From the Crusades to 9/11, history has given many laypeople a tale of unrelenting hostility between Christians and Muslims. Michael Penn, who teaches religion and gender studies at Mount Holyoke College, is assembling a different picture by poking in an obscure nook of history.

He recently was awarded $120,000 in grants, including the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, for research into Syriac Christians who, he says, “arguably have the most direct relationship with Muslims” during Islam’s formative years. Populating what is today Iran, Iraq, and eastern Turkey, these Christians lived under Muslim occupation from shortly after the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 634. Few moderns know the Syriac language, so troves of documents from the period were largely ignored until Penn began burrowing into archives at the British Library and elsewhere.

While “it’s not like they’re all coming together and singing ‘Kumbaya,'” Syriac Christians found crossroads of cooperation with their Muslim rulers, he says. Excerpts from a recent interview with Penn follow.

Q: Obviously you speak or read Syriac. How many people do these days?

A: Very, very few. It is a liturgical language in various Syriac churches. We’re talking, in terms of Western scholars, a few hundred. In terms of the United States, there may be a few dozen people who are working in Syriac Christianity.


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