Christian Martyrs Under Islam: Religious Violence and the Making of the Muslim World
by Christian C. Sahner.
Princeton University Press, 2018.
Hardcover, 360 pages, $39.

Reviewed by Jane Peters

On February 15, 2018 in the village of al-Our, the Coptic Orthodox Church dedicated a new church to the twenty-one martyrs of Libya, many of whom hailed from this predominantly Muslim village south of Cairo. Exactly three years prior, the Islamic State had released an internet video of the men—itinerant construction workers—clad in orange jumpsuits, kneeling along the Libyan seashore, and praying to Jesus as masked jihadists beheaded them.

Today in France, the beatification process for Fr. Jacques Hamel is underway. His portrait hangs in the church of St. Étienne de Rouvray, where two men pledging allegiance to the Islamic State slit the eighty-five-year-old’s throat during Mass in 2016. And on December 8th of this year, the Trappist monks of the monastery of Tibhirine, whose mysterious kidnapping was commemorated in the film Des Hommes et des Dieux, will be beatified in Oran, Algeria.

These events constitute a collective modern consciousness of Christian martyrdom, and it may be tempting to conflate the fledgling hagiographies of the Libyan Martyrs, Fr. Hamel, and the Trappists with Christian Sahner’s project in Christian Martyrs Under Islam. Or martyrdom may conjure images of early Christian witnesses such as Polycarp, whose body baked like bread, rather than burned, when he was set upon a pyre, or Perpetua, who, like a valiant gladiator, steadied a soldier’s trembling hand as he drew a knife across her throat. But Sahner is concerned with accounts of Christian martyrdom that emerged in a much different milieu, and his reader must set aside both contemporary and pre-Constantinian frameworks to appreciate his work, the first comprehensive history of Christian martyrdom in the seventh to ninth centuries, during the rise of Islam. During the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, the decisive creep of Islamic rule into Byzantine territories produced an uneasy peace between a minority of Muslim rulers and their numerous Christian subjects. Early caliphs were “heirs to the Constantinian revolution,” and thus able to exercise state-sanctioned—and at times violent—regulation of religious practice in their realms. Yet this religious violence took place mostly against a backdrop of peaceful Islamic rule: it seems winning converts was never as much a priority as stable governance.

Sahner classifies several dozen martyrdom accounts into two broad groups of “convert martyrs”: Christian converts to Islam who reverted to Christianity, and Muslim converts to Christianity. Both types of martyrs were executed as apostates according to Islamic law, suggesting that such religious violence was not erratic, but carefully coordinated in order to establish the authority of the Islamic state in newly conquered territories. Sahner catalogues the complex circumstances—such as slavery, religiously mixed family, social and economic intermingling, and even miraculous experiences—that facilitated a fatal reversion to Christianity. We meet, for example, George the Black, who was born a Christian but converted after being captured and enslaved by Muslims. He secretly became a Christian once more, and hid his faith, until one day, he was betrayed by a fellow slave. When George refused to pray with his Muslim master, he was cut in half.

Because conversion to Islam required very little formal action, several of the martyrs’ stories involve what Sahner calls “contingent conversion,” in which non-sacramental signs such as government records, economic activity, participation in the military, or even socializing gave the impression—perhaps accurate, perhaps not—that a Christian had become a Muslim. The story of Elias of Helioupolis is one such conversion story. At a birthday party, during a bout of drunken dancing, a Muslim guest removed Elias’s zunnar, a belt and public symbol of Christian faith. Though Elias eventually replaced the belt, the ambiguity of the circumstances led to his execution. Another martyr, Cyrus of Harran, was accused of converting to Islam and then reverting to Christianity after participating in an intra-Muslim military conflict; the author of his martyrology portrays this as a false accusation on the part of enemies who wanted to get him in legal trouble. Cyrus attempted to formally establish his Christian identity by registering for the jizya, a tax imposed on non-Muslims, but a Muslim judge refused the registration. He was thrown into prison and eventually executed. The authors of these martyr stories, according to Sahner, want to communicate that assimilation to Islamic culture is physically and spiritually perilous. Such a message would be necessary in societies where Christians and Muslims intermingled: interacting in marketplaces, training together for battle, and even marrying.

Conversion from Islam to Christianity was much rarer, since it had little material or social benefit, and the punishment for apostasy was death. Yet the many Islamic laws designed to prevent it, as well as the Christian practices in place to facilitate it, indicate that it did happen. This suggests that while the Islamisation of the greater Middle East was broadly successful, it was not an inevitable outcome of Islamic rule, and in some places could be a fragile and contested process. In spite of this, the conversion stories of high-ranking Muslim officials, such as the caliph instructed by Theodore of Edessa, are probably fictional. There is no other historical evidence of such conversions taking place. For Sahner, these conversion “legends” reflect an author’s desire to “establish the truth and prestige of Christianity in worlds in which the church was not on top,” and an eschatological hope to see pagan society transformed by the conversion of its ruler.

Sahner also notes the complexity of the characters involved in martyr stories. While the appearance of high-ranking Muslim authorities in the stories indicates that the crime of apostasy was taken seriously, many Muslim jurists are ambivalent, even initially oblivious to the apostasy. The primary antagonists are those who betrayed the martyr to the authorities, often “Christ-hating apostates” the author likens to Judas. George the Black was betrayed to his master by such an apostate. Family, friends, and business partners play the betrayer in other stories, and flaccid priests refuse to baptize Muslims for fear of being arrested. The mostly monastic authors of the martyrologies, then, were not only using the stories to draw boundaries between Christians and Muslims, but also between faithful Christians who resisted Islam, and unfaithful ones, “acquiescent to the changes sweeping through the religion and open to embracing the religion of the conquerors.”

A third group of texts consists of those martyrs convicted of blasphemy. Blasphemy consisted not of a private objection to Islam or even participation in interreligious debates—Christians were largely permitted to practice their faith—but of persistent public ridicule of Islam or the Prophet. Sahner sees, in these stories, a form of social and theological protest that emerged wherever Muslims and Christians lived in close proximity. Christians rejected the political, cultural, and religious assimilation that was taking place in their cities and sought firm delineation by parrhesia, a bold speech that rejected the fundamentals of Islam. Laws against blasphemy took longer to develop than laws regarding apostasy, so blasphemy was probably a later phenomenon, perhaps due to the maturation of theological reflection on the differences between Christianity and Islam, perhaps due to the increasingly permeable membrane between Christian and Islamic cultures.

Finally, it must be said that martyrologies are a tricky genre, containing historical fact and fiction in a manner not unlike American tall tales. Sahner admirably bridges the “chasm between record and representation” present in any martyr text. He appeals to historical sources on Islamic execution practices to analyze the motif of burning martyrs’ bodies, for example, and cites Islamic records for accounts that could corroborate the timeline or details of a martyr’s hagiography.

Yet he also respects elements of the text others may dismiss as merely fanciful or pious. When he takes the hagiographers at their word regarding dubious timelines, character profiles, shared literary motifs, or miraculous plot twists, he can explore why such features might have been important to the author and the community that preserved the story. “Hagiography,” he writes, “often offers a tantalizing, three-dimensional glimpse of real and imaginary worlds that historians would not be able to gaze at otherwise.”

Still, Sahner focuses on the social and political dimensions of the martyrology, rather than the theological content. “Conversion hinged not only on spiritual convictions,” he writes, “but also on an array of social and political factors detached from questions of high theology.” This is probably correct, given the many examples of contingent conversion Sahner presents. Yet many authors of martyrologies were monks and highly educated in the theological debates of their day. Questions about Christ’s identity, followed closely by the iconoclastic controversy, threatened the stability of the Byzantine empire just a few centuries prior. These debates produced a number of Christian sects whose divisions may have begun as matters of high theological discourse, but were concretized for the everyday faithful in liturgical celebrations. Such topics must have loomed large in the minds of the monastic authors of martyrologies, and must have already been doctrinal tools at the ready for distinguishing among Christian sects, even for laypeople.

It is not so odd, then, to think that theological priorities might have shaped a text and its transmission significantly. For example, could there be a theological reason, in additional to social reasons, that martyr stories shaped the identity of Melkite Christians—firmly adherent to Chalcedonian Christology—in a way they did not for West Syrian miaphysites, the East Syrian Nestorians, and Coptic Christians? Sahner’s excellent work in Christian Martyrs Under Islam invites theologians to take a closer look at the role recent theological controversies played in a community’s receptivity, preservation, and celebration of martyrologies.  

Jane Sloan Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Marquette University, and resides in New York City. The title of her dissertation is “Greek Patristic and Byzantine Exegesis in the Works of Thomas Aquinas, 1261–1274.”