Friday, May 11, 2018

The Disputation Between Saint Cyril the Philosopher and the Muslims

In chapter six of the Life of Constantine-Cyril, the author speaks of an invitation being sent by the Arabs to Constantinople to hold a religious disputation, with particular reference to the Holy Trinity and belief in one God. The emperor thereupon is said to have convoked the Senate in order to deliberate as to what should be done. He asked Constantine, known in the text as the Philosopher, at that time only twenty-four years old, to go to the Arabs, probably in Samarra near Baghdad which was the residence of the Caliph, and to take part in the religious discussion. The year this reportedly took place was in 851.

Life of Constantine

(Ch. 6)

Afterward the Hagarites, who were called Saracens, blasphemed the single Deity of the Holy Trinity, saying: “How is it, O Christians, that you, while holding that God is one, further divide Him into three, saying He is Father, Son, and Spirit? If you can explain clearly, send us men who can speak of this and convince us.”

At that time the Philosopher was 24 years of age. Having convened a council, the Emperor summoned Constantine and said to him: “Do you hear, Philosopher, what the nasty Hagarites are saying against our faith? Since you are a servant and disciple of the Holy Trinity, go and oppose them. And may God, the Accomplisher of all, Who is glorified in the Trinity, the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, grant you grace and strength in words. And may He reveal you a second David against Goliath whom he defeated with three stones, and return you to us made worthy of the heavenly kingdom.”

Upon hearing this, Constantine answered: “I shall gladly go for the Christian faith. For what in this world could be sweeter for me than to live and die for the Holy Trinity!”

And they assigned the court secretary, George, to him and sent them.

When they came there they saw strange and vile things which the God-fighting Hagarites did to deride and mock Christians. In these places all those living in piety in Christ were caused much grief. Thus on the outside doors of all Christians they painted images of demons playing games and grimacing. And they asked the Philosopher, saying: “Philosopher, can you understand what this sign means?”

Then he said: “I see demonic images and assume that Christians dwell within. However, the demons are unable to live with them and flee from them. But wherever this sign is not present on the outside, the demons dwell with those inside.”

At dinner the Hagarites, a wise people, well versed in scholarship, geometry, astronomy and other sciences, tested Constantine and questioned him, saying: “Philosopher, perceive you the wondrous miracle, how the Prophet Muhammad brought us joyful tidings from God and converted many people; and how we all keep his law without transgressing in any way? But in keeping Christ’s law, you act and do whatever pleases each of you, one this, another that.”

To this the Philosopher answered: “Our God is like the breadth of the sea. Thus did the Prophet speak of Him: ‘And who shall declare His generation? For He was cut off out of the land of the living’ (Isaiah 53:8). For the sake of this search many set out on this sea. And with His help the strong in mind sail across and return, receiving a wealth of understanding. But the weak in mind, some sink like those attempting to cross in rotten ships, while others flounder in impotent idleness, barely breathing from exhaustion. However, your sea is deceptive and self-serving, so that anyone, great and small can leap across. For it is not beyond the wonts of man but something one can easily do. Now Muhammad forbade you nothing else. Since he did not restrain your anger and lust but allowed them, do you know into which abyss he will cast you? Let the sensible understand: Christ is not that way. Rather, He raises up what is difficult from beneath through faith and divine action. As the Creator of everything, He created man between the angels and beasts. For man is distinguished from beasts by his speech and intelligence, and from angels by his anger and lust. And he shall participate either in higher or lower realms in accordance with the realm he approaches.”

And again they questioned him: “Since God is one, why do you glorify Him as three? If you know, explain this! For you call Him Father, Son, and Spirit. If this be so, give Him a wife as well, so that many gods might be sired by Him.”

To this the Philosopher answered: “Do not speak such despicable blasphemies. For well have we learned from the prophets and fathers and teachers to glorify the Trinity, the Father, the Word and the Spirit, three hypostases in one being. And the Word became flesh in the Virgin and was born for the sake of our salvation, as your prophet Muhammad bore witness when he wrote the following: ‘We sent our spirit to the Virgin, having consented that She gave birth.’ From this I apprise you of the Trinity.” (Koran Sura 19:17)

Defeated by these words, they turned to another matter, saying: “As you say, O friend. But if Christ is your God, why do you not do as He commands? For in the Gospels it is written: ‘Pray for your enemies, do good to them that hate you and persecute you, and unto them that smite you turn your cheek!’ (Matthew 5:44) (Luke 6:29). You are not like that but, on the contrary, you sharpen weapons against those who treat you in such a manner” (Matthew 5:39).

In answer to this the Philosopher said: “If the law contains two precepts, who appears to fulfill the law? He who keeps one precept, or both?

They answered: “Obviously he who keeps both.”

The Philosopher then said: “God said: ‘Pray for them which despitefully use you’ (Luke 6:28). And He also said: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). We do this for the sake of friends, lest their souls be captured together with their bodies.”

And again they questioned him, saying: “Christ paid tribute for Himself and others. Why do you not do as He did? And if you keep yourself from it, why do you not at least pay tribute for your brethren and friends to the great and powerful race of Ishmael? We ask little, only one piece of gold. And for as long as the entire earth endures, we shall keep peace among ourselves as no one else.”

The Philosopher answered: “When Christ paid tribute which Empire existed, the Ishmaelite or the Roman?”

They answered: “Obviously the Roman.”

Constantine said: “Therefore you ought not scorn us for we all pay tribute to the Romans.”

After this they asked him many other questions, testing him in all the arts that they themselves knew. He explained everything to them. And when he had convinced them, they again said to him: “How do you know all this?”

The Philosopher said: “A certain man drew water from the sea and, carrying it in a bag, boasted to strangers, saying: ‘See this water? No one has any except me!’ To him came a man who lived by the sea and said: ‘Are you not ashamed of what you are saying, boasting merely about this stinking bag? We have a sea of it!’ You are acting the same way. All the arts have come from us.”

And afterwards, playing games, they showed him a cultivated garden in which some of the things appeared to have at once sprung from the earth. And when he explained to them how this came about, they further showed him all manner of wealth, and houses adorned with gold and silver and precious stones and pearls, saying: “Philosopher, behold the wondrous miracle! Mighty is the power and great the wealth of Amerumnin, lord of the Saracens.”

Then he said to them: “This is not wondrous. Glory and praise be to God who has created all these things and given them to man for his consolation. For these things are His and no other’s.”

And when they heard this from him, they became angry and resorted to their usual evil ways. Intending to poison him, they mixed a deadly potion and gave him to drink of it. But the merciful God, who said to all who truly believe in Him, “and if you drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt you” (Mark 18:18), preserved Constantine from harm from that fatal drink and returned him again to his native land in good health.