Between Christ and Caliph

Law, Marriage, and Christian Community in Early Islam

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Lev E. Weitz
Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , April
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Historian Lev Weitz begins his book with a provocative question on the nature of the medieval Middle East: “What does the history of the medieval Middle East look like if we recognize non-Muslims to have been … integral to the landscape of the Islamic empire?” (2). The author’s intervention challenges the notion of a crystalized Islamic society between the 7th and 10th centuries by demonstrating how its imperial reach was characterized by interreligious exchange.  Between Christ and Caliph: Law, Marriage, and Christian Community in Early Islam looks at how confessional boundaries developed in early Islam by examining transformations in Syriac Christian family law and practice. In tracing changes in legal and ecclesiastical sources generated by Christian religious elites, Weitz argues that Syriac Christians shaped the contours of their religious community in conversation with Islamic marital practices, household norms, and property laws. 

The book is divided into three parts. The first is a chronological outline of Christian household practices across imperial domains from late antiquity to the Abbasid period. In this section, Weitz traces the expanding ecclesial control over the civil affairs of Christian laity traditionally shared with local or imperial authorities from Roman to Sassanian territories. The advance of Islam from Arabia into Mesopotamian and Mediterranean lands initiated new mediating forces that compelled religious elites to re-consider historically shared legal and civil jurisdictions. When East Patriarch George I presided over the Persian Gulf synod in 676 CE, he issued a canon explicitly outlining church authority over marriage. While “Christianizing” marriage may not seem unusual for modern observers, George instituted this shift at a time “when no systematic sacramental theology of marriage in any major Christian tradition, including the Latin one” (56) existed. 

Letters and legal responsa from other Syriac generated during the late 7th century illustrate pressing communal anxieties regarding the position of the Church of the East within the caliphate. While Arab conquests were not immediately threatening to the communal integrity of Syriac Christians during the mid-7th century, issues such as “ecclesiastical schism, the specter of apostasy to Islam, and the unacceptable heterogeneity of local marital practices” (56) gradually posed challenges for East Syrian Christian leadership. In response, this period witnessed the expansion of ecclesiastical authority beyond adjudicating church affairs and into the matters of laypeople during the late 7th century.

The second part of the book engages a thematic focus on Christian family law and its interaction with Islamic legal codes. Over the span of five chapters, Weitz demonstrates how Syrian Christian law shifted around prohibitions on certain household formation practices such as divorce, polygamy, and concubinage as well as close of kin marriages. Weitz emphasizes how “Islamic imperial rule; caliphal governance and Islamic law motivated these transformations of subject communities’ traditions and institutions” (248). At the same time, Christian laity also contested ecclesiastic regulation and often resorted to using Islamic institutions to bypass stringent prohibitions such as divorce. 

The third and final part of the book examines the context of the Islamic empire and the role of its Christian subjects following Abbasid fragmentation in the mid-10th century. It considers the ways Christian jurist-bishops engaged in accommodation and contestation over its legal traditions. Weitz shows how this manifested in various forms, from “the adoption of Islamic inheritance law by West Syrians; the Arabization of the East Syrian legal heritage; and the starkly different approaches to Islamic family law on the part of the two great Syriac Christian jurist-bishops of the thirteenth century, Bar ‘Ebroyo and his East Syrian contemporary Abdisho ‘bar Brika” (224).

One of the more interesting aspects of this period was how translation of Syriac Christian family law into Arabic often entailed the incorporation of Islamic idioms as well. For example, Ibn al-Tayyib, secretary to the East Syrian patriarch in 11th century Baghdad, produced a short treatise outlining the history of East Syrian Christian law. In his descriptions, he uses Islamic terms such as sunna, ikhtilaf, and shari’a to describe the process of forging a Christian body of law for the Church of the East. This practice of adopting or adjusting Islamic legal terminology as part and parcel of the translation process not only affected Eastern Syrian traditions but also Copts, Melkites, and Western Syrians.

The book draws from a rich collection of legal and ecclesiastical material in Syriac and Arabic, including Syriac legal texts, synod canons, treatises, episcopal letters, and responsa. Each chapter opens with a vignette from these sources to demonstrate the dynamic exchange that characterized the period and the individuals, institutions, and empires in question. 

Between Christ and Caliph is a welcome addition to the growing historiography on social, religious, and family history of the Middle East. It joins other recent works in the field, such as Beshara Doumani’s Family Life in the Ottoman Mediterranean: A Social History (Cambridge University Press, 2017), in assessing the relationship between legal frameworks and social order. The work also intervenes in legal approaches to Middle East social history characterized by works such as Leslie Pierce’s Morality Tales: Law and Gender in the Ottoman Court of Aintab (University of California Press, 2003). The strength of Weitz’s book in is how it places Islamic and Christian legal systems in conversation with one another, showing how in some cases they influenced the formation of each other’s legal, social, and religious practices.

Weitz’s rigorously-researched monograph provides an invaluable contribution to Middle Eastern scholarship across disciplines and can yield insight into conceptualizing future work on the relationship between law, religion, and society during late antiquity and medieval Middle Eastern contexts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy Fallas is a doctoral student in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lev E. Weitz teaches History and Directs the Islamic World Studies Program at the Catholic University of America.


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