Jack Tannous, 2018, The Making of the Medieval Middle East: religion, society and simple believers

Publisher’s Synopsis

A bold new religious history of the late antique and medieval Middle East by Jack Tannous, assistant professor of history at Princeton University, places ordinary Christians at the center of the story.

 In the second half of the first millennium CE, the Christian Middle East fractured irreparably into competing churches and Arabs conquered the region, setting in motion a process that would lead to its eventual conversion to Islam. Jack Tannous argues that key to understanding these dramatic religious transformations are ordinary religious believers, often called “the simple” in late antique and medieval sources. Largely agrarian and illiterate, these Christians outnumbered Muslims well into the era of the Crusades, and yet they have typically been invisible in our understanding of the Middle East’s history.

 What did it mean for Christian communities to break apart over theological disagreements that most people could not understand? How does our view of the rise of Islam change if we take seriously the fact that Muslims remained a demographic minority for much of the Middle Ages? In addressing these and other questions, Tannous provides a sweeping reinterpretation of the religious history of the medieval Middle East.

 This provocative book draws on a wealth of Greek, Syriac, and Arabic sources to recast these conquered lands as largely Christian ones whose growing Muslim populations are properly understood as converting away from and in competition with the non-Muslim communities around them.

Review

By Dr Martin Whittingham, Director of the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies, Oxford

JACK TANNOUS, 2018, THE MAKING OF THE MEDIEVAL MIDDLE EAST: RELIGION, SOCIETY AND SIMPLE BELIEVERS, PRINCETON: PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS, XIV + 647PP, HD £34, ISBN 9780691179094

Although the title does not make this obvious, this book is centrally concerned with early Christian-Muslim relations in the area of Greater Syria, covering modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and Jordan. It is a major study which helps to clarify our understanding of this period and geographical area, albeit in unusual ways. Rather than focussing on debates about doctrine between elite theologians, Tannous instead explores the beliefs of what he terms ‘simple believers’. More on these believers – who are not treated patronisingly in this book – in a moment. The two questions which drove the book into being are first, what did it mean to belong to the church in this period? Secondly, how did what we now call the Middle East go from being mainly Christian to mainly Muslim? As Tannous comments, in order to understand the world the Arab conquests created, it is necessary to understand the world they found. In other words, these questions centre on the lives of the ordinary Christians who ended up gradually converting in large numbers to Islam.

The work is divided into four parts. Part I is a discussion of ‘Simple Belief’, setting out Tannous’ vision of how to approach religious communities in history, and the need to look at the presence of monasteries, attendance at festivals, use of buildings, and a myriad other everyday instances of interfaith interaction. Part 2, ‘Consequences of Chalcedon’, sets out the situations of many early Christian churches in the region, and sheds valuable light on what can seem a forbidding and inaccessible field to the non-specialist. How much do most of us know about Jacob of Edessa or the monks of the bilingual monastery of Qenneshre? Tannous offers a guide through this terrain. If you have an appetite for his hundreds of detailed footnotes, all the better, but this book has the merit of maintaining a clear, engaging main text, even while the footnotes provide relentless bibliography for the truly curious. After an ‘Interlude’ discussing the continuity of learning during various political upheavals, Part 3, entitled ‘Christians and Muslims’, the real heart of the book, looks at conversion into and out of Islam. This focusses on how people co-existed in various situations, and how far such converts were really conscious of making a major shift in their religious allegiance if they did not fully understand the key points of theological difference. Part 4, ‘The Making of the Medieval Middle East’ includes a final chapter surveying different types of interaction, from the grim issue of enslavement to the happier situations of marriage and family.

 So what does Tannous mean by ‘simple believers’? The author argues that relatively few people would have had the opportunity to become literate, and/or theologically literate, at this time, and were likely not concerned with the details of either faith which they followed. They worked out their lives of faith primarily through attachments to the rites and symbols of their community. Tannous explores this situation by delving into sources presenting the questions posed by local church leaders to their bishop, or works of canon law which address real, practical situations. Likewise, works of Islamic law can give insight into situations faced by early Muslims. For example, there is considerable discussion of the permissibility of attending funerals of a relative from the other faith, how to limit reliance on divination, examples of Christian polygamy and so on.

In all this Tannous draws attention to often forgotten aspects of studying early ‘Muslim’ history. In particular, he highlights that for the first two or three centuries at least after the rise of Islam, Muslims were a small minority surrounded by a much greater majority of Christians, Jews and others.  Tannous memorably calls this large non-Muslim majority the ‘dark matter’ in the region. In a metaphor drawn from astrophysics, he stresses that this dark matter (the non-Muslim majority) is often invisible to historians and other analysts, yet exerts an enormously powerful influence on those parts of the cosmos (or here, the Muslim minority) which are visible.

In his emphasis on the importance of exploring the social history of the period, and the messy and complex relations which developed on the ground, Tannous sometimes diminishes the importance of actual beliefs and doctrines. He argues that most believers were entirely unequipped (through no fault of their own) to be thinking about the disagreements over the Trinity or other differences between the Islam and Christianity of the elite. This is doubtless the case, but it does not follow that what a faith teaches is without importance, and that all that matters is what people experienced in their daily interactions. But even given that reservation, this is a remarkable book which deserves to be very widely read.For a large hardback volume it is also commendably inexpensive.