Christian Martyrs under Islam

Religious Violence and the Making of the Muslim World

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Christian C. Sahner
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , August
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It is quite surprising that an in-depth study on the topic Christian Sahner takes up in Christian Martyrs under Islam: Religious Violence and the Making of the Muslim World was so long in coming. Consequently, this careful, balanced, and articulate investigation of the available literary material is indeed welcome. Sahner’s approach is to chart “a clear course between two competing impulses: literalism and skepticism” (11), examining martyrdom accounts and their contexts to ascertain what they can tell us about conversion and Christian resistance to Islamic da’wa. The answer is, quite a bit. Sahner skillfully leads his reader through the difficult and complex material both to confirm previous scholarship concerning the plight of Christians living under Islamic rule, and to offer new insights into the myriad ways that Muslims and Christians negotiated their interactions in the first centuries after the rise of Islam.

Christian Martyrs devotes three chapters to reports of the so-called “neomartyrs” of the 7th to 9th centuries recounted in martyrologies and hagiographies, recorded in liturgical calendars, or referred to in Muslim records, categorizing them according to the type of violations they describe: reversion to Christianity after conversion to Islam; conversion from Islam to Christianity; and blaspheming against Islam. The fourth chapter examines accounts of the trials and executions of those found guilty, while the fifth outlines the construction of accounts of these events, and their effects on the communities of the “Muslim World.” Throughout the book, Sahner is careful and guarded about the conclusions he draws, focusing on the texts as rich sources for understanding the social history and identity formation of Muslims and Christians.

The general historical trajectory supported by both Christian and Islamic reports is a logical one. In the earliest period, martyrdom accounts are few while Muslims remained isolated minorities, interested in maintaining the delicate balance that allowed them to rule a potentially dangerous majority. Public torture and execution of resisters risked large-scale revolt and was not necessary as long as Arab interference in local affairs was minimal, and Christians paid the jizyah (poll tax). As Muslim influence grew and converts to Islam increased, there were bolder attempts to gain more control over those who might challenge the domination of the rulers and their vision of an Islamic society.

Beginning at the end of the 8th century, under ‘Abbasid rule, there is a surge in accounts of executions for the crimes of blasphemy, conversion away from, and reversion after conversion to Islam. According to reports, Muslim authorities expended a great deal of energy to convince the accused to retract the offending statements or to return to the fold of the Ummah, but when their efforts were unsuccessful, troublemakers were punished harshly. Horrific accounts of beatings, torture, and public executions, especially through crucifixion, reminded the subject populations who was in charge, and functioned as effective intimidation and deterrents against future resistance. A noticeable drop in reports of resisters in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Persia, simultaneous with increased conversions to Islam after the 10th century, may indicate wide-spread acceptance of the permanence of Muslim rule, and the conclusion that long-term resistance was not worth the sacrifice it necessitated. Sahner also suggests that Christians in these areas were able to work out an acceptable modus vivendi that allowed them to maintain a degree of autonomy while still engaging Muslims in practical and scholarly contexts.

A counter-narrative can be found in Armenia, Georgia, and Al-Andalus where Christian resistance persisted for centuries. Armenia and Georgia did not submit easily to Muslim rule, and many examples of those who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith are commemorated in liturgical calendars and hagiographic literature. Muslim Spain was more complicated, as some saw advantages to the society being established by the invaders from the east and in the stability they brought. Evidence also indicates that Muslim authorities were reluctant to escalate tensions with public executions, avoiding them whenever possible. Nonetheless, Christian resistance and martyrdom continued, as stories—such as that of the martyrs of Córdoba in the mid-9th century—illustrate. It remained a defining narrative for the Christian community even in the midst of later periods of toleration.

The reasons for the contrast between those Christians who continued to resist and those who did not are unclear. Sahner notes the connection between the literary tropes and themes of apocalyptic literature and martyrologies, and suggests these appear both when the community felt under siege, and when leaders became concerned about complacency in the face of dangers posed by assimilation. It may also be that some resisters were more optimistic about the possibility that their Muslim overlords might be overthrown—as ultimately came to pass in Córdoba with the Reconquista—leading to confidence that martyrdom would not be in vain. This is an important topic for future exploration.

Perhaps the greatest limitation of this study is that it does not fully address the most obvious reason for Christian resistance in the Muslim World—that of faith in Jesus Christ and the tradition of martyrdom based in his life, death, and resurrection. The texts reveal more than social allegiances, they document faith commitments that form the deepest identity of the community. At the end of the book, Sahner reminds us that hagiographies and martyrologies not only preserve the memories of those who gave their lives for their faith, they present the community with an ideal and model for Christian responses to difficult situations. As the liturgical calendar commemorates those who have lived as good and faithful servants, it provides spiritual and moral formation through the repetition of stories about those who are remembered.

This is an excellent and balanced book that I highly recommend for scholars and advanced students in every field related to the Middle East. Generalizations about religious violence are frequently deployed—often without subtlety—as evidence for a variety of misguided theories about historical relations between Muslims and Christians. This book goes a long way towards correcting them.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sandra Toenies Keating is Associate Professor of Theology at Providence College.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christian C. Sahner is Associate Professor of Islamic History at the University of Oxford and a fellow of St Cross College. He is the author of Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present.


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