The Making of the Medieval Middle East

Religion, Society, and Simple Believers

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Jack Tannous
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , November
     664 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It is hard to believe that just over twenty years ago the prevailing scholarly attitude was that Islam both terminated and was categorically different from the Late Antique period. Thankfully, many recent studies are quickly showing what an absurd proposition that was. Rather than locate Islam as terminus ad quem of the complex social, religious, and imperial forces of late antiquity, consensus has now formed to show how these forces permeated early Islam and helped to shape what would subsequently emerge as Islamic civilization.

Into this conversation we now have this impressive work by Jack Tannous. At the heart of his The Making of the Medieval Middle East: Religion, Society, and Simple Believers is a deceptively simple, yet all important question: “[h]ow did the Middle East go from being the birthplace of Christianity and eventually a largely Christian region, to being one where Christianity was a minority religion, if it had any presence at all?” (xiii). To answer this question, and others engendered by it, Tannous shifts his focus from elite texts and the theologians who produced them, to what he calls, “the simple believer.” Such believers, in their Christian guise, would have been largely unconcerned with post-Chalcedonian conversations about Christology and other rarefied metaphysical topics, and instead would have been focused on far more quotidian concerns. Membership in churches, for example, would most likely have been based less on precise doctrinal understanding and more on “loyalty to a local holy man or bishop whose sanctity and judgement about such matters was held in reverence and trust” (43). Indeed, Tannous warns us against assuming that members of the clergy were necessarily theologically literate (31). Instead of a simple clerical-laity binary, he posits a “layering of knowledge,” wherein there existed “a spectrum or continuum of engagement with and understanding of religious ideas and doctrines, and we should not assume that theological illiteracy meant an absence of theological curiosity” (357).

It was these simple believers, the great majority of whom would have occupied the middle of this continuum, who converted to Islam, making the latter the majoritarian religion in the region. What would have happened, in other words, when a politically dominant rival to Christianity appeared in the Middle East that began to criticize the central doctrines of Christianity—for example, the Trinity and the Incarnation—that the majority of Christians would not have been able to understand fully? It is this grey area that Tannous devotes the majority of his energies into explaining and accounting for. 

Thus, the majority of Muslims were descended from non-Muslim converts, and what would become normative Islam was largely a set of responses to dealing with the non-Muslim minorities “whom they ruled over, lived alongside of, were frequently related to, and often explicitly defined themselves against ideologically” (7). Yet the Islam that these former Christians converted to was not the sophisticated and fully-worked-out Islam of 9th century Baghdad; rather, it was a slogan or set of slogans that included little detailed knowledge of Muhammad’s message and, most likely, such new Muslims “paid scant heed to its implications for how they lived their lives” (261). The “layering of knowledge” witnessed among Christian believers, in other words, would have transferred automatically to the new Muslim believers.

Simple Christians became simple Muslims. The majority of such believers would have been largely unlearned in their traditions, and therefore, ill-equipped to discuss and debate religious differences in a proper and informed way. If we simply focus on theological differences, Tannous rightly warns, we overlook other avenues of exchange and interchange that would have occurred. These included, among other things, the use of crosses and baptisms by early Muslims, and the incorporation of church architectural features in mosques. If we focus only on the encounters that went on in the majlis and the seminary, he argues, we lose sight of what went on in streets and in houses.

In terms of historiography, Tannous does an excellent job of subverting some of our dominant paradigms. For example, he rids us of the assumption that we should understand the Christian communities of the post-Chalcedonian Middle East simply along theological lines. The overwhelming majority of believers, including many clergy, were simply uninterested in such matters. In addition, he rejects the notion that we should only understand the history of the medieval Middle East by connecting it to Islamic history. The result is the refreshing inclusion of non-Muslims in this history, one which demonstrates the cultural continuities as the medieval Middle East, after centuries of being Christian, became Muslim.

This is a large, wide-ranging and important book. As with any such paradigm-subverting work, it has its problems—mostly due to it’s desire to not be “safe.” Primary for this reviewer is the role and use of sources. While readers will certainly appreciate Tannous’ desire to get at the lives and “simple practices” of illiterate believers, he can paradoxically only do so through the mediation of literary texts, most of which are produced by the elites he otherwise seeks to eschew. Moreover, he takes a fairly sanguine approach to the early Muslim sources (262), relying, for example, on the work of the late W. Montgomery Watt, and contending—to use another example—that the types of changes he is attuned to can be gleaned “by strictly taking the sīra literature uncritically and at face value” (288).

In a similar manner, and again dealing with his use of source materials, Tannous has the habit of moving between disparate sources from vastly different time periods. For example, he uses the work of scholars of the early modern Balkans and Anatolia to illumine the early Islamic period and assumes that the latter illumine what “may have happened” (362) in the former. To be fair, however, Tannous must use the sources he does in the way he does in order to get at his main argument. Indeed, he provides us with a useful appendix, “Approaching the Sources,” elaborating on this topic.

The Making of the Medieval Middle East is, in sum, an impressive tome that will undoubtedly help us to rethink how this region became Muslim and make us reconsider the many blind spots and assumptions our traditional paradigms have included.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron W. Hughes is Philip S. Bernstein Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester.

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jack Tannous is Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University.


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