An analysis of the relations between Christians and Muslims in the first centuries of Islam from the perspective of the Christian martyrdom

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:58:53

Copertina Sahner.pngReview of Christian C. Sahner, Christian Martyrs Under Islam, Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford 2018


The expansion, beginning in the seventh century, of the rising Islamic community, carried it into increasingly frequent contact with Christian communities. From this time onward, interactions between the two religious groups would take on a complex character, at times characterized even by violence. In his Christian Martyrs Under Islam, Christian C. Sahner, professor of Islamic history at the University of Oxford, analyzes this tumultuous historical phase from the perspective of the Christian martyrdom, which he picks out as a privileged way to understand the contentious theme of the relations between Christians and Muslims in the first centuries of Islam.


Although this story naturally gets linked today with the sufferings endured by Christians in the Middle East in recent years, the author himself clarifies in the Preface that his intention is not “to write a history that connects past and present,” specifying that his book does not wish to “engage in comparisons between religious violence in the early Islamic era and violence today” (p. xi). Nevertheless Sahner affirms that he was prompted to undertake this study by the bloody events that followed the Arab Spring in 2011 and by having seen in the persecutions enacted by the Islamic State against the Christian minorities of Syria and Iraq a series of factors occurring also at the time of the first expansion of Islam, on which Sahner had already been working.


Beginning with the biographies of a series of martyrs belonging to diverse eastern Churches, living between the seventh and tenth centuries in a geographical region that extends from the Caucasus to Andalusia, passing through the Middle East and North Africa, the study investigates the historical and social environments in which these events transpired. Between these martyrs, whom Sahner calls “neo-martyrs” in order to distinguish them from the victims of the persecutions prosecuted under the Roman and Sasanian emperors, one can distinguish two principal categories: the apostates, Muslims who had converted to Christianity or Christians who rejected Islam after having embraced it for a time; and blasphemers, Christians who were condemned and killed for having insulted, without showing signs of contrition, the Prophet and Islam.


Significant among the apostates is the case of the martyr Elias of Heliopolis (today Baalbek, Lebanon), a Syrian Christian killed in 799 in Damascus under unusual circumstances. During a party, his zunnār—the belt which at the time identified non-Muslims—was stripped away so that when he left, he had unknowingly become a Muslim. The next day, while going to church to pray, he was therefore accused of apostasy. Forced to flee the city due to the danger that threatened him, he returned eight years later, thinking that the issue would have by then been forgotten. But since he continued to declare himself a Christian, he was condemned and killed on the charge of apostasy.


Through stories such as this, Sahner does not limit himself to the question of apostasy but reflects also on the formation process of a normative Islamic system, on the social dimension of the phenomena of conversion, and on the religiosity of the period. During Muhammed’s life, apostasy had not actually represented a particularly pressing problem; it was in the subsequent two centuries that it became a crime codified by Islamic law and sanctioned by capital punishment. But the episode of Elias of Heliopolis shows also how the religiosity of the eighth century consisted in an adherence “more cultural than creedal” (p. 33) and in the recognition of a specific social and economic status more than in a genuine personal adherence grounded in a particular conviction. The approach to Christianity as much as to Islam could be rooted simply in the appropriation of symbols, external factors, and indistinct practices that often did not permit the demarcation of a boundary between one religious commitment and the other. The “passive conversion” of Elias of Heliopolis, occurring unknowingly or by deception, simply owing to an alteration of external symbolic factors, typifies this “cultural religiosity.” Sahner therefore puts the reader on his guard against the temptation to conceive of pathways to conversion as the outcome solely of a deliberate, personal initiative spurred by an existential need. With the arrival of the first Muslims and the political imposition of a power legitimized by Islam, there in fact emerged “many reasons to stay put within the Muslim fold” (p. 34), reasons usually connected to some social or economic convenience. Sahner reports numerous situations in which Christians converted to Islam with little hesitation, in the manner of a “change of culture” more than of doctrine (p. 33).


Not all conversions, however, were “cultural” and formal. An example in this regard is Vahan of Golt’n, an Armenian condemned for apostasy in 737 in Rusafa (modern Syria). Vahan, orphaned at age four, was sold as a slave to the Umayyad court in Damascus. Raised and instructed as a Muslim, Vahan displayed such marked intellectual gifts that the Caliph decided to free him and to send him back to Armenia to administer it as a vassal of the Ummayads. In his native land Vahan rediscovered the Christian faith and embraced the monastic life. Later, when he returned to the Ummayad court to publicly proclaim his return to Christianity, he was condemned, and executed.


There are numerous and significant cases of this “about-face” of religious affiliation, or rather, of people who have had experience of both faiths, have recognized Islam as the more convenient of the two from a social perspective, and yet who could not but turn to Christianity.


Regarding the martyrdoms connected to blasphemy, Sahner shows how this crime was particularly widespread in the region of Andalusia in the ninth and tenth centuries. From a juridical point of view its codification had been an extremely protracted process; this is why many different actions are encompassed by its proscription. At times statements perceived as offensive on account of reciprocal misunderstanding of theological truths came to be considered blasphemous: what for one person was an expression of religious truth could be for others an insult to the personal creed. In other cases, however, blasphemy was characterized by real forms of verbal challenge after the manner of the Greek parrhēsia—free and bold discourse undertaken with the objective of demonstrating the falsity of others’ religion.


This is the case with Peter of Capitolia (now Bayt Ras in northern Jordan) condemned for blasphemy and executed in 715. A priest in his village, Peter consistently modeled the vocation of the martyr so that Christians would “choose death on behalf of Christ rather than this fleeting life” (p. 132). He thus deliberately decided to die a martyr, hoping to “become a symbol of strength and resilience to the Christians around him” (p. 133). In order to accomplish his goal he began to publicly insult the Prophet and Islam in a violent fashion. So, after three episodes of defamation and as many refusals on his part to repent, the Caliphs condemned him to death and then crucified him. In this period, the voluntary initiative by some Christians to verbally rebel against Islam manifests, according to Sahner, the desire to express powerfully their own proper identity, by then weakened, toward their conquerors.


Sahner reflects on the fact that, in an age in which Christians in the Middle East ran the risk of disappearing and were not yet resigned to the condition of the religious minority, the heroic acceptance of a martyr’s death could become an example to imitate and venerate. The central concern of some martyrs no less than their hagiographers seems to have been, in fact, demonstrating that the penalty of losing one’s life could be worth paying in order to preserve one’s religious identity in the face of oppression by the Muslims.


Sahner utilizes, as a source and support for this analysis, information furnished by hagiographical accounts called the Lives of the saints, set in this same period and written predominantly by monks; by liturgical calendars (Synaxaria), which permit the identification of various saints venerated in specific historical epochs; and by chronicles, in which, however, it is not always clear whether the persons in question were actually venerated as martyrs. The author critically analyzes these accounts in order to evaluate their credibility and accuracy, among other things comparing them to contemporaneous Islamic sources.


The decline in the veneration of these neo-martyrs, beginning in the tenth and eleventh centuries, attests according to Sahner a transformation in the self-perception of the Christian community in the Middle East, aware by then that it represented a minority that no longer needed to claim its identity through hostile resistance to the oppressor unto the point of symbolic martyrdom. This observation can invite a reflection on and a comparison with our own times. The recent beatification of the Algerian martyrs signals that Christian martyrdom is no longer claimed to be a symbol of resistance. The martyrs of our time have not accepted death in order to redeem their Christian identity, nor to respond heroically to oppression, but rather have done so through solidarity with Algerian Muslims and as the ultimate consequence of that “gift of self” that has characterized their presence in the world of Islam.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation