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In Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity, Thomas Sizgorich seeks to understand why and how violent expressions of religious devotion became central to the self-understandings of both Christian and Muslim communities between the fourth and ninth centuries. Sizgorich argues that the cultivation of violent martyrdom as a path to holiness was in no way particular to Islam; rat In Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity, Thomas Sizgorich seeks to understand why and how violent expressions of religious devotion became central to the self-understandings of both Christian and Muslim communities between the fourth and ninth centuries. Sizgorich argues that the cultivation of violent martyrdom as a path to holiness was in no way particular to Islam; rather, it emerged from a matrix put into place by the Christians of late antiquity. Paying close attention to the role of memory and narrative in the formation of individual and communal selves, Sizgorich identifies a common pool of late ancient narrative forms upon which both Christian and Muslim communities drew. In the process of recollecting the past, Sizgorich explains, Christian and Muslim communities alike elaborated iterations of Christianity or Islam that demanded of each believer a willingness to endure or inflict violence on God's behalf and thereby created militant local pieties that claimed to represent the one "real" Christianity or the only "pure" form of Islam. These militant communities used a shared system of signs, symbols, and stories, stories in which the faithful manifested their purity in conflict with the imperial powers of the world.


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In Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity, Thomas Sizgorich seeks to understand why and how violent expressions of religious devotion became central to the self-understandings of both Christian and Muslim communities between the fourth and ninth centuries. Sizgorich argues that the cultivation of violent martyrdom as a path to holiness was in no way particular to Islam; rat In Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity, Thomas Sizgorich seeks to understand why and how violent expressions of religious devotion became central to the self-understandings of both Christian and Muslim communities between the fourth and ninth centuries. Sizgorich argues that the cultivation of violent martyrdom as a path to holiness was in no way particular to Islam; rather, it emerged from a matrix put into place by the Christians of late antiquity. Paying close attention to the role of memory and narrative in the formation of individual and communal selves, Sizgorich identifies a common pool of late ancient narrative forms upon which both Christian and Muslim communities drew. In the process of recollecting the past, Sizgorich explains, Christian and Muslim communities alike elaborated iterations of Christianity or Islam that demanded of each believer a willingness to endure or inflict violence on God's behalf and thereby created militant local pieties that claimed to represent the one "real" Christianity or the only "pure" form of Islam. These militant communities used a shared system of signs, symbols, and stories, stories in which the faithful manifested their purity in conflict with the imperial powers of the world.

37 review for Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam

  1. 5 out of 5

    A.J. Deus

    Offensive blabber In the first paragraphs, the author advocated Drake’s thesis that ‘attributing intolerant acts committed by individual Christians, or even whole Christian communities to some essential Christian intolerance not only fails to account for such instances of intolerance historically, but also represents a serious breach of analytical logic.’ Further, he seconded Drake again in the ‘fact’ that Christianity is not essentially intolerant. Yet, the book deals in the remaining 250 pages Offensive blabber In the first paragraphs, the author advocated Drake’s thesis that ‘attributing intolerant acts committed by individual Christians, or even whole Christian communities to some essential Christian intolerance not only fails to account for such instances of intolerance historically, but also represents a serious breach of analytical logic.’ Further, he seconded Drake again in the ‘fact’ that Christianity is not essentially intolerant. Yet, the book deals in the remaining 250 pages with the exclusion mechanisms of Christianity and Islam, which the author called community boundaries. These precincts formed the foundation for violence against the ‘other’, the heretic and the non-believer. The author also highlighted the fundamentally militant nature of early Christianity and early Islam. Would Sizgorich not personally have believed in the peaceful nature of his religion, he would perhaps have recognized that his narrative carved out the exact opposite of Drake’s thesis. Instead, the book exposes for the critical reader just how dangerous the leaders of organized religions are. His often apologetic stance is rather painful, in particular when he suggested to sanction militancy as being part of a ‘violent’ society. The author did not chose just any individuals but the intellectual ringleaders of the violence, priests, bishops, top scholars, etc. To be as straight forward as possible: those that blindly obey their leaders acquire collective responsibility. This accounts alike for mindless followers of the scriptures around Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, or the policies of Hitler. This contrast is only intended to show that whether religious or political beliefs form the fundament for inexcusable militancy makes no difference. The followers and drifters cannot just wash their hands in innocence by pointing at their leaders as individuals gone rogue. The latter are the mirrors of the communities and ARE thus the communities that they represent and that follow them. Neither Judaism, nor Christianity, or Islam are peaceful (except among their own) but intolerant and militant by nature. As a researcher of religious terrorism (and author of directly related books and articles), I can state that the Judaic religions are not only militant against foreign beliefs but preferably against ‘heretical’ sects within their own ‘monotheist’ belief systems. In other words, in light of the continued sectarian violence in Christianity and Islam (ISIS is a point in case), it is absurd to put the responsibility on individuals rather than the Christian/Muslim body as a whole. I strongly suggest to pick up a copy of ‘The Jewish Messiahs’ by Lenowitz. Readers will soon realize that they are looking into the eye of evil in the Judaic religions. Their militancy starts at the outset of the books of Moses and finds an uninterrupted string of religious violence and war up until today. Jews against Jews, Christians against Christians, Muslims against Muslims and all over again in any combination thereof. This inter-sectarian dimension found no treatment in Sizgorich’s study. For the sake of holding protests back, it shall be reminded here that the Christian truth is determined to bring about a New Jerusalem. For this to be achieved, they have to meet their enemies in Armageddon in a final and total war that brings about the End of the World. That is just how peaceful they are. After reading the entirety of this work, one should naturally come to the conclusion that support of religious professionals of any kind should be treated akin to supporting terrorism. Those that care for the positive advancement of humanity cannot accept religious teachings as academic disciplines, and cannot give them political or scholarly space. Too great is their power to subvert and destroy entire civilizations for their one goal of dominating the world with their truths. Sizgorich’s view that Christianity was not intolerant toward Judaism at that time shows that he is unfamiliar with the fineries of Jewish (whatever that was at the time) and Christian evolution. The official texts do not provide many clues about what really happened. However, the fact that Christians and Jews still greatly intermingled under Chrysostom tells us that the separation of the two religions has not been completed at this time. This Christian process of emancipation can only be verified from around 250 AD, and it accelerated from Constantine the Great. At that time, religious freedom may have provided for the economic incentive to separate and collect ‘alms’, i.e. tax their members in distinct organizational bodies. The author does not seem to have taken into consideration that the Christians might have been faced with new doctrines by Chrysostom that they had to swallow, some of which were the segregation from the Jews, the separation from another Christian truth (the Arian religion of the Goths who presented at this time the biggest threat to the empire), and the decisions of a ‘council’ that may have uprooted some of the core beliefs of the community. Was Chrysostom usurping an Arian community like Ambrose did in Milan? The author seems to view it all as one, which thus disables the non-expert reader from learning what was really going on. For example, Chrysostom portrays the Jews as murderers of Jesus, but then Islam has no notion of this holy man having been crucified or delivered by the Jews despite the Koran’s express recognition of Jesus as the Messiah. Thus, if the author had wanted to talk intelligently about this preacher, he would have needed a better grasp of what Chrysostom meant and how he distinguished himself from those Christians, Jews, or Judeo-Christians on the path to Islam. We do not just want to know who went to battle but also why. In addition, early Christians were unfamiliar with the scriptures. Books were as unaffordable as luxury cars, and many could not read. We do not know how much of the core teachings the Christians actually understood at the time, but one can take from Chrysostom’s texts that a great deal of the following was impressed by fear and superstition rather than by the fineries of a book that they could not read (the difference to modernity is rather subtle). Likewise, Sizgorich himself did not seem to understand the symbolism of many of the preacher’s texts, much of which would have been vulgar vocabulary of the disciples at the time. The author seems to also pick and choose in order to make a case of generally peaceful Christian communities. For example, as a foundation of his theory, he freely selected texts from Eusebius, a writer that is generally accepted as a fraudster. If the evidence of the case is invalidated, then his argument is futile. He also mixes texts from a wide array of geographical origins and fuses them into one. The source of a problem in Constantinople was perhaps not the same as the one in Rome. The same confusion happens in the text with the timeline. There is a focus on the end of the fourth century, only to jump to the sixth. Without a systematic analysis over time, there is not much that the reader can take home from this work. Sizgorich is so hell-bent on proving his case that he even misreads his own texts or adds comments in brackets that are simply false and significantly alter the original meaning of the evidence. If researchers do not understand what a writer is trying to say, fillers cannot simply be added according to preference. For example, there is no evidence at all of imperial persecutions in Rome, but the author reads this into Damasus’ bloodbath that was clearly sectarian. Augustine is another problematic text. The author does not seem to have realized that Augustine had converted from Manicheanism to Christianity. We know that Manicheanism was strong in Rome during the third century. However, its Roman trail suddenly brakes off when Christianity appears in the ‘official’ history books. This is simply not how religion works. Thus, there is reason to suspect that Augustine and the Manicheans may have been ‘assimilated.’ The processes of religious substitution are slow and painful over extended periods of time, sometimes over centuries of warfare. In all this, the author was so obsessed with explaining away reality that he often forgot to actually talk about the enduring violence that had been subversively suggested or sanctioned by the communal leaders. A glance at the modern Middle East should tell us moderns that Sizgorich’s ‘individuals’ have multiplied many-thousand fold. Instead, the author could have shown the shaping of changing norms and beliefs and trace the actual violence that accompanied it. Why would Chrysostom establish communal boundaries 400 years after they should have long been established by Jesus and his direct apostles? He should have shown how Christianity was the persecutor during Late Antiquity under Justinian and Heraclius, for example, and the religio-political reasons for it. It is exactly the period in the focus of Sizgorich that brings forth the strongest anti-thesis to his case. But the author made no attempts to separate the sectarians or to place anything into historic reality. Why then treat the topic? When it comes to Islam, the author asserted that Muhammad was first recognized by Christian monks. Whatever the significance of this statement, it is insofar false that not a single writer – not one, inside or outside of the ‘Muslim’ community – and not even one lone piece of evidence attests to Muhammad during his lifetime. The author can thus not make a case that Christians asserted the ‘authenticity’ of Muhammad first. And again, by employing militant ascetics as a foundation of the Muslim communal boundaries, Sizgorich disproved his own theory of rogue individuals, which he projected into Islam. The Muslim story is particularly uncertain in such an academic work since the traditions rest on very late inventions. These depicted their own foundation heroes as sort of good thieves, not unlike Robin Hood, idealized romanticized outlaws, just as dangerous as modern biker gangs. Who does not want to be the bad boy that gets the hot chicks, like the raider Muhammad who scored a girl 40 years his minor? It beats me why researchers across the world fall for such primitive nonsense, which is so obvious that children would laugh their heads off. Modern academia has not the slightest idea which traditions might be historic and which were simply made up. For those unfamiliar with those texts, they pretend great-grand-children to remember such mundane details as how one of the Muslim leaders had cleaned his hands after having let water. I do not even remember what my mother said last Christmas! Of the more significant pieces, they contain the will of Muhammad as uttered in his last sermon. The problem is that there are multiple versions, each of which grants the inheritance of the Muslim leadership to a different group, laying the foundation over which Muslims kill each other still today. Other than that, the variations have absolutely no common denominator, attesting to their inventive nature. Nevertheless, the author shows no shame to present his high-flying arguments on these legends, which clashes with reality as a mere intellectual exercise without academic merit whatsoever. Perhaps the mechanism of academia is that all opinions are welcome as long as they do not collide with the peaceful nature of their consensus. It is little wonder that the history of religion is in such a sorry state. Sizgorich also overcomplicated things. If we should have learned anything by now, then it is that humanity does not typically make its decisions rationally, based on scientific facts, but emotionally, with simple ‘truths’. Complex explanations always miss the target because we are much simpler than we want to admit. What makes us seemingly complex are the differences in ‘truths’ that hone each other out into a seemingly ‘rational’ outcome. Inside the communal boundaries of religious sects, human behavior is actually quite predictable. Because of their ‘eternal’ and intolerant beliefs and scriptures, they are by magnitudes more dangerous than political ‘truths’. The latter typically rest on at least some degree of compromise. In the end, the reader learns little why belief and violence (the topic of the book!) dotted the landscape in Late Antiquity. Instead, the author strayed off into the forming of boundaries in social or religious groups, but he misses the main topic almost entirely. The scriptural foundation of militancy is completely absent. Not talking about the actual beliefs is a huge shortcoming for students that want to understand where religious militancy finds its roots. The author saw the affinities between stories, and he recognized their similar structures. But he did not see that they were altogether made up for the purpose of frightening a superstitious community open to be shocked and awed by tales of miracles and supernatural occurrences. To put sectarian violence in its place, Christianity (or Judaism or Islam) did not spread by its disciples having silently prayed to their walls at home. Thus, to take their stories as ‘histories’ is naïve. Having said all this, if the reader can put these issues aside and read between the garbage, then Sizgorich’s book contains some valuables. This is in particular true where he meticulously carves out the foundation stories of Christian communities as being based on martyrs that would mimic the Jesus story and acted as the ‘founders’ of each of these communities. Hence, violence or counter-violence in the name of defending the ‘truth’ is part of the communal role models. Never mind that all these martyrs cannot, of course, be verified, because their stories had been injected into the distant and forgotten past that was ‘unburied’ when convenient. It is also interesting how the author carves out a red thread of militant ascetics for the early VISIBLE forms of Christianity and Islam. Yet, the author forgot to ask some pointed questions: if the behavior of Christian and Muslim ascetics was literally the same, who were they? What were their other common denominators? Who were their ringleaders? Instead, perhaps because of the strong bias of the underlying theory of peaceful passivism, Sizgorich drives blind through an exciting landscape of religious militancy. The book is also good at demonstrating the mechanism of building community boundaries by the spiritual leaders of any given time. These findings may help in the understanding of the formation of some of the religious exclusion mechanisms. Moreover, the Muslim role models of the daytime warriors that turned monks at night is educational. Do monasteries perhaps look like fortresses because they actually formed the militant hideouts for ‘monastic’ warriors of the Judaic sects? Were the early monks necessarily Christian or could they already have existed as Zealots or Essenes, for example? For those that are interested in the just outlined narrow expert questions, the book may be worth the pain. All others learn more about violence in the context of beliefs from Mel Gibson’s graphic screen magic.

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