The Making of the Medieval Middle East


Ad Honorem
Dec 2009

I decided to share my notes on this important recent book. They're a bit on the thinner side for me, but they convey the general ideas of the book, which I think are important and deserve to be known. However, since I suspect that few people will be interested in picking up a 500pp book mainly on late antique Syriac Christianity, I thought some Historumites might be interested in what Tannous has to say.

What does it mean for people with little or no education to belong to a church that defined itself through complex theology? And how did the near east go from being mostly Christian to mostly Muslim? p. xiii

“We need to think away the ability of the state and religious institutions to use modern mass communication and education to create a uniformity of religious belief and understanding.” p. 5

Wants to argue against a heavily theological understanding of Christian communities and against a doctrinal understanding of Christian-Muslim relations. p. 7

Theological Speculation and theological literacy

Literacy was probably extremely low, especially in rural areas where most people lived. We study Christianity heavily from homilies, but most are from an urban context. How many went to church , and how many listened is also unknown, but theological literacy but have been abysmal. pp. 11-22

Being literate is not the same as being able to engage in high-level Christian discourse, and even those who could did not always have the access to books. pp. 22-9

At least by the 6th c. the Syriac church enforced stricter standards on clergy, and literacy probably improved. Still this shouldn’t be exaggerated and the situation would be exacerbated in places with multiple churches, stretching the elites thin. pp. 33-5

Orality would have been the main means of instruction adn there’s evidence of competing hymns and chants that express theological positions. While this was urban, there was enough movement that study would have suffused into the countryside. We can see that people took theological differences seriously. pp. 35-43

But did they base this choice on understanding or something else? pp. 43-5

The Simple and the Learned

Christianity embraced ideas of simplicity, but it went both ways and elites blamed the spread of heresy on simple people screwing it up. As a polemic, it also gave an opponent an excuse: it was simplicity rather than maliciousness that led to error, and was used even against Muslims and Mohammad. pp. 47-53

We can’t really separate elite and simple believers: the elite were in the same world as the simple. 18th c. Jesuits were the most learned, but they shared the same culture of the miraculous as the peasants they worked with. pp. 53-6

For many, theology did not decide which church one attended: you went to church where your parents did. Imperial coercion could also compell people. Inertia mattered, once you were enmeshed in a community. Debates took place but they were not necessarily about doctrine, and various trials decided who was orthodox. Appearling to miracles was a way to know truth. pp. 57-67

But elites still had to deal with doctrine. So they set out baselines for their congregations to believe in and skipped the details. pp. 67-79

Confusion in the Land

Late 7th - early 8th c. blowhard Jacob of Edessa’s works point to extensive contact between rival Christian confessions and he bemoans this fact. It’s quite possible that there was a degree of religious code-switching going on depending on the situation. This mixing extended right up to taking communion. “Life trumped ideology.” (105) The liturgies may have been indistinguishable to most, as with the clergy, prior to the Byzantinization of the Chalcedon liturgy ca. 1000. Communal borders were being set up but most people did not give them much attention. Is it even boundary crossing if the actor isn’t aware there’s a boundary? We also need to remember that confession was just one part of an identity: one had a vocation, a clan, a language, and a mode of life. Crossing a boundary is not exclusively in ignorance, but probably privileging one of the other aspects of their identity. pp. 85-110

Contested Truths

“We have just seen one of the most common ways in which people dealt with doctrinal difference in the post-Chalcedonian world: they didn’t.” p. 111

But the other option was disputation, and there was a lot of it. These texts seemt to have moved fluidly between Greek and Syriac, and many prominent “Syriac” writers into the 8th c. worked in both even if the Greek texts are no longer extant. Every group develops its own confessional champions who debate and never lose. pp. 111-123

Presumably there were many encounters that led to dispute by those who were not super-learned but still theologically interested, but we only have hints of this. We see it in letters and questions sent to church leaders, but what were the tools they had to address such inquiries? pp. 123-33

Power in Heaven and on Earth

The most powerful tool church leaders had was the sacraments. They were “the most powerful too for community formation” and united simple and learned. However, they became detached from doctrine, and people were more concerned about having the sacraments than the confession that gave them. pp. 134-5

Canons: should be viewed as responses to normal practices. p. 135

Belief in power of the Eucharist was extensive, and was well beyond canonical guidelines. As gatekeepers of the holy, the elite had power over this. But exercising that power meant excommunication, and that needed priests who agreed with the doctrinal views. Managing this in an agrarian, rural world was very hard. Confessionally-aware priests were needed to form a distinct Christian community. pp. 135-59

Competition, Schools, and Qenneshre

Competition: plenty of causes, especially under Islam of petitioning local authorities to support one church or another. pp. 161-7

From the late 6th c. there’s an “educational arms race” between churches. Education made those attending it more doctrinally ware. Qenneshre trained a lot of 6-8th c. patriarchs of Antioch, and they are explicitly stated to have studied Greek there. The Miaphysites had to develop institutions like Qenneshre in face of competition because the competition outlasted them: Roman state backed Chalcedonians or the much larger Church of the East. pp. 167-80

Education and Community Foundation

“What were the nuts and bolts of Christian education in the past-Chalcedonian Middle East?” Boys were sent sometimes between 7-15 years old to some sort of local institution before further training at a monastery. pp. 181-5

Bar Hebraeus has a list of works to be read. Most of those that had Greek originals are associated with translations at Qenneshre in the 7th c. pp. 186-92

Continuities - Personal and Institutional

Syriac education and culture “is a non-state dependent” between Roman late antiquity and Baghdad. pp. 201-2

Unbroken line of Miaphysite scholars extending from late 5th c. into the late Umayyad period, all associated with Qenneshre. It as destroyed ca. 811. pp. 202-7

Elite scholars were notably book-hungry and not too concerned about where those books came from, confessionally. pp. 207-215

Edessa seems to have remained bilingual well into the 8th c. p. 218

Classical texts mostly know second or third hand. Philosophers are now monks. Athens and Jerusalem were one. pp. 219-21

What happens with the arrival of Islam, a religion which critiques Christian doctrines that simple believers did not understand? p. 221

A House with Many Mansions

To discuss Christian-Muslim relations, we first need to define the terms. “Christianity” encompassed far more than what the theologians discussed; comparatively, in 17th c. Germany, despite religion fervor and the printing press, outside of elite circles no one had a clue about the faith. All sorts of magical practices were common, even amongst the clergy. The line between holy man and sorcerer was vague. A lack of clerical manpower in the countryside added to the issue: Miaphysite clergy might to Chalcedonian funerals, eg. simply because there was no one else. Even in areas that had strong Christian histories, people had no idea at all, even if their beliefs and practices “drew upon Christian symbolic resources.” (244) Of course, being literate can also lead to erroneous belief. pp. 225-46

If orthodoxy is a fine musical piece only attained by the super-elite, then we have to recognize that many never even tried to play. pp. 249-50, 256

When we get a discussion of aberrant Christian practice in the Quran, we should look to local beliefs, not try to find some reference to an earlier sect holding a similar belief. pp. 251-4
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Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
A Religion with a Thousand Faces

What is Islam in this context? Most had little detailed knowledge of Mohammad’s message. Knowledge was also layered, but the thrust here is that the competing orthodoxies had yet to define themselves. pp. 280-1

Very little “road to Damascus” sort of conversion in very early Islam - mostly tribes converted together, or it was a political conversion against the Quraysh. There were a lot of other prophets, so the understanding of the message was probably shallow. A large number of the early Muslim elite were Meccan elite, despite having fought against Mohammad. pp. 262-72

Plenty of evidence for Muslims not knowing much about Islam and engaging in all sorts of practices. Also plenty of drinking. Most of these people probably had little idea about the details of Islam, especially if part of group conversions. Layering of knowledge applies here, too. pp. 272-87

There are parts of the Quran that medieval Muslim scholars could only conjecture about, suggesting a break between its formation and discussion by Muslim elites. The early elites who converted to Islam mostly didn’t come for the moral or religious teachings. pp. 295-301

Where scholars have seen a late 7th c. “emergence of Islam” there is really just an increasing official use of Mohammad’s name by the Umayyads, possibly due to rebellion and critique by other Muslims. pp. 303-5

Notable that Syriac sources see the conquests as Arab, not Muslim. p. 307

Joining (and leaving) a Muslim Minority

Why would a single Christian decide to convert? Did doctrine matter? When did the Christian majority cease to be? pp. 310-11

Both Christians and Muslims were critical of people who converted for anything other than religious reasons, which no one did, it seems, at least in their own views. But conversion was usually politically and socially a step up, which may explain some of the resentment. Slaves and women might also explain some of the conversion: if they convert they can escape unhappy or forced relationships. pp. 311-18

Jizya was a big reason for conversion. Perhaps reduced one’s tax burden by 1/3 - 1/2, which seems to have been a lot for most people. pp. 320-32

Plenty of evidence for converts to Islam who wanted to come back. pp. 332-7

Quite possible Christians were a majority up to the Mamluk period. Evidence is poor, however. pp. 340-8

Muslim Q and A literature referring to fighting in Armenia ca. 78. p. 351

Conversion and the Simple

Muslim-Christian encounters are usually framed as doctrinal, but how does this change when we factor in illiterate, agrarian, non-theologically-sophisticated populations? pp. 353-5

For many, religion was a matter of symbols, and symbols charged points as boundaries went up. But of course one can be Muslim while using Christian symbols in one’s daily life. pp. 355-64

Holy men like Theodore of Amida appealed to all, but he also created problems in upsetting the garrison in Amid for sending a letter to Byzantium. pp. 365-8

Muslims saw power in things like the cross, baptism, and the Eucharist and wanted to partake, even if they did not know what they were doing and so insulted Christians. Christians could also be confused: some thought the Dome of the Rock was a church. pp. 368-86

Mosque in the Shadow of the Church

How did Muslims cope with being the junior religion in a region with an entrenched and sophisticated Christianity? p. 400

Some efforts to keep Muslims distinct, and concerns about getting swallowed up are evident. pp. 411-19

Muslim kalam is not new; aporetic questions from Christian theological intervention. pp. 42102

In short, large numbers of pre-Islamic things that became Islamic. pp. 421-8

Rubbing Shoulders

Garrison cities probably filled with Christians. Inter-faith marriage led to lots of mixing, and Christian women in Islamic households brought a lot of non- and pre-Islamic practices into Islam. pp. 432-56

Christians might join Muslims on raids. p. 460

Muslims discussed things with monks. Some were impressed with asceticism. Monasteries were also places to get wine, and big parties happened on major feast days. pp. 461-73

Prisoners were a source of information and there seems to have been a lot of them. Michael Rabo suggested there were so many Byzantine prisoners in Syria that Monothelitism came to have a large following. The number of elite captives, especially in Persia, where their descendents went on to important positions in the polity is notable. pp. 477-90
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Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
Western Eurasia
Thank you Kirialax for the summary, the subject sounds interesting. I trust your book recommendation, so obtained it and added to my reading list (the queue is long, but I hope I'll time for it soon).