The Making of the Medieval Middle East by Jack Tannous

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Reviewed by Ian Lipke

In the second half of the first millennium in the medieval Middle East, the Christian population held a decided majority in terms of population numbers and continued to do so into the era of the Crusades. Yet Christian communities broke apart over theological disagreements. Tannous set out to find what it meant in the late Roman and medieval worlds for people with no or little education to belong to a Church whose identity was articulated through councils that created creeds using sophisticated theological concepts, not known and not understood by them. His second goal in writing his book is to establish how the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity and eventually a large Christian region became an area where Christianity had virtually disappeared. Thinking about de-Christianizing, apostasy, conversion, and Islamization led Tannous to the realisation that current knowledge was gleaned from those people of the past who had a voice. In turn this asked him to write what ordinary agrarian dwellers, seemingly invisible to history, might have made of, or contributed to, these disputes among Christian church followers.

The identification of suitable source materials was always going to be crucial in a book such as this. It was no surprise that five hundred odd pages of this 650 page book is spent on text and argument, while close to one hundred and fifty pages are allocated to both primary and secondary sources, plus the usual acknowledgments, permissions and index. There are additional pages devoted to preface and table of contents and introduction reducing argument to about 495 pages. I consider this to be long enough to allow the author to identify, create and defend his central thesis. I have taken the time to browse through the peripheral material which I find very well presented and argued. The standard of scholarship seems high.

The Making of the Medieval Middle East has its origin in the author’s discomfort with many accounts of the cultural history of the period between the Council of Chalcedon (451C.E.) and the Crusades which seem elitist and exclusionary. Tannous makes the charge that colleges teach that the history of the medieval Middle East is a history of the politically-dominant Muslim demographic minority that ruled over the region. Tannous considers such a view untenable, even misleading. By maintaining that Middle Eastern history is a sectarian one we distort how people both in the West and in the Middle East view the region’s religious past. The secular view has consequences for the way Christian communities in the area are seen (or remain below notice). “What if the amount of medieval literature that we possess from one group as opposed to another is a function of their relative political dominance and wealth (both in the period and, even more importantly, after it) rather than demographic heft” (494)?

Still on the previous point Tannous asks what happened to the people living in the medieval Middle East who did not flee with the Emperor Heraclius, and who did not convert to Islam or begin to speak Arabic as soon as they found themselves under Arab control? Eastern Christian and Christian Arabic studies have pursued a theologically parallel universe that overlooks these invisible people. Treating Islam as a late antique phenomenon has become simply standard scholarly practice. When thinking about the world the Arab conquests created, the experience of a great deal of the regions’ population is relegated to only a very minor part in telling the region’s story. What happens to our understanding of the religious landscape, Tannous asks, if we put simple, ordinary Christians at the centre of our story rather than the political or religious elite?

The point Tannous makes is that scholars have bought into the notion that the study of the past should be the study of the politically powerful. “We miss the fundamental reality that differing levels of understanding, knowledge, and awareness exist in religious communities” (500). If we take seriously the layering of knowledge in religious communities, both Christian or Muslim, what would be the consequences? He goes on to place his thesis before his readers i.e. “in looking at the relationships between the groups that historians usually focus on and the groups they do not – how the simple related to the learned, how simple Christians became simple Muslims, how learned Muslims related to simple Christians and to Muslims who were descended from simple Christians, and so on – that we gain a more textured perspective on late antique and medieval Christianity and Islam and learn to see them in a new light” (501). While the thesis is multi-textured its understanding is helped immensely by an introduction that details chapter by chapter, part by part exactly what Tannous will be arguing as the book unfolds. Such clear directions are a help to readers.

From what has been said it is realistic to warn, as Tannous does on page 5, that Islamic-Christian interactions of today should not be transferred backwards through time and applied to the medieval Middle East. In these early centuries it is quite feasible to argue that a convert to Islam could still retain his former Christian ways and beliefs. It was a very different world from the one we live in.

This is a tightly-argued, erudite book that takes a simple concept and analyses it with the result that readers feel bemused that they had not picked up on these important ideas before. A major strength is the really huge amount of research that has been sifted to reach the outcome. Tannous lists an enormous number of primary sources classified as manuscripts, texts and translations, collections and other, followed by many pages of secondary materials. It has been a momentous undertaking.

Writers, like Tannous, are rather scarce. It was a pleasure to read an erudite book presented with a clear map from beginning to end.

The Making of the Medieval Middle East


By Jack Tannous

Princeton University Press

ISBN: 978-0-691-17909-4

664pp; $85.00
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