Christian Martyrs under Islam: Religious Violence and the Making of the Muslim World by Christian C. Sahner, Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2018.
Martyrdom has long fascinated the scholarly and popular imagination. Legends of martyrdom shaped Christians’ collective memory of the early centuries after Christ, and as a result scholars have repeatedly analyzed these earliest martyr accounts, especially with an eye to proving or disproving their historical veracity. With this focus on the pre-Constantinian era, however, there has never been a full-length study of Christian martyrs in the early Islamic period, and Christian Sahner’s new book aims to remedy this situation.
Sahner, an associate professor of Islamic history at Oxford, focuses on accounts of Christian martyrs in Islamic territory from the seventh to the ninth century, a period during which Christian writers began to use the term “neomartyr” to distinguish contemporary martyrs from their pre-Constantinian counterparts. By his count, this group includes around 270 martyrs, though most of these belong to large groups such as the “Sixty Martyrs of Gaza” and have little individualized identity in the sources. Some neomartyrs were memorialized in full-length saints’ lives, while others are known only from the appearance of their names in liturgical calendars.
The book primarily addresses matters of concern to scholars of early Islam and Christian minorities. There is, however, an introductory interaction with the foundational scholarship on martyrdom. One of the most hotly debated questions regarding martyrdom accounts is the veracity and historical value of the sources. Most scholars counsel caution regarding crafted literary accounts, suggesting that their value lies in our understanding of Christian historical memory and identity formation, not in their historical accuracy. This skepticism is especially pronounced when it comes to accounts of pre-Constantinian martyrs, many of whose stories did not appear in any form until well after the ascent of Constantine. The situation is somewhat different with regard to the neomartyrdom accounts that Sahner discusses, and he describes his position as one of “critical positivism” (p. 11), taking the claims of these texts seriously while attempting to verify them against outside evidence, especially the rare mentions of martyrs in Muslim historical narratives. He charts a path away from the extreme skepticism of some scholars without assuming that everything happened just as the sources have it.
The remainder of the book is devoted to analysis of the martyrdom accounts, the majority of which Sahner places into three categories: first, former Christians who had converted to Islam and then were killed when they returned to their earlier faith (the largest group); second, Muslims by birth who converted directly; and third, Christians who were executed after uttering words of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad—generally in prominent public places—as a form of protest against their rulers.
After a thorough discussion of the categories, Sahner turns his attention to the judicial process described in the sources and to the information about early Islamic legal and administrative structures that they can provide. Finally, he discusses the rhetorical goals of martyrdom accounts and the intentions of their authors, arguing that they were generally written by Christian leaders aiming to cultivate a firm commitment to the faith among their coreligionists. In a time when many Christians considered converting—whether for social opportunities or because they found Muslim doctrine and practice appealing—accounts of “heroic” neomartyrs were intended to ward off the appeal of this option and to summon their readers to a combative defense of the faith. There were plenty of Christians who believed that it would be better not to provoke the kind of conflict depicted in martyrdom stories, but the bulk of the surviving sources argue for a position of uncompromising resistance.
Notably, Sahner finds that the vast majority of neomartyr texts from the early Islamic period were composed within the Chalcedonian or “Melkite” branch of Christianity, which had long been the preferred Christological position of the Byzantine Empire. Most of the Christians under Muslim rule had previously lived within the Empire, and for those who shared the faith of the emperors, the change brought by the arrival of Islam was stark indeed. They had to create a new sense of community that transcended their earlier reliance on imperial power, while most non-Chalcedonians were already well accustomed to living out of power. By telling stories of their martyred heroes, Chalcedonian leaders tried to bring their community together and strengthen the resolve of their Christian faith.
Sahner’s book fills a noteworthy gap in studies of martyrdom, which have generally been limited to the earliest centuries of Christianity and have ignored later developments. Moreover, he brings together discussions of numerous martyrdoms from the early Islamic period that have previously been scattered into individual articles and books and have not been surveyed systematically on this scale. He offers explanations for diachronic trends in martyrdom, and even if these explanations have limited explanatory power beyond the Chalcedonian tradition, he offers a forceful interpretation of the available evidence and points forward in a way that is sure to be fruitful in future scholarship. Other scholars have plenty to build on in Sahner’s work—for example, by examining martyrdoms later than the ninth century and determining whether his theories need to be adjusted in the light of later history.
In the preface, Sahner suggests that “readers of all religious and political stripes will find some points to cheer and others to contest” (p. xi) in his book. The topic is contentious, to be sure, and Sahner attempts to walk several precarious lines. On the one hand, he argues that early Islamic treatment of Christians did not amount to a general “persecution,” in the sense of “systematic efforts to extirpate Christians across the caliphate” (p. 162). On the other, he acknowledges that relations between communities in this period were often marked by tension that occasionally escalated into violence. Simultaneously, he suggests that neomartyrdoms were recorded because they were noteworthy rather than routine, and that they could only take place in a context where the Christian and Muslim communities mingled and coexisted in a generally peaceful atmosphere. Martyrdom was rare in the earliest years of Islam and only became a major part of the societal landscape as members of the two faiths grew more integrated, with lines blurred by conversions and mixed families. Christian converts and blasphemers posed a threat to the nascent social order, whether intentionally or not, and although Muslims were in power, they remained a numerical minority for several centuries. In this precarious situation, the rulers often saw fit to establish “proper” social boundaries through state violence. Thus, as the book’s subtitle suggests, Christian accounts of the neomartyrs give us a unique insight into “the making of the Muslim world” from a non-Muslim perspective.
Josh Mugler is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University, specializing in Christian-Muslim relations in medieval Syria. He is also a postdoctoral fellow in Eastern Christian manuscript cataloging at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his spouse and cat.