Between Christ and Caliph: Law, Marriage, and Christian Community in Early Islam

Between Christ and Caliph: Law, Marriage, and Christian Community in Early Islam

Between Christ and Caliph: Law, Marriage, and Christian Community in Early Islam

Between Christ and Caliph: Law, Marriage, and Christian Community in Early Islam

Synopsis

In the conventional historical narrative, the medieval Middle East was composed of autonomous religious traditions, each with distinct doctrines, rituals, and institutions. Outside the world of theology, however, and beyond the walls of the mosque or the church, the multireligious social order of the medieval Islamic empire was complex and dynamic. Peoples of different faiths--Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Jews, and others--interacted with each other in city streets, marketplaces, and even shared households, all under the rule of the Islamic caliphate. Laypeople of different confessions marked their religious belonging through fluctuating, sometimes overlapping, social norms and practices.

In Between Christ and Caliph, Lev E. Weitz examines the multiconfessional society of early Islam through the lens of shifting marital practices of Syriac Christian communities. In response to the growth of Islamic law and governance in the seventh through tenth centuries, Syriac Christian bishops created new laws to regulate marriage, inheritance, and family life. The bishops banned polygamy, required that Christian marriages be blessed by priests, and restricted marriage between cousins, seeking ultimately to distinguish Christian social patterns from those of Muslims and Jews. Through meticulous research into rarely consulted Syriac and Arabic sources, Weitz traces the ways in which Syriac Christians strove to identify themselves as a community apart while still maintaining a place in the Islamic social order. By binding household life to religious identity, Syriac Christians developed the social distinctions between religious communities that came to define the medieval Islamic Middle East. Ultimately, Between Christ and Caliph argues that interreligious negotiations such as these lie at the heart of the history of the medieval Islamic empire.

Excerpt

What makes [the Christians] great in the hearts of the commoners and be
loved to regular folk is that among them are scribes to sultans, attendants to
kings, physicians to noblemen, pharmacists, and moneychangers; while you
won’t find a Jew other than a dyer, tanner, cupper, butcher, or repairman.

Despite the great number of monks and nuns, and the fact that most priests
imitate their [celibacy] … and the fact that anyone among [the Christians]
who does marry cannot exchange his wife, marry another in addition
to her, or take concubines—despite all this, they have covered the earth,
filled the horizons, and conquered the nations in number and progeny.
This has compounded our calamities and magnified our tribulation.

—Abu ʿUthman al-Jahiz, al-Radd ʿala l-nasara (The Refutation of the Christians)

To hear Abu ʿUthman al-Jahiz (d. 868/69) tell it, one would think that the Muslims of the ninth-century Abbasid Caliphate were in trouble. Al-Jahiz was one of the medieval Islamic empire’s great litterateurs and spent his life in the thriving cities of its Iraqi heartland. Yet everywhere he looked he claimed to see not the signs of a confident Islamic polity but its prominent, self-satisfied Christian subjects. Christians filled the halls of power, running the imperial bureaucracy and attending to caliphs, generals, and viziers, and received the adulation of the Muslim masses. Just as they did not shy away from taking good Muslim names like Husayn and ʿAbbas, they could get away with slandering the Prophet Muhammad’s mother. Despite their bizarre aversion to sex and infatuation with celibacy, the Christians had managed to become the most populous nation on God’s green earth.

Such is the picture of the ninth-century caliphate that al-Jahiz paints in The Refutation of the Christians, one of the many incisive essays he composed over the course of a long and productive career. Although it is undoubtedly a caricature to a certain degree, embedded in al-Jahiz’s literary stylings are two striking insights into medieval Middle Eastern society that serve as this book’s departure points.

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