Arabic Christian Theology

Najib George Awad

This entry starts by exploring the meaning of the term ‘Arabic Christian theology’ to explain its oxymoronic nature. It then introduces the form of Christian theological thought that one can find in the Arabic-speaking regions of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It offers a brief historical narrative of some of the main milestones on the trajectory of the Arab-Eastern Christian theological traditions. Then it primarily focuses on various forms of Arab-Eastern Christianity and its theological reasoning in today’s MENA region. It briefly presents some of the primary trends in theological discourse which these Christians develop in their present life-setting, including a discussion of the key figures and the main theological methods these Christians opted for throughout their history. These trends will be explored in their regional context, especially focusing on countries including Lebanon, Syria, Palestine/Israel, and Egypt. This entry concludes with an analytical assessment and scrutiny of the components and features of these theological trends, followed by some remarks on the potential future of Arab-Eastern Christian theology.

1 Introduction: what is Arabic Christian theology?

What does ‘Arabic Christian theology’ stand for? What makes it different from other theological discourses? Is there even such a thing as ‘Arabic Christian theology’ in the first place? Answering these questions requires tackling other questions first: what is ‘Arabic-speaking Christianity’? Does it exist in the first place, and if so, what does it designate? These fundamental enquiries are not just intellectually provocative. They also express a conceptual and philological puzzle of oxymoronic nature. One route to defining the phrase ‘Arabic-speaking Christianity’ (and therefore Arabic Christian theology), is to first assess what it does not stand for.

The first thing ‘Arabic-speaking Christianity’ does not signify, at least in this entry, is an Arab Christian Church. There are Christian scholars from the Arab world who have argued that one cannot speak about an Arab Christian Church in the history of the Levant and that ‘Arabic-speaking Christianity’ does not exist except as an oxymoron. This view posits that the Christians in the Middle East (the Arab countries of Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Gulf) found themselves obliged to use the Arabic language for the sheer pragmatic need of survival in a majority-Muslim setting; the lingua franca of the region was undeniably Arabic (Sabra 2014: 147; for an interlocution with Sabra’s approach, see Awad 2021a: 147–149).

The second thing which ‘Arabic-speaking Christianity’ does not narrowly or primarily designate, though it inclusively implies, is that it merely means ‘Arab Christians’. Thus, neither does this entry restrict itself to discussion of Arab Christians. There are scholars from the Arab World who have studied Christianity and its religious and cultural legacies vis-à-vis focusing on the Arab individuals or groups of affiliates, after whom this Arabic-speaking Christianity was allegedly named, and on their roles and contributions (Qāshā 2005: 9). Here, Christianity is reduced to the Christians: its story is their biographical narrative; its legacy is their personal contributions; its history is their individual and communal repertoire.

This conceptual reduction of Arabic-speaking Christianity into Christian individuals or groups of affiliates conceptually underpins the thought of some contemporary Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern intellectuals who seek to develop a pan-Arabist ideology (a political and nationalist ideology which became popular in the Middle East after the Second World War). It emphasizes the Arabic ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and racial origin of all the peoples, traditions, cultures, and religions in the region, that traces the origin of Christianity back to the geographical territories of the Arabian Peninsula (historically Arabia). They opine that Christianity in its oldest form (not just its Arabic-speaking followers) is Arabian in origin (Ṣalībī 1999; al-Rabī‛ī 2009). Known by the name of ‘Arabism’ or ‘pan-Arabism’, this ideology once dominated the political and ethno-sociological scene of the early twentieth-century Arab world. It attracted a considerable portion of the Middle Eastern populations, and it energized their attempts at reviving the Arabic antique consciousness that centrally reasserts the primacy of Arabic nationhood and civilization (Dawn 1973; Hourani 1983; Khalidi 1991; Hitti 1970. For an assessment of this discourse, see Awad 2012b: 51–54).

In this entry, ‘Arabic-speaking Christianity’, and the theology named after it, is neither treated in terms of the religious followers who affiliate to it (Arabic-speaking Christians), nor is it approached as the name of a specifiable ecclesial entity (an Arab Christian Church). ‘Arabic-speaking Christianity’ rather connotes a particular theological, intellectual, and cultural Tradition. ‘Tradition’ is a moment of conscious historical self-interpretation, which affects our relatedness to history (Gadamer 2004: xxx; Awad 2021a: 276–278). In this sense, Arabic-speaking Christianity is an event; it happens when a conscious individual participates hermeneutically in a particular theological and cultural consciousness (Bewußtsein) that is expressive of a particular Tradition. The Tradition that ‘Arabic-speaking Christianity’ names here is not something alien. It is always part of those living, historical, thinking beings who relate to it (Gadamer 2004: 283, 291–293). Speaking thus, about ‘Arabic-speaking Christianity’ as a Tradition of conscious historical effect that one participates in, approaches ‘Arabic-speaking Christianity’ and its theology as a state of belonging to particular circle of understanding; to a particular hermeneutic circle, to which certain understanding activity contextually belongs (Gadamer 2004: 295; Smith 1963: 141–143). Within the circle of approaching a particular religion or theology as a ‘Tradition’, Arabic-speaking Christianity as a theological Tradition becomes the name of what ‘this theology’ means to the Christian who considers it their ‘Tradition’, as well as connoting what reality and selfhood mean to this Christian in the light of this theology and no other (Smith 1963: 143, 152; Eck 2000: 136–137).

2 Arabic Christian tradition: past and present

Uncovering the historical birth-moment of the Tradition called ‘Arabic-speaking Christianity’ will take us back in time to the second AH/eighth CE century, at a time of the radical, transformative changes that led to the civilizational consummation of late antiquity in the Greater Syrian heartland (a region more commonly known today as the Levant). The forensic journey back to that context requires readiness to travel beyond the territories of the recently common treatment of Arabic Christian theology as just a branch of Christian Orthodoxy that is organically related to Greek-Byzantine heritage. We need to move toward pondering seriously the substantial connection between this Arabic Christian tradition of reasoning and the Middle Eastern Arab-Muslim context (Awad 2018b).

Though Arab Christians existed in this particular region much earlier than the first/seventh century (when Islam was born; Hainthaler 2007; Hoyland 2001; Retsö 2003), the Arab Christian theological Tradition witnessed its birth after the arrival of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula up to the Fertile Crescent region in the early first/seventh century, and it reached its maturity during the Muslim Abbasid imperial era, starting from the second half of the second/eighth century (Thomas 2010). This fact indicates that the theological creativity of the Christians of the region did not cease with the rising and the arrival of religious rivalry called ‘Islam’. Rather Arabic Christian theology intensified and flourished in its innovation. It succeeded in creating a particular theologico-cultural Tradition that left its significant marks on Islam and on the Arab-Muslim civilization itself. Such influence irreversibly impacted domains beyond the religious and theological, influencing state administration, culture and civilization creation, socio-economic and artistic influence, and literary and linguistic (Arabic) creativity (Awad 2018a; 2018b).

The first version of Arabic Christian theology in this context arose within the religious and cultural thought of its surrounding Muslim life-setting. The Muslims started to engage with the Hellenic philosophical and scientific heritage (due to the translating work of the Christian and Jewish scholars from Greek, Syriac, and Hebrew into Arabic). Muslim thinkers, armed with philosophical tools of reasoning derived from Greek heritage, began to scrutinize and interrogate Christianity (and to a lesser extent, Judaism) rationally and theologically (Awad 2018a; 2018b). This was simultaneously accompanied with a reciprocal attitude from the Arab-speaking Christians toward Islam that was motivated and energized by the influence of the very same exposition of Greek intellectual heritage. The Arab Christian Tradition is the offspring that was bred by these Christian thinkers’ correlational attempts at re-articulating Christian belief and worldview (Weltanschauung) by, so to speak, ‘Islamizing’ and ‘Arabizing’ their cultural heritage and theological legacies to produce a new rational Tradition demonstrative of true and right Christian religiosity (Awad 2018a; 2018b; Griffith 2008: 45–74; Awad 2015: 64–87).

The Christians’ theological creativity conjured up a particular theological-cultural Tradition that left its significant marks on Islam and Arab-Muslim civilization (Awad 2015: 64–87; Griffith 2008: 45–74). One of the constitutive, defining features of Arabic Christian Tradition is the logical, dialectic, and rationalist genre of theological-philosophical reasoning called ‘Kalām’ (an Arabic word derived from the root ‘klm’, connoting ‘speech’, ‘words’, ‘wording’, and ‘discourse’). The Arabic-speaking Christian intellectuals of the first/seventh–third/ninth centuries co-created this theological genre with their contemporary Arabic-speaking Muslim and Jewish counterparts. Some of the main representatives of this contextual Christian theological Tradition (in its Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian versions alike), whose literary creativity is extant today are: John of Damascus (Awad 2018a; Janosik 2016; Schadler 2018); the Melkite/Chalcedonian Theodore Abū Qurrah (Awad 2015; Griffith 1978; 1992; Nassif 2005; Graf 1910); the Jacobite/Monophysite Ḥabib b. Khidmah Abū Rā’iṭah al-Takrītī (Keating 2006; 2003); and the Nestorian ‛Ammār al-Baṣrī (Beaumont 1982; Griffith 2002: 145–181; 1982). These latter three figures in particular represent together ‘the first full generation of creative thinkers among the Arabic-speaking Christian writers’ (Griffith 2008: 61–62). Beside these three fathers of the Arabic Christian Tradition and its theology, one can also mention: the pseudonymous author of a text called Fī Tathlīth Allah al-Wāḥid (On the Trinity of the One God; Gibson 1899: 74–107; Swanson 1993); the author of the text called Kitāb al-Burhān (The Book of Demonstration), Eutychus of Alexandria (1960: 1–2); and the intellectual contributions of the fourth/tenth-century Jacobite, Yaḥyā b. ‛Adī (Endress 1977; Platt 1983; Périer 1920). These figures are just several of the many major creators of Arabic-speaking Christianity and its theological and intellectual Tradition in this early era. In their attempts at portraying Christian theology to Muslims, these Christians translated Christian thought from Greek and Syriac into Arabic, trafficking it through their transcultural narratives and hermeneutics beyond the boundaries of Hellenic-Byzantine culture, traditions, and identity into a late antique identity-formation realm that is characterized with Arabic and Islamic interactional features, bearers, and webs of meaning.

These were the earliest years of the Tradition called ‘Arabic-speaking Christianity’ and its theology. Unfortunately, starting from the fourth/tenth century onwards, and in the light of the prevalence of traditionalism over rationalism within the circles of Muslim reasoning (culminating in the Ḥanbalite and Ash‛arite victory over Mu‛tazilism), Arabic-speaking Christianity’s theological and socio-cultural Tradition was subjected to public suppression, marginalization, and intellectual degradation. Partnership between Christians and Muslims became uneasy, and sometimes conspicuously faltered, as Christian thinkers and cultured personnel, as well as ordinary people, started to be tangibly deprived of a real ‘participation in a society where [they] might be made to feel they properly belonged’ (Thomas 2008: 3; Awad 2020: 149–151). In the ensuing decades and centuries, Christians in the Middle East and North Africa were forced to live as dhimmis (i.e. people in need of protection and patronship), no longer as equals (i.e. co-citizens and co-creators), and they were pushed ‘towards an identity that threatened to swamp their own’ (Thomas 2008: 3; Awad 2020: 149). All the non-Muslim belief-systems and traditions, even those that were Arab among them, were deemed valueless, detrimental, and even threatening to the status and stability of a fiqh-centred (jurisprudence-centred) and power-focused ‘superior Islam’. Christian thought was paid attention to occasionally for sheer pragmatist and interrogational purposes that aimed at exposing its incoherence and praising Islamic intelligence in contrasting comparison with it (Awad 2020: 149; Thomas 2008: 3). Due to these changes, Arabic-speaking Christianity receded into an expression of Arabic-speaking Christians. It is not surprising, in the midst of this context, that the size of what used to be the largest community in that Arabic-speaking Middle East (the Christians) has started since the fifth/eleventh century to decrease rapidly and dramatically. Conversion to Islam became a legitimate option to rescue oneself from hard living conditions (Gervers 1990; Bulliet 1979; Peacock 2017; Sahner 2018; Hurvitz 2020).

This situation worsened exponentially in the ensuing centuries, from the Mamluk era, right through the Crusades period and the dawn of the Ottoman Era, until the end of the nineteenth century (Awad 2018a). What remained of the earliest Arabic-speaking Christianity was only those members of Christian confessional/denominational churches who continued speaking in Arabic, yet they maintained little interest in intellectual or theological innovation and creativity related to Arab culture. Christianity was reduced to the rapidly shrinking groups of Christian individuals or minor communities, who sealed themselves hermetically in their particularistic, confessionalist, and ethnic self-perception circles (Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, etc.). Ironically enough, this eventually granted the Christians survival, and it offered longevity to their communal existence in their homeland. So much so that some historians today conjecture that these Christians had lived ‘in prosperity and protection under the Ottoman authority’ (Karalis 2010: 156; Moffett 2005; Argyriou 2001: 605–630; Poggi 2001; Masters 2001).

These conditions enabled Arabic-speaking Christians to survive in the predominantly Muslim context of the Middle East. Arabic-speaking Christians still exist in that region today, though their population has diminished considerably due to unstoppable waves of emigration from the region. These migration waves (of Christians and also Muslims) started to intensify in the early decades of the twentieth century and they have not decreased in rate since. Arabic-speaking Christians survived many challenging circumstances during the previous centuries. But they also persisted into the postcolonial and post-imperial era of independence and the establishment of Arabic states, and even more recently beyond the ‘Arab-Spring’ phase that wreaked havoc in the Arab world during the second decade of the twenty-first century. If you ask these Arabic-speaking Christians about their life in the Arab world, the majority of them would relate that their main life-challenge is far from primarily theological, ecclesial, or even religious in nature. The ultimate question they face is, will Christianity survive and exist still amidst the turbulences of the Arab, Islamic Middle East in the twenty-first century, especially as the waves of Christian emigration from that region continue speedily increasing?

In light of this historical context, one can say that Arabic-speaking Christianity and its theological Tradition were not as lucky as the Arabic-speaking Christians, in that it did not maintain longevity as the latter did. Having realized this, some Christian intellectuals and scholars in the Middle East tried to launch a revival campaign to resurrect the Arabic Christian Tradition and bring it to the attention of the public in the Middle East. This revival attempt took place at two separate historical periods. The first period was associated with the so-called ‘The Arab Nahḍa’ (Revival), which was pioneered and led by Arab Christian intellectuals and authors. It started after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It led the nationalization and Arabization movements in the Arabic-speaking, newly formed (and later independent) states. Yet, it started to regress and slow down substantially in the twentieth century. This regression gained ground particularly in 1948, when the Arab World drowned in the radical, life-changing ramifications of the establishment of the State of Israel and the ensuing Arab-Israeli conflict.

On the other hand, the second revivalism period, which the Christians played a role in, started during the 1990s and it continues today. This was when new generations of Christians from the region began to acquire an academic postgraduate education on the history of Eastern Christianity from Christian-Muslim perspectives, and a number of study centres and research institutes on Arabic-speaking Christianity were established at various universities in countries like Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. The revival movement these scholars pursued to renew the attention to the Arabic-speaking Christian Tradition and its theology circled mainly around searching for ancient manuscripts written by Arabic-speaking Christian intellectuals and authors who lived mainly during the early Islamic era, but also in the ensuing centuries. These extant texts were unearthed and critical editions and commentaries on them were developed, before these editions were availed to the Arab-Muslim readership and to the international scholarly world. Key scholars who engaged with this revival were Louis Cheikho, Constantine Bāchā, Boṭrous al-Bustānī, Ībrāhīm and Nāṣīf al-Yāzigī, Alphonse Mingānā, ‛Īsā al-Ma‛lūf, Joseph Nasrallah, ‛Ādel Theodore Khoury, George Qanawātī, and Samīr Khalīl Samīr.

3 Arab-Eastern Christian theology: past and present

The Arab-Eastern Christian theology in the past (during early Islam) is different from the Arabic-speaking theological discourses Eastern Christianity produces in the present (the contemporary Arab World). Therefore, one must speak about them as two distinct theological trends within the historical biography of this Christianity. One can even go as far as saying that, except for some relative rate of connectedness, Arabic-speaking theologies of the past and the ones of the present are considerably different and hardly related. The theological Tradition might linger for particular circumstantial purposes within the memory of contemporary Eastern Christians. It hardly, nevertheless, plays a constitutive or evident role in shaping the mind of these Christians or grounding the theological discourses they develop.

In the ensuing sections, Arab-Eastern Christian theology will be presented as two distinct phenomena. One goes back to the early Islamic centuries (first–eighth centuries AH/seven–fourteenth centuries CE). The other represents some main theological voices one can find in the present context of Arabic-speaking Oriental Christianity in the Arab World (twentieth–twenty-first centuries).

3.1 Arabic-speaking Eastern theology in the past

The theological Tradition of this early Islamic era is essentially associated with, if not totally defined as, an intellectual genre of theological reasoning called ‘the science of Kalām’. ‘Kalām’ was a rational, theological, systematic discourse that crossed the dividing boundaries between religions and was co-created out of the reciprocal interaction between the different theological discourses and personnel. This makes it an exemplary interreligious discourse in nature and process. Sometimes Kalām was deployed to highlight the belief-components that make one religion different from others. Some other times, it was used to demonstrate that a certain faith’s truth and value are equal to other beliefs or even they exceed them and rise above them, in terms of authenticity (Abdel-Haleem 1995; Cook 1980; Pines 1971; Treiger 2014; Wolfson 1976; van Ess 1977; 2018).

The extant Kalām texts each fall into one of the following categories, depending on their content and the purpose in which they were written (1) Christian theologians standing before Muslim noble and theologians in the court of the Muslim ruler. These particular settings are technically called ‘councils’ (majlis), and they used to be held primarily in the royal courts of the caliphs or the princes and the discussions that take place there would be technically called in Arabic ‘mujādalāt’ (debates); (2) theological explanations of Christian doctrines written after a ‘questions-and-answers’ model of interlocution (asʼila wa-ajwiba); (3) theology written and developed vis-à-vis letters exchanged, either between a Christian and Muslim theologian, or between two Christians (in the latter case one is seeking the wisdom and theological knowledge of the other to respond to inquiries the seeker was challenged with by a Muslim); or (4) theological defensive explanations of Christian doctrines composed in systematic and philosophical manners (maymar/mayāmir) to discuss all issues raised between the Christians and the Muslims over common points of belief (e.g. God, divine attributes, religious texts, free will, prophethood, reason, etc.; Griffith 2008: 77–92). In all these forms of Christian Arabic Kalām, the intentions of the Christian writers, as Sidney Griffith concludes, ‘were to commend the credibility of the Christian [doctrines] in the very idiom of the Islamic religious discourse of their day’ (Griffith 2008: 95). This meant, Griffith proceeds, that the theology that was originally articulated in Greek or Syriac ‘comes to be translated and transposed into the Arabic discourse of the intellectual world of Islam, in a design and vocabulary very different from that of the patristic era and largely unfamiliar to Christians outside of the Islamic world’ (Griffith 2008: 96). It is certainly the case that such an Arabization of the Christian theological legacy had (and maybe still has) challenging and irreversible transforming consequences that deserve the scrutiny of today’s generation of scholars to see whether what took place in the Arabic-speaking Christian theologization was a case of enculturation, acculturation, or deculturation, and what could the potential ramifications be of each of these options on this Christianity (Awad 2015: 411–429).

The careful anatomization of the Arabic Christian Kalām demonstrates that this theological Tradition manifests the following central characteristics and components:

(1) Reason-centred demonstration. The Christian Arabic texts of Kalām, as well as the Muslim and Jewish ones, tell us that theology during early Islam circled around questions related to epistemological foundationality: what is the foundation of the belief in the truthfulness and plausibility of the religious message? (Awad 2017: 116). The Arabic-speaking Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Kalām responds to this inquiry by methodologically relying on a philosophical, deductive reasoning, wherein reason (‛aql) not only verifies the truth of faith and its textual message. It also examines and exposes them to logical and rational scrutiny (Awad 2017: 117). The centralization of ‘‛aql’ (reason) in Kalām is grounded in the following conviction: the purpose of developing logically argued theology is not to end up with a consensual argument on one single belief (ijmā‛). It is, rather, to disclose that the pondered theological subject can be interpreted, studied, and analysed by sheer cognitive perception, and that the logical argument used to explain it is rationally solid and plausible.

(2) Proof-texting strategy. In addition to the centralization and criterialization of reason (‛aql), Arab-Eastern Christian Kalām also relied on textual attestation and implemented it in constructing theological arguments and demonstrations. In today’s scholarship on Christian Kalām, there is a debate over the biblical texts which the Christian theologians used in their Kalām in Arabic. Scholars debate whether the Christian mutakallims (theology used to be called ‘Kalām’ in the Arabic of that era. Thus, those who do compose this kind of theology were called ‘mutakallims’, or those who practice Kalām) relied on Arabic versions of the Bible they had available and used among Christians of that time; or whether they read the available Greek and Syriac versions of the New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament, and then offered their own personal Arabic translation of every verse or pericope they employed in their Kalām discourses.

More important than the question of the existence and date of origin of an Arabic Bible, is how the Bible was used in the service of theological reasoning in Arab-Eastern Christian Kalām? It is clear upon reading the extant Arabic Kalām texts from early Islam, that Christian and Muslim theologians alike consistently included religious scriptural attestations in the toolkit of their polemics and apologetics (Awad 2017: 96ff; Griffith 1999; 2015: 175–203; Cook 2006: 185–224; Roggema 2001; Beaumont 2005: 195–203; 2008: 179–197; Accad 2003: 67–91; Monferrer-Sala 2004). The ‘proof-texting’ strategy represents a method of theological reasoning that exhibits textual attestation (whether one’s own text or the text of the opponent) in the service of both defending one’s own theological discourse and exposing the fallacy of the discourse of the interlocutor. The realization of this fact drove contemporary scholars to consider the ‘proof-texting’ strategy the default characteristic of the theological reasoning in the Arabic-speaking context of the early Islamic centuries. David Thomas asserts that this strategy was used ‘as illustration of supporting example of points which have already been established on other grounds [i.e. the ground of reason]’ (Thomas 1996: 29). Thomas explains how these theologians were following a pragmatist strategy; they snatched from the religious texts of their opponents ‘verses which would support their own case’ and defend their faith, via nullifying the belief of the other.

(3) Doctrinal focus. Arab-Eastern theology in its earliest form (Kalām) was significantly influenced by the doctrinal content of Christian thought. The radical discrepancies between Christian and Muslim monotheistic beliefs lay primarily in Christian theological understandings of the deity and the identity of the founder and the core subject of this religious belief: the doctrine of the Triune God and of Christ (Christology) and their two main connected discourses, the doctrine of the incarnation and soteriology. These aspects of doctrine met with solid intellectual criticisms and theological-philosophical challenges from Islam, which was in turn countered decisively by Arabic-speaking Christian theologians.

Instead of either compromising some Christian [doctrinal teachings] for the sake of survival and security, or sacrificing their own life and being commemorated as heroes by attacking Islam, these mutakallims endeavoured in their intellectual [doctrinally focused] projects to establish an ‘Arabic Orthodox’ or ‘Arabic-speaking Christian [doctrinal] identity’ in the world of Islam by interacting with Islam [on a frank doctrinal level], and not despite Islam’s existence. (Awad 2015: 67)

Within this context, the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology gained far more attention and enjoyed much higher prominence than other Christian doctrines. They were discussed and re-articulated beyond the boundaries of mere Christian to Christian, purely and narrowly confessional and intrinsic reasoning. Theology on God and Jesus Christ became an instrument for defending one’s own religious identity and distinction, not just mere theological choices or sectarian representative discourse.

3.2 Arabic-speaking Eastern theology in the present

There is one central characteristic that is still common between Arab-Eastern theology of the early Islamic era and the Christian, religiously-oriented texts one can find in the Arab-Eastern context of today. The Arabic-speaking Christian rational theology (Kalām)

was not just a purely and singularly apologetic or polemic instrument in the sole service of religious self-otherizing and self-superiorization. Kalām was also, if not mainly, one of the manifestations and evidences of the states of rootedness, affiliation and identification by means of one, common, trans-religious cultural and intellectual identity that became characteristic of the early Abbasid milieu. (Awad 2019: 534)

In the same vein, one can realize similar tendencies and orientation in the theologizing attempts of some of the Arab-Eastern theologians of today. These theological endeavours are not purely ‘God-talk’ or fully and crudely ‘theo-logical’ in content and focus. Rather they are perennially religious, attentively socio-cultural, and inescapably politicized in implications and outcomes. The reason behind this is that the Christian, Arabic-speaking, Eastern intellectuals of today, like their ancestors, use theological reasoning and discourses as manifestative instruments of their genuine rootedness, affiliation, and identification with the very same cultural and intellectual identity, or self-perception processes, that are symptomatic of the contemporary, predominantly Arab and Muslim majority life-setting. Vis-à-vis the issues and challenges, which they touch upon and try to theologize or religiously hermeneut, today’s Arab-Eastern theologians implement theological reasoning as a common identity-forming instrument that aims at presenting Christians as compatriots of Muslims from the very same life-setting (not from a parallel, adjacent one), who co-work towards shaping a common, combined Arab-Eastern cultural and intellectual character. Theologization is, therefore, employed in the service of a more foundational and prior task beyond theological reasoning itself: ‘An element of common operation toward cultural and societal self-identification that is interwoven with these [theologians’] rationalization [or de-rationalization, for that matter] of religious belief’ (Awad 2019: 534).

Apart from these common features described above, contemporary Arabic-speaking Eastern theological discourses are totally different from the ancient Arab-Eastern first theological legacy of Kalām. One can validly realize from the previous discussion that the recent Arab-Eastern textual genre is not truly ‘theo-logy’; not exactly ‘God-talk’; not ‘vernünftigen Theologie’ (Rational Theology), or ‘Wissenschaft von Gott’ (Scientific reasoning on God). It is more like a socio-political, cultural, and interreligious discourse constructed in a semi-theological and biblical language and by means of general religious rationale. It touches upon deeply existential, anthropocentric, political, and contextual issues from the perspective of some religious preconceptions and traditional Christian convictions that are not necessarily related to God, faith, the gospel, or any doctrinal heritage. Instead, they are more dominantly rooted in the Christian individual’s personal religiosity; that is relatedness to, and perception of, the relevance of Christian belief to the Arabic-speaking Christians’ contextual and subjective (individual or communal) life conditions. What counts and enjoys priority today is the re-shaping and re-articulation of the present Arab-Eastern challenges and life conditions. It is developed to demonstrate that the Christian religious discourses (crudely and generally speaking) are relevant and valuable to the attempt at responding to the needs and requirements of a living context, which is no more prevalently Christian, but rather non-Christian (and to some Eastern Christians, anti-Christian) in nature and identity.

This short entry concisely introduces some major trends of in the theological discourses of today’s Arab-Eastern Christian context. These include trends shaped after socio-political, cultural, existential, and generally religious concerns and challenges. They are not exhaustive of all the theological experiments one might encounter in the Arabic-speaking intellectual scene today. There are also theology-like discourses and literatures that are Muslim or Christian in authorship that are totally repetitive of conventional patristic and doctrinal teaching one can find in any other Christian conventional dogmatic discourse around the world. But, the subject of this study is Arab-Eastern Christian theology only, and that Arab-Eastern Christian theological reasoning that particularly evolved around the specific contextual and human conditions and challenges of these Christians’ life-setting, the Arab World. The subsequent sections explore just some representative models of theological discoursing that offer a fair, coherent, and reliable presentation of the main trends of reasoning and primary guiding intellectual presumptions and contextual motifs behind the Arab-Eastern Christians’ writing of theology. The presented theological trends were all developed between the last quarter of the twentieth century and the present. This entry does not aim at developing a historiological anatomy or chronological narration of the evolvement of the theological reasoning of the Arab-Eastern Christians during the modern era; it merely highlights what one could witness as theological trends of thought on the Arab-Eastern scene in the context of the present.

The theologians this article covers all speak the Arabic language and hail from an Arabic cultural background. Yet, some of them produced their theological texts in languages other than Arabic. Their theology is more appropriately called ‘Arab-Eastern’, than ‘Arabic’ or ‘Arabic-speaking’ in this case. On the other hand, it is quite interesting that in present theological discourse there is no fully-fledged, specific theological reasoning on the subject of the emigration of Christians to the West; which is one of the biggest threats to the Arabic-speaking Christian communities in their contemporary life. The issue of emigration is occasionally alluded to in the literature of Arabic-speaking theologians. Yet there is not yet a specified, coherent, available ‘Theology of Emigration’ from the Arab-Eastern context’s perspective (see Migration and Christian Theology).

3.2.1 Liberationist Arab-Eastern theology

One of the main contemporary theological discourses that Arab-Eastern Christians started to develop during the last quarter of the twentieth century, is an Arab, Middle Eastern version of the liberation theology. This was at the same time that liberation theology was evolving and gaining momentum in Latin America and then the United States. This theology is deeply rooted in political reasoning and approaches ‘liberation’ from the perspectives of politics and nationalism, especially in the contexts of Palestine-Israel and Egypt. Two of the most significant figures in the latter two contexts are the Anglican Palestinian theologian and clergyman, Naim Stefan Ateek (1989; 2017), and the Jesuit Egyptian theologian William Sidhum (2005). Naim Ateek’s model could be viewed as a microcosmic approach to liberation, since it focuses narrowly on the Palestinian context and the particular framework of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On the other hand, William Sidhum is pursuing a more ambitious dream of developing a macrocosmic liberationist voice that exceeds the boundaries of Egypt into the broader context of the Arab World. Arab-Eastern liberation theology has not yet been either fully adopted or advanced as a mainstream theological approach by other Arab-Eastern theologians, nor has it been sufficiently studied by Arab-Eastern thinkers – hope remains that this approach will receive more attention in the future.

3.2.2 Contextualized Arab-Eastern theology

The second model of Arab-Eastern theology one can find in today’s Middle East is substantially contextual or contextualized in nature and approach. This model is fully occupied with the question of locational, cultural, and contextual particularization, and self-individuation. Being attentive to the subject of identity-formation, it attempts to demonstrate that a nomenclature like ‘Arab Christians’ is not oxymoronic, despite the prejudice that Christians living in the Middle East experience. Contextualized Arab-Eastern theology seeks to highlight the Eastern origins of Christianity and calls for the Christians in the region to rediscover their locational and regional history and backgrounds. Two major figures of this theological approach are the Palestinian-Lutheran theologian, Mitri Raheb (2002; 2013; 2014b: 55–66; 2012: 11–28; 2014a; 1995; 1997), and the Egyptian Protestant churchman and theologian, Andrea Zaki Stephanous (2007; 2002: 80–81; 2021).

3.2.3 Protectionist and self-enclosed Arab-Eastern theology

The previous two trends of theological reasoning aspire at engaging the socio-political and contextual life conditions that take Christians beyond the boundaries of their communal, ecclesial, or social circles of existence. On the other hand, this third trend of theological reasoning invites Christians to perceive an estrangement and alienation from the surrounding predominantly non-Christian environment. It calls them to seek survival by means of acting as a dhimmi community that either seeks protectionism, or clings to a self-enclosed, self-otherizing identity. One can find traces of such theological reasoning among the Christians in Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq. The best example of such orientation is today found in the Egyptian context of Coptic Christianity (Van Doorn-Harder 2017; Hasan 2003; Reiss 1998). One of the seminal theological figures from contemporary Coptic Christianity whose writings mirror such a theological trend is the monastic theologian, Matta al-Miskīn (Matthew the Humble, 1919–2006; al-Miskīn 1969: 16; 1977).

Maybe the best example of such orientation is found today in the Egyptian and Iraqi contexts due to the particular situation of the Christians in these countries. In these countries some Christians find themselves resorting to a reactionary theology that is developed in occupation and interaction with the practical challenges Christians experience living in the Middle East. This leads to developing a religious awareness and imagination, wherein theological reasoning is pursued essentially for maintaining a protective sense of identity. The key preconceptions in it are inevitably, and quite understandably, expressive of ‘conservation’, ‘inwardness’, ‘introversion’, and they might sometimes become ‘self-dhimmitudization’ and polemics.

3.2.4 Culture-centred Arab-Eastern theology

Culture-centred Arab-Eastern theology not only endeavours to develop a discourse to respond to, or deal with, the Arabic, Eastern context (like contextualized Arab-Eastern theology does; see 3.2.2). More fundamentally, it seeks to develop a theological discourse from, or as representative of, the Arabic cultural traditions and context. Arabism is here assessed and examined as a potential framework and guiding criterial ground for developing Arabic Christian religious thought that travels beyond the boundaries of religious sources and derives views from secular, humanist, and extra-religious ones. The primary examples found of such a theological voice come from Lebanon and they similarly centralize the question: Is it possible for Arabism along with its religious elements – that is both Christian and Muslim – to become the intellectual source of a secularized, modernist, and humanist Christian theological voice? Two authors that exemplify this discourse are the Maronite Lebanese theologian, Michel al-Ḥāyik (Ḥāyik [n.d.]; 1979; 2000), and the Greek Catholic theologian and philosopher, Mouchir Basile Aoun (2009: 276; 2007; 2016: 341–377; 2017: 43–83; 2022). Hāyik wrote in an earlier period and was more pessimistic of Arabism’s ability to rise to this challenge of becoming a relevant voice in Christian theological discourse, whereas Aoun wrote later and offered a more optimistic and forensic approach.

3.2.5 Interreligious Arab-Eastern theology

The last trend of theological reasoning explored here is rooted in Arab-Eastern theologians’ wish to open dialogue with and to relate to the religious imagination of the public majority in the Arab World, the Muslims. The number of Arabic-speaking Christians who contribute to this theological genre are proportionately higher than the number of those who engage with the four other theological trends discussed in this section. This number has even grown, although slowly, since the beginning of the twenty-first century, as more generations of young Arabic-speaking Christian postgraduates found their ways to the Western academic world, pursuing academic training in interreligious studies and Christian-Muslim relations there. These scholars then returned to their homelands to create an Arabic indigenous voice in these areas of study and to foster the development of educational programmes in Christian universities and theological seminaries in Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine/Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. One can, therefore, find quite a good number of theological voices that merit being presented as examples of this theological trend in the region.

Two notable examples of interreligious Arab-Eastern theologians are the Lebanese Baptist theologian, Martin Accad (2009: 6–10; 2019), and the Orthodox Antiochene theologian, Bishop George Khodr (2000a; 2000b; 2001). The Protestant Accad exemplifies a scholar trying to reconcile his church’s historical missiological and evangelistic legacy (which used to endeavour to convert Muslims, not just tolerate them) with his theological belief in the openness, acceptance, and co-existence with Islam. This genre of theological reasoning tries to demonstrate the factors that makes the fulfilment of this task one of the challenges Christians in the Arabic-speaking Middle East have always confronted and found quite challenging to deal with in a balanced and productive manner. This is echoed in the theological discourse of the Orthodox Christian George Khodr. In his theological writings, Khodr not only aimed at co-existence between Christianity and Islam, but also invited the Christians to see that they are children of the same civilizational womb of Islam and Arabic-speaking religious history. He called for Christian-Muslim dialogue over their shared existence on the basis of a frank and profound perception of their common theological monotheistic beliefs.

The interreligious theology trend is still well in progress in the Arab-Eastern context of the Middle East. Its ultimate final consequences and ramifications are as yet open-ended. The number of Arabic-speaking Christian theologians who are getting involved in such a theologization attempt is growing larger all the time.

4 Arabic-speaking Oriental theology: characteristics and assessments

The previously-surveyed main trends of theological discourses in today’s Arabic-speaking Oriental Christianity invite us to consider the following characteristics that commonly symptomize them:

  1. These theological discourses are fully politicized in nature, foundation, and outcomes. They all tend to allow crudely political, a priori postulates and concerns to precondition and determine their theologized reasoning. It is a theological orientation, though pluriform, that monolithically aspires at offering the God of Jesus Christ and his Gospel as an answer, as a mere satisfactory, if not pleasing, response to the political questions and crisis-breeding conditions, which the Arab-Eastern Christians’ broader society demand from them to develop an approvable stance on.
  2. The general tendency of these Arabic-speaking theologians, each in their own way, is to treat religiosity or religious affiliation as an ‘identity’ (Awad 2021b). The previous trends of theological reasoning reflect such an approach to various degrees and extents. The driving motif behind this seems to be an occupation with the challenges of survival and combating extinction in the Arabic-speaking Christians’ homeland by making the theological voice a source of identification and alterity.
  3. The displayed trends of theological reasoning are also symptomatic of a religious thinking that is essentially socio-cultural in nature. The overwhelming emphasis on conveying a purely contextualized theological voice that is pre-meditated by these Arabic-speaking theologians’ socio-cultural conditions presents a theology focusing intensively on the human being and their needs (Awad 2013: 207). The belief in God here becomes the foundation of a cultural idea of a linguistic expression that is used in the service of the human context (Awad 2013: 208).
  4. These trends are mostly concerned with the present. They do not occupy themselves with connecting to the long traditions of theological reasoning that emerged and existed in the history of Eastern Christianity. They do not spend much time in echoing discourses related to the theological legacies of either the Eastern Christianity of the early Islamic era, or to the theological, referential, patristic legacies of antique and late antique Eastern Christianity. They are theological voices that are concerned with the contemporary context rather than with historical precedent.
  5. Finally, these trends of Arabic-speaking theological discourses are interreligious and Christian-Muslim in orientation. This applies whether they address Christian-Muslim relations as the central subject of the theological reasoning, or they have inter-religiosity as one of the driving, albeit implicit, presumptions underpinning them. Many Arabic-speaking Christian theologians are deemed prominent names in the Christian-Muslim dialogical movements in the context of the Arab Middle East, like, for example, Adel Theodore Khoury, Paul Khoury, Mouchir Aoun, Kirillus Bustros, George Khodr, Martin Accad, and Tarek Mitri. Since the last two decades of the twentieth century, this attention generated numerous local and international conferences, panels, workshops, and meetings on the ramifications and orientations of interreligious relations in that region.

5 Concluding remarks

All of the theologians explored in this entry indicate the level of concern about the fact that Arabic-speaking Christians find themselves living in a specific setting, wherein one’s religious background inevitably shapes, even dictates, how the non-Christians receive and perceive whatever one contributes to society. This is whether one personally wanted to act in society with a deliberate emphasis on one’s religious affiliation and beliefs or not. This situation necessitates the development of clear and definable theological discourses right from the outset. Such theological attempts cannot but rationalize the political, social, cultural, anthropological, and existential thinking of Arabic public squares. By developing such theological trends, Christians seem to be calling for emancipating the religious dimension of the Arabic identity from any interpretation that treats religiosity as a superstitious, magical worldview, which leads to nothing but a simplistic and shallow relationship with the different religious other.

The challenge that any contemporary Arabic-speaking, Eastern theology is yet to tackle is the ‘Arab Spring’ phase itself and its ramifications and consequences. No Arabic-speaking theologians have yet seriously explored the Arab Spring and then tried to develop a theological hermeneutics about the Christians’ situation, self-perception, and worldviews from and within the framework of the Arab Spring. Would such a theologization ever kick off in the Arabic-speaking Middle East? What kind of theological discourses will we hear the Arabic-speaking Christians exploring in the coming years, if such a theology is ever to be created? The answers to these questions, and many related others, remain totally open to all the possible answers the future may bring forth.


Copyright Najib George Awad (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Awad, Najib George. 2012a. And Freedom Became a Public Square: Political, Sociological and Religious Overviews on the Arab Christians and the Arabic Spring. Berlin/Vienna: LIT Verlag.
    • Awad, Najib George. 2012b. ‘Is Christianity from Arabia? Examining Two Contemporary Arabic Proposals on Christianity in the Pre-Islamic Period’, in Orientalische Christen und Europa: Kulturbegegnung zwischen Interferenz, Partizipation und Antizipation. Edited by Martin Tamcke. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 33–56.
    • Cheikho, Louis. 1983. ‛Ulamā’ al-Naṣrāniyyah fī al-Īslām, 622–1300 [The Scientist of Christianity in Islam, 622–1300]. Edited by Kamīl Ḥushaymih. Rome/Jounieh: Pontifical Oriental Institute/al-Maktabah al-Buluṣiyyah. Ḥushaymih.
    • Hitti, Philip K. 1970. A History of the Arabs from the Earliest Time to the Present. New York/London: St. Martin’s Press.
    • Hourani, Albert. 1983. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press.
    • Raheb, Mitri. 2016. Shifting Identities: Changes in the Social, Political and Religious Structures in the Middle East. Bethlehem: Diyar Publisher.
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