human beings can deceive themselves when they are deeply into a belief system.

  30. To say that Muhammad thought that Mary was the daughter of Moses is really stretching it: she was born into a priestly line (Zakeriah is her gaurdian). Just because St. John was working with Muslims does not mean he knew very much about Islam. How many Muslims in the west know very much about Christianity. One of them might say, “yes they worship three gods….” but this would not be true. Yet, if one used this as proff years from now watching a video they would claim “you see, Christians thought there were three gods and that Jesus parted the red sea!” We even have caesers like Julain (or was it Justinian) who claimed that R. Yohanan ben Zakkai led Moses and the Israelites through the red sea! Other misinformed beliefs among “informed people” abound in every society in history. St. Justin claimed that the pagans stole their god/son-god death and ressurection belief from Christians! Even though, we all know, a dying and ressurecting god is as ancient a belief there is. Also, about the camel: it refers to Salih and the she-camel — St. John is clearly exxagerating things, not unlike a polemical debater. Also, Muhammad did not always receive revelations alone. He especially did not receive them while just sleeping.
    By the way, the Uthmanic recension happened before the Ummayads. There is no Quranic divergence as there is in Christian cripture where we see the divergent “accepted” gospels to even gnostic writing which are just as old.
    To claim that Muhammad learned about Jesus from a monk and still thought that Jesus was the nephew of Moses must mean the monks suffered from a lack of knowledge. Maybe the same holds true for “St. John.”

  31. Not Really, it says flat out that Maryam, mother of Jesus, is the sister of Aaron and Moses. Various interpretations are imposed upon the text to make it say otherwise. But the writing itself is clear.

    St John was for a time the highest ranking officer in the court at Damascus. Of course he knew Islam well. This was before the many changes introduced in the Abbasid period. It’s not surprising that a description of this new religion at such an early stage of its development would be quite different from the later, more fully developed religion known to us.

    Lastly, Uthman was an Umayyad.

  32. What do you know of the actual greek rendering for Mamed. Did John of Damascus say Mamed or Muhammed?

    This has some relevance as to JofD knowledge of the word “muhammad” as it actually means “man praised much” and is not an actual name. This later changed of course and people named the false prophet muhammad.

  33. In addition, what do you know of the dating between JofD Heresy of Ishmaelites and the building of the Dome of the Rock. Was he in Jerusalem at that time of building?

    1. Charli, the Dome of the Rock was built by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marawan starting in 685 and was completed in year 72 of the Muslim era, 690/691 AD. This was the time when St John’s father was still General Logothete (“treasurer”) in Damascus for that caliph. St John didn’t leave for Jerusalem until probably 706, when the caliph al-Walid changed the language of the administration from Greek to Arabic, and required all higher officials to be Muslims. St John died around 750. It’s in this last period (circa 706 to 750) that he wrote his many works, including the Source/Spring of Knowledge. So the Dome of the Rock was already completed when he arrived in Jerusalem.

      The forms of the name in St John’s chapter are Μαμὲδ (once) and Μάμεδ (five times). There is also the form found in the writings of Theodore of Harran, known as Abū Qurrah (circa 745-825): Μουχαμὲθ. This appears (at the very least) in PG 97.1596D, included in Appendix III of the Sahas book for comparison to St John’s chapter. I’d not heard before of any real distinction made between the two forms, so I wouldn’t put too much credit in them. The form Mehmet survives in Turkish to this day, and Mahmoud is also very common.

      Thanks for the interesting question.

  34. The Koran does imply that Mary the mother of Jesus was the literal sister of Moses and Aron. If the Koran wanted to imply some other form of geneological kinship it would have used the term ‘daughter’ of Moses not sister.

    Also the term saracen is used correctly by St John. The terms ‘Hagarene’, ‘Ishmaelites’ and ‘Saracens’ were common references to arabs by greek-christians . He uses christian understanding of the origin of the arabs popular in his time. Pre-Islamic Arabs did not associate themselves as hagarenes or ishmaelites or even saracens. Saracens was a tribe distinct from the arabs used exclusively by the romans to describe the non-arab natives of a city called Saraka, but by the time of Ioanis Malalas the chronicler, in the early 6th century, the term saracen applied to all arabs, with all three terms of hagarene, ishmaelite and saracen being tied up with the biblical story.

  35. John is asking us to provide him with an eyewitness account to prove that Muhammad was a prophet and God’s messenger, while he fails to provide any evidence of his arguments. He does not cite any source nor he mentions anyone by name. He simply says, “they said.”

    He is asking for solid evidence to prove that Muhammad was a prophet.
    Can anyone provide such evidence weather Adam was the first human on earth or not? Weather Eve came from his right or left ribs or not? Can Jewish people prove that Mosa was actually able to part the Dead Sea? Can Christians provide solid evidence that Jesus was truthfully able to resurrect people?

    John also argues that Muhammad was exposed to the New and Old testaments and allegedly met the Arian Monk, and made his own heresy. Possible arguments against this position can be made on several grounds: (1) there are more than enough scholarly papers claiming that Muhammad was illiterate. (2) Even if we assume he was not, how could he read the Old and New testaments since there is no evidence that these scriptures existed in Arabic language. (3) When Muhammad met the Arian Monk (Bahira) the prophet was only 9-years old. So John needs to answer how can a 9-years old read foreign language scriptures and build his own heresy?

    John says Muhammad drafted the scripture and gave it to his people. Indeed, Quran did not exist in the form of book while prophet was alive. I do not know how does he make such a claim. He also argues that Jesus was the Son of God, and he was crucified. Well, if that is the case, one can also argue, how can your God be so weak that a bunch of thugs were able to kill him?
    He criticizes Muhammad about the issue of women. In fact, it was Islam that stopped female infanticides; it was Muhammad who introduced reforms that protected women’s right both to keep their dowries and to be eligible to inherits their husbands’ wealth. John makes rumbaing points that Quran allows one to marry up to four and 1000 or more concubines. Surah (40) of the Quran permits to marry up to four wives, but with severe conditions: (1) you can marry up to four wives (in this case widows) only if you can best sever the orphans interest- protect his rights. In the same Surah, it advise Muslims that though you are allowed to marry up to 4-wives, but emphasizes that monogamy is the preferred options.

  36. Read again, K: “having encountered” is not “having read.” You ignore a very deliberate word choice.

    You likewise ignore the history of St John himself, whose name prior to becoming a monk was Mansour ibn Sarjun, and who served as chief economic officer (following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father) for the caliphate in Damascus. He knew the religion of that time which was eventually named Islam far better than you. And it is that relatively new religion which he is describing. And we can learn much from that description if we pay attention to what he is describing and ignore the polemics (which are a given, as this is a chapter included in a book of heresies). It is the incidental items that he discusses which are much more interesting and which need to be noted.

    St John writes of the Qur’an as he knew it (including a surah The Camel of God, which is no longer extant), in the last years of the Umayyad dynasty. The book was written by then. You can be sure that if the belief that Muhammad was illiterate was known then, he would have used that as a point in his arguments. That he didn’t is indicative that that tradition was not commonly held at that point. It is likewise well-known that many of the surahs were actually written down during the life of Muhammad, though the majority vehicle for transmission was oral. This was because Arabian society was still predominantly oral, and the writing system in Arabic at the time was insufficient to the task of accurate recording. For instance, in Kufic there are no diacritics, so you have confusion between both vowels and consonants. One therefore ends up with ridiculous things like Ibrahim rather than Abraham, and Yahya rather than Yuhnan. Such peculiarities only enforce the idea that this religion of Muhammad’s was sui generis and so separate from both Judaism and Christianity that it couldn’t even relate such simple things as names correctly!

    But, also, and this is an important point, most of the ahadith relating to the earliest years of Muhammad’s life and career were yet to be “recorded” or rather, invented. This occurred in the early Abbasid period with the various collections, many of which are much too suspiciously concerned with matters that are completely alien to late sixth and early seventh century Arabia. It is most likely that only a minority of the ahadith are authentic. So you cannot rely upon them as “history.” The field of investigating the ahadith is new, as is textual criticism of the Qur’an itself. As time goes on, more will be done in both fields. Various of the ahadith relating to Muhammad’s life (orphanhood and illiteracy are both examples of this) are transparently based in the surahs themselves, where they are poetic and not necessarily literal, but they have been taken as literal statements by later tradents of ahadith, and presented with a credible isnad (chain of transmitters).

    St John’s objections are common to the others who also wrote at the time and later. The lack of witnesses is a common theme: the Holy Prophet Moses had thousands observing his receiving the Law, while our Lord Jesus had thousands hearing Him speak and experiencing His miracles. What did Muhammad do? Why take his word for what he did? This was an almost universal response in disputations and in heresiologies such as this one.

    Suffice it to say, however, this is the point: St John of Damascus, a Saint and Teacher of the Eastern Orthodox Church, a Church Father of great repute, records the opinion of the Church that “Islam” is a heresy, that is, it is a wrong approach to God, along with numerous other heresies. That’s what it means for it to appear here in the list of heresies in his book the Spring of Knowledge, as instruction for Eastern Orthodox Christians. Disliking the fact is irrelevant, and simplistic defenses based in a lack of reading comprehension and unfamiliarity with the scholarship are only a waste of time. There is nothing that will change that evaluation.

  37. For a truly great book on the history of the Arab-speaking world up to the middle of the twentieth century, that includes not only an extensive survey of Islamic history, but also the Christian (and pre-Christian) Arabian past, check out Philip Hitti’s “History of the Arabs.” It is the most extensive, most detailed, and most researched book on that history I have ever read. He covers the various economic systems, trade routes, philosophies, scientific advances, political intrigue, religious differences…in short: everything. I can’t recommend that book enough. Far superior to Bernard Lewis, IMHO. Lewis learned what he did in the programs that Hitti started. (Hitti was a Lebanese Maronite, BTW.)

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