Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) was a popular preacher and Muslim legal scholar in Damascus under Mamluk rule. He is primarily remembered for writing polemics against almost everyone (Jews, Christians, Alawites, Twelver Shiites, wild Sufis, the Mongols who had recently converted to Islam, Persian speakers, Sunni Muslims who engage in popular practices such as shrine visitation and praying to saints), and the famous traveler Ibn Battuta described him as having “some kink in his brain” (Gibb trans.). He is a leading authority cited by Wahhabis and other Salafis today. So one does not expect him to be a main resource on the religion of his opponents. But in reading this week from one of his polemics (against those Muslims who participate in non-Muslim festivals), I came across his account of what happened on Palm Sunday, a version of the events which I had never heard:
A while ago I read a thought-provoking discussion of the goals of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and how that jihadist group draws from pre-modern Islamic religious texts in formulating its tactics and its appeal to violent extremist Muslims. The author is at his provocative best in likening well-intentioned Western liberal attempts to define ISIS as un-Islamic as a kind of takfirism, or labeling certain Muslims as unbelievers. I think he misses the point when he delegitimizes practicing Muslims for describing ISIS as un-Islamic, and indeed, his article provoked a firestorm of criticisms, refutations, and abuse over the use of the term “Islamic” for ISIS. For practitioners, islam is submission to God’s will, and if ISIS is going against God’s will, then they are ipso facto not islam. It does not require historical naivete (or, as Prof. Haykel evocatively termed it, “a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” although see his clarification here) to acknowledge that many things historically practiced by Muslims are inconsistent with what most modern Muslims understand to be God’s will. However, the real bone I want to pick with the article is the way it simply accepts the Salafi account of what medieval Islam was, an account which is itself revisionist history.
Put simply, the “medieval Islam” to which ISIS and other Salafis appeal never existed as such. Too many scholars play along with this modern chimera, though they know better, and thus are complicit in a cultural genocide which is reducing the fascinatingly diverse pre-modern Middle East to a one-dimensional textbook description of Sunni Arab Islam, complete with five pillars evidently erected by Muhammad himself. Continue reading
Last weekend I had the privilege of participating in the Islamicate Studies Symposium at the University of Chicago in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Marshall Hodgson‘s The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. Hodgson studied at UChicago in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and taught there until his early death in 1968. The Venture of Islam was developed by Hodgson as an undergraduate textbook for the “Islamic Civilization” course he developed, and was posthumously published by the University of Chicago press. The conference was organized by Shiraz Hajiani and Mick Bechtel, two graduate students at UChicago, and it brought together scholars from various stages in their careers to reflect on Hodgson’s place in the field and where the field is going. Most of those invited had personal connections to UChicago, although some (such as I) were outsiders. I am very grateful to the organizers for extending an invitation to me.
The Venture of Islam is still the reigning synthesis in Islamic history, although the majority of those present indicated that it is too difficult to use directly in most undergraduate instruction. The genre of an undergraduate textbook forced Hodgson to synthesize more than most scholars do in their research, and his interest in world history led him to explain developments within “Islamdom” (states ruled by Muslims) in the context of developments across Afro-Eurasia as a whole. Very few scholars have even attempted Hodgson’s breadth of vision. This ensures that The Venture is still one of the most important books in Islamic Studies today.
Religious minorities serve a valuable function in allowing scholars and careful thinkers to distinguish religious from social and environmental factors in their analysis. If, to take a counter-factual, it were the case that all Muslims were Middle Eastern and all non-Muslims were not, then it would be unclear whether any given aspect of Middle Eastern society was related to Islam as a religion, or related to the type of government, or geographic factors, or anything else. One could reason about the nature of the causes, of course, but in the absence of disjunctive populations (the non-overlapping lobes of a Venn diagram), it would not be possible to test these hypotheses.
Fortunately, this is a counter-factual, despite the sloppy thinking of many who simply equate “Middle Eastern” with “Muslim.” In the first instance, it is a counter-factual because not all Muslims are Middle Eastern. Something that is true of Moroccans and Indonesians, for example, is more likely to be due to a common Islamic understanding than due to environmental factors distinctive to the eastern Mediterranean basin. Something thought to be “Islamic” but unique to the Middle East is less likely to be related to the religion. But the other half of the conditional is equally false: not all Middle Easterners are Muslim. If something is true only of the Sunnis and Shiʿites in the Middle East, then religion seems a more likely factor than if the same is true also for Jews and Christians in the Middle East.
For example, much of “Islamic” art is stylistically very similar to decorations in Christian manuscripts, which is not surprising since at least into the medieval period many of the workers producing “Islamic” art for elite Muslim patrons were themselves Christian. It was not unusual for Syriac manuscripts into the 20th C to open with a textual decoration resembling a monumental doorway, and the architecture of many mosques shared features in common with Middle Eastern churches from late antiquity onward. The distinctive Arabic calligraphic style, on the other hand, depended on the Arabic language and script, which most non-Muslim literate elites did not adopt until after the calligraphy had begun to develop in the medieval period. Now, however, it has been adopted by Christians as well as Muslims.
(Parenthetically, the existence of Christian groups outside of Europe also provides an opportunity for European historians to distinguish which aspects of their medieval culture were due to Christianity and which were due to the fact that the medieval European nobility were a barely civilized thug-ocracy. The Jewish population of medieval Europe can also play a disambiguating role analogous to the various non-Muslim groups of the Middle East. But that is for European historians to benefit from.)
Another example, this time from women’s history, shows that not even aspects of religion can be safely assumed to be explainable by religion alone. Women in medieval mosques were assigned to pray in the back, behind the men. There is a hadith in which Muhammad reportedly said that the best rows for women to pray in are the back ones, and the best rows for men are the front ones. Since these traditional sayings were considered normative in medieval Islam (or at least some of them, in certain ways), the case seems to be closed: the religion of Islam was the cause for women being relegated behind the men in religious services. But before we leave the subject, we might observe that in Christian churches in Iraq until the early modern period women were also placed in the back of the sanctuary, and two doors in the side of the church provided separate entrances for men and women. (Interestingly, the Bible was read from a platform on the gender line, while communion was consecrated at the front altar. I haven’t yet figured out whether women went forward to receive communion or whether communion was brought to the women’s side.) Now, these Christians were not likely reading the hadith collection, nor regarding it as normative. Is the gender divide of medieval Middle Eastern religious architecture, Christian as well as Muslim, due to religion, or due to trans-religious cultural assumptions regarding gender and space?
Failure to pay attention to the disjunctions in the Venn diagram leads to a disproportionate tendency among scholars to explain aspects of Middle Eastern society with reference to Islam. The result relegates non-Muslims to insignificance, but it does so due to an unarticulated circular argument. Only closer attention to Middle Eastern non-Muslims would allow scholars to discern the true significance and social effects of Islam.
It is true that Muslims are today a demographic majority in every country of the Middle East except Israel. (Even there, however, Muslims would be nearly a majority, if Palestinians in the Palestinian Territories had the same citizenship rights as the Israeli settlers.) But such a blanket statement obscures more than it reveals. There is a vast difference between Iran, which is almost 100% Muslim, and Lebanon, where Muslims are less than two thirds of the population and the government is divided roughly evenly between Muslims and Christians (with the requirement that the president be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, among various other requirements). Granted, the population of Iran is many times that of Lebanon, but the point is that the other countries in the region (including Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq, all very populous) are between these two extremes.
Nor are all Muslims alike. Differences between Sunni Muslims and Shiʿites are only the tip of the iceberg: at least four “legal schools” of Sunnis and several branches of Shiʿa Islam all have different requirements and regulations. Fellow feeling between Sunnis and Shiʿites is a very recent development, and has not overcome sectarian violence in Syria and Iraq nor the regional rivalry between (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and (Shiʿite) Iran. These differences are independent of the gradations between secularist and devout Muslims or between modernist and Salafi Islam. Intra-Muslim diversity means that Muslims may feel more fellow feeling with certain non-Muslims than with other Muslims, and the demographic strength of Islam is more attenuated. This also leads to greater differences between countries: Egypt has more Coptic Christians than Shiʿites, while Iraq is about two-thirds Shiʿites and one third Sunnis.
When the historical perspective is taken, the present overwhelming demographic dominance of Islam is seen as a relatively recent development in some parts of the Middle East. The Middle East has been mostly ruled by Muslims since the seventh century, although the Byzantine Empire continued to rule most of what is today Turkey until the eleventh century, the Crusaders ruled parts of eastern Turkey, western Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine/Israel for a couple centuries, and most broadly but most briefly the non-Muslim Mongols under Hulegu and his successors conquered all of Iran, Iraq, most of Turkey, and (repeatedly but ephemerally) Syria. The religion of the rulers is frequently taken as characteristic of the religion of the land, and so the Middle East is often called the “land of Islam,” in Arabic dar al-Islam, or the “central Islamic lands.” That this term doesn’t simply mean that Islam came from the Middle East is shown by the fact that the Middle East is never called, by parallel, the “land of Judaism” or the “land of Christianity,” though both also came from that region. In French, the confusion between religion of the ruler and religion of the land is even starker: areas under Islamic ruler are simply labeled l’Islam.
But the religion of Muslim rulers should not be taken as determinative for the population as a whole. Muslim rulers frequently employed non-Muslims to carry out bureaucratic work, at least into the fifteenth century in much of the Middle East, and later in Ottoman Constantinople. With rising European interest in the Middle East, local Christians and Jews were often the translators and intermediaries between the newly arrived foreigners and the local Muslim rulers and populace. Middle Eastern non-Muslims did not only attain prominence through European intervention, however: Faris al-Khoury was already in government before the French claimed Syria in 1920, and went on to become Prime Minister of Syria twice, though a (Greek Orthodox turned Presbyterian) Christian. Tariq ʿAziz was the deputy Prime Minister of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and a Chaldean Catholic (a group of native Iraqi Christians who, beginning in the 16th C, started entering communion with the Roman papacy). George Sabra, an active voice in the Syrian Civil War, has been president of the Syrian National Council and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition (the opposition group favored by the USA and Western Europe). The history of the Middle East, even in the last century, cannot be told accurately without naming certain key non-Muslims.
Although these individuals are exceptional, they are not unique. They are rare because they are at the highest echelons of government, where they were not selected because of but despite their non-Muslim religious affiliation. Many more non-Muslims have been employed by Middle Eastern governments, both pre-modern and modern, at lower ranks. And the broader population of non-Muslims, not employed by government, was a significant portion of many Middle Eastern countries into the twentieth century. Before 1915 in eastern Anatolia and 1923 in western Anatolia, Christians were almost a fifth of the population (mostly Armenians and Syriac Christians in the east, Greeks in the west) in what would become the Republic of Turkey. Such a proportion means that, depending on levels of integration, every Muslim would know not merely one but several Christians, and may need to do business with them. Christianity in Iraq has dipped from 10% around the middle of the 20th C to less than 2% today. We do not know when Muslims became even a bare majority of the population in Egypt or Syria, but it was certainly not before 1250. That may seem like ancient history to many modern readers, but that means Islam spent at least six centuries as a ruling minority religion, almost half of the history of the “Islamic” Middle East to date, and both countries still have Christian minorities around 10% of the population, absent from parts of the countryside but certainly visible in all cities.
Today a higher proportion of Middle Easterners are Muslim than at any point in the past, but the proportion has changed significantly even within the last century. Nevertheless, Christians have continued to play a prominent, if subordinate, role in government. And the divisions between different Christian and Muslim groups reduce the sense, within the Middle East, that “basically everyone agrees with me.” People from the Middle East know there is religious diversity. For westerners to regard the Middle East as “Islam + Israel” is negligently over-simplistic.
Most people outside the Middle East do not realize there are Middle Eastern Christians. Oh sure, there are Christians in the Middle East, at least some Western diplomats who might be Christians, or aid workers, or perhaps even missionaries, but they are Christian in the Middle East, not Christians from the Middle East. They are foreigners and outsiders in the “central Islamic lands.” In the places I have lived in the USA and in England, at least, the presumption is that Christianity is an exclusively Western (American and European) religion, and the Middle East is entirely Islamic, with the exception of the state of Israel since 1947.
Middle Eastern historians know better. They know that the lands conquered by the early Muslim armies in the 630s and 640s contained a lot of Christians and Jews (indeed, west of the Tigris, the majority of the population was most likely Christian), and this population did not evaporate. They know that there were significant Christian populations, and significant Christian individuals (often in the employment of the state) for centuries. They know that the Cairo Geniza is an unparalleled collection of documents from the pre-modern Middle East, and was collected in an important synagogue in Old Cairo. They know that the Jewish population of Israel did not all come from Europe, but also emptied out of Middle Eastern capitals like Cairo. In other words, it is common knowledge among Middle Eastern historians that there are and always have been non-Muslims in the Middle East.
Yet Middle Eastern history is more often known by another title, “Islamic History,” and even if the facts in the preceding paragraph are common knowledge, they are presumed by most Middle Eastern historians to be largely irrelevant. In this regard, most Middle Eastern historians are no different than the general public: both groups presume that anything relevant about the Middle East is a statement about Islam, and if there were or are non-Muslims, these are a vanishingly small minority who have missed the memo that the Middle East belongs to Islam. From this dominant perspective, interest in Middle Eastern Christians is at best a quaint eccentricity, and at worst a sinister politically motivated distortion of what we “know” to be important about “the Islamic world.”
I disagree. The study of non-Muslims in the Middle East, including Christians, is an important part of Middle Eastern history. There are many reasons one could give for this view; in upcoming posts I will give four reasons.
Dates are reassuring. They allow one to pin an event to a particular time and give the illusion of order and comprehension. But sometimes they are wrong, and sometimes they simply don’t apply. Despite historians’ reputation for date obsession, this historian sometimes find they obscure more than they clarify.
While reading around on the new Syrian Orthodox patriarch-elect, I came across a repeated assertion that his particular branch of Middle Eastern Christianity was founded in 452 (e.g. here). What happened in 452? Well, plenty of things happened of course, but I cannot think of any significant event relevant to the future development of the Syrian Orthodox branch of Christianity. The Council of Chalcedon, which was rejected by the Syrian Orthodox, met in 451, and so the source of this date seems to have simply added one to the date of the council. This is a bad way to date an event. If one wished to date the founding of the Syrian Orthodox after the Council of Chalcedon, why not upon the completion of the council in November of 451? Or why not years later, perhaps in 457?
But even more important than the arbitrary nature of the choice of “the following year” is the problem that this is not how many religious groups develop. If you ask the Syrian Orthodox, their church was founded by Christ and the apostles. But that can’t be right, some will say, since Christ and the apostles founded “our” church (or at least the variety of Christianity we know better, whether Catholicism or Protestantism), and since the Syrian Orthodox are not that, their history must be shorter. It always amazes me when even people who pride themselves on rejecting Christian theology adopt such a necessarily theological interpretation of the past.
Like Shi’a Islam, Syrian Orthodox Christianity was not founded in a moment of time by some particular individual. Rather what was one group with a range of different ideas and opinions before the council in 451 experienced mitosis slowly (over the course of about two centuries), and around about the rise of Islam had clearly divided into two distinct groups. Speaking both sociologically and ideologically, there was a lot of continuity between each of the latter groups and what went before. Differences developed within the two sides as they coalesced into distinct camps, and it became progressively more difficult to avoid being one or the other, although as late as the 520s the poet-bishop Jacob of Serug did not find it profitable to address these contested issues. It was only from the 530s that separate clergy were being ordained for the two groups, and only from the 550s that a complete parallel ecclesiastical hierarchy was created. And since members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy tend to be pickier about such issues than laypeople, we do not have any very clear idea when the laity considered these groups to be distinct Christian sects. In any event, the process of religious divergence is almost always messy. The emergence of the Khariji groups and the various extremist ghulat testify to the same messy divergence within Islam, and even the formation of Islam as a different sort of monotheism from Judaism and Christianity was not a smooth course. But I do not think historians need be in the business of legitimating one set of heirs over another.
The process of religious divergence is complicated, but in both the Syrian Orthodox case and the early Islamic case the religion is misunderstood if it is characterized as something new. Both groups took great pains to assert (outsiders would say fabricate) their continuity with what went before. To characterize the Syrian Orthodox as a johnny-come-lately Christian sect disagrees with their own understanding, and makes it more difficult for the scholar to understand their viewpoint. Even Islam, with its insistence upon Muhammad as the prophet of God (rasul Allah), taught equally that he was the latest and the last (the “Seal”) of the prophets, teaching what earlier prophets such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus had (allegedly) taught. Traditional Muslim doctrine is that Islam was not a new religion, but the restoration of the original monotheism which had been corrupted by Jews and Christians in recent centuries.
This emphasis on continuity puts historians of religion in something of a bind. Not all claims to continuity are true. It is difficult to see how the Syrian Orthodox Church was founded by Christ and yet he was also a prophet of Islam. On the other hand, for historians to insist on the differences and divergences makes it difficult to understand how members of those groups reasoned and understood themselves. And yet to speak of these groups sensibly, historians must adopt distinct terminologies and determine when to apply those terminologies or the earlier labels.
In order to resolve these tensions, historians need to practice switching contexts, seeing the world (as much as possible) through the eyes of various historical actors and holding in abeyance the reflexive evaluation of an assertion as true or false (which is not to say that there isn’t a truth value to these assertions, just that our own evaluation may get in the way of our understanding those who evaluate the assertion differently). But it is also necessary to adopt a more nuanced vocabulary regarding the origin and development of religious groups: instead of insisting that every group was “founded” at some point in time, it is necessary to recognize complex and drawn out processes of mitosis which result in two (or more) groups, while both claim continuity with what went before. In other words, we must adopt the language of divergence.
(This is true not exclusively of religious groups; ethnic groups also experience mitosis, and new labels are adopted to replace old ones. In the fourteenth century, the famous Muslim world traveler Ibn Battuta would have been offended if you had called him an Arab; in his travelogue, “Arabs” were country bumpkins and bandits, and had nothing to do with his sophisticated urban self.)
Some may feel that such an approach is too complex. After all, a journalist is a busy professional who does not have time to describe the entire complex process by which two religious groups diverged, yet readers may wish some orientation to where this group fits in the grander scheme of things. I have sympathy with this complaint, although as a professional historian I have an obligation to plea for people to slow down and add nuance. Nevertheless, it is surely possible to do much better than a scurrilously precise date. The statement that his church “developed out of a fifth-century schism” is no longer-winded than the phrase “was founded in 452 after a schism” as used in the ABC article cited above. (The article’s statement that the schism was “with the bulk of the world’s Christians” is also questionable, but that’s an issue for another venue.) There are sufficiently concise ways to speak of the divergences of religious groups without sacrificing accuracy.