Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam.
When Peter Brown wrote his seminal The World of Late Antiquity in 1971, the subtitle of the British edition was "From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad." Since the most defining characteristic of late antiquity is the elevation of Christianity to an imperial religion, historians commonly have ended the period with the emergence of Islam in the seventh century, which brought the Christian domination of the Mediterranean to an end. Yet Brown's subtitle in the U.S. edition was "AD 150-750," which more accurately reflected the scope of the book, encompassing as it did the first century of the Islamic empire. Few scholars, however, have had the training to work in the requisite languages and the vision to be able to see the seventh and eighth centuries in the Islamic world as intimately linked to the fourth and fifth. Thomas Sizgorich's book shows us how it is done.
Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity tackles questions of violence, the maintenance of communal boundaries, and the role of monks, holy men, muj[a.bar]hid[u.bar]n, and theologians in both. As Sizgorich explains, "the abiding concern of this book is to understand why militant forms of piety and the figures associated with militant and aggressive modes of religiosity became such crucial resources for communal self-fashioning among early Christian and early Muslim communities" (p. 4). The central point of the book is clear, and it is a welcome one: Muslims and Christians shared a common store of stories, images, symbols, and values that had their origins in late antiquity. This shared religious culture drew Christians, Jews, and later Muslims together on a daily basis as the communities lived side-by-side, but also caused anxiety about the maintenance of separate identities. The scope and ambition of Sizgorich's book is impressive, especially as a first book. His writing is clear and lively, evoking for his reader Nestorian bishops turned slave-ascetics, murderous Khaw[a.bar]rij, and the seductions of a Christian monastery in Muslim imagination.
The book begins with the sermons of John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407) railing against the Jews of Antioch and, more importantly, against the Christians who associated with them. Like many others, Sigzorich sees in Chrysostom's hectoring a desperate desire to seal the porous boundary between the Christian and Jewish communities in Antioch. While Chrysostom's demonization of the Jewish community is well known, Sizgorich calls attention to what the preacher wanted his congregation to do about it. Rather than confronting or attacking the Jews, as his fiery rhetoric might have suggested, Chrysostom urged Christians to police each other, by word rather than action. Some may have been discouraged from visiting synagogues by such interventions, but Sizgorich argues that, even if the Christian denied or justified the behavior, the process required the challenged Christian to acknowledge and speak from that bounded Christian identity. Intriguingly, Sizgorich suggests that secrecy also played a role in this dynamic; by urging his congregation to deny what they knew to be true (that Christians did attend services at the synagogue), Chrysostom further embrocated his congregation in the maintenance of communal boundaries.
The second chapter uses Ronald Grigor Suny's concept of "primordial ism," developed in the context of modern nationalist movements, to argue that early Christian communities rooted the narrative of their origins in the stories of the martyrs. When such "primordialist" communities come into conflict with others in the post-Constantinian era, they saw themselves as innocent, persecuted victims and their opponents as persecutors. Sizgorich also uses the sociological narrative theory of Margaret Somers to explain how individuals use stories to shape their identities. This argument is fundamental for Sizgorich's book; all of the other chapters rely upon it in one way or another.
The third chapter puts Ambrose (ca. 337-97), the charismatic bishop of Milan, in conversation with Libanius (ca. 314 ca. 394), Antioch's foremost pagan rhetor. Both addressed the issue of Christian violence: Ambrose defended zealous Christians in Callinicum who had destroyed a local synagogue and faced imperial censure; Libanius criticized Christian monks who were similarly attacking pagan temples and shrines in Syria. The larger issue both men evoked was what it meant to be Roman. For Libanius, temples were signs of the greater civilizing mission of the Greco-Roman world, which was embodied in the emperor himself. Ambrose, on the other hand, identified the power of the emperor as rooted in the Christian community, whose identity Ambrose grounded in the martyrial narrative discussed in the previous chapter. For the emperor to champion the rights of the Jewish community of Callinicum over the values of the Christians was to place himself outside the bounds of the Christian community and to endanger both his authority and his salvation. Ambrose's argument had the greatest impact, but the banishment of monks from cities for a brief time might have been a response to Libanius's argument. For Sizgorich the significance of this conversation lies not in Ambrose so enthusiastically endorsing violence to demarcate a Roman identity grounded in Christianity, but in the effectiveness of the narrative rhetoric he employed.
Chapter four is perhaps the most stimulating part of the hook. Sizgorich focuses on the holy man in quite a different role from that of the mediator and patron so familiar from the work of Peter Brown. Instead, Sizgorich shows that monks and ascetics frequently served as the enforcers of Christian communal boundaries. It is in this chapter that Sizgorich begins to grapple directly with violence, rather than with militancy (though he never defines these terms).
Sizgorich offers two related explanations for the sources for Christian militancy and violence. As heirs to the martyrs, ascetics embodied and made present the foundational values of the community; "the primordial past resided in the numinous space created by the ascetic" (p. 123). Because the ascetic erected boundaries between him-or herself and the rest of the world by withdrawing to a cell and abstaining from the behaviors that mark participation in the mundane world (eating, sleeping, sex), they were "ideal figures for the discernment, policing, and enforrcement of communal boundaries" (p. 127). The logic of the Roman judicial system underpinned the power of the martyr and the ascetic; torture produces truth hence, the importance of describing in gruesome detail the tortures of the martyrs or the painful discipline of the ascetic. Sizgorich points out, however, that this role was deeply ambiguous for the Christian community. In prowling at the margin, the monk became as equally the monster outside the community as the defender of it.
The sophistication of the argument, the mastery of such diverse sources, and the broad scope of the work makes any criticism in effect a recommendation for a companion volume, and certainly this topic deserves one. Sizgorich's fascinating argument would have been even more engaging had he contextualized it within the range of roles ascetics played in the late antique world. Furthermore, Sizgorich leaves unanswered the question of how monks became the patrollers of communal boundaries. He implies it was a role the community appointed to the monks (p. 118); however, as the author himself points out, in Alexandria the Christian community in the early fifth century largely opposed the militancy of the monks, and supported secular leaders instead (pp. 110-11). The monks in Alexandria were drafted into their roles by the powerful patriarchs of the city, most notably Cyril (ca. 376-444). Undoubtedly, this differed from community to community, and Sizgorich's already excellent work would have had greater depth had he discussed how (not just why) ascetics came to serve those roles.
The fifth chapter turns to examine narratives about the emergence of Islam, preserved in the later histories of al-Tabar[i.bar], Ibn gtham, and al-Azdi. Here Sizgorich joins an ongoing discussion about how to interpret and use these sources, seeing them as a combination of pre-Islamic Arabic warrior tradi-tions with "pious" elements, which drew from the widespread religious and cultural values of the late antique world. Early Muslim sources saw in the Christian monk the embodiment of "militant piety," a figure who could rigorously enforce the boundaries of his community in a religiously mixed world. The muj[a.bar]hid[u.bar]n, warriors imaged as ascetic horsemen, fulfilled much the same function, as a had[i.bar]th cited by the eighth-century <Abd All[a.bar]h Ibn al-Mub[a.bar]rak (d. 181/797) explained: "Every community has its monasticism, and the monasticism of my community is jih[a.bar]d for the sake of God" (p. 180). Jihad became the locus of distinction of Christian and Muslim ascetic values.
Chapter six continues this discussion, turning to the ways in which the same logic was used by Muslims who were not muj[a.bar]hid[u.bar]n. "The models of piety, ... with which the early Muslim unitna imagined its monkish forbearers, now manifested themselves in the mildness, benevolence, and gentle-ness of men like Sar[i.bar] al-Saqat[i.bar] and in the scrupulous moral and ethical praxis of men like Ahmad b. Hanbal" (p. 195). These links are tantalizing, but the reader is left wondering what the Prophet meant by monasticism, or what zuhd (asceticism) meant for early Muslims. Sizgorich argues that "the specific forms that early Muslim zuhd took were often indistinguishable from the zuhd of Christian ascetics, and indeed many early Muslim zuhh[a.bar]d were said to have learned ascetic praxis in exchanges with Chris-tian monks" (p. 169). Did Muslim ascetics engage in the same broad spectrum of practices that were found among Christian communities in late antiquity? Or did Muslims find some more appealing than others? And is praxis all that matters? Equally diverse were the values they imputed to ascetic praxis, and these deserve as much attention, if not more, as the practices themselves. Sizgorich discusses, for example, the second/eighth-century Muslim ghaz[i.bar] and zahid Ibr[a.bar]h[i.bar]m b. Adham, whose ascetic praxis undid the sin of Adam and "preserved his Paradise unsullied" (p. 174). As Sizgorich's footnotes point out, this is indeed a powerful theme in Christian ascetic literature. But what did it mean for Muslims? Sizgorich implicitly argues that it has the same value. This may indeed be the case, but if so it deserves some attention and discussion.
Sizgorich argues that gh[a.bar]z[i.bar] warriors and violent ascetics functioned similarly, and he effectively shows this to be the case. Yet ontologically they are distinct; the Christian example is an argument about the actions of historical figures (violent monks), while the Muslim case is an argument about texts about the seventh-century conquests that allowed eighth-century Muslims to shape their own identities.
Chapter seven faces the subject of early Islamic violence head on, discussing the Khaw[a.bar]rij in the first/seventh century. The Khaw[a.bar]rij embraced an ethos of martyrdom and violence rooted in the same primordialist logic of the violent monk and the gh[a.bar]z[i.bar]. Certainly, in a broad sense, the Khaw[a.bar]rij did share with other late antique communities "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" (pp. 226-27). Yet (again) the Khaw[a.bar]rij were strikingly different from the (largely Christian) communities Sizgorich discussed earlier, in that militant monks generally targeted the non-Christian communities whose prominence or contact with Christians threatened communal boundaries. The Khaw[a.bar]rij, as Sizgorich points out, targeted their fellow Muslims who overstepped the communal boundaries, and scrupulously left unharmed Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians.
Chapter eight turns to the figure of Ibn Hanbal, one of the great jurists of the Islamic tradition, and in some ways, to the flip side of Sizgorich's topic tolerance. Ibn klanbal was as concerned with maintaining communal boundaries as any of the other figures whom Sizgorich discusses. Like the Khaw[a.bar]rij, Ibn Hanbal saw the Islamic community divided between those who were true "believers" and those he considered just "followers" of Islam. The advice that Ibn Hanbal gave his followers, however, allowed them to coexist with Christians, Jews, and Magians, as well as other Muslims who were not able to practice Islamic virtues to the extent that Ibn Hanbal advocated. Sizgorich, however, never quite answers the $64,000 question he poses, namely: "What might account for this level of toleration within the Muslim empire?" (p. 233). Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that he has left some questions still unanswered.
[I After this review went to press, we learned that Thomas Sizgorich, Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, died from a stroke on January 27, 2011 at the age of 41.]
CHRISTOPHER H. MACEVITT DARTMOUTH COLLEGE
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|Author:||MacEvitt, Christopher H.|
|Publication:||The Journal of the American Oriental Society|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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