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Christian Kalām

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 Origins of Christian Kalām

Dialectic argumentation, using disjunctive if/then statements to reduce an opponent’s argument to contradiction and/or absurdity, has its origins in the genres of theology, philosophy, medicine, and the sciences (Hoyland 1997, 44-45). In the pre-Islamic Eastern Mediterranean, there were three established practices of writing dialectics. The first style was the question-and-answer literature of a master and disciple discussion (Erotapokriseis). The second approach was the disputation setting. The third approach used pure dialectical reasoning for the purpose of aiding theological truths and highlighting contradictions in an adversary’s ideas. The main causal factors for the emergence of these texts in Late Antiquity were the growing divisions between religious communities, the end of traditional Greek learning giving way to new popular forms, and the translation of Greek material into Syriac (Tannous 2013).

Formal Christological disputations were quite common in early Christianity. The disputed Council of Ephesus in 449 and the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451 led to an impasse within the Empire concerning the hypostatic union of the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ. Because of the stalemate, a lasting split was created between 1) Byzantine Orthodox Chalcedonians (after 681 known as ‘Melkites’ in the Arabic-speaking world), 2) the Miaphysites (Coptic and West Syrians later known as ‘Jacobites’), and 3) the East Syrian ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East. For religious, ethnic, political, and economic reasons, the communities intensified their Christological disputations during the sixth and seventh centuries. Christian debates with Jews, Manicheans, and Tritheists were common as well (Cameron 1991).

By the time of Emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565), dialectical argumentation was seen as a form of conflict resolution between Christological opponents (Lim 1995). The main purpose of dialectic was twofold: first, it was intended to minimize the hostility between the Orthodox Chalcedonians, Miaphysites, and East Syrian ‘Nestorians’. Second, the results were meant to establish a lasting political and religious consensus. Public patronage encouraged disputation as a legitimate way to uncover the truth of matters and to articulate clearly the ideals and philosophical underpinnings of each group.

There are a number of pre-Islamic examples that point to the origins of kalām in Greek and Syriac disputations. For instance, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian sponsored a three-day dialogue between Byzantine Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox Miaphysite bishops in 532. The Syrian Orthodox report reveals that both sides used dialectic to get each opposing side to fall into contradictions (Brock 1981). We also see the influence of Alexandrian Christology upon the origins of kalām in the works of the Neo-Platonic theologian John Philoponos (d. 579). In his critical commentary on the Council of Chalcedon (451) known as the Arbiter, John used question-and-answer techniques to reach if-then syllogistic conclusions about the absurdity of the Chalcedonian Christological schema (Lang 2001). The Byzantine Emperor Justin II (d. 578) set up a debate between the Tritheists, Chalcedonians, and Miaphysites in 566 which resulted in the articulation of each group’s ideas in dialectical form. In fact, it has been suggested that the Qur’an was aware of these debates (Block 2012).

Greek Christological aporetic dialogues were meant to demonstrate the contradictions inherent in an opponents’ argument or proved their illogical character. These methods were brought from Greek into Syriac during the sixth through the ninth centuries. For instance, the Syriac Miaphysite Simeon of Bet Arsham (d. ca. 548) became a well-known dialectician who engaged in debates with Nestorians using the techniques of reducing his opponents to silence (Brooks 1923, 137-158).

These kinds of popular debates were common in the Sasanian Empire, where West Syrian Miaphysites would battle against the East Syrian ‘Nestorians’ (Reinink 1999). We also see dialectic used in Syriac hagiography, such as the Legend of Mar Qardagh and disputations by Mari the Persian (Mid-5th c., Treatise against the Magi in Nisibis), Paul of Nisibis (ca. 561, Disputation against Caesar), Ishōʿyab of Arzon (d. 595, Disputation against a Heretical Bishop), and Nathaniel of Shirzor (d. 618, Disputations against the Severians, Manichaeans, Cantāye, and Māndrāye) (Walker 2006, 164-180).

 Christian Kalām in the First Islamic Century

After the Arab conquest, patrons continued to sponsor disputations. The Monothelete controversy within the Chalcedonian community gave rise to debates that continued well into the Islamic period. We see examples of the disjunctive questioning by Maximus the Confessor when he debated Pyrrhus the Patriarch of Constantinople in 645 (Farrell 1990). The Greek works by Anastasius of Sinai, entitled Guidebook (Hodegos) and Questions and Answers (Erotapokriseis) demonstrate the continued use of these arguments with an awareness of Islamic positions (Cameron 1992, Griffith 1987, ‘Anastasius’). Likewise the Maronite Chronicle and the Trophies of Damascus record religious disputations that took place after the Arab conquest.

In a seventh-century Syriac aporetic dialogue, the Monothelete text employs if-then statements to create a logical dilemma that forces the questioners into a self-contradiction. This dialectic technique was adapted for Muslim kalām arguments against Christians:

It is written in the Gospel, “It is right that the Son of Man should be crucified.” This human will, was it willing to be crucified, or not?

And if not, then it was willing things which were not right.

But if it was willing (it), why did he pray that the cup might pass away from him? (Brock 1986, 137-138)

In a more rigorous philosophical approach, Jacob of Edessa (ca. 640-708) composed a Handbook that analyzed Christological terminology and pointed out weak points, but proposed these ideas without the polemical tones of most debate texts (King 2013, 75-76).

The Church Father Saint John of Damascus (d. ca. 750) also used syllogistic argumentation in his Greek works from the eighth century. John wrote the Fount of Knowledge as a summary of the Orthodox worldview (Kotter 1969). John’s structure outlined religious knowledge, the creation of the world, God’s existence and unity and other attributes. Since later Islamic kalām discussions about the concept of tawḥīd follow this model, it is likely that Christian treatises like John’s work were a model for kalām texts (Pines 1976, Aradi 2013).

The Greek Dialogue Between a Saracen and a Christian uses dialectical argumentation (“When the Saracen says to you … Respond: …”) on topics such as the cause of good and evil, the difference between the uncreated Word of God and the created words of God, God’s omnipotence and humanity’s free will, Mary’s death, and Jesus’ relation to John the Baptist. At one point the exchange shows the aporetic approach: “You (the Saracen) want to ask me: ‘Did Christ suffer willingly or unwillingly?’; so that if I will answer you ‘He suffered willing’, to tell me ‘Go and bow to the Jews, because they did the will of God’” (Sahas 1972, 146-147) .

 The Transmission of Kalām from Greek and Syriac into Arabic

The Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) claims the origins of kalām began among Christians in the pre-Islamic period (Stroumsa 2009, 27). He blames John Philoponos (along with the ninth-century Syrian Orthodox philosopher Yaḥyā b. ʿAdī) for the introduction of kalām, which he considered beneath philosophy (Pietruschka 2003). Recent scholarship has confirmed that Greek and Syriac Christian sources were important in the role of transmitting dialectic. For instance, the Church of the East taught dialectics and debate as part of the curriculum at the schools of Nisibis, Seleucia-Ctesiphon, and Gundeshapur (Bēt Lapat).

Scholars Michael Cook and Sebastian Brock, in their editing of Syriac texts from the sixth and seventh centuries, have demonstrated the resemblance between Christian kalām and the earliest Islamic kalām texts (Cook 1980, Brock 1986). Some Syriac Monothelete debate texts are mimicked by al-Ḥasan b. Muḥammad al-Ḥanafiyya (d. ca. 718) in his Questions against the Qadarites. The results suggest that Greek dialectical reasoning, transmitted into Syriac Christian kalām texts, was adapted by Muslim mutakallimūn for their own purposes. Therefore Christian kalām exerted an intellectual stimulus upon Muslim kalām and Christian polemical pressures were a significant causal factor in the formation of Islamic theology (Becker 1912 & 2004; Thomas 2008; Griffith 1994, 1-5).

Further evidence of early Syriac kalām is found in the writings of George, Bishop of the Arab Tribes (d. 724). George responded to an Orthodox Chalcedonian by turning his questions around to show that by modifying their terminology the questions themselves were heretical or absurd: “This one hypostasis which you confess Christ to have – is it created, uncreated, or created and uncreated? Now if it is uncreated, it is only God, but if it is created, then it is only a mere man. If you will say ‘created,’ you are found out to be like Nestorius, for you unwillingly confess two hypostases” (Tannous 2008, 681).

Syriac Christian kalām was transmitted into the Islamic realm by bilingual (or trilingual) Arab Christians who were familiar with theological argumentation from their educational system and their experiences in disputes concerning Christology (Tannous 2008, 713). The tradition of dialectical reasoning and the legacy of Christian apologetics with Judaism and intra-Christian controversies continued and flourished under Muslim rule (Cameron 1992).

 Authors of Christian Kalām

The popularity of Christian kalām was due not only to the legacy of dialectical training but also the rising popularity of the institutionalized practice of formal disputation (majlis al-munāẓara). Court sponsorship encouraged the oral debates and free discussion that intellectuals recorded and adapted for written purposes. Kalām in the Islamic Middle East also differed from pre-Islamic forms since the use of reason was the only common ground for religious discussions. This made arguments similar to Christian approaches to Jews and Manicheans. For instance, Christians had an established argument regarding the freedom of the will with Manicheans that they adapted for arguments with Muslims. While these texts maintained continuity with earlier styles of disputation, interest in philosophy and the Abbasid translation movement gave rise to new Christian kalām texts that were sophisticated and concerned with the ‘inculturation’ of Christian thought into the world of Islam (Griffith 2008).

One of the earliest Syriac kalām texts is the early eighth-century Disputation between a Monk of Bēt Ḥālē and an Arab Notable. The story is framed in the style of question-and-answer while incorporating aspects of dialectics and debate (drāshā in Syriac). It addresses issues related to Christian veneration of relics and icons, the direction of prayer, the criteria for authentic scripture, and debates on the Trinity, Incarnation, and the Crucifixion of Christ. For instance, the monk employs a simple syllogistic argument: If Muslims believe in the Qurʾān, and they confirm that it calls Jesus Christ ‘Word of God’ (Q 4:171), then they must either remove “Word of God” from their appellation for Christ in the Qurʾān or they must proclaim him as the Son of God.

The Syriac discourse between John the Stylite of Mār Zʿurā and a Muslim at Sarug contains dialectical arguments on both sides. For instance, John is asked that if God was crucified, then he would be the origin of evil, since God knew that the Jews would crucify Jesus. If God had not come as Jesus, he would also be the origin of evil and make liars of the prophets, therefore making the Miaphysite claim illogical.

Another eighth-century work set in the form of a letter belongs to Timothy Patriarch of the Church of the East (ruled 780-824). His work reports a discussion he had with a Muslim Aristotelian Philosopher. The discussion begins with arguments about knowledge, God’s nature and attributes, and the Incarnation (Hurst 1981). In addition to this debate is the well-known conversation with Caliph al-Mahdī which took place in 781. This highly copied work uses brief kalām-style reasoning. For instance concerning the question of why Jesus prayed, Timothy argues that since the caliph agrees that Jesus did not sin, and that someone without sin and without need does not require prayer, then it follows in the Bible and Qur’an that Jesus prayed as a model for his followers. (Mingana 1928, 167).

Theodore Bar Koni, a member of the Church of the East who flourished around 792, wrote a training guidebook in Syriac for students entitled the Scholion . Theodore includes one chapter in his work as an example of disputation between a Christian and Muslim based on a series of questions and answers. Over the course of the chapter, the teacher responds to Muslim arguments about Jesus Christ, Baptism, the Eucharist, the Cross, and the Sacraments (Griffith 1981, 1982).

Probably the most well-known mutakallim of the Abbasid era is Theodore Abū Qurra, the Melkite Bishop of Haran (d. ca. 830). We have nearly two dozen Arabic works and forty-three Greek works attributed to him (Lamoreaux 2009). He was well known among Muslims, as the catalogue of Ibn al-Nadim (d. ca. 995) mentions a work Against Abu Qurra the Christian by the Muʿtazilite author ʿĪsā b. Ṣabīḥ al-Murḍār (d. 226/841). The famous Muʿtazilite ʿAbd al-Jabbār al-Hamadhānī (d. 415/1025) calls Abū Qurra his source for Melkite Arab Orthodox doctrines in his Critique of Christian Origins (Reynolds & Samir 2010) and the Mughnī (Thomas 2008).

Theodore Abū Qurra’s most notable kalām works in relation to Muslims include his treatise On the Existence of God and the True Religion (Griffith 1994), On the Method of the Knowledge of God, On Natural Theology, On the Trinity, On Free Will, and Questions on Free Will (Lamoreaux 2005). His informal kalām debates were preserved in Greek and Arabic as Refutations of the Saracens by Theodore Abū Qurra, the Bishop of Haran, As Reported by John the Deacon (Lamoreaux 2005, pp. 211-227). Theodore Abū Qurra also composed a short collection of kalām debates with Muslims known as Against the Outsiders. In addition to his authentic works, a Christian Arabic text known as The Debate of Abū Qurra with Muslim mutakallimūn in the majlis of the caliph al-Maʾmūn covers a number of topics in an engaging kalām style (Nasry 2008).

Ḥabīb b. Khidma Abū Rāʾiṭa al-Takrītī (d. after 830) is viewed as the most prolific and well-known author for the Jacobites in the ninth-century Abbasid period. For Abū Rāʾiṭa, the use of reason was important but it could not be used alone to prove the truth since not all people were educated. His most important kalām works concern the truth of Christianity, the Trinity, and the Incarnation (Keating 2006).

Nonnus of Nisibis was a West Syrian Jacobite archdeacon. He had a reputation as a skilled physician and philosopher. He is known for a debate he had with Theodore Abū Qurra at the court of the Armenian Prince Ashot Msaker between 813-817 and one work related to Muslims. His Apologetic Treatise argues for God’s unity and the Trinity and a detailed defense of Christianity (Griffith 1991).

ʿAmmār al-Baṣrī (d. 225/840) was an East Syrian ‘Nestorian’ and a contemporary of Abū Qurra and Abū Rāʾiṭa. He was also known for two main works of kalām, known as the Book of Proof and the Book of Questions and Answers (Kitāb al-burhān; Kitāb al-masāʾil wa l-ajwiba) (Hayek 1977). His works found an Islamic audience as Abū Hudhayl al-ʿAllāf (d. c. 840) wrote a work entitled Against ʿAmmār the Christian.

Israel of Kashkar (d. 872) was a bishop and important leader in the East Syrian Church. His letter “On the Confirmation of the Unity of the Creator and the Trinity of His Properties” is a formal kalām work that emphasizes the transcendence of God, the challenges of epistemology, and the importance of analogical reasoning (Holmberg 1989). There is also a record of a debate between Israel of Kashkar and the Muslim al-Sarakhsī in the form of a kalām exchange (Moosa 1972).

In the Melkite community, there is another ninth-century example of argumentation in the form of questions and answers known as Answers for the Shaykh (Griffith 2006). The work was probably by a monk who responded to three questions concerning the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the truth of the Christian religion. The author proposes to use reason alone to respond to the author and only afterward support his claims with Scripture.

Perhaps the most comprehensive early Christian Arabic theological compendium is known as the Summa Theologiae Arabica (the Arabic title is Al-Jāmiʿ wujūh al-īmān). Although the authorship of the late ninth-century work is uncertain, it was written by a Melkite Orthodox Christian who was probably a monk or priest. Chapter 18 is a defense of Christian practices where the author says he has cited ‘from their own kalām’ in order to teach the reader how to answer Muslim questions (Griffith 1990).

Another Melkite text from around 820 is the Disputation of the Monk Abraham of Tiberias with ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Hāshimī in Jerusalem (Marcuzzo 1986). The story explains how the emir of Jerusalem sets up a debate at his court between Muslims, East Syrian and Melkite Christians, and Jews. The text employs informal kalām arguments between the characters on matters such as the true religion, the authenticity of the Bible, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and Christian practices. The Martyrdom of Michael of Mār Saba also includes informal kalām argumentation between Michael and the Umayyad Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik (Blanchard 1994).

These works reveal that informal dialectic exerted influence over Christian theological writings. By the mid-ninth century, Christian Arabic literature commonly employed informal kalām due to the absorption of the intellectual currents of the Abbasid period. Both internal experiences of communal education and apologetics, as well as external questions from Muslim mutakallimūn influenced this development. But this does not indicate that formal philosophical interests or kalām were on the decline. The ninth century was the height of the Abbasid-sponsored translation movement that brought Christian works from Greek and Syriac into Arabic. Most notable among these philosophical authors and translators were Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq (d. 260/873) and his son Isḥāq b. Ḥunayn (d. 289/910) . Moses Bar Kepha (d. 903) also composed a formal discourse in Syriac that supported Christian free-will arguments again Muslim predeterminism (Griffith 1987 ‘Free Will’). He addresses such commonly-argued topics as God’s existence and unity, his activity in creation, and his foreknowledge. The Melkite physician and translator Qusṭā b. Lūqā (d. ca. 920) composed a lengthy point-by-point refutation of a polemic by the Muslim Aristotelian Ibn al-Munajjim (d. 275/888) arguing for the illogicality of the proofs of the prophethood (Zilio-Grandi & Samir 2003).

During the tenth century, the most prominent Christian mutakallim of this period was Yaḥyā b. ʿAdī (d. 364/974). As a West Syrian Jacobite philosopher, he spent his life in Baghdad as part of the Peripatetic School. He was a student of the East Syrian philosopher Abū Bishr Mattā (d. 940) and the Muslim philosopher al-Fārābī (d. 339/950) and he had a number of famous students. Ibn ʿAdī believed that logic, based upon Aristotelian foundations of knowledge, was more reliable than grammar for demonstrating truths. He composed nearly twenty works in formal kalām style. His most important contributions were to the Christian logical arguments for the Trinity and the Incarnation, but he also wrote works on the unity of God, the divine attributes, divine foreknowledge, human actions and the acquisition of acts, and establishing the nature of what is conceivable (Platti 2010).

In Egypt, the most well-known Coptic theologian of the tenth century was Severus b. al-Muqaffaʿ (d. after 987). The History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria portrays Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ as a master of dialectic. Most of his works contain elements of kalām, including topics of philosophy, Christology, God’s unicity (Fī l-tawḥīd), and refutations of the Jews and the Muʿtazilites. While a number of his works are now lost, he was also known for a kalām work against divine determination and a dialogue with a Muslim mutakallim (Davis 2008).

Another notable Coptic kalām writer of the Fatimid period was Būluṣ b. Rajāʾ (d. ca. 1010). He was a Muslim from Cairo who converted to the Coptic Orthodox Church and wrote three works refuting Islam using the kalām approach including Clear in Truth (Kitāb al-Wāḍiḥ bi-l-Ḥaqq) (Bertaina 2014).

Medieval Christian kalām literature was profoundly shaped by theological concerns. However, this does not indicate that the intellectual philosophical approach was uncommon. The works of Faraj b. Jirjis Afrām (d. 10th c.), the Jacobite Ibn Zurʿa (d. 1008) (Haddad 1971), the East Syrian Ibn al-Khammār (d. after 1017) and treatises attributed to Yaḥyā b. ʿAdī written by his disciples attest to the continued interest in formal kalām.

In the eleventh century, Christian Arabic kalām continued its popularity as a method of argument. One example is the Discourse on the Union (Al-kalām fī l-ittiḥād) by the East Syrian priest, philosopher, and polymath Abū l-Faraj ʿAbdallāh b. al-Ṭayyib (d. 435/1043) (Samir 2006). Another example is the Book of Sessions (Kitāb al-majālis) by the East Syrian bishop Elias of Nisibis (d. 1046), among other works (Samir 1996). The anonymous Book of the Tower (Kitāb al-Majdal) likewise made arguments of this nature (Holmberg 1993). Finally, the Melkite translator and theologian ʿAbdallāh b. al-Faḍl al-Anṭākī (d. after 1052) employed kalām in his Discourse on the Holy Trinity (Kalām fī l-thālūth al-muqaddas) among others (Noble & Treiger 2011).

Christian kalām remained vibrant in twelfth century works, although they began to rely on earlier sources as models for their own arguments by this period. For instance, a Trinitarian analysis of the divine attributes by Muḥyī l-Dīn al-Isf̣ahānī (d. 12th c.), entitled Kalām fī l-ʿaql wa-l-ʿāqil wa-l-maʿqūl, appropriates arguments from the works of Yaḥyā b. ʿAdī (Allard & Troupeau 1962). In an age of compendia and scholastic preservation of earlier Christian Arabic literature, later medieval kalām became more of a formal exercise that reflected on earlier writings and fine-tuned them for contemporary needs.

 Major Themes of Christian Kalām

The first theme commonly found in many Christian kalām works is knowledge. This topic had significance for describing human knowledge, it capacities and limits, and how it could be used to reason about the nature of God. This topic was also important for the debates concerning the freedom of the will, the human capacity for action, voluntary and involuntary acts, and divine foreknowledge of events.

A second theme in kalām works is the existence of a Creator. Christians would explain that creation’s variability proves they are created and that there must be a Creator. Then they would explain that since creation is preserved, ordered, and governed, this proves there is a God. The answers were significant to Christian arguments about God’s divine attributes as well. Further, these arguments were important in Christian arguments against Islamic anthropomorphisms of God.

A third theme is God’s unicity and the Trinity. For Christian authors of kalām, God’s oneness was a central doctrine which did not logically contradict his Trinitarian nature. For instance, Arab Christians would argue that God is one and yet known in three hypostases. They would often use arguments from nature that we should understand the Trinity just as we see the sun emitting light and heat – all three are distinct and yet one sun. Following the Muslim argument for God’s divine attributes, Christians would argue that God is existing, speaking, and living (equating these attributes with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) (Haddad 1985).

A fourth theme in Christian kalām includes arguments concerning the True Religion. These treatises set forth the criteria for the true religion to demonstrate their reasonability and confirmation by God. For instance, the famous translator Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq explained that there are six reasons for which people adopt a religion for the wrong reason: coercion, fleeing poverty or oppression, preference for honor over humility, deceit by opponents, ignorance, and kinship. In contrast, the true religion has four reasons to adopt it: miraculous signs, evidence which points to truth, revelatory proof, and reasoned proof. For Ibn Isḥāq, Christianity avoids the illogical and fits the criteria best.

A fifth theme in Christian kalām concerns the Day of Judgment. While Muslims and Christians agreed on the general principles regarding judgment, the role of Jesus Christ as judge affected their portrayal of the judgment in their dialectics.

A sixth theme concerns the afterlife. This was especially important in dialectics against the Muslim descriptions of Paradise in a physical sense. Christians reinforced the spiritual nature of heaven and found any Islamic implications of corporealism contradictory.

There were also a number of topics that were peculiar to Christian kalām and were often targeted by Muslim mutakallimūn for attack. Foremost was the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. While Christians sought to reinforce how the divine became flesh out of God’s love, Muslim dialecticians sought to discredit the notion of the Incarnation especially using arguments of location and the inability to encompass God.

The Crucifixion was another topic of debate. Christian works tended to focus on the internal and external consistency of the original historical sources, the consensus among Christian communities and the Jews, and the argument that God could not have blessed the Christians with Jesus as a prophet and then concealed the fact of the crucifixion since this would entail deliberate divine obfuscation.

The Bible’s authenticity was another important subject for Christian arguments. Authors would often reason for its integrity, its reliable historical origins, and the fact that the Old Testament was shared by Jews and Christians. The Muslim argument for distortion (taḥrīf) gave rise to this discussion (Thomas 2007).

Another theme for discussion was Christian ritual practice. For instance, Christians wrote pieces explaining the Eucharist, prayer, veneration of the saints and the cross, and the general resurrection.

A final matter found in Christian-Muslim debate was the status of Islamic precepts. First, Christian kalām was highly critical of the Qurʾān’s origins and content. A spectrum of assessments ranged from a satanic text to a misinterpreted scripture. Second, Christian Arabic literature was highly responsive to the claims regarding the prophethood of Muḥammad. These works would describe the detailed criteria for a prophet and argue that Muḥammad did not fit the established categories. Third, Christian Arabs would use kalām to target Islamic practices including prayer, veneration of the Black Stone, and other rituals.



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How to cite:
David Bertaina, «Christian Kalâm», in Houari Touati (ed.), Encyclopedia of Mediterranean Humanism, Spring 2014, URL =