Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam

Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam

Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam

Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam

Synopsis

In Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity, Thomas Sizgorich seeks to understand why and how violent expressions of religious devotion became central to the self-understandings of both Christian and Muslim communities between the fourth and ninth centuries. Sizgorich argues that the cultivation of violent martyrdom as a path to holiness was in no way particular to Islam; rather, it emerged from a matrix put into place by the Christians of late antiquity. Paying close attention to the role of memory and narrative in the formation of individual and communal selves, Sizgorich identifies a common pool of late ancient narrative forms upon which both Christian and Muslim communities drew.

In the process of recollecting the past, Sizgorich explains, Christian and Muslim communities alike elaborated iterations of Christianity or Islam that demanded of each believer a willingness to endure or inflict violence on God's behalf and thereby created militant local pieties that claimed to represent the one "real" Christianity or the only "pure" form of Islam. These militant communities used a shared system of signs, symbols, and stories, stories in which the faithful manifested their purity in conflict with the imperial powers of the world.

Excerpt

In the ninth century of the Common Era, the pen of a Christian living in safety very near the heart of Abbasid imperial power scratched out an old and enduring critique of Islam. The Christian, an Iraqi named ʿAmmār al-Baṣrī (d. c. 845 C.E.), charged that as a religion Islam was illegitimate because it had been spread by the sword, whereas Christianity, the one true system of belief, forbade the use of the sword as a means of promulgation of the faith.

It is very likely that in issuing this critique ʿAmmār was responding to certain Muslim communal narratives concerning the birth and early growth of the Islamic umma. Among the organizing tenets of these narratives was the belief that the first/seventh-century conquests had been a kind of military miracle in which the will of God was manifested in the lightning conquests of the Persian Sasanian Empire and much of the eastern Roman Empire by ragged Arab armies organized around Muḥammad’s revelation. As it was put by the author of an anonymous anti-Christian pamphlet, probably written within a century or so of ʿAmmār’s death:

We set out, barefoot and naked, lacking in every kind of
equipment, utterly powerless, deprived in every sort of armament
and devoid of all the necessary provisions, to fight the peoples with
the most widely extended empires, the peoples that were most
manifestly mighty, possessing the most numerous troops, with the
most abundant populations and the most imposing domination of
the other nations, namely the Persians and the Romans. We went

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