Anthony, Crucifixion and Death as Spectacle

by Andrew McLaren in

Sean W. Anthony. Crucifixion and Death as Spectacle: Umayyad Crucifixion in Its Late Antique Context. New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society, 2014.

If I could begin this review with as startling a sentence as the first one in Professor Sean W. Anthony’s book, I certainly would. Instead, I repeat his (p. 1): “The Umayyad dynasty and its political fate were closely bound to the institution of crucifixion as well as to its unsettling and potent symbolism.” The historiographical possibilities invoked by the first half of this brief sentence are provocative: has Anthony found some alternate explanation for the rise and fall of Islamic history’s first major dynasty (r. 661-750 CE)? The second half returns the reader to an assumption: the viscerally grotesque practice of suspending another human’s body from a wooden structure can hardly be an insignificant part of any society in which it was maintained as a disciplinary practice. Indeed, the two parts of this sentence mirror the two concerns which occupy Anthony in this study: the (re-)understanding of Umayyad history in its late antique context and the location of a “ritual” of public violence within a broader religio-social context.

The first chapter (pp. 1-5) is a summary of three scholarly conventions Anthony sees as inhibiting the understanding of crucifixion in the Umayyad era: (1) the shackling of crucifixion to pre-Christian Roman history and its subsequent “outlawing” in the Roman era; (2) the subsequent de-coupling of Islamic crucifixion from its precedents in the late antique Near East; and (3) the “rather narrow understanding of crucifixion conveyed by its conventional meaning in English” (p. 4), namely, the persistent imagining of crucifixion as isomorphic with the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. The dismantling of these three assumptions undergirds the work that Anthony does in the second (pp. 6-14) and third (pp. 15-26) chapters, where Anthony argues that crucifixion, in the broad sense he gives that term (p. 5), was commonly used by Roman and Sasanian authorities particularly to discipline the communal boundary lines (esp. pp. 14 and 24f.).

The fourth chapter (pp. 27-39) serves as the attempt to trace the through-lines between these late antique iterations and their analogues in the early Islamic milieu, particularly in Mecca and Medina. A notable part of this chapter is the brief examination of the “normative paradigms” in Islamic legal discourse on crucifixion and its use. Anthony notes that, though crucifixion appears in both the Qur’ān and the ḥadīth literature, there was no fixed understanding of what crucifixion was or ought to be (pp. 27-34). This attempt to, in a sense, glance sideways from a strict focus on the typical historiographical sources is an important part of Anthony’s intervention.

The fifth chapter (pp. 40-64) is, as its length indicates, the bulk of the study. Here, Anthony treats a variety of notable examples of crucifixion on the part of various Umayyad caliphs, centering on the “unsettling and potent symbolism” of these events. They were, in Anthony’s argument, powerful representations of the Umayyads’ God-granted right to rule. For instance, speaking of Zayd b. ‘Alī’s (d. 740 CE), the eponymous figurehead of the Zaydī Shī‘a, execution at the hands of Hishām b. ‘Abd al-Malik (r. 723-743 CE), Anthony states (p. 50): “Zayd’s crucifixion is the Umayyads’ attempt to demonstrate palpably God’s rejection of Zayd’s claims to rightful leadership of the community and God’s affirmation of the Umayyads’ claims—God’s support (muwāla) had been granted to the caliph and His enmity (‘adāwa) unleashed against those who dared to transgress His caliph.” This characterization is an encapsulation of the first part of Anthony’s most important conclusion, namely, that the state sanctioned this particular form of violence because of its demonstrative power against rebellious and thus heretical figures.

But the second part, equally important, belongs to the latter half of the chapter. Here, Anthony turns away from the “triumphalist” Sunnī narrative of Islamic historiography and towards those sources typically identified as the foil to the Sunnī vision, namely Shī‘ī and eastern Christian ones. Referring to these texts as “martyrological,” he investigates how persecuted communities imagined and remembered the violence done against them, demonstrating well the tension inherent between these “marginal” sources and the dominant narratives, which he calls “anti-martyrological.” Says Anthony (p. 61): “Anti-martyrologies are thus called because of how they recapitulate the touchstone set pieces of emplotment in the martyrological genre but then subvert them by introducing satirical and farcical elements into the narrative.”

The concluding sixth chapter (pp. 65-68) returns to a broader meditation on the prevalence of crucifixion in the Umayyad empire. Though he understandably passes on offering a quantitative assessment, he returns again to making the point that crucifixion on whatever scale it took place was (p. 67): “a public and ritualized form of violence intended to conjure up an amorphous array of polyvalent symbols…” To summate: the crucifixion that happened in the Umayyad era was undergirded by meaningful Islamic ideas that nevertheless had important precedents in late antiquity.

From the point of view of the study of early Islamic history, Professor Anthony’s most important intervention is viewing Umayyad history in cross-section by taking a single phenomenon as his point of departure and following that phenomenon in a variety of sources. His concern for elaborating the tensions that exist among these sources—be they poetic, legal, Syriac, etc.—requires refocusing our inquiries on a more catholic vision of what constitutes significant source material for early Islamic history.

More broadly, Professor Anthony’s book is a compelling argument for the fruitful possibilities of considering anew the boundaries and throughways between Islam and its immediate neighbors—and of reading early Islamic history in its late antique context. Scholars of publics, ritual, and violence in late antiquity will find this a succinct and useful meditation on how these concepts connect, directly and indirectly, across assumed communal boundaries.

Andrew McLaren

Columbia University

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