In recent years, the study of early Islam has become quite a vibrant field, first moving towards the consensus on treating Islam as a ‘late antique’ religion and as part of the Near Eastern oecumene on matters ranging from the relationship between religion and violence to the perpetuation of monotheism (and henotheism), and then considering that the ‘standard’ narratives of the coming of imperial Islam in the region has tended to overemphasise the uniformity of the development of doctrine and practice and to marginalise the roles of non-Sunni-jamāʿī elites in that process. More even than that, a thorough double movement decolonisation of the study of early Islam is required: a critical appraisal of the sources and methods of orientalists, as well as provincialisation not just of those methods but also of the hegemonic assumptions of what constitutes (in a singular manner) the 'Islamic tradition'.
Jack Tannous’ study furthers the process of considering early Islam within its wider pluralistic late antique context by arguing for the role of ‘simple believers’, the illiterate and agrarian Christians who broadly constituted the majority of the inhabitants in the Near East for some centuries after the advent of the message of Muḥammad in the Ḥijāz. The proper development of the spread of Islam can be gauged by the slow rate of conversion and 'Islamisation'/'Arabisation'.
In the preface, Tannous tells us that the study is motivated by two questions. First, what does it mean for someone relatively illiterate and theologically uninformed to belong to a church in late antiquity, especially where confessional identity might be defined by conciliar creeds that deploy sophisticated theological concepts that are not exactly quotidian? Second, how did the Middle East become transformed from being the cradle of Christianity and a Christian space to one in which Christianity was a minority? The two questions are closely linked. One cannot understand the process of conversion purely through the prism of elite transformation and power strategies. Rather, if one wants to gauge how things may have changed one ought to consider the ‘simple believer’, however difficult it may be to establish and define. It is worth stressing that his approach is not a rather dismissive attitude to equating simple with simple-minded; rather by ‘simple’ he intends a lay category of agrarian, mostly illiterate and uninitiated into theological inquiry and debate. The culture of learned theologians – both Muslim and Christian of various confessions – tell us something about intellectual history but not much necessarily in themselves about the processes of social history. Tannous also offers another angle on the debates about Islam in the early period. He contends that if we wish to appreciate what Islam brought and changed we first need to understand what it might have meant to be a Christian and the nature of intra-Christian debate and polemic in Arabic, Syriac and Aramaic – it is those religious attitudes that need to be engaged to understand that world. That much of what was happening focused on intra-Christian debates and conflicts is already apparent from a number of the early Christian (Syriac and Greek) sources which spend much time of questions of heresy, orthodoxy and the relationship with various centres such as Constantinople.
The argument ranges over four parts, one interlude and two historiographically important appendices. Part one introduces us to the simple and the nature of the fractures between Christians in the world into which Islam emerged. Part two engages the intra-Christian debates and arguments between the council of Chalcedon in 451 (and the splits between the official imperial and dissent doctrines and the important distinction over Christology) and the emergence of Islam in the 7th century. The interlude considers some evidence for continuity through these periods into the 9th century by examining the evidence of the Syriac sources. Part three looks at what ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim’ may have meant in that period from the 7th to the 9th centuries and introduces broadly the notion of the simple Muslim believer as well in terms of the converts. It is useful that the main focus is not on the socio-political and economic benefits – and even the realisation that conversion in the early period may not have led to a sharp demarcation in doctrine and practice (some of the evidence from the Syriac writings from Qatar suggest that Church authorities were rather worried about the social and even liturgical mixing of Christians and converts).
Similarly, it is important for us not to project our contemporary notions about religion, belief and conversion to the lives of people in late antiquity. But what did conversion mean and entail? – and we have the paradox from both Muslim and Christian sources over the anxiety of overlapping beliefs and practices as well as the desire to differentiate and draw up boundaries. This is significant also in the light of the recent thesis of Fred Donner on the believers’ movement and the debate over the exact point at which ‘Islam’ becomes an exclusive and highly distinct identity – Tannous criticises that thesis in chapter 12.
It seems that one of the elements in the process that paved the way for conversion was that violence, disagreement, confessional chaos and the contestations over truth following Chalcedon made the simple believers perhaps somewhat sceptical of exclusive claims and more adaptable to holding positions and practices that may to the theologian seem to be contradictory – clearly such phenomena were visible in ‘exclusively’ Muslim contexts as well as we see especially from some of the historical and heresiographical literature. This is also a section that troubles – if belief was a spectrum, why would someone convert? And why then would someone apostasise (the subject of a recent volume by Christian Sahner)?
Tannous is correct to point out the weaknesses in the method of some who have written on conversion: for example, Bulliet’s study of genealogies and the use of ‘Muslim’ names is clearly problematic – the former can be forged and the latter – at least insofar as Arabic –adopted even when their bearers were avowedly Christian. Conversion relied about structural continuities – holy men and the realm of the sacred, and the mosque taking the place of the church. This, Tannous argues, is expressed in the anxiety in the Muslim sources about influence from Christians – the prohibitions (or not) about quoting from the Christians and their scriptures, knowledge of Syriac, of traditions and so forth. Part four focuses on the shared world and reintegrates the simple Christian believers into the social history of Islam and recovers their voices. The social interaction and everyday life – not the written theological text – seems to be the place to search for the gradual processes of transformation – multi-causal as they were.
The appendices then turn to the methodological issues of source criticism – since there is no explicit methodological preliminary to the study. Appendix II is relatively modest and argues that it is proper – if we pay attention to the Syriac sources – to refer to the conquests as ‘Arab’. Appendix I is, on the other hand, an interesting essay on the sources that may be profitable for a class on Islamic history. In the debate between the radical sceptics and the ‘gullible’, Tannous places himself somewhere in the middle suggesting that while ‘literary analysis’ (beloved of the sceptics) is a valuable tool, literary Pyrrhonism as he calls it is a dead end if one wishes to write social history. A reflective source-critical approach that engages the sources (not necessarily with a heightened hermeneutics of suspicion) is probably emerging as the consensus of the field. His case study is an element in the canons of Jacob of Edessa that he uses to shed light on the nature of the Christian sources – and then on the Islamic ones – taking into consideration the positions of Abbott, Motzki and Schoeler juxtaposing them with Goldziher and Schacht. It seems clear that he broadly concurs with the position of Schoeler. The more radical positions of Shoemaker and others are absent – but to be fair in good measure, since the function of the short appendix is to shed light on his own method and not write a monograph on Quellenkritik.
The scope of the study is 500 to 1000, so there is a sense in which it parallels and acts as a foil to Garth Fowden’s Before and After Muhammad. From the perspective of someone like Aziz al-Azmeh, his notion of Islam and ‘paleo-Islam’ and his monograph The Emergence of Islam, Tannous’ work will probably seem to be hopefully old-fashioned and orientalist no least for decentering the Arabic from our accounts of the Middle East after Islam.
But instead of locating his work within the Crone paradigm of understanding Islam beyond the Arabic sources due to the hermeneutics of suspicion, Tannous argues for something that is more in vogue among historians: connected histories, and in this case connected ‘transconfessional’ histories of the Middle East. Just as connected histories forgo the historiography of nation-state, so too should transconfessional histories dismiss the projection of the ‘millet’ system’s religious balkanisation on an earlier period of history. Non-Muslims as imperial competitors and as shared inhabitants of the world had a part to play in the formation of Islam as much as those who claimed to be from within the traditions.
Has Tannous convinced? As he suggests in the conclusion, in some ways the monograph is an experiment in what might happen if we change our assumptions about early Islam and the region prior to that and turn our attention away from the privileging of the learned culture of a few key garrison towns such as Baghdad, Kufa, Basra, Wasit and Fustat. If we assume that the conquests – and the link between religion and violence discussed by the late Thomas Sizgorich – were part of the late antique norm, and that the rise in literary and theological works in Syriac and Arabic tell us rather little about the numbers on the grounds being instead indicators of the transmission and reception of Hellenic learning, then it is perfectly plausible to consider that the majority of the Near East up until the 10th century may well have constituted simple believers who identified themselves as Christian. The social history of the region is not necessarily contiguous with the intellectual history of early and classical Islamdom. He makes a strong case for considering the simple believer – a history of early Islam from below perhaps in a connect transconfessional manner that accords with my own taste for a ‘decolonised’ approach to Islamic history. But, given his rather fluid approach to identity (which is not unreasonable), whether he explains how the region transformed and how simple Christians became Muslim is another matter.