A Melchite monk (the name means that he was a monk of the monastery of Mar Sim‘-an al-Bahri near Suwaydiyyah, southwest of Antioch) engaged in a religious disputation with three Muslim fuqaha’ during a two-day period in Aleppo in 1217 in the palace of the amir al-Zafir, known as al-Malik al-Mushammar, son of Salah al-Din. The Muslim sages were Abu Zahir al-Baghdadi, Abu Salamah ibn Sa‘d al-Mawsili, and Abu Fadl al-Halabi, whose place was taken on the following day by al-Rashid ibn Mahdi.
At least ninety manuscripts of this debate are known, the earliest from the end of the sixteenth century, with the exception of a fragment two folios in length that dates from the fourteenth century. The text was translated into French in 1767 by Saint-Antoine Legrand, and into English in 1816 by E. B. Pusey, and it was published three times in Lebanon in 1932-1933.
The debate was known in the Coptic church by the seventeenth century at the latest, as can be seen from the manuscripts. Six are of Coptic origin: Oriental Library, Beirut, 677 (copied in 1887 by Yusuf Musa Khuzam of Cairo from a manuscript dated 1883-1884); a manuscript belonging to the Cairo Greek Orthodox shopkeeper Dmitri Qandalaft; Coptic Museum, Cairo, History 547, Simaykah, no. 110, seventeenth century, sixth item [incomplete]; Coptic Museum, Theology 295 (Graf, no. 259, Simaykah, no. 73, eighteenth century); Coptic Patriarchate, Cairo (Theology 86, Graf, no. 469, Simaykah, no. 420, copied in 1790, commissioned by the Mu‘allim Tumas); and Aleppo, Sbath 1006 (copied in 1867-1869).
These six manuscripts originating in Cairo should be supplemented by the three manuscripts copied by ‘Abd al-Karim al- Sa‘idi al-‘Adawi, an Egyptian Muslim convert to Christianity who settled in Rome under the name of Clement Caraccioli, and who copied these manuscripts between 1713 and 1715 (Vatican Library, Arabic 128, and the Oriental Library, Beirut, 672 and 676).
The style of the debate is lively and simple, embellished with parables recounted by the monk, who displays a streak of ironic humor. This explains the success of the debate among the Christians, as is evident from the numerous manuscripts.
The central idea of the debate is that Christianity is closer to God’s spiritual nature, whereas Islam is a “dense” religion, lacking refinement and spirituality both in morals and doctrine.
Aside from the introduction and the conclusion (chaps. 26-27), the debate falls into three major sections according to the division into twenty-eight chapters established by the editor, Bulus Qar‘ali.
The first considers whether Muhammad was a prophet. Unlike Christ’s apostles, who worked miracles, spoke all languages, and preached throughout the known world, Muhammad spread Islam by the sword and moral license. Jirji refutes, in passing, the accusation of alteration of the Gospel.
The second argues that Christ is God incarnate. Speaking of the Qur’an, Jirji explains that Christ is word and spirit, having taken on the nature of Adam in the body of Mary; however, the divine and the human both preserve their properties integrally. Adoration rendered to Christ is explained by a parable. In any case, Christ is recognized by the Qur’an (39:4) as the Son of God. His Passion does not contradict His divinity, but it was necessary, and this is why Christians venerate the Cross.
The third compares the four religions of the Book. These are the religions of the Sabaeans, the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims. The true religion is that which corresponds most fully to the creative divine nature. The sublimeness of Christian life, according to the Gospel, contrasted with the “grossness” of the Muslim ideal, shows that Christianity is the true religion. There follows a parable of a sick king’s son and four letters of attestation. The monk then proposes to prove the true religion by means of ordeals, but the Muslims decline. In any case, says the monk, Christ proved his mission by miracles, whereas Muhammad can offer no other proof than his military victories.
- Samir, K. “Bibliographie du dialogue islamo-chrétien. No. 32.1: Girgi, moine de Saint-Siméon en 1217.” Islamochristiana 7 (1981):299-307 (with a complete bibliography).
KHALIL SAMIR, S.J.