Date of Award
Master of Arts in Religion (MAR)
Carl M. Leth
The interactions between Christians and Muslims have long fascinated historians, theologians, and scholars from several other disciplines. In recent decades, a great deal of research has been directed towards the development of Islam in relation to the Byzantine Empire. Archeological studies have delivered fresh insight regarding the tolerance of Christianity by the early Muslims. Numismatic research has demonstrated a strong relation between the political tactics of Byzantium and the Islamic Caliphate. Careful scrutiny of primary texts has also suggested that the early Muslims were far more similar to Jews and Christians than has been previously allowed. This similarity conflates many religious practices, often blurring the view of neat, linear, cause-and-affect progressions.
The first intentional effort of Muslims to distinguish themselves from the other religious entities in the Levant occurs at the end of the seventh century, a period of years that curiously coincide with a particular theological incident. This incident was pioneered by a monk named Anastasios, who resided at the Monastery of St. Catherine at the base of Mt. Sinai. Until now, Anastasios’ work has primary been studied for its value in elucidating internal Christian dialogues and concerns. Some have also analyzed the references to Islam in the writings of Anastasios, but such efforts have been mostly peripheral.
This paper aims to reach a better understanding of the early Islamic interactions with Christianity by considering the specific theological implications of Anastasios’ work. One of the most extraordinary aspects of Anastasios’ work involves the usage of religious images (icons). Anastasios does not merely offer a modified theological argument in the mold of previous theologians, but pairs his convictions with an explicit call for a new breed of icons. These Crucifix icons are the first to depict Jesus as completely dead, and will be carefully studied in the following pages. After consideration of these icons, this paper will reach a climax in the corollary assessment of the Iconoclastic Controversy. In Byzantium, this controversy lasted from approximately 726 – 843, but was heralded by a slightly earlier controversy in the Islamic world. Although many scholars have attempted to delineate the relation between these iconoclastic movements, none have yet provided a thoroughly conclusive explanation.
Here, an attempt will be made to present a plausible scenario for understanding the multifaceted features of the Iconoclastic Controversy. This will involve a considerable review of the theological debates that precede the Iconoclastic Controversy so that the controversy itself can be better apprehended. Likewise, a thorough survey of icons and their development will establish the backdrop against which Anastasios’ radical icons can be juxtaposed. In order to properly decipher the Islamic reactions toward Anastasios’ icons, a critical appraisal of Islam’s beginnings will also be conducted.
After an adequate contextual foundation has been laid, the specific work of Anastasios will be systematically discussed. As mentioned already, special focus will be given to the theological consequences of Anastasios’ work. It is vital to consider how Anastasios’ iconographical innovation was received by Muslims, but also by Monophysites and Chalcedonian Christians. During this process, several questions should be kept in mind: (1) What motivated Anastasios to depict what no other Christian artist had dared depict before him? (2) As a monk living under the rule of the Islamic Caliphate, how did Anastasios view the beliefs of his Muslim neighbors? (3) If Christians offended Muslims with their icons, why is it that much of Byzantium seems to react in the same way? In the course of considering Anastasios’ work, several persuasive answers to these questions will be proposed.
The final stage of this thesis will seek to determine the impact of Anastasios’ upon the immediate Christian posterity. Because the mandates of iconoclasm frequently demanded the destruction of icons, there is a noticeable dearth of pertinent artifacts available for scrutiny. Nonetheless, a glimpse of pristine iconographic thought during the Iconoclasm can be achieved due to the asylum that was provided by several monasteries in the Levant. These religious sanctuaries managed the exceptional feat of isolating monks from both their Islamic overlords and the more distant Byzantine authorities. The writings of John Damascene serve as an impeccable example of this phenomenon and also link his work to that of Anastasios. John, like all other Christian writers of history, was influenced by at least one specific theological legacy; by a stand of thinking that inspired him to adamantly oppose the emperor and many of his immediate Christian neighbors. This strand of thinking is of supreme importance, and although it feature multiple offshoots and divisions, it will be presented as a primary impetus of the Iconoclastic Controversy.
Samuelson, Calum, "The Graphic Icons of Anastasios of Sinai" (2015). M.A. in Christian Thought. 1.