Theodore Abū Qurrah on the Veneration of Icons

Theodore Abū Qurrah was the first Christian writer whose name has come down to us to write in Arabic. As such, he is particularly interesting for his early approach to presenting Christian theology and praxis in an environment that had already become heavily Islamicized by his lifetime (755-830 AD) a hundred years after the Arab conquest and the establishment of the Umayyid state in Syria. One of the changes Abū Qurrah dealt with in his writings was the change in Christian attitude towards icons, or, more specifically, the public veneration of icons in church. In early Islam particularly, depictions of humans was, if not completely proscribed, considered with extreme suspicion if not outright declaration of being forbidden. While this attitude has hardly ever really been universal, and is by no means universal now (while in Fes I purchased a wonderful poster of scenes from the Qu’ran and Islamic legend, plus a local saint, which I will eventually get around to scanning onto my computer and posting one of these days, ان شاء الله), the iconoclastic current of Islam has always been strong, and was particularly hostile to Christian iconography in Abū Qurrah’s day.

More specifically, Christians were being mocked by their Muslim neighbors, and accused of being idolatrous, because of their veneration of icons. Now, granted, being mocked and insulted is a hardly out and out persecution, but in a miliue that had become heavily Islamicized, and with Muslims occupying the highest positions, this sort of mockery had a deep impact. Plus, Christianity had already undergone the massive shock of Islamic conquest, which by itself tended to weaken the hold of Christian dogma on the masses. Mocking icons and calling them idols was only one more element in the weakening and dissolution of Christianity as a popular religion (something Abū Qurrah states in his defense of icons in fact). Not only were icons themselves mocked, but the depiction of Christ crucified was a particular object of scorn, as the Qur’an states very explicitly that Christ was not crucified, and for Sunni Islam the crucifixion is very incongruous with the way God is expected to act (Shia Islam, on the other hand, very much embraces the idea of redemptive suffering and shame, but that is another story).

How Abū Qurrah responds to the charges regarding Christ and the seeming foolishness and weakness evidenced in the Christian account is fascinating- he embraces the seeming absurdity of Christian doctrine- but here I would like to draw attention to a passage from his work ‘A Treatise on the Veneration of the Holy Icons’ (translated by Sidney Griffith) in which he deals with icons, and, more specifically, the veneration offered to them. The passage is noteworthy because he seeks to establish analogies within both Judaism (his preferred, and generally safer, debate partner throughout this particular polemic) and Islam for Christian practice. After establishing Jewish and Islamic parallels or analogies he goes on to describe Christian practice, thereby attempting to remove some of the distance between the three faiths- and hence somewhat reduce the polemical sting and weight of arguments against Christianity (since he is hardly attempting some sort of ecumenical unity or agreement). However, in this brief passage there is a good example of what Abū Qurrah is doing- reproducing earlier arguments (St. John of Damascus is continually in the background) and re-contextualizing them in the new Islamic environment.

From Chapter XI: ‘It is inevitable that the act of prostration goes to what the intention has in mind in the flexing of the knees, putting down the forehead, and the direction one faces. Since this is so, anyone with a question should understand that Jacob made a prostration on Joseph’s staff, intending thereby to honor Joseph… So too we Christians, when we make prostration in front of an icon of Christ or of the saints, our prostration is certainly not to the panels or to the colors. Rather, it is only to Christ, to whom every kind of act of prostration is due, and to the saints to whom it is due by way of honor.

‘One should also recall what we said about everyone who makes a prostration to God; his two knees touch but the ground or a carpet, yet his prostration is conveyed only according to what he intends- to make an act of prostration to God.

‘It is the same with the Christians; their touching the icon in the process of their making the act of prostration is in accordance with what they want to do- to honor Christ, their God, or his saints, or the prophets, or the apostles, or the martyrs, or someone else.’

A second, more direct reference to Islam comes a little earlier in the text, in Chapter IX, in which Abū Qurrah quotes from the Qur’an and employs at the conclusion a distinctly Qur’anic sounding phrase.

‘Understand that performing the act of prostration is sometimes by way of worship, and sometimes by way of something other than worship. There are people other than you, O Jew, among those who say that it is not permissible to make an act of prostration except to God. They too mock the Christians for their practice of making prostration to the icons and to people. They maintain that making the act of prostration is worship, all the while having it in mind that “God commanded all the angels to prostrate themselves to Adam, and they prostrated themselves, except Iblis refused, and came to be among the unbelievers” (al-Baqara II:34). If prostration is an act of worship, then without a doubt, according to what you say, God in that case commanded the angels to worship Adam! Far be it from God to do that!’

3 thoughts on “Theodore Abū Qurrah on the Veneration of Icons

  1. Pingback: The Gentle Exit » Clean people and pictureless places

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