Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam.
In this bold and learned book, Thomas Sizgorich probes the ideological roots of violence in the Christian and Muslim communities of late antiquity. Bridging the modern disciplinary divide between Mediterranean and Islamic studies, Violence and Belief explicates the diverse strategies of Christian and Muslim leaders who sought to reify the boundaries that defined their religious communities. Both communities, it argues, witnessed debates between the fourth and ninth centuries about the acceptability of violence and other forms of coercion as viable methods for the propagation of the faith. Sizgorich presents the overlap between these Christian and Muslim discourses as a key feature of the shared semiotic milieu of the late antique world, which shaped the conceptual horizons of both religions.
Sizgorich's story opens in fourth-century Antioch, where the gifted preacher John Chrysostom ("Golden Mouth") vociferously rebuked local Christians for their participation in Jewish festivals and other rituals. In his eight orations against the Jews, Chrysostom demanded that his flock curtail all nonessential contact with their Jewish neighbors and isolate any Christian who persisted in fraternizing with the Jews or imitating their practices. For Sizgorich, Chrysostom's orations exemplify the type of boundary affirming discourse that was to become a central feature of all late antique monotheisms. His sermons "set in place a series of injunctions that functioned to mark and preserve the communal boundaries upon which he insisted, even if these boundaries were in fact routinely transgressed" (40). Chrysostom was especially strident over issues, such as fasting, where there was little or no substantive difference between Jewish and Christian practices. His invocation of the murderous zeal of the Israelite priest Phineas (Numbers 25) as a positive example of communal purification offers a "chilling" indication of his seriousness (26). By marking contemporary Jews as "something other than real Jews" and thus unworthy heirs of the scriptural tradition, Chrysostom creates a narrative of Christian history and identity purged of all "Jewish" elements (28).
Narratives of Christian identity forged during the fifth and sixth centuries reveal an even more pronounced interest in the dynamics of religious violence. Drawing upon the theoretical models of sociologist Margaret Somers and historian R. G. Suny, Sizgorich argues for the centrality of martyr narratives in this evolution, as late antique Christians came to see themselves as "emplotted" in an ongoing struggle to defend the purity of their faith. Local martyr narratives served as influential "foundational dramas" (57) that affirmed the merit of uncompromising religious zeal. Monks and clergy welcomed their status as enforcers of community boundaries in the tradition of the martyrs. While their polytheist opponents, such as Libanius and Eunapius, viewed the monks' behavior as beastly, their admirers celebrated their attacks on Jews, "pagans," and "heretics." The permeability of communal boundaries in practice only enhanced the imaginative appeal of stories about the temple-bashing monks of Syria and Egypt. Neither were such ideals restricted to the dominant "orthodox" Church. In the mountains of northern Mesopotamia, the rugged West-Syrian holy man Symeon the Mountaineer bullied remote villages to enforce strict new standards of Christian belief, isolating as "pagans and Jews" anyone who continued to commit blasphemy, fornication, or other crimes (135).
Early Muslim tradition valorized a more explicitly bellicose form of religious zeal. The earliest Arabic accounts of the conquest repeatedly draw attention to the similarities between Christian ascetic devotion and the austere piety of the first generation of Islamic warriors, the mujahidun. The eighth-century historian al-Azdi tells, for instance, how an Arab Christian, sent to spy on an early Muslim army, marveled at this new breed of ascetic warriors, "monks by night, lions by day" (161). Borrowing from anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Sizgorich identifies such narratives as part of "cultural DNA" of early Islam, strands of semiotic material that reflect the new religion's roots in the "borderlands" of the Syro-Arabian environs (165). Here, as often in the book, the discussion blurs the distinction between seventh-century events and later retellings of that history. But this is not the author's concern. Sizgorich shows instead how Islamic "narratives of origin" compiled in the eighth and ninth centuries participated in and responded to "the semiotic koine they shared with the communities around them" (149).
Like the Christians before them, early Muslims also debated the proper role of religious zeal in the defense of their community's boundaries. Although it was the duty of all Muslims to "command right and forbid wrong" (205), there was intense disagreement over how, when, and by whom these standards should be enforced. At one end of the spectrum, members of the Khawarij sect (Kharijites) were willing to exercise extreme violence against fellow Muslims whose behavior or allegiances threatened the sanctity of the umma. Al-Tabari (d. ca. 923) and other early Islamic historians recount acts of horrific violence ("splitting open pregnant women") conducted by Kharijite raiders (216). The same massacres sometimes spared Christians or Jews, who became the only surviving witnesses of the slaughter. Yet, as Sizgorich discovers, the medieval Islamic historians who record these grisly accounts of Kharijite fanaticism also emphasize the sect's similarities to the earlier, more clearly virtuous generation of Islamic warriors, the mujahidun. Both groups are characterized by their "pious renunciation, an avid concern for the defense of their communal boundaries, [and] a fervent desire for martyrdom in defense of the community those boundaries enclosed" (226-227). The influential legal scholar Ibn .Hanbal (d. 855) reveals a position closer to the other end of the spectrum. Muslims living in Abbasid Mesopotamia often maintained a broad range of familial, commercial, or political contacts with non-Muslim neighbors. Ibn Hanbal's Responsa provided guidelines designed to help his fellow Muslims navigate this "messy world" without resorting to violence (231-71).
In sum, Violence and Belief offers a provocative and original argument illustrating the deep connections between early Islam and late antique Christianity. The author's enviable linguistic skills enable him to build his argument from a rich range of Greek, Syriac, Coptic, and Arabic texts. No one could accuse Sizgorich of narrow reading. The book also engages at nearly every turn a sophisticated theoretical literature. Although this literature is pivotal for the development of the book's arguments, the author's effort to introduce and explain each theorist sometimes devolves into whole paragraphs of painfully turgid prose (a particularly egregious example appears on page 42 in his explanation of anthropologist Michael Taussig's concept of the "public secret"). Violence and Belief rarely ventures beyond its textual base. Yet, it navigates the world of ideas and discourse embedded in these texts with tremendous erudition and insight.
Joel Thomas Walker
University of Washington
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|Author:||Walker, Joel Thomas|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2010|
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