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Dome of the Rock

How did the ancient Middle East transform from a majority-Christian world to the majority-Muslim world we know today, and what role did violence play in this process? These questions lie at the heart of Christian Martyrs under Islam: Religious Violence and the Making of the Muslim World (Princeton University Press), a new book by associate professor of Islamic history Christian C. Sahner. In a guest post for Arts Blog, Professor Sahner, from Oxford's Faculty of Oriental Studies, explores his findings. 

Although Arab armies quickly established an Islamic empire during the seventh and eighth centuries, it took far longer for an Islamic society to emerge within its frontiers. Indeed, despite widespread images of “conversion by the sword” in popular culture, the process of Islamisation in the early period was slow, complex, and often non-violent. Forced conversion was fairly uncommon, and religious change was driven far more by factors such as intermarriage, economic self-interest, and political allegiance. Non-Muslims were generally entitled to continue practising their faiths, provided they abided by the laws of their rulers and paid special taxes. Muslim elites sometimes even discouraged conversion, for when non-Muslims embraced Islam, they no longer had to provide these taxes to the state, and thus the state’s fiscal base threatened to contract. Compounding this was a belief among some that Islam was a special dispensation only for the Arab people. Thus, when non-Arabs converted, they were sometimes treated as second-class citizens, despised as little better than Christians, Jews, or other “infidels”.

This combination of factors meant that the Middle East became predominantly Muslim far later than an older generation of scholars once assumed. Although we lack reliable demographic data from the pre-modern period with which we could make precise estimates (such as censuses or tax registers), historians surmise that Syria-Palestine crossed the threshold of a Muslim demographic majority in the 12th century, while Egypt may have passed this benchmark even later, possibly in the 14th. What we mean by the “Islamic world” thus takes on new meaning: Muslims were the undisputed rulers of the Middle East from the seventh century onward, but they presided over a mixed society in which they were often dramatically outnumbered by non-Muslims.

It is against this backdrop that the phenomenon of Christian martyrdom took place. We know about these martyrs thanks to a large but understudied corpus of hagiographical texts written in a variety of medieval languages, including Greek, Arabic, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian. Set in places as varied as Córdoba, the Nile Delta, Jerusalem, and the South Caucasus, they tell the lives of Christians who ran afoul of the Muslim authorities, were executed, and were later revered as saints. The martyrs were participants in this broader culture of conversion, but as their deaths make clear, they were also dissenters from this culture, individuals who protested Islamisation and attempted to reverse the tide of religious change.

The first and largest group consisted of Christians who converted to Islam but reneged and returned to Christianity. Because apostasy came to be considered a capital offence under Islamic law, they faced execution if found guilty. The second group was made up of Muslim converts to Christianity who had no prior experience of their new religion. The third consisted of Christians who were executed for blasphemy; that is, publicly reviling the Prophet Muhammad, usually before a high-ranking Muslim official. The martyrs were small in number – not more than around 270 discrete individuals between Spain and Iraq – a testament to the relative absence of systematic persecution at the time.

As a collection of texts, the lives of the martyrs represent one of the richest bodies of evidence for understanding conversion in the early medieval Middle East. Yet these sources must be treated with great caution. Saints’ lives are a notoriously formulaic genre, filled with reports of miracles, literary motifs, and theological polemics which can make it difficult to know what “really happened”. Reading the sources alongside contemporary Islamic texts, the book argues that many biographies have a strong basis in reality. At the same time, they were shaped by the literary, social and spiritual priorities of their authors, who were determined to create models of resistance for their flocks, who were increasingly tempted by the faith and culture of the conquerors.

Christian Martyrs under Islam describes a lost world in which Muslims and Christians rubbed shoulders in the most intimate of settings, from workshops and markets to city blocks and even marital beds. Not surprisingly, these interactions gave rise to overlapping practices, including behaviours that blurred the line between the Islam and Christianity. To ensure that conversion and assimilation went exclusively in the direction of Islam, Muslim officials executed the most flagrant boundary-crossers, and Christians, in turn, revered some of these people as saints.

St Stephen's House, Oxford

A brand new exhibition launches this Sunday, 9 September (1-5pm) at SJE Arts in Oxford, the concert and arts venue based at St Stephen’s House, one of Oxford University’s Permanent Private Halls.

‘Wartime at an Oxfordshire Monastery’ tells the First World War story of the community of monks once based at the site that the college now occupies, focusing on specific individuals associated with the monastery during wartime. As well as including profiles of members of the monastery itself, the exhibition features a local woodcarver and organist and communities of local nuns, explaining the contributions they made to the First World War, both at home and abroad.

Made possible by a National Lottery heritage grant, the exhibition marks the centenary of the First World War. Around 100 local schoolchildren, volunteers, teachers and academics were involved in the project, which was led by academic and local social historian Dr Annie Skinner, with Dr Serenhedd James.

The former monastery has been described as containing some of Oxford’s most interesting ‘hidden heritage’. Now largely hidden from view behind the modern-day façade of the Cowley Road, the stunning G F Bodley-designed church and monastery was once a key focal point in this area of the city.

The exhibition is one of the ways St Stephen’s House hopes to encourage more people to come and enjoy the site, following the successful development of a concert and arts venue in the college church and cloister, SJE Arts.

When: Sunday 9 September, 1-5pm, SJE Arts

Where: SJE Arts, 109a Iffley Road, Oxford OX4 1EH

The exhibition is also available digitally.

Image credit: Shutterstock

People admire those who build homes for the poor or donate mosquito nets to those at risk of malaria — but they don’t necessarily want them as friends or romantic partners, finds a new study by researchers at Yale University and the University of Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and Department of Experimental Psychology.

Asked to choose between do-gooders and those who place family members and friends first, subjects said they would rather spend time with those who made people close to them a priority, researchers report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

‘When helping strangers conflicts with helping family and kin, people prefer those who show favouritism, even if that results in doing less good overall,’ said Yale’s Dr Molly Crockett, assistant professor of psychology and senior author of the study.

The researchers created scenarios designed to test a tough moral dilemma: is it better to help a family member or a larger number of strangers? For instance, they asked whether a grandmother who wins $500 in the lottery should give it to her grandson to fix his car, or to a charity dedicated to combating malaria. In another case, a young woman has to decide whether to spend the day with her lonely mother, or building homes for Habitat for Humanity.

Although participants in the study perceived both choices as equally moral, when it came to looking for a spouse or a friend, they preferred those who helped their grandson or spent the day with mum.

‘Friendship requires favouritism — the key thing about friendship is that you treat your friends in a way you don’t treat other people,’ said Oxford’s Dr Jim Everett, first author of the study. ‘Who would want a friend who wouldn’t help you when you needed it?’

In contrast, this preference was reduced when participants were asked about qualities they wanted in a boss and disappeared when asked about desired traits in a political leader — a social role that requires impartiality.

‘A political leader who represented the interests of themselves or their family over the country would be disastrous,’ said Dr Everett.

According to the researchers, these findings suggest a roadblock for ‘effective altruists’ who argue we should donate money to charity to help relieve poverty and disease in the developing world rather than to a local group that would help fewer people.

The Hague

The last time Lien de Jong saw her parents was in the Hague, where she was collected at the door by a stranger and taken away to be hidden from the Nazis. She was raised by her foster family as one of their own, but a falling out after the war put an end to their relationship. What was her side of the story, wondered Oxford University's Professor Bart van Es, a grandson of the couple who looked after Lien.

Professor van Es, of St Catherine's College and Oxford's English Faculty, talks to Arts Blog about the journey that led to the publication of his new book, The Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found.

How did you discover the story of Lien de Jong?

I had always known that my grandparents had been part of the Dutch wartime resistance and had sheltered Jewish children, but I had never looked into what actually happened. Then in November 2014 my eldest uncle died and I knew that if I did not pursue the matter now this history would be lost forever. Thanks to my mother’s maintaining of an old connection, I got to meet Lien, who was by that time over 80 and living in Amsterdam. As a young Jewish girl Lien had lived in hiding with my grandparents and after the war she had continued to live with them. However, a row in the 1980s had cut her off from the family, which meant that she and I had never met. Lien was cautious when we met in late December 2014, but, once trust was established, we struck up a powerful partnership. Lien agreed to work with me and shared a wealth of materials: letters, photographs, official documents, and also a poetry book that she kept up throughout the war. Through many tens of hours of recorded interviews, Lien shared a story that was immensely moving and far more complex than I could have imagined.

Can you describe the process of researching and writing the book?

Starting out from those interviews with Lien, this became an archival research project as well as a literary journey. In January 2015 I decided to visit the places of Lien’s childhood: her parents’ home in The Hague (now a physiotherapy gym), my grandparents' old address in Dordrecht (now in a deprived area inhabited mainly by recent immigrants), and a series of other hiding addresses across the Netherlands, including my mother’s home village, where Lien spent time. These places brought their own stories, which I then began to investigate. Among other things I spent a lot of time at the Dutch National Archives looking at the prosecution material on 230 Dutch police officers who were investigated after the war for their role in the Holocaust. What I ended up with was a huge amount of material: the intimate narrative of Lien’s life from childhood to old age combined with archival evidence on resistance networks, police collaboration, and the wider history of Jews in the Netherlands. The challenge was to put this into a single book.

How easy was it to combine academic research with such a personal story?

It was challenging to combine the two kinds of material I had to hand, and I had some sleepless nights over what I was doing. After various experiments I opted for a double narrative with one strand in the first person (describing my travels and the documentary evidence I encountered) and a second strand that was much more novelistic (written in the third person, voicing the childhood experiences of Lien). I’d never written in such an emotionally intense way before. It was exciting and all-consuming. At the same time it was important to remain academically objective: there could be no factual errors about what happened in the war and afterwards, both because of its historical importance and because there were real, still-living people involved.

Are there any moments from your conversations with Lien that particularly stand out?

The things that stand out for me are the documents that Lien has kept with her. For example, there is the letter that Lien’s mother wrote to my grandparents in August 1942, in which she gave up her child in the hope that Lien would survive the war even if the rest of the family could not. There is also the last letter that Lien ever wrote to her mother, which was not delivered because her parents were already in Auschwitz by the time it would have been sent via the secret post. Also very powerful are the wider stories of resistance activity that came to me in the course of my research. In one case a group of young Dutch women decided that the only way in which they could save Jewish babies would be to claim them as their own illegitimate children, fathered by German soldiers. This brought absolute safety to the babies, but also, of course, terrible shame to the women themselves.

In the book I try to answer some big questions, including:

  • Why was the Netherlands so compliant with the Nazis, so that 80% of the country’s Jews were killed, a far higher percentage than elsewhere in the West?
  • What was it that made some brave people (such as my grandparents) resist the Nazis?
  • What were the psychological consequences for survivors and rescuers?
  • And, most pressingly as far as The Cut Out Girl story is concerned, how could my grandmother (who rescued Lien and brought her up as her own daughter after the war) have ended up quarrelling with the person she saved from the Holocaust? How could she have sent her a letter, in July 1988, that cut Lien out of her life?

Answering those questions will, I hope, give a new perspective on what happened in World War II.

The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es is published by Fig Tree, 2 August, priced £16.99.

Jama Masjid

Professor Justin Jones of Oxford’s Faculty of Theology and Religion, who has been working on Islam in India for the last 15 years through a variety of different projects, is now working on Sharia (Islamic law), and how it is practised among Muslim communities in modern India. 

India, by its constitution, is considered to be a secular state. However, the Indian government has always promised to protect religious freedoms by allowing minorities to live by their own religious laws in their personal and family lives. This means that Muslims in India are still subject to a version of Islamic law (known as Muslim personal law) in family matters – issues such as marriage and divorce, for instance.

In much of the Islamic world, these laws have been codified. But in India, it is very different. There is no code of Muslim family law, and much of it is handled informally, at community level. This means that community religious leaders – often known as the ulama – have a lot of power over individual lives. They make decisions on issues like marriages and divorces that have huge ramifications for individual men and women.

Professor Jones explores the complicated implications of India’s status as a secular state. His work shows that, since India’s constitutional system delegates much legal power to communities themselves, it indirectly makes ‘religious’ leaders more, not less, powerful within their communities. They have exercised authority as legal professionals, issuing legal instructions (fatwas) and running non-government legal forums, like Sharia councils, that handle community cases.

Professor Jones says his work is an attempt to explore what he calls the ‘lived law’ in India. Usually, legal historians have tended to look at the sources left behind by formal legal systems: things like court records, legal statutes or legal digests. This is also true for much legal history of India. But this project considers the exact opposite – how little these formal ideas matter in a society like this. It argues there is a huge gap between these state-driven forms of law, and how law is actually handled and experienced locally. There is a whole world in India where these government involvements in law are entirely absent: community leaders come to their own decisions themselves.

Doing this research means engaging in this informal world. Professor Jones has been working with these communities, in small villages and peripheral urban neighbourhoods across India. He has talked to the scholars actually making these informal decisions, observed ‘Sharia court’ sessions, and been given access to the records of some of these institutions.

Another set of questions raised by this research has been the impact upon Muslim women, who are often most affected by how laws of marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody are handled. Professor Jones has been working with different Muslim feminist groups within India to discuss their experiences and opinions of this uncodified system. In August 2017, he teamed up with Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), India’s foremost Islamic feminist group, to run a workshop with young activists in Delhi. He and a number of activists and NGO leaders based around India ran sessions discussing both Sharia laws and Indian laws to help them find ways to empower the women they work with. This gave these activists the opportunity to share their knowledge and experiences with academics and writers, and consider different strategies for improving women’s rights.

The BMMA argue that Islamic law and the Islamic constitution both uphold women’s rights, and offer gender justice and protection. They argue that religious scholars have sustained a flawed, patriarchal interpretation of Islam. They are making arguments from Islamic principles, using religion as a basis for building a new language of women’s rights. They have even set up their own Sharia councils, led by women, to offer their own more gender-just interpretations, and they are now arguing for an overhaul of Muslim family laws in India.

In the coming years, Professor Jones hopes to look further into Islamic feminism, and the efforts of these groups to build an equal and fair family law, both within India and around the world.

More information on this project-in-progress can be found here.