By Samuel Nwokoro

This post was contributed by Samuel Nwokoro, a PhD student with the Christian-Muslim Studies Network. He offers a reflection on a lecture given at New College by Prof Christian C. Sahner of Oxford.

Prof Christian C Sahner addresses staff, students, and guests in Martin Hall, New College, during a lecture sharing the title of his new book, Christian Martyrs Under Islam.

The scholarly story of early Islam can often be dominated by the conquest narratives. This is how many stories were written by early sources. This likely reflects the interests of early historians, who were concerned about key persons and the roles they played in spreading Arab rule across the Middle East and beyond. However, scholars have also been concerned about what the story of early Islam looks like from the ordinary people’s perspective.

One such story of early Islam was presented by Prof Christian C Sahner of Oxford in a Christian-Muslim Studies Network lecture focused on his new book, Christian Martyrs under Islam: Religious Violence and the Making of the Muslim World.

Prof Sahner explained that most historical accounts of early Islam were largely written by elites and learned historians of that time, rather than the vast majority of the governed populace. One way to explore the ‘people’s’ history of the early Islamic period is to look closely at the social agenda underlying texts that are targeted to the ordinary readership.

One such source is hagiography. These are stories written in various Christian communities projecting the life of persons intended to be seen as saintly or heroes of faith. Prof Sahner argued that such stories may open this ordinary, often unheard perspective on early Islamic history, thereby proving resourceful in untold ways. Prof Sahner generally introduced the theme of martyrology and the social history of early Islam, then offered an overview of his data, showing how they constitute challenging but valuable source material for early Islam’s ‘history from below’.

For Prof Sahner, the lower stratum of the social order constitutes an important part of the story of early Islam. This aspect of the story can be seen from the theme of religious violence. The martyr accounts of Christian saints tell the story of those who died in heroic ways. These stories are usually pitched to inspire insiders. The large number of hagiographical stories explored by Prof Sahner appear to have circulated in Greek, Arabic, Latin, Syriac, and even Ethiopic and Georgian. This variety of languages suggests that these martyrdom stories travelled widely, leaving a pantheon of documents in original and translated versions.

The stories of Christian martyrs come from various places, with Palestine, Spain and Anatolia respectively ranking high in the number of group and individual martyr accounts. Three types of martyrs qualified for these hagiographies: (a) Muslim converts to Christianity, who were formerly Christian, (b) first-time Muslim converts to Christianity, and (c) those who spoke ill of the Prophet Muhammad. Muslim converts to Christianity were Prof Sahner’s most common find.

Using hagiographical material as a historical source can be challenging in many ways, as authors of these accounts are inclined to stretch the truth for the sake of the story. Prof Sahner argues, however, that the basic problem of intertwined facts and fiction can be addressed through corroborated vetting. This involves the use of non-Christian sources, such as Islamic legal and historical accounts, to vet the accounts.

Authorship and dating can equally prove problematic for hagiographical material. However, Prof Sahner argued that the authors of these accounts are quite conversant with the life and context of the saints, as demonstrated by the amount of detail supplied in the text. Such internal evidence indicates that these martyr narratives were written by the subjects’ contemporaries, or at least their near neighbours.

Prof Sahner presented three stories of martyrdom during the lecture to demonstrate that these saintly accounts play a significant role in the history of their times. These were the life of Bacchus, the life of Anthony al-Qurashi and the story of Peter of Capitolias. Bacchus, who was born with the Arabic name Dahhak to a Muslim father and a Christian mother, was executed in the late eighth century for associating with Christianity instead of the religion of his father. Anthony al-Qurashi, a convert from the esteemed tribe of Mecca, was executed in 799 for converting to Christianity. Peter was executed in 715 in Transjordan for blasphemy.

All these three examples fit the major categories of martyrs in their respective order of re-conversion, conversion and blasphemy. Prof Sahner highlights some historical insights from these accounts. The life of Bacchus can be seen as reflecting the dynamics of marriage and conversion in early Islam. Both the lives of Anthony and Peter may be showing the dominance of the Chalcedonian motif in Christian hagiography at this time. This reflects their aspirations under Islamic rule, after having been disconnected from the privilege of life under Christian, Byzantine rule. These accounts mostly come from the eighth century, a period of intensifying pressure for Christian communities to convert to Islam and Arabization.

The way that narratives about Christian martyrs are written, Prof Sahner argues, can tell how ordinary folks were intended to derive instructive insights from them. This further indicates a social situation of concern about conversion across religious boundaries. Boundaries that suggest a changing social situation from an early ruler-populace divide to a context that represents a more mixed and nuanced milieu, wherein drawing the lines of social and religious distinction was expedient. While the political authorities may have developed governing apparatus to stop Christians from profaning the Islamic faith, as well as to deter Muslims from converting to Christianity, it seems that authors of martyrdom stories likewise sought to illustrate that these saints heroically lived and died as Christians under Islamic rule.

Prof Sahner’s book, published early in 2019 by Princeton University Press, is widely available to those interested variously in early Islamic history and Christian-Muslim studies.