A new SAT-7 ARABIC discussion show is revealing the important role Christians have played in building Arab societies and culture. With the input of guests from across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), House of Wisdom raises awareness of the region’s Christian past and key historical figures, including poets, physicians, and scientists.
The programme’s title comes from the name of a landmark academic institution and library created by the eighth-century Abbasid caliphate, which then controlled the entire Arab world. At the House of Wisdom (“Beit al-Hikma”) in Baghdad, in what is now Iraq, Christian scholars translated many important texts into Arabic from Greek and other languages and engaged in exciting debates with their Muslim peers.
“The aim of the programme is to emphasise the pivotal role played by Arab Christians in building Arab culture,” explains Producer Sherif Wahba.
This important contribution is something many Middle Easterners are unaware of. Most have been taught a selective view of history that ignores the part played by religious and ethnic minorities. Schoolchildren are often taught that the region’s diverse religious groups are like separate islands that have never connected. The region’s rich Christian heritage is ignored so that many think Christianity was imported by Western powers, like Britain and France, during the colonial era.
The House of Wisdom dispels this myth by examining the roots and contribution of Christianity in the MENA and by showing the Bible’s early history over thirteen 30-minute episodes. Led by presenter Pastor Waguih Youssef, expert speakers discuss Christian themes in the context of historical events.
RESTORING A LOST PAST
The team hopes that House of Wisdom will appeal not only to Arabic-speaking believers but also to other viewers of all backgrounds.
In fact, the MENA is not only the birthplace of Christianity and the site of its early spread, but it remains the home of some of the world’s oldest continuous Christian communities. Cities that now appear to be firmly rooted in other traditions, including in Egypt and Iraq, were once centres of Christianity. Later, in the early centuries of Arab rule, Christians continued to have a positive influence on many areas of academia and the arts.
INFLUENTIAL FROM THE START
At the House of Wisdom, Christian academics helped develop fields including medicine and philosophy, bringing the legacy of Greek thought into Arabic. Christians also worked as physicians, architects, clerks, advisors, and court poets for the early Arab leaders. For the first few centuries of their rule, Greek and Coptic remained administrative languages.
One prominent figure during this period was Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a Syriac Christian who ran the House of Wisdom. The physician and academic was involved in the translation of important Greek texts and wrote many medical texts of his own.Between the eighth and eleventh centuries, eight generations of the Christian Bukhtishu family also served as personal doctors to the caliphs.
Over the following centuries, Christians began increasingly to be treated as second-class citizens. However, they have remained a continuous, contributing presence in MENA societies, with the region’s largest Christian populations living in Lebanon and Egypt.
Several of the writers and thinkers who spearheaded the Nahda (Arabic cultural renaissance) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, including Lebanese writer, poet and painter Khalil Gibran and Lebanese polymath Butrus al-Bustani, were from Christian backgrounds. Among his many contributions, Al-Bustani was responsible for the most popular Arabic translation of the Bible, the first Arabic encyclopaedia, for inspiring scholarly and scientific initiatives, and modelling an inclusive education regardless of religious background.