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

By Judd, Steven C. | The Catholic Historical Review, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

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


Judd, Steven C., The Catholic Historical Review


Between Christ and Caliph: Law, Marriage, and Christian Community in Early Islam. By Lev E. Weitz. [Divinations: Re-reading Late Antique Religion.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2018. Pp. x, 340. $65.00. ISBN 978-0-81222-5027-5.)

In this work, Lev Weitz adds to the growing scholarship on religious minorities living under Muslim rule. He argues that "caliphal rule fundamentally transformed even the most well-established non-Muslim communities. The response of their elites to the structures and imperatives of caliphal rule led to significant reforms to their communal institutions and traditions, and ultimately to the redefinition of their very character as religious communities" (p. 6-7). To support this bold thesis, he focuses on marriage and broader aspects of family law to illustrate how Christian leaders adapted to new circumstances. The title is somewhat of a misnomer, in that Weitz focuses mostly on the Eastern Syriac (Nestorian) community and, to a lesser degree, the Western Syriac (Jacobite) church, with only passing discussion of other Christian sects. The rich image of a community in transition that he draws from the Eastern Syriac material is, however, quite compelling.

The book is divided into three chronological sections, the first describing marriage traditions from late antiquity through the Abbasid revolution (750 A.D.), the second addressing the apogee of the Abbasid period, and the third dealing with the fragmentation of central authority beginning in the tenth century. The first of Part I's three chapters contrasts marriage practices in late antique Roman and Sasanian societies to Christian tradition. Weitz argues that Christian marriage differed from other regional traditions in its focus on chastity, its rejection of divorce, and (in contrast to Sasanian tradition) its opposition to polygamy and close kin marriage. He acknowledges that these norms were difficult for the Church to enforce in the absence of political power and that violations, compromises, and deviations were common. Chapter 2 assesses the impact of Islamic rule on Christian marriage traditions. The Muslims' practice of delegating authority over marriage, inheritance, and other aspects of communal law to their subject religious communities created both opportunities and challenges. Christian leaders had to develop comprehensive systems to regulate marriage and family that did not encourage conversion to Islam, which imposed fewer restrictions, particularly in regard to divorce and polygamy. Marital rules became a means by which to define and defend Christian communities and their identities. The final chapter of Part I discusses the impact of the rise of the Abbasids and their refinement and institutionalization of the dhimmi system. Here Weitz focuses on the Eastern Syriac church, examining in depth eighth-century works by Isho'bokt and Timothy I. He argues that the Eastern church's circumstances were more complicated because of proximity to Baghdad and features of previous Sasanian rule. The Western church had already developed extensive marriage laws under Roman rule, when Christianity was the official religion. Weitz argues that, while Christianity was not inherently legalistic, dynamics of the dhimmi system forced Christian leaders to develop more complex legal systems.

Part II, consisting of five chapters, describes the Christian legal institutions that emerged under Abbasid rule. Weitz begins with a primer on Syriac family law, focusing on traditions of inchoate marriage, aversion to divorce, and insistence of monogamy, while acknowledging the challenges that local custom and competing sects presented. In the following chapter, he addresses practical complications of marriage law in a mixed society in which Christian leaders had limited coercive power. The only meaningful punishment religious leaders could impose was anathema, barring violators from the Eucharist and other church rites. …

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