Monday, August 16, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Thomas Sizgorich, Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. Pp. viii, 398. ISBN 9780812241136. $55.00.
Reviewed by Daniel King, Cardiff University

The present work is an exercise in mapping social scientific theories of inter-communal boundary construction and policing onto the late Roman and early Islamic worlds and thereby goes some way towards explaining the particularly (according to the author) intolerant forms of religious activity that took shape in late antiquity and the violence that frequently ensued. Unsurprisingly, given such a broad and difficult remit, not all aspects will satisfy all readers but the final outcome is certainly a positive one and the work fully deserves to be used as a basis for further thinking on the subject. Its particular contribution lies in submitting both Christian and Islamic forms of late antique religion to the same set of interpretive canons, a task still in its infancy.

Despite the title, the aim of the work is not quite to explain why religious violence was so widespread in the late Roman and early Islamic worlds (often enough, in fact, Sizgorich shows that communities were surprisingly good at avoiding such violence), but rather "to understand why militant forms of piety and the figures associated with [them] became such crucial resources for communal self-fashioning among early Christian and early Muslim communities." (4) Although I am sure that Sizgorich himself would not claim completely to have solved this problem (if indeed it is a problem), there is no doubt that his detailed and engaging study does make a strong contribution towards such an understanding.

The work is divided neatly into two halves, the first dealing with post-Constantinian Christianity, the second with early Islam. In the first chapter ("Boundary Maintenance and Communal Integrity"), Sizgorich sets out the basic social scientific background to these issues and how they might be helpful in looking at late Roman Christianity. His starting point is a work by Hal Drake, Constantine and the Bishops (2000), in which the author denied that Christianity was an essentially intolerant religion and attributed the increasing religious violence of the fourth century to the particular context in which the post-Constantinian church found itself (this book is perhaps over-eulogised, as Sizgorich seems to suggest that Drake's thesis completely superseded all previous scholarship).1

As an example of the 'militant' enforcement of communal boundaries Sizgorich turns to John Chrysostom's sermons against the Jews which he depicts as one leader's attempt to burden his congregation with fine theological distinctions which were insufficiently apparent in their daily lives. Specifically, Chrysostom tries to convince his hearers that it is the work of all Christians, and not just 'religious professionals' such as priests and monks to work at defining boundaries, if necessary by violent means.

The second chapter ("Narrative, Identity, and the Primordial Past"), deals with communal foundation myths built upon narratives of martyrdom and persecution. Here more than anywhere else, Sizgorich attempts to introduce social scientific research into the arena of late antique religion. He follows in the footsteps of Drake, Boyarin, Burrus, and Buell, amongst others, in incorporating research on communal identity formation (especially the work of Margaret Somers) to understand the way in which late antique religious communities 'emplotted' themselves within guiding narratives.2 He also draws upon comparative work from modern parallels, such as Suny's work on the former Soviet republics. A number of examples are described which show how religious community was defined by the appropriation of persecuted figures from the past – Chrysostom's appeal to the witness of the 'persecuted' bishop of Nicaea to buttress his demand that his parishioners celebrate Easter separately from Passover; the fourth/fifth century fad for 're-discovering' the tombs of local martyrs [not, of course, a fad that has lost any of its appeal in the millennium and a half since]; the various 'Churches of the Martrys' that established themselves during the fourth century. In his conclusion to this chapter, Sizgorich once again reverts to the modern parallels (Armenians, Palestinians, Serbs) and reminds us how primordialist narratives that invoke their protagonists as the victims of oppressive violence are often used in turn to justify further violence in the name of 'vengeance'. The church of the fourth century, too, came through a period framed as one of horror and violence to become in its turn the propagator of further violence. Particularly interesting is the example of the conflict for power in Rome between Damasus and Ursinus since we have documentation from both sides of the struggle revealing their own primordialist narratives.

In chapter 3 ("Ambrose, Libanius, and the Problem of Late Antique Religious Violence"), Sizgorich demonstrates the continuity of the same strategies into the age of Theodosius. He uses the well-worn examples of Ambrose and Libanius in their respective appeals to the Emperor, the one for intolerance towards non-Christian communities, the other for the preservation of the old religious institutions from Christian violence. Sizgorich has here turned from discussing communal identity formation and the violence associated with it to cases of high level politics, which perhaps could have invited a different set of explanatory tools. It is not the response of Theodosius to these overtures which is important in the developing argument of this book, however, but rather the way in which Theodosius was himself co-opted as part of a narrative of Christian identity in which coercion of pagans and heretics was now presented as the emperor's own task. Libanius had opposed traditional models of Roman leadership to the Christianised version, but failed to foresee the extent to which Ambrose and his successors would successfully fuse the two.

The role of ascetics in the promotion of violence 'at the boundaries' is the subject of chapter 4 ("Violence, Ascetics, and Knowing One's Own"). Here Sizgorich presents a more nuanced interpretation of inter-communal violence. He prefers to regard the haphazard attempts made by groups of monks to stir up violence "not as manifestations of a generalized or popular intolerance but rather as attempts by Christian rigorists to interrupt what was perceived as a dangerous erosion or obfuscation of communal boundaries" (p.111). Here we have a suggestion (not perhaps made sufficiently explicit) that inter-communal religious violence was not really as widespread as the book's principal thesis might suggest. After detailing the presentation of monks as latter-day martyrs and an intriguing section on monks as 'monsters', Sizgorich makes the important points that because ascetics were inherently liminal characters (monsters), they were able (required, even) to engage in violence without thereby causing the rest of society to descend into chaos. The stabilities of everyday (religious) life are in some ways reinforced, or at least protected, by the fact that it is only the wild ascetic who can walk into a church and throttle the preacher for supporting the council of Chalcedon (for instance). The ascetic involvement with violence thus represents its marginalisation – even religious texts (usually, of course, of monastic origin) barely conceal the deep differences which separated the extreme ascetics themselves from the communities whose religious resolves they sought to stiffen by their violent irruptions into civilisation.

These four chapters bring to an end the first half of the work, in which Sizgorich has treated religious violence through its late antique Christian exemplars. Although the materials he has collected are disparate and do not always converge towards a unified conclusion, it is at least clear that inter-communal religious violence was not a particularly common or easily conjured phenomenon. It was rather the concern of the 'religious professionals' to construct the narratives of the communities they 'served' in such a way as to endorse it when it did occur. What is insufficiently answered here is perhaps the question as to why, in view of these primordialist narratives, there was so little actual inter-communal violence in late antique Christianity – "peaceful coexistence and intercommunal exchange was the norm rather than the exception" (201), a conclusion that appears somewhat at odds with the way the book started, where it was firmly stated that the Empire "was increasingly beset by religious controversy and inter-communal violence…driven by militant and aggressive modes of self-definition accepted within various confessional communities" (23).

The second half of the work kicks off with a look at the akhbar, the Arabic accounts of the Muslim 'wars of conquest'. Sizgorich illuminatingly locates these within a world of narrative genres shared with the late antique Christian East. Thus the akhbar are not to be seen as a new mode of historiography because they are so different from classical or ecclesiastical works; rather they find their alter ego in hagiography and the sort of texts so important for self-fashioning with which the first half of the book was concerned. This is the first element in Sizgorich's objective of paralleling the two halves of the book.

Chapter 5 ("Narrative and Community in Islamic Late Antiquity") explores the akhbar themselves and their strategies for framing a Muslim communal identity. Just as 'Abd-al Malik built the Dome of the Rock by drawing upon a pre-existing semiotic system so as to be understood by his intended audience, so the first Muslim historians drew upon a shared world of signs and symbols (the Bahira legend, for one, indicates the shared belief that monks of any religion have a power of spiritual discernment lacking in others) in presenting the conquests as in some sense 'pious', the natural outgrowth of Muhammed's mission. Specifically, Sizgorich believes that the presentation of the pious mujahidun of the early period was based explicitly on the model of the pious, militant monk of Christian tradition, the ascetic figure who would risk life and limb in defending the faith. When simple battle narratives are framed as hagiographies in which an ascetic warrior stands up against the exploitative and luxuriant power of Rome, what we are viewing is in fact a convergence of literary traditions and a shared late antique world of signs and symbols.

Chapter 6 ("Ascetic Praxis and Communal Boundaries in Late Antique Islam" – what is the difference, one wonders, between this and the Islamic Late Antiquity of the foregoing chapter?) begins by describing the shared semiotic world of late antique asceticism as applied to Muslim holy men. Many early Islamic hagiographies were burdened by the difficulty of distinguishing their subjects from holy men of other faiths, and indeed the trans-communal appeal of the holy man is a leitmotif of most hagiography and one that works against the purpose of using such texts to patrol community boundaries. One of the means by which the Muslim hagiographies achieved this was by enfolding asceticism within jihad, such that, just as Christian monks were latter-day martyrs, so Muslim holy men were latter-day mujahidun. Once established on this basis, the emerging Muslim ascetical tradition could develop internally in various directions, some more peaceable, as Ibn Hanbal, the object of the final chapter, others less so, as the Khawarij (Kharijites).

The latter are the subject of a case study of their own inchapter 7, "The Khawarij in Early Islamic Society"), in which Sizgorich explores a number of texts related to the Khawarij and explores in particular the martyr cult used as a motivating factor to jihad. Since to all intents and purposes the Khawarij appeared to their fellow Muslims to be just what pious Muslim warriors ought to be (i.e., prepared to defend the faith against all comers and rigorously following the ascetical mode of pious aggression modelled by their forebears, the mujahidun), so the extreme levels of violence which they routinely espoused, often directed against other Muslims perceived to have abandoned to true path, caused categorisation difficulties for contemporary historiographers. In contrast to much recent scholarship, Sizgorich suggests that the Khawarij were actually typical of late antique religious patterns and that they parallel the role of Christian ascetics in a variety of important ways, in so far as they represent an extreme form of boundary patrol. They were men and women whose lifestyle and methods were never going to be adopted by the majority but whose motivations, expressed in a primordialist discourse, were tacitly supported by many.

In marked contrast to the sometimes sadistically violent world of the Khawarij is the rather more pacific asceticism of Ibn Hanbal, the subject of the book's final chapter ("The Messy World of Ibn Hanbal"). The protagonist is presented in his biographies as a universalistic holy man, highly sensitive to Christian as well as Muslim piety and quite prepared to stand up to wielders of secular power wherever they might be found. He is a classic example of a boundary patroller for his own (Hanbalite) community, but not one generally associated with violence. His followers in later generations were nevertheless of a different mind, and this fact in itself proffers an intriguing case study.

Sizgorich has certainly marshalled a great deal of evidence for his various arguments, much of it very enlightening. He perhaps does not always sufficiently question the underlying motives and concerns of individual texts, but this does not detract from the overall strength of his conclusions. The dependence on social scientific theory will sit more easily with some readers than others – I personally felt it largely unnecessary for the elucidation of the interpretations of the author, which were sufficiently well grounded by themselves. The rather too frequent wordisms, (e.g. 'contestation', 'imaginary' as a noun), do grate after a while and the explanations are generally more prolix than they needed to be. One further gripe concerns the titles to the subsections within each chapter. These are usually in the form of a quotation from one of the texts being deployed, but to provide the reader with a section heading such as "The Serpent does not Sleep" is hardly very illuminating. Headings should be either informative or not used at all.

Such minor gripes aside, however, there is no denying the overall importance and validity of the work under review. Its principal achievement is to have brought together the worlds of late Roman Christianity and Late Antique Islam and shown (conclusively, I believe) that many of the religious phenomena of the latter are explicable on the basis of a nuanced understanding of the former. There has been a recent trend in various quarters to study early Islam under the aegis of Late Antique Religion rather than as part of Islamic Studies (e.g. see the introduction to G. Reynolds, The Qur'an in its historical context, London 2008). This book should be accepted as a key element in this new task.


1.   See the BMCR review by Raymond Van Dam, 2000.10.10.
2.   The scholarly milieu from which the current book has arisen can be gauged from Drake's recent edited volumes on the topics covered here: Religious Identity in Late Antiquity (reviewed BMCR 2007.05.19) and Violence in Late Antiquity. Perceptions and Practices (reviewed BMCR 2007.09.23). Neither review was wholly positive.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.