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

By Thomas Sizgorich | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

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.1

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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