Historian and Princeton professor Jack Tannous delivers fifth Jenkins Center academic lectures

Communications Staff — September 23, 2019

Princeton University history professor Jack Tannous visited The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to deliver the fifth Jenkins Center academic lecture, which was held on September 20-21. More than 180 people attended the event in Heritage Hall to hear Tannous, assistant professor of history at Princeton, deliver a series of lectures titled, “Middle Eastern Christians on the Eve of Islam.”

Tannous is an expert in the Christian communities of the Near East during the early medieval period, and his lectures explored Muslim and Christian dynamics in the Middle East during the early medieval and medieval periods. His academic credentials are extensive, having earned a bachelor of arts from the University of Texas, a master of philosophy from Oxford University, and a doctor of philosophy from Princeton.

Tannous researches not only the cultural history of the eastern Mediterranean, but also Eastern Christian Studies, Patristics, Greco-Syriac and Greco-Arabic translation, early Islamic history, the history of the Arabic Bible, and the Quran. He is also the author of the 2018 book, The Making of the Medieval East: Religion, Society, and Simple Believers and is currently writing a new book titled, Lovers of Labor at the End of the Ancient World: Syriac Scholars Between Byzantium and Islam.

According to Ayman S. Ibrahim, having a scholar like Tannous at Southern Seminary for an event sponsored by the Jenkins Center was a great learning opportunity for his students.

“Since we aim to study Islam in a rigorous way, we seek always to explore the recent discussions around Islam in scholarly circles,” Ibrahim said. “There is no one better equipped than Jack Tannous to provide us with the current discussions around Islam and the encounter of Muslims and Christians during the earliest period of Islam. He is not only a historian of high stature, but also a thoughtful teacher who is keen to teach students how to research and read texts better.”

During the lecture, Tannous focused on how Christian and Muslim communities related to each other in the Middle East during the early medieval period. Before the 7th Century, the Middle East was linguistically diverse and generally Christian, Tannous said. Speakers of Greek, Aramaic, Coptic, Arabic, and other languages populated the region.

But in period of 630-640, Arab armies swept through the region, leading to Arab tribes immigrating to the Middle East from Western Arabia and the introduction of Islam into the Fertile Crescent and Egypt. Today, the area is overwhelmingly Arabic-speaking and Muslim, with even those who don’t ethnically self-identify as Arabs still speaking the language.

In his series of lectures, Tannous challenged some common perceptions of Christian/Muslim relations during this period and explored why the cultural situation in the Middle East changed so significantly. Tannous addressed two key questions in his lectures: how did this massive cultural transformation happen, and what became of all the diverse inhabitants of the Middle East who were there before the 7th Century?

Tannous also explored the Christian presence throughout the medieval Arab world and the influence of Christianity on the language of Arabic itself. His analysis routinely questioned traditional perceptions of the exact cultural and religious situation in the medieval Middle East.

“Traditional attempts to understand Christians and Muslims in this period often focus on texts which depict a learned Christian debating a learned Muslim over theological differences,” he said. “[But] we need to figure out what ‘Christian’ meant, and also what ‘Muslim’ meant, and not assume that the views of the theological elite were representative of what everybody on the ground actually believed.”

According to Ibrahim, Tannous’ lectures were helpful for his students as they attempt to do similarly rigorous scholarly research.

“I thought Dr. Tannous arguments were balanced, and he supported his conclusions with a lot of evidence from archeology, historical texts, Christian sources, and Muslim sources. These lectures are meant to expand our horizons and help us think about how we can do better research in Islamic Studies, and Dr. Tannous did just that.”

The event was hosted by the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam, which according to its website exists to establish a scholarly Christian understanding of the many strands of Islam and to educate Christians and build awareness of the Muslim world in its diversity. Learn more about the Jenkins Center at their website.

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