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John of Damascus |
An insider challenges Islam

John of Damascus is drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 199, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Raised in the caliph’s household, and the Muslims’ senior Syrian administrator, John of Damascus mounts Christianity’s first theological opposition to Muhammad

John of Damascus - An insider challenges Islam

John of Damascus - An insider challenges Islam
John on the Incarnation: Being perfect God he became perfectly human and accomplished the newest of all new things, the only new thing under the sun.

The last father of the eastern church, its greatest poet, and the first Christian writer to challenge Muhammad as a false prophet, grew up in the new Muslim capital of Damascus as an intimate of Caliph al-Walid’s family, and served as a senior bureaucrat of the new order. But he was fiercely denounced, not by the Muslims, but by the imperial authorities in Constantinople, who, by one account, tricked the caliph into ordering the amputation of one of his hands.

This was John of Damascus, who was despised by Constantinople in his own time as a notorious traitor and “wronger of Jesus Christ.”

He was born about forty years after the Muslim conquest of Syria. While details of his life are sketchy, his grandfather, Mansur, may have been instrumental in delivering Damascus into the hands of the invading Arabs.1 As a result, the family’s name became cursed in Constantinople (where it was sometimes officially rendered in Greek as Manzeros, or bastard). The Mansur clan clearly prospered under the new regime, with John’s father becoming the caliph’s chief administrator.

The family was, however, acknowledged to be devoutly Christian. Tradition holds that John’s father spent much of the wealth earned in the service of the caliph in buying the freedom of numerous slaves brought to the capital as a result of Muslim raids around the eastern Mediterranean. One such was the monk Cosmas, who became tutor to the Mansur children, including the precocious John. In addition to algebra, geometry and music, as an intimate of the caliph’s own family, John seems to have learned a great deal about the new religion of Islam, which was little understood by most Christians. Like his father before him, John became the caliph’s chief administrator, a role in which he, too, seems to have excelled and prospered.

The cause of John’s estrangement from his Arab masters is not certain, but his biographer (a tenth-century patriarch of Jerusalem) says that his forceful opposition to attempts by Emperor Leo III to ban the veneration of religious images (a conflict to be dealt with in the next volume) led to an imperial plot to discredit him in the eyes of the Muslims. A letter bearing John’s forged signature and offering to deliver Damascus to Byzantine forces found its way to the caliph–who condemned his bureaucrat and ordered that his hand be amputated.

Whether this is legend or fact, the by now middle-aged John left the caliph’s service and entered the monastery of St. Sabas, near Jerusalem. He eventually became a priest, and his considerable intellectual gifts were put at the disposal of the church. John’s most famous work is The Fountain of Wisdom, a comprehensive survey of the theology of the early church, and a landmark in Christian antiquity. Written in three parts, the third book is titled Concerning Heresy, and contains Christianity’s first detailed analysis of “the deceptive superstition of the Ishmaelites,”2 which John recognized lay at the heart of the Muslim onslaught.

John’s intimate knowledge of Islam’s origins and practices, and his familiarity with the Qur’an (no doubt gained during his years in Damascus) is unique in his time, and led him to conclude that Islam was, in fact, a Christian heresy. Aware of the Arabs’ idolatrous past (then very recent), he gave Muhammad credit for leading his branch of the family of Abraham back to monotheism–but says the Prophet then got it all terribly wrong.

“Jews, Arians and Nestorians, from each one of these Muhammad acquired a particular teaching, and thus he formed his own heresy: from the Jews, absolute monotheism; from the Arians, the affirmation that the Word and the Spirit are creatures [and thereby not divine]; and from the Nestorians . . . that Christ was simply a human being.”

John was aware that Islam acknowledged Jesus as a prophet, who had been superseded by Muhammad–through whom God’s will had finally and perfectly been communicated in the form of the Qur’an. But where, beyond the word of Muhammad, is the evidence to support any of this, asked John? He found the whole idea preposterous.

“Muhammad, the founder of Islam, is a false prophet who, by chance, came across the Old and New Testament, and who . . . thus devised his own heresy.” John also criticized many of Muhammad’s laws as faulty and erroneous, and was particularly skeptical of those related to marriage and divorce, which he suspected were merely self-serving. Or, as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it: John “vigorously assails the immoral practices of Muhammad and the corrupt teachings inserted in the Qur’an to legalize the delinquencies of the Prophet.”

John continued to be a prolific writer until the end of his life (around 749), and his analysis of Islam remained the basis of Christian theological opposition to Muhammad’s creed for many centuries. In addition, his adaptations of music for liturgical use is often credited with doing for the eastern church what Gregory the Great accomplished for the West. Some of his hymns are still in use today. Best known among them are two Easter hymns: “The day of Resurrection, earth tell it out abroad,” and “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness,” both translated by the nineteenth-century British scholar and clergyman John Mason Neale.

Once, a fellow monk, grief-stricken by the death of his brother, convinced John to write a hymn about death. Having been charged never to do anything simply because he wanted to do it, John was ordered to do penance. The penance, devised by his elder at the monastery, was to return to Damascus, where John had once been a distinguished official, and sell baskets at an outrageously high price–so that he could suffer scorn and rejection. John did as he was told. But, says the monastic tradition, the Virgin appeared in a vision and said that John must be allowed to write again because Christ desired it. So the elder withdrew the restriction, and the hymn became part of the funeral liturgy of the eastern church. It freely translates like this:

What earthly sweetness remains unmixed with grief?

What glory stands forever on earth?

All things are but feeble shadows or deluding dreams—

In only one moment, Death shall take their place.

But in the light of Thy countenance, O Christ,

And in the sweetness of Thy beauty,

Give rest to him whom Thou has chosen,

For Thou alone lovest mankind.

This is the end of the John of Damascus category article drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 199, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about John of Damascus from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at