A Reflection on Jack Tannous ‘The View from Above, the View from Below, and The View from Books’

The following is a reflection by Michael J. Rozek, a PhD student in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

On the 23rd of November, Professor Jack Tannous of Princeton University presented the keynote lecture at the University of Edinburgh’s 3rd Annual International Graduate Conference in Late Antique, Islamic and Byzantine Studies. His keynote was titled, ‘The View from Above, the View from Below, and The View from Books. Building off significant themes from his recent book, The Making of the Medieval Middle East: Religion, Society, and Simple Believers, he invited the audience to rethink the religious, social landscapes of the Late Antique and early medieval Middle East.

Professor Jack Tannous of Princeton University offers a keynote address at the University of Edinburgh’s 3rd Annual International Graduate Conference in Late Antique, Islamic and Byzantine Studies on 23 November 2019. Photo by Lucy Schouten.

Tannous commented on the many concerns that blur the focus and shift the attention of scholars in the overlapping academic fields of Late Antique and Middle Eastern Studies. These concerns are primarily methodological. Most scholars commonly concentrate on the doctrinal differences (or similarities) between Christians and Muslims during these periods. They utilize the primary sources available in the texts of histories, chronographs, hagiographies, or theological treatises. These texts provide valuable insight to help historians and theologians rebuild the past; they inform us about the religious, social settings that Christians and Muslims inhabited. However, the elite, learned Christians and Muslims of the Late Antique and early medieval Middle East authored these texts. They are the tip of the religious, social iceberg and reflect ‘The View from Above’.

Tannous cautions that, in an academic field that is starving for primary sources, scholars run the risk of distorting the context of the past as a ‘patristics seminar debate run amok’, assuming that the majority of people could read and understand (or were aware of and interested in) highly complex theological arguments. But how reflective of that period were the words, concerns, and actions of a minority, learned elite for the majority of ordinary, unlearned peoples? The texts that learned members of society produced do not necessarily accurately reflect what everyone at a particular time lived and thought. If we want to gain a broader, more diverse understanding of the past, about the religious, social environments that ordinary people shared, then we need to honestly reconsider the scholarly views of limiting our focus to educated elites and the texts they produced. No doubt, this is a tall order; it is also tricky because what historians require to learn from the past are the extant texts and books that educated elites wrote. To study this period, then, requires a ‘View from Books’ as indispensable evidence.

In a ‘View from Books’, the ordinary person tends to be invisible. Scholars are entrusted to write histories from the ‘View from Books’, which is typically a ‘View from Above’. As a result, the masses of ordinary people appear to be cut off from us; women, men, slaves, merchants, craftsmen, farmers, blacksmiths, peasants, children are silent, in part, because they did not write anything. We have very little detailed information about them. And, the little information we might have about them is in the books written by educated elites. So, the question remains: can we retrieve those perspectives? Is it possible to find the typical mentality of the ordinary person in the Late Antique and early medieval Middle East?

In ‘The View from Above’, we need to remember that the people who authored, read, or heard such texts constituted a minority of learned believers. That minority did not necessarily reflect the religious, social realities or concerns of the ordinary Christian or Muslim. The majority of believers in the Late Antique and early medieval Middle East landscapes, by contrast, consisted of ‘simple’ or ‘semi-learned’ believers. Tannous suggests that we should not assume an easily contrived bifurcation of simple believers consisting of illiterate rural farmers and that learned believers consisted of literate clergy. Rather, there was a spectrum of knowledge and overlaps in learning, literacy, and theological understanding between simple, semi-learned, and learned believers. There were simple believers who might have been clergymen and learned believers who might have been administrators and semi-learned believers who might have been merchants.

What determined ‘simple’ or ‘semi-learnedness,’ according to Tannous, was based upon both literacy and theological literacy—understanding complex religious differences based on the Incarnation of Jesus as the Son of God in the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. The doctrinal debates regarding the quiddity of the second person of the Trinity—the number of wills, persons, essences, natures of Jesus—had profound effects among learned Christians, to the point of fracturing into several confessional communities (e.g., Greek Orthodox ‘Melkites,’ West-Syrian ‘Monophysites,’ East-Syrian ‘Nestorians,’ Monothelites, Maronites, etc.), who fiercely competed for the allegiances of simple to learned believers alike.

But, by adopting ‘The View from Below’, Tannous refocuses our attention again on the semi-learned or simple believers regarding the questions: What about the common plowman tilling his farm connected to a remote village or the metalsmith forging in an urban city of the Middle East? Could they understand and evaluate such complex Christological doctrines? Did such doctrines necessarily have a significant impact on the religious lifeways of the ordinary believer? Tannous mentioned that to raise this question, answers it with a resounding probably not. The vast majority of people, in the past (and in the present), did not understand these highly complex doctrines. To raise the question of how illiterate peasants could have understood or evaluated various competing theories of the Christian Incarnation is crucial because it forces us to (re)think about how different kinds of people experienced religious doctrine in the various competing confessional communities of the early medieval Middle East. This, in turn, also raises the question as to why a particular person, family, or group might adhere to one confessional community or church rather than another. Tannous asserts that if ordinary believers’ loyalties were based on non-doctrinal concerns, then this may change scholars’ approaches to reevaluate the importance of doctrine as the focal point of the Late Antique world and Christian-Muslim relations.

Offering some thoughts on this problem, Tannous recommends that perhaps the most important thing we can do is to first recognize the limitations of the sources available in the historical record: to acknowledge The View from Above, The View from Below, and The View from Books. We need to be aware of the limits to the claims modern scholars make. When we read the texts that learned elites wrote ‘from above’, we need to keep the everyday person ‘from below’ on the periphery and swirling around the texts we analyze. Most of the people ‘from below’ existed. The majority of ordinary people were illiterate and had little to no education. The ordinary person’s relation to the intellectual, religious questions that modern historians examine are not reflective of the texts because medieval educated elites wrote them. Tannous argues that once we begin to see how people in a mostly illiterate world discussed religious differences, we will come to a better understanding of that world. And, since it is devilishly tricky to access the lives of ordinary people, we need to ask how the texts we read might relate to the people around them. The learned people who authored the texts did not live in a vacuum; they lived among and interacted with ordinary peoples in a real, shared world. By meeting those ‘from above’ and ‘from below’ together at a place ‘from books’, we might discover a clearer view and understanding of the three-dimensional world that the ordinary person lived and thought about before and after the Arab Conquests in the early medieval Middle East. Thinking about ordinary, every-day people, be they Christian or Muslim, in the Middle East after the Arab Conquests offers beneficial perspectives. This is because it challenges scholars to (re)think about what these people thought about the doctrinal differences that separated Christians from Muslims.

Such perspectives offer new ways to view possible reasons why a Christian became a Muslim or why a Muslim became a Christian. Religious intrigue is not the same as theological literacy. And, the simple, semi-learned, and learned believers were theologically curious about many religious topics, especially when the majority of converts to Islam came from Jewish and Christian backgrounds. Nevertheless, theological curiosity and conversations about religion between believers were not the same. Not every Christian or Muslim believer was a participant in highly complex matters of theology. The majority of believers were not sitting in the majlis (i.e., solon-like-symposium), debating about the Trinity vs. Tawhid of God, the prophethood of Muhammad, or the Incarnation of Jesus as the Son of God. It can be logically inferred that simple or semi-learned Christians and Muslims had conversations about religion in the public marketplace or around the family dinner table. The learned Christian (and Muslim), who felt it their responsibility to oversee the religious questions and eternal destinies of their parishioners, thought such religious questions worth answering for both multiple audiences. As an example, and, perhaps by adopting Tannous’s approach of a combined ‘View from Above’, a ‘View from Below’, and a ‘View from Books’, we might revisit the development of Christian and Muslim apologetic arguments or ideas in these texts that may have been employed for simple or semi-learned believers.  As we bear in mind the ordinary person swirling around the texts we read concerning Christian-Muslim relations of the early medieval Middle East, we might gain new insight into Christian-Muslim relations.

Jack Tannous is an Assistant Professor of History and the John Witherspoon Bicentennial Preceptor at Princeton University.